The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 18
I GO ON WITH THE STORY
I was in the billiard-room of the Castle, a dusty place, obviously little used, for it smelt of damp. A fire was burning in the grate, however, and on a table in the corner, which was littered with papers, stood a dispatch box.
Clubfoot wore a dinner-coat and, as he laughed, his white expanse of shirt-front heaved to the shaking of his deep chest. For a moment, however, I had little thought of him or the ugly-looking Browning he held in his fist. My ears were strained for any sound that might betray Francis' presence in the garden. But all remained silent as the grave.
Clubfoot, still chuckling audibly, walked over to me. I thought he was going to shoot me, he came so straight and so fast, but it was only to get behind me and shut the door, driving me, as he did so, farther into the room.
The door by which he had entered stood open. Without taking his eyes off me or deflecting his weapon from its aim, he called out:
A light step resounded, and the one-armed lieutenant tripped into the room. When he saw me, he stopped dead. Then he softly began to circle round me with a mincing step, murmuring to himself: "So! So!"
"Good evening, Dr. Semlin!" he said in English. "Say, I'm mighty glad to see you! Well, Okewood, dear old boy, here we are again. What? Herr Julius Zimmermann . . ." and he broke into German, " !"
I could have killed him where he stood, maimed though he was, for his fluency in the American and English idiom alone.
"Search him, Schmalz!" commanded Clubfoot curtly.
Schmalz ran the fingers of his one arm over my pockets, flinging my portfolio on the billiard-table towards Clubfoot, and the other articles as they came to light . . . my pistol, watch, cigarette-case and so forth . . . on to a leather lounge against the wall. In his search he brushed me with his severed stump . . . ugh, it was horrible!
Clubfoot had snatched up the portfolio and hastily examined it. He shook the contents out on the billiard-table and examined them carefully.
"Not there!" he said. "Run him upstairs, and we'll strip him," he ordered; "and let not our clever young friend forget that I'm behind him with my little toy!"
Schmalz gripped me by the collar, spitefully digging his knuckles into my neck, and propelled me out of the room . . . almost into the arms of Monica.
She screamed and, turning, fled away down the passage. Clubfoot laughed noisily, but I reflected mournfully that in my present sorry plight, unwashed and unshaven, in filthy clothes, haled along like a common pickpocket, even my own mother would not have recognized me.
There was a degrading scene in the bedroom to which they dragged me, where the two men stripped me to the skin and pawed over every single article of clothing I possessed. Physically and mentally, I cowered in my nudity before the unwholesome gaze of these two sinister cripples. Of all my experiences in Germany, I still look back upon that as almost my worst ordeal.
Of course, they found nothing, search as they might, and presently they flung my clothes back at me and bade me get dressed again, "for you and I, young man," said Clubfoot, with his glinting smile, "have got to have a little talk together!"
When I was once more clothed—
"You can leave us, Schmalz!" commanded Clubfoot, "and send up the sergeant when I ring: he shall look after this tricky Englishman whilst we are at dinner with our charming hostess."
Schmalz went out and left us alone. Clubfoot lighted a cigar. He smoked in silence for a few minutes. I said nothing, for really there was nothing for me to say. They hadn't got their precious document, and it was not likely they would ever recover it now. I feared greatly that Francis in his loyalty might make an attempt to rescue me, but I hoped, whatever he did, he would think first of putting the document in a place of safety. I was more or less resigned to my fate. I was in their hands properly now, and whether they got the document or not, my doom was sealed.
"I will pay you the compliment of saying, my dear Captain Okewood," Clubfoot remarked in that urbane voice of his which always made my blood run cold, "that never before in my career have I devoted so much thought to any single individual, in the different cases I have handled, as I have to you. As an individual, you are a paltry thing: it is rather your remarkable good fortune that interests me as a philosopher of sorts. . . . I assure you it will cause me serious concern to be the instrument of severing your really extraordinary strain of good luck. I don't mind telling you, as man to man, that I have not yet entirely decided in my mind what to do with you now that I've got you!"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"You've got me, certainly," I replied, "but you would vastly prefer to have what I have not got."
"Let us not forget to be always content with small mercies," answered the other, smiling with a gleam of his golden teeth,. . . "that is a favourite maxim of mine. As you truly remark, I would certainly prefer the . . . the jewel to the infinitely less precious and . . . interesting . . . casket. But what I have, I hold. And I have you . . . and your accomplice as well."
"I have no accomplice," I denied stoutly.
"Surely you forget our gracious hostess, our most charming Countess? Was it not thanks to the interest she deigned to take in your safety that I came here? Had it not been for that circumstance, I should scarcely have ventured to intrude upon her widowhood. . . ."
"Her widowhood?" I exclaimed.
Clubfoot smiled again.
"You cannot have followed the newspapers in your . . . retreat, my dear Captain Okewood," he replied, "or surely you would have read the afflicting intelligence that Count Rachwitz, A.D.C. to Field-Marshal von Mackensen, was killed by a shell that fell into the Brigade Head-quarters where he was lunching at Predeal. Ah, yes," he sighed, "our beautiful Countess is now a widow, alone . . ." he paused, then added, ". . . and unprotected!"
I understood his allusion and went cold with fear. Why, Monica was involved in this affair as much as I. Surely they wouldn't dare to touch her. . . .
Clubfoot leaned forward and tapped me on the knee.
"You will be sensible, Okewood," he said confidentially. "You've lost. You can't save yourself. Your life was forfeit from the moment you crossed the threshold of his Majesty's private apartments . . . but you can save her."
I shook his huge hand off my leg.
"You won't bluff me," I answered roughly. "You daren't touch the Countess Rachwitz, an American lady, niece of an American ambassador, married into one of your leading families . . . no, Herr Doktor, you must try something else."
"Do you know why Schmalz is here?" he asked patiently, "and those soldiers? . . . You must have passed through the cordon to come here. Your little friend is in preventive arrest. She would be in gaol (she doesn't know it), but that His Majesty was unwilling to put this affront on the Rachwitz family in their great affliction."
"The Countess Rachwitz has nothing whatever to do with me," . . . rather a foolish lie, I thought to myself too late, as I was in her house.
But Clubfoot remained quite unperturbed.
"I shall take you into my confidence, my dear sir," he said, "to show that I know you to be stating an untruth. The Countess, on the contrary, is, to use a vulgar phrase, in it up to the neck. Thanks to the amazing imbecility of the Berlin police, I was not informed of your brief stay at the Bendler-Strasse, even after they were called in by the invalid American gentleman in the matter of your hasty flight when asked to have your passport put in order. But we are systematic, we Germans; we are painstaking; and I set about going through every possible place that might afford you shelter.
"In the course of my investigations I came across our mutual friend, Herr Kore. A perusal of his very business-like ledgers showed me that on the day following your disappearance from the Esplanade he had received 3,600 marks from a certain E.2 . . . all names in his books were in cipher. Under the influence of my winning personality, Herr Kore told me all he knew; I pursued my investigations and then discovered what the asinine police had omitted to tell me, namely, that on the date in question an alleged American had made a hurried flight from the Countess Rachwitz's apartment in the Bendler-Strasse. An admirable fellow . . . Max or Otto, or some name like that . . . anyhow, he was valet to Madame's invalid brother, was able to fill in all the lacunæ, and I was thus enabled to draw up a very strong case against your well-meaning but singularly ill-advised hostess. By this time the lady had left Berlin for this charming old-world seat, and I promptly took measures to have her placed in preventive arrest whilst I tracked you down.
"You got away again. Even Jupiter nods, you know, my dear Captain Okewood, and I frankly admit I overlooked the silver badge which you had in your possession. I must compliment you also on your adroitness in leaving us that false trail to Munich. It took me in to the extent that I dispatched an emissary to hunt you down in that delightful capital, but, for myself, I have a certain flair in these matters, and I thought you would sooner or later come to Bellevue. You will admit that I showed some perspicacity?"
"You're wasting time with all this talk," I said sullenly.
Clubfoot raised a hand deprecatingly.
"I take a pride in my work," he observed half-apologetically. Then he added:
"You must not forget that your pretty Countess is not an American. She is a German. She is also a widow. You may not know the relations that existed between her and her late husband, but they were not, I assure you, of such warmth that the Rachwitz family would unduly mourn her loss. Do you suppose we care a fig for all the American ambassadors that ever left the States? My dear sir, I observe that you are still lamentably ignorant of the revolution that war brings into international relations. In war, where the national interest is concerned, the individual is nothing. If he or she must be removed, puff! you snuff the offender out. Afterwards you can always pay or apologize, or do what is required."
I listened in silence; I had no defence to offer in face of this deadly logic, the logic of the stronger man.
Clubfoot produced a paper from his pocket.
"Read that!" he said, tossing it over to me. "It is the summons for the Countess Rachwitz to appear before a court-martial. Date blank, you see. You needn't tear it up . . . I've got several spare blank forms . . . one for you, too!"
I felt my courage ebbing and my heart turning to water. I handed him back his paper in silence. The booming of a dinner gong suddenly swelled into the stillness of the room. Clubfoot rose and rang the bell.
"Here's my offer, Okewood!" he said. "You shall restore that letter to me in its integrity, and the Countess Rachwitz shall go free provided she leaves this country and does not return. That's my last word! Take the night to sleep on it! I shall come for my answer in the morning."
A sergeant in field-grey with a rifle and fixed bayonet stood in the doorway.
"I make you responsible for this man, Sergeant," said Clubfoot, "until I return in an hour or so. Food will be sent up for him and you will personally assure yourself that no message is conveyed to him by that or any other means."
I had washed, I had brushed my clothes, I had dined, and I sat in silence by the table, in the most utter dejection of spirit, I think, into which it is possible for a man to fall. I was so totally crushed by the disappointment of the evening that I don't think I pondered much about my own fate at all. But my thoughts were busy with Monica. My life was my own, and I knew I had a lien on my brother's if thereby our mission might be carried through to the end. But had I the right to sacrifice Monica?
And then the unexpected happened. The door opened, and she came in, Schmalz behind her. He dismissed the sergeant with a word of caution to see that the sentries round the house were vigilant, and followed the man out, leaving Monica and me alone.
The girl stopped the torrent of self-reproach that rose to my lips with a pretty gesture. She was pale, but she held her head as high as ever.
"Schmalz has given me five minutes alone with you, Des," she said, "to plead with you for my life, that you may betray your trust. No, don't speak . . . there is no time to waste in words. I have a message for you from Francis. . . . Yes, I have seen him here, this very night. . . . He says you must contrive at all costs to keep Grundt from going to the shoot at ten o'clock to-morrow, and to detain him with you from ten to twelve. That is all I know about it. . . . But Francis has planned something, and you and I have got to trust him. Now, listen . . . I shall tell Clubfoot I have pleaded with you and that you show signs of weakening. Say nothing to-night, temporize with him when he comes for his answer in the morning, and then send for him at a quarter to ten, when he will be leaving the house with the others. The rest I leave to you. Good night, Des, and cheer up!" . . .
"But, Monica," I cried, "what about you?"
She reddened deliciously under her pallor.
"Des," she replied happily, "we are allies now, we three. If all goes well, I'm coming with you and Francis!"
With that she was gone. A few minutes after, a couple of soldiers arrived with Schmalz and took me downstairs to a dark cellar in the basement, where I was locked in for the night.
I was dreaming of the front . . . again I sniffed the old familiar smells, the scent of fresh earth, the fetid odour of death; again I heard outside the trench the faint rattle of tools, the low whispers of our wiring party; again I saw the very lights soaring skyward and revealing the desolation of the battlefield in their glare. Someone was shaking me by the shoulder. It was my servant come to wake me. . . . I must have fallen asleep. Was it stand-to so soon? I sat up and rubbed my eyes and awoke to the anguish of another day.
The sergeant stood at the cellar door, framed in the bright morning light.
"You are to come upstairs!" he said.
He took me to the billiard-room, where Clubfoot, sleek and washed and shaved, sat at the writing-table in the sunshine, opening letters and sipping coffee. A clock on a bracket above his head pointed to eight.
"You wish to speak to me, I believe," he said carelessly, running his eye over a letter in his hand.
"You must give me a little more time, Herr Doktor," I said. "I was worn out last night and I could not look at things in their proper light. If you could spare me a few hours more. . . ."
I put a touch of pleading into my voice, which struck him at once.
"I am not unreasonable, my dear Captain Okewood," he replied, "but you will understand that I am not to be trifled with, so I give you fair warning. I will give you until. . . ."
"It is eight o'clock now," I interrupted. "I tell you what, give me until ten. Will that do?"
Clubfoot nodded assent.
"Take this man upstairs to my bedroom," he ordered the sergeant. "Stay with him while he has his breakfast, and bring him back here at ten o'clock. And tell Schmidt to leave my car at the door: he needn't wait, as he is to beat: I will drive myself to the shoot."
I don't really remember what happened after that. I swallowed some breakfast, but I had no idea what I was eating, and the sergeant, who was a model of Prussian discipline, declined with a surly frown to enter into conversation with me. My morale was very low: when I look back upon that morning I think I must have been pretty near the breaking-point.
As I sat and waited I heard the house in a turmoil of preparation for the shoot. There was the sound of voices, of heavy boots in the hall, of wheels and horses in the yard without. Then the noises died away and all was still. Shortly afterwards, the clock pointing to ten, the sergeant escorted me downstairs again to the billiard-room.
Grundt was still sitting there. A hot wave of anger drove the blood into my cheeks as I looked at him, fat and soft and so triumphant at his victory. The sight of him, however, gave me the tonic I needed. My nerve was shaken badly, but I was determined it must answer to this last strain, to play this uncouth fish for two hours. After that . . . if nothing happened . . .
Clubfoot sent the sergeant away.
"I can look after him myself now," he said, in a blithe tone that betrayed his conviction of success. So the sergeant saluted and left the room, his footsteps echoing down the passages like the leaden feet of Destiny, relentless, inexorable.