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Chapter Twenty-Three

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« on: May 12, 2023, 01:05:58 pm »

SOME half-dozen of the younger members of the Commission set out on a tour of Danzig at about nine that night. They had a Danzig driver for their seven-seated Mercédès, and Hambledon, with Reck beside him, followed in the black saloon which had been lent to him. He thought that they might just as well have gone out in the afternoon and let a fellow get to bed in decent time, since the only difference between 3 p.m. and nine at night was that most of the shops were shut, as it was, of course, broad daylight at that hour in those high northern latitudes.

“What’s the programme?” asked Reck, as the cars moved slowly off.

“Broadly speaking, a pub-crawl,” said Hambledon. “We visit a few assorted cafés in Danzig itself, some new, with chromium plate; some old, with hereditary smells. After which, we drive along the beautiful tree-lined road to Zoppot, to see the girl dancing in the fountain, play roulette till they chuck us out, and so to bed. My job is to see that the outing proceeds in a stately and preordained manner, and now that Schultz is dead I expect it will. I wish I could leave my left ear at home, tenderly wrapped in cotton-wool in a small box with ‘A Present from Danzig’ on the lid.”

“Girl dancing in the fountain? What’s that?”

“At the casino at Zoppot. There is a fountain. There is a girl. They turn on the fountain, also coloured floodlights beneath it. She gets in and dances under the arches of water in the changing lights, you understand. A pretty sight, I’m told, if a trifle French, the Commission’ll love it, bless their little cotton socks. What’s this? Oh, stop number one. I suppose I must go in, are you coming?”

“Mine’s a Grenadine,” said Reck, who privately thought the programme sounded rather amusing. The first café was very modern, of a type to be found in any city from San Francisco right round to San Francisco, and it did not detain the Commission long. There were plenty like that in Berlin, they wanted to see something different.

The next place strongly resembled the under-croft of Rochester Cathedral, and had a damping effect on the spirits of the party which even schnapps failed to counteract.

“Is this tour all prearranged?” asked Reck.

“Of course it is, what did you expect? Those singularly sober men holding large pots whom you see in all the corners are police.”

“Oh. Suppose the Commission wants to go somewhere else?”

“The driver will dissuade them, that’s part of his job. Besides,” added Hambledon cheerfully, “Schultz is dead, so I don’t suppose it would matter.”

The third port of call was frankly vulgar without being funny and the Commission became restive.

“Now we go to Zoppot,” said the driver persuasively.

“No we don’t,” said the Commission. “Aren’t there any real dockside taverns here with sand on the floors and Norwegian seamen singing choruses?”

“No Norwegian ships in at the moment, gentlemen. It is nearly time to----”

“Swedish seamen, then. Now, in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg I could show you----”

“Harbour’s very empty of ships at this season, gentlemen, and most of the taverns close for July and August.”

“That be hanged for a tale----”

“Gentlemen,” broke in Hambledon, “the time is going on and it is nearly seven miles to Zoppot. It would be a pity, would it not, to miss any of the entertainment there?”

The driver threw him a grateful glance and some of the Commission wavered, but the stalwarts stuck to their point.

“Look here, driver, if you can’t find us something more amusing than this we’ll find it for ourselves. You hop in and drive where we tell you to drive, and when we say stop, you stop. See?”

The driver looked at Hambledon, who merely made a gesture of resignation to the inevitable, so the cars moved off again.

“You can hardly blame them,” said Hambledon, “the tour as arranged was not particularly inspired. There’s not likely to be any trouble if we keep these fellows in a good temper.”

The procession took a devious route in the general direction of the Vistula, since the Commission did not know the way and the driver sulked and refused to tell them. Eventually someone recognized the Kran-tor at the end of a street and remembered that that was on the quayside, but they had passed the turning by the time they got their bearings so they took the next street instead, which was the Heilige-Geist Gasse with another river-gate across the end. At the bottom of this street they saw something which looked a little more hopeful.

“Here, what about this?”

“This looks better.”

“Stop here, driver, we’ll try this one.”

Hambledon slipped out of his car and had a hasty look inside while the Commission was disembarking. The place was certainly old and picturesque, with the requisite sanded floor and polished brass fittings, it really looked the sort of place where tuneful seamen might burst into song at any moment if there happened to be any tuneful seamen there. At the time, however, it was practically empty and seemed harmless enough. Hambledon withdrew again and the Commission entered.

“Shouldn’t think they’d get into mischief in there,” he said to the driver. “Hardly anybody there.”

“Ah,” said the driver. “It’s quiet enough when it is quiet, if you get me. Aren’t you going in, sir?”

“No,” said Hambledon, “I’d rather look at the river. Coming, Reck?”

“I’ll just turn the car round,” said the driver. “Save time afterwards.”

“Quite right, I’ll do the same.” They turned the cars to head up the street and all three strolled through the gate on to the quay. To their left the Kran-tor towered against the sky, wharves and warehouses faced them across the glassy river, upstream tall houses masked the sunset. A motor ferry crossed the river lower down and the ripples broke up the inverted gables in the water, gulls cried, someone laughed in a group of people twenty yards away, and somewhere far out of sight a steamer hooted.

“Do you get much foreign shipping here?” asked Hambledon.

“Not a lot here, mostly barges and that from up the river. The foreign ships mostly put in to the Free Harbour down at Neufahrwasser, that’s the real port, like. There’s always ships in there, German, Swedish, English, Italian, French—all sorts.”

“Is it far down there?”

“ ’Bout three and a half to four miles. No, not far. I tell you, there was a row down there last night. Some men off an English ship got into a row in a pub down there---just such a place as this one. Two of ’em was properly laid out. The ship’ll have to sail without ’em, for they’re in hospital and she’s going out in the morning.”

“What will happen to them?”

“Oh, nothing. Get another ship when they come out, I expect. British Consul ’ll look after them.”

The conversation languished, and Hambledon looked at his watch.

“Do you think if you blew your horn it would hurry them up?”

“I doubt it,” said the driver, but he strolled off, climbed into his seat and blew the horn. He was quite right, nothing happened.

“You heard that about the English ship, didn’t you, Reck?” said Hambledon. “When I’ve got this school-treat home again I think we’ll slide quietly away and board her. I’ve paid Schultz, so there’s nothing to wait for, if we leave it too long Goebbels might replace him with somebody more efficient.”

Reck grunted assent and they leaned against the quayside rails and waited while the day sank into twilight and the colour faded out of the sky. Two sailors passed talking animatedly in Italian and somewhere among the wharves across the river a dog barked. The street-lamps came to life, and a man in a peaked cap, under one of them, took a long time to say good night to a girl in a gaily smocked white blouse with full sleeves like a bishop’s. Hambledon and Reck walked back through the archway and leaned against their car watching the door of the tavern patronized by the Commission, it seemed to have livened up a little, snatches of song floated out, and sounds of merriment. The driver of the big car had apparently fallen asleep. Various people approached the tavern door and entered, others came out, but none of them looked particularly truculent.

“I suppose I ought to go in and rout those people out,” yawned Hambledon, “but I’m blowed if I do. I don’t care if they never go to Zoppot.”

An elderly man in a neat grey suit came down the street, pausing every now and then to glance behind him. He reached the tavern door, decided to go in, looked in, decided not to, and strolled past the cars towards the river. Before he passed under the arch he cocked his eye up at the evening sky.

“Sea captain,” said Hambledon, “looking at the weather.”

“Sea captain or not,” said Reck, “he’s the living image of you.”

“Nonsense. My face has its drawbacks, but not warts on its nose.”

“I meant, in build and general appearance.”

“I am not unique,” admitted Tommy modestly.

A woman came down the street closely followed by a man. Husband or lover, presumably, for when she looked at Hambledon in passing, the man glowered. They went under the archway and disappeared, but the neat grey man returned. He stopped near the cars and brought a cigar out of his pocket, pinched it, smelt it, cut the end off with a knife, stuck the cigar in his mouth and finally lit it. He took one or two puffs at it which appeared to please him, and strolled past.

He was just approaching the tavern door when there came a change in the tone of the sounds which floated from the half-open door, and he stopped to listen. Instead of song there was shouting, instead of merriment, anger. Hambledon straightened up and began to run towards the door, and at that moment two shots rang out.

Instantly the doors burst open and a gush of customers poured into the street. The Mercédès driver awoke, started up his engine, and kept on tapping the accelerator, producing a rhythmic series of roars. Hambledon leapt at the car and threw the doors open just in time for the Commission to fling themselves into it.

“You are a fool, Andreas,” said one angrily.

“I thought all Danzigers were good Germans,” said Andreas in a pained voice, while another voice from the doorway told them what sort of Germans they were. The adjective used was not “good.”

Hambledon slammed the doors and shouted, “Drive on!” The car moved off and was rapidly gathering speed when there came a fresh rush of men from the tavern and one of them fired several parting shots after the car. Several of them hit, for the impact was audible, but one at least missed, for the elderly man in the grey suit, who was hurrying away, suddenly threw up his arms as though he were going to dive, and fell headlong in the road in front of the car. The driver had no chance to avoid him and perhaps did not even see him; the heavy Mercédès shot up the road, round the corner and out of sight.

“Now they have killed somebody,” said Hambledon in an exasperated tone. “There’ll be trouble over this.”

He looked round for Reck and saw him emerging from the doorway in which he had prudently taken cover, for he was not one of Nature’s warriors. The other people in the street melted away so quickly that it seemed some of them must just have vanished where they stood; already the tavern lights were out, blinds drawn and doors locked. In an incredibly short time the Heilige-Geist Strasse was deserted except for Hambledon and his car, Reck, and the neat grey man, who was a great deal greyer and not nearly so neat.

Hambledon observed with surprise that Reck, instead of hurrying to the car, was bending over the body in the road. Tommy, supposing him to be animated by purely humanitarian motives, did not call to him, but started the car and drove it to the spot where the man lay.

“Come on,” said Hambledon, after one glance at the victim of malice and accident, “you can’t do anything to help him.”

“Quick,” said Reck in peremptory tones, “get him in the back of the car. Come on, lend a hand.”

“What the devil----” said the surprised Hambledon.

“Don’t argue, help me!”

Hambledon slid out of the car, opened the rear door and helped Reck to hoist the body into the back. “Though why on earth you want to saddle us with a corpse just when----”

“Don’t argue,” repeated Reck, slamming the door. “Get in and drive like blazes!”

Hambledon obeyed, very astonished at himself for doing so, and it was not until they were several streets away that he said, “May I know what all this is about?”

“Certainly. That poor thing in the back is you.”

“But he’s not in the least like me in the face.”

“Face! Did you notice his face?”

“No,” said Hambledon. “I thought you’d put something over it---a rag of some kind.”

“No. There was nothing over it.”

“Oh,” said Hambledon, and shivered.

“You see, the Mercédès----”

“That’ll do, thank you. What were you thinking of doing with him?”

“Driving the car to some quiet spot and leaving him there to be found. Then we can go away and live happily ever after, because even German Intelligence won’t look for you when they’ve buried you with full honours and an oration by the Führer.”

Hambledon slowed the car on purpose to look at Reck. “I hand it to you,” he said admiringly, “on a gold plate edged with rosebuds.” He thought it over for a moment. “But this means I shall have to change clothes with him.”

“It does,” said Reck firmly.

“Oh, Lor’. Well, the Department will damn well have to pay me twenty years’ arrears after that. I shall have earned ’em.”

“Do you know of a good place to go?”

“I only know the Zoppot road. It runs through forests, I should think we could find a track turning off it somewhere.”

“No marks on his underclothes,” said Reck after investigation. “That saves your changing those too.”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Hambledon, “for I shouldn’t have put them on in any case. It only saves you picking the marks off. Mind, that’s the wrong leg. You’ll have his trousers on back before.”

“Why the hell do we have so many buttons? Heave him up while I fix his braces.”

“Collar and tie. Hang it, Reck, how do you knot a tie on somebody else? It’s all wrong way round, besides---- Oh, damn. I shall have to wash again now.”

“Hot night, isn’t it?” said Reck, who had perspiration running down his face. “Waistcoat. A trifle loose, he didn’t live so well as you, evidently. Tighten that strap at the back a little. That’s it. Now your watch in his pocket.”

“I liked that watch,” said Tommy plaintively, but it had to go.

“Now his coat. No, it’s not so simple as all that, his sleeves will ride up if we aren’t careful. Here’s a bit of string, tie his cuff-links to his thumbs, and don’t forget to remove the string afterwards and twist the cuffs round.”

“I would give the whole of that twenty years’ arrears,” said Hambledon violently, “for a tumblerful of John Haig---neat.”

The ship was ten hours out from Danzig, bound for Cardiff with a cargo of sugar, when one of the firemen thought he heard voices in the coal bunker. He picked up a firebar and went to investigate.

“ ’Ere, you! Cummon outer that.”

They came, slithering down the coal, blinking from the long darkness, cramped for want of movement, and inconceivably grimy.

“ ’Ere! Look what I’ve found.”

“Stowaways,” said the second engineer. “Hoo mony o’ ye are there?”

“Two,” said Hambledon with dignity. “I want to see the Captain at once.”

“Ye’ve no need to fret yourselves, ye’ll see the Captain quick and lively, but whether ye’ll enjoy the interview is another pair o’ breeks a’thegither. Come on, now, get a move on. What the deevil ye mean stowin’ away aboard this ship----”

“Who the devil are you?” asked the Captain.

“Thomas Hambledon and Alfred Reck. Can I speak to you in private?”

“No, you filthy blasted skulking scarecrows! How dare you stow away aboard my ship?”

“Because we had to. I am sorry, Captain, but there was no alternative. The passage will be paid as soon as we arrive in England. I must speak to you in private.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort. Yes, you’ll pay for the trip all right---in work. Lucky for you I’m two men short. Take these men for’ard----”

Hambledon took a quick step forward and leaned over the Captain’s desk. “Look here,” he said, in a tone inaudible to the men clustered round the door, “we are British Intelligence agents on the run, and I must send a wireless message instantly.”

“Wireless message my----”

“Don’t be a fool, man. You’ll soon know when you get the answer. The message is to the Foreign Office.”

The tone of habitual authority was unmistakable, and the Captain paused.

“The matter is urgent,” added Hambledon coldly.

“Very well,” said the Captain. “You shall send your message, but if there’s any hanky-panky about it the Lord help you, for you’ll need it. Come with me.”

In the wireless room Hambledon asked for a sheet of paper and wrote down a message, briefly informing the Department that he and Reck were on board the---- “What ship is this?”

“The Whistlefield Star.”

“Bound for?”

“Cardiff.”

“Do you put in anywhere between here and Cardiff?”

“No.”

On board the Whistlefield Star bound for Cardiff, and request instructions.

“Code that, will you, Reck?”

“Let me see it first,” said the Captain, and read aloud, “Hambledon to Foreign Office, London.” The rest of the message he kept to himself.

“You may send it.”

“Carry on, Reck.”

Reck settled down to write a string of letters, with pauses for thought, occasionally counting upon his fingers. Hambledon found the Danziger’s cigars in his pocket, pulled them out, saw they were hopelessly crushed, and threw them in the wastepaper basket. He then walked restlessly up and down the cabin, the Captain sat in a chair and stared at the calendar on the wall, the wireless operator looked from one to the other, and no one spoke out of deference to Reck’s mental labours. The wireless operator was a stocky man, with a freckled face and red hair turning grey. He had been aboard the Whistlefield Star for a number of years and had served in destroyers during the first Great War.

Presently Hambledon in his prowling came opposite to a small piece of mirror fixed to the bulkhead, glanced at his reflection and said, “Good Lord.”

“What’s the matter?” asked the Captain.

“I had no idea I looked like that. No wonder you didn’t believe me. Dammit, I look like a nigger minstrel on Margate sands.”

The Captain unbent enough to smile, and said, “You’ll be glad of a wash, no doubt. Won’t you sit down?”

“No, thanks,” said Hambledon absently, and went on walking up and down, thinking. Dear old Ludmilla in Switzerland, must let her know as soon as he could or she’d grieve horribly. Perhaps they wouldn’t find the car for some days; it was well hidden in the woods off the Zoppot road. He must send her a message somehow as soon as possible, better send it to Frau Christine and let her tell Ludmilla. She must come to England; she always wanted to, though how she’d like living there permanently was another matter, with the language difficulty, the foreign cooking and the strange customs. Pity to part from Franz but it could not be helped, Franz would be sorry, probably. He’d have to look elsewhere for the President of his New Germany---thank goodness!

Reck stirred in his chair and began running through what he had written, absent-mindedly tapping out the message with his pencil on the table, whereat the wireless operator spun round, scarlet with excitement, and cried, “Good Lord! Is that who you are?”

“What d’you mean?” asked the Captain.

“Why, British secret agents, of course. T-L-T, that’s the call-sign. Used to listen for it when I was on destroyers in the last war. Heard it again soon after I came in this ship, that ’ud be six years ago, before you came to us, sir----”

This was enough for the Captain, who rose from his seat, advanced upon Hambledon with his hand held out and said, “I see I owe you an apology, sir. But you must admit appearances were against you!”

The reply to Hambledon’s message came a few hours later, instructing the Whistlefield Star to rendezvous at a certain time and place in the Channel to tranship passengers to a destroyer, but by that time Hambledon and Reck, washed clean and in borrowed garments, were having dinner with the Captain.

The following evening they were listening to the Berlin radio from the wireless set in the Captain’s cabin, for Hambledon showed a certain interest in the German news bulletins.

“It is with heartfelt sorrow and burning anger,” said the announcer, “that the German people will learn of the cowardly and brutal murder of our Chief of Police, Herr Klaus Lehmann. His car was discovered this afternoon hidden away in a forest glade near Danzig; inside it was the body of Herr Lehmann, battered almost beyond recognition. It was, actually, only identified by the clothes and general appearance, and by the fact that the honoured and respected Chief had not returned to his hotel two nights earlier. He was not, however, always in the habit of giving previous notice of his movements, so that his absence had not yet caused alarm. He was one of the earliest adherents----”

“Lord love us,” said the Captain, who knew enough German to follow a plain statement, “was that why you were on the run?”

“What a question,” said Tommy blandly, and the Captain blushed and held his peace.

“---faithful servant and leader of the Reich and a trusted and beloved friend of the Führer himself----”

An inarticulate gurgle came from Reck.

“---who will himself pronounce the oration at the State funeral, which will take place in Berlin on Tuesday in next week. The whole German people will join with their Leader in mourning and resenting this bestial and revolting outrage, perpetrated upon one whose outstanding devotion to duty, meticulous honour and unfailing fidelity made him an example to every----”

“They are doing him proud, aren’t they?” said Tommy, fidgeting slightly.

“Wonder if Herr Goebbels wrote this?” said Reck impishly.

“---Immediate steps are being taken to ensure the arrest, conviction, and condign punishment of the bloodstained assassins, who, undoubtedly under Jewish influence, were guilty of this abominable act of treachery. At the end of this announcement, that is, at once, a two minutes’ silence will be observed as a tribute to the dead Chief.”

Reck lifted his glass. “To the late Chief of Police,” he said in German, and drank. Hambledon, with a rather wry smile, followed suit.

“May he rest in peace,” said the Captain solemnly, and drained his glass.

“No rest in peace for him, I fear,” said Hambledon cryptically. “There wasn’t before,” he added, to himself, “and to-morrow is here.”

The radio reawoke to life. “We are now giving you a recorded version of the late Herr Lehmann’s radio play, The Wireless Operator, first broadcast from this station in March 1933. There is only one character, the wireless operator himself----”

THE END

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