The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 21
RED TABS EXPLAINS
From the Argyllshire hills winter has stolen down upon us in the night. Behind him he has left his white mantle, and it now lies outspread from the topmost mountain peaks to the softly lapping tide at the black edges of the loch. Yet as I sit adding the last words to this plain account of a curious episode in my life, the wintry scene dissolves before my eyes, and I see again that dawn in the forest . . . Francis and Monica, sleeping side by side, like the babes in the wood, half covered with leaves, the eager, panting retriever, and myself, poor, ragged scarecrow, staring openmouthed at the Dutchman whose kindly enquiry has just revealed to me the wondrous truth . . . that we are safe across the frontier.
What a disproportionate view one takes of events in which one is the principal actor! The great issues vanish away, the little things loom out large. When I look back on that morning I encounter in my memory no recollection of extravagant demonstrations of joy at our delivery, no hysteria, no heroics. But I find a fragrant remembrance of a glorious hot bath and an epic breakfast in the house of that kindly Dutchman, followed by a whirlwind burst of hospitality on our arrival at the house of van Urutius, which was not more than ten miles from the fringe of the forest.
Madame van Urutius took charge of Monica, who was promptly sent to bed, whilst Francis and I went straight on to Rotterdam, where we had an interview at the British Consulate, with the result that we were able to catch the steamer for England the next day.
As the result of various telegrams which Francis dispatched from Rotterdam, a car was waiting for us on our arrival at Fenchurch Street the next evening. In it we drove off for an interview with my brother's Chief. Francis insisted that I should hand over personally the portion of the document in our possession.
"You got hold of it, Des," he said, "and it's only fair that you should get all the credit. I have Clubfoot's dispatch-box to show as the result of my trip. It's only a pity we could not have got the other half out of the cloak-room at Rotterdam."
We were shown straight in to the Chief. I was rather taken aback by the easy calm of his manner in receiving us.
"How are you, Okewood?" he said, nodding to Francis. "This your brother? How d'ye do?"
He gave me his hand and was silent. There was a distinct pause. Feeling distinctly embarrassed, I lugged out my portfolio, extracted the three slips of paper and laid them on the desk before the Chief.
"I've brought you something," I said lamely.
He picked up the slips of paper and looked at them for a moment. Then he lifted a cardboard folder from the desk in front of him, opened it and displayed the other half of the Kaiser's letter, the fragment I had believed to be reposing in a bag at Rotterdam railway station. He placed the two fragments side by side. They fitted exactly. Then he closed the folder, carried it across the room to a safe and locked it up. Coming back, he held out his two hands to us, giving the right to me, the left to Francis.
"You have done very well," he said. "Good boys! Good boys!"
"But that other half . . ." I began.
"Your friend Ashcroft is by no means such a fool as he looks," the Chief chuckled. "He did a wise thing. He brought your two letters to me. I saw to the rest. So, when your brother's telegram arrived from Rotterdam, I got the other half of the letter out of the safe; I thought I'd be ready for you, you see!"
"But how did you know we had the remaining portion of the letter?" I asked.
The Chief chuckled again.
"My young men don't wire for cars to meet 'em at the station when they have failed," he replied. "Now, tell me all about it!"
So I told him my whole story from the beginning.
When I had finished, he said:
"You appear to have a very fine natural disposition for our game, Okewood. It seems a pity to waste it in regimental work. . . ."
I broke in hastily.
"I've got a few weeks' sick leave left," I said, "and after that I was looking forward to going back to the front for a rest. This sort of thing is too exciting for me!"
"Well, well," answered the Chief, "we'll see about that afterwards. In the meantime, we shall not forget what you have done . . . and I shall see that it is not forgotten elsewhere."
On that we left him. It was only outside that I remembered that he had told me nothing of what I was burning to know about the origin and disappearance of the Kaiser's letter.
It was my old friend, Red Tabs, whom I met on one of our many visits to mysterious but obviously important officials, that finally cleared up for me the many obscure points in this adventure of mine. When he saw me he burst out laughing.
"'Pon my soul," he grinned, "you seem to be able to act on a hint, don't you?"
Then he told me the story of the Kaiser's letter.
"There is no need to speak of the contents of this amazing letter," he began, "for you are probably more familiar with them than I am. The date alone will suffice . . . July 31st, 1914 . . . it explains a great deal. The last day of July was the moment when the peace of Europe was literally trembling in the balance. You know the Emperor's wayward, capricious nature, his eagerness for fame and military glory, his morbid terror of the unknown. In that fateful last week of July he was torn between opposing forces. On the one side was ranged the whole of the Prussian military party, led by the Crown Prince and the Emperor's own immediate entourage; on the other, the record of prosperity which years of peace had conferred on his realms. He had to choose between his own megalomania craving for military laurels, on the one hand, and, on the other, that place in history as the Prince of Peace for which, in his gentler moments, he has so often hankered.
"The Kaiser is a man of moods. He sat down and penned this letter in a fit of despondency and indecision, when the vision of Peace seemed fairer to him than the spectre of War. God knows what violent emotion impelled him to write this extraordinary appeal to his English friend, an appeal which, if published, would convict him of the deepest treachery to his ally, but he wrote the letter and forthwith dispatched it to London. He did not make use of the regular courier: he sent the letter by a man of his own choosing, who had special instructions to hand the letter in person to Prince Lichnowski, the German ambassador. Lichnowski was to deliver the missive personally to its destined recipient.
"Almost as soon as the letter was away, the Kaiser seems to have realised what he had done, to have repented of his action. Attempts to stop the messenger before he reached the coast appear to have failed. At any rate, we know that all through July 31st and August 1st Lichnowski, in London, was bombarded with dispatches ordering him to send the messenger with the letter back to Berlin as soon as he reached the embassy.
"The courier never got as far as Carlton House Terrace. Someone in the War party at the Court of Berlin got wind of the fateful letter and sent word to someone in the German embassy in London—the Prussian jingoes were well represented there by Kühlmann and others of his ilk—to intercept the letter.
"The letter was intercepted. How it was done and by whom we have never found out, but Lichnowski never saw that letter. Nor did the courier leave London. With the Imperial letter still in possession, apparently, he went to a house at Dalston, where he was arrested on the day after we declared war on Germany.
"This courier went by the name of Schulte. We did not know him at the time to be travelling on the Emperor's business, but we knew him very well as one of the most daring and successful spies that Germany had ever employed in this country. One of our people picked him up quite by chance on his arrival in London, and shadowed him to Dalston, where we promptly laid him by the heels when war broke out.
"Schulte was interned. You have heard how one of his letters, stopped by the Camp Censor, put us on the track of the intercepted letter, and you know the steps we took to obtain possession of the document. But we were misled . . . not by Schulte, but through the treachery of a man in whom he confided, the interpreter at the internment camp.
"To this man Schulte entrusted the famous letter, telling him to send it by an underground route to a certain address at Cleves, and promising him in return a commission of twenty-five per cent on the price to be paid for the letter. The interpreter took the letter, but did not do as he was bid. On the contrary, he wrote to the go-between, with whom Schulte had been in correspondence (probably Clubfoot), and announced that he knew where the letter was and was prepared to sell it, only the purchaser would have to come to England and fetch it.
"Well, to make a long story short, the interpreter made a deal with the Huns, and this Dr. Semlin was sent to England from Washington, where he had been working for Bernstorff, to fetch the letter at the address in London indicated by the interpreter. In the meantime, we had got after the interpreter, who, like Schulte, had been in the espionage business all his life, and he was arrested.
"We know what Semlin found when he reached London. The wily interpreter had sliced the letter in two, so as to make sure of his money, meaning, no doubt, to hand over the other portion as soon as the price had been paid. But by the time Semlin got to London the interpreter was jugged and Semlin had to report that he had only got half the letter. The rest you know . . . how Grundt was sent for, how he came to this country and retrieved the other portion. Don't ask me how he set about it: I don't know, and we never found out even where the interpreter deposited the second half or how Grundt discovered its hiding-place. But he executed his mission and got clear away with the goods. The rest of the tale you know better than I do!"
"But Clubfoot," I asked, "who is he?"
"There are many who have asked that question," Red Tabs replied gravely, "and some have not waited long for their answer. The man was known by name and reputation to very few, by sight to even fewer, yet I doubt if any man of his time wielded greater power in secret than he. Officially, he was nothing, he didn't exist; but in the dark places, where his ways were laid, he watched and plotted and spied for his master, the tool of the Imperial spite as he was the instrument of the Imperial vengeance.
"A man like the Kaiser," my friend continued, "monarch though he is, has many enemies naturally, and makes many more. Head of the Army, head of the Navy, head of the Church, head of the State—undisputed, autocratic head—he is confronted at every turn by personal issues woven and intertwined with political questions. It was in this sphere, where the personal is grafted on the political, that Clubfoot reigned supreme . . . here and in another sphere, where German William is not only monarch, but also a very ordinary man.
"There are phases in every man's life, Okewood, which hardly bear the light of day. In an autocracy, however, such phases are generally inextricably entangled with political questions. It was in these dark places that Clubfoot flourished . . . he and his men . . . 'the G gang' we called them, from the letter 'G' (signifying Garde or Guard) on their secret-service badges.
"Clubfoot was answerable to no one save to the Emperor alone. His work was of so delicate, so confidential a nature, that he rendered an account of his services only to his Imperial master. There was none to stay his hand, to check him in his courses, save only this neurotic, capricious cripple who is always open to flattery. . . ."
Red Tabs thought for a minute and then went on.
"No one may catalogue," he said, "the crimes that Clubfoot committed, the infamies he had to his account. Not even the Kaiser himself, I dare say, knows the manner in which his orders to this black-guard were executed—orders rapped out often enough, I swear, in a fit of petulance, a gust of passion, and forgotten the next moment in the excitement of some fresh sensation.
"I know a little of Clubfoot's record, of innocent lives wrecked, of careers ruined, of sudden disappearances, of violent deaths. When you and your brother put it across 'der Stelze,' Okewood, you settled a long outstanding account we had against him, but you also rendered his fellow-Huns a signal service."
I thought of the comments I had heard on Clubfoot among the customers at Haase's, and I felt that Red Tabs had hit the right nail on the head again.
"By the way?" said Red Tabs, as I rose to go, "would you care to see Clubfoot's epitaph? I kept it for you." He handed me a German newspaper—the Berliner Tageblatt, I think it was—with a paragraph marked in red pencil. I read:
"We regret to report the sudden death from apoplexy of Dr. Adolf Grundt, an inspector of secondary schools. The deceased was closely connected for many years with a number of charitable institutions enjoying the patronage of the Emperor. His Majesty frequently consulted Dr. Grundt regarding the distribution of the sums allocated annually from the Privy purse for benevolent objects."
"Pretty fair specimen of Prussian cynicism?" laughed Red Tabs. But I held my head . . . the game was too deep for me.
Every week a hamper of good things is dispatched to 3143 Sapper Ebenezer Maggs, British Prisoner of War, Gefangenen-Lager, Friedrichsfeld bei Wesel. I have been in communication with his people, and since his flight from the camp they have not had a line from him. They will let me know at once if they hear, but I am restless and anxious about him.
I dare not write lest I compromise him: I dare not make official enquiry as to his safety for the same reason. If he survived those shots in the dark, he is certainly undergoing punishment, and in that case he would be deprived of the privilege of writing or receiving letters. . . .
But the weeks slip by and no message comes to me from Chewton Mendip. Almost daily I wonder if the gallant lad survived that night to return to the misery of the starvation camp, or whether, out of the darkness of the forest, his brave soul soared free, achieving its final release from the sufferings of this world. . . . Poor Sapper Maggs!
Francis and Monica are honeymooning on the Riviera. Gerry, I am sure, would have refused to attend the wedding, only he wasn't asked. Francis is getting a billet on the Intelligence out in France when his leave is up.
I have got my step, antedated back to the day I went into Germany. Francis has been told that something is coming to him and me in the New Year's Honours.
I don't worry much. I am going back to the front on Christmas Eve.