The formalities of my arrest were attended by the examining magistrate, a harassed little man who, prompted by the fat detective, subjected me to a perfunctory interrogation before instructing the Commissaire to charge me. I was, I learned, charged with espionage, trespassing in a military zone, taking photographs calculated to endanger the safety of the French Republic, and of being in possession of such photographs. After the charges had been read out to me and I had signified that I had understood them, I was deprived of my belt (lest, presumably, I should hang myself) and the contents of my pockets, and taken, clutching my trousers, to a cell at the rear of the building. There I was left alone.
After a bit, I began to think more calmly. It was ridiculous. It was outrageous. It was impossible. Yet it had happened. I was in a police cell under arrest on a charge of espionage. The penalty, should I be convicted, would be perhaps four years’ imprisonment-four years in a French prison and then deportation. I could put up with prison-even a French one-but deportation! I began to feel sick and desperately frightened. If France expelled me there was nowhere left for me to go. Yugoslavia would arrest me. Hungary would not admit me. Neither would Germany or Italy. Even if a convicted spy could get into England without a passport he would not be permitted to work. To America I would be merely another undesirable alien. The South American republics would demand sums of money that I would not possess as surety for my good behavior. Soviet Russia would have no more use for a convicted spy than would England. Even the Chinese wanted your passport. There would be nowhere I could go, nowhere. And after all, what did it matter? What happened to an insignificant teacher of languages without national status was of no interest to anyone. No consul would intervene on his behalf; no Parliament, no Congress, no Chamber of Deputies would inquire into his fate. Officially he did not exist; he was an abstraction, a ghost. All he could decently and logically do was destroy himself.
I pulled myself together sharply. I was being hysterical. I was not yet a convicted spy. I was still in France. I must use my brains, think, find the very simple explanation that must exist for the presence of those photographs in my camera. I must go very carefully over the ground. I must cast my thoughts back to Nice.
I had, I remembered, put the new spool in the camera and taken the photographs of the carnival on Monday. Then I had gone back to my hotel and put the camera in my suitcase. It had still been there when I packed later that night. It had remained in my suitcase until I had unpacked at the Reserve on Tuesday evening. While I had been in Toulon the suitcase had been in the consigne at the station. Could anyone have used it during the two hours I was walking about Toulon? Impossible. The suitcase was locked and no one could break it open in the consigne, steal the camera, take those dangerous-looking photographs, and restore the camera to the suitcase in two hours. Besides, why put the camera back again? No, that would not do.
Then another thought struck me. The photographs I was supposed to have taken were the first ten on the spool. They must have been, for my last lizard shot had been number thirty-six. Now you can’t turn a roll of film backwards, and there were no double exposures on the film. Therefore, as I had started a spool at the carnival in Nice, a new spool must have been put in before the Toulon photographs were taken.
I jumped up in my excitement from the bed on which I had been sitting, and my trousers sagged down. I rescued them and, with my hands in my pockets, marched up and down the cell. Of course! I remembered now. I had been slightly surprised to notice when I had started on the lizard experiments that the exposure counter on the camera had registered number eleven. I had thought that I had made only eight exposures at Nice. But it is very easy to forget odd shots, especially when there are thirty-six exposures on the spool. Yes, the spool had certainly been changed. But when? It couldn’t have been done before I arrived at the Reserve, and I had started on the lizards the following morning after breakfast. It came to this, then: that between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8.30 a.m. (breakfast-time) Wednesday, somebody had taken my camera from my room, put a new spool of film in it, gone to Toulon, penetrated a carefully guarded military zone, taken the photographs, returned to the Reserve and restored my camera to my room.
It didn’t sound possible or probable. Quite apart from any other objections, there was the simple question of the light. It was practically dark by eight o’clock, and as I had not arrived until seven, that disposed of Tuesday. Even supposing that the photographer had gone by night and started work at sunrise, he would have to be very quick and clever to get my camera back into my room while I was lying in bed looking out of the window. And, anyway, why return it to me with the spool still inside it? How had the police got into the business? Had the taker of the photographs told them anonymously? There was, of course, the chemist. The police had obviously been in ambush for the owner of the negative. Perhaps the chemist had been caught with the photographs and sworn that they had belonged to me. But then, that didn’t account for their being with my experimental shots. There had been no sign of a join in the negative. It was hideously puzzling.
I was feverishly going over the ground for the third time when there was the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside and the door of my cell opened. The fat man in the tussore suit came in. The door closed behind him.
For a moment he stood wiping the inside of his collar with his handkerchief, then he nodded to me and sat down on the bed.
“Sit down, Vadassy.”
I sat down on the only other piece of furniture in the room, an enamelled iron bidet with a wooden lid on it. The small, dangerous eyes surveyed me thoughtfully.
“Would you like a bowl of soup and some bread?”
This I had not expected.
“No, thank you. I am not hungry.”
“A cigarette, then?”
He proffered a crumpled packet of Gauloises. This solicitude was, I felt, highly suspicious; but I took one.
He gave me a light from the end of his own cigarette. Then he carefully wiped the sweat from his upper lip and from behind his ears.
“Why,” he said at last, “did you admit that you took those photographs?”
“Is this another official interrogation?”
He brushed cigarette ash off his stomach with the now sodden handkerchief.
“No. You will be interrogated officially by the juge d’instruction of the district. That is no business of mine. I am of the Surete Generale and attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence. You may speak quite freely to me.”
I did not see why he should expect a spy to speak quite freely to a member of the Department of Naval Intelligence, but I did not raise the point. I had, indeed, every intention of speaking as freely as I was allowed to.
“Very well. I admitted taking the photographs because I did take them. That is, all those on the spool with the exception of the first ten.”
“Quite so. Then how do you account for those first ten photographs?”
“I think the spool in my camera was changed.”
He raised his eyebrows. I plunged into a long account of my movements since leaving Nice and the deductions I had made concerning the origin of the incriminating photographs. He heard me out, but was obviously not impressed.
“This, of course, is not evidence,” he said when I had finished.
“I don’t offer it as evidence. I am just trying to find a rational explanation of this fantastic affair.”
“The Commissaire thinks that he has found the explanation. I do not blame him. On the face of things the case against you is perfectly good. The photographs are on a negative which you have admitted to be yours. You are also a suspicious person. Simple!”
I looked him in the eye.
“But I take it that you are not satisfied, Monsieur?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, but you would scarcely be here talking to me in this way if you were satisfied.”
His jowl distorted into the beginnings of a grin.
“You overrate your importance. I am not interested in spies, but in who employs them.”
“Then,” I said angrily, “you are wasting your time. I am not the person who took the photographs, and my only employer is Monsieur Mathis, who pays me to teach languages.”
But he did not appear to be listening. There was a pause.
“The Commissaire and I agreed,” he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one, or an innocent man. I may say that the Commissaire thought that you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”
“I am not in the least desirous of your thanks, Vadassy. It was a conclusion that I disliked exceedingly. In any case, I can do nothing for you now. Understand that, please. You have been arrested by the Commissaire. You may be innocent, but it will not disturb my rest in the slightest if you are sent to prison.”
“I feel sure of that.”
“On the other hand,” he continued thoughtfully, “it is essential that I should know who did take the photographs.”
There was another silence. I felt that I was expected to make some comment. But I waited for him to go on. After a few moments he did so.
“If the real criminal is discovered, we may, Vadassy, be able to do something for you.”
“Do something for me?”
He cleared his throat noisily.
“Well, of course, you have no consul to intervene on your behalf. It is our responsibility to see that you are treated properly. Providing, naturally, that you co-operate with us in a satisfactory manner, you need have no fears.”
“I have already told you all I know, Monsieur…” I stopped. There was a lump in my throat and the words would not come. But the fat man evidently thought that I was waiting to be supplied with his name.
“Beghin,” he said, “Michel Beghin.”
He paused and looked at his stomach once more. The cell was insufferably hot and I could see the sweat from his chest staining through his striped shirt. “All the same,” he added, “I think you may be able to help us.”
He got up from the bed, went to the cell door and banged on it once with his fist. The key clicked in the lock and I saw the uniform of an agent outside. The fat man muttered something I did not hear and the door closed again. He remained standing there and lit another cigarette. A minute later the door opened again and he took something from the agent. As the door closed once more he turned round. In his hand was the camera.
“You recognize this?”
“Take it and examine it very closely. I want to know if you find anything curious about it.”
I took it and did as I was told. I tried the shutter, the viewfinder, and the distance meter; I took out the lens and undid the back; I peered in every nook and cranny of the instrument. Finally I put it back in the case.
“I don’t see anything curious about it. It is just as I left it.”
He put his hand in his pocket and drew out a piece of folded paper. He held it up.
“This, Vadassy, we found in your pocketbook. Have a look.”
I took the paper and opened it. Then I looked at him.
“Well, what about it?” I said defensively. “This is merely the insurance policy on the camera. As you reminded me, it is an expensive instrument. I paid a few francs to insure myself against its loss or,” I added pointedly, “theft.”
He took the paper from me with a patient sigh.
“It is lucky for you,” he said, “that French justice takes care of imbeciles as well as criminals. This insurance policy indemnifies Josef Vadassy against the loss of the Zeiss Ikon Contax camera, serial number F/64523/2. Please look at the serial number on the camera you have there.”
I looked. The serial number was different.
“Then,” I exclaimed excitedly, “this isn’t my camera. Why were my photographs on that negative?”
“Because, my dear imbecile, it was not the films that were changed, but the cameras. This camera is a standard production and widely used. You used this camera with the Toulon exposures already made to photograph your stupid lizards. You even noticed that the number of the exposure was different from that in your own camera. Then you removed the film and took it to the chemist. He saw these ten photographs, saw, as any fool would see, what they were, and brought them to the police. Now, imbecile, do you see?”
“So,” I said, “when you so generously proclaimed your faith in my innocence you were perfectly well aware of it. In view of that I should like to know what right you have to keep me under arrest like this.”
He wiped the top of his head with his handkerchief and surveyed me from beneath lowered lids.
“Your arrest is no affair of mine. I can do nothing. The Commissaire is annoyed with you, as this evidence has spoiled his charge sheet; but he has agreed, in the interests of justice, to strike out three of the charges. Only one remains.”
“What is that?”
“You were in possession of photographs calculated to endanger the safety of the Republic. That is a serious offense. It remains, unless,” he added significantly, “unless means can be found to strike it out also. I shall naturally intercede with the Commissaire on your behalf, but I am afraid that unless I can offer some good reason for this irregular step the charge will go forward. It would mean deportation at the very least.” My brain went as cold as ice.
“You mean,” I said steadily, “that if I do not agree to co-operate, as you call it, this ridiculous charge will be pressed?”
He did not answer. He was lighting his fourth cigarette. When he had finished he let it hang lightly between his loose lips. He blew smoke past it and gazed contemplatively at the blank wall as though it were a painting and he was an art dealer wondering whether to bid.
“The cameras,” he said thoughtfully, “could have been changed for one of three reasons. Someone might have wished to do you an injury. Someone might have wished to get rid of the photographs in a hurry. Or it could have been done accidentally. The first hypothesis, I think, we can dismiss. It is too elaborate. There was no guarantee that (a) you would take the film to be developed and that (b) the chemist would go to the police. The second hypothesis is unreal. The photographs were valuable and the possibility of retrieving them remote. Besides, they were safe enough inside the camera. No, I think it was accidental. The cameras are of an identical pattern and in standard cases. But where and when were they changed? Not at Nice, for you told me that you took your camera back to the hotel and packed it. Not on your journey, because it was under lock and key in your suitcase during the entire time. It was at the Reserve that the change was made. If the change was accidental, then it could only have been made in one of the public rooms. At what time? You brought your camera down at breakfast-time yesterday, you tell me. Where did you have breakfast?”
“On the terrace.”
“Did you take the camera with you?”
“No. I left it in its case on one of the chairs in the hall to pick up as I went through into the garden afterwards.”
“At what time did you go to breakfast?”
“At about half past eight.”
“And to the gardens?”
“About an hour later.”
“And then you took photographs?”
“At what time did you return?”
“It was nearly twelve.”
“What did you do?”
“I went straight to my room and removed the exposed spool.”
“Then you did not leave your camera before you started photographing your lizards except for an hour between eight thirty and nine thirty?”
“And during that time it was on a chair by the door leading to the garden.”
“Now think carefully. Was the camera in the same position when you picked it up as it was when you put it down?”
I thought carefully.
“No, it was not,” I said at last. “I left it hanging by the strap of the case on the back of one of the chairs. When I picked it up it was lying on the seat of another chair.”
“You did not look to see if it was still hanging where you had left it?”
“Why, no. I saw it on the seat of the chair and took it. Why should I look?”
“You might have noticed if there was still a camera hanging on the back of the chair.”
“It would be easy not to. The strap is long so that the actual camera case would hang below the seat level of the chair.”
“Good. So it amounts to this: you hang a camera on the back of a chair. When you return you see an identical camera on the seat of another chair. Thinking that this is your property, you take it, leaving your camera where you put it on the back of the original chair. Presumably, then, the owner of the second camera later arrives, finds his camera missing from the seat of the chair, looks round and discovers yours.”
“It seems likely.”
“Were all the guests down to breakfast?”
“I don’t know. There are only eighteen rooms at the Reserve and they are not all occupied, but I had only arrived the previous night. I would not know. But everyone going downstairs and through the hall would pass the chairs.”
“Then, my good Vadassy, we can say with reasonable confidence that one of those now staying at the Reserve is the person who owns this camera and who took those photographs. But which? I think we may leave out the waiters and servants, for they are all from this village or near-by villages. We shall, of course, make inquiries, but they will, I think, give us nothing. There are, besides, ten guests, the manager Koche and his wife. Now, Vadassy, the guilty one had your camera, a Zeiss Ikon Contax identical to this one here. It is you will realize, obviously quite impossible for us to arrest the entire pension and search everyone’s luggage. Apart from the fact that several are foreigners whose consuls would be troublesome, we might fail to find the camera. In that case the guilty one would be on his guard and we should be helpless. Inquiries,” he went on pointedly, “must be made by someone whose presence would arouse no suspicion, who could find out discreetly who has been seen with a Contax camera.”
“You mean me?”
“You might proceed very simply by finding out which of them have cameras. Those that have cameras but not Contax cameras may be less under suspicion than those who have no cameras. You see, Vadassy, the person who has your camera may know by now that the change has been made. In that case he would hide your camera lest he should be identified as the owner of the camera with the Toulon photographs in it. There is also the possibility,” he added dreamily, “that he might try to get his own camera back again. You must be on the watch for that.”
“You don’t put this suggestion forward seriously?”
He glanced at me coldly.
“Believe me, my friend, if I had any alternative I should be glad. You do not seem to me very intelligent.”
“But I am under arrest. Surely,” I said acidly, “you will not be able to persuade the Commissaire to release me?”
“You will remain under arrest, but you will be released on parole. Only Koche knows of your arrest. We visited your room. He did not like it, but it was explained that it was an affair of passports and that you had given permission. You will state that there was a misunderstanding and that you were detained by mistake. You will report to me by telephone here every morning. Telephone from the post office in the village. If you wish to find me at any other time you will telephone to the Commissaire.”
“But I have to leave on Saturday morning for Paris. I am expected to start the new term on Monday.”
“You will stay until you have permission to go. Also you will make no attempt to get into touch with anyone outside the Reserve except the police.”
A sickening sense of helplessness crept over me.
“I shall lose my job.”
Beghin got up and stood over me.
“Listen, Vadassy,” he said; and in his absurd voice there was an ugly note far more menacing than the Commissaire’s bluster. “You will stay at the Reserve until you are told to go. If you try to leave before then, you will be re-arrested and I shall make it my personal business to see that you are deported by steamer to Dubrovnik and that your dossier is handed to the Yugoslav police. And get this into your head. The quicker we find out who took those photographs the sooner you can go. But don’t try any tricks and don’t write any letters. Either you do what you are told or you will be deported. You will be very lucky if you avoid deportation, anyway. So be careful. You understand, eh?”
An hour later I walked back along the road from the Commissariat to the village. The Contax was slung over my shoulder. When I put my hand in my pocket I could feel a small piece of paper with a list of the guests at the Reserve typed on it.
Koche was in his office when I got there. As I passed by to go to my room he came out. He was in blue jeans, sandals, and a maillot, and, to judge from his wet hair, had just been swimming. With his tall, thin, stooping figure and his sleepy manner he looked very unmanagerial.
“Ah, Monsieur,” he said with a faint smile. “You are back. Nothing serious, I hope. The police came here this morning. They said they had your permission to take your passport.”
I looked as disgruntled as I could.
“No, nothing serious. A question of identity and a mistake which they took a fantastic time to discover. They were apologetic, but what can one do? The French police are wholly ridiculous.”
He looked serious, professed amazement and indignation, complimented me on my forbearance. He was clearly unconvinced. I could scarcely blame him. I was feeling too weak to play the outraged citizen with any hope of success.
“By the way, Monsieur,” he said casually, as I made for the stairs, “it is Saturday morning that you are leaving, I believe?”
So he wanted to get rid of me. I affected to consider the question.
“I had thought of doing so,” I said; “but I may decide to stay a day or two longer. That is,” I added, with a wintry smile, “if the police have no objection.”
He hesitated barely a second.
“A pleasure,” he said, but without enthusiasm.
As I turned again to go, it may have been my fancy, but I thought that his eyes were on the camera.