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   Chapter 13 I FIND ACHILLES IN HIS TENT

The Man with the Clubfoot By Valentine Williams Characters: 16616

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Outside darkness had fallen. I had a vague suspicion that the house might be watched, but I found the Bendler-Strasse quite undisturbed. It ran its quiet, aristocratic length to the tangle of bare branches marking the Tiergarten-Strasse with not so much as a dog to strike terror into the heart of the amateur spy. Even in the Tiergarten-Strasse, where the Jewish millionaires live, there was little traffic and few people about, and I felt singularly unromantic as I walked briskly along the clean pavements towards Unter den Linden.

Once more the original object of my journey into Germany stood clearly before me. An extraordinary series of adventures had deflected me from my course, but never from my purpose. I realized that I should never feel happy in my mind again if I left Germany without being assured as to my brother's fate. And now I was on the threshold either of a great discovery or of an overwhelming disappointment.

For the street called In den Zelten was my next objective. I knew I might be on the wrong track altogether in my interpretation of what I was pleased to term in my mind the message from Francis. If I had read it falsely-if, perhaps, it were not from him at all-then all the hopes I had built on this mad dash into the enemy's country would collapse like a house of cards. Then, indeed, I should be in a sorry pass.

But my luck was in, I felt. Hitherto, I had triumphed over all difficulties. I would trust in my destiny to the last.

I had taken the precaution of turning up my overcoat collar and of pulling my hat well down over my eyes, but no one troubled me. I reflected that only Clubfoot and Schmalz were in a position to recognize me and that, if I steered clear of places like hotels and restaurants and railway stations, where criminals always seem to be caught, I might continue to enjoy comparative immunity. But the trouble was the passport question. That reminded me.

I must get rid of Semlin's passport. As I walked along I tore it into tiny pieces, dropping each fragment at a good interval from the other. It cost me something to do it, for a passport is always useful to flash in the eyes of the ignorant. But this passport was dangerous. It might denounce me to a man who would not otherwise recognize me.

I had some difficulty in finding In den Zelten. I had to ask the way, once of a postman and once of a wounded soldier who was limping along with crutches. Finally, I found it, a narrowish street running off a corner of the great square in front of the Reichstag. No. 2 was the second house on the right.

I had no plan. Nevertheless, I walked boldly upstairs. There was but one flat on each floor. At the third story I halted, rather out of breath, in front of a door with a small brass plate inscribed with the name "Eugen Kore." I rang the bell boldly.

An elderly man-servant opened the door.

"Is Herr Eugen Kore at home?" I asked.

The man looked at me suspiciously.

"Has the gentleman an appointment?" he said.

"No," I replied.

"Then the Herr will not receive the gentleman," came the answer, and the man made as though to close the door.

I had an inspiration.

"A moment!" I cried, and I added the word "Achilles" in a low voice.

The servant opened the door wide to me.

"Why didn't you say that at once?" he said. "Please step in. I will see if the Herr can receive you."

He led the way through a hall into a sitting-room and left me there. The place was a perfect museum of art treasures, old Dutch and Italian masters on the walls, some splendid Florentine chests, a fine old dresser loaded with ancient pewter. On a mantelshelf was an extraordinary collection of old keys, each with its label. "Key of the fortress of Spandau, 1715." "Key of the Postern Gate of the Pasha's Palace at Belgrade, 1810," "House Key from Nuremberg, 1567," were some of the descriptions I read.

Then a voice behind me said:

"Ah! you admire my little treasures!"

Turning, I saw a short, stout man, of a marked Jewish appearance, with a bald head, a fat nose, little beady eyes and a large waist.

"Eugen Kore!" he introduced himself with a bow.

"Meyer!" I replied, in the German fashion.

"And what can we do for Herr ... Meyer?" he asked in oily tones, pausing just long enough before he pronounced the name I gave to let me see that he believed it to be a pseudonym.

"I believe you know a friend of mine, whose address I am anxious to find," I said.

"Ah!" sighed the little Jew, "a man of affairs like myself meets so many people that he may be pardoned.... What did you say his name was, this friend of yours?"

I thought I would try the effect of the name "Eichenholz" upon this enigmatic creature.

"Eichenholz? Eichenholz?" Kore repeated.

"I seem to know the name ... it seems familiar ... now let me see again.... Eichenholz, Eichenholz. ..."

While he was speaking he unlocked one of the oak cabinets and a safe came to view. Opening this, he brought out a ledger and ran his finger down the names. Then he shut the book, replaced it, locked the safe and the cabinet, and turned to me again.

"Yes," he said, "I know the name."

His reticence was disconcerting.

"Can you tell me where I can find him?" I asked.

"Yes," was the reply.

I was getting a trifle nettled.

"Well, where?" I queried.

"This is all very well, young Sir," said the Jew. "You come in here from nowhere, you introduce yourself as Meyer; you ask me 'Who?' and 'What?' and 'Where?'-questions that, mark you, in my business, may have valuable answers. We private enquiry agents must live, my dear sir, we must eat and drink like other men, and these are hard times, very hard times. I will ask you a question if I may. Meyer? Who is Meyer? Everybody in this country is called Meyer!"

I smiled at this bizarre speech.

"This Eichenholz, now," I said, "... supposing he were my brother."

"He might congratulate himself," Kore said, blinking his little lizard eyes.

"And he sent me word to call and see you to find out his whereabouts. You seem to like riddles, Herr Kore.... I will read you one!"

And I read him the message from Francis ... all but the first two lines.

The little Jew beamed with delight.

"Ach! that is bright!" he cried, "oi, oi, oi, but he is smart, this Herr Eichenholz! Who'd have thought of that? Brilliant, brilliant!"

"As you say, Herr Kore, enquiry agents must live, and I am quite prepared to pay for the information I require...."

I pulled out my portfolio as I spoke.

"The matter is quite simple," Kore replied. "It is already arranged. The charge is five hundred marks. My client said to me the last time I saw him, 'Kore,' he said, 'if one should come asking news of me you will give him the word and he will pay you five hundred marks.'"

"The word?" I said.

"The word," he repeated.

"You must take Dutch money," I said. "Here you are ... work it out in gulden ... and I'll pay!"

He manipulated a stump of pencil on a writing block and I paid him his money.

Then he said:

"Boonekamp!"

"Boonekamp?" I echoed stupidly.

"That's the word," the little Jew chuckled, laughing at my dumbfounded expression, "and, if you want to know, I understand it as little as you do."

"But ... Boonekamp," I repeated. "Is it a man's name, a place? It sounds Dutch. Have you no idea? ... come, I'm ready to pay."

"Perhaps ..." the Jew began.

"What? Perhaps what?" I exclaimed impatiently.

"Possibly...."

"Out with it, man!" I cried, "and say what you mean."

"Perhaps, if I could render to the gentleman the service I rendered to his brother, I might be able to throw light...."

"What service did you render to my brother?" I demanded hastily. "I'm in the dark."

"Has the gentleman no little difficulty perhaps? ... about his military service, about his papers? The gentleman is young and strong ... has he been to the front? Was life irksome there? Did he ever long for the sweets of home life? Did he never envy those who have been medically rejected? The rich men's sons, perhaps, with clever fathers who know how to get what they want?"

His little eyes bored into mine like gimlets.

I began to understand.

"And if I had?"

"Then all old Kore can say is that the gentleman has come to the ri

ght shop, as his gracious brother did. How can we serve the gentleman now? What are his requirements? It is a difficult, a dangerous business. It costs money, much money, but it can be arranged ... it can be arranged."

"But if you do for me what you did for my brother," I said, "I don't see how that helps to explain this word, this clue to his address!"

"My dear sir, I am as much in the dark as you are yourself about the significance of this word. But I can tell you this, your brother, thanks to my intervention, found himself placed in a situation in which he might well have come across this word...."

"Well?" I said impatiently.

"Well, if we obliged the gentleman as we obliged his brother, the gentleman might be taken where his brother was taken, the gentleman is young and smart, he might perhaps find a clue ..."

"Stop talking riddles, for Heaven's sake!" I cried in exasperation, "and answer my questions plainly. First, what did you do for my brother?"

"Your brother had deserted from the front-that is the most difficult class of business we have to deal with-we procured him a permis de séjour for fifteen days and a post in a safe place where no enquiries would be made after him."

"And then?" I cried, trembling with curiosity.

The Jew shrugged his shoulders, waving his hands to and fro in the air.

"Then he disappeared. I saw him a few days before he went, and he gave me the instructions I have repeated to you for anybody who should come asking for him."

"But didn't he tell you where he was going?"

"He didn't even tell me he was going, Herr. He just vanished."

"When was this?"

"Somewhere about the first week in July ... it was the week of the bad news from France."

The message was dated July 1st, I remembered.

"I have a good set of Swedish papers," the Jew continued, "very respectable timber merchant ... with those one could live in the best hotels and no one say a word. Or Hungarian papers, a party rejected medically ... very safe those, but perhaps the gentleman doesn't speak Hungarian. That would be essential."

"I am in the same case as my brother," I said, "I must disappear."

"Not a deserter, Herr?" The Jew cringed at the word.

"Yes," I said. "After all, why not?"

"I daren't do this kind of business any more, my dear sir, I really daren't! They are making it too dangerous."

"Come, come!" I said, "you were boasting just now that you could smooth out any difficulties. You can produce me a very satisfactory passport from somewhere, I am sure!"

"Passport! Out of the question, my dear sir! Let once one of my passports go wrong and I am ruined. Oh, no! no passports where deserters are concerned! I don't like the business ... it's not safe! At the beginning of the war ... ah! that was different! Oi, oi, but they ran from the Yser and from Ypres! Oi, oi, and from Verdun! But now the police are more watchful. No! It is not worth it! It would cost you too much money, besides."

I thought the miserable cur was trying to raise the price on me, but I was mistaken. He was frightened: the business was genuinely distasteful to him.

I tried, as a final attempt to persuade him, an old trick: I showed him my money. He wavered at once, and, after many objections, protesting to the last, he left the room. He returned with a handful of filthy papers.

"I oughtn't to do it; I know I shall rue it; but you have overpersuaded me and I liked Herr Eichenholz, a noble gentleman and free with his money-see here, the papers of a waiter, Julius Zimmermann, called up with the Landwehr but discharged medically unfit, military pay-book and permis de séjour for fifteen days. These papers are only a guarantee in case you come across the police: no questions will be asked where I shall send you."

"But a fifteen days' permit!" I said. "What am I to do at the end of that time?"

"Leave it to me," Kore said craftily. "I will get it renewed for you. It will be all right!"

"But in the meantime...." I objected.

"I place you as waiter with a friend of mine who is kind to poor fellows like yourself. Your brother was with him."

"But I want to be free to move around."

"Impossible," the Jew answered firmly. "You must get into your part and live quietly in seclusion until the enquiries after you have abated. Then we may see as to what is next to be done. There you are, a fine set of papers and a safe, comfortable life far away from the trenches-all snug and secure-cheap (in spite of the danger to me), because you are a lad of spirit and I liked your brother ... ten thousand marks!"

I breathed again. Once we had reached the haggling stage, I knew the papers would be mine all right. With Semlin's money and my own I found I had about £550, but I had no intention of paying out £500 straight away. So I beat the fellow down unmercifully and finally secured the lot for 3600 marks-£180.

But, even after I had paid the fellow his money, I was not done with him. He had his eye on his perquisites.

"Your clothes will never do," he said; "such richness of apparel, such fine stuff-we must give you others." He rang the bell.

The old man-servant appeared.

"A waiter's suit-for the Linien-Strasse!" he said.

Then he led me into a bedroom where a worn suit of German shoddy was spread out on a sofa. He made me change into it, and then handed me a threadbare green overcoat and a greasy green felt hat.

"So!" he said. "Now, if you don't shave for a day or two, you will look the part to the life!"-a remark which, while encouraging, was hardly complimentary.

He gave me a muffler to tie round my neck and lower part of my face and, with that greasy hat pulled down over my eyes and in those worn and shrunken clothes, I must say I looked a pretty villainous person, the very antithesis of the sleek, well-dressed young fellow that had entered the flat half an hour before.

"Now, Julius," said Kore humorously, "come, my lad, and we will seek out together the good situation I have found for you."

A horse-cab was at the door and we entered it together. The Jew chatted pleasantly as we rattled through the darkness. He complimented me on my ready wit in deciphering Francis' message.

"How do you like my idea?" he said, "'Achilles in his Tent'... that is the device of the hidden part of my business-you observe the parallel, do you not?' Achilles holding himself aloof from the army and young men like yourself who prefer the gentle pursuits of peace to the sterner profession of war! Clients of mine who have enjoyed a classical education have thought very highly of the humour of my device."

The cab dropped us at the corner of the Friedrich-Strasse, which was ablaze with light from end to end, and the Linien-Strasse, a narrow, squalid thoroughfare of dirty houses and mean shops. The street was all but deserted at that hour save for an occasional policeman, but from cellars with steps leading down from the streets came the jingle of automatic pianos and bursts of merriment to show that the Linien-Strasse was by no means asleep.

Before one of these cellar entrances the Jew stopped. At the foot of the steep staircase leading down from the street was a glazed door, its panels all glistening with moisture from the heated atmosphere within. Kore led the way down, I following.

A nauseous wave of hot air, mingled with rank tobacco smoke, smote us full as we opened the door. At first I could see nothing except a very fat man, against a dense curtain of smoke, sitting at a table before an enormous glass goblet of beer. Then, as the haze drifted before the draught, I distinguished the outline of a long, low-ceilinged room, with small tables set along either side and a little bar, presided over by a tawdry female with chemically tinted hair, at the end. Most of the tables were occupied, and there was almost as much noise as smoke in the place.

A woman's voice screamed: "Shut the door, can't you, I'm freezing!" I obeyed and, following Kore to a table, sat down. A man in his shirt-sleeves, who was pulling beer at the bar, left his beer-engine and, coming across the room to Kore, greeted him cordially, and asked him what we would take.

Kore nudged me with his elbow.

"We'll take a Boonekamp each, Haase," he said.

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