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   Chapter 7 IN WHICH A SILVER STAR ACTS AS A CHARM

The Man with the Clubfoot By Valentine Williams Characters: 17593

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


I have often remarked in life that there are days when some benevolent deity seems to be guiding one's every action. On such days, do what you will, you cannot go wrong. As the Berlin train bumped thunderously over the culverts spanning the canals between the tall, grey houses of Rotterdam and rushed out imperiously into the plain of windmills and pollards beyond, I reflected that this must be my good day, so kindly had some fairy godmother shepherded my footsteps since I had left the café.

So engrossed had I been, indeed, in the great enterprise on which I was embarked, that my actions throughout the morning had been mainly automatic. Yet how uniformly had they tended to protect me! I had bought my ticket in advance; I had given my overcoat and bag to a porter that I now knew to have been my saviour in disguise; I had sallied forth from the station and thus given him an opportunity for safe converse with me. The omens were good: I could trust my luck to-day, I felt, and, greatly comforted, I began to look about me.

I found myself, the only occupant, in a first-class carriage. On the window was plastered a notice, in Dutch and German, to the effect that the carriage was reserved. Suddenly I thought of my bag and overcoat. They were nowhere to be seen. After a little search I found them beneath the seat. In the overcoat pocket was a black tie.

I lost no time in taking the hint. If any of you who read this tale should one day notice a ganger on the railway between Rotterdam and Dordrecht wearing the famous colours of a famous regiment round his neck you will understand how they got there. Then, wearied out with the fatigues of my sleepless night, I fell into a deep slumber, my verdant waterproof swathed round me, Semlin's overcoat about my knees.

* * *

I was dreaming fitfully of a mad escape from hordes of wildly clutching guides, led by Karl the waiter, when the screaming of brakes brought me to my senses. The train was sensibly slackening speed. Outside the autumn sun was shining over pleasant brown stretches of moorland bright with heather. The next moment and before I was fully awake we had glided to a standstill at a very spick and span station and the familiar cry of "Alles aussteigen!" rang in my ears.

We were in Germany.

The realization fell upon me like a thunderclap. I was in the enemy's country, sailing under false colours, with only the most meagre information about the man whose place I had taken and no plausible tale, such as I had fully intended to have ready, to carry me through the rigorous scrutiny of the frontier police.

What was my firm? The Halewright Manufacturing Company. What did we manufacture? I had not the faintest idea. Why was I coming to Germany at all? Again I was at a loss.

The clink of iron-shod heels in the corridor and an officer, followed closely by two privates, the white cross of the Landwehr in their helmets, stood at the door.

"Your papers, please," he said curtly but politely.

I handed over my American passport.

"This has not been viséd," said the officer.

With a pang I realized that again I was at fault. Of course, the passport should have been stamped at the German Consulate at Rotterdam.

"I had no time," I said boldly. "I am travelling on most important business to Berlin. I only reached Rotterdam last night, after the Consulate was closed."

The lieutenant turned to one of his guards.

"Take the gentleman to the Customs Hall," he said and went on to the next carriage.

The soldier appropriated my overcoat and bag and beckoned me to follow him. Outside the platform was railed off. Everyone, I noticed, was shepherded into a long narrow pen made with iron hurdles leading to a locked door over which was written: Zoll-Revision. I was going to take my place in the queue when the soldier prodded me with his elbow. He led me to a side door which opened in the gaunt, bare Customs Hall with its long row of trestles for the examination of the passengers' luggage. In a corner behind a desk was a large group of officers and subordinate officials, all in the grey-green uniform I knew so well from the life in the trenches. The principal seemed to be an immense man, inordinately gross and fat, with a bloated face and great gold spectacles. He was roaring in a loud, angry voice:

"He's not come! There you are! Again we shall have all the trouble for nothing!"

I thought he looked an extraordinarily bad-tempered individual and I fervently prayed that I should not be brought before him.

The doors were flung open. With a rush the hall was invaded with a heterogeneous mob of people huddled pellmell together and driven along before a line of soldiers. For an hour or more babel reigned. Officials bawled at the public: the place rang with the sounds of angry altercation. After a furious dispute one man, wildly gesticulating, was dragged away by two soldiers.

I never saw such a thorough examination in my life. People's bags were literally turned upside down and every single object pried into and besnuffled. After the customs' examination passengers were passed on to the searching-rooms, the men to one side, the women to the other. I caught sight of a female searcher lolling at a door ... a monstrous and grim female who reminded me of those dreadful bathing women at the seaside in our early youth.

The fat official had vanished into an office leading off the Customs Hall. He was, I surmised, the last instance, for several passengers, including a very respectably dressed old lady, were driven into the side office and were seen no more.

During all this scene of confusion no one had taken any notice of me. My guard looked straight in front of him and said never a word. When the hall was all but cleared, a man came to the office door and made a sign to my sentinel.

At a table in the office which, despite the sunshine outside, was heated like a greenhouse, I found the fat official. Something had evidently upset him, for his brows were clouded with anger and his mastiff-like cheeks were trembling with irritation. He thrust a hand out as I entered.

"Your papers!" he grunted.

I handed over my passport.

Directly he had examined it, a red flush spread over his cheeks and forehead and he brought his hand down on the table with a crash. The sentry beside me winced perceptibly.

"It's not viséd," the fat official screamed in a voice shrill with anger. "It's worthless... what good do you think is this to me?"

"Excuse me ..." I said in German.

"I won't excuse you," he roared. "Who are you? What do you want in Germany? You've been to London, I see by this passport."

"I had no time to get my passport stamped at the Consulate at Rotterdam," I said. "I arrived there too late in the evening. I could not wait. I am going to Berlin on most important business."

"That's nothing to do with it," the man shouted. He was working himself up into a fine frenzy. "Your passport is not in order. You're not a German. You're an American. We Germans know what to think of our American friends, especially those who come from London."

A voice outside shouted: "Nach Berlin alles einsteigen." I said as politely as I could, despite my growing annoyance:

"I don't wish to miss my train. My journey to Berlin is of the utmost importance. I trust the train can be held back until I have satisfied you of my good faith. I have here a card from Herr von Steinhardt."

I paused to let the name sink in. I was convinced he must be a big bug of some kind in the German service.

"I don't care a rap for Herr von Steinhardt or Herr von anybody else," the German cried. Then he said curtly to a cringing secretary beside him:

"Has he been searched?"

The secretary cast a frightened look at the sentry.

"No, Herr Major," said the secretary.

"Well, take him away and strip him and bring me anything you find!"

The sentry spun on his heel like an automaton.

The moment had come to play my last card, I felt: I could not risk being delayed on the frontier lest Stelze and his friends should catch up with me. I was surprised to find that apparently they had not telegraphed to have me stopped.

"One moment, Herr Major," I said.

"Take him away!" The fat man waved me aside.

"I warn you," I continued, "that I am on important business. I can convince you of that, too. Only ..." and I looked round the office. "All these must go."

To my amazement the fat man's anger vanished utterly. He stared hard at me, then took off his spectacles and polished them with his handkerchief. After this he said nonchalantly: "Everybody get outside except this gentleman!" The sentry, who had spun round on his heel again, seemed about to speak: his voice expired before it came out of hi

s mouth: he saluted, spun round again and followed the rest out of the room.

When the place was cleared I pulled my left brace out of the armhole of my waistcoat and displayed the silver star.

The fat man sprang up.

"The Herr Doktor must excuse me: I am overwhelmed: I had no idea that the Herr Doktor was not one of these tiresome American spies that are overrunning our country. The Herr Doktor will understand.... If the Herr Doktor had but said ..."

"Herr Major," I said, endeavouring to put as much insolence as I could into my voice (that is what a German understands), "I am not in the habit of bleating my business to every fool I meet. Now I must go back to the train."

"The Berlin train has gone, Herr Doktor, but..."

"The Berlin train gone?" I said. "But my business brooks no delay. I tell you I must be in Berlin to-night!"

"There is no question of your taking the ordinary train, Herr Doktor," the fat man replied smoothly, "but unfortunately the special which I had ready for you has been countermanded. I thought you were not coming again."

A special? By Jove! I was evidently a personage of note. But a special would never do! Where the deuce was it going to take me?

"The Berlin train was to have been held back until your special was clear," the Major went on, "but we must stop her at Wesel until you have passed. I will attend to that at once!"

He gave some order down the telephone and after a brisk conversation turned to me with a beaming face:

"They will stop her at Wesel and the special will be ready in twenty-five minutes. But there is no hurry. You have an hour or more to spare. Might I offer the Herr Doktor a glass of beer and a sandwich at our officers' casino here?"

Well, I was in for it this time. A special bearing me Heaven knows whither on unknown business...! Perhaps I might be able to extract a little information out of my fat friend if I went with him, so I accepted his invitation with suitable condescension.

The Major excused himself for an instant and returned with my overcoat and bag.

"So!" he cried, "we can leave these here until we come back!" Behind him through the open door I saw a group of officials peering curiously into the room. As we walked through their midst, they fell back with precipitation. There was a positive reverence about their manner which I found extremely puzzling.

A waggonette, driven by an orderly, stood in the station yard, one of the Customs officials, hat in hand, at the door. We drove rapidly through very spick-and-span streets to a little square where the sentry at an iron gate denoted the Officers' Club. In the anteroom four or five officers in field-grey uniform were lounging. As we entered they sprang to their feet and remained stiffly standing while the Major presented them, Hauptmann Pfahl, Oberleutnant Meyer ... a string of names. One of the officers had lost an arm, another was very lame, the remainder were obvious dug-outs.

"An American gentleman, a good friend of ours," was the form in which the Major introduced me to the company. Again I found myself mystified by the extraordinary demonstrations of respect with which I was received. Germans don't like Americans, especially since they took to selling shells to the Allies, and I began to think that all these officers must know more about me and my mission than I did myself. A stolid orderly, wearing white gloves, brought beer and some extraordinary nasty-looking sardine sandwiches which, on sampling, I realized to be made of "war bread."

While the beer was being poured out I glanced round the room, bare and very simply furnished. Terrible chromo-lithographs of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince hung on the walls above a glass filled with war trophies. With a horrible sickness at heart I recognized amongst other emblems a glengarry with a silver badge and a British steel helmet with a gaping hole through the crown. Then I remembered I was in the region of the VIIth Corps, which supplies some of our toughest opponents on the Western front.

Conversation was polite and perfunctory.

"It is on occasions such as these," said the lame officer, "that one recognizes how our brothers overseas are helping the German cause."

"Your work must be extraordinarily interesting," observed one of the dug-outs.

"All your difficulties are now over," said the Major, much in the manner of the chorus of a Greek play. "You will be in Berlin to-night, where your labours will be doubtless rewarded. American friends of Germany are not popular in London, I should imagine!"

I murmured: "Hardly."

"You must possess infinite tact to have aroused no suspicion," said the Major.

"That depends," I said.

"Pardon me," replied the Major, in whom I began to recognize all the signs of an unmitigated gossip, "I know something of the importance of your mission. I speak amongst ourselves, is it not so, gentlemen? There were special orders about you from the Corps Command at Münster. Your special has been waiting for you here for four days. The gentleman who came to meet you has been in a fever of expectation. He had already left the station this morning when ... when I met you, I sent word for him to pick you up here."

The plot was thickening. I most certainly was a personage of note.

"What part of America do you come from, Mr. Semlin?" said a voice in perfect English from the corner. The one-armed officer was speaking.

"From Brooklyn," I said stoutly, though my heart seemed turned to ice with the shock of hearing my own tongue.

"You have no accent," the other replied suavely.

"Some Americans," I retorted sententiously, "would regard that as a compliment. Not all Americans talk through their noses any more than we all chew or spit in public."

"I know," said the young man. "I was brought up there!"

We were surrounded by smiling faces. This officer who could speak English was evidently regarded as a bit of a wag by his comrades. I seized the opportunity to give them in German a humorous description of my simplicity in explaining to a man brought up in the United States that all Americans were not the caricatures depicted in the European comic press.

There was a roar of laughter from the room.

"Ach, dieser Schmalz!" guffawed the Major, beating his thigh in ecstasy. "Kolossal!" echoed one of the dug-outs. The lame man smiled wanly and said it was "incredible how humorous Schmalz could be."

I had hoped that the conversation might now be carried on again in German. Nothing of the kind. The room leant back in its chairs, as if expecting the fun to go on.

It did.

"You get your clothes in London," the young officer said.

He was a trimly built young man, very pale from recent illness, with flaxen hair and a bright, bold blue eye-the eye of a fighter. His left sleeve was empty and was fastened across his tunic, in a button-hole of which was twisted the black and white ribbon of the Iron Cross.

"Generally," I answered shortly, "when I go to England. Clothes are cheaper in London."

"You must have a good ear for languages," Schmalz continued; "you speak German like a German and English ..." he paused appreciably, "... like an Englishman."

I felt horribly nervous. This young man never took his eyes off me: he had been staring at me ever since I had entered the room. His manner was perfectly calm and suave.

Still I kept my end up very creditably, I think.

"And not a bad accomplishment, either," I said, smiling brightly, "if one has to visit London in war-time."

Schmalz smiled back with perfect courtesy. But he continued to stare relentlessly at me. I felt scared.

"What is Schmalz jabbering about now?" said one of the dug-outs. I translated for the benefit of the company. My résumé gave the dug-out who had spoken the opportunity for launching out on an interminable anecdote about an ulster he had bought on a holiday at Brighton. The story lasted until the white-gloved orderly came and announced that "a gentleman" was there, asking for the Herr Major.

"That'll be your man," exclaimed the Major, starting up-I noticed he made no attempt to bring the stranger in. "Come, let us go to him!"

I stood up and took my leave. Schmalz came to the door of the anteroom with us.

"You are going to Berlin?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Where shall you be staying?" he asked again.

"Oh, probably at the Adlon!"

"I myself shall be in Berlin next week for my medical examination, and perhaps we may meet again. I should much like to talk more with you about America ... and London. We must have mutual acquaintances."

I murmured something about being only too glad, at the same time making a mental note to get out of Berlin as soon as I conveniently could.

* * *

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