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The Man with the Clubfoot By Valentine Williams Characters: 19466

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Kore presently retired to an inner room with the man in shirt-sleeves, whom I judged to be the landlord, and in a little the flaxen-haired lady at the bar beckoned me over and bade me join them.

"This is Julius Zimmermann, the young man I have spoken of," said the Jew; then turning to me:

"Herr Haase is willing to take you on as waiter here on my recommendation, Julius, See that you do not make me repent of my kindness!"

Here the man in shirt-sleeves, a great, fat fellow with a bullet head and a huge double chin, chuckled loudly.

"Kolossal!" he cried. "Herr Kore loves his joke! Ausgezeichnet!" And he wagged his head roguishly at me.

On that Kore took his leave, promising to look in and see how I was faring in a few days' time. The landlord opened a low door in the corner and revealed a kind of large cupboard, windowless and horribly stale and stuffy, where there were two unsavoury-looking beds.

"You will sleep here with Otto," said the landlord. Pointing to a dirty white apron lying on one of the beds, he bade me take off my overcoat and jacket and put it on.

"It was Johann's," he said, "but Johann won't want it any more. A good lad, Johann, but rash. I always said he would come to a bad end." And he laughed noisily.

"You can go and help with the waiting now," he went on. "Otto will show you what to do!"

And so I found myself, within twenty-four hours, spy, male nurse and waiter in turn.

I am loth to dwell on the degradation of the days that followed. That cellar tavern was a foul sink of iniquity, and in serving the dregs of humanity that gathered nightly there I felt I had indeed sunk to the lowest depths. The place was a regular thieves' kitchen ... what is called in the hideous Yiddish jargon that is the criminal slang of modern Germany a "Kaschemme." Never in my life have I seen such brutish faces as those that leered at me nightly through the smoke haze as I shuffled from table to table in my mean German clothes. Gallows' birds, sneak thieves, receivers, bullies, prostitutes and harpies of every description came together every evening in Herr Haase's beer-cellar. Many of the men wore the soiled and faded field-grey of the soldier back from the front, and in looking at their sordid, vulpine faces, inflamed with drink, I felt I could fathom the very soul of Belgium's misery.

The conversation was all of crime and deeds of violence. The men back from the front told gloatingly of rapine and feastings in lonely Belgian villages or dwelt ghoulishly on the horrors of the battlefield, the mounds of decaying corpses, the ghastly mutilations they had seen in the dead. There were tales, too, of "vengeance" wreaked on "the treacherous English." One story, in particular, of the fate of a Scottish Sergeant ... "der Hochl?nder" they called him in this oft-told tale ... still makes me quiver with impotent rage when I think of it.

One evening the name of the Hotel Esplanade caught my ear. I approached the table and found two flashily dressed bullies and a bedraggled drab from the streets talking in admiration of my exploit.

"Clubfoot met his match that time," the woman cried. "The dirty dog! But why didn't this English spy make a job of it and kill the scum? Pah!"

And she spat elegantly into the sawdust on the floor.

"I wouldn't be in that fellow's shoes for something," muttered one of the men. "No one ever had the better of Clubfoot yet. Do you remember Meinhardt, Franz? He tried to cheat Clubfoot, and we know what happened to him!"

"They're raking the whole city for this Englishman," answered the other man. "Vogel, who works for Section Seven, you know the man I mean, was telling me. They've done every hotel in Berlin and the suburbs, but they haven't found him. They raided Bauer's in the Favoriten-Strasse last night. The Englishman wasn't there, but they got three or four others they were looking for-Fritz and another deserter included. I was nearly there myself!"

I was always hearing references of this kind to my exploit. I was never spoken of except in terms of admiration, but the name of Clubfoot-der Stelze-excited only execration and terror.

I lived in daily fear of a raid at Haase's. Why the place had escaped so long, with all that riff-raff assembled there nightly, I couldn't imagine. It was one of those defects in German organization which puzzle the best of us at times. In the meantime, I was powerless to escape. The first thing Haase had done was to take away my papers-to send them to the police, as he explained-but he never gave them back, and when I asked for them he put me off with an excuse.

I was a virtual prisoner in the place. On my feet from morning till night, I had indeed few opportunities for going out; but once, during a slack time in the afternoon, when I broached the subject to the landlord, he refused harshly to let me out of his sight.

"The street is not healthy for you just now. You would be a danger to yourself and to all of us!" he said.

My life in that foul den was a burden to me. The living conditions were unspeakable. Otto, a pale and ill-tempered consumptive, compelled, like me, to rise in the darkness of the dawn, never washed, and his companionship in the stuffy hole where we slept was offensive beyond belief. He openly jeered at my early morning journeys out to a narrow, stinking court, where I exulted in the ice-cold water from the pump. And the food! It was only when I saw the mean victuals-the coarse and often tainted horseflesh, the unappetizing war-bread, the coffee substitute, and the rest-that I realized how Germany was suffering, though only through her poor as yet, from the British blockade. That thought used to help to overcome the nausea with which I sat down to eat.

Domestic life at Haase's was a hell upon earth. Haase himself was a drunken bully, who made advances to every woman he met, and whose complicated intrigues with the feminine portion of his clientèle led to frequent scenes with the fair-haired Hebe who presided at the bar and over his household. It was she and Otto who fared daily forth to take their places in the long queues that waited for hours with food cards outside the provision shops.

These trips seemed to tell upon her temper, which would flash out wrathfully at meal-times, when Haase began his inevitable grumbling about the food. As Otto took a malicious delight in these family scenes, I was frequently called upon to assume the role of peace-maker. More than once I intervened to save Madame from the violence she had called down upon herself by the sharpness of her tongue. She was a poor, faded creature, and the tragedy of it all was that she was in love with this degraded bully. She was grateful to me for my good offices, I think, for, though she hardly ever addressed me, her manner was always friendly.

These days of dreary squalor would have been unbearable if it had not been for my elucidation of the word Boonekamp, which was said to hold the clue to my brother's address. On the wall in the cubby-hole where I slept was a tattered advertisement card of this apéritif-for such is the preparation-proclaiming it to be "Germany's Best Cordial." As I undressed at night, I often used to stare at this placard, wondering what connection Boonekamp could possibly have with my brother. I determined to take the first opportunity of examining the card itself. One morning, while Otto was out in the queue at the butcher's, I slipped away from the cellar to our sleeping-place and, lighting my candle, took down the card and examined it closely. It was perfectly plain, red letters on a green background in front, white at the back.

As I was replacing the card on the nail I saw some writing in pencil on the wall where the card had hung. My heart seemed to stand still with the joy of my discovery. For the writing was in my brother's neat, artistic hand, the words were English, and, best of all, my brother's initials were attached. This is what I read:

(Facsimile.) 5.7.16.

"You will find me at the Café Regina, Düsseldorf-F.O."

After that I felt I could bear with everything. The message awakened hope that was fast dying in my heart. At least on July 5th, Francis was alive. To that fact I clung as to a sheet-anchor. It gave me courage for the hardest part of all my experiences in Germany, those long days of waiting in that den of thieves. For I knew I must be patient. Presently, I hoped, I might extract my papers from Haase or persuade Kore, when he came back, to see me, to give me a permit that would enable me to get to Düsseldorf. But the term of my permit was fast running out and the Jew never came.

There were often moments when I longed to ask Haase or one of the others about the time my brother had served in that place. But I feared to draw attention to myself. No one asked any questions of me (questions as to personal antecedents were discouraged at Haase's), and, as long as I remained the unpaid, useful drudge I felt that my desire for obscurity would be respected. Desultory questions about my predecessors elicited no information about Francis. The Haase establishment seemed to have had a succession of vague and shadowy retainers.

Only about Johann, whose apron I wore, did Otto become communicative.

"A stupid fellow!" he declared. "He was well off here. Haase liked him, the customers liked him, especially the ladies. But he must fall in love with Frau Hedwig (the lady at the bar), then he quarrelled with Haase and threatened him-you know, about customers who haven't got their papers in order. The next time Johann went out, they arrested him. And he was shot at Spandau!"

"Shot?" I exclaimed. "Why?"

"As a desert


"But was he a deserter?"

"Ach! was! But he had a deserter's papers in his pockets ... his own had vanished. Ach! it's a bad thing to quarrel with Haase!"

I made a point of keeping on the right side of the landlord after that. By my unfailing diligence I even managed to secure his grudging approval, though he was always ready to fly into a passion at the least opportunity.

One evening about six o'clock a young man, whom I had never seen among our regular customers, came down the stairs from the street and asked for Haase, who was asleep on the sofa in the inner room. At the sight of the youth, Frau Hedwig jumped off her perch behind the bar and vanished. She came back directly and, ignoring me, conducted the young man into the inner room, where he remained for about half an hour. Then he reappeared again, accompanied by Frau Hedwig, and went off.

I was shocked by the change in the appearance of the woman. Her face was pale, her eyes red with weeping, and her eyes kept wandering towards the door. It was a slack time of the day within and the cellar was free of customers.

"You look poorly, Frau Hedwig," I said. "Trouble with Haase again?"

She looked up at me and shook her head, her eyes brimming over. A tear ran down the rouge on her cheek.

"I must speak," she said. "I can't bear this suspense alone. You are a kind young man. You are discreet. Julius, there is trouble brewing for us!"

"What do you mean?" I asked. A foreboding of evil rose within me.

"Kore!" she whispered.

"Kore?" I echoed. "What of him?"

She looked fearfully about her.

"He was taken yesterday morning," she said.

"Do you mean arrested?" I exclaimed, unwilling to believe the staggering news.

"They entered his apartment early in the morning and seized him in bed. Ach! it is dreadful!" And she buried her face in her hands.

"But surely," I added soothingly, though with an icy fear at my heart, "there is no need to despair. What is an arrest to-day with all these regulations...."

The woman raised her face, pallid beneath its paint, to mine.

"Kore was shot at Moabit Prison this morning," she said in a low voice. "That young man brought the news just now." Then she added breathlessly, her words pouring out in a torrent:

"You don't know what this means to us. Haase had dealings with this Jew. If they have shot him, it is because they have found out from him all they want to know. That means our ruin, that means that Haase will go the same way as the Jew.

"But Haase is stubborn, foolhardy. The messenger warned him that a raid might be expected here at any moment. I have pleaded with him in vain. He believes that Kore has split; he believes the police may come, but he says they daren't touch him: he has been too useful to them: he knows too much. Ach, I am afraid! I am afraid!"

Haase's voice sounded from the inner room.

"Hedwig!" he called.

The woman hastily dried her eyes and disappeared through the door.

The coast was clear, if I wanted to escape, but where could I go, without a paper or passport, a hunted man?

The news of Kore's arrest and execution haunted me. Of course, the man was in a most perilous trade, and had probably been playing the game for years. But suppose they had tracked me to the house in the street called In den Zelten.

I crossed the room and opened the door to the street. I had never set foot outside since I had come, and, hopeless as it would be for me to attempt to escape, I thought I might reconnoitre the surroundings of the beer-cellar for the event of flight.

I lightly ran up the stairs to the street and nearly cannoned into a man who was lounging in the entrance. We both apologized, but he stared at me hard before he strolled on. Then I saw another man sauntering along on the opposite side of the street. Further away, at the corner, two men were loitering.

Every one of them had his eyes fixed on the cellar entrance at which I was standing.

I knew they could not see my face, for the street was but dimly lit, and behind me was the dark background of the cellar stairway. I took a grip on my nerves and very deliberately lit a cigarette and smoked it, as if I had come up from below to get a breath of fresh air. I waited a little while and then went down.

I was scarcely back in the cellar when Haase appeared from the inner room, followed by the woman. He carried himself erect, and his eyes were shining. I didn't like the man, but I must say he looked game. In his hand he carried my papers.

"Here you are, my lad," he said in quite a friendly tone, "put 'em in your pocket-you may want 'em to-night."

I glanced at the papers before I followed his advice.

He noted my action and laughed.

"They have told you about Johann," he said. "Never fear, Julius, you and I are good friends."

The papers were those of Julius Zimmermann all right.

We were having supper at one of the tables in the front room-there were only a couple of customers, as it was so early-when a man, a regular visitor of ours, came down the stairs hurriedly. He went straight over to Haase and spoke into his ear.

"Mind yourself, Haase," I heard him say. "Do you know who had Kore arrested and shot? It was Clubfoot. There is more in this than we know. Mind yourself and get out! In an hour or so it may be too late."

Then he scurried away, leaving me dazed.

"By God!" said the landlord, bringing a great fist down on the table so that the glasses rang, "they won't touch me. Not the devil himself will make me leave this house before they come, if coming they are!"

The woman burst into tears, while Otto blinked his watery eyes in terror. I sat and looked at my plate, my heart too full for words. It was bitter to have dared so much to get this far and then find the path blocked, as it seemed, by an insuperable barrier. They were after me all right: the mention of Clubfoot's name, the swift, stern retribution that had befallen Kore, made that certain-and I could do nothing. That cellar was a cul-de-sac, a regular trap, and I knew that if I stirred a foot from the house I should fall into the hands of those men keeping their silent vigil in the street.

Therefore, I must wait, as calmly as I might, and see what the evening would bring forth. Gradually the cellar filled up as people drifted in, but many familiar faces, I noticed, were missing. Evidently the ill tidings had spread. Once a man looked in for a glass of beer and drifted out again, leaving the door open. As I was closing it, I heard a muffled exclamation and the sound of a scuffle at the head of the stairs. It was so quietly done that nobody below, save myself, knew what had happened. The incident showed me that the watch was well kept.

The evening wore on-interminably, as it seemed to me. I darted to and fro from the bar, laden with mugs of beer and glasses of schnaps, incessantly, up and down. But I never failed, whenever there came a pause in the orders, to see that my journey finished somewhere in the neighbourhood of the door. A faint hope was glimmering in my brain.

Until the end of my life, that interminable evening in the beer-cellar will remain stamped in my memory. I can still see the scene in its every detail, and I know I shall carry the picture with me to the grave; the long, low room with its blackened ceiling, the garish yellow gaslight, the smoke haze, the crowded tables, Otto, shuffling hither and hither with his mean and sulky air, Frau Hedwig, preoccupied at her desk, red-eyed, a graven image of woe, and Haase, presiding over the beer-engine, silent, defiant, calm, but watchful every time the door opened.

When at last the blow fell, it came suddenly. A trampling of feet on the stairs, a great blowing of whistles ... then the door was burst open just as everybody in the cellar sprang to their feet amid exclamations and oaths from the men and shrill screams from the women. Outlined in the doorway stood Clubfoot, majestic, authoritative, wearing some kind of little skull-cap, such as duelling students wear, over a black silk handkerchief bound about his head. At the sight of the man the hubbub ceased on the instant. All were still save Haase, whose bull-like voice roaring for silence broke on the quiet of the room with the force of an explosion.

I was in my corner by the door, pressed back against the coats and hats hanging on the wall. In front of me a frieze of frightened faces screened me from observation. Quickly, I slipped off my apron.

Clubfoot, after casting a cursory glance round the room, strode its length towards the bar where Haase stood, a crowd of plain-clothes men and policemen at his heels. Then quite suddenly the light went out, plunging the place into darkness. Instantly the room was in confusion; women screamed; a voice, which I recognized as Clubfoot's, bawled stentorianly for lights ... the moment had come to act.

I grabbed a hat and coat from the hall, got into them somehow, and darted to the door. In the dim light shining down the stairs from a street lamp outside, I saw a man at the door. Apparently he was guarding it.

"Back!" he cried, as I stepped up to him.

I flashed in his eyes the silver star I held in my hand.

"The Chief wants lanterns!" I said low in his ear.

He grabbed my hand holding the badge and lowered it to the light.

"All right, comrade," he replied. "Drechsler has a lantern, I think! You'll find him outside!"

I rushed up the stairs right into a group of three policemen.

"The Chief wants Drechsler at once with the lantern," I shouted, and showed my star. The three dispersed in different directions calling for Drechsler.

I walked quickly away.

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