I find it difficult now to remember much of the next two hours. But I do know that when I reached my room there was for me only one question in the world-was there a train from Toulon to Paris on Sunday afternoon? I remember that I rushed to my suitcase and searched feverishly for the timetable.
You may find it odd that, faced with utter and complete disaster, I should be concerned about so trivial a matter as the train services to Paris. But human beings do behave oddly in times of very great stress. Passengers in a sinking ship will go back to their cabins as the last boat is casting off from the side, to save trifling personal possessions. Men on the point of death worry about small unpaid bills as they go forward to eternity.
What worried me was the prospect of being late on the Monday morning. Monsieur Mathis was very strict on the score of punctuality. Latecomers, whether pupils or teachers, incurred his grave displeasure. This was expressed in biting terms and a very loud voice at a moment when the additional embarrassment of an audience had to be suffered. The denunciation, moreover, usually followed some hours after the commission of the crime. The suspense could be very wearing.
If, I reasoned, I could catch a train from Toulon on Sunday afternoon and travel overnight to Paris, I might be at the school on time. I remember the feeling of relief I experienced on finding that there was a train which reached Paris at six o’clock on the Monday morning. My mind was working in a fog. Beghin had said that I should not be able to leave on Saturday. Terrible! Monsieur Mathis would be angry. Could I get to Paris in time if I left on Sunday? Yes, thank God, I could! All was well.
I think that if anyone had suggested to me at that moment that I should not be able to leave on the Sunday, I should have laughed disbelievingly. But there would have been hysteria in that laugh for, as I sat on the floor beside my open suitcase, fear was clutching at the mechanism inside my chest, making my heart thud and my breathing short and sharp, as though I had been running. I kept swallowing saliva, feeling for some curious reason that by doing so I would stop my heart beating so. It made me terribly thirsty and after a while I got up, went to the washbasin, and drank some water out of the tooth glass. Then I went back and pushed the lid of my suitcase down with my foot. As I did so I felt the piece of paper Beghin had given me crackle in my pocket. I sat down on the bed.
I must have sat staring blankly at Beghin’s list for well over an hour. I read it and re-read it. The names became ciphers, meaningless arrangements of shapes. I shut my eyes, opened them, and read again. I did not know these people. I had spent one day in the hotel. It was a hotel with large grounds. I had exchanged nods with them at mealtimes. No more. With my bad memory for faces I could probably have passed all of them in the street without recognizing one. Yet one of the persons represented by those names had my camera. One of those who had nodded to me was a spy. One of them had been paid to make his or her way secretly into military zones, to take photographs of reinforced concrete and guns so that some day warships out at sea might safely and accurately fire shells to smash to pieces the concrete and the guns and the men who served them. And I had two days in which to identify that person.
Their names, I thought stupidly, looked very harmless.
Monsieur Robert Duclos
Monsieur Andre Roux
Miss Mary Skelton
Washington, D. C.
Mr. Warren Skelton
Washington, D. C.
Herr Walter Vogel
Frau Hulde Vogel
Herr Emil Schimler
Albert Koche (manager)
Suzanne Koche (wife)
A similar list of guests might have been compiled from almost any other small pension in the south of France. There was the inevitable English army man and his wife. There were the Americans, not quite so inevitable, but by no means unusual. There were the Swiss, and there was the sprinkling of French. The solitary German was odd, but not unduly so. Swiss hotel managers and their wives were common enough.
What was I to do? Where should I start? Then I remembered Beghin’s instructions about the cameras. I was to find out which of them had cameras and then report. I seized on this positive line of thought eagerly.
The obvious method seemed to be to engage them in conversation one by one, or couple by couple, and bring up the subject of photography. But that was no use. Supposing the spy had already discovered that his photographs were missing, that instead of his pictures of concrete and guns he had some lively low-angle shots of a carnival at Nice? Even if he did not immediately realize that he had somebody else’s camera, he would know that something had gone wrong and be on his guard. Anyone attempting to get conversational on the subject of photography would excite his suspicions. I must proceed by less direct means.
I glanced at my watch. The time was a quarter to seven. From the window I could see that the beach was still occupied. There were a pair of shoes and a small sunshade lying on the strip of sand visible from my room. I combed my hair and went out.
Some people can strike up casual acquaintances with the greatest ease. They possess some mysterious flexible quality of mind that enables them to adjust their mental processes rapidly to conform with those of the strangers facing them. In an instant they have identified themselves with the stranger’s interests. They smile. The strangers respond. There is a question and a reply. A minute later they are friends, chatting away amicably of trifles.
I do not possess this engaging faculty. I do not speak at all unless spoken to. Even then, nervousness allied to a desperate wish to be friendly renders me either stiff and formal or over-effusive. As a result of this, strangers either think me morose or suspect me of trying to work a confidence trick.
As I walked down the stone steps to the beach, however, I made up my mind that, for once at any rate, I would have to shed my inhibitions. I must be confident and friendly, I must think of amusing things to say, I must manage the conversation, be subtle. I had work to do.
The small beach was now in complete shadow and a faint breeze off the sea was beginning to stir the tops of the trees; but it was still very warm. I could see the heads of two men and two women over the backs of the deck-chairs in which their owners were sitting; and as I neared the foot of the steps I could hear that they were attempting to carry on a conversation in French.
I walked across the sand, sat a few meters from them on the end of one of the trestles on which the dinghy was being painted, and gazed out across the bay.
From the quick look I had got in as I sat down I knew that in the two chairs nearest me were a young man of about twenty-three and a girl of about twenty. They had been swimming, and it was evidently their brown legs that I had seen from the terrace that morning. I judged from their French that these were the two Americans, Warren and Mary Skelton.
The other two were very different. Both were middle-aged and very fat. I remembered having noticed them before. The man had a beaming moonlike face and a torso that from a distance looked almost spherical. This illusion was due in some measure to the trousers he wore. They were of some dark material and had very short, narrow legs. The tops of them, already very high, were drawn up over his round belly almost to his armpits by very powerful suspenders. He wore a tennis shirt open at the neck and no jacket. He might have walked out of a cartoon in Simplicissimus. His wife, for these were the Swiss, was slightly taller than him and very untidy. She laughed a great deal and even when she was not actually laughing she looked as if she were about to do so. Her husband beamed in concert with her. They both appeared as simple and unselfconscious as a pair of small children.
It seemed that Skelton was trying to explain the American political system to Herr Vogel.
“Il y a,” he was saying laboriously, “deux parties seulement, les Republicaines et les Democrates. Ces sont du droit-tous les deux. Mais les Republicaines sont plus au droit que les Democrates. Ca c’est la difference.”
“Ah oui, je comprend,” said Herr Vogel. He hurriedly translated the sense into German. Frau Vogel grinned broadly.
“One hears,” pursued her husband in his clipped French, “that the gangsters (he pronounced it “garngstairs”) have a decisive influence during the elections. Like a party of the center, perhaps?” He had the air of one putting aside frivolous small talk in favor of graver matters.
The girl giggled helplessly. Her brother drew a deep breath and began to explain with great care, and to Herr Vogel’s evident amazement, that ninety-nine point nine per cent of the people of the United States had never seen a gangster. But his French soon gave out.
“Il y a, sans doute,” he was admitting, “une quantite de… quelque
…” He could get no farther. “Mary,” he said plaintively, “what the hell’s the word for graft?”
At that moment fortune favored me. It may be that teaching becomes a habit, that the impulse to instruct will, like hunger or fear, overcome social inhibitions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the girl shrug her shoulders helplessly; a fraction of a second later the words were out of my mouth.
“Chantage is the word you want.”
They all looked at me.
“Oh, thanks,” said the girl.
An eager light came into her brother’s eye.
“Do you speak French as well as English?”
“Then,” he said, tartly, “do you mind telling this moron here on our left that gangster is spelt with a small ‘g’ in America, and they’re not represented in Congress. At least, not openly. You might add, too, while you’re about it, that all our food doesn’t come out of cans, and that we don’t all live in the Empire State Building.”
The girl smiled.
“My brother’s not serious.”
“Aren’t I, by heaven! He’s an international menace. Someone ought to tell him.”
The Vogels had been listening to this exchange with bewildered smiles on their faces. I translated, as tactfully as possible, into German. They rocked with laughter. Between paroxysms, Herr Vogel explained that it was impossible not to tease Americans. A party of garngstair! The Empire State Building! There were fresh peals of laughter. The Swiss were evidently not quite so naive as they looked.
“What’s the matter with him now?” demanded Skelton.
I explained. He grinned.
“You wouldn’t think they had any guile in them, would you?” he said, and leaned forward to get a better view of the Vogels. “What are they, Germans?”
“Swiss, I think.”
“Pop,” remarked the girl, “looks exactly like Tenniel’s illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Get those pants!”
The object of these criticisms was regarding us anxiously. He addressed himself to me.
“Die jungen Leute haben unseren kleinen Spass nicht ubel genommen?”
“He says,” I explained to the Skeltons, “that he hopes he hasn’t offended you.”
Young Skelton looked startled.
“Heavens, no. Look-” He turned to the Vogels. “Nous sommes tres amuses. Sie sind sehr liebenswurdig,” he said heartily. Then: “Hell, tell him, will you?”
I did so. There was a great deal of nodding and smiling. Then the Vogels began to talk between themselves.
“How many languages do you speak?” said Skelton.
He laughed disgustedly.
“Then would you explain very carefully,” put in the girl, “just how you learn a foreign language? I don’t want five. But if you could think in terms of ones for a moment, my brother and I would be interested.”
I muttered something about living in countries and cultivating a “language ear,” and asked them if they had been at the Reserve long.
“Oh, we’ve been here a week or so now,” he replied. “Our parents are coming over from home next week on the Conte di Savoia. We’re meeting them at Marseilles. You got here Tuesday, didn’t you?”
“Well, I’m glad we can talk to someone in English. Koche is not bad with his English, but he’s got no staying power. We’ve only had that British major and his wife. He’s high-hat and she doesn’t speak at all.”
“Which could be lucky, too,” said his sister.
She was, I was realizing, though far from pretty, extremely attractive. Her mouth was too wide, her nose was not quite symmetrical, and her face was flat, with over-prominent cheekbones. But there was humor and intelligence in the way the lips moved, and the nose and cheekbones were good. The skin of her body was firm and clear and brown, while the thick mass of tawny fair hair crushed forward by the back of the deck-chair gleamed in a most interesting way. She was almost beautiful.
“The trouble with the French,” her brother was saying, “is that they get mad if you can’t speak their language properly. I don’t get mad if a Frenchman can’t speak English.”
“No, but that’s because most ordinary Frenchmen like the sound of their language. They don’t like listening to a bad French accent any more than you like listening to a beginner practicing on a violin.”
“It’s no use appealing to his musical ear,” commented the girl. “He’s tone deaf.” She got up and smoothed out her bathing suit. “Well,” she said, “I guess we’d better be getting some more clothes on.”
Herr Vogel heaved himself out of his chair, consulted an enormous watch, and announced in French that it was seven fifteen. Then he hitched up his suspenders another notch and began to collect his and his wife’s belongings. We all went in procession to the steps. I found myself behind the American.
“By the way, sir,” he said as we started up, “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Mine’s Warren Skelton. This is my sister Mary.”
But I barely heard him. Slung across Herr Vogel’s plump back was a camera, and I was trying to recollect where I had seen another one like it. Then I remembered. It was a box-type Voigtlander.
On very warm nights, dinner at the Reserve was served on the terrace. A striped awning was put up for the purpose and illumination was provided by candles on the tables. It looked very gay when they were all alight.
I had made up my mind to be the first on the terrace that evening. For one thing, I was hungry. For another, I wanted to inspect my fellow guests one at a time. Three of them, however, were already in their places when I arrived.
One of them, a man sitting alone, was placed behind me so that I could not see him except by turning right round in my chair. I took in as much as possible of his appearance as I walked to my table.
The candle on his table and the fact that he was bending forward over his plate prevented my seeing much of him except a head of short, graying fair hair brushed sideways without a part. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of coarse linen trousers of obviously French manufacture.
I sat down and turned my attention to the other two.
They sat very stiffly, facing one another across their table, he a narrow-headed man with grizzled brown hair and a clipped mustache, she an impassive middle-aged woman with large bones, a sallow complexion, and a head of neatly dressed white hair. Both had changed for dinner. She wore a white blouse and a black skirt. He had put on gray flannel trousers, a brown striped shirt with a regimental tie, and a broad check riding-coat. As I watched him he put down his soup spoon, picked up a bottle of cheap claret from the table, and held it to the light.
“I do believe, my dear,” I heard him say, “that the waiters drink our wine. I marked this bottle most carefully at luncheon.”
He had a penetrating upper-middle-class English voice. The woman shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly. Obviously she did not approve.
“My dear,” he replied, “it’s the principle of the thing that I look at. They ought to be pulled up about it. I shall drop a hint to Koche.”
I saw her shrug her shoulders again and dab her mouth with her napkin. This was evidently Major and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley.
The other guests had by this time begun to arrive.
The Vogels sat at a table beyond the two English and beside the balustrade. Another couple made for the table against the wall.
These were unmistakably French. The man, very dark and with goitrous eyes and an unshaven chin, looked about thirty-five. The woman, an emaciated blonde in satin beach pajamas and imitation pearl earrings the size of grapes, might have been older. They were very interested in one another. As he held the chair for her to sit down he caressed her arm. She responded with a furtive squeeze of his fingers, then looked round quickly to see if the other guests had noticed. I saw that the Vogels were convulsed with silent laughter at the incident. Herr Vogel winked at me across the tables.
The blonde woman, I decided, was probably Odette Martin. Her companion would be either Duclos or Roux.
Mary Skelton and her brother came next. They nodded amicably and went to a table behind me on my right. There was only one more to come. He proved to be an elderly man with a white beard and wearing pince-nez attached to a broad, black ribbon.
When the waiter took my soup plate I stopped him.
“Who is the gentleman with the white beard?”
“That is Monsieur Duclos.”
“And the gentleman with the blonde?”
The waiter smiled discreetly.
“Monsieur Roux and Mademoiselle Martin.” He placed a faint emphasis on the “mademoiselle.”
“I see. Which, then, is Herr Schimler?”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Herr Schimler, Monsieur? There is no one of that name at the Reserve.”
“You are sure?”
I glanced over my shoulder.
“Who is the gentleman at the end table?”
“That is Monsieur Paul Heinberger, a Swiss writer and a friend of Monsieur Koche. Will you take fish, Monsieur?”
I nodded and he hurried away.
For a second or two I sat still. Then, calmly but with a hand that trembled, I felt in my pocket for Beghin’s list, enveloped it in my napkin, looked down and read it through carefully.
But already I knew it off by heart. The name of Heinberger was not on it.