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23: Our Leader-in-England

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Author Topic: 23: Our Leader-in-England  (Read 13 times)
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« on: February 18, 2023, 12:47:48 am »

HAMBLEDON, with Bagshott, was sitting behind grimy curtains on the first floor of number fifty, opposite. There was little to see, for it was dark at nine-fifteen; not very dark, for the night was filled with stars, but between the high walls of the narrow street little light penetrated. They sat in silence, a remarkable thing where Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon was concerned; Bagshott was just about to say so when the front door of fifty-one opened suddenly and closed again at once. Someone had come out in a hurry, running footsteps were heard; looking out they could see a figure going quickly towards the closed end of the street. It vanished; a moment later another form detached itself from the shadows opposite and came across to report.

"That was Newman, sir, the taxi-driver. He's in a hurry. Gone to the garage where he keeps his cab."

"Ah," said Hambledon comfortably. "That's better. Now perhaps things will begin to move."

"Here comes the cab," said Bagshott, his nose against the window-pane. Dimmed lights and the sound of an engine passed the house, going towards Gray's Inn Road.

"Not taking anybody away," said Tommy. "Gone to fetch someone. Very interesting, indeed. I wonder how long he will be away?"

"Order 'instant readiness'," said Bagshott, and the man who had just reported saluted and left the room.

"Twenty past nine," said Hambledon, looking at the luminous dial of his watch.

At five minutes to ten the lights of a taxi turned in from Gray's Inn Road, came towards the watchers and stopped at the house opposite. A car door shut. A house door shut. Someone had arrived and gone inside. The taxi drove back to its garage; two minutes later Newman came back and also went inside.

Hambledon looked at Bagshott, saying "Right. Let her go," Bagshott leaned forward and pressed a bell. Then both men left the room.

Willowmore Road was a very quiet street normally, as culs-de-sac so frequently are, especially at a time when most of the children had been sent away to the country. It was a dull street, looking at it from the busy thoroughfare at the end; few people came into it unless they had business there. Perhaps that is why Symes and his friends liked it so much. It was, therefore, with a sense of outrage that the inhabitants heard the sound of song approaching, and any who looked out saw three sailors, arm in arm. They tacked down the middle of the road.

    "My Lady of the Lamp-lights,
    My own Lily Marlene."

Shortly before they reached fifty-one, one of them detached himself, inspected one of the houses by the light of a torch, and said, "No. Only a S.P. card. Thought it was Rooms to Let."

"No use looking for a card," said a tall thin one. "People don't put out cards. No cardboard." He walked across to number fifty and hammered the knocker, but got no reply.

"They won't open," he said in a pained voice, and his friends told him to come away and not disturb the dead, a remark which made Hambledon giggle. He was ten yards away behind a wall.

The sailors drifted across the road and banged at the door of fifty-one, which opened promptly because its inmates had their own reasons for not wanting disturbances on their doorstep, especially just then.

"We want a bed. Three beds."

"Sorry," said Spink. "We're full right up. Try----"

"Now, listen. We've tried lots and lots and lots of places an' they're all full up."

"I tell you, I'm sorry, but----"

"Now look, mister. We won't be no trouble. We can sleep anywheres. Can't we, Nobby?"

"That's right," answered the tall thin one. "Little ol' armchair. Kitchen table. Sleep on the rug 'long of pussy."

"Nice pussy," said one of the others, and tried to push past Spink, who pushed back and the man sat down on the pavement.

"Look," said Spink with unusual forbearance, "I'm sorry, I am really, but we're full right up. You try four doors down, I daresay you'll get in there."

"He don't want us, that's what," said Nobby sadly, and dragged up his friend from the pavement. "Come on let's go."

They went, and Spink thankfully shut the door. Five minutes later they were back again, and once more Spink answered the door.

"We can't go there," they said. "There's nothing inside the door."

"Not that bombed 'ouse," said Spink impatiently. "You went too far. The one on this side. You go and try again."

But the sailors sat down on the doorstep and began to sing again, and Spink almost tore his hair.

"Please go away," he said. "We've got illness in the 'ouse."

The tall one called Nobby got up at once and staggered into the road, but the other two remained sitting, and argued.

"What is it? Measles?"

"Look, mister, we aren't afraid of measles. We've had 'em. 'Sides, if we gets measles we'll get a spell in----"

"Try number fourteen," said Spink desperately. "I know there's room there. People left to-day."

"Can't see numbers. Too dark."

There came an angry whisper from behind Spink. "What are you talking to those men for? Send them away."

Spink sighed with exasperation and began, "Number fourteen, jus' beyond that lamp-post," when he was interrupted by the return of Nobby, walking backwards and tripping occasionally.

"Fire," he said, conversationally.

"No, no," said Spink. "Go----"

"Yes," insisted Nobby. "Nice fire. Quite 'citing." He pointed at the house opposite. "Look upstairs."

Spink looked up and saw to his horror that clouds of smoke were rolling out of the bedroom window inside which a red glare flickered, sank, and flared up again. Bagshott's firework specialist was beginning to enjoy himself. Spink made a leap at the telephone in the office, dialled Exchange, and could be heard shouting, "Fire! Fire station, quick! Fire in Willowmore Road, number fifty----"

The sailors moved back from the steps and sat upon the door-sill itself, thus preventing the door from shutting; they sat three in a row, completely blocking the entrance. When Spink returned from telephoning he asked them quite politely to go away and sit somewhere else because he wanted to shut the door, but they refused. They said they were quite comfortable there and would have a good view of the fire. Also, the steps were cold.

"Goin' to be a real one, ain't it, Nobby? Coo, look at them flames."

"Serve 'em right," said Nobby sourly, "not letting us in."

"You'll 'ave to move," said Spink. "You'll be in the way of the engines."

One of the sailors gave him good advice. "You go all over the 'ouse and take the curtains down, see? Else, the 'eat will break the windows and the sparks'll catch the curtains, an' then this 'ouse'll go too. I know. I seen it in Pompey. That's 'ow the ol' Central went up----"

His voice was drowned by those of his friends who once more burst into song.

    "My brother Jim's a fireman bold
    He puts out fires.
    He went to a fire last week, I'm told----

Spink was nearly frantic. He did not know exactly what was happening in his house that night but he knew it was something important that must be kept quiet, and now all this was happening. In the distance he heard the sound of a loud bell rapidly approaching, the fire-engines already? Surely they were suspiciously prompt? He lost his temper completely.

"Damn you, get off my step!" he yelled, and aimed a furious kick at the sailor in the middle. It did not take effect because the sailor moved at the wrong moment, and a large hand shot back and closed round Spink's ankle. He staggered, lost his balance, and fell with a crash; his other ankle was then similarly captured and held up in the air. The fire-engines arrived and the street appeared to fill with N.F.S. men. A tower on wheels came also, it was wound up till it was higher than the roofs, and a searchlight on top was switched on. Willowmore Road became as light as day. Spink struggled and cursed, and one of the sailors, after a moment's thought, said, "Avast heaving," in a firm voice. A short spare man in a raincoat slipped along the wall to the door, followed by a Chief-Inspector of police in uniform.

Hambledon nodded to the tall sailor, who let go of Spink's ankles. Spink scrambled to his feet and ran, followed by the sailor, with Hambledon and Bagshott just behind. Spink ran down the cellar steps and half-opened the door; but the sailor, who had suddenly become completely sober, seized upon him and pulled him back. Hambledon went on through the open door, but Spink found himself impelled up the stairs again, through the hall and into the street. Here he attempted to bolt but the sailors closed round him.

"Here," began Spink, but Nobby interrupted him.

"I am Detective-Sergeant Gascoigne of the Special Branch and I am taking you into custody. Now then! Take him away, Warner." One of the other alleged sailors removed him.

More police entered the house; if several of them were in the uniform of the National Fire Service the agitated inhabitants scarcely noticed it, or were disinclined to argue. Joe, the odd-job man, did not answer when spoken to and scuttled obediently into the police van which was waiting outside the door. Mrs. Spink asked where her husband was; when she was told he had been taken into custody, she remarked that she'd always told him it would end up like this and now it had. The police agreed with her and removed her also. The other inmates were scared and furtive men; one evaded his captors and jumped through the kitchen window to land in the area behind with a broken ankle. He left in an ambulance. Another had his bedroom door locked; when the police demanded admittance they heard a sharp crack inside the room before they could burst in the door. When they did so they found that he was beyond the reach of justice. The rest went tamely enough.

Outside, the fire appeared to have come under control with remarkable promptitude, and the firemen did not unroll their hoses. Only the searchlight on the tower continued to illuminate the street and the interested faces at doors and windows. At the Gray's Inn Road end there was a cordon of police keeping back the crowd and telling them to move on, the fire was out and there was nothing to see.

"Then what about the black-out, constable?"


"That searchlight. They ought to put it out. It's not safe."

"That'll go out in a minute. Pass along, there, please."

So the house was cleared from the ground-floor to the roof including Symes' flat which had no one in it. The police relaxed and stood about, waiting, the inmates of the "Black Maria" whispered and fidgeted, and the ambulance drove away. But still the searchlight shone down on the street and still the police waited for what was next to come.

In the meantime, von Vielenfeldt was dealing with von Rohde.

"You did not do so badly," he said, "during your early years in England, when you were under surveillance and communications with the Fatherland were easy. When the war came and you were left in control here, what happened? Blunder after blunder. Repeated necessity for consultation and correction, involving dangerous transits to and from the Continent. It is thus, in a sense, your own fault you were captured near Ambleteuse by the Commandos. Your final idiocy--final, von Rohde--was your dealings with the man who called himself Brampton. Now tell me how it was that you did not investigate this man's credentials before you trusted him?"

"With deep respect," said von Rohde, "it was your Excellency who authorized his employment. At the prison camp I thought him interesting---for one thing, none of us knew him---so I cultivated his acquaintance. We escaped and I arranged for him to be kept in custody until I had communicated with you in Berlin. I received orders to try him out. He proved to be, as your Excellency has just said, exceptionally ready-witted and resourceful. I must point out, I was never instructed to investigate his identity."

"Is it really necessary," said von Vielenfeldt, "to teach you the elements of caution? Of course, the instruction to try him out included an enquiry into his bona-fides."

Von Rohde coloured, for he was justly indignant. The instruction hadn't included anything of the sort; the fact was that von Vielenfeldt had been just as easily deceived as the rest of them, but would he admit it? No.

"I was certainly not given to understand----" he began.

"I agree with our late friend in at least one point. You are not given to understanding very much, von Rohde. It is a pity for you that the penalty for stupidity is so severe. Herrgott! Did you suppose this business was some kind of game----"

"I have the honour," said von Rohde stiffly, "to resign my commission. I should be glad of your Excellency's permission to return to Germany and serve as a private in the Wehrmacht, preferably on the Eastern front. Even one so despicably stupid as myself might conceivably----"

"Request refused. You will return to Germany to stand your trial for gross dereliction of duty. I am not sure that it would not be simpler to report your presence here to the British authorities. You will be shot just the same and it will save a lot of trouble."

A third voice broke in. "I couldn't possibly agree with you more," it said, and both men sprang round to see Tommy Hambledon standing in the doorway with Bagshott at his elbow and others behind. "I shouldn't give any trouble, if I were you," he went on. "As you so justly remark, you'll be shot all the same. Only sooner. Von Vielenfeldt, it is a great pleasure to me to find you here. I knew that it was you who had originally interviewed our men, from the description of you which they all gave me. Your ear, particularly, if you don't mind my mentioning it. I hoped---oh, how I hoped!---that you would come over some time, since you seemed so interested in us. But to stroll in here and find you so soon----"

"At least," said von Vielenfeldt, "we disposed of your spy before you----"

"The shot you heard?" said Tommy blandly. "Oh no, it was me shooting Symes. You see, I was behind the door when they marched out, all white-faced and resolute. Your taxi-driver was more amenable, I never saw a fat man put his hands up so quickly. Well, well, I mustn't keep you chatting here, and in such an uncomfortable position too. Bagshott, if these gentlemen were searched for arms, they could then put their hands down and walk upstairs. I think I'll stay here for a while, it looks as though I might find something to interest me. Don't wait, Bagshott, I'll lock up and put the cat out. Send Colemore in to me, will you? Good night, gentlemen."

Colemore came in, Hambledon looked at him and laughed.

"You'd better sit down a minute, I think," he said. "You've had a trying evening, haven't you? But what a beautiful ending. Fancy finding von Vielenfeldt here. I feel as though I'd set a mousetrap and caught the Dragon from Drachenfels instead. I tell you what, Colemore. If I tell this tale properly I don't think you'll hear any more about that little affair at Maidstone Jail."


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