The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 3


CHAPTER III
A VISITOR IN THE NIGHT


A volley of invective from the box of the cab—bad language in Dutch is fearfully effective—aroused me from my musings. The cab, a small, uncomfortable box with a musty smell, stopped with a jerk that flung me forward. From the outer darkness furious altercation resounded above the plashing of the rain. I peered through the streaming glass of the windows but could distinguish nothing save the yellow blur of a lamp. Then a vehicle of some kind seemed to move away in front of us, for I heard the grating of wheels against the kerb, and my cab drew up to the pavement.

On alighting, I found myself in a narrow, dark street with high houses on either side. A grimy lamp with the word "Hôtel" in half-obliterated characters painted on it hung above my head, announcing that I had arrived at my destination. As I paid off the cabman another cab passed. It was apparently the one with which my Jehu had had words, for he turned round and shouted abuse into the night.

My cabman departed, leaving me with my bag on the pavement at my feet, gazing at a narrow dirty door, the upper half of which was filled in with frosted glass. I was at last awake to the fact that I, an Englishman, was going to spend the night in a German hotel to which I had been specially recommended by a German porter on the understanding that I was a German. I knew that, according to the Dutch neutrality regulations, my passport would have to be handed in for inspection by the police and that therefore I could not pass myself off as a German.

"Bah!" I said to give myself courage, "this is a free country, a neutral country. They may be offensive, they may overcharge you, in a Hun hotel, but they can't eat you. Besides, any bed in a night like this!" and I pushed open the door.

Within, the hotel proved to be rather better than its uninviting exterior promised. There was a small vestibule with a little glass cage of an office on one side and beyond it an old-fashioned flight of stairs, with a glass knob on the post at the foot, winding to the upper stories.

At the sound of my footsteps on the mosaic flooring, a waiter emerged from a little cubby-hole under the stairs. He had a blue apron girt about his waist, but otherwise he wore the short coat and the dicky and white tie of the Continental hotel waiter. His hands were grimy with black marks and so was his apron. He had apparently been cleaning boots.

He was a big, fat, blonde man with narrow, cruel little eyes. His hair was cut so short that his head appeared to be shaven. He advanced quickly towards me and asked me in German in a truculent voice what I wanted.

I replied in the same language, I wanted a room.

He shot a glance at me through his little slits of eyes on hearing my good Bonn accent, but his manner did not change.

"The hotel is full. The gentleman cannot have a bed here. The proprietress is out at present. I regret…." He spat this all out in the offhand insolent manner of the Prussian official.

"It was Franz, of the Bopparder Hof, who recommended me to come here," I said. I was not going out again into the rain for a whole army of Prussian waiters.

"He told me that Frau Schratt would make me very comfortable," I added.

The waiter's manner changed at once.

"So, so," he said—quite genially this time—"it was Franz who sent the gentleman to us. He is a good friend of the house, is Franz. Ja, Frau Schratt is unfortunately out just now, but as soon as the lady returns I will inform her you are here. In the meantime, I will give the gentleman a room."

He handed me a candlestick and a key.

"So," he grunted, "No. 31, the third floor."

A clock rang out the hour somewhere in the distance.

"Ten o'clock already," he said. "The gentleman's papers can wait till to-morrow, it is so late. Or perhaps the gentleman will give them to the proprietress. She must come any moment."

As I mounted the winding staircase I heard him murmur again:

"So, so, Franz sent him here! Ach, der Franz!"

As soon as I had passed out of sight of the lighted hall I found myself in complete darkness. On each landing a jet of gas, turned down low, flung a dim and flickering light a few yards around. On the third floor I was able to distinguish by the gas rays a small plaque fastened to the wall inscribed with an arrow pointing to the right above the figures: 46-30.

I stopped to strike a match to light my candle. The whole hotel seemed wrapped in silence, the only sound the rushing of water in the gutters without. Then from the darkness of the narrow corridor that stretched out in front of me, I heard the rattle of a key in a lock.

I advanced down the corridor, the pale glimmer of my candle showing me as I passed a succession of yellow doors, each bearing a white porcelain plate inscribed with a number in black. No. 46 was the first room on the right counting from the landing: the even numbers were on the right, the odd on the left: therefore I reckoned on finding my room the last on the left at the end of the corridor.

The corridor presently took a sharp turn. As I came round the bend I heard again the sound of a key and then the rattling of a door knob, but the corridor bending again, I could not see the author of the noise until I had turned the corner.

I ran right into a man fumbling at a door on the left-hand side of the passage, the last door but one. A mirror at the end of the corridor caught and threw back the reflection of my candle.

The man looked up as I approached. He was wearing a soft black felt hat and a black overcoat and on his arm hung an umbrella streaming with rain. His candlestick stood on the floor at his feet. It had apparently just been extinguished, for my nostrils sniffed the odour of burning tallow.

"You have a light?" the stranger said in German in a curiously breathless voice. "I have just come upstairs and the wind blew out my candle and I could not get the door open. Perhaps you could …" He broke off gasping and put his hand to his heart.

"Allow me," I said. The lock of the door was inverted and to open the door you had to insert the key upside-down. I did so and the door opened easily. As it swung back I noticed the number of the room was 33, next door to mine.

"Can I be of any assistance to you? Are you unwell?" I said, at the same time lifting my candle and scanning the stranger's features.

He was a young man with close-cropped black hair, fine dark eyes and an aquiline nose with a deep furrow between the eyebrows. The crispness of his hair and the high cheekbones gave a suggestion of Jewish blood. His face was very pale and his lips were blueish. I saw the perspiration glistening on his forehead.

"Thank you, it is nothing," the man replied in the same breathless voice. "I am only a little out of breath with carrying my bag up."

"You must have arrived just before I did," I said, remembering the cab that had driven away from the hotel as I drove up.

"That is so," he answered, pushing open his door as he spoke. He disappeared into the darkness of the room and suddenly the door shut with a slam that re-echoed through the house.

As I had calculated, my room was next door to his, the end room of the corridor. It smelt horribly close and musty and the first thing I did was to stride across to the windows and fling them back wide.

I found myself looking across a dark and narrow canal, on whose stagnant water loomed large the black shapes of great barges, into the windows of gaunt and weather-stained houses over the way. Not a light shone in any window. Away in the distance the same clock as I had heard before struck the quarter—a single, clear chime.

It was the regular bedroom of the maison meublée—worn carpet, discoloured and dingy wallpaper, faded rep curtains and mahogany bedstead with a vast édredon, like a giant pincushion. My candle, guttering wildly in the unaccustomed breeze blowing dankly through the chamber, was the sole illuminant. There was neither gas nor electric light laid on.

The house had relapsed into quiet. The bedroom had an evil look and this, combined with the dank air from the canal, gave my thoughts a sombre tinge.

"Well," I said to myself, "you're a nice kind of ass! Here you are, a British officer, posing as a brother Hun in a cut-throat Hun hotel, with a waiter who looks like the official Prussian executioner. What's going to happen to you, young feller my lad, when Madame comes along and finds you have a British passport? A very pretty kettle of fish, I must say!

"And suppose Madame takes it into her head to toddle along up here to-night and calls your bluff and summons the gentle Hans or Fritz or whatever that ruffianly waiter's name is to come upstairs and settle your hash! What sort of a fight are you going to put up in that narrow corridor out there with a Hun next door and probably on every side of you, and no exit this end? You don't know a living soul in Rotterdam and no one will be a penny the wiser if you vanish off the face of the earth … at any rate no one on this side of the water."

Starting to undress, I noticed a little door on the left-hand side of the bed. I found it opened into a small cabinet de toilette, a narrow slip of a room with a wash-hand stand and a very dirty window covered with yellow paper. I pulled open this window with great difficulty—it cannot have been opened for years—and found it gave on to a very small and deep interior court, just an air shaft round which the house was built. At the bottom was a tiny paved court not more than five foot square, entirely isolated save on one side where there was a basement window with a flight of steps leading down from the court through an iron grating. From this window a faint yellow streak of light was visible. The air was damp and chill and horrid odours of a dirty kitchen were wafted up the shaft. So I closed the window and set about turning in.

I took off my coat and waistcoat, then bethought me of the mysterious document I had received from Dicky. Once more I looked at those enigmatical words:

O Oak-wood! O Oak-wood (for that much was clear),
How empty are thy leaves.
Like Achiles (with one "l") in the tent.
When two people fall out
The third party rejoices.

What did it all mean? Had Francis fallen out with some confederate who, having had his revenge by denouncing my brother, now took this extraordinary step to announce his victim's fate to the latter's friends? "Like Achilles in the tent!" Why not in his tent"? Surely.…

A curious choking noise, the sound of a strangled cough, suddenly broke the profound silence of the house. My heart seemed to stop for a moment. I hardly dared raise my eyes from the paper which I was conning, leaning over the table in my shirt and trousers.

The noise continued, a hideous, deep-throated gurgling. Then I heard a faint foot-fall in the corridor without.

I raised my eyes to the door.

Someone or something was scratching the panels, furiously, frantically.

The door-knob was rattled loudly. The noise broke in raucously upon that horrid gurgling sound without. It snapped the spell that bound me.

I moved resolutely towards the door. Even as I stepped forward the gurgling resolved itself into a strangled cry.

"Ach! ich sterbe" were the words I heard.

Then the door burst open with a crash, there was a swooping rush of wind and rain through the room, the curtains flapped madly from the windows.

The candle flared up wildly.

Then it went out.

Something fell heavily into the room.