MoboReader> Literature > The Man with the Clubfoot


The Man with the Clubfoot By Valentine Williams Characters: 22576

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

I sat with Monica in her boudoir, which, unlike the usual run of German rooms, had an open fireplace in which a cheerful fire was burning. Monica, in a ravishing kimono, was perched on the leather railed seat running round the fireplace, one little foot in a satin slipper held out to the blaze. In that pretty room she made a charming picture, which for a moment almost made me forget the manifold dangers besetting me.

The doughty Carter had acquitted himself nobly of his task. When I awoke, feeling like a giant refreshed, he had the fire blazing merrily in the fireplace, while on the table a delicious breakfast of tea and fried eggs and biscuits was spread.

"There ain't no call to mess yourself up inside with that dam' war bread of theirs," he chirped. "Miss Monica, she lets me have biscuits, same like she has herself. I always calls her Miss Monica," he explained, "like what they did over at her uncle's place in Long Island, where I used to work."

After breakfast he produced hot water, a safety razor and other toilet requisites, a clean shirt and collar, an overcoat and a Stetson hat-all from Gerry's wardrobe, I presumed. My boots, too, were beautifully polished, and it was as a new man altogether, fresh in mind and clean in body, that I presented myself, about ten o'clock in the morning, at the front door and demanded the "Frau Gr?fin." By Carter's advice I had removed my moustache, and my clean-shaven countenance, together with my black felt hat and dark overcoat, gave me, I think, that appearance of rather dour respectability which one looks for in a male attendant.

Now Monica and I sat and reviewed the situation together.

"German servants spend their lives in prying into their masters' affairs," she said, "but we shan't be interrupted here. That door leads into Gerry's room: he was asleep when I went in just now. I'll take you into him presently. Now tell me about yourself ... and Francis!"

I told her again, but at greater length, all I knew about Francis, his mission into Germany, his long silence.

"I acted on impulse," I said, "but, believe me, I acted for the best. Only, everything seems to have conspired against me. I appear to have walked straight into a mesh of the most appalling complications which reach right up to the Throne."

"Never mind, Des," she said, leaning over and putting a little hand on my arm, "it was for Francis; you and I would do anything to help him, wouldn't we? ... if he is still alive. Impulse is not such a bad thing, after all. If I had acted on impulse once, maybe poor Francis would not now be in the fix he is...."

And she sighed.

"Things look black enough, Des," she went on. "Maybe you and I won't get the chance of another chat like this again and that's why I'm going to tell you something I have never told anybody else. I am only telling you so as you will know that, whatever happens, you will always find in me an ally in your search ... though, tied as I am, I scarcely think I can ever help you much.

"Your brother wanted me to marry him. I liked him better than anybody else I had ever met ... or have ever met since, for that matter.... Daddy was dead, I was absolutely free to please myself, so no difficulties stood in the way. But your brother was proud ... his pride was greater than his love for me, I told him when we parted ... and he wouldn't hear of marriage until he had made himself independent, though I had enough for both of us. He wanted me to wait a year or two until he had got his business started properly, but his pride angered me and I wouldn't.

"So we quarrelled and I went abroad with Mrs. Rushwood. Francis never wrote: all I heard about him was an occasional scrap in your letters. Mrs. Rushwood was crazy about titles, and she ran me round from court to court, always looking for what she called a suitable pari for me. At Vienna we met Rachwitz ... he was very good looking and very well mannered and seemed to be really fond of me.

"Well, I gave Francis another chance. I wrote him a friendly letter and told him about Rachwitz wanting to marry me and asked his advice. He wrote me back a beastly letter, a wicked letter, Des. 'Any girl who is fool enough to sell herself for a title,' he said, 'richly deserves a German husband.' What do you think of that?"

"Poor old Francis," I said. "He was terribly fond of you, Monica!"

"Well, his letter did it. I married Rachwitz ... and have been miserable ever since. I'm not going to bore you with a long story about my matrimonial troubles. No! I'm not going to cry either! I'm not crying! Karl is not a bad man, as German men go, and he's a gentleman, but his love affairs and his drunken parties and his attitude of mind towards me ... it was so utterly different to everything I had been used to. Then you know, I left him...."

"But, Monica," I exclaimed, "what are you doing here then?"

She sighed wearily.

"I'm a German by marriage, Des," she said, "you can't get away from that. My husband's country ... my country ... is at war and the wives must play their part, wherever their heart is. Karl never asked me to come back, I'll give him the credit for that. I came of my own accord because I felt my place was here. So I go round to needlework parties and sewing bees and Red Cross matinées and try to be civil to the German women and listen to their boasting and bragging about their army, their hypocrisy about Belgium, their vilification of the best friends Daddy and I ever had, you English! But doing my duty by my husband does not forbid me to help my friends when they are in danger. That's why you can count on me, Des."

And she gave me her hand.

"I want to be frank with you, too," I said, "so, whatever happens to me, you won't feel I have deceived you about things. I can't say much because my secret is not healthy for anyone to share, and, should they trace any connection between you and me, if they get me, it will be better for you not to have known anything compromising. But I want to tell you this. There is a consideration at stake which is higher than my own safety, higher even than Francis'. I don't believe I am afraid to die: if I escape here, I shall probably get killed at the front sooner or later: it is because of this consideration I speak of that I want to get away with my life back to England."

Monica laughed happily.

"Why do men always take us women to be fools?" she said. "You're a dangerous man to have around, Des, I know that, without worrying my head about any old secret. But you are my friend and Francis' brother and I'm going to help you.

"Now, listen! Old von Boden was at that party last night: he came in late. Rudi von Boden, he told me, is going to take despatches to Rumania, to Mackensen's head-quarters. Well, I telephoned the old man this morning and asked him if Rudi would take a parcel for me to Karl. He said he would and the General is coming here to lunch to-day to fetch it.

"Von Boden is an old beast and runs after every woman he meets. He is by way of being partial to me, if you please, sir. I think I should be able to find out from him what are the latest developments in your case. There's nothing in the paper this morning about the affair at the Esplanade. But then, these things are always hushed up."

"He'll hardly say much in the circumstances," I objected "After all, the Kaiser is involved...."

"My dear Des, opinion of feminine intelligence in military circles in this country is so low that the women in the army set at Court are very often far better informed than the General Staff. Von Boden will tell me all I want to know."

What a girl she was!

"About your friend, the clubfooted man," she went on, "I'm rather puzzled. He must be a person of considerable importance to be fetched by special train straight into the Emperor's private apartments, where very few people ever penetrate, I assure you. But I've never heard of him. He's certainly not a Court official. Nor is he the head of the Political Police ... that's Henninger, a friend of Karl's. Still, there are people of great importance working in dark places in this country and I guess Clubfoot must be one of them.

"Now, I think I ought to take you into Gerry. I want to speak to you about him, Des. I daren't tell him who you are. Gerry's not himself. He's been a nervous wreck ever since his accident and I can't trust him. He's a very conventional man and his principles would never hear of me harbouring a ... a ..."

"Spy?" I suggested.

"No, a friend," she corrected. "So you'll just have to be a male nurse, I guess. A German-American would be best, I think, as you'll have to read the German papers to Gerry-he doesn't know a word of German. Then, you must have a name of some kind...."

"Frederick Meyer," I suggested promptly, "from Pittsburg. It'll have to be Pittsburg: Francis went there for a bit, you know: he wrote me a lot about the place and I've seen pictures of it, too. It's the only American city I know anything about."

"Let it be Meyer from Pittsburg, then," smiled Monica, "but you've got a terrible English accent, Des. I guess we'll have to tell Gerry you were years nursing in London before the war."

She hesitated a moment, then added:

"Des, I'm afraid you'll find Gerry very trying. He's awfully irritable and ... and very spiteful. So you must be careful not to give yourself away."

I had only met the brother once and my recollection of him was of a good looking, rather spoilt young man. He had been brought up entirely in the States by the Long Island uncle whose great fortune he had inherited.

"You'll be quite safe up here for the present," Monica went on. "You'll sleep in the little room off Gerry's and I'll have your meals served there too. After I have found out from the General how things stand, we'll decide what's to be done next."

"I'll be very wary with Master Gerry," I said. "But, Monica, though he has only seen me once, he knows Francis pretty well and we are rather alike. Do you think he'll recognize me?"

"Why, Desmond, it's years since he saw you. And you're not much like Francis with your moustache off. If you're careful, it'll be all right! It isn't for long, either. Now we'll go in. Come along."

As we entered, a petulant voice cried:

"Is that you, Monica? Say, am I to be left alone all the morning?"

"Gerry dear," answered Monica very sweetly, "I've been engaging someone to look after you a bit. Come here, Meyer! This is Frederick Meyer, Gerry!"

I should never have recognized the handsome, rather indolent youth I had met in London in the pale man with features drawn with pain who gazed frowningly at me from the bed.

"Who is he? Where did you get him from? Does he know German?"

He shot a string of questions at Monica, who answered them in her sweet, patient way.

He was apparently satisfied, for, when Monica presently got up to leave us, he threw me an armful of German papers and bade me read to him.

I had not sat with him for ten minutes before I realized what an impossible creature the man was. Nothing I could do was right. Now he didn't want to hear the war news, then it was the report of the Reichstag debate that bored him, now I didn't read loud enough,

then my voice jarred on him. Finally, he snatched the paper out of my hand.

"I can't understand half you say," he cried in accents shrill with irritability; "you mouth and mumble like an Englishman. You say you are an American?"

"Yes, sir," I answered meekly, "but I resided for many years in England."

"Well, it's a good thing you're not there now. Those English are just plumb crazy. They'll never whip Germany, not if they try for a century. Why, look what this country has done in this war? Nothing can stand against her! It's organization, that's what it is! The Germans lead the world. Take their doctors! I have been to every specialist in America about my back and paid them thousands of dollars. And what good did they do me? Not a thing. I come to Germany, they charge me a quarter of the fees, and I feel a different man already. Before tackling the Germans, the English ..."

Thus he ran on. I knew the type well, the American who is hypnotized by German efficiency and thoroughness so completely that he does not see the reverse side of the medal.

He exhausted himself on the topic at last and bade me read to him again.

"Read about the affair at the Hotel Esplanade last night," he commanded.

I had kept an eye open for this very item but, as Monica had said, the papers contained no hint of it. I wondered how Gerry knew about it. Monica would not have told him.

"What affair do you mean?" I said. "There is nothing about it in the papers."

"Of course there is, you fool. What is the use of my hiring you to read the papers to me if you can't find news that's spread all over the place? It's no use giving me the paper ... you know I can't read it! Here, Josef will know!"

A man-servant had come noiselessly into the room with some clothes.

Gerry turned to him.

"Josef, where did you see that story you were telling me about an English spy assaulting a man at the Esplanade last night?"

"Dot ain't in de paper, sir. I haf heard dis from de chauffeur of de Biedermanns next door. He wass at de hotel himself wid hiss shentleman lars' night at de dance. Dey won't put dat in no paper, sir."

And the man chuckled.

I felt none too comfortable during all this and was glad to be told to read on and be damned.

I read to the young American all the morning. He went on exactly like a very badly brought up child. He was fretful and quarrelsome and sometimes abusive, and I had some difficulty in keeping my temper. He continually recurred to my English accent and jeered so offensively and so pointedly at what he called "your English friends" that I began to believe there was some purpose behind his attitude. But it was only part of his invalid's fractiousness, for when the valet, Josef, appeared with the luncheon tray, the American seemed anxious to make amends for his behaviour.

"I'm afraid I'm a bit trying at times, Meyer," he said with a pleasant smile. "But you're a good fellow. Go and have your lunch. You needn't come back till four: I always sleep after luncheon. Here, have a cigar!"

I took the cigar with all humility as beseemed my r?le and followed the valet into an adjoining room, where the table was laid for me. I am keenly sensitive to outside influences, and I felt instinctively distrustful of the man Josef. I expect he resented my intrusion into a sphere where his influence had probably been supreme and where he had doubtless managed to secure a good harvest of pickings.

He left me to my luncheon and went away. After an excellent lunch, washed down by some first-rate claret, I was enjoying my cigar over a book when Josef reappeared again.

"The Frau Gr?fin will see you downstairs!" he said.

Monica received me in a morning-room (the apartment was on two floors). She was very much agitated and had lost all her habitual calm.

"Des," she said, "von Boden has been here!"

"Well!" I replied eagerly.

"I wasn't very successful," she went on "I'm in deep water, Des, and that's the truth. I have never seen the old General as he was to-day. He's a frightful bully and tyrant, but even his worst enemy never accused him of cowardice. But, Des, to-day the man was cowed. He seemed to be in terror of his life and I had the greatest difficulty in making him say anything at all about your affair.

"I made a joking allusion to the escapade at the hotel last night and he said:

"'Yesterday may prove the ruin of not only my career but that of my son's also. Yesterday gained for me as an enemy, Madam, a man whom it spells ruin, perhaps death, to offend.'

"'You mean the Emperor?' I asked.

"'The Emperor!' he said. 'Oh! of course, he's furious. No, I was not speaking of the Emperor!'

"Then he changed the subject and it took me all my tact to get back to it. I asked him if they had caught the author of the attack at the Esplanade. He said, no, but it was only a question of time: the fellow couldn't escape. I said I supposed they would offer a reward and publish a description of the assailant all over the country. He told me they would do nothing of the sort.

"'The public will hear nothing about the affair,' he said, 'and if you will take my advice, Countess, you will forget all about it. In any case, the Princess Radolin is writing to all her guests at the ball last night to urge them strongly to say nothing about the incident. The employees of the hotel will keep their mouths shut. The interests at stake forbid that there should be any attempt whatsoever made in public to throw light on the affair.'

"That is all I could get out of him. But I have something further to tell you. The General went away immediately after lunch. Almost as soon as he had gone I was called to the telephone. Dr. Henninger was there: he is the head of the Political Police, you know. He gave me the same advice as the General, namely, to forget all about what occurred at the Esplanade last night. And then the Princess Radolin rang me up to say the same thing. She seemed very frightened: she was quite tearful. Someone evidently had scared her badly."

"Monica," I said, "it's quite clear I can't stay here. My dear girl, if I am discovered in your house, there is no knowing what trouble may not come upon you."

"If there is any risk," she answered, "it's a risk I am ready to take. You have nowhere to go to in Berlin, and if you are caught outside they might find out where you had been hiding and then we should be as badly off as before. No, you stay right on here, and maybe in a day or two I can get you away. I've been thinking something out.

"Karl has a place near the Dutch frontier, Schloss Bellevue, it is called, close to Cleves. It's an old place and has been in the family for generations. Karl, however, only uses it as a shooting-box: we had big shoots up there every autumn before the war.

"There has been no shooting there for two years now and the place is overstocked with game. The Government has been appealing to people with shooting preserves to kill their game and put it on the market, so I had arranged to go up to Bellevue this month and see the agent about this. I thought if I could prevail on Gerry to come with me, you could accompany him and you might get across the Dutch frontier from there. It's only about fifteen miles away from the Castle. If I can get a move on Gerry, there is no reason why we shouldn't go away in a day or two. In the meantime you'll be quite safe here."

I told her I must think it over: she seemed to be risking too much. But I think my mind was already made up. I could not bring destruction on this faithful friend.

Then I went upstairs again to Gerry, who was in as vile a temper as before. His lunch had disagreed with him: he hadn't slept: the room was not hot enough ... these were a few of the complaints he showered at me as soon as I appeared. He was in his most impish and malicious mood. He sent me running hither and thither: he gave me an order and withdrew it in the same breath: my complacency seemed to irritate him, to encourage him to provoke me.

At last he came back to his old sore subject, my English accent.

"I guess our good American is too homely for a fine English gentleman like you," he said, "but I believe you'll as lief speak as you were taught before you're through with this city. An English accent is not healthy in Berlin at present, Mister Meyer, sir, and you'd best learn to talk like the rest of us if you want to keep on staying in this house.

"I'm in no state to be worried just now and I've no notion of having the police in here because some of their dam' plain-clothes men have heard my attendant saying 'charnce' and 'darnce' like any Britisher-especially with this English spy running round loose. By the way, you'll have to be registered? Has my sister seen about it yet?"

I said she was attending to it.

"I want to know if she's done it. I'm a helpless cripple and I can't get a thing done for me. Have you given her your papers? Yes, or no?"

This was a bad fix. With all the persistence of the invalid, the man was harping on his latest whim.

So I lied. The Countess had my papers, I said.

Instantly he rang the bell and demanded Monica and had fretted himself into a fine state by the time she appeared.

"What's this I hear, Monica?" he cried in his high-pitched, querulous voice. "Hasn't Meyer been registered with the police yet?"

"I'm going to see to it myself in the morning, Gerry," she said.

"In the morning. In the morning!" he cried, throwing up his hands. "Good God, how can you be so shiftless? A law is a law. The man's papers must be sent in to-day ... this instant."

Monica looked appealingly at me.

"I'm afraid I'm to blame, sir," I said. "The fact is, my passport is not quite in order and I shall have to take it to the embassy before I send it to the police."

Then I saw Josef standing by the bed, a salver in his hand.

"Zom letters, sir," he said to Gerry. I wondered how long he had been in the room.

Gerry waved the letters aside and burst into a regular screaming fit. He wouldn't have things done that way in the house; he wouldn't have unknown foreigners brought in, with the city thick with spies-especially people with an English accent-his nerves wouldn't stand it: Monica ought to know better, and so on and so forth. The long and the short of it was that I was ordered to produce my passport immediately. Monica was to ring up the embassy to ask them to stretch a point and see to it out of office hours, then Josef should take me round to the police.

I don't know how we got out of that room. It was Monica, with her sweet womanly tact, who managed it. I believe the madman even demanded to see my passport, but Monica scraped me through that trap as well.

I had left my hat and coat in the entrance hall downstairs. I put on my coat, then went to Monica in the morning-room.

There was much she wanted to say-I could see it in her eyes-but I think she gathered from my face what I was going to do, so she said nothing.

At the door I said aloud, for the benefit of Josef, who was on the stairs:

"Very good, my lady. I will come straight back from the embassy and then go with Josef to the police."

The next moment I was adrift in Berlin.

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