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The Man with the Clubfoot online

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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!"




CHAPTER XX

CHARLEMAGNE'S RIDE


The hands of the clock pointed to a quarter past twelve. Funny, how my
eyes kept coming back to that clock! There was a smell of warm gunpowder
in the room, and the autumn sunshine, struggling feebly through the
window, caught the blue edges of a little haze of smoke that hung lazily
in the air by the desk in the corner. How close the room was! And how
that clock face seemed to stare at me! I felt very sick....

Lord! What a draught! A gust of icy air was raging in my face. The room
was still swaying to and fro....

I was in the front seat of a car beside Francis, who was driving. We
were fairly flying along a broad and empty road, the tall poplars with
which it was lined scudding away into the vanishing landscape as we
whizzed by. The surface was terrible, and the car pitched this way and
that as we tore along. But Francis had her well in hand. He sat at the
wheel, very cool and deliberate and very grave, still in his officer's
uniform, and his eyes had a cold glint that told me he was keyed up to
top pitch.

We slackened speed a fraction to negotiate a turn off to the right down
a side road. We seemed to take that corner on two wheels. A thin church
spire protruded from the trees in the centre of the group of houses
which we were approaching so furiously. The village was all but
deserted: everybody seemed to be indoors at their midday meal, but
Francis slowed down and ran along the dirty street at a demure pace. The
village passed, he jammed down the accelerator and once more the car
sprang forward.

The country was flat as a pancake, but presently the fields fell away a
bit from the road with boulders and patches of gorse here and there. The
next moment we were slackening speed. We drew up by a rough track which
led off the road and vanished into a tangle of stunted trees and scrub
growing across the yellow face of a sand-pit.

Francis motioned me to get out, and then sprang to the ground himself,
leaving the engine throbbing. His face was grey and set.

"Stay here!" he whispered to me. "You've got your pistol? Good. If
anybody attempts to interfere with you, shoot!" He dashed into the
tangle and was swallowed up. I heard a whistle, and a whistle in answer,
and a minute later he appeared again helping Monica through the thick
undergrowth.

Monica looked as pretty as a picture in her dark green shooting suit
and her muffler. She was as excited as a child at its first play.

"A car!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Francis, I'll sit beside you!"

My brother glanced at his watch.

"Twenty to one!" he murmured. He had a hunted look on his face. Monica
saw it and it sobered her.

They got up in front, and I sat in the body of the car.

"Hang on to that!" said Francis, handing me over a leather case. I
recognized it at a glance. It was Clubfoot's dispatch-box. Francis was
thorough in everything.

Once more we dashed out along the desolate country roads. We saw hardly
a soul. Houses were few and far between and, save for an occasional
greybeard hoeing in the wet fields or an old woman hobbling along the
road, the countryside seemed dead. In the cold air the engine ran
splendidly, and Francis got every ounce of horse-power out of it.

On we rushed, the wind in our ears, the cold air in our faces, until we
found ourselves racing along an avenue of old trees that led straight as
an arrow right into the heart of the forest. It was as silent as the
grave: the air was dank and chill and the trees dripped sorrowfully into
the brimming ruts of the road.

We whizzed past many tracks leading into the depths of the forest, but
it was not until the car had eaten up some five kilometres of the main
road that Francis slowed to a halt. He consulted a map he pulled from
his pocket, then glanced at his watch with puckered brow.

"I had hoped to take the car into the forest," he said, "but the roads
are so soft we shan't get a yard. Still we can but try."

We went forward again, very slowly, to where a track ran off to the
left. It was badly ploughed up, and the ruts were fully a foot deep.
Monica and I got out to lighten the car, and Francis ran her in. But he
hadn't gone five yards before the car was bogged up to the axles.

"We'll have to leave it," he said, jumping out. "It's ten minutes to
two ... we haven't a second to lose."

He pulled a cloth cap from the pocket of his military overcoat, then
stripped off the coat, showing his ordinary clothes underneath, and very
shiny black field-boots up to his knees. He put his helmet in the
overcoat and made a roll of it, tucking it under his arm, and then
donned his cap.

"Now," he said, "We'll have to run for it, Monica, I'm afraid: we must
reach our cover while the light lasts or I shan't be able to find it and
it will be dark in these woods in about two hours from now. Are you
ready?"

We struck off the track into the forest. There was not much undergrowth,
and the trees were not planted very close, so our way was not impeded.
We jogged on over a carpet of wet leaves, stumbling over the roots of
the trees, tearing our clothes on the brambles, bringing down showers of
raindrops from the branches of pine or fir we brushed on our headlong
course. Now a squirrel bolted up his tree, now a rabbit frisked back
into his hole, now a soft-eyed deer crashed away into the bushes on our
approach. The place was so still that it gave me confidence. There was
not a trace of man now that we were away from the marks of his carts on
the tracks, and I began to feel, in the presence of the stately, silent
trees, that at last I was safe from the menace that had hung over me for
so long.

We rested frequently, breathless and panting, a hand to the side. Monica
was a marvel of endurance. Her boots were sopping, her skirt wet to the
waist, her face was scratched, and her hair was coming down, but she
never complained. Francis was seemingly tireless and was always the one
to lead the way when we started afresh.

It was heavy going, for at every step our feet sank deep in the leaves.
The forest was undulating with deep hollows and steep banks, which tried
us a good deal. It soon became evident that we could not keep up the
pace. Monica was tiring visibly, and I had had about enough; Francis,
too, seemed done up. We slackened to a walk. We were toiling painfully
up on of these steep banks when Francis, who was leading, held up his
hand.

"Charlemagne's Ride!" he whispered as we came up. We looked down from
the top of the bank and saw below us a broad forest glade, canopied by
the thick branches of the ancient trees that met overhead, and leading
up a slope, narrowing as it went, to a path that lost itself among the
shadows that were falling fast upon the forest.

Francis clambered down the bank and we followed. Twilight reigned below
in the glade under the lofty roof of branches and our feet rustled
softly as we trod the leaves underfoot. It was a ghostly place, and
Monica clutched my arm as we went quickly after Francis, who, striding
rapidly ahead, threatened to be swallowed up in the shadows of the
autumn evening. He led us up the slope and along the narrow path. A path
struck off it, and he took it. It led us into a thicker part of the
forest than we had yet struck, where there were great boulders
protruding from the dripping bushes, and brambles grew so thick that in
places they obscured the track.

The forest sloped up again, and in front of us was a steep bank, its
sides dotted with great rocks and a tangle of brambles and undergrowth.
Francis stooped between two boulders at the foot of the slope, then
turning and beckoning us to follow, disappeared. Monica went in after
him, and I came last. We were in a kind of narrow entrance, scooped out
of the earth between the rocks, and it led down to a broad chamber,
which had apparently been dug beneath some of the boulders, for,
stretching out my hand, I found the roof was rock and damp to the touch.

Francis and Monica were standing in this chamber as I came down.
Directly I entered I knew why they stood so still. A glimmer of light
came from the farther end of the cave and a strange sound, a sort of
strangled sobbing, reached our ears.

I crept forward in the dark in the direction of the light. My
outstretched hands came upon a low opening. I stooped and, crawling
round a rock, saw another chamber illuminated by a guttering candle
stuck by its wax to the earthen wall. On the floor a man was lying,
sobbing as though his heart would break. He was wearing some kind of
military great-coat with a yellow stripe running down the back.

"Pst!" I called to him, drawing my pistol from my pocket. As I did so,
Francis behind me touched my arm to let me know he was there.

"Pst!" I called again louder.

The man swung round on to his knees with a sudden, frightened spring.
When he saw my pistol, he jerked his hands above his head. Dirty and
unshaven, with the tears all wet on his face, he looked a woe-begone and
tragic figure.

"Kamerad! Kamerad!" he muttered stupidly at me. "Napoo! Kaput!
Englander!"

I gazed at the stranger, hardly able to believe my ears. That trench
jargon in this place!

"Are you English?" I asked him.

At the sound of my voice he stared about him wildly.

"Ay, I be English, zur," he replied with a strong West Country burr,
"God help me!" And, heedless of me and my pistol, he covered his face
with his hands and burst into a wild fit of sobbing again, rocking
himself to and fro in his grief.

"Go back to Monica!" I whispered to Francis. "I'll see to this fellow!"

I managed to pacify him presently. Habit is a tenacious ruler and,
grotesque figures though we were, the "zur" he had addressed to me
brought out the officer in me. I talked to him as I would have done to
one of my own men, and he quietened down at last and looked up at me.

He was only a lad - I could tell that by the clearness of his skin and
the brightness of his eyes - but his face was wan and wasted, and at the
first glance he looked like a man of forty. Under his great-coat, which
was German, he was clad in filthy rags which once had been a khaki
uniform, as the cut - and nothing else - revealed.

He told me his simple story in his soft Somersetshire accent, just the
plain tale of the fate that has overtaken thousands of our
fellow-countrymen since the war began. His name was Maggs, Sapper
Ebenezer Maggs, of the Royal Engineers, and he was captured near Mons in
August, 1914, when out laying a line with a party. With a long train of
British prisoners - "zum of 'em was terrible bad, zur, dying, as you
might say" - he had been marched off to a town and paraded to the railway
station through streets thronged with jeering German soldiery. In cattle
trucks, the fit, the wounded, the dying and the dead herded together,
without food or water, they had made their journey into Germany with
hostile mobs at every station, once the frontier was past, brutal men
and shrieking women, to whom not even the dying were sacred.

It was a terrible tale, that lost nothing of its horror from the simple,
unadorned style of this West Country farmer's son. He had been one of
the ragged, emaciated band of British prisoners of war who had shivered
through that first long winter in the starvation camp of Friedrichsfeld,
near Wesel. For two years he had endured the filthy food, the neglect,
the harsh treatment, then a resourceful Belgian friend, whom he called
John, in happier days a contraband runner on this very frontier, had
shown him a means to escape. Five days before they had left the camp and
separated, agreeing to meet at Charlemagne's Ride in the forest and try
to force the frontier together. "John" had never come. For twenty-four
hours Maggs had waited in vain, then his courage had forsaken him, and
he had crept to that hole in his grief.


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