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DESTINY KNOCKS AT THE DOOR
THERE are two things at least that modern warfare teaches you, one is to keep cool in an emergency, the other is not to be afraid of a corpse. Therefore I was scarcely surprised to find myself standing there in the dark calmly reviewing the extraordinary situation in which I now found myself. That's the curious thing about shell-shock: after it a motor back-firing or a tyre bursting will reduce a man to tears, but in face of danger he will probably find himself in full possession of his wits as long as there is no sudden and violent noise connected with it.
Brief as the sounds without had been, I was able on reflection to identify that gasping gurgle, that rapid patter of the hands. Anyone who has seen a man die quickly knows them. Accordingly I surmised that somebody had come to my door at the point of death, probably to seek assistance.
Then I thought of the man next door, his painful breathlessness, his blueish lips, when I found him wrestling with his key, and I guessed who was my nocturnal visitor lying prone in the dark at my feet.
Shielding the candle with my hand I rekindled it. Then I grappled with the flapping curtains and got the windows shut. Then only did I raise my candle until its beams shone down upon the silent figure lying across the threshold of the room.
It was the man from No. 33. He was quite dead. His face was livid and distorted, his eyes glassy between the half-closed lids, while his fingers, still stiffly clutching, showed paint and varnish and dust beneath the nails where he had pawed door and carpet in his death agony.
One did not need to be a doctor to see that a heart attack had swiftly and suddenly struck him down.
Now that I knew the worst I acted with decision. I dragged the body by the shoulders into the room until it lay in the centre of the carpet. Then I locked the door.
The foreboding of evil that had cast its black shadow over my thoughts from the moment I crossed the threshold of this sinister hotel came over me strongly again. Indeed, my position was, to say the least, scarcely enviable. Here was I, a British officer with British papers of identity, about to be discovered in a German hotel, into which I had introduced myself under false pretences, at dead of night alone with the corpse of a German or Austrian (for such the dead man apparently was)!
It was undoubtedly a most awkward fix.
Everything in the hotel was silent as the grave.
I turned from my gloomy forebodings to look again at the stranger. In his crisp black hair and slightly protuberant cheekbones I traced again the hint of Jewish ancestry I had remarked before. Now that the man's eyes — his big, thoughtful eyes that had stared at me out of the darkness of the corridor — were closed, he looked far less foreign than before: in fact he might almost have passed as an Englishman.
He was a young man — about my own age, I judged — (I shall be twenty-eight next birthday) and about my own height, which is five feet ten. There was something about his appearance and build that struck a chord very faintly in my memory.
Had I seen the fellow before?
I remembered now that I had noticed something oddly familiar about him when I first saw him for that brief moment in the corridor.
I looked down at him again as he lay on his back on the faded carpet. I brought the candle down closer and scanned his features.
He certainly looked less foreign than he did before. He might not be a German after all: more likely a Hungarian or a Pole, perhaps even a Dutchman. His German had been too flawless for a Frenchman — for a Hungarian, either, for that matter.
I leant back on my knees to ease my cramped position. As I did so I caught a glimpse of the stranger's three-quarters face.
Why! He reminded me of Francis a little!
There certainly was a suggestion of my brother in the man's appearance. Was it the thick black hair, the small dark moustache? Was it the well-chiselled mouth? It was rather a hint of Francis than a resemblance to him.
The stranger was fully dressed. The jacket of his blue serge suit had fallen open and I saw a portfolio in the inner breast pocket. Here, I thought, might be a clue to the dead man's identity. I fished out the portfolio, then rapidly ran my fingers over the stranger's other pockets.
I left the portfolio to the last.
The jacket pockets contained nothing else except a white silk handkerchief unmarked. In the right-hand top pocket of the waistcoat was a neat silver cigarette case, perfectly plain, containing half a dozen cigarettes. I took one out and looked at it. It was a Melania, a cigarette I happen to know for they stock them at one of my clubs, the Dionysus, and it chances to be the only place in London where you can get the brand.
It looked as if my unknown friend had come from London.
There was also a plain silver watch of Swiss make.
In the trousers pocket was some change, a little English silver and coppers, some Dutch silver and paper money. In the right-hand trouser pocket was a bunch of keys.
That was all.
I put the different articles on the floor beside me. Then I got up, put the candle on the table, drew the chair up to it and opened the portfolio.
In a little pocket of the inner flap were visiting cards. Some were simply engraved with the name in small letters:
Others were more detailed:
There were also half a dozen private cards:
In the packet of cards was a solitary one, larger than the rest, an expensive affair on thick, highly glazed millboard, bearing in gothic characters the name:
On this card was written in pencil, above the name:
In another pocket of the portfolio was an American passport surmounted by a flaming eagle and sealed with a vast red seal, sending greetings to all and sundry on behalf of Henry Semlin, a United States citizen, travelling to Europe. Details in the body of the document set forth that Henry Semlin was born at Brooklyn on 31st March, 1886, that his hair was Black, nose Aquiline, chin Firm, and that of special marks he had None. The description was good enough to show me that it was undoubtedly the body of Henry Semlin that lay at my feet.
The passport had been issued at Washington three months earlier. The only visa it bore was that of the American Embassy in London, dated two days previously. With it was a British permit, issued to Henry Semlin, Manufacturer, granting him authority to leave the United Kingdom for the purpose of travelling to Rotterdam, further a bill for luncheon served on board the Dutch Royal mail steamer Koningin Regentes on yesterday's date.
In the long and anguishing weeks that followed on that anxious night in the Hotel of the Vos in't Tuintje, I have often wondered to what malicious promptings, to what insane impulse, I owed the idea that suddenly germinated in my brain as I sat fingering the dead man's letter-case in that squalid room. The impulse sprang into my brain like a flash and like a flash I acted on it, though I can hardly believe I meant to pursue it to its logical conclusion until I stood once more outside the door of my room.
The examination of the dead man's papers had shown me that he was an American business man, who had just come from London, having but recently proceeded to England from the United States.
What puzzled me was why an American manufacturer, seemingly of some substance and decently dressed, should go to a German hotel on the recommendation of a German, from his name, and the style of his visiting card, a man of good family.
Semlin might, of course, have been, like myself, a traveller benighted in Rotterdam, owing his recommendation to the hotel to a German acquaintance in the city. Still, Americans are cautious folk and I found it rather improbable that this American business man should adventure himself into this evil-looking house with a large sum of money on his person — he had several hundred pounds of money in Dutch currency notes in a thick wad in his portfolio.
I knew that the British authorities discouraged, as far as they could, neutrals travelling to and fro between England and Germany in war-time. Possibly Semlin wanted to do business in Germany on his European trip as well as in England. Knowing the attitude of the British authorities, he may well have made his arrangements in Holland for getting into Germany lest the British police should get wind of his purpose and stop him crossing to Rotterdam.
But his German was so flawless, with no trace of Americanism in voice or accent. And I knew what good use the German Intelligence had made of neutral passports in the past. Therefore I determined to go next door and have a look at Dr. Semlin's luggage. In the back of my mind was ever that harebrain resolve, half-formed as yet but none the less firmly rooted in my head.
Taking up my candle again, I stole out of the room. As I stood in the corridor and turned to lock the bedroom door behind me, the mirror at the end of the passage caught the reflection of my candle.
I looked and saw myself in the glass, a white, staring face.
I looked again. Then I fathomed the riddle that had puzzled me in the dead face of the stranger in my room.
It was not the face of Francis that his features suggested.
It was mine!
The next moment I found myself in No. 33. I could see no sign of the key of the room; Semlin must have dropped it in his fall, so it behoved me to make haste for fear of any untoward interruption. I had not yet heard eleven strike on the clock.
The stranger's hat and overcoat lay on a chair. The hat was from Scott's: there was nothing except a pair of leather gloves in the overcoat pockets.
A bag, in size something between a small kit-bag and a large handbag, stood open on the table. It contained a few toilet necessaries, a pair of pyjamas, a clean shirt, a pair of slippers, . . . nothing of importance and not a scrap of paper of any kind.
I went through everything again, looked in the sponge bag, opened the safety razor case, shook out the shirt, and finally took everything out of the bag and stacked the things on the table.
At the bottom of the bag I made a strange discovery. The interior of the bag was fitted with that thin yellow canvas-like material with which nearly all cheap bags, like this one was, are lined. At the bottom of the bag an oblong piece of the lining had apparently been torn clean out. The leather of the bag showed through the slit. Yet the lining round the edges of the gap showed no fraying, no trace of rough usage. On the contrary, the edges were pasted neatly down on the leather.
I lifted the bag and examined it. As I did so I saw lying on the table beside it an oblong of yellow canvas. I picked it up and found the under side stained with paste and the brown of the leather.
It was the missing piece of lining and it was stiff with something that crackled inside it.
I slit the piece of canvas up one side with my penknife. It contained three long fragments of paper, a thick, expensive, highly glazed paper. Top, bottom and left-hand side of each was trim and glossy: the fourth side showed a broken edge as though it had been roughly cut with a knife. The three slips of paper were the halves of three quarto sheets of writing, torn in two, lengthways, from top to bottom.
At the top of each slip was part of some kind of crest in gold, what, it was not possible to determine, for the crest had been in the centre of the sheet and the cut had gone right through it.
The letter was written in English but the name of the recipient as also the date was on the missing half.
Somewhere in the silence of the night I heard a door bang. I thrust the slips of paper in their canvas covering into my trousers pocket. I must not be found in that room. With trembling hands I started to put the things back in the bag. Those slips of paper, I reflected as I worked, at least rent the veil of mystery enveloping the corpse that lay stiffening in the next room. This, at any rate, was certain: German or American or hyphenate, Henry Semlin, manufacturer and spy, had voyaged from America to England not for the purposes of trade but to get hold of that mutilated document now reposing in my pocket. Why he had only got half the letter and what had happened to the other half was more than I could say . . . it sufficed for me to know that its importance to somebody was sufficient to warrant a journey on its behalf from one side to the other of the Atlantic.
As I opened the bag my fingers encountered a hard substance, as of metal, embedded in the slack of the lining in the joints of the mouth. At first I thought it was a coin, then I felt some kind of clasp or fastening behind it and it seemed to be a brooch. Out came my pocket knife again and there lay a small silver star, about as big as a regimental cap badge, embedded in the thin canvas. It bore an inscription. In stencilled letters I read:
Here was Dr. Semlin's real visiting-card.
I held in my hand a badge of the German secret police.
You cannot penetrate far behind the scenes in Germany without coming across the traces of Section Seven of the Berlin Police Presidency, the section that is known euphemistically as that of the Political Police. Ostensibly it attends to the safety of the monarch, and of distinguished personages generally, and the numerous suite that used to accompany the Kaiser on his visits to England invariably included two or three top-hatted representatives of the section.
The ramifications of Abteilung Sieben are, in reality, much wider. It does such work in connection with the newspapers as is even too dirty for the German Foreign Office to touch, comprising everything from the launching of personal attacks in obscure blackmailing sheets against inconvenient politicians to the escorting of unpleasantly truthful foreign correspondents to the frontier. It is the obedient handmaiden of the Intelligence Department of both War Office and Admiralty in Germany, and renders faithful service to the espionage which is constantly maintained on officials, politicians, the clergy and the general public in that land of careful organisation.
Section Seven is a vast subterranean department. Always working in the dark, its political complexion is a handy cloak for blacker and more sinister activities. It is frequently entrusted with commissions of which it would be inexpedient for official Germany to have cognizance and of which, accordingly, official Germany can always safely repudiate when occasion demands.
I thrust the pin of the badge into my braces and fastened it there, crammed the rest of the dead man's effects into his bag, stuck his hat upon my head and threw his overcoat on my arm, picked up his bag and crept away. In another minute I was back in my room, my brain aflame with the fire of a great enterprise.
Here, to my hand, lay the key of that locked land which held the secret of my lost brother. The question I had been asking myself, ever since I had first discovered the dead man's American papers of identity, was this. Had I the nerve to avail myself of Semlin's American passport to get into Germany? The answer to that question lay in the little silver badge. I knew that no German official, whatever his standing, whatever his orders, would refuse passage to the silver star of Section Seven. It need only be used, too, as a last resource, for I had my papers as a neutral. Could I but once set foot in Germany, I was quite ready to depend on my wits to see me through. One advantage, I knew, I must forgo. That was the half-letter in its canvas case.
If that document was of importance to Section Seven of the German Police, then it was of equal, nay, of greater importance to my country. If I went, that should remain behind in safe keeping. On that I was determined.
"Never before, since the war began," I told myself, "can any Englishman have had such an opportunity vouchsafed to him for getting easily and safely into that jealously guarded land as you have now! You have plenty of money, what with your own and this . . . " and I fingered Semlin's wad of notes, "and provided you can keep your head sufficiently to remember always that you are a German, once over the frontier you should be able to give the Huns the slip and try and follow up the trail of poor Francis.
"And maybe," I argued further (so easily is one's better judgment defeated when one is young and set on a thing), "maybe in German surroundings, you may get some sense into that mysterious jingle you got from Dicky Allerton as the sole existing clue to the disappearance of Francis."
Nevertheless, I wavered. The risks were awful. I had to get out of that evil hotel in the guise of Dr. Semlin, with, as the sole safeguard against exposure, should I fall in with the dead man's employers or friends, that slight and possibly imaginative resemblance between him and me: I had to take such measures as would prevent the fraud from being detected when the body was discovered in the hotel: above all, I had to ascertain, before I could definitely resolve to push on into Germany, whether Semlin was already known to the people at the hotel or whether — as I surmised to be the case — this was also his first visit to the house in the Vos in't Tuintje.
In any case, I was quite determined in my own mind that the only way to get out of the place with Semlin's document without considerable unpleasantness, if not grave danger, would be to transfer his identity and effects to myself and vice versa. When I saw the way a little clearer I could decide whether to take the supreme risk and adventure myself into the enemy's country.
Whatever I was going to do, there were not many hours of the night left in which to act, and I was determined to be out of that house of ill omen before day dawned. If I could get clear of the hotel and at the same time ascertain that Semlin was as much a stranger there as myself, I could decide on my further course of action in the greater freedom of the streets of Rotterdam. One thing was certain: the waiter had let the question of Semlin's papers stand over until the morning, as he had done in my case, for Semlin still had his passport in his possession.
After all, if Semlin was unknown at the hotel, the waiter had only seen him for the same brief moment as he had seen me.
Thus I reasoned and argued with myself, but in the meantime I acted. I had nothing compromising in my suit-case, so that caused no difficulty. My British passport and permit and anything bearing any relation to my personality, such as my watch and cigarette case, both of which were engraved with my initials, I transferred to the dead man's pockets. As I bent over the stiff, cold figure with its livid face and clutching fingers, I felt a difficulty which I had hitherto resolutely shirked forcing itself squarely into the forefront of my mind.
What was I going to do about the body?
At that moment came a low knocking.
With a sudden sinking at the heart I remembered I had forgotten to lock the door.