H e did not see me for a moment.
As he came through the doorway he tossed a book on the bed and made as if to cross to the chest of drawers.
Then our eyes met.
I saw him start. Then, very slowly, he went on to the chest of drawers and took out the tin of tobacco. He started filling his pipe.
The silence was almost unbearable. A weight seemed to be pressing on my chest, stifling me. The blood was thumping in my head. Fascinated, I watched his fingers steadily pressing the tobacco into the bowl.
When at last he spoke, his voice was perfectly level, even casual.
“I’m afraid you will find nothing of value here.”
“I didn’t-” I began huskily; but, pipe in hand, he motioned me into silence.
“Spare me your protestations. Believe me, you have my sympathy. Persons in your profession must of necessity take risks. It must be very galling to find that you have taken them for nothing. Especially,” he added, commencing to light the pipe, “when the risk lands you in prison.” He blew out a cloud of smoke. “Now, would you prefer to see the manager here or in his office?”
“I do not wish to see the manager at all. I have taken nothing.”
“I am aware of that. There is nothing to take. But I must remind you that you are in my room, uninvited.”
My scattered wits were returning.
“As a matter of fact-” I began again, but before I could get any further he had interrupted me.
“Ah! I was waiting for that. I find that when a person prefaces a statement with ‘as a matter of fact,’ the statement is nearly always a lie. But do go on. What is your fact?”
I flushed angrily.
“The fact is that earlier today some valuables were stolen from my suitcase. I suspected you of taking them. As Monsieur Koche did not take the matter seriously I decided to see for myself.”
He smiled acidly. “Oh, I see. The best defense is attack. I threaten you, you threaten me. Unfortunately for you, I happen to have discussed with Herr Koche the subject of your complaint.” He paused significantly. “Your bill is paid, I believe.”
“I am leaving under protest.”
“And is this part of your protest?”
“Put it that way if you wish. However, I see that I was mistaken. You are not the culprit. I can only apologize to you profoundly for taking the law into my own hands, and withdraw.” I made a move towards the door.
He moved over slightly to intercept me.
“I am afraid,” he said gravely, “that that will not do. Under the circumstances I think it would be as well if we were to stay here and ask Herr Koche to come to us.” He went to the bell and rang it. My heart sank.
“I have taken nothing. I have done no damage. You cannot charge me with anything.” My voice rose.
“My dear Herr Vadassy,” he said wearily, “you are already known to the police. That is sufficient. If it amuses you to quibble, do so. But please save it for the Commissaire. You came here with the intention of stealing. You can make such explanations as you can think of to the detectives.”
I was desperate. I cast round wildly for a way out. If Koche came now I should be in the Commissariat within half an hour. I had only one thing left to say. I said it.
“And who,” I snapped, “is going to lodge the complaint? Herr Heinberger, Herr Emil Schimler of Berlin or Herr Paul Czissar of Brno?”
I had expected some reaction from this, but the extent of it took me by surprise. He turned round slowly and faced me. His hollow cheeks had gone deathly pale and the ironic expression in his eyes had changed to one of cold hatred. He walked towards me. Involuntarily, I took a step backwards. He stopped.
“So you are not the hotel sneak-thief after all.”
It was said softly, almost wonderingly, yet with a corrosive quality about it that scared me badly.
“I told you I wasn’t a thief,” I said jauntily.
He stepped forward suddenly, gripped the front of my shirt, and pulled me towards him until my face was a few centimeters from his. I was so startled that I forgot to resist him. He shook me slowly backwards and forwards as he spoke.
“No, not a thief, not an honest rat, but a filthy little spy. A cunning spy, too.” His lip curled contemptuously. “To the outside world a shy, ingenuous teacher of languages with a romantic appearance and sad Magyar eyes that would deceive a painter. How long have you been at the game, Vadassy, or whatever your name is? Did they pick you for the job or did you graduate from the flogging cells?” He gave me a violent push that sent me staggering back to the wall.
His fist was clenched and he was coming towards me again when there was a knock at the door.
For a moment we stared at each other in silence; then he straightened his back, walked to the door and opened it. It was one of the waiters.
“You rang, Monsieur?” I heard him say.
Schimler seemed to hesitate. Then:
“I am sorry,” he said; “I did not mean to ring. You can go.”
He shut the door and, leaning against it, looked at me. “That was a fortunate interruption for you, my friend. It is many years since I lost my temper so completely. I was going to kill you.”
I strove to keep the tremor out of my voice. “And now that you have regained your temper, perhaps we can talk sense. A little while ago you remarked that the best defense is attack. I am afraid that your calling me a spy is a somewhat naive way of putting that notion into practice. Don’t you agree?”
He was silent. I began to regain my self-possession. This was going to be easier than I had thought. The main thing now was to find out what he had done with the camera. Then I would get the waiter back to telephone Beghin.
“If,” I went on, “you knew the trouble you had caused me you would be far more sympathetic. I can still feel that crack on the head you gave me last night. And if you haven’t already spoiled those two rolls of film I should like them back before the police come. You know, they talked of not letting me go back to Paris until the matter was cleared up. However, now that it is cleared up, I hope you are going to be sensible. By the way, what did you do with the camera?”
He was frowning at me uncertainly. “If this is some sort of trap…” he began, and paused. “I haven’t the least idea what you are talking about,” he concluded.
I shrugged. “You’re being very foolish. Have you ever heard of a man named Beghin?”
He shook his head.
“I am afraid you soon will. He is a member of the Surete Generale attached to the Naval Intelligence Department at Toulon. Does that suggest nothing to you?”
He came slowly to the center of the room. I prepared to defend myself. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the bell-push. A couple of strides and I should be able to reach it. The next time he moved I would make a dash. But he stood still.
“I have a suspicion, Vadassy, that we are talking at cross purposes.”
I smiled. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I am afraid I do not understand you.”
I sighed impatiently. “Is it really worth denying? Be sensible, please. What have you done with the camera?”
“Is this some very clumsy joke?”
“It is not, as you will soon find out.” Feeling that I was not handling the situation particularly well, I began to get annoyed. “I propose to call the police. Have you any objections?”
“To the police? None at all. Call them by all means.”
He might be bluffing, but I felt a little uneasy. Without the evidence of the camera I was helpless. I decided to change my tactics. For a second or two I stared hard at him, then I broke into a crestfallen grin. “Do you know,” I said sheepishly, “I have an unhappy suspicion that I have made a mistake.”
His eyes searched mine warily. “I feel quite sure that is the case.”
I sighed. “Well, I am very sorry to have caused you all this inconvenience. I feel extremely foolish. Monsieur Duclos will be most amused.”
“Who?” The question was like a pistol shot.
“Monsieur Duclos. He is a pleasant old man, a little talkative, it is true, but sympathetic.”
I saw him control himself with an effort. He came nearer to me. His voice was dangerously calm. “Who are you and what do you want? Are you from the police?”
“I am connected with the police.” This, I thought, was rather neat. “You know my name. All I want is a piece of information. What have you done with that camera?”
“And if I still tell you that I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
“I shall hand you over for interrogation. What is more”-I watched him narrowly-“I shall make known what you seem so anxious to keep quiet-the fact that your name is not Heinberger.”
“The police already know it.”
“I know that. I regret to say that I have no confidence whatever in the intelligence of the local police. Now do you know what I am talking about?”
I smiled and went to pass him to go to the door. He gripped my arm and swung me round.
“Listen, you fool,” he said savagely, “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, but you seem to have got some idea into your head about me. Whatever it is, you seem to regard the fact that I am anxious to conceal my identity as some sort of proof that your idea is correct. Is that right?”
“Very well, then. My reasons for using the name Heinberger have nothing whatever to do with you. Koche is aware of them. The police have my correct name. You, who have no idea what those reasons are, propose to be wilfully indiscreet unless I give you some information which I do not possess. Is that correct, too?”
“More or less. Assuming, of course, that you haven’t got the information.”
He ignored this last remark and sat down on the edge of his bed. “I don’t know how you found out. The police here told you, I suppose, and those passports in the wardrobe. In any case, I’ve got to stop the news getting any further. I am being perfectly frank with you, you see! I must stop you. The only way I can hope to do that is to give you my reasons. There is nothing very strange about them. My case is by no means unique.”
He paused to relight his pipe. His eyes met mine across the bowl. The ironic expression had returned to them. “You look, Vadassy, as though you weren’t going to believe a word of anything.”
“I don’t know that I am.”
He blew the match out. “Well, we’ll see. But you must remember one thing; I am trusting you. I have, of course, no alternative but to do so. I cannot persuade you to trust me.”
There was a hint of a question in the pause that followed the remark. For one fleeting instant I weakened; but only for an instant.
“I am trusting nobody.”
He sighed. “Very well. But it is a long story. It begins in 1933. I was editor of a social-democrat newspaper in Berlin, the Telegrafblatt.” He shrugged. “It is no longer in existence. It was not a bad paper. I had some clever journalists working for me. It was the property of a sawmill owner in East Prussia. He was a good man, a reformer, with a profound admiration for the nineteenth-century English liberals, Godwin and John Stuart Mill, people like that. He went into mourning when Stresemann died. He used sometimes to send me down leading articles about the brotherhood of man and the necessity of replacing the struggle between capital and labor with co-operation based on Christ’s teaching. I must say he was on the best of terms with his own employees; but I have an idea that his mills were losing money. Then came 1933.
“The trouble with postwar German social-democracy was that it supported with one hand what it was trying to fight with the other. It believed in the freedom of the individual capitalist to exploit the worker and the freedom of the worker to organize his trade union and fight the capitalist. Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar, that the only sublime political conception was reform, that the rotten economic structure of the world could be shored up at the bottom with material from the top. Worst of all, it thought that you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In 1933 German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.
“The Telegrafblatt was one of the first papers to be closed down. Twice we were raided. The second time the machine-room was wrecked with hand grenades. Even that we survived. We were lucky enough to find a printer who could and would print a newspaper of sorts for us. But three weeks later he refused to print any more papers for us. He had been visited by the police. The same day we had a telegram from the owner saying that owing to losses in his business he had been compelled to sell the paper. The purchaser was a Nazi official, and I happen to know that the price was paid with a draft on a Detroit bank. The following night I was arrested at my home and put in the police cells.
“They kept me there for three months. I was not charged. They did not even question me. All I could get out of them was that my case was being considered. The first month, while I was getting used to it, was the worst part. Those police weren’t bad fellows. One of them even told me that he had sometimes read my stuff. But at the end of the three months I was moved to a concentration camp near Hanover.”
He paused for a moment. I sat down on the chair by the window.
“I dare say you’ve heard a lot about concentration camps,” he went on. “Most people have; and their ideas are mostly wrong. To hear some talk you would imagine that the entire day was spent in knocking the prisoners’ teeth out with rubber truncheons, kicking them in their stomachs and breaking their fingers with rifle butts. It isn’t; at least it wasn’t in the camp I was in. Nazi brutality is much less human. It’s the mind they get at. If you’d ever seen a man come out of a fortnight’s solitary confinement in a pitch-dark cell you’d know what I mean. Theoretically, it is possible to pass the time in a concentration camp no more uncomfortably than in any other prison-theoretically. No one, I should think, has ever done so. The discipline is fantastic. They give you work to do-shoveling piles of stones from one spot to another and then back again-and if you stop working, even to straighten your back for an instant-you get a flogging for disobeying orders and a week’s solitary confinement. They never relax for a moment. They change the guards constantly so that they don’t get tired of watching. They march you about the camp under cover of a machine-gun. They feed you on offal and cabbage stumps stewed in water and there’s a machine-gun covering you while you eat the filth. One man there used to be so worried by the gun that as soon as he’d eaten he used to vomit. Some became so debilitated that they couldn’t stand. When you were new to it you fought against it. They were ready for that. They used to get to work systematically to break your spirit. Regular floggings and long spells of solitary confinement soon did the trick. As long as you held out you were conscious that very gradually your mind was going. I pretended to knuckle under. It wasn’t easy. You see, they can tell by your eyes. If you let them see you looking at them, let them see that your mind is still working like a human being’s instead of a beast’s, you’re done for. You keep your eyes on the ground, never look at the guard who addresses you. I became quite expert; so expert that I began to think that I might be deceiving myself and that I was really no better off than the rest. I spent two years in that camp.”
His pipe had gone out. He tapped the bowl reflectively against the palm of his hand.
“One day I was taken to the commandant’s office. They told me that if I would sign a paper renouncing my German citizenship, saying that I would leave Germany and would not return, I would be allowed to go. At first I thought it was merely another of their tricks for making you give yourself away. But it was no trick. Not even their precious People’s Court could find anything to convict me of. I signed the paper. I would have signed anything to get out. Then I had to wait for three days for my permit to arrive. During that time they kept me away from the other prisoners. Instead of working with them I was put on to cleaning latrines. But at night we went to the same dormitory. And then something curious happened.
“Talking between the prisoners was forbidden, and the rule was enforced so savagely that the eyes-on-the-ground idea applied as much between prisoner and prisoner as between prisoner and guard. If you looked at another prisoner they might say you had been thinking of talking. The result was that you recognized the man next to you not so much by his face as by his shoulders and the shape of his feet. I had a shock when, as we were being marched into the dormitory on my last night there, I saw that the man next to me was trying to catch my eye. He was a gray-faced, heavy sort of man of about forty. He’d only been there six months, and by the way they’d singled him out for floggings I had guessed that he was a Communist. There was a guard near us and I was frankly terrified of giving them an excuse to cancel my permit. I got into my bunk as quickly as I could and lay still.
“It used to be quite common for the prisoners to have nightmares. Sometimes they would just mumble, sometimes they would shout and scream in their sleep. As soon as a man started one of the guards would get a bucket of water and empty it over him. I never slept much there, but that night I didn’t sleep at all. I kept thinking of getting away the next day. I had been lying in the darkness for about two hours when this man next to me started to mumble in his sleep. One of the guards came over and looked at him, but the mumbling had ceased. When the guard moved away it started again, but now it was a little louder and I could hear what he was saying. He was asking if I were awake.
“I coughed a little, turned restlessly, and sighed so that he should know that I was. Then he began to mumble again, and I heard him telling me to go to an address in Prague. He only had time to say it once, for the guard had come over again and he was suspicious. The man turned over suddenly and began flinging his arms about wildly and shouting for help. The guard kicked him and, as the man pretended to wake up, threatened him with a bucket of water if he wasn’t quiet. I heard no more from him. The following day I was given my permit and put on a train for Belgium.
“I won’t attempt to tell you what it felt like to be free again. It worried me at first. I couldn’t get the smell of camp out of my nostrils and I used to go off to sleep at all sorts of odd times during the day and dream that I was back there. But I got over that after a bit and began to think like a human being again. I spent a month or two in Paris doing a little work for the newspapers there, but the language difficulty made it almost impossible. I had to pay to have my stuff properly translated. I decided finally to try Prague. At the time I had no intention of going to the address that had been given me. I had, indeed, almost forgotten about it. Then something I heard from another German I met in Prague made me decide to investigate. That address turned out to be the headquarters of the German Communist underground propaganda organization.”
He paused for a moment to relight his pipe. Then he went on.
“After a while, when they were sure of me, I started working for the underground. The principal activity was getting news into Germany, real news. We produced a newspaper-the name of it doesn’t matter-and it used to be smuggled in small quantities over the frontier. It was printed on a very thin India paper and each one folded into a thin wad that a man could carry in the palm of his hand. Many different methods were employed for the smuggling, some of them very ingenious. The copies were even packed in small greaseproof bags and stuffed inside the axle boxes of the Prague-Berlin trains. They were collected by a wheel-tester at the Berlin end, but the Gestapo caught him after a while, and we had to think of something else. Then it was suggested that one of us should make an effort to get a Czech passport, pose as a commercial traveler and take the papers in with samples. I volunteered for the job, and after some trouble we were successful.
“I crossed into Germany over thirty times that year. It wasn’t particularly risky. There were only two dangers. One was the chance of being recognized and denounced. The other was that the man who took the papers off me to pass them on to the distributing organization might become suspect. He did become suspect. They didn’t arrest him immediately, but watched. We used to meet in the waiting-room of a suburban station and then get into a train together. I would leave the parcel of papers on the luggage rack when I got out. He would pick it up. Then one day, just after the train had left the station, it stopped and a squad of S.S. men got in from the track. We didn’t know for certain whether it was us they were after or not, so we went into separate compartments and sat still. I heard them arrest him and waited for my turn. But they just examined my passport and went on through the train. It was not until I was nearly back in Prague the next day that I realized that I was being followed. Luckily I had the sense not to go back to headquarters. Luckily, that is, for my friends. It was less lucky for me. When they found that I wasn’t going to lead them to the persons they wanted they decided that the best way would be to get me back to Germany and use their persuasive resources to extract information. You see, our newspaper had begun to worry them, and I was the only real clue they had to the people behind it. The German end of the organization was concerned purely with distribution. It was the directing brains that they were after. I had to get away. And it had to be out of Czechoslovakia, too, for they had notified the Czech police that I was really a German criminal wanted for theft and that the Paul Czissar passport had been obtained under false pretenses.
“In Switzerland they tried to kidnap me. I was staying on the shore of Lake Constance and got friendly with two men who said they were on a fishing holiday. One day they asked me to go out with them. I was bored. I said that I would go. Just in time and quite by accident I found out that they were Germans, not Swiss, and that their boat had been hired on the German side of the lake. I went to Zurich after that; I knew they would keep track of me, but they couldn’t do any kidnapping so far away from the frontier. But I didn’t stay there long. One morning I got a letter from Prague warning me that the Gestapo had somehow found out that my name was Schimler. They had known before, of course, that Paul Czissar was no Czech, but a German; but now that they knew my real name they would not have to kidnap me to get me back to Germany. I’ve been on the run ever since. Twice they’ve nearly caught up with me. Switzerland was swarming with Gestapo agents. I decided to try France. The people in Prague sent me to Koche. He’s one of them.
“He’s been an amazing friend. I arrived here without a penny, and he’s given me clothes and kept me for nothing ever since. But I can’t run any more. I have no money and Koche can’t give me any, for he has none himself. That wife of his owns the place, and it’s all he can do to persuade her to let me stay. I offered to work, but she wouldn’t have that. She’s jealous of him and likes to have a hold over him. I should get away. It’s dangerous here now. A few weeks back we heard that a Gestapo agent had been sent into France. It’s amazing the way they ferret things out. When you are being hunted you develop an extra sense. You begin to feel when there’s danger. I’ve managed to change my appearance a good deal, but I think I have been identified. I think, too, that I have spotted the agent they sent. But he won’t act until he’s sure. My only chance is to bluff him. You took me off my guard. For a moment I thought I had made a mistake. Koche had put you down as a petty crook.” He shrugged. “I don’t know what you are, Vadassy, but what I’ve told you is the truth. What are you going to do?”
I looked at him. “Frankly, I don’t know,” I said. “I might have believed this story except for one thing. You didn’t explain why the fact of their finding out that your name was Schimler should make your position very much worse. If they couldn’t force you to return when they knew you as Czissar, why should they be able to do so when they had found your real name?”
His eyes were on mine; I saw the corners of his mouth twitch. It was the only hint of emotion he had betrayed. His voice when he replied was flat and toneless.
“It is very simple,” he said slowly; “my wife and child are still in Germany.”
“You see,” he went on after a bit, “when they expelled me from Germany they would not let me see my family. I had not seen them for over two years. Before I was sent to the camp I had heard that my wife had taken the boy to her father’s house outside Berlin. I wrote to her from Belgium and Paris, and we arranged that as soon as I could establish myself in France or England they would join me. But I soon saw that it was all I could do to support myself in Paris. London would have been the same. I was just another German refugee. In Prague I met a man who told me that the Communists had ways and means of getting in and out of Germany undetected. I craved desperately to see my wife, to talk to her, to see the boy. It was that craving that sent me to the address I had been given in the camp. The story about getting in and out of Germany was nonsense, of course. I soon saw that; but when an opportunity did come I took it. On three of my trips with the Czech passport I met my wife in secret.
“She tried to persuade me to take her and the child to Prague with me, but I wouldn’t. I was living on practically nothing, and while they could live in comfort with her father and the boy could go to school I thought it was best that they should do so.
“When the first blow fell I was glad that I had been so sensible. Let the Gestapo get me back if they could! Not, mind you, that it would have done them any good, because the Party knew that no matter how loyal a man was he might eventually be tortured into speaking. When I was followed to Prague the headquarters was moved. I don’t know where they are now. Their address is Poste Restante, Prague. But the Gestapo are very thorough. They wanted me back. And I underestimated them. My Czech passport was too dangerous to use, so I fell back on the old German passport that my wife had kept hidden safely and brought to me when we met. It must have been through my using it that they traced me.
“When I heard, I was terrified. In my wife and son they had hostages. I would have to return or know that my wife was imprisoned in my stead. I thought things over. Until they delivered their ultimatum she would probably be safe-under surveillance, no doubt, but safe. There was only one thing for me to do-go into hiding until I could get news of her. If she were all right and still with her father, I should stay in hiding until perhaps they had grown tired of looking for me, and I could get another passport with which to get her away.”
He stared at the old pipe in his hand. “I’ve waited over four months now, and I’ve heard nothing. I can’t write myself for fear of the German censors. Koche has an accommodation address in Toulon, and he has tried to get letters through. But there has been no reply. I can do nothing but wait. If they find me here I cannot help it. Unless I hear from her very soon I must in any case go back. That is all there is for me to do.”
For a moment there was silence. Then he looked up at me and grinned very faintly. “Can I trust you, Vadassy?”
“Of course.” I wanted to say more, but I could not.
He nodded his thanks. I got up and walked to the door.
“And what about your spy, my friend?” he murmured over his shoulder.
I hesitated. Then: “I shall look for him elsewhere, Herr Heinberger.”
As I pulled the door to behind me I saw him slowly raise his hands to his face. I went quickly.
As I did so I heard another door close near at hand. I paid no attention to it. I had no reason to fear being seen leaving Herr Heinberger’s room. Back in my own room, I took out Beghin’s list and looked at it for a moment. Then I crossed off three names-Albert Koche, Suzanne Koche and Emil Schimler.