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THE LADY OF THE VOS IN'T TUINTJE
HERE was Destiny knocking at the door. In that instant my mind was made up. For the moment, at any rate, I had every card in my hands. I would bluff these stodgy Huns: I would brazen it out: I would be Semlin and go through with it to the bitter end, aye, and if it took me to the very gates of Hell.
The knocking was repeated.
"May one come in?" said a woman's voice in German.
I stepped across the corpse and opened the door a foot or so.
There stood a woman with a lamp. She was a middle-aged woman with an egg-shaped face, fat and white and puffy, and pale, crafty eyes. She was in her outdoor clothes, with an enormous vulgar-looking hat and an old-fashioned sealskin cape with a high collar. The cape which was glistening with rain was half open, and displayed a vast bosom tightly compressed into a white silk blouse. In one hand she carried an oil lamp.
"Frau Schratt," she said by way of introduction, and raised the lamp to look more closely at me.
Then I saw her face change. She was looking past me into the room, and I knew that the lamplight was falling full upon the ghastly thing that lay upon the floor.
I realized the woman was about to scream, so I seized her by the wrist. She had disgusting hands, fat and podgy and covered with rings.
"Quiet!" I whispered fiercely in her ear, never relaxing my grip on her wrist. "You will be quiet and come in here, do you understand?"
She sought to shrink from me, but I held her fast and drew her into the room.
She stood motionless with her lamp, at the head of the corpse. She seemed to have regained her self-possession. The woman was no longer frightened. I felt instinctively that her fears had been all for herself, not for that livid horror sprawling on the floor. When she spoke her manner was almost business-like.
"I was told nothing of this," she said. "Who is it? What do you want me to do?"
Of all the sensations of that night, none has left a more unpleasant odour in my memory than the manner of that woman in the chamber of death. Her voice was incredibly hard. Her dull, basilisk eyes, seeking in mine the answers to her questions, gave me an eerie sensation that makes my blood run cold whenever I think of her.
Then suddenly her manner, arrogant, insolent, cruel, changed. She became polite. She was obsequious. Of the two, the first manner became her vastly better. She looked at me with a curious air, almost with reverence, as it seemed to me. She said, in a purring voice:
"Ach, so! I did not understand. The gentleman must excuse me."
And she purred again:
It was then I noticed that her eyes were fastened upon my chest. I followed their direction.
They rested on the silver badge I had stuck in my braces.
I understood and held my peace. Silence was my only trump until I knew how the land lay. If I left this woman alone, she would tell me all I wanted to know.
In fact, she began to speak again.
"I expected you," she said, "but not . . . this. Who is it this time? A Frenchman, eh?"
I shook my head.
"An Englishman," I said curtly.
Her eyes opened in wonder.
"Ach, nein!" she cried and you would have said her voice vibrated with pleasure "An Englishman! Ei, ei!"
If ever a human being licked its chops, that woman did.
She wagged her head and repeated to herself:
"Ei, ei!" adding, as if to explain her surprise, "he is the first we have had.
"You brought him here, eh! But why up here? Or did der Stelze send him?"
She fired this string of questions at me without pausing for a reply. She continued:
"I was out, but Karl told me. There was another came, too: Franz sent him."
"This is he," I said. "I caught him prying in my room and he died."
"Ach!" she ejaculated . . . and in her voice was all the world of admiration that a German woman feels for brute man . . . . "The Herr Englander came into your room and he died. So, so! But one must speak to Franz. The man drinks too much. He is always drunk. He makes mistakes. It will not do. I will . . . ."
"I wish you to do nothing against Franz," I said. "This Englishman spoke German well: Karl will tell you."
"As the gentleman wishes," was the woman's reply in a voice so silky and so servile that I felt my gorge rise.
"She looks like a slug!" I said to myself, as she stood there, fat and sleek and horrible.
"Here are his passport and other papers," I said, bending down and taking them from the dead man's pocket. "He was an English officer, you see?" And I unfolded the little black book stamped with the Royal Arms.
She leant forward and I was all but stifled with the stale odour of the patchouli with which her faded body was drenched.
Then, making a sheaf of passport and permit, I held them in the flame of the candle.
"But we always keep them!" expostulated the hotel-keeper.
"This passport must die with the man," I replied firmly. "He must not be traced. I want no awkward enquiries made, you understand. Therefore . . . " and I flung the burning mass of papers into the grate.
"Good, good!" said the German and put her lamp down on the table. "There was a telephone message for you," she added, "to say that der Stelze will come at eight in the morning to receive what you have brought."
The deuce! This was getting awkward. Who the devil was Stelze?
"Coming at eight is he?" I said, simply for the sake of saying something.
"Jawohl!" replied Frau Schratt. "He was here already this morning. He was nervous, oh! very, and expected you to be here. Already two days he is waiting here to go on."
"So," I said, "he is going to take . . . it on with him, is he?" (I knew where he was "going on" to, well enough: he was going to see that document safe into Germany.)
There was a malicious ring in the woman's voice when she spoke of Stelze. I thought I might profit by this. So I drew her out.
"So Stelze called to-day and gave you his orders, did he?" I said, "and . . . and took charge of things generally, eh?"
Her little eyes snapped viciously.
"Ach!" she said, "der Stelze is der Stelze. He has power; he has authority; he can make and unmake men. But I . . . I in my time have broken a dozen better men than he and yet he dares to tell Anna Schratt that . . . that . . ."
She raised her voice hysterically, but broke off before she could finish the sentence. I saw she thought she had said too much.
"He won't play that game with me," I said. Strength is the quality that every German, man, woman and child, respects, and strength alone. My safety depended on my showing this ignoble creature that I received orders from no one. "You know what he is. One runs the risk, one takes trouble, one is successful. Then he steps in and gathers the laurels. No, I am not going to wait for him."
The hotel-keeper sprang to her feet, her faded face all ravaged by the shadow of a great fear.
"You wouldn't dare!" she said.
"I would," I retorted. "I've done my work and I'll report to head-quarters and to no one else!"
My eyes fell upon the body.
"Now, what are we going to do with this?" I said. "You must help me, Frau Schratt. This is serious. This must not be found here."
She looked up at me in surprise.
"That?" she said, and she kicked the body with her foot. "Oh, that will be all right with die Schratt! 'It must not be found here'" (she mimicked my grave tone). "It will not be found here, young man!"
And she chuckled with all the full-bodied good humour of a fat person.
"I mean what I mean, young man, and what you mean," she replied. "When they are in a difficulty, when there are complications, when there is any unpleasantness.. like this . . . they remember die Schratt, 'die fesche Anna,' as they called me once, and it is 'gnadige Frau' here and 'gnadige Frau' there and a diamond bracelet or a pearl ring, if only I will do the little conjuring trick that will smooth everything over. But when all goes well, then I am 'old Schratt,' 'old hag,' 'old woman,' and I must take my orders and beg nicely and . . . bah!"
Her words ended in a gulp, which in any other woman would have been a sob.
Then she added in her hard harlot's voice:
"You needn't worry your head about him, there! Leave him to me! It's my trade!"
At those words, which covered God only knows what horrors of midnight disappearances, of ghoulish rites with packing-case and sack, in the dark cellars of that evil house, I felt that, could I but draw back from the enterprise to which I had so rashly committed myself, I would do so gladly. Only then did I begin to realize something of the utter ruthlessness, the cold, calculating ferocity, of the most bitter and most powerful enemy which the British Empire has ever had.
But it was too late to withdraw now. The die was cast. Destiny, knocking at my door, had found me ready to follow, and I was committed to whatever might befall me in my new personality.
The German woman turned to go.
"Der Stelze will be here at eight, then," she said. "I suppose the gentleman will take his early morning coffee before."
"I shan't be here," I said. "You can tell your friend I've gone."
She turned on me like a flash.
She was hard as flint again.
"Nein!" she cried. "You stay here!"
"No," I answered with equal force, "not I . . . "
" . . . Orders are orders and you and I must obey!"
"But who is Stelze that he should give orders to me?" I cried.
"Who is . . . ?" She spoke aghast.
" . . . And you yourself," I continued, "were saying . . . "
"When an order has been given, what you or I think or say is of no account," the woman said. "It is an order: you and I know whose order. Let that suffice. You stay here! Good night!"
With that she was gone. She closed the door behind her; the key rattled in the lock and I realized that I was a prisoner. I heard the woman's footfalls die away down the corridor.
That distant clock cleaved the silence of the night with twelve ponderous strokes. Then the chimes played a pretty jingling little tune that rang out clearly in the still, rain-washed air.
I stood petrified and reflected on my next move.
Twelve o'clock! I had eight hours' grace before Stelze, the man of mystery and might, arrived to unmask me and hand me over to the tender mercies of Madame and of Karl. Before eight o'clock arrived I must so I summed up my position be clear of the hotel and in the train for the German frontier if I could get a train else I must be out of Rotterdam, by that hour.
But I must act and act without delay. There was no knowing when that dead man lying on the floor might procure me another visit from Madame and her myrmidons. The sooner I was out of that house of death the better.
The door was solid; the lock was strong. That I discovered without any trouble. In any case, I reflected, the front-door of the hotel would be barred and bolted at this hour of the night, and I could scarcely dare hope to escape by the front without detection, even if Karl were not actually in the entrance hall. There must be a back entrance to the hotel, I thought, for I had seen that the windows of my room opened on to the narrow street lining the canal which ran at the back of the house.
Escape by the windows was impossible. The front of the house dropped sheer down and there was nothing to give one a foothold. But I remembered the window in the cabinet de toilette giving on to the little air-shaft. That seemed to offer a slender chance of escape.
For the second time that night I opened the casement and inhaled the fetid odours arising from the narrow court. All the windows looking, like mine, upon the air-shaft were shrouded in darkness; only a light still burned in the window beneath the grating with the iron stair to the little yard. What was at the foot of the stair I could not descry, but I thought I could recognize the outline of a door.
From the window of the cabinet de toilette to the yard the sides of the house, cased in stained and dirty stucco, fell sheer away. Measured with the eye the drop from window to the pavement was about fifty feet. With a rope and something to break one's fall, it might, I fancied, be managed . . . .
From that on, things moved swiftly. First with my penknife I ripped the tailor's tab with my name from the inside pocket of my coat and burnt it in the candle; nothing else I had on was marked, for I had had to buy a lot of new garments when I came out of hospital. I took Semlin's overcoat, hat and bag into the cabinet de toilette and stood them in readiness by the window. As a precaution against surprise I pushed the massive mahogany bedstead right across the doorway and thus barricaded the entrance to the room.
From either side of the fireplace hung two bell-ropes, twisted silk cords of faded crimson with dusty tassels. Mounting on the mantelpiece I cut the bell-ropes off short where they joined the wire. Testing them I found them apparently solid at any rate they must serve. I knotted them together.
Back to the cabinet de toilette I went to find a suitable object to which to fasten my rope. There was nothing in the little room save the washstand, and that was fragile and quite unsuited for the purpose. I noticed that the window was fitted with shutters on the outside fastened back against the wall. They had not been touched for years, I should say, for the iron peg holding them back was heavy with rust and the shutters were covered with dust. I closed the left-hand shutter and found that it fastened solidly to the window-frame by means of massive iron bolts, top and bottom.
Here was the required support for my rope. The poker thrust though the wooden slips of the shutter held the rope quite solidly. I attached my rope to the poker with an expert knot that I had picked up at a course in tying knots during a preposterously dull week I had spent at the base in France. Then I dragged from the bed the gigantic eiderdown pincushion and the two massive pillows, stripping off the pillow-slips lest their whiteness might attract attention whilst they were fulfilling the unusual mission for which I destined them.
At the window of the cabinet de toilette I listened a moment. All was silent as the grave. Resolutely I pitched out the eiderdown into the dark and dirty air shaft. It sailed gracefully earthwards and settled with a gentle plop on the stones of the tiny yard. The pillows followed. The heavier thud they would have made was deadened by the billowy mass of the ιdredon. Semlin's bag went next, and made no sound to speak of; then his overcoat and hat followed suit.
I noticed, with a grateful heart, that the eiderdown and pillows covered practically the whole of the flags of the yard.
I went back once more to the room and blew out the candle. Then, taking a short hold on my silken rope, I clambered out over the window ledge and started to let myself down, hand over hand, into the depths.
My two bell-ropes, knotted together, were about twenty feet long, so I had to reckon on a clear drop of something over thirty feet. The poker and shutter held splendidly firm, and I found little difficulty in lowering myself, though I barked my knuckles most unpleasantly on the rough stucco of the wall. As I reached the extremity of my rope I glanced downward. The red splash of the eiderdown, just visible in the light from the adjoining window, seemed to be a horrible distance below me. My spirit failed me. My determination began to ebb. I could never risk it.
The rope settled the question for me. It snapped without warning how it had supported my weight up to then I don't know and I fell in a heap (and, as it seemed to me at the time, with a most reverberating crash) on to the soft divan I had prepared for my reception.
I came down hard, very hard, but old Madame's plump eiderdown and pillows certainly helped to break my fall. I dropped square on top of the eiderdown with one knee on a pillow and, though shaken and jarred, I found I had broken no bones.
Nor did my sense leave me. In a minute I was up on my feet again. I listened. All was still silent. I cast a glance upwards. The window from which I had descended was still dark. I could see the broken bell-ropes dangling from the shutter, and I noted, with a glow of professional pride, that my expert join between the two ropes had not given. The lower rope had parted in the middle . . . .
I crammed Semlin's hat on my head, retrieved his bag and overcoat from the corner of the court where they had fallen and the next moment was tiptoeing down the ladder.
The iron stair ran down beside the window in which I had seen the light burning. The lower part of the window was screened off by a dirty muslin curtain. Through the upper part I caught a glimpse of a sort of scullery with a paraffin lamp standing on a wooden table. The room was empty. From top to bottom the window was protected by heavy iron bars.
At the foot of the iron stair stood, as I had anticipated, a door. It was my last chance of escape. It stood a dozen yards from the bottom of the ladder across a dank, little paved area where tins of refuse were standing a small door with a brass handle.
I ducked low as I clambered down the iron ladder so as not to be seen from the window should anyone enter the scullery as I passed. Treading very softly I crept across the little area and, as quietly as I could, turned the handle of the door.
It turned round easily in my hand, but nothing happened.
The door was locked.