Chapter 5: Further Adventures of the Same
Next morning there was a touch of frost and a nip in the air which stirred my blood and put me in buoyant spirits. I forgot my precarious position and the long road I had still to travel. I came down to breakfast in great form, to find Peter’s even temper badly ruffled. He had remembered Stumm in the night and disliked the memory; this he muttered to me as we rubbed shoulders at the dining-room door. Peter and I got no opportunity for private talk. The lieutenant was with us all the time, and at night we were locked in our rooms. Peter discovered this through trying to get out to find matches, for he had the bad habit of smoking in bed.
Our guide started on the telephone, and announced that we were to be taken to see a prisoners’ camp. In the afternoon I was to go somewhere with Stumm, but the morning was for sight-seeing. ‘You will see,’ he told us, ‘how merciful is a great people. You will also see some of the hated English in our power. That will delight you. They are the forerunners of all their nation.’
We drove in a taxi through the suburbs and then over a stretch of flat market-garden-like country to a low rise of wooded hills. After an hour’s ride we entered the gate of what looked like a big reformatory or hospital. I believe it had been a home for destitute children. There were sentries at the gate and massive concentric circles of barbed wire through which we passed under an arch that was let down like a portcullis at nightfall. The lieutenant showed his permit, and we ran the car into a brick-paved yard and marched through a lot more sentries to the office of the commandant.
He was away from home, and we were welcomed by his deputy, a pale young man with a head nearly bald. There were introductions in German which our guide translated into Dutch, and a lot of elegant speeches about how Germany was foremost in humanity as well as martial valour. Then they stood us sandwiches and beer, and we formed a procession for a tour of inspection. There were two doctors, both mild-looking men in spectacles, and a couple of warders--under-officers of the good old burly, bullying sort I knew well. That was the cement which kept the German Army together. Her men were nothing to boast of on the average; no more were the officers, even in crack corps like the Guards and the Brandenburgers; but they seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of hard, competent N.C.O.s.
We marched round the wash-houses, the recreation-ground, the kitchens, the hospital--with nobody in it save one chap with the ‘flu.’ It didn’t seem to be badly done. This place was entirely for officers, and I expect it was a show place where American visitors were taken. If half the stories one heard were true there were some pretty ghastly prisons away in South and East Germany.
I didn’t half like the business. To be a prisoner has always seemed to me about the worst thing that could happen to a man. The sight of German prisoners used to give me a bad feeling inside, whereas I looked at dead Boches with nothing but satisfaction. Besides, there was the off-chance that I might be recognized. So I kept very much in the shadow whenever we passed anybody in the corridors. The few we met passed us incuriously. They saluted the deputy-commandant, but scarcely wasted a glance on us. No doubt they thought we were inquisitive Germans come to gloat over them. They looked fairly fit, but a little puffy about the eyes, like men who get too little exercise. They seemed thin, too. I expect the food, for all the commandant’s talk, was nothing to boast of. In one room people were writing letters. It was a big place with only a tiny stove to warm it, and the windows were shut so that the atmosphere was a cold frowst. In another room a fellow was lecturing on something to a dozen hearers and drawing figures on a blackboard. Some were in ordinary khaki, others in any old thing they could pick up, and most wore greatcoats. Your blood gets thin when you have nothing to do but hope against hope and think of your pals and the old days.
I was moving along, listening with half an ear to the lieutenant’s prattle and the loud explanations of the deputy-commandant, when I pitchforked into what might have been the end of my business. We were going through a sort of convalescent room, where people were sitting who had been in hospital. It was a big place, a little warmer than the rest of the building, but still abominably fuggy. There were about half a dozen men in the room, reading and playing games. They looked at us with lack-lustre eyes for a moment, and then returned to their occupations. Being convalescents I suppose they were not expected to get up and salute.
All but one, who was playing Patience at a little table by which we passed. I was feeling very bad about the thing, for I hated to see these good fellows locked away in this infernal German hole when they might have been giving the Boche his deserts at the front. The commandant went first with Peter, who had developed a great interest in prisons. Then came our lieutenant with one of the doctors; then a couple of warders; and then the second doctor and myself. I was absent-minded at the moment and was last in the queue.
The Patience-player suddenly looked up and I saw his face. I’m hanged if it wasn’t Dolly Riddell, who was our brigade machine-gun officer at Loos. I had heard that the Germans had got him when they blew up a mine at the Quarries.
I had to act pretty quick, for his mouth was agape, and I saw he was going to speak. The doctor was a yard ahead of me.
I stumbled and spilt his cards on the floor. Then I kneeled to pick them up and gripped his knee. His head bent to help me and I spoke low in his ear.
‘I’m Hannay all right. For God’s sake don’t wink an eye. I’m here on a secret job.’
The doctor had turned to see what was the matter. I got a few more words in. ‘Cheer up, old man. We’re winning hands down.’
Then I began to talk excited Dutch and finished the collection of the cards. Dolly was playing his part well, smiling as if he was amused by the antics of a monkey. The others were coming back, the deputy-commandant with an angry light in his dull eye. ‘Speaking to the prisoners is forbidden,’ he shouted.
I looked blankly at him till the lieutenant translated.
‘What kind of fellow is he?’ said Dolly in English to the doctor. ‘He spoils my game and then jabbers High-Dutch at me.’
Officially I knew English, and that speech of Dolly’s gave me my cue. I pretended to be very angry with the very damned Englishman, and went out of the room close by the deputy-commandant, grumbling like a sick jackal. After that I had to act a bit. The last place we visited was the close-confinement part where prisoners were kept as a punishment for some breach of the rules. They looked cheerless enough, but I pretended to gloat over the sight, and said so to the lieutenant, who passed it on to the others. I have rarely in my life felt such a cad.
On the way home the lieutenant discoursed a lot about prisoners and detention-camps, for at one time he had been on duty at Ruhleben. Peter, who had been in quod more than once in his life, was deeply interested and kept on questioning him. Among other things he told us was that they often put bogus prisoners among the rest, who acted as spies. If any plot to escape was hatched these fellows got into it and encouraged it. They never interfered till the attempt was actually made and then they had them on toast. There was nothing the Boche liked so much as an excuse for sending a poor devil to ‘solitary’.
That afternoon Peter and I separated. He was left behind with the lieutenant and I was sent off to the station with my bag in the company of a Landsturm sergeant. Peter was very cross, and I didn’t care for the look of things; but I brightened up when I heard I was going somewhere with Stumm. If he wanted to see me again he must think me of some use, and if he was going to use me he was bound to let me into his game. I liked Stumm about as much as a dog likes a scorpion, but I hankered for his society.
At the station platform, where the ornament of the Landsturm saved me all the trouble about tickets, I could not see my companion. I stood waiting, while a great crowd, mostly of soldiers, swayed past me and filled all the front carriages. An officer spoke to me gruffly and told me to stand aside behind a wooden rail. I obeyed, and suddenly found Stumm’s eyes looking down at me.
‘You know German?’ he asked sharply.
‘A dozen words,’ I said carelessly. ‘I’ve been to Windhuk and learned enough to ask for my dinner. Peter--my friend--speaks it a bit.’
‘So,’ said Stumm. ‘Well, get into the carriage. Not that one! There, thickhead!’
I did as I was bid, he followed, and the door was locked behind us. The precaution was needless, for the sight of Stumm’s profile at the platform end would have kept out the most brazen. I wondered if I had woken up his suspicions. I must be on my guard to show no signs of intelligence if he suddenly tried me in German, and that wouldn’t be easy, for I knew it as well as I knew Dutch.
We moved into the country, but the windows were blurred with frost, and I saw nothing of the landscape. Stumm was busy with papers and let me alone. I read on a notice that one was forbidden to smoke, so to show my ignorance of German I pulled out my pipe. Stumm raised his head, saw what I was doing, and gruffly bade me put it away, as if he were an old lady that disliked the smell of tobacco.
In half an hour I got very bored, for I had nothing to read and my pipe was verboten. People passed now and then in the corridors, but no one offered to enter. No doubt they saw the big figure in uniform and thought he was the deuce of a staff swell who wanted solitude. I thought of stretching my legs in the corridor, and was just getting up to do it when somebody slid the door back and a big figure blocked the light.
He was wearing a heavy ulster and a green felt hat. He saluted Stumm, who looked up angrily, and smiled pleasantly on us both.
‘Say, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘have you room in here for a little one? I guess I’m about smoked out of my car by your brave soldiers. I’ve gotten a delicate stomach... ‘
Stumm had risen with a brow of wrath, and looked as if he were going to pitch the intruder off the train. Then he seemed to halt and collect himself, and the other’s face broke into a friendly grin.
‘Why, it’s Colonel Stumm,’ he cried. (He pronounced it like the first syllable in ‘stomach’.) ‘Very pleased to meet you again, Colonel. I had the honour of making your acquaintance at our Embassy. I reckon Ambassador Gerard didn’t cotton to our conversation that night.’ And the new-comer plumped himself down in the corner opposite me.
I had been pretty certain I would run across Blenkiron somewhere in Germany, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. There he sat staring at me with his full, unseeing eyes, rolling out platitudes to Stumm, who was nearly bursting in his effort to keep civil. I looked moody and suspicious, which I took to be the right line.
‘Things are getting a bit dead at Salonika,’ said Mr Blenkiron, by way of a conversational opening.
Stumm pointed to a notice which warned officers to refrain from discussing military operations with mixed company in a railway carriage.
‘Sorry,’ said Blenkiron, ‘I can’t read that tombstone language of yours. But I reckon that that notice to trespassers, whatever it signifies, don’t apply to you and me. I take it this gentleman is in your party.’
I sat and scowled, fixing the American with suspicious eyes.
‘He is a Dutchman,’ said Stumm; ‘South African Dutch, and he is not happy, for he doesn’t like to hear English spoken.’
‘We’ll shake on that,’ said Blenkiron cordially. ‘But who said I spoke English? It’s good American. Cheer up, friend, for it isn’t the call that makes the big wapiti, as they say out west in my country. I hate John Bull worse than a poison rattle. The Colonel can tell you that.’
I dare say he could, but at that moment, we slowed down at a station and Stumm got up to leave. ‘Good day to you, Herr Blenkiron,’ he cried over his shoulder. ‘If you consider your comfort, don’t talk English to strange travellers. They don’t distinguish between the different brands.’
I followed him in a hurry, but was recalled by Blenkiron’s voice.
‘Say, friend,’ he shouted, ‘you’ve left your grip,’ and he handed me my bag from the luggage rack. But he showed no sign of recognition, and the last I saw of him was sitting sunk in a corner with his head on his chest as if he were going to sleep. He was a man who kept up his parts well.
There was a motor-car waiting--one of the grey military kind--and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey.
‘I haven’t made up my mind about you, Brandt,’ he announced. ‘You may be a fool or a knave or a good man. If you are a knave, we will shoot you.’
‘And if I am a fool?’ I asked.
‘Send you to the Yser or the Dvina. You will be respectable cannon-fodder.’
‘You cannot do that unless I consent,’ I said.
‘Can’t we?’ he said, smiling wickedly. ‘Remember you are a citizen of nowhere. Technically, you are a rebel, and the British, if you go to them, will hang you, supposing they have any sense. You are in our power, my friend, to do precisely what we like with you.’
He was silent for a second, and then he said, meditatively:
‘But I don’t think you are a fool. You may be a scoundrel. Some kinds of scoundrel are useful enough. Other kinds are strung up with a rope. Of that we shall know more soon.’
‘And if I am a good man?’
‘You will be given a chance to serve Germany, the proudest privilege a mortal man can have.’ The strange man said this with a ringing sincerity in his voice that impressed me.
The car swung out from the trees into a park lined with saplings, and in the twilight I saw before me a biggish house like an overgrown Swiss chalet. There was a kind of archway, with a sham portcullis, and a terrace with battlements which looked as if they were made of stucco. We drew up at a Gothic front door, where a thin middle-aged man in a shooting-jacket was waiting.
As we moved into the lighted hall I got a good look at our host. He was very lean and brown, with the stoop in the shoulder that one gets from being constantly on horseback. He had untidy grizzled hair and a ragged beard, and a pair of pleasant, short-sighted brown eyes.
‘Welcome, my Colonel,’ he said. ‘Is this the friend you spoke of?’
‘This is the Dutchman,’ said Stumm. ‘His name is Brandt. Brandt, you see before you Herr Gaudian.’