19

It was nearly half past one when I arrived back at the Reserve.

As I tramped wearily down the drive, I noticed that there was a light in the office. My heart sank. According to Beghin, the St. Gatien police had explained the situation to Koche, and prepared him for my return; but the prospect of discussing the affair with anyone was one I could not face. I tried to slip past the office door to the stairs, and had my hand on the banisters when there was a movement from the office. I turned. Koche was standing at the door smiling at me sleepily.

“I have been waiting up for you, Monsieur. I had a visit from the Commissaire a short while ago. He told me, amongst other things, that you would be returning.”

“So I understand. I am very tired.”

“Yes, of course. Spy-hunting sounds a tiring sport.” He smiled again. “I thought you might be glad of a sandwich and a glass of wine. It is here, ready, in the office.”

I realized suddenly that a sandwich and some wine was precisely what I should like. I thanked him. We went into the office.

“The Commissaire,” he said as he opened the wine, “was emphatic but evasive. I gathered that it is most important that no hint of Roux’s real activities should get about. At the same time, of course, it is necessary to explain why Monsieur Vadassy is arrested on a charge of espionage yesterday, and yet is back again today as if nothing has happened.”

I swallowed some sandwich. “That,” I said comfortably, “is the Commissaire’s worry.”

“Of course.” He poured out some wine for me, and took some himself. “All the same,” he added, “you yourself will have to answer some embarrassing questions in the morning.”

But I refused to be drawn. “No doubt. But that will be in the morning. All I can think of now is sleep.”

“Naturally. You must be very tired.” He grinned at me suddenly. “I hope you have decided to forget our interview of this afternoon.”

“I have already forgotten it. It was hardly your fault. The police gave me orders. I had to obey them. I didn’t like doing it, as you may imagine, but I had no alternative. They threatened to deport me.”

“Ah, so that’s what it was! The Commissaire didn’t explain that.”

“He wouldn’t.”

He took one of my sandwiches and chewed for a minute or so in silence. Then:

“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “these last few days have worried me.”

“Oh?”

“I once worked in a big Paris hotel as assistant manager. The manager was a man named Pilevski, a Russian. You may have heard of him. He is, in his way, a genius. It was a pleasure to work with him, and he taught me a lot. The successful restaurateur, he used to say, must know his guests. He must know what they are doing, what they are thinking, and what they are earning. And yet he must never appear inquisitive. I took that to heart. It has become instinctive to me to know these things. But during the past few days I realized that there was something going on here that I did not know about, and the fact worried me. It offended my professional sensibilities, if you see what I mean. Some one person, I felt, was at the bottom of it. At first I thought that it might be the Englishman. There was that trouble on the beach, to begin with, and then I found out this morning that he was trying to borrow money from the rest of you.”

“And he succeeded, I believe.”

“Oh, yes. That young American lent him two thousand francs.”

“Skelton?”

“Yes, Skelton. I hope he can afford it. I don’t think he will see it again.” He paused, then added: “Then there was Monsieur Duclos.”

I laughed. “I actually suspected Monsieur Duclos of being a spy, at one stage. You know, he’s a dangerous old man. He’s the most appalling liar, and an inveterate gossip. I suppose that’s why he’s such a successful businessman.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Businessman? Is that what he’s been telling you?”

“Yes. He seems to have a number of factories.”

“Monsieur Duclos,” said Koche deliberately, “is a clerk employed in the sanitary department of a small municipality near Nantes. He earns two thousand francs a month, and he comes here every year for two weeks’ holiday. I heard once that a few years ago he spent six months in a mental home. I have an idea that he will soon have to return to it. He is much worse this year than he was last. He’s developed into a new tendency. He invents the most fantastic stories about people. He’s been badgering me for days trying to get me to handcuff the English major. He says he’s a notorious criminal. It’s very trying.”

But I was getting used to surprises. I finished the last of the sandwiches and got up. “Well, Monsieur Koche, thank you for your sandwiches, thank you for your wine, thank you for your kindness, and-good night. If I stay here any longer I shall spend the night here.”

He grinned. “And then, of course, you would have no chance of evading their questions.”

“They?”

“The guests, Monsieur.” He leant forward earnestly. “Listen, Monsieur. You are tired now. I do not want to worry you. But have you considered what you are going to say to these people in the morning?”

I shook my head wearily. “I have not the slightest idea. Tell them the truth, I suppose.”

“The Commissaire…”

“Hang the Commissaire!” I said explosively. “The police created the situation. They must accept the consequences.”

He got up. “One moment, Monsieur. There is something that I think you should know.”

“Not another surprise, surely?”

“Monsieur, when the Commissaire arrived tonight, the English couple, the Americans and Duclos were still in the lounge discussing your arrest. After he had gone I took the liberty of inventing an explanation of your arrest that would clear you of all suspicion of any criminal activity and at the same time satisfy their curiosity. I told them in the strictest confidence that you were really Monsieur Vadassy, of the counter-espionage department of the Second Bureau, and that the arrest was merely a ruse, part of a special plan about which not even the police knew anything definite.”

I was startled. I gaped. “And do you expect them to swallow that nonsense?” I asked at last.

He smiled. “Why not? They believed your story about the theft of the cigarette-case and the diamond pin.”

“That was different.”

“Agreed. Nevertheless, they believed that, and they believed this. They wanted to believe it, you see. The Americans liked you and didn’t want to think of you as a criminal, a spy. Their immediate acceptance of the story convinced the rest.”

“What about Duclos?”

“He claimed that he had known it all along, that you had told him.”

“Yes, he would claim that. But”-I looked at him squarely-“what was your object in telling this story? I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

“My idea,” he said blandly, “was simply to save you trouble and embarrassment. Monsieur,” he went on persuasively, “if you will sleep soundly tonight, if you will keep to your room in the morning, if you will leave the affair in my hands, I can promise you that you will have to answer no questions or give any explanations. You will not even have to see any of these people.”

“Now, look here-”

“I know,” he put in quickly, “that it was most impertinent of me to tell them this without your permission, but under the circumstances-”

“Under the circumstances,” I interrupted him acidly, “a theft, an arrest, and a violent death all in one day would have been bad for business, so you got in first with a cock-and-bull story about my being a counter-espionage agent. Roux is politely forgotten. The police are happy. I am caught between two fires. Either I have to go on lying like a trooper and explain what the famous counter-espionage agent is doing back at the Reserve or I have to crawl out without anyone seeing me. Nice work!”

He shrugged. “That is one way of looking at it. But I should like to ask you just one question. Would you prefer to make up your own explanation?”

“I should prefer to tell the truth.”

“But the police-”

“Damn the police!”

“Yes, of course.” He coughed a little self-consciously. “I shall have to tell you, I am afraid, that the Commissaire left a message for you.”

“Where is it?”

“It was verbal. He told me to remind you that a citizen of France must be ready to assist the police on all possible occasions. He added that he hoped soon to be in touch with the Bureau of Naturalization.”

I drew a deep breath. “I suppose,” I said slowly, “that you didn’t, by any chance, discuss your little story with the Commissaire?”

He reddened. “I did, I believe, mention it in passing. But-”

“I see. You both worked it put between you. You-” I stopped. A sudden feeling of helplessness swept over me. I was tired, tired, sick to death of the whole wretched business. My limbs were aching, my head felt as if it were falling in two. “I’m going to bed,” I said firmly.

“And what shall I tell the servants, Monsieur?”

“The servants?”

“About calling you, Monsieur. Their present instructions are that you are officially no longer here, that your breakfast will be served discreetly in your room, that when the car arrives to take you to Toulon in time to catch the Paris train, none of the other guests is to see you leave. Am I to alter those instructions?”

I stood there in silence for a moment. So it was all arranged. Officially, I was no longer at the Reserve. Well-what did it matter? In my mind’s eye I saw myself walking on the terrace the next morning, I heard the exclamations of surprise, the questions, the cries of astonishment, my explanations, more questions, more explanations, lies and more lies. This way was the easier. Koche knew that, of course. He was right and I was wrong. Heavens, how tired I was!

He was watching my face. “Well, Monsieur?” he said at last.

“All right. Only don’t let them bring the breakfast too soon.”

He smiled. “You may be sure of that. Good night, Monsieur.”

“Good night. Oh, by the way!” I turned at the door and drew Beghin’s envelope from my pocket. “The police gave me this. It contains five hundred francs for my expenses during the last few days. I haven’t spent anything like that amount. I should like you to give the envelope to Herr Heinberger. He might be able to make use of it, don’t you think?”

He stared at me. For a moment I had the curious impression that I was looking at an actor who with one movement had wiped the make-up off his face-an actor who had been playing the part of a hotel manager. Slowly he shook his head.

“That is very generous of you, Vadassy.” He no longer addressed me as “Monsieur.”

“Emil told me that you and he had talked together. I am afraid I was annoyed. I see now that I was wrong. However, he no longer needs the money.”

“But-”

“A few hours ago, perhaps, he would have been glad of it. As it is, he is returning to Germany in the morning. It was arranged early this evening that they should leave by the nine o’clock train from Toulon.”

“They?”

“Vogel and his wife will be going with him.”

I was silent. I could think of nothing to say. I picked up the envelope from the table and put it back in my pocket. Absently, Koche splashed some more wine into his glass, held it up to the light, then glanced at me.

“Emil always said that those two laughed too much,” he said. “I found them out yesterday. A letter arrived. They said it was from Switzerland, but it had a German stamp. While they were out of their room I had a look at it. It was quite short. It said that if they wanted more money they must offer immediate proof that they needed it. They did so. Emil is right. They laugh, they are grotesque. No one suspects that they are also obscene. That is her secret.” He drank the wine and put the glass down with a bang. “In Berlin, years ago,” he said, “I heard Frau Vogel give a recital. Her name then was Hulde Kremer; I didn’t remember her until she played tonight. I had often wondered what happened to her. Now I know. She married Vogel. It’s very odd, isn’t it?” He held out his hand. “Good night, Vadassy.”

We shook hands. “And,” I added, “I shall hope to see the Reserve again.”

He inclined his head. “The Reserve is always here.”

“You mean that you won’t be here with it?”

“In confidence, I shall leave for Prague next month.”

“Did you decide that this evening?”

He nodded. “Just so.”

As I climbed slowly to my room I heard the clock in the writing-room strike two. A quarter of an hour later I was asleep.

At noon that day I drank the remains of my breakfast coffee, strapped my suitcase together, and sat down by the window to wait.

It was a glorious day. The sun was pouring down and the air over the stone windowsill was quivering, but the sea was slightly ruffled by a breeze. The red rocks glowed. In the garden, the cicadas were droning. Down on the beach I could see two pairs of brown legs beyond the shadow of a big striped sunshade. On the lower terrace, Monsieur Duclos was addressing some new arrivals, a middle-aged couple still in their traveling clothes. As he talked he stroked his beard and adjusted his pince-nez. The couple listened intently.

There was a knock at the door. Outside was a waiter.

“The car is here, Monsieur. It is time for you to go.”

I went. Later, from the train, I caught a glimpse of the roof of the Reserve. I was surprised to see how small it looked among the trees.

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