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WE HAVE A RECKONING WITH CLUBFOOT
I looked at Clubfoot. I must play him with caution, with method, too.
Only by acting on a most exact system could I hope to hold him in that room for two hours. I had four points to argue with him and I would devote half an hour to each of them by the clock on the bracket above his head. If only I could keep him confident in his victory, I might hope to prevent him finding out that I was playing with him . . . but two hours is a long time . . . it would be a near thing.
One point in my favour . . . my manner gave him the assurance of success from the start. There was nothing counterfeit about my tone of humility, for in truth I was very near despair. I was making this last effort at the bidding of my brother, but I felt it to be a forlorn hope: in my heart of hearts I knew I was down and out.
So I went straight to the point and told Clubfoot that I was beaten, that he should have his paper. But there were difficulties about the execution of both sides of the bargain. We had deceived one another. What mutual guarantees could we exchange that would give each of us the assurance of fair play?
Clubfoot settled this point in characteristic fashion. He protested his good faith elaborately, but the gist of his remarks was that he held the cards and that, consequently, it was he who must be trusted, whilst I furnished the guarantee.
Whilst we were discussing this point the clock chimed the half-hour.
I switched the conversation to Monica. I was not at all concerned about myself, I said, but I must feel sure in my mind that no ill should befall her. To this Clubfoot replied that I might set my mind at ease: the moment the document was in his hands he would give orders for her release: I should be there and might see it done myself.
What guarantee was there, I asked, that she would not be detained before she reached the frontier?
Clubfoot was getting a little restless. With his eye on the clock but in a placid voice he again protested that his word was the sole guarantee he could offer.
We discussed this too. My manner was earnest and nervous, I know, and I think he enjoyed playing with me. I told him frankly that his reputation belied his protestations of good faith. At this he laughed and cynically admitted that this was quite possibly the case.
"Nevertheless, it is I who give the guarantee," he said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
The clock struck eleven.
One hour to go!
"Come, Okewood," he added good-naturedly, "we waste time. Up to this you've had all the sport, you know. You wouldn't have me miss the first day's shooting I've had this year. Where have you got this letter of ours?"
He was an extraordinary man. To hear him address me, you would never have supposed that he was sending me to my death. He appeared to have forgotten this detail. It meant so little to him that he probably had.
I turned to my third point. He made things very hard for me, I said, but I was the vanquished and must give way. The trouble was that the document was still in two portions and neither half was here.
"You indicate where the halves are hidden," said Clubfoot promptly. "I will accompany you to the hiding-places and you will hand them to me."
"But they are nowhere near here," I replied.
"Then where are they?" answered Clubfoot impatiently. "Come, I am waiting and it's getting late!"
"It will take several days to recover both portions," I muttered unwillingly.
"That does not matter," retorted the other; "there is no particular hurry . . . now!"
And he smiled grimly.
I dared not raise my eyes to the clock, for I felt the German's gaze on me. An intuitive instinct told me that his suspicions had been awakened by my reluctance. I was very nearly at the end of my resources.
Would the clock never strike?
"I tell you frankly, Herr Doktor," I said in a voice that trembled with anxiety, "I cannot leave the Countess unprotected whilst we travel together to the hiding-places of the document. I only feel sure of her safety whilst she is near me . . . ."
Clubfoot bent his brows at me.
"What do you suggest then?" he said very sternly.
"You go and recover the two halves at the places I indicate," I stammered out, "and . . . and . . . "
A faint whirr and the silver chime rang out twice.
Half an hour more!
How still the house was! I could hear the clock ticking — no, that thudding must be my heart. My wits failed me, my mind had become a blank, my throat was dry with fear.
"I've wasted an hour and a half over you, young man," said Clubfoot suddenly, "and it's time that this conversation was brought to a close. I warn you again that I am not to be trifled with. The situation is perfectly clear: it rests with you whether the Countess Rachwitz goes free or is court-martialled this afternoon at Cleves and shot this evening. Your suggestion is absurd. I'll be reasonable with you. We will both stay here. I will wire for the two portions of the letter to be fetched at the places you indicate, and as soon as I hold the entire letter in my hands the Countess will be driven to the frontier. I will allow her butler here to accompany her and he can return and assure you that she is in safety."
He stretched out his hand and pulled a block of telegraph forms towards him.
"Where shall we find the two halves?" he said.
"One is in Holland," I murmured.
He looked up quickly.
"If you dare to play me false . . . ."
He broke off when he saw my face.
The room was going round with me. My hands felt cold as ice. I was struggling for the mastery over myself, but I felt my body swaying.
"Ah!" exclaimed Clubfoot musingly, "that would be Semlin's half . . . . I might have known . . . . Well, never mind, Schmalz can take my car and fetch it. He can be back by to-morrow. Where is he to go?"
"The other half is in Berlin," I said desperately. My voice sounded to me like a third person speaking.
"That's simpler," replied Clubfoot. "Ten minutes to twelve now . . . if I wire at once, that half should be here by midnight . . . . I'll get the message off immediately . . . ."
He looked up at me, pencil in hand.
It was the end. I had kept faith with Francis to the limit of my powers, but now my resistance was broken. He had failed me . . . not me, but Monica, rather . . . . I could not save her now. Like some nightmare film, the crowded hours of the past few weeks flashed past my eyes, a jostling procession of figures — Semlin with his blue lips and livid face, Schratt with her bejewelled hands, the Jew Kore, Haase with his bullet head, Francis, sadly musing on the café verandah . . . and Monica, all in white, as I saw her that night at the Esplanade . . . my thoughts always came back to her, a white and pitiful figure in some dusty courtyard at lamplight facing a row of levelled rifles . . . .
"I am waiting!"
Clubfoot's voice broke stridently upon the silence.
Should I tell him the truth now?
It was three minutes to the hour.
"Come! The two addresses!"
I would keep faith to the last.
"Herr Doktor!" I faltered.
He dashed the pencil down on the table and sprang to his feet. He caught me by the lapels of my coat and shook me in an iron grip.
"The addresses, you dog!" he said.
The clock whirred faintly. There was a knock at the door.
"Come in!" roared Clubfoot and resumed his seat.
The clock was chiming twelve.
An officer stepped in briskly and saluted.
It was Francis! . . . Francis, freshly shaved, his moustache neatly trimmed, a monocle in his eye, in a beautifully waisted grey military overcoat, one white-gloved hand raised in salute to his helmet.
"Hauptmann von Salzmann!" . . . he introduced himself, clicking his heels and bowing to Clubfoot, who glared at him, frowning at the interruption. He spoke with the clipped, mincing utterance of the typical Prussian officer. "I am looking for Herr Leutnant Schmalz," he said.
"He is not in," answered Clubfoot in a surly voice. "He is out and I am busy . . . I do not wish to be disturbed."
"As Schmalz is out," the officer returned suavely, advancing to the desk, "I must trouble you for an instant, I fear. I have been sent over from Goch to inspect the guard here. But I find no guard . . . there is not a man in the place."
Clubfoot angrily heaved his unwieldy bulk from his chair.
"Gott im Himmel!" he cried savagely. "It is incredible that I can never be left in peace. What the devil has the guard got to do with me? Will you understand that I have nothing to do with the guard! There is a sergeant somewhere . . . curse him for a lazy scoundrel . . . I'll ring . . . "
He never finished the sentence. As he turned his back on my brother to reach the bell in the wall, Francis sprang on him from behind, seizing his bull neck in an iron grip and driving his knee at the same moment into that vast expanse of back.
The huge German, taken by surprise, crashed over backwards, my brother on top of him.
It was so quickly done that, for the instant, I was dumbfounded.
"Quick, Des, the door!" my brother gasped. "Lock the door!"
The big German was roaring like a bull and plunging wildly under my brother's fingers, his clubfoot beating a thunderous tattoo on the parquet floor. In his fall Clubfoot's left arm had been bent under him and was now pinioned to the ground by his great weight. With his free right arm he strove fiercely to force off my brother's fingers as Francis fought to get a grip on the man's throat and choke him into silence.
I darted to the door. The key was on the inside and I turned it in a trice. As I turned to go to my brother's help my eye caught sight of the butt of my pistol lying where Schmalz had thrown it the evening before under my overcoat on the leather lounge.
I snatched up the weapon and dropped by my brother's side, crushing Clubfoot's right arm to the ground. I thrust the pistol in his face.
"Stop that noise!" I commanded.
The German obeyed.
"Better search him, Francis," I said to my brother. "He probably has a Browning on him somewhere."
Francis went through the man's pockets, reaching up and putting each article as it came to light on the desk above him. From an inner breast pocket he extracted the Browning. He glanced at it: the magazine was full with a cartridge in the breech.
"Hadn't we better truss him up?" Francis said to me.
"No," I said. I was still kneeling on the German's arm. He seemed exhausted. His head had fallen back upon the ground.
"Let me up, curse you!" he choked.
"No!" I said again and Francis turned and looked at me.
Each of us knew what was in the other's mind, my brother and I. We were thinking of a hand-clasp we had exchanged on the banks of the Rhine.
I was about to speak but Francis checked me. He was trembling all over. I could feel his elbow quiver where it touched mine.
"No, Des, please . . . " he pleaded, "let me . . . this is my show . . . ."
Then, in a voice that vibrated with suppressed passion, he spoke swiftly to Clubfoot.
"Take a good look at me, Grundt," he said sternly. "You don't know me, do you? I am Francis Okewood, brother of the man who has brought you to your fall. You don't know me, but you knew some of my friends, I think. Jack Tracy? Do you remember him? And Herbert Arbuthnot? Ah, you knew him, too. And Philip Brewster? You remember him as well, do you? No need to ask you what happened to poor Philip!"
The man on the floor answered nothing, but I saw the colour very slowly fade from his cheeks.
My brother spoke again.
"There were four of us after that letter, as you knew, Grundt, and three of us are dead. But you never got me. I was the fourth man, the unknown quantity in all your elaborate calculations . . . and it seems to me I spoiled your reckoning . . . I and this brother of mine . . . an amateur at the game, Grundt!"
Still Clubfoot was silent, but I noticed a bead of perspiration tremble on his forehead, then trickle down his ashen cheeks and drop splashing to the floor.
Francis continued in the same deep, relentless voice.
"I never thought I should have to soil my hands by ridding the world of a man like you, Grundt, but it has come to it and you have to die. I'd have killed you in hot blood when I first came in but for Jack and Herbert and the others . . . for their sake you had to know who is your executioner."
My brother raised the pistol. As he did so the man on the floor, by a tremendous effort of strength, rose erect to his knees, flinging me headlong. Then there was a hot burst of flame close to my cheek as I lay on the floor, a deafening report, a thud and a sickening gurgle.
Something twitched a little on the ground and then lay still.
We rose to our feet together.
"Des," said my brother unsteadily, "it seems rather like murder."
"No, Francis," I whispered back, "it was justice!"