Tuesday, 4 September 2012
Chapter XXIV: Finesse
THE door of a room on the ground floor was opened to us by a man-servant. As we entered the rattle of a piano stopped, and a hot wave of mingled scent and cigar smoke struck my nostrils. The first thing I noticed over Davies's shoulder, as he preceded me into the room, was a woman—the source of the perfume I decided—turning round from the piano as he passed it and staring him up and down with a disdainful familiarity that I at once hotly resented. She was in evening dress, pronounced in cut and colour; had a certain exuberant beauty, not wholly ascribable to nature, and a notable lack of breeding. Another glance showed me Dollmann putting down a liqueur glass of brandy, and rising from a low chair with something of a start; and another, von Brüning, lying back in a corner of a sofa, smoking; on the same sofa, vis-à-vis to him, was—yes, of course it was—Clara Dollmann; but how their surroundings alter people, I caught myself thinking. For the rest, I was aware that the room was furnished with ostentation, and was stuffy with stove-engendered warmth. Davies steered a straight course for Dollmann, and shook his hand with businesslike resolution. Then he tacked across to the sofa, abandoning me in the face of the enemy.
'Mr—?' said Dollmann.
'Carruthers,' I answered, distinctly. 'I was with Davies in the boat just now, but I don't think he introduced me. And now he has forgotten again,' I added, dryly, turning towards Davies, who, having presented himself to Fräulein Dollmann, was looking feebly from her to von Brüning, the picture of tongue-tied awkwardness. (The commander nodded to me and stretched himself with a yawn.)
'Von Brüning told me about you,' said Dollmann, ignoring my illusion, 'but I was not quite sure of the name. No; it was not an occasion for formalities, was it?' He gave a sudden, mirthless laugh. I thought him flushed and excitable: yet, seen in a normal light, he was in some respects a pleasant surprise, the remarkable conformation of the head giving an impression of intellectual power and restless, almost insanely restless, energy.
'What need?' I said. 'I have heard so much about you from Davies—and Commander von Brüning—that we seem to be old friends already.'
He shot a doubtful look at me, and a diversion came from the piano.
'And now, for Heaven's sake,' cried the lady of the perfume, 'let us join Herr Böhme at supper!'
'Let me present you to my wife,' said Dollmann.
So this was the stepmother; unmistakably German, I may add. I made my bow, and underwent much the same sort of frank scrutiny as Davies, only that it was rather more favourable to me, and ended in a carmine smile.
There was a general movement and further introductions. Davies was led to the stepmother, and I found myself confronting the daughter with quickened pulses, and a sudden sense of added complexity in the issues. I had, of course, made up my mind to ignore our meeting of yesterday, and had assumed that she would do the same. And she did ignore it—we met as utter strangers; nor did I venture (for other eyes were upon us) to transmit any sign of intelligence to her. But the next moment I was wondering if I had not fallen into a trap. She had promised not to tell, but under what circumstances? I saw the scene again; the misty flats, the spruce little sail-boat and its sweet young mistress, fresh as a dewy flower, but blanched and demoralized by a horrid fear, appealing to my honour so to act that we three should never meet again, promising to be silent, but as much in her own interest as ours, and under that implied condition which I had only equivocally refused. The condition was violated, not by her fault or ours, but violated. She was free to help her father against us, and was she helping him? What troubled me was the change in her; that she—how can I express it without offence?—was less in discord with her surroundings than she should have been; that in dress, pose and manner (as we exchanged some trivialities) she was too near reflecting the style of the other woman; that, in fact, she in some sort realized my original conception of her, so brutally avowed to Davies, so signally, as I had thought, falsified. In the sick perplexity that this discovery caused me I dare say I looked as foolish as Davies had done, and more so, for the close heat of the room and its tainted atmosphere, succeeding so abruptly to the wholesome nip of the outside air, were giving me a faintness which this moral check lessened my power to combat. Von Brüning's face wore a sneering smile that I winced under; and, turning, I found another pair of eyes fixed on me, those of Herr Böhme, whose squat figure had appeared at a pair of folding doors leading to an adjoining room. Napkin in hand, he was taking in the scene before him with fat benevolence, but exceeding shrewdness. I instantly noticed a faint red weal relieving the ivory of his bald head; and I had suffered too often in the same quarter myself to mistake its origin, namely, our cabin doorway.
'This is the other young explorer, Böhme,' said von Brüning. 'Herr Davies kidnapped him a month ago, and bullied and starved him into submission; they'll drown together yet. I believe his sufferings have been terrible.'
'His sufferings are over,' I retorted. 'I've mutinied—deserted—haven't I, Davies?' I caught Davies gazing with solemn gaucherie at Miss Dollmann.
'Oh, what?' he stammered. I explained in English. 'Oh, yes, Carruthers has to go home,' he said, in his vile lingo.
No one spoke for a moment, and even von Brüning had no persiflage ready.
'Well, are we never going to have supper?' said madame, impatiently; and with that we all moved towards the folding doors. There had been little formality in the proceedings so far, and there was less still in the supper-room. Böhme resumed his repast with appetite, and the rest of us sat down apparently at random, though an underlying method was discernible. As it worked out, Dollmann was at one end of the small table, with Davies on his right and Böhme on his left; Frau Dollmann at the other, with me on her right and von Brüning on her left. The seventh personage, Fräulein Dollmann, was between the commander and Davies on the side opposite to me. No servants appeared, and we waited on ourselves. I have a vague recollection of various excellent dishes, and a distinct one of abundance of wine. Someone filled me a glass of champagne, and I confess that I drained it with honest avidity, blessing the craftsman who coaxed forth the essence, the fruit that harboured it, the sun that warmed it.
'Why are you going so suddenly?' said von Brüning to me across the table.
'Didn't I tell you we had to call here for letters? I got mine this morning, and among others a summons back to work. Of course I must obey.' (I found myself speaking in a frigid silence.) 'The annoying thing was that there were two letters, and if I had only come here two days sooner I should have only got the first, which gave me an extension.'
'You are very conscientious. How will they know?'
'Ah, but the second's rather urgent.'
There was another uncomfortable silence, broken by Dollmann.
'By the way, Herr Davies,' he began, 'I ought to apologize to you for—'
This was no business of mine, and the less interest I took in it the better; so I turned to Frau Dollmann and abused the fog.
'Have you been in the harbour all day?' she asked, 'then how was it you did not visit us? Was Herr Davies so shy?' (Curiosity or malice?)
'Quite the contrary; but I was,' I answered coldly; 'you see, we knew Herr Dollmann was away, and we really only called here to get my letters; besides, we did not know your address.' I looked at Clara and found her talking gaily to von Brüning, deaf seemingly to our little dialogue.
'Anyone would have told you it,' said madame, raising her eyebrows.
'I dare say; but directly after breakfast the fog came on, and—well, one cannot leave a yacht alone in a fog,' I said, with professional solidity.
Von Brüning pricked up his ears at this. 'I'll be hanged if that was your maxim,' he laughed; 'you're too fond of the shore!'
I sent him a glance of protest, as though to say: 'What's the use of your warning if you won't let me act on it?'
For, of course, my excuses were meant chiefly for his consumption, and Fräulein Dollmann's. That the lady I addressed them to found them unpalatable was not my fault.
'Then you sat in your wretched little cabin all day?' she persisted.
'All day,' I said, brazenly; 'it was the safest thing to do.' And I looked again at Fräulein Dollmann, frankly and squarely. Our eyes met, and she dropped hers instantly, but not before I had learnt something; for if ever I saw misery under a mask it was on her face. No; she had not told.
I think I puzzled the stepmother, who shrugged her white shoulders, and said in that case she wondered we had dared to leave our precious boat and come to supper. If we knew Frisian fogs as well as she did—Oh, I explained, we were not so nervous as that; and as for supper on shore, if she only knew what a Spartan life we led—
'Oh, for mercy's sake, don't tell me about it!' she cried, with a grimace; 'I hate the mention of yachts. When I think of that dreadful Medusa coming from Hamburg—' I sympathized with half my attention, keeping one strained ear open for developments on my right. Davies, I knew, was in the thick of it, and none too happy under Böhme's eye, but working manfully. 'My fault'—'sudden squall'—'quite safe', were some of the phrases I caught; while I was aware, to my alarm, that he was actually drawing a diagram of something with bread-crumbs and table-knives. The subject seemed to gutter out to an awkward end, and suddenly Böhme, who was my right-hand neighbour, turned to me. 'You are starting for England to-morrow morning?' he said.
'Yes,' I answered; 'there is a steamer at 8.15, I believe.'
'That is good. We shall be companions.'
'Are you going to England, too, sir?' I asked, with hot misgivings.
'No, no! I am going to Bremen; but we shall travel together as far as—you go by Amsterdam, I suppose?—as far as Leer, then. That will be very pleasant.' I fancied there was a ghoulish gusto in his tone.
'Very,' I assented. 'You are making a short stay here, then?'
'As long as usual. I visit the work at Memmert once a month or so, spend a night with my friend Dollmann and his charming family' (he leered round him), 'and return.'
Whether I was right or wrong in my next step I shall never know, but obeying a strong instinct, 'Memmert,' I said; 'do tell me more about Memmert. We heard a good deal about it from Commander von Brüning; but—'
'He was discreet, I expect,' said Böhme.
'He left off at the most interesting part.'
'What's that about me?' joined in von Brüning.
'I was saying that we're dying to know more about Memmert, aren't we, Davies?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said Davies, evidently aghast at my temerity; but I did not mind that. If he roughed my suit, so much the better; I intended to rough his.
'You gave us plenty of history, commander, but you did not bring it up to date.' The triple alliance laughed, Dollmann boisterously.
'Well,' said von Brüning; 'I gave you very good reasons, and you acquiesced.'
'And now he is trying to pump me,' said Böhme, with his rasping chuckle.
'Wait a bit, sir; I have an excuse. The commander was not only mysterious but inaccurate. I appeal to you, Herr Dollmann, for it was apropos of you. When we fell in with him at Bensersiel, Davies asked him if you were at home, and he said "No." When would you be back? Probably soon; but he did not know when.'
'Oh, he said that?' said Dollmann.
'Well, only three days later we arrive at Norderney, and find you have returned that very day, but have gone to Memmert. Again (by the way) the mysterious Memmert! But more than ever mysterious now, for in the evening, not only you and Herr Böhme—'
'What penetration!' laughed von Brüning.
'But also Commander von Brüning, pay us a visit in his launch, all coming from Memmert!'
'And you infer?' said von Brüning.
'Why, that you must have known at Bensersiel—only three days ago—exactly when Herr Dollmann was coming back, having an appointment at Memmert with him for to-day.'
'Which I wished to conceal from you?'
'Yes, and that's why I'm so inquisitive; it's entirely your own fault.'
'So it seems,' said he, 'with mock humility; 'but fill your glass and go on, young man. Why should I want to deceive you?'
'That's just what I want to know. Come, confess now; wasn't there something important afoot to-day at Memmert? Something to do with the gold? You were inspecting it, sorting it, weighing it? Or I know! You were transporting it secretly to the mainland?'
'Not a very good day for that! But softly, Herr Carruthers; no fishing for admissions. Who said we had found any gold?'
'Well, have you? There!'
'That's better! Nothing like candour, my young investigator. But I am afraid, having no authority, I cannot assist you at all. Better try Herr Böhme again. I'm only a casual onlooker.'
'Ah! you remember that? (He remembers everything!) With a few shares, then; but with no expert knowledge. Now, Böhme is the consulting engineer. Rescue me, Böhme.'
'I cannot disclaim expert knowledge,' said Böhme, with humorous gravity; 'but I disclaim responsibility. Now, Herr Dollmann is chairman of the company.'
'And I,' said Dollmann, with a noisy laugh, 'must fall back on the shareholders, whose interests I have to guard. One can't be too careful in these confidential matters.'
'Here's one who gives his consent,' I said. 'Can't he represent the rest?'
'Extorted by torture,' said von Brüning. 'I retract.'
'Don't mind them, Herr Carruthers,' cried Frau Dollmann, 'they are making fun of you; but I will give you a hint; no woman can keep a secret—'
'Ah!' I cried, triumphantly, 'you have been there?'
'I? Not I; I detest the sea! But Clara has.' Everyone looked at Clara, who in her turn looked in naive bewilderment from me to her father.
'Indeed?' I said, more soberly, 'but perhaps she is not a free agent.'
'Perfectly free!' said Dollmann.
'I have only been there once, some time ago,' said she, 'and I saw no gold at all.'
'Guarded,' I observed. 'I beg your pardon; I mean that perhaps you only saw what you were allowed to see. And, in any case, the fräulein has no expert knowledge and no responsibility, and, perhaps, no shares. Her province is to be charming, not to hold financial secrets.'
'I have done my best to help you,' said the stepmother.
'They're all against us, Davies.'
'Oh, chuck it, Carruthers!' said Davies, in English.
'He's insatiable,' said von Brüning, and there was a pause; clearly, they meant to elicit more.
'Well, I shall draw my own conclusions,' I said.
'This is interesting,' said von Brüning, 'in what sense?'
'It begins to dawn on me that you made fools of us at Bensersiel. Don't you remember, Davies, what an interest he took in all our doings? I wonder if he feared our exploring propensities might possibly lead us to Memmert?'
'Upon my word, this is the blackest ingratitude. I thought I made myself particularly agreeable to you.'
'Yes, indeed; especially about the duck shooting! How useful your local man would have been—both to us and to you!'
'Go on,' said the commander, imperturbably.
'Wait a moment; I'm thinking it out.' And thinking it out I was in deadly earnest, for all my levity, as I pressed my hand on my burning forehead and asked myself where I was to stop in this seductive but perilous fraud. To carry it too far was to court complete exposure; to stop too soon was equally compromising.
'What is he talking about, and why go on with this ridiculous mystery?' said Frau Dollmann.
'I was thinking about this supper party, and the way it came about,' I pursued, slowly.
'Nothing to complain of, I hope?' said Dollmann.
'Of course not! Impromptu parties are always the pleasantest, and this one was delightfully impromptu. Now I bet you I know its origin! Didn't you discuss us at Memmert? And didn't one of you suggest—'One would almost think you had been there,' said Dollmann. 'You may thank your vile climate that we weren't,' I retorted, laughing. 'But, as I was saying, didn't one of you suggest—which of you? Well, I'm sure it wasn't the commander—'
'Why not?' said Böhme.
'It's difficult to explain—an intuition, say—I am sure he stood up for us; and I don't think it was Herr Dollmann, because he knows Davies already, and he's always on the spot; and, in short I'll swear it was Herr Böhme, who is leaving early to-morrow, and had never seen either of us. It was you, sir, who proposed that we should be asked to supper to-night—for inspection?'
'Inspection?' said Böhme; 'what an extraordinary idea!'
'You can't deny it, though! And one thing more; in the harbour just now—no—this is going too far; I shall mortally offend you.' I gave way to hearty laughter.
'Come, let's have it. Your hallucinations are diverting.'
'If you insist; but this is rather a delicate matter. You know we were a little surprised to find you all on board; and you, Herr Böhme, did you always take such a deep interest in small yachts? I am afraid that it was at a certain sacrifice of comfort that you inspected ours!' And I glanced at the token he bore of his encounter with our lintel. There was a burst of pent-up merriment, in which Dollmann took the loudest share.
'I warned you, Böhme,' he said.
The engineer took the joke in the best possible part. 'We owe you apologies,' he conceded.
'Don't mention it,' said Davies.
'He doesn't mind,' I said; 'I'm the injured one. I'm sure you never suspected Davies, who could?' (Who indeed? I was on firm ground there.)
'The point is, what did you take me for?'
'Perhaps we take you for it still,' said von Brüning.
'Oho! Still suspicious? Don't drive me to extremities.'
'When I get back to London I shall go to Lloyd's! I haven't forgotten that flaw in the title.' There was an impressive silence.
'Gentlemen,' said Dollmann, with exaggerated solemnity, 'we must come to terms with this formidable young man. What do you say?'
'Take me to Memmert,' I exclaimed. 'Those are my terms!'
'Take you to Memmert? But I thought you were starting for England to-morrow?'
'I ought to; but I'll stay for that.'
'You said it was urgent. Your conscience is very elastic.'
'That's my affair. Will you take me to Memmert?'
'What do you say, gentlemen?' Böhme nodded. 'I think we owe some reparation. Under promise of absolute secrecy, then?'
'Of course, now that you trust me. But you'll show me everything—honour bright—wreck, depot, and all?'
'Everything; if you don't object to a diver's dress.'
'Victory!' I cried, in triumph. 'We've won our point, Davies. And now, gentlemen, I don't mind saying that as far as I am concerned the joke's at an end; and, in spite of your kind offer, I must start for England to-morrow' under the good Herr Böhme's wing. And in case my elastic conscience troubles you (for I see you think me a weather-cock) here are the letters received this morning, establishing my identity as a humble but respectable clerk in the British Civil Service, summoned away from his holiday by a tyrannical superior.' (I pulled out my letters and tossed them to Dollmann.) 'Ah, you don't read English easily, perhaps? I dare say Herr Böhme does.'
Leaving Böhme to study dates, post-marks, and contents to his heart's content, and unobserved, I turned to sympathize with my fair neighbour, who complained that her head was going round; and no wonder. But at this juncture, and very much to my surprise, Davies struck in.
'I should like to go to Memmert,' he said.
'You?' said von Brüning. 'Now I'm surprised at that.'
'But you won't be staying here either, Davies,' I objected.
'Yes, I shall,' said Davies. 'Why, I told you I should. If you leave me in the lurch like this I must have time to look round.'
'You needn't pretend that you cannot sail alone,' said von Brüning.
'It's much more fun with two; I think I shall wire for another friend. Meanwhile, I should like to see Memmert.'
'That's only an excuse, I'm afraid,' said I.
'I want to shoot ducks too,' pursued Davies, reddening. 'I always have wanted to; and you promised to help in that, commander.'
'You can't get out of it now,' I laughed.
'Certainly not,' said he, unmoved; 'but, honestly, I should advise Herr Davies, if he is ever going to get home this season, to make the best of this fine weather.'
'It's too fine,' said Davies; 'I prefer wind. If I cannot get a friend I think I shall stop cruising, leave the yacht here, and come back for her next year.
There was some mute telegraphy between the allies.
'You can leave her in my charge,' said Dollmann, 'and start with your friend to-morrow.'
'Thanks; but there is no hurry,' said Davies, growing redder than ever. 'I like Norderney—and we might have another sail in your dinghy, fräulein,' he blurted out.
'Thank you,' she said, in that low dry voice I had heard yesterday; 'but I think I shall not be sailing again—it is getting too cold.'
'Oh, no!' said Davies, 'it's splendid.' But she had turned to von Brüning, and took no notice.
'Well, send me a report about Memmert, Davies,' I laughed, with the idea of drawing attention from his rebuff. But Davies, having once delivered his soul, seemed to have lost his shyness, and only gazed at his neighbour with the placid, dogged expression that I knew so well. That was the end of those delicate topics; and conviviality grew apace.
I am not indifferent at any time to good wine and good cheer, nor was it for lack of pressing that I drank as sparingly as I was able, and pretended to a greater elation than I felt. Nor certainly was it from any fine scruples as to the character of the gentleman whose hospitality we were receiving—scruples which I knew affected Davies, who ate little and drank nothing. In any case he was adamant in such matters, and I verily believe would at any time have preferred our own little paraffin-flavoured messes to the best dinner in the world. It was a very wholesome caution that warned me not to abuse the finest brain tonic ever invented by the wit of man. I had finessed Memmert, as one finesses a low card when holding a higher; but I had too much respect for our adversaries to trade on any fancied security we had won thereby. They had allowed me to win the trick, but I credited them with a better knowledge of my hand than they chose to show. On the other hand I hugged the axiom that in all conflicts it is just as fatal to underrate the difficulties of your enemy as to overrate your own. Their chief one—and it multiplied a thousandfold the excitement of the contest—was, I felt sure, the fear of striking in error; of using a sledge-hammer to break a nut. In breaking it they risked publicity, and publicity, I felt convinced, was death to their secret. So, even supposing they had detected the finesse, and guessed that we had in fact got wind of imperial designs; yet, even so, I counted on immunity so long as they thought we were on the wrong scent, with Memmert, and Memmert alone, as the source of our suspicions.
Had it been necessary I was prepared to encourage such a view, admitting that the cloth von Brüning wore had made his connexion with Memmert curious, and had suggested to Davies, for I should have put it on him, with his naval enthusiasms, that the wreck-works were really naval-defence works. If they went farther, and suspected that we had tried to go to Memmert that very day, the position was worse, but not desperate; for the fear that they would take the final step and suppose that we had actually got there and overhead their talk, I flatly refused to entertain, until I should find myself under arrest.
Precisely how near we came to it I shall never rightly know; but I have good reason to believe that we trembled on the verge. The main issue was fully enough for me, and it was only in passing flashes that I followed the play of the warring under-currents. And yet, looking back on the scene, I would warrant there was no party of seven in Europe that evening where a student of human documents would have found so rich a field, such noble and ignoble ambitions, such base and holy fears, aye, and such pitiful agonies of the spirit. Roughly divided though we were into separate camps, no two of us were wholly at one. Each wore a mask in the grand imposture; excepting, I am inclined to think, the lady on my left, who, outside her own well-being, which she cultivated without reserve, had, as far as I could see, but one axe to grind—the intimacy of von Brüning and her stepdaughter—and ground it openly.
Not even Böhme and von Brüning were wholly at one; and as moral distances are reckoned, Davies and I were leagues apart. Sitting between Dollmann and Dollmann's daughter, the living and breathing symbols of the two polar passions he had sworn to harmonize, he kept an equilibrium which, though his aims were nominally mine, I could not attain to. For me the man was the central figure; if I had attention to spare it was on him that I bestowed it; groping disgustfully after his hidden springs of action, noting the evidences of great gifts squandered and prostituted; questioning where he was most vulnerable; whom he feared most, us or his colleagues; whether he was open to remorse or shame; or whether he meditated further crime. The girl was incidental. After the first shock of surprise I had soon enough discovered that she, like the rest, had assumed a disguise; for she was far too innocent to sustain the deception; and yesterday was fresh in my memory. I was forced to continue turning her assumed character to account; but it would be pharisaical in me to say that I rose to any moral heights in her regard—wine and excitement had deadened my better nature to that extent. I thought she looked prettier than ever, and, as time passed, I fell into a cynical carelessness about her. This glimpse of her home life, and the desperate expedients to which she was driven (whether by compulsion or from her own regard for Davies) to repel and dismiss him, did not strike me as they might have done as the crowning argument in favour of the course we had adopted the night before, that of compassing our end without noise and scandal, disarming Dollmann, but aiding him to escape from the allies he had betrayed. To Davies, the man, if not a pure abstraction, was at most a noxious vermin to be trampled on for the public good; while the girl, in her blackguardly surroundings, and with her sinister future, had become the very source of his impulse.
And the other players? Böhme was my abstraction, the fortress whose foundations we were sapping, the embodiment of that systematized force which is congenital to the German people. In von Brüning, the personal factor was uppermost. Callous as I was this evening, I could not help wondering occasionally, as he talked and laughed with Clara Dollmann, what in his innermost thoughts, knowing her father, he felt and meant. It is a point I cannot and would not pursue, and, thank Heaven, it does not matter now; yet, with fuller knowledge of the facts, and, I trust, a mellower judgement, I often return to the same debate, and, by I know not what illogical bypaths, always arrive at the same conclusion, that I liked the man and like him still.
We behaved as sportsmen in the matter of time, giving them over two hours to make up their minds about us. It was only when tobacco smoke and heat brought back my faintness, and a twinge of cramp warned me that human strength has limits, that I rose and said we must go; that I had to make an early start to-morrow. I am hazy about the farewells, but I think that Dollmann was the most cordial, to me at any rate, and I augured good therefrom. Böhme said he should see me again. Von Brüning, though bound for the harbour also, considered it was far too early to be going yet, and said good-bye.
'You want to talk us over,' I remember saying, with the last flicker of gaiety I could muster.
We were in the streets again, under a silver, breathless night; dizzily footing the greasy ladder again; in the cabin again, where I collapsed on a sofa just as I was, and slept such a deep and stringent sleep that the men of the Blitz's launch might have handcuffed and trussed and carried me away, without incommoding me in the least.