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The Man with the Clubfoot By Valentine Williams Characters: 22321

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

He stood in the centre of the room, facing the door, his legs, straddled apart, planted firmly on the ground, one hand behind his back, the other, withered and useless like the rest of the arm, thrust into the side pocket of his tunic. He wore a perfectly plain undress uniform of field-grey, and the unusual simplicity of his dress, coupled with the fact that he was bare-headed, rendered him so unlike his conventional portraits in the full panoply of war that I doubt if I should have recognized him-paradoxical as it may seem-but for the havoc depicted in every lineament of those once so familiar features.

Only one man in the world to-day could look like that. Only one man in the world to-day could show, by the ravage in his face, the appalling weight of responsibility slowly crushing one of the most vigorous and resilient personalities in Europe. His figure, erstwhile erect and well-knit, seemed to have shrunk, and his withered arm, unnaturally looped away into his pocket, assumed a prominence that lent something sinister to that forbidding grey and harassed face.

His head was sunk forward on his breast. His face, always intensely sallow, almost Italian in its olive tint, was livid. All its alertness was gone; the features seemed to have collapsed, and the flesh hung flabbily, bulging in deep pouches under the eyes and in loose folds at the corners of the mouth. His head was grizzled an iron-grey but the hair at the temples was white as driven snow. Only his eyes were unchanged. They were the same grey, steely eyes, restless, shifting, unreliable, mirrors of the man's impulsive, wayward and fickle mind.

He lowered at me. His brow was furrowed and his eyes flashed malice. In the brief instant in which I gazed at him I thought of a phrase a friend had used after seeing the Kaiser in one of his angry moods-"His icy, black look."

I was so taken aback at finding myself in the Emperor's presence that I forgot my part and remained staring in stupefaction at the apparition. The other was seemingly too busy with his thoughts to notice my forgetfulness, for he spoke at once, imperiously, in the harsh staccato of a command.

"What is this I hear?" he said. "Why has not Grundt come? What are you doing here?"

By this time I had elaborated the fable I had begun to tell in the corridor without. I had it ready now: it was thin, but it must suffice.

"If your Majesty will allow me, I will explain," I said. The Emperor was rocking himself to and fro, in nervous irritability, on his feet. His eyes were never steady for an instant: now they searched my face, now they fell to the floor, now they scanned the ceiling.

"Dr. Grundt and I succeeded in our quest, dangerous though it was. As your Majesty is aware, the ... the ... the object had been divided...."

"Yes, yes, I know! Go on!" the other said, pausing for a moment in his rocking.

"I was to have left England first with my portion. I could not get away. Everyone is searched for letters and papers at Tilbury. I devised a scheme and we tested it, but it failed."

"How? It failed?" the other cried.

"With no detriment to the success of our mission, Your Majesty."

"Explain! What was your stratagem?"

"I cut a piece of the lining from a handbag and in this I wrapped a perfectly harmless letter addressed to an English shipping agent in Rotterdam. I then pasted the fragment of the lining back in its place in the bottom of the bag. Grundt gave the bag to one of our number as an experiment to see if it would elude the vigilance of the English police."

A light of interest was growing in the Emperor's manner, banishing his ill-temper. Anything novel always appealed to him.

"Well?" he said.

"The ruse was detected, the letter was found and our man was fined twenty pounds at the police court. It was then that Dr. Grundt decided to send me...."

"You've got it with you?" the other exclaimed eagerly.

"No, Your Majesty," I said. "I had no means of bringing it away. Dr. Grundt, on the other hand ..." And I doubled up my leg and touched my foot.

The Emperor stared at me and the furrow reappeared between his eyes. Then a smile broke out on his face, a warm, attractive smile, like sunshine after rain, and he burst into a regular guffaw. I knew His Majesty's weakness for jokes at the expense of the physical deformities of others, but I had scarcely dared to hope that my subtle reference to Grundt's clubfoot as a hiding-place for compromising papers would have had such a success. For the Kaiser fairly revelled in the idea and laughed loud and long, his sides fairly shaking.

"Ach, der Stelze! Excellent! Excellent!" he cried. "Plessen, come and hear how we've diddled the Englander again!"

We were in a long room, lofty, with a great window at the far end, where the room seemed to run to the right and left in the shape of a T. From the big writing-desk with its litter of photographs in heavy silver frames, the little bronze busts of the Empress, the water-colour sea-scapes and other little touches, I judged this to be the Emperor's study.

At the monarch's call, a white-haired officer emerged from the further end of the room, that part which was hidden from my view.

The Kaiser put his hand on his shoulder.

"A great joke, Plessen!" he said, chuckling. Then, to me:

"Tell it again!"

I had warmed to my work now. I gave as drily humorous an account as I could of Dr. Grundt, fat and massive and podgy, hobbling on board the steamer at Tilbury, under the noses of the British police, with the document stowed away in his boot.

The Kaiser punctuated my story with gusty guffaws, and emphasized the fun of the dénouement by poking the General in the ribs.

Plessen laughed very heartily, as indeed he was expected to. Then he said suavely:

"But has the stratagem succeeded, Your Majesty?"

The monarch knit his brow and looked at me.

"Well, young man, did it work?"

"... Because," Plessen went on, "if so, Grundt must be in Holland. In that case, why is he not here?"

My heart sank within me. Above all things, I knew I must keep my countenance. The least sign of embarrassment and I was lost. Yet I felt the blood fleeing from my face and I was glad I stood in the shadow.

A knock came to the door. The elderly chamberlain who had met me outside appeared.

"Your Majesty will excuse me ... General Baron von Fischer is there to report...."

"Presently, presently," was the answer in an irritable tone. "I am engaged just now...."

The old courtier paused irresolutely for a moment.

"Well, what is it; what is it?"

"Despatches from General Head-quarters, Your Majesty! The General asked me to say the matter was urgent!"

The Kaiser wakened in an instant.

"Bring him in!" Then, to Plessen, he added in a voice from which all mirth had vanished, in accents of gloom:

"At this hour, Plessen? If things have again gone wrong on the Somme!"

An officer came in quickly, rigid with a frozen face, helmet on head, portfolio under his arm. The Kaiser walked the length of the room to his desk and sat down. Plessen and the other followed him. I remained where I was. They seemed to have forgotten all about me.

A murmur rose from the desk. The officer was delivering his report. Then the Kaiser seemed to question him, for I heard his hard, metallic voice:

"Contalmaison ... Trones Wood ... heavy losses ... forced back ... terrific artillery fire ..." were words that reached me. The Kaiser's voice rose on a high note of irritability. Suddenly he dashed the papers on the desk from him and exclaimed:

"It is outrageous! I'll break him! Not another man shall he have if I must go myself and teach his men their duty!"

Plessen hurriedly left the desk and came to me. His old face was white and his hands were shaking.

"Get out of here!" he said to me in a fierce undertone. "Wait outside and I will see you later!" Still, from the desk, resounded that harsh, strident voice, running on in an ascending scale, pouring forth a foaming torrent of menace.

I had often heard of the sudden paroxysms of fury from which the Kaiser was said to suffer of recent years, but never in my wildest daydreams did I ever imagine I should assist at one.

Gladly enough did I exchange the highly charged electrical atmosphere of the Imperial study for the repose of the quiet corridor. Its perfect tranquillity was as balm to my quivering nerves. Of the man in green nothing was to be seen. Only the trooper continued his silent vigil.

Again I acted on impulse. I was wearing my grass-green raincoat, my hat I carried in my hand. I might therefore easily pass for one just leaving the Castle. Without hesitation, I turned to the left, the way I had come, and plunged once more into the labyrinth of galleries and corridors and landings by which the man in green had led me. I very soon lost myself, so I decided to descend the next staircase I should come to. I followed this plan and went down a broad flight of stairs, at the foot of which I found a night porter, clad in a vast overcoat bedizened with eagles and seated on a stool, reading a newspaper.

He stopped me and asked me my business. I told him I was coming from the Emperor's private apartments, whereupon he demanded my pass. I showed him my badge which entirely satisfied him, though he muttered something about "new faces" and not having seen me before. I asked him for the way out. He said that at the end of the gallery I should come to the west entrance. I felt I had had a narrow squeak of running into my mentor outside. I told the man I wanted the other entrance ... I had my car there.

"You mean the south entrance?" he asked, and proceeded to give me directions which brought me, without further difficulty, out upon the open space in front of the great equestrian statue of the Emperor William I.

It was a clear, starry night and I heaved a sigh of relief as I saw the Schloss-Platz glittering in the cold light of the arc lamps. So pressing had been the danger threatening me that the atmosphere of the Castle seemed stifling in comparison with the keen night air. A new confidence filled my veins as I strode along, though the perils to which I was advancing were not a whit less than those I had just escaped. For I had burnt my boats. My disappearance from the Castle must surely arouse suspicion and it was only a matter of hours for the hue and cry to be raised after me. At best it might be delayed until Clubfoot presented himself at the Castle.

I could not remain in Berlin, that was clear. My American passport was not in order, and if I were to fall back upon my silver badge, I should instantly come into contact with the police with all kinds of unwelcome consequences. No, I must get out of Berlin at all costs. Well away from the capital, I might possibly utilize my silver badge or by its help procure identity papers that would give me a status of some kind.

But Francis? Baffled as I was by that obscure jingle of German, something seemed to tell me that it was a message from my brother. It was dated from Berlin, and I felt that the solut

ion of the riddle, if riddle it were, must be found here.

I had reached Unter den Linden. I entered a café and ordered a glass of beer. The place was a blaze of light and dense with a blue cloud of tobacco smoke. A noisy band was crashing out popular tunes and there was a loud buzz of conversation rising from every table. It was all very cheerful and the noise and the bustle did me good after the strain of the night.

I drew from my pocket the slip of paper I had had from Dicky and fell to scanning it again. I had not been twelve hours in Germany, but already I was conscious that, for anyone acting a part, let anything go wrong with his identity papers and he could never leave the country. If he were lucky, he might lie doggo; but there was no other course.

Supposing, then, that this had happened to Francis (as, indeed, Red Tabs had hinted to me was the case) what course would he adopt? He would try and smuggle out a message announcing his plight. Yes, I think that is what I myself would do in similar circumstances.

Well, I would accept this as a message from Francis. Now to study it once more.

O Eichenholz! O Eichenholz!

Wie leer sind deine Bl?tter.

Wie Achiles in dem Zelte.

Wo zweie sich zanken

Erfreut sich der Dritte.

The message fell into three parts, each consisting of a phrase. The first phrase might certainly be a warning that Francis had failed in his mission.

"O Okewood! how empty are thy leaves!"

What, then, of the other two phrases?

They were short and simple. Whatever message they conveyed, it could not be a lengthy one. Nor was it likely that they contained a report of Francis' mission to Germany, whatever it had been. Indeed, it was not conceivable that my brother would send any such report to a Dutchman like van Urutius, a friendly enough fellow, yet a mere acquaintance and an alien at that.

The message carried in those two phrases must be, I felt sure, a personal one, relating to my brother's welfare. What would he desire to say? That he was arrested, that he was going to be shot? Possibly, but more probably his idea in sending out word was to explain his silence and also to obtain assistance.

My eye recurred continually to the final phrase: "When two people fall out, the third party rejoices."

Might not these numerals refer to the number of a street? Might not in these two phrases be hidden an address at which one might find Francis, or at the worst, hear news of him?

I sent for the Berlin Directory. I turned up the streets section and eagerly ran my eye down the columns of the "A's." I did not find what I was looking for, and that was an "Achilles-Strasse," either with two "l's" or with one.

Then I tried "Eichenholz." There was an "Eichenbaum-Allee" in the Berlin suburb called West-End, but that was all. I tried for a "Bl?tter" or a "Blatt-Strasse" with an equally negative result.

It was discouraging work, but I went back to the paper again. The only other word likely to serve as a street remaining in the puzzle was "Zelt."

"Wie Achiles in dem Zelte."

Wearily I opened the directory at the "Z's."

There, staring me in the face, I found the street called "In den Zelten."

I had struck the trail at last.

In den Zelten, I discovered, on referring to the directory again, derived its name "In the Tents," from the fact that in earlier days a number of open-air beer-gardens and booths had occupied the site which faces the northern side of the Tiergarten. It was not a long street. The directory showed but fifty-six houses, several of which, I noticed, were still beer-gardens. It appeared to be a fashionable thoroughfare, for most of the occupants were titled people. No. 3, I was interested to see, was still noted as the Berlin office of The Times.

The last phrase in the message decidedly gave the number. Two must refer to the number of the house: third to the number of the floor, since practically all dwelling-houses in Berlin are divided off into flats.

As for the "Achiles," I gave it up.

I looked at my watch. It was twenty past eleven: too late to begin my search that night. Then I suddenly realized how utterly exhausted I was. I had been two nights out of bed without sleep, for I had sat up on deck crossing over to Holland, and the succession of adventures that had befallen me since I left London had driven all thought of weariness from my mind. But now came the reaction and I felt myself yearning for a hot bath and for a nice comfortable bed. To go to an hotel at that hour of night, without luggage and with an American passport not in order, would be to court disaster. It looked as though I should have to hang about the cafés and night restaurants until morning, investigate the clue of the street called In den Zelten, and then get away from Berlin as fast as ever I could.

But my head was nodding with drowsiness. I must pull myself together. I decided I would have some black coffee, and I raised my eyes to find the waiter. They fell upon the pale face and elegant figure of the one-armed officer I had met at the Casino at Goch ... the young lieutenant they had called Schmalz.

He had just entered the café and was standing at the door, looking about him. I felt a sudden pang of uneasiness at the sight of him, for I remembered his cross-examination of me at Goch. But I could not escape without paying my bill; besides, he blocked the way.

He settled my doubts and fears by walking straight over to my table.

"Good evening, Herr Doktor," he said in German, with his pleasant smile. "This indeed is an unexpected pleasure! So you are seeing how we poor Germans are amusing ourselves in war-time. You must admit that we do not take our pleasures sadly. You permit me?"

Without waiting for my reply, he sat down at my table and ordered a glass of beer.

"I wish you had appeared sooner," I exclaimed in as friendly a tone as I could muster, "for I am just going. I have had a long and tiring journey and am anxious to go to an hotel."

Directly I had spoken I realized my blunder.

"You have not got an hotel yet?" said Schmalz. "Why, how curious! Nor have I! As you are a stranger in Berlin, you must allow me to appoint myself your guide. Let us go to an hotel together, shall we?"

I wanted to demur, difficult as it was to find any acceptable excuse, but his manner was so friendly, his offer seemed so sincere, that I felt my resolution wavering. He had a winning personality, this frank, handsome boy. And I was so dog-tired!

He perceived my reluctance but also my indecision.

"We'll go to any hotel you like," he said brightly. "But you Americans are spoilt in the matter of luxurious hotels, I know. Still, I tell you we have not much to learn in that line in Berlin. Suppose we go to the Esplanade. It's a fine hotel ... the Hamburg American line run it, you know. I am very well known there, quite the Hauskind ... my uncle was a captain of one of their liners. They will make us very comfortable: they always give me a little suite, bedroom, sitting-room and bath, very reasonably: I'll make them do the same for you."

If I had been less weary-I have often thought since-I would have got up and fled from the café rather than have countenanced any such mad proposal. But I was drunk with sleep heaviness and I snatched at this chance of getting a good night's rest, for I felt that, under the aegis of this young officer, I could count on any passport difficulties at the hotel being postponed until morning. By that time, I meant to be out of the hotel and away on my investigations.

So I accepted Schmalz's suggestion.

"By the way," I said, "I have no luggage. My bag got mislaid somehow at the station and I don't really feel up to going after it to-night."

"I will fix you up," the other replied promptly, "and with pyjamas in the American fashion. By the by," he added, lowering his voice, "I thought it better to speak German. English is not heard gladly in Berlin just now."

"I quite understand," I said. Then, to change the subject, which I did not like particularly, I added:

"Surely, you have been very quick in coming down from the frontier. Did you come by train?"

"Oh, no!" he answered. "I found that the car in which you drove to the station ... it belonged to the gentleman who came to meet you, you know ... was being sent back to Berlin by road, so I got the driver to give me a lift."

He said this quite airily, with his usual tone of candour. But for a moment I regretted my decision to go to the Esplanade with him. What if he knew more than he seemed to know?

I dismissed the suspicion from my mind.

"Bah!" I said to myself, "you are getting jumpy. Besides, it is too late to turn back now!"

We had a friendly wrangle as to who should pay for the drinks, and it ended in my paying. Then, after a long wait, we managed to get a cab, an antique-looking "growler" driven by an octogenarian in a coat of many capes, and drove to the Esplanade.

It was a regular palace of a place, with a splendid vestibule with walls and pavement of different-hued marbles, with palm trees over-shadowing a little fountain tinkling in a jade basin, with servants in gaudy liveries. The reception clerk overwhelmed me with the cordiality of his welcome to my companion and "the American gentleman," and after a certain amount of coquettish protestations about the difficulty of providing accommodation, allotted us a double suite on the entresol, consisting of two bedrooms with a common sitting-room and bathroom.

In his immaculate evening dress, he was a Beau Brummell among hotel clerks, that man. The luggage of the American gentleman should be fetched in the morning. The gentleman's papers? There was no hurry: the Herr Leutnant would explain to his friend the forms that had to be filled in: they could be given to the waiter in the morning. Would the gentlemen take anything before retiring? A whisky-soda-ah! whisky was getting scarce. No? Nothing? He had the honour to wish the gentlemen pleasant repose.

We went to the lift in procession, Beau Brummell in front, then a waiter, then ourselves and the gold-braided hall porter bringing up the rear. One or two people were sitting in the lounge, attended by a platoon of waiters. The whole place gave an impression of wealth and luxury altogether out of keeping with British ideas of the stringency of life in Germany under the British blockade. I could not help reflecting to myself mournfully that Germany did not seem to feel the pinch very much.

At the lift the procession bowed itself away and we went up in charge of the liftman, a gorgeous individual who looked like one of the Pope's Swiss Guards. We reached the centresol in an instant. The Lieutenant led the way along the dimly lighted corridor.

"Here is the sitting-room," he said, opening a door. "This is my room, this the bathroom, and this," he flung open the fourth door, "is your room!"

He stood aside to let me pass. The lights in the room were full on. In an arm-chair a big man in an overcoat was sitting.

He had a heavy square face and a clubfoot.

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