The Man with the Clubfoot/Chapter 8


CHAPTER VIII
I HEAR OF CLUBFOOT AND MEET HIS EMPLOYER


As we went down the staircase, the Major whispered to me:

"I don't think your man wished me to know his name, for he did not introduce himself when he arrived and he does not come to our Casino. But I know him for all that: it is the young Count von Boden, of the Uhlans of the Guard: his father, the General, is one of the Emperor's aides-de-camp: he was, for a time, tutor to the Crown Prince."

A motor-car stood at the door, in it a young man in a grey-blue military great-coat and a flat cap with a pink band round it. He sprang out as we appeared. His manner was most empressé. He completely ignored my companion.

"I am extremely glad to see you, Herr Doktor," he said. "You are most anxiously expected. I must present my apologies for not being at the station to welcome you, but, apparently, there was some misunderstanding. The arrangements at the station for your reception seem to have broken down completely . . ." and he stared through his monocle at the old Major, who flushed with vexation.

"If you will step into my car," the young man added, "I will drive you to the station. We need not detain this gentleman any longer."

I felt sorry for the old Major, who had remained silent under the withering insolence of this young lieutenant, so I shook hands with him cordially and thanked him for his hospitality. He was a jovial old fellow after all.

The young Count drove himself and chatted amiably as we whirled through the streets. "I must introduce myself," he said: "Lieutenant Count von Boden of the 2nd Uhlans of the Guard. I did not wish to say anything before that old chatterbox. I trust you have had a pleasant journey. Von Steinhardt, of our Legation at the Hague, was instructed to make all arrangements for your comfort on this side. But I was forgetting, you and he must be old acquaintances, Herr Doktor!"

I said something appropriate about von Steinhardt's invariable kindness. Inwardly, I noted the explanation of the visiting card in the portfolio in my pocket.

At the station we found two orderlies, one with my things, the other with von Boden's luggage and fur pélisse. The platforms were now deserted save for sentries: all life at this dreary frontier station seemed to die with the passing of the mail train.

I could not help noticing, after we had left the car and were strolling up and down the platform waiting for the special, that my companion kept casting furtive glances at my feet. I looked down at my boots: they wanted brushing, certainly, but otherwise I could see nothing wrong with them. They were brown, it is true, and I reflected that the German man about town has a way of regulating his tastes in footgear by the calendar, and that brown boots are seldom worn in Germany after September 1st.

Our special came in . . . an engine and tender, a brakesman's van, a single carriage and a guard's van. The stationmaster bid us a most ceremonious adieu, and the guard, cap in hand, helped me into the train.

It was a Pullman car in which I found myself, with comfortable arm-chairs and small tables. One of the orderlies was laying the table for luncheon, and here, presently, the young Count and I ate a meal, which, save for the inevitable "Kriegsbrod," showed few signs of the stringency of the British blockade. But by this time I had fully realized that, for some unknown reason, no pains were spared to do me honour, so probably the fare was something out of the common.

My companion was a bright, amusing fellow and delightfully typical of his class. He had seen a year's service with the cavalry on the Eastern front, had been seriously wounded and was now attached to the General Staff in Berlin in what I judged to be a decorative rather than a useful capacity, for, apart from what he had learnt in his own campaigning he seemed singularly ignorant of the development of the military situation. Particularly, his ignorance of conditions on the Western front was supreme. He was full to the brim with the most extraordinary fables about the British. He solemnly assured me, for example—on the faith of a friend of his who had seen them—that Japanese were fighting with the English in France, dressed as Highlanders—his friend had heard these Asiatic Scotsmen talking Japanese, he declared. I thought of the Gaelic-speaking battalions of the Camerons and could hardly suppress a smile.

Young von Boden was superbly contemptuous of the officers of the obscure and much reduced infantry battalion doing garrison duty at Goch, the frontier station we had just left, where—as he was careful to explain to me—he had spent four days of unrelieved boredom, waiting for me.

"Of course, in war time we are a united army and all that," he observed unsophistically, "but none of these fellows at Goch was a fit companion for a dashing cavalry officer. They were a dull lot. I wouldn't go near the Casino. I met some of them at the hotel one evening. That was enough for me. Why, only one of them knew anything at all about Berlin, and that was the lame fellow. Now, there is one thing we learn in the cavalry. . . ."

But I had ceased to listen. In his irresponsible chatter the boy used a word that struck a harsh note which went jarring through my brain. He had mentioned "the lame fellow," using a German word "der Stelze." In a flash I saw before me again that scene in the squalid bedroom in the Vos in't Tuintje—the candle guttering in the draught, the livid corpse on the floor and that sinister woman crying out: "Der Stelze has power, he has authority, he can make and unmake men!"

The mind has unaccountable lapses. The phrase had slipped out of my German vocabulary. I had not even recognized it until the boy had rapped it out in a context with which I was familiar and then it had come back. With it, it brought that tableau in the dimly lit room, but also another—a picture of a vast and massive man, swarthy and sinister, with a clubfoot, limping heavily after Karl, the waiter, on the platform at Rotterdam.

That, then, was why the young lieutenant had glanced down at my feet at the station at Goch, The messenger he had come to meet, the bearer of the document, the man of power and authority, was clubfooted, and I was he!

But seeing I was free of any physical deformity, to say nothing of the fact that I in no way resembled the clubfooted man I had seen on the platform at Rotterdam, why had the young lieutenant accepted me so readily? I hazarded the reason to be that he had orders to meet a person who had not been further designated to him except that he would arrive by a certain train. The Major at the station would be responsible for establishing my bona fides. Once that officer had turned me over to the emissary, the latter's sole responsibility consisted in conducting me to the unknown goal to which the special train was rapidly bearing us. Such are the marvels of discipline!

My companion was, indeed, the model of discretion in everything touching myself and my business. Curiosity about your neighhour's affairs is a cardinal German failing, yet the Count manifested not the slightest desire to learn anything about me or my mission to Berlin. You may be sure that I, for my part, did nothing to enlighten him. It was not, indeed, in my power to do so. Yet the young man's reserve was so marked that I was convinced he had his orders to avoid the topic.

As the train rushed through Westphalia, through busy stations with glimpses of sidings full of trucks loaded to the brim, past towns whose very outlines were blurred by the mirk of smoke from a hundred factory chimneys, my thoughts were busy with that swarthy cripple. I had broken away from him with one portion of a highly prized document, yet he had made no attempt to have me arrested at the frontier. Clearly, then, he must still look upon me as an ally and must therefore be yet in ignorance of the identity of the dead man lying in my chamber at the Hotel Sixt. The friendly guide had told me that the party "combing out" the station at Rotterdam for me did not appear to know what I looked like.

Was it possible, then, that Clubfoot did not know Semlin by sight?

The fact that Semlin had only recently crossed the Atlantic seemed to confirm this supposition.

Then the document. Semlin had half. Who had the other half? Surely Clubfoot. . . . Clubfoot who was to have called at the hotel that morning to receive what I had brought from England. Perhaps, after all, my random declaration to the hotel-keeper had not been so far wrong; Clubfoot wanted to take the whole document to Berlin and reap all the laurels at the cost of half the danger and labour. That would explain his present silence. He suspected Semlin of treachery, not to the common cause, but to him!

It looked as if I might have a free run until Clubfoot could reach Berlin. That, unless he also took a special, could not be until the next evening at earliest. But, more redoubtable than a meeting with the man of power and authority, hung over me, an ever-present nightmare, the interview which I felt awaited me at the end of my present journey . . . the interview at which I must render an account of my mission.

Evening was falling as we ran through the inhospitable region of sand and water and pine that engirdles Berlin. We glided at diminished speed through the trim suburbs, skirted the city, on whose tall buildings the electric sky-signs were already beginning to twinkle, crashed heavily over a vast network of metals at some great terminus, then tore off again into the gathering darkness. In a little, we slowed down again. We were running through wooded country. From the darkness ahead a lantern waved at us and the train stopped with a jerk at a little wayside station, a tiny box of an affair. A tall, solid figure, wearing a spiked helmet and grey military great-coat, stood in solitary grandeur in the centre of the little platform, the wavering rays of a flickering gas lamp reflected in his brilliantly polished top-boots.

"Here we are at last!" said my companion.

I stepped out to meet my fate.

The young lieutenant was rigid at the salute before the figure on the platform.

I heard the end of a sentence as I alighted ". . . the gentleman I was to meet, Excellency!"

The other looked at me. He was a big man with a crimson face. He made no attempt at greeting, but said in a hoarse voice: "Have the goodness to come with me. The orderlies will attend to your things." And, with clinking spurs, he strode out through some big kind of anteroom, swathed in wrappings, into a yard beyond, where a big limousine was throbbing gently.

He stood aside to let me get in, then mounted himself, followed, rather to my surprise, by the young Count, whose responsibility for myself had ended, I imagined, on "delivering the goods." My surprise was of short duration, for once in the car the young Uhlan dropped all the formality he had displayed on the platform and addressed the elder officer as "papa." This, then, was old General von Boden, of whom the Major had spoken, Aide-de-Camp to the Kaiser and formerly tutor to the Crown Prince.

Father and son chatted in a desultory fashion across the car, and I took the opportunity of studying the old gentleman. His face was of the most prodigious purple hue, and so highly polished that it continually caught the reflection of the small electric lamp in the roof. Huge gold spectacles with glasses so thick that they distorted his eyes, straddled a great beak-like nose. He had doffed his helmet and was mopping his brow, and I saw a high perfectly bald dome-like head, brilliantly polished and almost as red as his face. He was clean shaven and by no means young, for the flesh hung in bags about his face. Long years of the habit of command had left their mark in an imperiousness of manner which might easily yield to ruthlessness I judged.

"I thought I should have had orders before I left the Villa," the General said to his son, "then you could have gone straight there. I suppose he means to see him here: that is why he wanted him brought to the Villa. But he's always the same: he never can make up his mind." And he grunted.

"Perhaps there will be something waiting at home," he added in his hoarse barrack-yard voice.

We drove through a white gate into a little drive which brought us up in front of a long, low villa. Neither father nor son had opened their lips to me during the drive from the station and I had not ventured to put a question to either of them, but I knew we were in Potsdam. The little station in the woods was Wild-Park, I suspected, the private station used by the Emperor on his frequent journeys and situated in the grounds of the New Palace. All the officials of the Prussian Court have villas at Potsdam, though why I had been brought there in connection with an affair that must surely rather interest the Wilhelm-Strasse or the Police Presidency was more than I could fathom.

There was a frightful scene in the hall. Without any warning the General turned on the orderly who had opened the door and screamed abuse at him. "Camel! Ox! Sheep's-head!" he roared, his face and shining pate deepening their vermilion hue. "Do I give orders that they shall be forgotten? What do you mean? You ass. . . ." He put his white-gloved hands on the man's shoulders and shook him until the fellow's teeth must have rattled in his head. The orderly, white to the lips, hung limp in the old man's grasp, muttering apologies: "Ach! Exzellenz! Exzellenz will excuse me. . . ."

It was a revolting spectacle, but it did not make the least impression on the son, who, putting down his cap and great-coat and unhooking his sword, led me into a kind of study. "These orderlies are such thickheads!" he said.

"Rudi! Rudi!" a hoarse, strident voice screamed from the hall. The lieutenant ran out.

"You've got to take the fellow to Berlin to-night. The message was here all the time—that numskull Heinrich forgot it. And we've got to keep the fellow here till then! An outrage, having the house used as a barrack for a rascally detective!" Thus much I heard, as the door had been left open. Then it closed and I heard no more.

As I had heard this much, there was a certain irony in the invitation to dinner subsequently conveyed to me by the young Uhlan. There was nothing for it but to accept. I knew I was caught deep in the meshes of Prussian discipline, every one had his orders and blindly carried them out, from the garrulous Major on the frontier to this preposterous Exzellenz, this Imperial aide-de-camp of Potsdam. I was already a tiny cog in a great machine. I should have to revolve or be crushed.

His Excellency left me in no doubt on this point. When I was ushered into his study, after a much-needed wash and a shave, he received me standing and said point-blank: "Your orders are to stay here until ten o'clock to-night, when you will be taken to Berlin by Lieutenant Count von Boden. I don't know you, I don't know your business, but I have received certain orders concerning you which I intend to carry out. For that reason you will dine with us here. After you have seen the person to whom you are to be taken to-night, Lieutenant Count von Boden will accompany you to the railway station at Spandau, where a special train will be in readiness in which he will conduct you back to the frontier. I wish you clearly to understand that the Lieutenant is responsible for seeing these orders carried out and will use all means to that end. Have I made myself clear?"

The old man's manner was indescribably threatening. "This is the machine we are out to smash," I had said to myself when I saw him savaging his servant in the hall and I repeated the phrase to myself now. But to the General I said: "Perfectly, Your Excellency!"

"Then let us go to dinner," said the General.

It was a nightmare meal. A faded and shrunken female, to whom I was not introduced—some kind of relative who kept house for the General, I supposed—was the only other person present. She never opened her lips save, with eyes glazed with terror, to give some whispered instruction to the orderly anent the General's food or wine. We dined in a depressing room with dark brown wallpaper decorated with dusty stags' antlers, an enormous green-tiled stove dominating everything. The General and his son ate solidly through the courses while the lady pecked furtively at her plate. As for myself I could not eat for sheer fright. Every nerve in my body was vibrating at the thought of the evening before me. If I could not avoid the interview, I was resolutely determined to give Master von Boden the slip rather than return to the frontier empty-handed. I had not braved all these perils to be packed off home without, at least, making an attempt to find Francis. Besides, I meant if I could to get the other half of that document.

There was some quite excellent Rhine wine, and I drank plenty of it. So did the General, with the result that, when the veins starting purple from his temples proclaimed that he had eaten to repletion, his temper seemed to have improved. He unbent sufficiently to present me with quite the worst cigar I have ever smoked.

I smoked it in silence whilst father and son talked shop. The female had faded away. Both men, I found to my surprise, were furious and bitter opponents of Hindenburg, as I have since learnt most of the old school of the Prussian Army are. They spoke little of England: their thoughts seemed to be centred on Russia as the arch-enemy. They pinned their faith on Falkenhayn and Mackensen. They had no words strong enough in their denunciation of Hindenburg, whom they always referred to as "the Drunkard" . . . "der Säufer." Nor were they sparing of criticism of what they called the Kaiser's "weakness" in letting him rise to power.

The humming of a car outside broke up our gathering. Remembering that I was but a humble servant before this great military luminary, I thanked the General with due servility for his hospitality. Then the Count and I went out to the car and presently drove forth into the night.

We entered Berlin from the west, as it seemed to me, but then struck off in a southerly direction and were soon in the commercial quarter of the city, all but deserted at that hour, save for the trams. Then I caught a glimpse of lamps reflected in water, and the next moment the car had stopped on a bridge over a canal or river. My companion sprang out and hurried me to a small gate in an iron railing enclosing a vast edifice looming black in the night, while the car moved off into the darkness.

The gate was open. Half a dozen yards from it was a small, slender tower with a pointed roof jutting out from the corner of the building. In the tower was a door which yielded easily to my companion's vigorous push as a clock somewhere within the building beat a double stroke—half-past ten.

The door led into a little vestibule brilliantly lit with electric light. There a man was waiting, a fine, upstanding bearded fellow in a kind of green hunting costume.

"So, Payer!" said the young Uhlan. "Here is the gentleman. I shall be at the west entrance afterwards. You will bring him down yourself to the car."

"Jawohl, Herr Graf!" answered the man in green, and the lieutenant vanished through the door into the night.

A terrifying, an incredible suspicion that had overwhelmed me directly I stepped out of the car now came surging through my brain. That vast, black edifice, that slender tower at the corner—did I not know them?

Mechanically, I followed the man in green. My suspicions deepened with every step. In a little, they became certainty. Up a shallow and winding stair, along a long and broad corridor, hung with rich tapestries, the polished parquet glistening faintly in the dim light, through splendid suites of gilded apartments with old pictures and splendid furniture . . . here a lackey with powdered hair yawning on a landing, there a sentry in field-grey immobile before a door{...|4}} I was in the Berlin Schloss.

The Castle seemed to sleep. A hushed silence lay over all. Everywhere lights were dim, staircases wound down into emptiness, corridors stretched away into dusky solitude. Now and then an attendant in evening dress tiptoed past us or an officer vanished round a corner, noiselessly save for a faint clink of spurs.

Thus we traversed, as it seemed to me, miles of silence and of twilight, and all the time my blood hammered at my temples and my throat grew dry as I thought of the ordeal that stood before me. To whom was I thus bidden, secretly, in the night?

We were in a broad and pleasant passage now, panelled in cheerful light brown oak with red hangings. After the desolation of the State apartments, this comfortable corridor had at least the appearance of leading to the habitation of man. A giant trooper in field-grey with a curious silver gorget suspended round his neck by a chain paced up and down the passage, his jackboots making no sound upon the soft, thick carpet with which the floor was covered.

The man in green stopped at the door. Holding up a warning hand to me, he bent his head and listened. There was a moment of absolute silence. Not a sound was to be heard throughout the whole Castle. Then the man in green knocked softly and was admitted, leaving me outside.

A moment later, the door swung open again. A tall, elegant man with grey hair and that indefinite air of good breeding that you find in every man who has spent a life at court, came out hurriedly. He looked pale and harassed.

On seeing me, he stopped short.

"Dr. Grundt? Where is Dr. Grundt?" he asked and his eyes dropped to my feet. He started and raised them to my face.

The trooper had drifted out of earshot. I could see him, immobile as a statue, standing at the end of the corridor. Except for him and us, the passage was deserted.

Again the elderly man spoke and his voice betrayed his anxiety.

"Who are you?" he asked almost in a whisper. "What have you done with Grundt? Why has he not come?"

Boldly I took the plunge.

"I am Semlin," I said.

"Semlin," echoed the other, "—ah yes! the Embassy in Washington wrote about you—but Grundt was to have come. . . ."

"Listen," I said, "Grundt could not come. We had to separate and he sent me on ahead. . . ."

"But . . . but . . ."—the man was stammering now in his anxiety—". . . you succeeded?"

I nodded.

He heaved a sigh of relief.

"It will be awkward, very awkward, this change in the arrangements," he said. "You will have to explain everything to him, everything. Wait there an instant."

He darted back into the room.

Once more I stood and waited in that silent place, so restful and so still that one felt oneself in a world far removed from the angry strife of nations. And I wondered if my interview—the meeting I had so much dreaded—was at an end.

"Pst, Pst!" The elderly man stood at the open door.

He led me through a room, a cosy place, smelling pleasantly of leather furniture, to a door. He opened it, revealing across a narrow threshold another door. On this he knocked.

"Herein!" cried a voice—a harsh, metallic voice.

My companion turned the handle and, opening the door, thrust me into the room. The door closed behind me.

I found myself facing the Emperor.