The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 11
MISS MARY PRENDERGAST RISKS HER REPUTATION
The rooms of our suite were intercommunicating so that you could pass from one to the other without going into the corridor at all. Schmalz had retired this way, going from my room through the bathroom to his own room. In the excitement of the moment I forgot all about this, else I should not have omitted such an elementary precaution as slipping the bolt of the door communicating between my room and the bathroom.
As I stepped out into the corridor, with the crash of that heavy body still ringing in my ears, I thought I caught the sound of a light step in the bathroom; the next moment I heard a door open and then a loud exclamation of horror in the room I had just left.
The corridor was dim and deserted. The place seemed uninhabited. No boots stood outside the rooms, and open doors, one after the other, were sufficient indication that the apartments they led to were untenanted.
I didn't pause to reason or to plan. On hearing that long drawn out cry of horror, I dashed blindly down the corridor at top speed, followed it round to the right and then, catching sight of a small staircase, rushed up it three steps at a time. As I reached the top I heard a loud cry somewhere on the floor below. Then a door banged, there was the sound of running feet and . . . silence.
I found myself on the next floor in a corridor similar to the one I had just left. Like it, it was desolate and dimly lit. Like it, it showed room after room silent and empty. Agitated as I was, the contrast with the bright and busy vestibule and the throng of uniformed servants below was so marked that it struck me with convincing force. Even the hotels, it seemed, were part and parcel of the great German publicity bluff which I had noted in my reading of the German papers at Rotterdam.
I had no plan in my head, only a wild desire to put as much distance as possible between me and that ape-man in the room below. So, after pausing a moment to listen and draw breath, I started off again. Suddenly a door down the corridor, not ten paces away from me, opened and a woman came out. I stopped dead in my headlong course, but it was too late and I found myself confronting her.
She was young and very beautiful with masses of thick brown hair clustering round a very white forehead. She was in evening dress, all in white, with an ermine wrap.
Even as I looked at her I knew her and she knew me.
"Monica," I whispered.
"Why! Desmond!" she said.
A regular hubbub echoed from below. Voices were crying out, doors were banging, there was the sound of feet.
The girl was speaking, saying in her low and pleasant voice phrases that were vague to me about her surprise, her delight at seeing me. But I did not listen to her. I was straining my ears towards that volume of chaotic noises which came swelling up from below.
"Monica!" I interrupted swiftly, "have you any place to hide me? This place is dangerous for me. . . . I must get away. If you can't save me, don't stay here but get away yourself as fast as you can. They're after me and if they catch you with me it will be bad for you!"
Without a word the girl turned round to the room she had just left. She beckoned to me, then knocked and went in. I followed her. It was a big, pleasant bedroom, elegantly furnished with a soft carpet and silk hangings, and I know not what, with shaded lights and flowers in profusion. Sitting up in bed was a stout, placid-looking woman in a pink silk kimono with her hair coquettishly braided in two short pigtails which hung down on either side of her face.
Monica closed the door softly behind her.
"Why, Monica!" she exclaimed in horror—and her speech was that of the United States—"what on earth . . .?"
"Not a word, Mary, but let me explain. . . ."
"But for land's sake, Monica. . . ."
"Mary, I want you to help. . . ."
"But say, child, a man . . . in my bedroom . . . at this time o' night...."
"Oh, shucks, Mary! let me talk."
The distress of the woman in bed was so comic that I could scarcely help laughing. She had dragged the bed-clothes up till only her eyes could be seen. Her pigtails bobbed about in her emotion.
"Now, Mary dear, listen here. You're a friend of mine. This is Desmond Okewood, another, a very old and dear friend of mine too. Well, you know, Mary, this isn't a healthy country these times for an English officer. That's what Desmond here is. I didn't know he was in Germany. I don't know a thing about him except what he's told me and that's that he's in danger and wants me to help him. I met him outside and brought him right in here, as I know you would want me to, wouldn't you, dear?"
The lady poked her nose over the top of the bed-clothes.
"Present the gentleman properly, Monica!" she said severely.
"Captain Okewood . . . Miss Mary Prendergast," said Monica.
The lady's head, pigtails and all, now appeared. She appeared to be somewhat mollified.
"I can't say I approve of your way of doing things, Monica," she observed, but less severely than before, "and I can't think what an English officer wants in my bedroom at ten minutes of two in the morning, but if those Deutschers want to find him, perhaps I can understand!"
Here she smiled affectionately on the beautiful girl at my side.
"Ah! Mary, you're a dear," replied Monica. "I knew you'd help us. Why, a British officer in Germany . . . isn't it too thrilling?"
She turned to me.
"But, Des," she said, "what do you want me to do?"
I knew I could trust Monica and I resolved I would trust her friend too . . . she looked a white woman all right. And if she was a friend of Monica's, her heart would be in the right place. Francis and I had known Monica all our lives almost. Her father had lived for years . . . indeed to the day of his death . . . in London as the principal European representative of a big American financial house. They had lived next door to us in London and Francis and I had known Monica from the days when she was a pretty kid in short skirts until she had made her debut and the American ambassadress had presented her at Buckingham Palace. At various stages of our lives, both Francis and I had been in love with her, I believe, but my life in the army had kept me much abroad, so Francis had seen most of her and had been the hardest hit.
Then the father died and Monica went travelling abroad in great state, as befits a young heiress, with a prodigiously respectable American chaperon and a retinue of retainers. I never knew the rights of the case between her and Francis, but at one of the German embassies abroad—I think in Vienna—she met the young Count Rachwitz, head of one of the great Silesian noble houses, and married him.
It was not on the usual rock—money—that this German-American marriage was wrecked, for the Count was very wealthy himself. I had supposed that the German man's habitual attitude of mind towards women had not suited the girl's independent spirit on hearing that Monica, a few years after her marriage, had left her husband and gone to live in America. I had not seen her since she left London, and, though we wrote to one another at intervals, I had not heard from her since the war started and had no idea that she had returned to Germany. Monica Rachwitz was, in fact, the last person I should ever have expected to meet in Berlin in war-time.
So, as briefly as I could and listening intently throughout for any sounds from the corridor, I gave the two women the story of the disappearance of Francis and my journey into Germany to look for him. At the mention of my brother's name, I noticed that the girl stiffened and her face grew rigid, but when I told her of my fears for his safety her blue eyes seemed to me to grow dim. I described to them my adventure in the hotel at Rotterdam, my reception in the house of General von Boden, and my interview at the Castle, ending with the experiences of that night, the trap laid for me at the hotel and my encounter with Clubfoot in the room below. Two things only I kept back: the message from Francis and the document. I decided within myself that the fewer people in those secrets the safer they would be. I am afraid, therefore, that my account of my interview with the Emperor was a trifle garbled, for I made out that I did not know why I was bidden to the presence and that our conversation was interrupted before I could discover the reason.
The two women listened with grave faces. Only once did Monica interrupt me. It was when I mentioned General von Boden.
"I know the beast," she said. "But, oh, Des!" she exclaimed, "you seem to have fallen right among the top set in this country. They're a bad lot to cross. I fear you are in terrible danger."
"I believe you, Monica," I answered, dolefully enough. "And that's just where I feel such a beast for throwing myself upon your mercy in this way. But I was pretty desperate when I met you just now and I didn't know where to turn. Still, I want you to understand that if you can only get me out of this place I shall not trouble you further. I came to this country on my own responsibility and I'm going through with it alone. I have no intention of implicating anybody else along with me. But I confess I don't believe it is possible to get away from this hotel. They're watching every door by now. Besides. . . ."
I stopped abruptly. A noise outside caught my listening ear. Footsteps were approaching along the corridor. I heard doors open and shut. They were hunting for me, floor by floor, room by room.
"Open that wardrobe," said a voice from the bed: a firm, business-like voice that was good to hear. "Open it and get right in, young man; but don't go mussing up my good dresses whatever you do! And you, Monica, quick! Switch off those lights all but this one by the bed. Good! Now go to the door and ask them what they mean by making this noise at this time of night with me ill and all!"
I got into the wardrobe and Monica shut me in. I heard the bedroom door open, then voices. I waited patiently for five minutes, then the wardrobe door opened again.
"Come out, Des," said Monica, "and thank Mary Prendergast for her cleverness."
"What did they say?" I asked.
"That reception clerk was along. He was most apologetic—they know me here, you see. He told me how a fellow had made a desperate attack upon a gentleman on the floor below and had got away. They thought he must be hiding somewhere in the hotel. I told him I'd been sitting here for an hour chatting with Miss Prendergast and that we hadn't heard a sound. They went away then!"
"You won't catch any Deutschers fooling Mary Prendergast," said the jovial lady in the bed; "but, children, what next?"
Monica spoke—quite calmly. She was always perfectly self-possessed.
"My brother is stopping with me in our apartment in the Bendler-Strasse," she said. "You remember Gerry, Des—he got all smashed up flying, you know, and is practically a cripple. He's been so much better here that I've been trying to get an attendant to look after him, to dress him and so on, but we couldn't find anybody; men are so scarce nowadays! You could come home with me, Des, and take this man's place for a day or two . . . I'm afraid it couldn't be longer, for one would have to register you with the police—every one has to be registered, you know—and I suppose you have no papers that are any good—now."
"You are too kind, Monica," I answered, "but you risk too much and I can't accept."
"It's no risk for a day or two," she said. "I am a person of consequence in official Germany, you know, with my husband A.D.C. to Marshal von Mackensen: and I can always say I forgot to send in your papers. If they come down upon me afterwards I should say I meant to register you but had to discharge you suddenly . . . for drink!"
"But how can I get away from here?" I objected.
"I guess we can fix that too," she replied. "My car is coming for me at two—it must be that now—I have been at a dance downstairs—one of the Radolin girls is getting married to-morrow—it was so deadly dull I ran up here and woke up Mary Prendergast to talk. You shall be my chauffeur! I know you drive a car! You ought to be able to manage mine . . . it's a Mercédès."
"I can drive any old car," I said, "but I'm blessed . . ."
"Wait there!" cried this remarkable girl, and ran out of the room.
For twenty minutes I stood and made small talk with Miss Prendergast. They were the longest twenty minutes I have ever spent. I was dead tired in any case, but my desperate position kept my thoughts so busy that, for all my endeavours to be polite, I fear my conversation was extremely distraught.
"You poor boy!" suddenly said Miss Mary Prendergast, totally ignoring a profound remark I was making regarding Mr. Wilson's policy, "don't you go on talking to me! Sit down on that chair and go to sleep! You look just beat!"
I sat down and nodded in the arm-chair.
Suddenly I was awake. Monica stood before me. She drew from under her cape a livery cap and uniform.
"Put these things on," she said, "and listen carefully. When you leave here, turn to the right and take the little staircase you will find on the right. Go down to the bottom, go through the glass doors, and across the room you will find there, to a door in a corner which leads to the ballroom entrance of the hotel. I will give you my ermine wrap to carry. I shall be waiting there. You will help me on with my cloak and escort me to the car. Is that clear?"
"Now, pay attention once more, for I shall not be able to speak to you again. I shall have to give you your directions for finding the way to the Bendler-Strasse."
She did so and added:
"Drive carefully, whatever you do. If we had a smash and the police intervened, it might be most awkward for you."
"But your chauffeur," I said, "what will he do?"
"Oh, Carter," she answered carelessly, "he's tickled to death . . . he's American, you see . . . he drove me out into the Tiergarten just now and took off his livery, then drove me back here, hopped off and went home."
"But can you trust him?" I asked anxiously.
"Like myself," she said. "Besides, Carter's been to Belgium . . . he drove Count Rachwitz, my husband, while he was on duty there. And Carter hasn't forgotten what he saw in Belgium!"
She gave me the key of the garage and further instructions how to put the car up. Carter would give me a bed at the garage and would bring me round to the house early in the morning as if I were applying for the job of male attendant for Gerry.
"I will go down first," Monica said, "so as not to keep you waiting. My, but they're rattled downstairs—all the crowd at Olga von Radolin's dance have got hold of the story and the place is full of policemen. But there'll be no danger if you walk straight up to me in the hall and keep your face turned away from the crowd as much as possible."
She kissed Miss Prendergast and slipped away. What a splendid pair of women they were: so admirably cool and resourceful: they seemed to have thought of everything.
"Good night, Miss Prendergast," I said. "You have done me a good turn. I shall never forget it!" And as the only means at my disposal for showing my gratitude, I kissed her hand.
She coloured up like a girl.
"It's a long time since any one did that to a silly old woman like me," she said musingly. "Was it you or your brother," she asked abruptly, "who nearly broke my poor girl's heart?"
"I shouldn't like to say," I answered; "but I don't think, speaking personally, that Monica ever cared enough about me for me to plead guilty."
She sniffed contemptuously.
"If that is so," she said, "all I can say is that you seem to have all the brains of your family!"
With that I took my leave.
I reached the ballroom vestibule without meeting a soul. The place was crowded with people, officers in uniform, glittering with decorations, women in evening dress, coachmen, footmen, chauffeurs, waiters. Everybody was talking sixteen to the dozen, and there were such dense knots of people that at first I couldn't see Monica. Two policemen were standing at the swing-doors leading into the street, and with them a civilian who looked like a detective. I caught sight of Monica, almost at the detective's elbow, talking to two very elegant-looking officers. I pushed my way across the vestibule, turned my back on the detective and stood impassively beside her.
"Ah! there you are, Carter!" she said. "Gute Nacht, Herr Baron! Auf wiedersehen, Durchlaucht!"
The two officers kissed her hand whilst I helped her into her wrap. Then I marched straight out of the swing-doors in front of her, looking neither to right nor to left, past the detective and the two policemen. The detective may have looked at me: if so, I didn't perceive it. I had made up my mind not to see him.
Outside Monica took the lead and brought me over to a chocolate-coloured limousine drawn up at the pavement. I noted with dismay that the engine was stopped. That might mean further delay whilst I cranked up. But a friendly chauffeur standing by seized the handle and started the engine whilst I assisted Monica into the car, and the next moment we were gliding smoothly over the asphalt under the twinkling arc-lamps.
The Bendler-Strasse is off the Tiergarten, not far from the Esplanade, and I found my way there without much difficulty. I flatter myself that both Monica and I played our parts well, and I am sure nothing could have been more professional than the way I helped her to alight. It was an apartment house and she had the key of the front door, so, after seeing her safely within doors, I returned to the car and drove it round to the garage by a carriage-way leading to the rear of the premises.
As I unlocked the double doors of the garage, a man came down a ladder outside the place leading to the upper room.
"Did it work all right, sir?" he asked.
"Is that Carter?" I said.
"Sure that's me," came the cheery response. "Stand by now and we'll run her in. Then I'll show you where you are to sleep!"
We stowed the car away and he took me upstairs to his quarters, a bright little room with electric light, a table with a red cloth, a cheerful open fire and two beds. The walls were ornamented with pictures cut from the American Sunday supplements, mostly feminine and horsy studies.
"It's a bit rough, mister," said Carter, "but it's the best I can do. Gee! but you look that dawg-gorn tired I guess you could sleep anywheres!"
He was a friendly fellow, pleasant-looking in an ugly way, with a button nose and honest eyes.
"Say, but I like to think of the way we fooled them Deutschers," he chuckled. He kept on chuckling to himself whilst I took off my boots and began to undress.
"That there is your bed," he said, pointing; "the footman used to sleep there but they grabbed him for the army. There's a pair of Mr. Gerry's pyjamas for you and you'll find a cup of cocoa down warming by the fire. It's all a bit rough, but it's the best we can do. I guess you want to go to sleep mortal bad, so I'll be going down. The bed's clean . . . there are clean sheets on it. . . ."
"But I won't turn you out of your room," I said. "There are two beds. You must take yours."
"Don't you fret yourself about me," he answered. "I'll make myself comfortable down in the garage. I don't often see a gentleman in this dawg-gorn country, and when I do I know how to treat him."
He wouldn't listen to me, but stumped off down the stairs. As he went I heard him murmuring to himself:
"Gee! but we surely fooled those Deutschers some!"
I drank this admirable fellow's cocoa; I warmed myself at his fire. Then with a thankful heart I crawled into bed and sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.