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A HAND-CLASP BY THE RHINE
THAT afternoon Francis and I walked out along the banks of the swiftly flowing Rhine until we were far beyond the city. Anxious though I was that he should reveal to me that part of his life which lay hidden beneath those lines of suffering in his face, he made me tell my story first. So I unfolded to him the extraordinary series of adventures that had befallen me since the night I had blundered upon the trail of a great secret in that evil hotel at Rotterdam.
Francis did not once interrupt the flow of my narrative. He listened with the most tense interest but with a growing concern which betrayed itself clearly on his face. At the end of my story, I silently handed to him the half of the stolen letter I had seized from Clubfoot at the Hotel Esplanade.
"Keep it, Francis," I said. "It's safer with a respectable waiter like you than with a hunted outcast like myself!"
My brother smiled wanly, but his face assumed the look of grave anxiety with which he had heard my tale. He scrutinized the slips of paper very closely, then tucked them away in a letter-case, which he buttoned up in his hip pocket.
"Fortune is a strange goddess, Des," he said, his weary eyes roving out over the turgid, yellow stream, "and she has been kind to you, though, God knows, you have played a man's part in all this. She has placed in your possession something for which at least five men have died in vain, something that has filled my thoughts, sleeping and waking, for more than half a year. What you have told me throws a good deal of light upon the mystery which I came to this cursed country to elucidate, but it also deepens the darkness which still envelops many points in the affair.
"You know there are issues in this game of ours, old man, that stand even higher than the confidence that there has always been between us two. That is why I wrote to you so seldom out in France — I could tell you nothing about my work: that is one of the rules of our game. But now you have broken into the scramble yourself, I feel that we are partners, so I will tell you all I know.
"Listen, then. Some time about the beginning of the year a letter written by a German interned at one of the camps in England was stopped by the Camp Censor. This German went by the name of Schulte: he was arrested at a house in Dalston the day after we declared war on Germany. There was a good reason for this, for our friend Schulte — we don't know his real name — was known to my Chief as one of the most daring and successful spies that ever operated in the British Isles.
"Therefore, a sharp eye was kept on his correspondence, and one day this letter was seized. It was, I believe, perfectly harmless to the eye, but the expert to whom it was eventually submitted soon detected a conventional code in the chatty phrases about the daily life of the camp. It proved to be a communication from Schulte to a third party relating to a certain letter which, apparently, the writer imagined the third party had a considerable interest in acquiring. For he offered to sell this letter to the third party, mentioning a sum so preposterously high that it attracted the earnest attention of our Intelligence people. On half the sum mentioned being paid into the writer's account at a certain bank in London, the letter went on to say, the writer would forward the address at which the object in question would be found."
"It was a simple matter to send Schulte a letter in return, agreeing to his terms, and to have the payment made, as desired, into the bank he mentioned. His communication in reply to this was duly stopped. The address he gave was that of a house situated on the outskirts of Cleves.
"We had no idea what this letter was, but its apparent value in the eyes of the shrewd Mr. Schulte made it highly desirable that we should obtain possession of it without delay. Four of us were selected for this dangerous mission of getting into Germany and fetching it, by hook or by crook, from the house at Cleves where it was deposited. We four were to enter Germany by different routes and different means and to converge on Cleves (which is quite close to the Dutch frontier).
"It would take too long to tell you of the very exact organization which we worked out to exclude all risk of failure and the various schemes we evolved for keeping in touch with one another though working separately and in rotation. Nor does it matter very much how I got into Germany. The fact is that, at my very first attempt to get across the frontier, I realized that some immensely powerful force was working against me.
"I managed it, with half a dozen hairbreadth escapes, and I set down my success solely to my knowledge of German and to that old trick of mine of German imitations. But I felt everywhere the influence of this unseen hand, enforcing a meticulous vigilance which it was almost impossible to escape. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that two of my companions came to grief at the very outset."
My brother lowered his voice and looked about him.
"Do you know what happened to those two gallant fellows?" he said. "Jack Tracy was found dead on the railway: Herbert Arbuthnot was discovered hanging in a wood. 'Suicide of an Unknown Individual' was what the German papers called it in each case. But I heard the truth . . . never mind how. They were ambushed and slaughtered in cold blood."
"And the third man you spoke of?" I asked.
"Philip Brewster? Vanished, Des . . . vanished utterly. I fear he, too, has gone west, poor chap!
"Of the whole four of us I was the only one to reach our objective. There I drew blank. The letter was not in the hiding-place indicated. I think it never had been or the Huns would have got it. I felt all the time that they didn't know exactly where the letter was but that they anticipated our attempt to get it, hence the unceasing vigilance all along the frontier and inside it, too.
"They damned nearly got me at Cleves: I escaped as by a miracle, and the providential thing for me was that I had never posed as anything but a German, only I varied the type I represented almost from day to day. Thus I left no traces behind or they would have had me long since."
The sadness in my brother's voice increased and the shadows deepened in his face.
"Then I tried to get out," he continued. "But it was hopeless from the first. They knew they had one of us left in the net and they closed every outlet. I made two separate attempts to cross the line back into Holland, but both failed. The second time I literally had to flee for my life. I went straight to Berlin, feeling that a big city, as remote from the frontier as possible, was the only safe hiding-place for me as long as the hue and cry lasted.
"I was in a desperate bad way, too, for I had had to abandon the last set of identity papers left to me when I bolted. I landed in Berlin with the knowledge that no roof could safely shelter me until I got a fresh lot of papers.
"I knew of Kore — I had heard of him and his shirkers' and deserters' agency in my travels — and I went straight to him. He sent me to Haase's . . . this was towards the end of June. It was when I was at Haase's that I sent out that message to van Urutius that fell into your hands. That happened like this.
"I was rather friendly with a chap that frequented Haase's, a man employed in the packing department at the Metal Works at Steglitz. He was telling us one night how short-handed they were and what good money packers were earning. I was sick of being cooped up in that stinking cellar, so, more by way of a joke than anything else, I offered to come and lend a hand in the packing department. I thought I might get a chance of escape, as I saw none at Haase's. To my surprise, Haase, who was sitting at the table, rather fancied the idea and said I could go if I paid him half my wages: I was getting nothing at the beer-cellar.
"So I was taken on at Steglitz, sleeping at Haase's and helping in the beer-cellar in the evenings. One day a package for old van Urutius came to me to be made up and suddenly it occurred to me that here was a chance of sending out a message to the outside world. I hoped that old van U., if he tumbled to the 'Eichenholz,' would send it to you and that you would pass it on to my Chief in London."
"Then you expected me to come after you?" I said.
"No," replied Francis promptly, "I did not. But the arrangement was that, if none of us four men had turned up at Head-quarters by May 15th, a fifth man should come in and be at a given rendezvous near the frontier on June 15th. I went to the place on June 15th, but he never showed up and, though I waited about for a couple of days, I saw no sign of him. I made my final attempt to get out and it failed, so, when I fled to Berlin, I knew that I had cut off all means of communication with home. As a last hope, I dashed off that cipher on the spur of the moment and tucked it into old van U's invoice."
"But why 'Achilles' with one 'l'?" I asked.
"They knew all about Kore's agency at Head-quarters, but I didn't dare mention Kore's name for fear the parcel might be opened. So I purposely spelt 'Achilles' with one 'l' to draw attention to the code word, so that they should know where news of me was to be found. It was devilish smart of you to decipher that, Des!"
Francis smiled at me.
"I meant to stay quietly in Berlin, going daily between Haase's and the factory and wait, for a month or two, in case that message got home. But Kore began to give trouble. At the beginning of July he came to see me and hinted that the renewal of my permis de séjour would cost money. I paid him, but I realized then that I was absolutely in his power and I had no intention of being blackmailed. So I made use of his cupidity to leave a message for the man who, I hoped, would be coming after me, wrote that line on the wall under the Boonekamp poster in that filthy hovel where we slept and came up here after a job I had heard of at the Café Regina.
"And now, Des, old man," said my brother, "you know all that I know!"
"Ah!" said Francis, shaking his head, "there I think I recognize the hand that has been against us from the start, though who the man is, and what his power, I, like you, only know from what he told you himself. The Germans are clever enough, as we know from their communiqués, to tell the truth when it suits their book. I believe that Clubfoot was telling you the truth in what he said about his mission that night at the Esplanade.
"You and I know now that the Kaiser wrote that letter . . . we also know that it was addressed to an influential English friend of William II. You have seen the date . . . Berlin, July 31st, 1914 . . . the eve of the outbreak of the world war. Even from this half in my pocket . . . and you who have seen both halves of the letter will confirm what I say . . . I can imagine what an effect on the international situation this letter would have had if it had reached the man for whom it was destined. But it did not . . . why, we don't know. We do know, however, that the Emperor is keenly anxious to regain possession of his letter . . . you yourself were a witness of his anxiety and you know that he put the matter into the hands of the man Clubfoot."
"Well," I observed thoughtfully, "Clubfoot, whoever he is, seems to have made every effort to keep my escapades dark . . . ."
"Precisely," said Francis, "and lucky for you too. Otherwise Clubfoot would have had you stopped at the frontier. But obviously secrecy is an essential part of his instructions, and he has shown himself willing to risk almost anything rather than call in the aid of the regular police."
"But they can always hush these things up!" I objected.
"From the public, yes, but not from the Court. This letter looks uncommonly like one of William's sudden impulses . . . and I fancy anything of the kind would get very little tolerance in Germany in war-time."
"But who is Clubfoot?" I questioned.
My brother furrowed his brows anxiously.
"Des," he said, "I don't know. He is certainly not a regular official of the German Intelligence like Steinhauer and the others. But I have heard of a clubfooted German on two occasions . . . both were dark and mysterious affairs, in both he played a leading role and both ended in the violent death of one of our men."
"Then Tracy and the others . . . ?" I asked.
"Victims of this man, Des, without any doubt," my brother answered. He paused a moment reflectively.
"There is a code of honour in our game, old man," he said, "and there are lots of men in the German secret service who live up to it. We give and take plenty of hard knocks in the rough-and-tumble of the chase, but ambush and assassination are barred."
He took a deep breath and added:
"But the man Clubfoot doesn't play the game!"
"Francis," I said, "I wish I'd known something of this that night I had him at my mercy at the Esplanade. He would not have got off with a cracked skull . . . with one blow. There would have been another blow for Tracy, one for Arbuthnot, one for the other man . . . until the account was settled and I'd beaten his brains out on the carpet. But if we meet him again, Francis, . . . as, please God, we shall! . . . there will be no code of honour for him . . . we'll finish him in cold blood as we'd kill a rat!"
My brother thrust out his hand at me and we clasped hands on it.
Evening was falling and lights were beginning to twinkle from the further bank of the river.
We stood for a moment in silence with the river rushing at our feet. Then we turned and started to tramp back towards the city. Francis linked his arm in mine.
"And now, Des," he said in his old affectionate way, "tell me some more about Monica!"
Out of that talk germinated in my head the only plan that seemed to offer us a chance of escape. I was quite prepared to believe Francis when he declared that the frontier was at present impassable: if the vigilance had been increased before it would be redoubled now that I had again eluded Clubfoot. We should, therefore, have to find some cover where we could lie doggo until the excitement passed.
You remember that Monica told me, the last time I had seen her, that she was shortly going to Schloss Bellevue, a shooting-box belonging to her husband, to arrange some shoots in connection with the Governmental scheme for putting game on the market. Monica, you will recollect, had offered to take me with her, and I had fully meant to accompany her but for Gerry's unfortunate persistence in the matter of my passport.
I now proposed to Francis that we should avail ourselves of Monica's offer and make for Castle Bellevue. The place was well suited for our purpose as it lies near Cleves, and in its immediate neighbourhood is the Reichswald, that great forest which stretches from Germany clear across into Holland. All through my wanderings, I had kept this forest in the back of my head as a region which must offer facilities for slipping unobserved across the frontier. Now I learnt from Francis that he had spent months in the vicinity of Cleves, and I was not surprised to find, when I outlined this plan to him, that he knew the Reichswald pretty well.
"It'll be none too easy to get across through the forest," he said doubtfully, "it's very closely patrolled, but I do know of one place where we could lie pretty snug for a day or two waiting for a chance to make a dash. But we have no earthly chance of getting through at present: our clubfooted pal will see to that all right. And I don't much like the idea of going to Bellevue either: it will be horribly dangerous for Monica!"
"I don't think so," I said. "The whole place will be overrun with people, guests, servants, beaters and the like, for these shoots. Both you and I know German and we look rough enough: we ought to be able to get an emergency job about the place without embarrassing Monica in the least. I don't believe they will ever dream of looking for us so close to this frontier. The only possible trail they can pick up after me in Berlin leads to Munich. Clubfoot is bound to think I am making for the Swiss frontier."
Well, the long and the short of it was that my suggestion was carried, and we resolved to set out for Bellevue that very night. My brother declared he would not return to the café: with the present shortage of men, such desertions were by no means uncommon, and if he were to give notice formally it might only lead to embarrassing explanations.
So we strolled back to the city in the gathering darkness, bought a map of the Rhine and a couple of rucksacks and laid in a small stock of provisions at a great department store, biscuits, chocolates, some hard sausage and two small flasks of rum. Then Francis took me to a little restaurant where he was known and introduced me to the friendly proprietor, a very jolly old Rheinlander, as his brother just out of hospital. I did my country good service, I think, by giving a most harrowing account of the terrible efficiency of the British army on the Somme!
Then we dined and over our meal consulted the map.
"By the map," I said, "Bellevue should be about fifty miles from here. My idea is that we should walk only at night and lie up during the day, as a room is out of the question for me without any papers. I think we should keep away from the Rhine, don't you? As otherwise we shall pass through Wesel, which is a fortress, and, consequently, devilish unhealthy for both of us."
Francis nodded with his mouth full.
"At present we can count on about twelve hours of darkness," I continued, "so, leaving a margin for the slight détour we shall make, for rests and for losing the way, I think we ought to be able to reach Castle Bellevue on the third night from this. If the weather holds up, it won't be too bad, but if it rains, it will be hellish! Now, have you any suggestions?"
My brother acquiesced, as, indeed, he had in everything I had proposed since we met. Poor fellow, he had had a roughish time: he seemed glad to have the direction of affairs taken out of his hands for a bit.
At half-past seven that evening, our packs on our backs, we stood on the outskirts of the town where the road branches off to Crefeld. In the pocket of the overcoat I had filched from Haase's I found an automatic pistol, fully loaded (most of our customers at the beer-cellar went armed).
"You've got the document, Francis," I said. "You'd better have this, too!" and I passed him the gun.
Francis waved it aside.
"You keep it," he said grimly, "it may serve you instead of a passport."
So I slipped the weapon back into my pocket.
A cold drop of rain fell upon my face.
"Oh, hell!" I cried, "it's beginning to rain!"
And thus we set out upon our journey.
It was a nightmare tramp. The rain never ceased. By day we lay in icy misery, chilled to the bone in our sopping clothes, in some dank ditch or wet undergrowth, with aching bones and blistered feet, fearing detection, but fearing, even more, the coming of night and the resumption of our march. Yet we stuck to our programme like Spartans, and about eight o'clock on the third evening, hobbling painfully along the road that runs from Cleves to Calcar, we were rewarded by the sight of a long massive building, with turrets at the corners, standing back from the highway behind a tall brick wall.
"Bellevue!" I said to Francis, with pointing finger.
We left the road and climbing a wooden palisade, struck out across the fields with the idea of getting into the park from the back. We passed some black and silent farm buildings, went through a gate and into a paddock, on the further side of which ran the wall surrounding the place. Somewhere beyond the wall a fire was blazing. We could see the leaping light of the flames and drifting smoke. At the same moment we heard voices, loud voices disputing in German.
We crept across the paddock to the wall, I gave Francis a back and he hoisted himself to the top and looked over. In a moment he sprang lightly down, a finger to his lips.
"Soldiers round a fire," he whispered. "There must be troops billeted here. Come on . . . we'll go further round!"
We ran softly along the wall to where it turned to the right and followed it round. Presently we came to a small iron gate in the wall. It stood open.
We listened. The sound of voices was fainter here. We still saw the reflection of the flames in the sky. Otherwise, there was no sign or sound of human life.
The gate led into an ornamental garden with the Castle at the further end. All the windows were in darkness. We threaded a garden path leading to the house. It brought us in front of a glass door. I turned the handle and it yielded to my grasp.
I whispered to Francis:
"Stay where you are! And if you hear me shout, fly for your life!"
For, I reflected, the place might be full of troops. If there were any risk it would be better for me to take it since Francis, with his identity papers, had a better chance than I of bringing the document into safety.
I opened the glass door and found myself in a lobby with a door on the right.
I listened again. All was still. I cautiously opened the door and looked in. As I did so the place was suddenly flooded with light and a voice — a voice I had often heard in my dreams — called out imperiously:
"Stay where you are and put your hands above your head!"
Clubfoot stood there, a pistol in his great hand pointed at me.
"Grundt!" I shouted but I did not move.
And Clubfoot laughed.