Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
A GLASS OF WINE WITH CLUBFOOT
I WALKED boldly into the room. All sense of fear had vanished in a wave of anger that swept over me, anger with myself for letting myself be trapped, anger with my companion for his treachery.
Schmalz stood at my elbow with a smile full of malice on his face.
"There now!" he cried, "you see, you are among friends! Am I not thoughtful to have prepared this little surprise for you? See, I have brought you to the one man you have crossed so many hundreds of miles of ocean to see! Herr Doktor! this is Dr. Semlin. Dr. Semlin: Dr. Grundt."
The other had by now heaved his unwieldy frame from the chair.
"Dr. Semlin?" he said, in a perfectly emotionless voice, une voix blanche, as the French say, "this is an unexpected pleasure. I never thought we should meet in Berlin. I had believed our rendezvous to have been fixed for Rotterdam. Still, better late than never!" And he extended to me a white, fat hand.
"Our friend, the Herr Leutnant," I answered carelessly, "omitted to inform me that he was acquainted with you, as, indeed, he failed to warn me that I should have the pleasure of seeing you here to-night."
"We owe that pleasure," Clubfoot replied with a smile that displayed a glitter of gold in his teeth, "to a purely fortuitous encounter at the Casino at Goch, as, indeed, it would appear, I am similarly indebted to chance for the unlooked-for boon of making your personal acquaintance here this evening."
He bowed to Schmalz as he said this.
"But come," he went on, "if I may make bold to offer you the hospitality of your own room, sit down and try a glass of this excellent Brauneberger. Rhine wine must be scarce where you come from. We have much to tell one another, you and I."
Again he bared his golden teeth in a smile.
"By all means," I said. "But I fear we keep our young friend from his bed. Doubtless, you have no secrets from him, but you will agree, Herr Doktor, that our conversation should best be téte-a-téte."
"Schmalz, dear friend," Clubfoot exclaimed with a sigh of regret, "much as I should like . . . I am indeed truly sorry that we should be deprived of your company, but I cannot contest the profound accuracy of our friend's remark. If you could go to the sitting-room for a few minutes . . . ."
The young lieutenant flushed angrily.
"If you prefer my room to my company . . . by all means," he retorted gruffly, "but I think, in the circumstances, that I shall go to bed."
And he turned on his heel and walked out of the room, shutting the door with rather more force than was necessary, I thought.
"Ach! youth! youth!" he cried, "the same impetuous youth that is at this very moment hacking out for Germany a world empire amidst the nations in arms. A wonderful race, a race of giants, our German youth, Herr Doktor . . . the mainspring of our great German machine — as they find who resist it. A glass of wine!"
The man's speech and manner boded ill for me, I felt. I would have infinitely preferred violent language and open threats to the subtle menace that lay concealed beneath all this suavity.
"You smoke?" queried Clubfoot. "No!" — he held up his hand to stop me as I was reaching for my cigarette case, "you shall have a cigar — not one of our poor German Hamburgers, but a fine Havana cigar given me by a member of the English Privy Council. You stare! Aha! I repeat, by a member of the English Privy Council, to me, the Boche, the barbarian, the Hun! No hole and corner work for the old doctor. Der Stelze may be lame, Clubfoot may be past his work, but when he travels en mission, he travels en prince, the man of wealth and substance. There is none too high to do him honour, to listen to his views on poor, misguided Germany, the land of thinkers sold into bondage to the militarists! Bah! the fools!"
He snarled venomously. This man was beginning to interest me. His rapid change of moods was fascinating, now the kindly philosopher, now the Teuton braggart, now the Hun incorporate. As he limped across the room to fetch his cigar case from the mantelpiece, I studied him.
He was a vast man, not so much by reason of his height, which was below the medium, but his bulk, which was enormous. The span of his shoulders was immense, and, though a heavy paunch and a white flabbiness of face spoke of a gross, sedentary life, he was obviously a man of quite unusual strength. His arms particularly were out of all proportion to his stature, being so long that his hands hung down on either side of him when he stood erect, like the paws of some giant ape. Altogether, there was something decidedly simian about his appearance his squat nose with hairy, open nostrils, and the general hirsuteness of the man, his bushy eyebrows, the tufts of black hair on his cheekbones and on the backs of his big, spade like hands. And there was that in his eyes, dark and courageous beneath the shaggy brows, that hinted at accesses of ape-like fury, uncontrollable and ferocious.
He gave me his cigar which, as he had said, was a good one, and, after a preliminary sip of his wine, began to speak.
"I am a plain man, Herr Doktor," he said, "and I like plain speaking. That is why I am going to speak quite plainly to you. When it became apparent to that person whom it is not necessary to name further greatly desired a certain letter to be recovered, I naturally expected that I, who am a past member in affairs of this order, notably, on behalf of the person concerned, would have been entrusted with the mission. It was I who discovered the author of the theft in an English internment camp; it was I who prevailed upon him to acquiesce in our terms; it was I who finally located the hiding place of the document . . . all this, mark you, without setting foot in England."
My thoughts flew back again to the three slips of paper in their canvas cover, the divided crest, the big, sprawling, upright handwriting. I should have known that hand. I had seen it often enough on certain photographs which were accorded the place of honour in the drawing room at Consistorial-Rat von Mayburg's at Bonn.
"I therefore had the prior claim," Clubfoot continued, "to be entrusted with the important task of fetching the document and of handing it back to the writer. But the gentleman was in a hurry; the gentleman always is; he could not wait for that old slowcoach of a Clubfoot to mature his plans for getting into England, securing the document, and getting out again.
"So Bernstorff is called into consultation, the head of an embassy that has made the German secret service the laughing-stock of the world, an ambassador that has his private papers filched by a common sneak-thief in the underground railway and is fool enough to send home the most valuable documents by a jackass of a military attaché who lets the whole lot be taken from him by a dunderheaded British customs officer at Falmouth! This was the man who was to replace me!
"Bernstorff is accordingly bidden to despatch one of his trusty servants to England, with all suitable precautions, to do my work. You are chosen, and I will pay you the compliment of saying that you fulfilled your mission in a manner that is singularly out of keeping with the usual method of procedure of that gentleman's emissaries.
"But, my dear Doktor . . . pray fill your glass. That cigar is good, is it not? I thought you would appreciate a good cigar . . . . As I was saying, you were handicapped from the first. When you reach the place indicated to you in your instructions, you find only half the document. The wily thief has sliced it in two so as to make sure of his money before parting with the goods. They didn't know, of course, that Clubfoot, the old slowcoach, who is past his work, was aware of this already, and had made his plans accordingly. But, in the end, they had to send for me. 'The good Clubfoot,' 'old chap,' 'sly old fox,' and all the rest of it — would run across to England and secure the other half, while Count Bernstorff's smart young man from America would wait in Rotterdam until Herr Dr. Grundt arrived and handed him the other portion.
"But Count Bernstorff's young man does nothing of the kind. He is one too many for the old fox. He does not wait for him. He runs away, after displaying unusual determination in dealing with a prying Englander — whose fate should be a lesson to all who interfere in other people's business — and goes to Germany, leaving poor old Clubfoot in the lurch. You must admit, Herr Doktor, that I have been hardly used — by yourself as well as by another person?"
My throat was dry with anxiety. What did the man mean by his veiled allusions to "all who interfere in other people's business?"
I cleared my throat to speak.
Clubfoot raised a great hand in deprecation.
"No explanation, Herr Doktor, I beg" (his tone was perfectly unconcerned and friendly), "let me have my say. When I found out that you had left Rotterdam — by the way, you must let me congratulate you on the remarkable fertility of resource you displayed in quitting Frau Schratt's hospitable house — when I found you were gone, I sat down and thought things out.
"I reflected that an astute American like yourself (believe me, you are very astute) would probably be accustomed to look at everything from the business standpoint. 'I will also consider the matter from the business standpoint,' I said to myself, and I decided that, in your place, I too would not be content to accept, as sole payment for the danger of my mission, the scarcely generous compensation that Count Bernstorff allots to his collaborators. No, I should wish to secure a little renown for myself, or, were that not possible, then some monetary gain proportionate with the risks I had run. You see, I have been at pains to put myself wholly in your place. I hope I have not said anything tactless. If so, I can at least acquit myself of any desire to offend."
"On the contrary, Herr Doktor," I replied, "you are the model of tact and diplomacy."
His eyes narrowed a little at this. I thought he wouldn't like that word "diplomacy."
"Another glass of wine? You may safely venture; there is not a headache in a bottle of it. Well, Herr Doktor, since you have followed me so patiently thus far, I will go further. I told you, when I first saw you this evening, that I was delighted at our meeting. That was no mere banality, but the sober truth. For, you see, I am the very person with whom, in the circumstances, you would wish to get in touch. Deprived of the honour, rightly belonging to me, of undertaking this mission single-handed and of fulfilling it alone, I find that you can enable me to carry out the mission to a successful conclusion, whilst I, for my part, am able and willing to recompense your services as they deserve and not according to Bernstorff's starvation scale.
"To make a long story short, Herr Doktor . . . how much?"
He brought his remarks to this abrupt anticlimax so suddenly that I was taken aback. The man was watching me intently for all his apparent nonchalance, and I felt more than ever the necessity for being on my guard. If I could only fathom how much he knew. Of two things I felt fairly sure: the fellow believed me to be Semlin and was under the impression that I still retained my portion of the document. I should have to gain time. The bargain he proposed over my half of the letter might give me an opportunity of doing that. Moreover, I must find out whether he really had the other half of the document, and in that case, where he kept it.
He broke the silence.
"Well, Herr Doktor," he said, "do you want me to start the bidding? You needn't be afraid. I am generous."
I leant forward earnestly in my chair.
"You have spoken with admirable frankness, Herr Doktor," I said, "and I will be equally plain, but I will be brief. In the first place, I wish to know that you are the man you profess to be: so far, you must remember, I have only the assurance of our excitable young friend."
"Your caution is most praiseworthy," said the other, "but I should imagine I carry my name written on my boot." And he lifted his hideous and deformed foot.
"That is scarcely sufficient guarantee," I answered, "in a matter of this importance. A detail like that could easily be counterfeited, or otherwise provided for."
"My badge," and the man produced from his waistcoat pocket a silver star identical with the one I carried on my braces, but bearing only the letter "G" above the inscription "Abt. VII."
"That, even," I retorted, "is not conclusive."
Clubfoot's mind was extraordinarily alert, however gross and heavy his body might be.
He paused for a moment in reflection, his hands crossed upon his great paunch.
"Why not?" he said suddenly, reached out for his cigar-case, beside him on the table, and produced three slips of paper highly glazed and covered with that unforgettable, sprawling hand, a portion of a gilded crest at the top — in short, the missing half of the document I had found in Semlin's bag. Clubfoot held them out fanwise for me to see, but well out of my reach, and he kept a great, spatulate thumb over the top of the first sheet where the name of the addressee should have been.
"I trust you are now convinced, Herr Doktor," he said, with a smile that bared his teeth, and, putting the pieces together, he folded them across, tucked them away in the cigar-case again, and thrust it into his pocket.
I must test the ground further.
"Has it occurred to you, Herr Doktor," I asked, "that we have very little time at our disposal? The person whom we serve must be anxiously waiting . . . ."
Clubfoot laughed and shook his head.
"I want that half-letter badly," he said, "but there's no violent hurry. So I fear you must leave that argument out of your presentation of the case, for it has no commercial value. The person you speak of is not in Berlin."
I had heard something of the Kaiser's sudden appearances and disappearances during the war, but I had not thought they could be so well managed as to be kept from the knowledge of one of his own trusted servants, for such I judged Clubfoot to be. Evidently, he knew nothing of my visit to the Castle that evening, and I was for a moment unpatriotic enough to wish I had kept my half of the letter that I might give it to Clubfoot now to save the coming exposure. "A thousand dollars!" Clubfoot said.
I remained silent.
"Two? Three? Four thousand? Man, you are greedy. Well, I will make it five thousand — twenty thousand marks . . . ."
"Herr Doktor," I said, "I don't want your money. I want to be fair with you. When the . . . the person we know of sends for you, we will go together. You shall tell the large part you have played in this affair. I only want credit for what I have done, nothing more . . . ."
A knock came at the door. The porter entered.
"A telegram for the Herr Doktor," he said, presenting a salver.
Somewhere near by a band was playing dance music . . . one of those rousing, splendidly accented Viennese waltzes. There seemed to be a ball on, for through the open door of the room, I heard, mingled with the strains of the music, the sound of feet and the hum of voices.
Then the door closed, shutting out the outer world again.
"You permit me," said Grundt curtly, as he broke the seal of the telegram. So as not to seem to observe him, I got up and walked across to the window, and leaned against the warm radiator.
"Well?" said a voice from the arm-chair.
"Well?" I echoed.
"I have made you my proposal, Herr Doktor: you have made yours. Yours is quite unacceptable. I have told you with great frankness why it is necessary that I should have your portion of the document and the sum I am prepared to pay for it. I set its value at five thousand dollars. I will pay you the money over in cash, here and now, in good German bank-notes, in exchange for those slips of paper."
The man's suavity had all but vanished: his voice was harsh and stern. His eyes glittered under his shaggy brows as he looked at me. Had I been less agitated, I should have noted this, as a portent of the coming storm, also his great ape's hands picking nervously at the telegram in his lap.
"I have already told you," I said firmly, "that I don't want your money. You know my terms!"
He rose up from his seat and his figure seemed to tower.
"Terms?" he cried in a voice that quivered with suppressed passion, "terms? Understand that I give orders. I accept terms from no man. We waste time here talking. Come, take the money and give me the paper."
I shook my head. My brain was clear, but I felt the crisis was coming. I took a good grip with my hands of the marble slab covering the radiator behind me to give me confidence. The slab yielded: mechanically I noted that it was loose.
The man in front of me was shaking with rage.
"Listen!" he said. "I'll give you one more chance. But mark my words well. Do you know what happened to the man that stole that document? The English took him out and shot him on account of what was found in his house when they raided it. Do you know what happened to the interpreter at the internment camp, who was our go-between, who played us false by cutting the document in half? The English shot him too, on account of what was found in letters that came to him openly through the post? And who settled Schulte? And who settled the other man? Who contrived the traps that sent them to their doom? It was I, Grundt, I, the cripple, I, the Clubfoot, that had these traitors despatched as an example to the six thousand of us who serve our Emperor and empire in darkness! You dog, I'll smash you!"
He was gibbering like an angry ape: his frame was shaking with fury: every hair in the tangle on his face and hands seemed to bristle with his Berserker frenzy.
But he kept away from me, and I saw that he was still fighting to preserve his self-control.
I maintained a bold front.
"This may do for your own people," I said contemptuously, "but it doesn't impress me, I'm an American citizen!"
He was calmer now, but his eyes glittered dangerously.
"An American citizen?" he said in an icy tone. Then he fairly hissed at me:
"You fool! Blind, besotted fool! Do you think you can trifle with the might of the German Empire? Ah! I've played a pretty game with you, you dirty English dog! I've watched you squirming and writhing whilst the stupid German told you his pretty little tale and plied you with his wine and his cigars. You're in our power now, you miserable English hound! Do you understand that? Now call on your fleet to come and save you!
"Listen! I'll be frank with you to the last. I've had my suspicions of you from the first, when they telephoned me that you had escaped from the hotel, but I wanted to make sure. Ever since you have been in this room it has been in my power to push that bell there and send you to Spandau, where they rid us of such dirty dogs as you.
"But the game amused me. I liked to see the Herr Englander playing the spy against me, the master of them all. Do you know, you fool, that old Schratt knows English, that she spent years of her harlot's life in London, and that when you allowed her a glimpse of that passport, your own passport, the one you so cleverly burned, she remembered the name? Ah! you didn't know that, did you?
"Shall I tell you what was in that telegram they just brought me? It was from Schratt, our faithful Schratt, who shall have a bangle for this night's work, to say that the corpse at the hotel has a chain round its neck with an identity disc in the name of Semlin. Ha! you didn't know that either, did you?
"And you would bargain and chaffer with me! You would dictate your terms, you scum! You with your head in a noose, a spy that has failed in his mission, a miserable wretch that I can send to his death with a flip of my little finger! You impudent hound! Well, you'll get your deserts this time, Captain Desmond Okewood . . . but I'll have that paper first!"
Roaring "Give it to me!" he rushed at me like some frenzied beast of the jungle. The veins stood out at his temples, his hairy nostrils opened and closed as his breath came faster, his long arms shot out and his great paws clutched at my throat.
But I was waiting for him. As he came at me, I heard his clubfoot stump once on the polished floor, then, from the radiator behind me, I raised high in my arms the heavy marble slab, and with every ounce of strength in my body brought it crashing down on his head.
He fell like a log, the blood oozing sluggishly from his head on to the parquet. I stopped an instant, snatched the cigar-case from the pocket where he had placed it, extracted the document and fled from the room.