The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 15
THE WAITER AT THE CAFÉ REGINA
Icalculated that I had at least two hours, at most three, in which to get clear of Berlin. However swiftly Clubfoot might act, it would take him certainly an hour and a half, I reckoned, from the discovery of my flight from Haase's to warn the police at the railway stations to detain me. If I could lay a false trail I might at the worst prolong this period of grace; at the best I might mislead him altogether as to my ultimate destination, which was, of course, Düsseldorf. The unknown quantity in my reckonings was the time it would take Clubfoot to send out a warning all over Germany to detain Julius Zimmermann, waiter and deserter, wherever and whenever apprehended.
At the first turning I came to after leaving Haase's, tram-lines ran across the street. A tram was waiting, bound in a southerly direction, where the centre of the city lay. I jumped on to the front platform beside the woman driver. It is fairly dark in front and the conductor cannot see your face as you pay your fare through a trap in the door leading to the interior of the tram. I left the tram at Unter den Linden and walked down some side streets until I came across a quiet-looking café. There I got a railway guide and set about reviewing my plans.
It was ten minutes to twelve. A man in my position would in all probability make for the frontier. So, I judged, Clubfoot must calculate, though, I fancied, he must have wondered why I had not long since attempted to escape back to England. Düsseldorf was on the main road to Holland, and it would certainly be the more prudent course, say, to make for the Rhine and travel on to my destination by a Rhine steamer. But time was the paramount factor in my case. By leaving immediately—that very night—for Düsseldorf I might possibly reach there before the local authorities had had time to receive the warning to be on the look-out for a man answering to my description. If I could leave behind in Berlin a really good false clue, it was just possible that Clubfoot might follow it up before taking general dispositions to secure my arrest if that clue failed. I decided I must gamble on this hypothesis.
The railway guide showed that a train left for Düsseldorf from the Potsdamer Bahnhof—the great railway terminus in the very centre of Berlin—at 12.45 a.m. That left me roughly three-quarters of an hour to lay my false trail and catch my train. My false trail should lead Clubfoot in a totally unexpected direction, I determined, for it is the unexpected that first engages the notice of the alert, detective type of mind. I would also have to select another terminus.
Why not Munich? A large city on the high road to a foreign frontier—Switzerland—with authorities whose easy-going ways are proverbial in Germany. You leave Berlin for Munich from the Anhalter Bahnhof, a terminus which was well suited for my purpose, as it is only a few minutes' drive from the Potsdamer station.
The railway guide showed there was a train leaving for Munich at 12.30 a.m.—an express. That would do admirably. Munich it should be then.
Fortunately I had plenty of money. I had taken the precaution of getting Kore to change my money into German notes before we left In den Zelten . . . at a preposterous rate of exchange, be it said. How lost I should have been without Semlin's wad of notes!
I paid for my coffee and set forth again. It was 12.15 as I walked into the hall of the Anhalt station.
Remembering the ruse which the friendly guide at Rotterdam had taught me, I began by purchasing a platform ticket. Then I looked about for an official upon whom I could suitably impress my identity. Presently I espied a pompous-looking fellow in a bright blue uniform and scarlet cap, some kind of junior stationmaster, I thought.
I approached him and, raising my hat, politely asked him if he could tell me when there was a train leaving for Munich.
"The express goes at 12.30," he said, "but only first and second class, and you'll have to pay the supplementary charge. The slow train is not till 5.49."
I assumed an expression of vexation.
"I suppose I must go by the express," I said. "Can you tell me where the booking-office is?"
The official pointed to a pigeon-hole and I took care to speak loud enough for him to hear me ask for a second-class ticket, single, to Munich.
I walked upstairs and presented my Munich ticket to the collector at the barrier. Then I hurried past the main-line platforms over the suburban side, where I gave up my platform ticket and descended again to the street.
It was just on the half-hour as I came out of the station. Not a cab to be seen! I hastened as fast as my legs would carry me until, breathless and panting, I reached the Potsdam terminus. The clock over the station pointed to 12.39.
A long queue, composed mostly of soldiers returning to Belgium and the front, stood in front of the booking-office. The military were getting their warrants changed for tickets. I chafed at the delay, but it was actually this circumstance which afforded me the chance of getting my ticket for Düsseldorf without leaving any clue behind.
A big, bearded Landsturm man with a kind face was at the pigeon-hole.
"I am very late for my train, my friend," I said, "would you get me a third-class single for Düsseldorf?" I handed him a twenty-mark note.
"Right you are," he answered readily.
"There," he said, handing me my ticket and a handful of change, "and lucky you are to be going to the Rhine. I'm from the Rhine myself and now I'm going back to guarding the bridges in Belgium!"
I thanked him and wished him luck. Here at least was a witness who was not likely to trouble me. And with a thankful heart I bolted on to the platform and caught the train.
Third-class travel in Germany is not a hobby to be cultivated if your means allow the luxury of better accommodation. The travelling German has a habit of taking off his boots when he journeys in the train by night—and a carriageful of lower middle-class Huns, thus unshod, in the temperature at which railway compartments are habitually kept in Germany, is an environment which makes neither for comfort nor for sleep.
The atmosphere, indeed, was so unbearable that I spent most of the night in the corridor. Here I was able to destroy the papers of Julius Zimmermann, waiter . . . I felt I was in greater danger whilst I had them on me . . . and to assure myself that my precious document was in its usual place—in my portfolio. It was then I made the discovery, annihilating at the first shock, that my silver badge had disappeared. I could not remember what I had done with it in the excitement of my escape from Haase's. I remembered having it in my hand and showing it to the police at the top of the stairs, but after that my mind was a blank. I could only imagine I must have carried it unconsciously in my hand and then dropped it unwittingly. I looked at the place where it had been clasped on my braces: it was not there and I searched all my pockets for it in vain.
I had relied upon it as a stand-by in case there were trouble at the station in Düsseldorf. Now I found myself defenceless if I were challenged. It was a hard knock, but I consoled myself by the reflection that, by now, Clubfoot knew I had this badge . . . it would doubtless figure in any description circulated about me.
It was a most unpleasant journey. There was some kind of choral society on the train, occupying seven or eight compartments of the third-class coach in which I was travelling. For the first few hours they made night hideous with part-songs, catches and glees chanted with a volume of sound that in that confined place was simply deafening. Then the noise abated as one by one the singers dropped off to sleep. Presently silence fell, while the train rushed forward in the darkness bearing me towards fresh perils, fresh adventures.
A gust of fresh air in my face, the trample of feet, loud greetings in guttural German, awoke me with a start. It was broad daylight and through my compartment, to which I had crept in the night, weary with standing, filed the jovial members of the choral society, with bags in their hands and huge cockades in their buttonholes. There was a band on the platform and a huge choir of men who bawled a stentorian-voiced hymn of greeting. "Düsseldorf" was the name printed on the station lamps.
All the passengers, save the members of the choral society, had left the train, apparently, for every carriage door stood open. I sprang to my feet and let myself go with the stream of men. Thus I swept out of the train and right into the midst of the jostling crowd of bandsmen, singers and spectators on the platform. I stood with the new arrivals until the hymn was ended and thus solidly encadrés by the Düsseldorfers, we drifted out through the barrier into the station courtyard. There brakes were waiting into which the jolly choristers, guests and hosts, clambered noisily. But I walked straight on into the streets, scarcely able to realize that no one had questioned me, that at last, unhindered, I stood before my goal.
Düsseldorf is a bright, clean town with a touch of good taste in its public buildings to remind one that this busy, industrial city has found time even while making money to have called into being a school of art of its own. It was a delightful morning with dazzling sunshine and an eager nip in the air that spoke of the swift, deep river that bathes the city walls. I revelled in the clear, cold atmosphere after the foulness of the drinking-den and the stifling heat of the journey. I exulted in the sense of liberty I experienced at having once more eluded the grim clutches of Clubfoot. Above all, my heart sang within me at the thought of an early meeting with Francis. In the mood I was in, I would admit no possibility of disappointment now. Francis and I would come together at last.
I came upon a public square presently and there facing me was a great, big café, white and new and dazzling, with large plate-glass windows and rows of tables on a covered verandah outside. It was undoubtedly a "kolossal" establishment after the best Berlin style. So that there might be no mistake about the name it was placarded all over the front of the place in gilt letters three feet high on glass panels—Café Regina.
It was about nine o'clock in the morning and at that early hour I had the place to myself. I felt very small, sitting at a tiny table, with tables on every side of me, stretching away as it were into the Ewigkeit, in a vast white room with mural paintings of the crassest school of impressionism.
I ordered a good, substantial breakfast and whiled away the time while it was coming by glancing at the morning paper which the waiter brought me.
My eyes ran down the columns without my heeding what I read, for my thoughts were busy with Francis. When did he come to the café? How was he living at Düsseldorf?
Suddenly, I found myself looking at a name I knew . . . it was in the personal paragraphs.
"Lieut.-General Count von Boden," the paragraph ran, "Aide-de-Camp to H.M. the Emperor, has been placed on the retired list owing to ill-health. General von Boden has left for Abbazia, where he will take up his permanent residence." There followed the usual biographical notes.
Of a truth, Clubfoot was a power in the land.
I ate my breakfast at a table by the open door, and surveyed the busy life of the square where the pigeons circled in the sunshine. A waiter stood on the verandah idly watching the birds as they pecked at the stones. I was struck with the profound melancholy depicted in his face. His cheeks were sunken and he had a pinched look which I had observed in the features of most of the customers at Haase's. I set it down to the insufficient feeding which is general among the lower classes in Germany to-day.
But in addition to this man's wasted appearance, his eyes were hollow, there were deep lines about his mouth and he wore a haggard look that had something strangely pathetic about it. His air of brooding sadness seemed to attract me, and I found my eyes continually wandering back to his face.
And then, without warning, through some mysterious whispering of the blood, the truth came to me that this was my brother. I don't know whether it was a passing mood reflected in his face or the shifting lights and shadows in his eyes that lifted the veil. I only know that through those features ravaged by care and suffering and in spite of them I caught a glimpse of the brother I had come to seek.
I rattled a spoon on the table and called softly out to the verandah. "Kellner!"
The man turned.
I beckoned to him. He came over to my table. He never recognized me, so dull was he with disappointment . . . me with my unshaven, unkempt appearance and in my mean German shoddy . . . but stood silently, awaiting my bidding.
"Francis," I said softly . . . and I spoke in German . . . "Francis, don't you know me?"
He was magnificent, strong and resourceful in his joy at our meeting as he had been in his months of weary waiting.
Only his mouth quivered a little as instantly his hands busied themselves with clearing away my breakfast.
"Jawohl!" he answered in a perfectly emotionless voice.
And then he smiled and in a flash the old Francis stood before me.
"Not a word now," he said in German as he cleared away the breakfast. "I am off this afternoon. Meet me on the river promenade by the Schiller statue at a quarter past two and we'll go for a walk. Don't stay here now but come back and lunch in the restaurant . . . it's always crowded and pretty safe!"
Then he called out into the void:
"Twenty-six wants to pay!"
Such was my meeting with my brother.