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I BOARD THE BERLIN TRAIN AND LEAVE A LAME GENTLEMAN ON THE PLATFORM
I WAS caught like a rat in a trap. I could not return by the way I had come and the only egress was closed to me. The area door and window were the only means of escape from the little court. The one was locked, the other barred. I was fairly trapped. All I had to do now was to wait until my absence was discovered and the broken rope found to show them where I was. Then they would come down to the area, I should be confronted with the man, Stelze, and my goose would be fairly cooked.
As quietly as I could I made a complete, thorough, rapid examination of the area. It was a dank, dark place, only lit where the yellow light streamed forth from the scullery. It had a couple of low bays hollowed out of the masonry under the little courtyard, the one filled with wood blocks, the other with broken packing-cases, old bottles and like rubbish. I explored these until my hands came in contact with the damp bricks at the back, but in vain. Door and window remained the only means of escape.
Four tall tin refuse tins stood in line in front of these two bays, a fifth was stowed away under the iron stair. They were all nearly full of refuse, so were useless as hiding places. In any case it accorded neither with the part I was playing nor with my sense of the ludicrous to be discovered by the hotel domestics hiding in a refuse bin.
I was at my wits' end to know what to do. I had dared so much, all had gone so surprisingly well, that it was heartbreaking to be foiled with liberty almost within my grasp. A great wave of disappointment swept over me until I felt my very heart sicken. Then I heard footsteps and hope revived within me.
I shrunk back into the darkness of the area behind the refuse bins standing in front of the bay nearest the door.
Within the house footsteps were approaching the scullery. I heard a door open, then a man's voice singing. He was warbling in a fine mellow baritone that popular German ballad:
Die im Stübchen und die im Salong."
The voice hung lovingly and wavered and trilled on that word "Salong": the effect was so much to the singer's liking that he sang the stave over again. A bumping and a rattle as of loose objects in an empty box formed the accompaniment to his song.
"A cheery fellow!" I said to myself. If only I could see who it was! But I dare not move into that patch of yellow light from which the only view into the scullery was afforded.
The singing stopped. Again I heard a door open. Was he going away?
Then I saw a thin shaft of light under the area door.
The next moment it was flung back and the waiter, Karl, appeared, still in his blue apron, a bucket in either hand.
He was coming to the refuse bins.
Pudd'n Head Wilson's advice came into my mind; "When angry count up to four; when very angry, swear." I was not angry but scared, terribly scared, scared so that I could hear my heart pulsating in great thuds in my ears. Nevertheless, I followed the advice of the sage of Dawson's Landing and counted to myself: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four; while my heart hammered out: Keep cool, keep cool, keep cool! And all the time I remained crouching behind the first two refuse bins nearest the door.
The waiter hummed to himself the melody of his little ditty in a deep bourdon as he paused a moment at the door. Then he advanced slowly across the area.
Would he stop at the refuse bins behind which I cowered?
No, he passed them.
The third? The fourth?
He walked straight across the area and went to the bin beneath the stairs.
I muttered a blessing inwardly on the careful habits of the German who organizes even his refuse into separate tubs.
The man had his back to the door.
Now or never was my chance.
I crawled round my friendly garbage tins, reached the area door on tip-toe and stepped softly into the house. As I did so I heard the clank of tin as Karl replaced the lid of the tub.
A dark passage stretched out in front of me. Immediately to my right was the scullery door wide open. I must avoid the scullery at all costs. The man might remain there and I could not risk him driving me before him back to the entrance hall of the hotel.
I crept down the dark passage with hands outstretched. Presently they fell upon the latch of a door. I pressed it, the door opened inwards into the darkness and I passed through. As I softly closed the door behind me I heard Karl's heavy step and the grinding of the key as he locked the area door.
I stood in a kind of cupboard in pitch darkness, hardly daring to breathe.
Once more I heard the man singing his idiotic song. I did not dare look out from my hiding-place, for his voice sounded so near that I feared he might be still in the passage.
So I stood and waited.
I must have stayed there for an hour in the dark. I heard the waiter coming and going in the scullery, listened to his heavy tramp, to his everlasting snatch of song, to the rattle of utensils, as he went about his work. Every minute of the time I was tortured by the apprehension that he would come to the cupboard in the passage.
It was cold in that damp subterranean place. The cupboard was roomy enough, so I thought I would put on the overcoat I was carrying. As I stretched out my arm, my hand struck hard against some kind of projecting hook in the wall behind me.
"Damn!" I swore savagely under my breath, but I put out my hand again to find out what had hurt me. My fingers encountered the cold iron of a latch. I pressed it and it gave.
A door swung open and I found myself in another little area with a flight of stone steps leading to the street.
I was in a narrow lane driven between the tall sides of the houses. It was a cul-de-sac. At the open end I could see the glimmer of street lamps. It had stopped raining and the air was fresh and pleasant. Carrying my bag I walked briskly down the lane and presently emerged in a quiet thoroughfare traversed by a canal — probably the street, I thought, that I had seen from the windows of my bedroom. The Hotel Sixt lay to the right of the lane: I struck out to the left and in a few minutes found myself in an open square behind the Bourse.
There I found a cab-rank with three or four cabs drawn up in line, the horses somnolent, the drivers snoring inside their vehicles. I stirred up the first and bade the driver take me to the Café Tarnowski.
Everyone who has been to Holland knows the Café Tarnowski at Rotterdam. It is an immense place with hundreds of marble-topped tables tucked away among palms under a vast glazed roof. Day or night it never closes: the waiters succeed each other in shifts: day and night the great hall resounds to the cry of orders, the patter of the waiters' feet, the click of dominoes on the marble tables.
Delicious Dutch café au lait, a beefsteak and fried potatoes, most succulent of all Dutch dishes, crisp white bread, hot from the midnight baking, and appetizing Dutch butter, largely compensated for the thrills of the night. Then I sent for some more coffee, black this time, and a railway guide, and lighting a cigarette began to frame my plan of campaign.
The train for Berlin left Rotterdam at seven in the morning. It was now ten minutes past two, so I had plenty of time. From that night onward, I told myself, I was a German, and from that moment I set myself assiduously to feel myself a German as well as enact the part.
"It's no use dressing a part," Francis used to say to me; "you must feel it as well. If I were going to disguise myself as a Berliner, I should not be content to shave my head and wear a bowler hat with a morning coat and get my nails manicured pink. I should begin by persuading myself that I was the Lord of creation, that bad manners is a sign of manly strength and that dishonesty is the highest form of diplomacy. Then only should I set about getting the costume!"
Poor old Francis! How shrewd he was and how well he knew his Berliners!
There is nothing like newspapers for giving one an idea of national sentiment. I had not spoken to a German, save to a few terrified German rats, prisoners of war in France, since the beginning of the war and I knew that my knowledge of German thought must be rusty. So I sent the willing waiter for all the German papers and periodicals he could lay his hands on. He returned with stacks of them, Berliner Tageblatt, Kélnische Zeitung, Vorwérts; the alleged comic papers, Kladderadatsch, Lustige Blétter and Simplicissimus; the illustrated press, Leipziger Illustrirte Zeitung, Der Weltkrieg im Bild, and the rest: that remarkable café even took in such less popular publications as Harden's Zukunft and semi-blackmailing rags like Der Roland von Berlin.
For two hours I saturated myself with German contemporary thought as expressed in the German press. I deliberately laid my mind open to conviction; I repeated to myself over and over again: "We Germans are fighting a defensive war: the scoundrelly Grey made the world-war: Gott strafe England!" Absurd as this proceeding seems to me when I look back upon it, I would not laugh at myself at the time. I must be German, I must feel German, I must think German: on that would my safety in the immediate future depend.
I laid aside my reading in the end with a feeling of utter amazement. In every one of these publications, in peace-time so widely dissimilar in conviction and trend, I found the same mentality, the same outlook, the same parrot-like cries. What the Cologne Gazette shrieked from its editorial columns, the comic (God save the mark) press echoed in foul and hideous caricature. Here was organization with a vengeance, the mobilization of national thought, a series of gramophone records fed into a thousand different machines so that each might play the selfsame tune.
"You needn't worry about your German mentality," I told myself, "you've got it all here! You've only got to be a parrot like the rest and you'll be as good a Hun as Hindenburg!"
A Continental waiter, they say, can get one anything one chooses to ask for at any hour of the day or night. I was about to put this theory to the test.
"Waiter," I said (of course, in German), "I want a bag, a handbag. Do you think you could get me one?"
"Does the gentleman want it now?" the man replied.
"This very minute," I answered.
"About that size?" — indicating Semlin's. "Yes, or smaller if you like: I am not particular."
"I will see what can be done."
In ten minutes the man was back with a brown leather bag about a size smaller than Semlin's. It was not new and he charged me thirty gulden (which is about fifty shillings) for it. I paid with a willing heart and tipped him generously to boot, for I wanted a bag and could not wait till the shops opened without missing the train for Germany.
I paid my bill and drove off to the Central Station through the dark streets with my two bags. The clocks were striking six as I entered under the great glass dome of the station hall.
I went straight to the booking-office, and bought a first-class ticket, single, to Berlin. One never knows what may happen and I had several things to do before the train went.
The bookstall was just opening. I purchased a sovereign's worth of books and magazines, English, French and German, and crammed them into the bag I had procured at the café. Thus laden I adjourned to the station buffet.
There I set about executing a scheme I had evolved for leaving the document which Semlin had brought from England in a place of safety, whence it could be recovered without difficulty, should anything happen to me. I knew no one in Holland save Dicky, and I could not send him the document, for I did not trust the post. For the same reason I would not post the document home to my bank in England: besides, I knew one could not register letters until eight o'clock, by which hour I hoped to be well on my way into Germany.
No, my bag, conveniently weighted with books and deposited at the station cloak-room, should be my safe. The comparative security of station cloak-rooms as safe deposits has long been recognized by jewel thieves and the like and this means of leaving my document behind in safety seemed to me to be better than any other I could think of.
So I dived into my bag and from the piles of literature it contained picked up a book at random. It was a German brochure: Gott strafe England! by Prof. Dr. Hugo Bischoff, of the University of Göttingen. The irony of the thing appealed to my sense of humour. "So be it!" I said. "The worthy Professor's fulminations against my country shall have the honour of harbouring the document which is, apparently, of such value to his country!" And I tucked the little canvas case away inside the pages of the pamphlet, stuck the pamphlet deep down among the books and shut the bag.
Seeing its harmless appearance the cloak-room receipt — I calculated — would, unlike Semlin's document, attract no attention if, by any mischance, it fell into wrong hands en route. I therefore did not scruple to commit it to the post. Before taking my bag of books to the cloak-room I wrote two letters. Both were to Ashcroft — Ashcroft of the Foreign Office, who got me my passport and permit to come to Rotterdam. Herbert Ashcroft and I were old friends. I addressed the envelopes to his private house in London. The Postal Censor, I knew, keen though he always is after letters from neutral countries, would leave old Herbert's correspondence alone.
The first letter was brief. "Dear Herbert," I wrote, "would you mind looking after the enclosed until you hear from me again? Filthy weather here. Yours, D.O." This letter was destined to contain the cloak-room receipt. To conceal the importance of an enclosure, it is always a good dodge to send the covering letter under separate cover.
"Dear Herbert," I said in my second letter, "If you don't hear from me within two months of this date regarding the enclosure you will have already received, please send someone, or, preferably, go yourself and collect my luggage at the cloak-room of the Rotterdam Central Station. I know how busy you always are. Therefore you will understand my reasons for making this inordinate claim upon your time. Yours, D.O." And, by way of a clue, I added, inconsequently enough: "Gott strafe England!"
I chuckled inwardly at the thought of Herbert's face on receiving this preposterous demand that he should abandon his dusty desk in Downing Street and betake himself across the North Sea to fetch my luggage. But he'd go all right. I knew my Herbert, dull and dry and conventional, but a most faithful friend.
I called a porter at the entrance of the buffet and handing him Semlin's bag and overcoat, bade him find me a first-class carriage in the Berlin train when it arrived. I would meet him on the platform. Then, at the cloak-room opposite, I gave in my bag of books, put the receipt in the first letter and posted it in the letter-box within the station. I went out into the streets with the second letter and posted it in a letter-box let into the wall of a tobacconist's shop in a quiet street a few turnings away. By this arrangement I reckoned Herbert would get the letter with the receipt before the covering letter arrived.
Returning to the railway station I noticed a kind of slop shop which despite the early hour was already open. A fat Jew in his shirt-sleeves, his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, stood at the entrance framed in hanging overcoats and bats and boots. I had no umbrella and it struck me that a waterproof of some kind might not be a bad addition to my extremely scanty wardrobe. Moreover, I reflected that with the rubber shortage rain-coats must be at a premium in Germany.
So I followed the bowing son of Shem into his dark and dirty shop and emerged presently wearing an appallingly ugly green mackintosh reeking hideously of rubber. It was a shocking garment but I reflected that I was a German and must choose my garb accordingly.
Outside the shop I nearly ran into a little man who was loafing in the doorway. He was a wizened, scrubby old fellow wearing a dirty peaked cap with a band of tarnished gold. I knew him at once for one of those guides, half tout, half bully, that infest the railway termini of all great Continental cities.
"Want a guide, sir?" the man said in German.
I shook my head and hurried on. The man trotted beside me. "Want a good, cheap hotel, sir? Good, respectable house . . . . Want a . . . "
"Ach! gehen sie zum Teufel!" I cried angrily. But the man persisted, running along beside me and reeling off his tout's patter in a wheezing, asthmatic voice. I struck off blindly down the first turning we came to, hoping to be rid of the fellow, but in vain. Finally, I stopped and held out a gulden.
"Take this and go away!" I said.
The old fellow waved the coin aside.
"Danke, danke," he said nonchalantly, looking at the same time to right and left.
Then he said in a calm English voice, utterly different from his whining accents of a moment before:
"You must be a dam' cool hand!"
But he didn't bluff me, staggered though I was. I said quickly in German:
"What do you want with me? I don't understand you. If you annoy me any more I shall call the police!"
Again he spoke in English and it was the voice of a well-bred Englishman that spoke:
"You're either a past master at the game or raving mad. Why! the whole station is humming after you! Yet you walked out of the buffet and through the whole lot of them without turning a hair. No wonder they never spotted you!"
Again I answered in German:
"Ich verstehe nicht!"
But he went on in English, without seeming to notice my observation:
"Hang it all, man, you can't go into Germany wearing a regimental tie!"
My hand flew to my collar and the blood to my head. What a cursed amateur I was, after all! I had entirely forgotten that I was wearing my regimental colours. I was crimson with vexation but also with a sense of relief. I felt I might trust this man. It would be a sharp German agent who would notice a small detail like that.
Still I resolved to stick to German: I would trust nobody.
But the guide had started his patter again. I saw two workmen approaching. When they had passed, he said, this time in English:
"You're quite right to be cautious with a stranger like me, but I want to warn you. Why, I've been following you round all the morning. Lucky for you it was me and not one of the others . . . ."
Still I was silent. The little man went on:
"For the past half-hour they have been combing that station for you. How you managed to escape them I don't know except that none of them seems to have a very clear idea of your appearance. You don't look very British, I grant you; but I spotted your tie and then I recognized the British officer all right.
"No, don't worry to tell me anything about yourself — it is none of my business to know, any more than you will find out anything about me. I know where you are going, for I heard you take your ticket; but you may as well understand that you have as much chance of getting into your train if you walk into the railway hall and up the stairs in the ordinary way as you have of flying across the frontier."
"But they can't stop me!" I said. "This isn't Germany . . . ."
"Bah!" said the guide. "You will be jostled, there will be an altercation, a false charge, and you will miss your train! They will attend to the rest!
"Damn it, man," he went on, "I know what I'm talking about. Here, come with me and I'll show you. You have twenty minutes before the train goes. Now start the German again!"
We went down the street together for all the world like a "mug" in tow of one of those black-guard guides. As we approached the station the guide said in his whining German:
"Pay attention to me now. I shall leave you here. Go to the suburban booking-office — the entrance is in the street to the left of the station hall. Go into the first-class waiting-room and look out of the window that gives on to the station hall. There you will see some of the forces mobilized against you. There is a regular cordon of guides — like me — drawn across the entrances to the main-line platforms — unostentatiously, of course. If you look you will see plenty of plain-clothes Huns, too . . . ."
"Guides?" I said.
He nodded cheerfully.
"Looks bad for me, doesn't it? But one gets better results by being one of them. Oh! it's all right. In any case you've got to trust me now.
"See here! When you have satisfied yourself that I'm correct in what I say, take a platform ticket and walk upstairs to platform No. 5. On that platform you will find a train. Go to the end where the metals run out of the station, where the engine would be coupled on, and get into the last first-class carriage. On no account move from there until you see me. Now then, I'll have that gulden!"
I gave him the coin. The old fellow looked at it and wagged his head, so I gave him another, whereupon he took off his cap, bowed low and hurried off.
In the suburban side waiting-room I peered out of the window on to the station hall. True enough, I saw one, two, four, six guides loafing about the barriers leading to the main-line platforms. There seemed to be a lot of people in the hall and certainly a number of the men possessed that singular taste in dress, those rotundities of contour, by which one may distinguish the German in a crowd.
I now had no hesitation in following the guide's instructions to the letter. Platform No. 5 was completely deserted as I emerged breathless from the long staircase and I had no difficulty in getting into the last first-class carriage unobserved. I sat down by the window on the far side of the carriage.
Alongside it ran the brown panels and gold lettering of a German restaurant car.
I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to seven. There was no sign of my mysterious friend. I wondered vaguely, too, what had become of my porter. True, there was nothing of importance in Semlin's bag, but a traveller with luggage always commands more confidence than one without.
Five minutes to seven! Still no word from the guide. The minutes ticked away. By Jove! I was going to miss the train. But I sat resolutely in my corner. I had put my trust in this man. I would trust him to the last.
Suddenly his face appeared in the window at my elbow. The door was flung open.
"Quick!" he whispered in my ear, "follow me."
"My things . . . " I gasped with one foot on the foot-board of the other train. At the same moment the train began to move.
The guide pointed to the carriage into which I had clambered.
"The porter . . . " I cried from the open door, thinking he had not understood me.
The guide pointed towards the carriage again, then tapped himself on the chest with a significant smile.
The next moment he had disappeared and I had not even thanked him.
The Berlin train bumped ponderously out of the station. Peering cautiously out of the carriage, I caught a glimpse of the waiter, Karl, hurrying down the platform. With him was a swarthy, massively built man who leaned heavily on a stick and limped painfully as he ran. One of his feet, I could see, was misshapen and the sweat was pouring down his face.
I would have liked to wave my hand to the pair, but I prudently drew back out of sight of the platform.
Caution, caution, caution, must henceforward be my watchword.