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whether - as I surmised to be the case - this was also his first visit to
the house in the Vos in't Tuintje.

In any case, I was quite determined in my own mind that the only way to
get out of the place with Semlin's document without considerable
unpleasantness, if not grave danger, would be to transfer his identity
and effects to myself and vice versa. When I saw the way a little
clearer I could decide whether to take the supreme risk and adventure
myself into the enemy's country.

Whatever I was going to do, there were not many hours of the night left
in which to act, and I was determined to be out of that house of ill
omen before day dawned. If I could get clear of the hotel and at the
same time ascertain that Semlin was as much a stranger there as myself,
I could decide on my further course of action in the greater freedom of
the streets of Rotterdam. One thing was certain: the waiter had let the
question of Semlin's papers stand over until the morning, as he had done
in my case, for Semlin still had his passport in his possession.

After all, if Semlin was unknown at the hotel, the waiter had only seen
him for the same brief moment as he had seen me.

Thus I reasoned and argued with myself, but in the meantime I acted. I
had nothing compromising in my suit-case, so that caused no difficulty.
My British passport and permit and anything bearing any relation to my
personality, such as my watch and cigarette case, both of which were
engraved with my initials, I transferred to the dead man's pockets. As I
bent over the stiff, cold figure with its livid face and clutching
fingers, I felt a difficulty which I had hitherto resolutely shirked
forcing itself squarely into the forefront of my mind.

What was I going to do about the body?

At that moment came a low knocking.

With a sudden sinking at the heart I remembered I had forgotten to lock
the door.



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

"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

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

"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

"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.

"You mean?"

"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

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

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

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

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

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 _édredon_. 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.



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 packingcases, 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:

"Das haben die Mädchen so gerne
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

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

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

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Online LibraryValentine WilliamsThe Man with the Clubfoot → online text (page 3 of 16)