The journey to the police station was accomplished in silence. After the initial demonstration of authority the agent dropped a few paces to the rear and allowed me to walk on ahead with the plain-clothes man. I was glad of this, for I had no wish to be marched through the village as though I were a pickpocket. As it was, we drew some curious glances, and I heard a jocular reference by two passers-by to the violon.
French slang is very obscure. Anything less like a violin than the Commissariat de Police would be difficult to imagine. The only really ugly building in St. Gatien, it is a forbidding cube of dirty concrete with small windows like eyes. It lies some hundreds of meters away from the village round the bay, and its size is accounted for by the fact that it houses the police administration of an area of which St. Gatien happens to be the center. The facts that St. Gatien is also one of the smallest, most law-abiding, and least accessible villages in the area were evidently disregarded by the responsible authorities.
The room into which I was taken was bare except for a table and some wooden benches. The plain-clothes man retired importantly, leaving me with the agent, who sat down on the bench beside me.
“Will this business take long?”
“It is not permitted to speak.”
I looked out of the window. Across the bay I could see the colored sunshades on the Reserve beach. There would not, I reflected, be time for a swim. I could, perhaps, have an aperitif at one of the cafes on my way back. It was all very annoying.
“Attention!” said my escort suddenly.
The door opened and an elderly man with a pen behind his ear, no cap, and an unbuttoned tunic beckoned us out. The agent with me did up his collar, smoothed out his tunic, straightened his cap and, gripping my arm with unnecessary force, marched me down the passage to a room at the end of it. He rapped smartly on the door and opened it. Then he pushed me inside.
I felt a threadbare carpet beneath my feet. Sitting facing me behind a table littered with papers was a spectacled, businesslike little man. This was the Commissaire. Beside the table, wedged in a small chair with curved arms, was a very fat man in a tussore suit. Except for a clipped mouse-colored bristle on the rolls of fat round his neck, he was bald. The skin of his face was loose and hung down in thick folds that drew the corners of his mouth with them. They gave the face a faintly judicial air. The eyes were extraordinarily small and heavily lidded. Sweat poured off his face and he kept passing a screwed-up handkerchief round the inside of his collar. He did not look at me.
It was the Commissaire who spoke.
The Commissaire nodded to the agent behind me, and the man went out, closing the door softly behind him.
“Your identity card?”
I produced the card from my wallet and handed it over. He drew a sheet of paper towards him and began making notes.
“You are, I see, a teacher of languages.”
“Who employs you?”
“The Bertrand Mathis School of Languages, one hundred and fourteen bis, Avenue Marceau, Paris, six.”
While he was writing this down I glanced at the fat man. His eyes were closed and he was fanning his face gently with the handkerchief.
“Attention!” said the Commissaire sharply. “What is your business here?”
“I am on holiday.”
“You are a Yugoslav subject?”
The Commissaire looked startled. My heart sank. The long and involved explanation of my national status, or rather, lack of it, would have to be given yet again. It never failed to arouse officialdom’s worst instincts. The Commissaire rummaged among the papers on his table. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of satisfaction and flourished something in front of my face.
“Then how, Monsieur, do you explain this?”
With a start I realized that “this” was my own passport-the passport that I had believed to be in my suitcase at the Reserve. That meant that the police had been to my room. I began to feel uneasy.
“I am waiting, Monsieur, for your explanation. How is it that you, a Hungarian, are using a Yugoslav passport? A passport, moreover, that has not been valid for ten years?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the fat man had stopped fanning his face. I began to give the explanation I knew by heart.
“I was born in Szabadka in Hungary. By the treaty of Trianon in 1919 Szabadka was incorporated in Yugoslav territory. In 1921 I went as a student to the University of Buda-Pesth. I obtained a Yugoslav passport for the purpose. While I was still at the University my father and elder brother were shot by the Yugoslav police for a political offense. My mother had died during the war and I had no other relations or friends. I was advised not to attempt to return to Yugoslavia. Conditions in Hungary were terrible. In 1922 I went to England, and remained there, teaching German in a school near London until 1931, when my labor permit was withdrawn. I was one of many other foreigners who had their labor permits withdrawn at that time. When my passport had expired I had applied for its renewal to the Yugoslav legation in London, but had been refused on the grounds that I was no longer a Yugoslav citizen. I had afterwards applied for British naturalization, but when I was deprived of my labor permit I was forced to find work elsewhere. I went to Paris. I was allowed by the police to remain and given papers with the proviso that if I left France I should not be permitted to return. I have since applied for French citizenship.”
I looked from one to the other of them. The fat man was lighting a cigarette. The Commissaire flicked my useless passport contemptuously and looked at his colleague. I was looking at the Commissaire when the fat man spoke. His voice made me jump, for from those thick lips, that massive jowl, that enormous body, came a very light, husky tenor.
“What,” he said, “was the political offense for which your father and brother were shot?”
He spoke slowly and carefully, as though he were afraid that his voice was going to crack. When I turned to answer him he was lighting the cigarette like a cigar and blowing a jet of smoke at the burning end of it.
“They were social-democrats,” I said.
The Commissaire said “Ah!” as though all was now ominously clear.
“Then that perhaps explains…” he began unpleasantly.
But the fat man held up a repressive hand. It was small and puffy, with a roll of fat at the wrist like a baby’s.
“What languages do you teach, Monsieur Vadassy?” he said gently.
“German, English, and Italian, occasionally Hungarian also. But I am afraid that I cannot see what these questions have to do with my passport.”
He ignored the last remark.
“You have been to Italy?”
“As a child. We used to spend our holidays there.”
“You have not been there during the present regime?”
“For obvious reasons, no.”
“Do you know any Italians in France?”
“There is one where I work. He is a teacher like myself.”
I saw the Commissaire write this down.
“You are a photographer, Monsieur Vadassy?”
It was the Commissaire again.
“How many cameras do you possess?”
“One.” This was fantastic.
“What make is it?”
“A Zeiss Contax.”
He opened a drawer in his desk.
“Is this it?”
I recognized my camera.
“It is,” I said angrily; “and I should like to know what right you have to remove my belongings from my room. You will please give it back to me.” I stretched out my hand for it.
The Commissaire put the camera back in the drawer.
“You have no other camera but this?”
“I have already told you. No!”
A grin of triumph spread over the Commissaire’s face. He opened the drawer again.
“Then how, my dear Monsieur Vadassy, do you explain the fact that the chemist in the village received from you this length of cinematograph film for development?”
I stared at him. Between his outstretched hands was the developed negative of the film I had left with the chemist. From where I sat I could see against the light of the window my experimental shots; two dozen of them with but one single subject-lizards. Then I saw the Commissaire grin again. I laughed as irritatingly as I could.
“I can see,” I said patronizingly, “that you are no photographer, Monsieur. That is not cinematograph film.”
“No. I admit that it looks a little like it. But you will find that cinematograph film is a millimeter narrower. That is a standard spool of thirty-six twenty-four by thirty-six millimeter exposures for the Contax camera.”
“Then those photographs were taken by this camera here, the camera that was in your room?”
There was a pregnant pause. I saw the two exchange looks. Then:
“When did you arrive in St. Gatien?”
It was the fat man once more.
“At what time did you leave Nice?”
“I left by the nine twenty-nine train.”
“At what time did you get to the Reserve?”
“Just before dinner, at about seven o’clock.”
“But the Nice train arrives at Toulon at three thirty. There is a bus for St. Gatien at four. You should have arrived at five. Why were you late?”
“This is ridiculous.”
He looked up quickly. The small eyes were coldly menacing.
“Answer my question. Why were you late?”
“Very well. I left my suitcase in Toulon station and went for a walk down to the waterfront. I had not seen Toulon before and there was another bus at six.”
He wiped the inside of his collar thoughtfully.
“What is your salary, Monsieur Vadassy?”
“Sixteen hundred francs a month.”
“That is not very much, is it?”
“The Contax is an expensive camera?”
“It is a good one.”
“No doubt; but I am asking you how much you paid for it.”
“Four thousand, five hundred francs.”
He whistled softly. “Nearly three months’ pay, eh?”
“Photography is my hobby.”
“A very expensive one! You seem to be very clever with your sixteen hundred francs. Holidays in Nice and at the Hotel de la Reserve, too! More than we poor policemen can afford, eh, Commissaire?”
The Commissaire laughed sardonically. I could feel myself getting very red in the face.
“I saved my money to buy the camera,” I said. “As for this holiday, it is the first I have had for five years. I saved my money for that also.”
“But naturally!” The Commissaire sneered as he said it.
The sneer aroused me.
“Now, Monsieur,” I protested angrily. “I have had enough of this. It is my turn to demand explanations. What exactly do you want? I am prepared to answer questions about my passport. You are within your rights in asking them. But you have no right to steal my private property. Neither have you any right to question me in this way about my private affairs. As for those negatives to which you seem to attach some mysterious importance, I have yet to learn that it is forbidden to photograph lizards. Now, Messieurs, I have committed no crime, but I am hungry, and it is time for lunch at the hotel. You will please return to me my camera, my photographs, and my passport immediately.”
For a moment there was dead silence. I glared from one to the other. Neither moved.
“Very well,” I said at last, and turned to the door.
“One moment,” said the fat man.
“Please don’t waste your time and ours. The man outside the door will not allow you to leave. There are a few more questions we have to ask you.”
“You may keep me here by force,” I said grimly, “but you cannot force me to answer your questions.”
“Naturally,” said the fat man slowly; “that is the law. But we can recommend you to do so-in your own interests.”
I said nothing.
The fat man picked up the negative from the Commissaire’s desk and, holding it up to the light, ran it through his fingers.
“Over two dozen photographs,” he commented, “and all practically the same. Now that, I think, is curious. Don’t you think so, Vadassy?”
“Not in the least,” I replied curtly. “If you knew anything at all about photography, or if you were just ordinarily observant, you would notice that each one is lighted differently, that in each one the shadows are massed in different ways. The fact that the object photographed in every case is a lizard is unimportant. The differences lie in the way each is lighted and composed. Anyway, if I like to take a hundred shots of lizards in the sun I don’t see that it is any business of yours.”
“That is a very ingenious explanation, Vadassy. Very ingenious. Now I will tell you what I think. My idea is that you were not in the least interested in what you photographed with those twenty-six exposures and that you were merely exposing the film as quickly as you could to complete the spool and get the other ten exposures developed.”
“The other ten? What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t it a waste of time to pretend any longer, Vadassy?”
“I really don’t know what you mean.”
He heaved himself out of the chair and stood close to me.
“Don’t you? What about the first ten exposures, Vadassy? Would you like to explain to the Commissaire and myself why you took those photographs? I feel sure we should be interested!” He tapped me on the chest with his finger. “Was it the lighting, Vadassy, or was it the massing of the shadows that so interested you in the new fortifications outside the naval harbor of Toulon?”
I gaped at him.
“Is this a joke? The only other photographs on that spool are some I took in Nice of a carnival that was held the day before I left.”
“You admit taking the photographs on this film?” he said deliberately.
“I have already said so.”
“Good. Please look at them.”
I took the negative, held it up to the light and ran it slowly through my fingers. Lizards, lizards, lizards. Some of the shots looked promising. Lizards. More lizards. Suddenly I stopped. I looked up quickly. Both of them were watching me.
“Go on, Vadassy,” said the Commissaire ironically; “don’t trouble to look surprised.”
Unable to believe my eyes, I looked at the negative again. There was a long shot of a section of coastline partly obscured by what looked like a twig close to the lens of the camera. There was something on the coastline-a short gray strip. Another shot, closer this time and from a different angle, of that same gray strip. There were things that looked like trap-doors along one side of it. More shots. Two of them were from the same angle; another had been taken looking down and nearer still. Then came three almost wholly obscured by a dark mass in front of the camera. The edge of the mass was blurred and very faintly patterned like a piece of cloth. Then there was one of what looked like a concrete surface out of focus and very near to the camera. The last of them was overexposed, but only one corner of it was obscured. It was taken from one end of what looked like a wide concrete gallery. There were some curious arrangements of highlights. They puzzled me for a moment. Then at last I understood. I was looking at the long, sleek barrels of siege guns.