Inside the Lines (Biggers and Ritchie)/Chapter 2
FROM THE WILHELMSTRASSE
T would be wiser to talk in German," the English speech in Berlin" she finished, with a lifting of her shapely bare shoulders, sufficiently eloquent. The waiter speeded his task of refilling the man's glass and discreetly withdrew.
"Oh, I'll talk in German quick enough," the man assented, draining his thin half bubble of glass down to the last fizzing residue in the stem. "Only just show me you've got the right to hear, and the good fat bank-notes to pay; that's all." He propped his sharp chin on a hand that shook slightly, and pushed his lean flushed face nearer hers. An owlish caution fought the wine fancies in his shifting lynx eyes under reddened lids; also there was admiration for the milk-white skin and ripe lips of the woman by his side. For an instant—half the time of a breath—a flash of loathing made the woman's eyes tigerish; but at once they changed again to mild bantering.
"So? Friend Billy Capper, of Brussels, has a touch of the spy fever himself, and distrusts an old pal?" She laughed softly, and one slim hand toyed with a heavy gold locket on her bosom. "Friend Billy Capper forgets old times and old faces—forgets even the matter of the Lord Fisher letters"
"Chop it, Louisa!" The man called Capper lapsed into brusk English as he banged the stem of his wineglass on the damask. "No sense in raking that up again—just because I ask you a fair question—ask you to identify yourself in your new job."
"We go no further, Billy Capper," she returned, speaking swiftly in German; "not another word between us unless you obey my rule, and talk this language. Why did you get that message through to me to meet you here in the Café Riche to-night if you did not trust me? Why did you have me carry your offer to—to headquarters and come here ready to talk business if it was only to hum and haw about my identifying myself?"
The tenseness of exaggerated concentration on Capper's gaunt face began slowly to dissolve. First the thin line of shaven lips flickered and became weak at down-drawn corners; then the frown faded from about the eyes, and the beginnings of tears gathered there. Shrewdness and the stamp of cunning sped entirely, and naught but weakness remained.
"Louisa—Louisa, old pal; don't be hard on poor Billy Capper," he mumbled. "I'm down, girl—away down again. Since they kicked me out at Brussels I haven't had a shilling to bless myself with. Can't go back to England—you know that; the French won't have me, and here I am, my dinner clothes my only stock in trade left, and you even having to buy the wine." A tear of self-pity slipped down the hard drain of his cheek and splashed on his hand. "But I'll show 'em, Louisa! They can't kick me out of the Brussels shop like a dog and not pay for it! I know too much, I do!"
"And what you know about the Brussels shop you want to sell to the—Wilhelmstrasse?" the woman asked tensely.
"Yes, if the Wilhelmstrasse is willing to pay well for it," Capper answered, his lost cunning returning in a bound.
"I am authorized to judge how much your information is worth," his companion declared, leveling a cold glance into Capper's eyes. "You can tell me what you know, and depend on me to pay well, or—we part at once."
"But, Louisa"—again the whine—"how do I know you're what you say? You've flown high since you and I worked together in the Brussels shop. The Wilhelmstrasse—most perfect spy machine in the world! How I'd like to be in your shoes, Louisa!"
She detached the heavy gold locket from the chain on her bosom, with a quick twist of slim fingers had one side of the case open, then laid the locket before him, pointing to a place on the bevel of the case. Capper swept up the trinket, looked searchingly for an instant at the spot the woman had designated, and returned the locket to her hand.
"Your number in the Wilhelmstrasse," he whispered in awe. "Genuine, no doubt. Saw the same sort of mark once before in Rome. All right. Now, listen, Louisa. What I'm going to tell you about where Brussells stands in this—this business that's brewing will make the German general staff sit up." The woman inclined her head toward Capper's. He, looking not at her but out over the rich plain of brocades, broadcloths and gleaming shoulders, began in a monotone:
"When the war comes—the day the war starts, French artillerymen will be behind the guns at Namur. The English"
The Hungarian orchestra of forty strings swept into a wild gipsy chant. Dissonances, fierce and barbaric, swept like angry tides over the brilliant floor, of the café. Still Capper talked on, and the woman called Louisa bent her jewel-starred head to listen. Her face, the face of a fine animal, was set in rapt attention.
"You mark my words," he finished, "when the German army enters Brussels proof of what I'm telling you will be there. Yes, in a pigeonhole of the foreign-office safe those joint plans between England and Belgium for resisting invasion from the eastern frontier. If the Germans strike as swiftly as I think they will the foreign-office Johnnies will be so flustered in moving out they'll forget these papers I'm telling you about. Then your Wilhelmstrasse will know they've paid for the truth when they paid Billy Capper."
Capper eagerly reached for his glass, and, finding it empty, signaled the waiter.
"I'll buy this one, Louisa," he said grandiloquently. "Can't have a lady buying me wine all night." He gave the order. "You're going to slip me some bank-notes to-night—right now, aren't you, Louisa, old pal?" Capper anxiously honed his cheeks with a hand that trembled. The woman's eyes were narrowed in thought.
"If I give you anything to-night, Billy Capper, you'll get drunker than you are now, and how do I know you won't run to the first English secret-service man you meet and blab?"
"Louisa! Louisa! Don't say that!" Great fear and great yearning sat in Capper's filmed eyes. "You know I'm honest, Louisa! You wouldn't milk me this way—take all the info I've got and then throw me over like a dog!" Cold scorn was in her glance.
"Maybe I might manage to get you a position—with the Wilhelmstrasse." She named the great secret-service office under her breath. "You can't go back to England, to be sure; but you might be useful in the Balkans, where you're not known, or even in Egypt. You have your good points, Capper; you're a sly little weasel—when you're sober. Perhaps
"Yes, yes; get me a job with the Wilhelmstrasse, Louisa!" Capper was babbling in an agony of eagerness. "You know my work. You can vouch for me, and you needn't mention that business of the Lord Fisher letters; you were tarred pretty much with the same brush there, Louisa. But, come, be a good sport; pay me at least half of what you think my info's worth, and I'll take the rest out in salary checks, if you get me that job. I'm broke, Louisa!" His voice cracked in a sob. "Absolutely stony broke!"
She sat toying with the stem of her wine-glass while Capper's clasped hands on the table opened and shut themselves without his volition. Finally she made a swift move of one hand to her bodice, withdrew it with a bundle of notes crinkling between the fingers.
"Three hundred marks now, Billy Capper," she said. The man echoed the words lovingly. "Three hundred now, and my promise to try to get a number for you with—my people. That's fair?"
"Fair as can be, Louisa." He stretched out clawlike fingers to receive the thin sheaf of notes she counted from her roll. "Here comes the wine—the wine I'm buying. We'll drink to my success at landing a job with—your people."
"For me no more to-night," the woman answered. "My cape, please." She rose.
"But, I say!" Capper protested. "Just one more bottle—the bottle I'm buying. See, here it is all proper and cooled. Marks the end of my bad luck, so it does. You won't refuse to drink with me to my good luck that's coming?"
"Your good luck is likely to stop short with that bottle, Billy Capper," she said, her lips parting in a smile half scornful. "You know how wine has played you before. Better stop now while luck's with you."
"Hanged if I do!" he answered stubbornly. "After these months of hand to mouth and begging for a nasty pint of ale in a common pub—leave good wine when it's right under my nose? Not me!" Still protesting against her refusal to drink with him the wine he would pay for himself—the man made that a point of injured honor—Capper grudgingly helped place the cape of web lace over his companion's white shoulders, and accompanied her to her taxi.
"If you're here this time to-morrow night—and sober," were her farewell words, "I may bring you your number in the—you understand; that and your commission to duty."
"God bless you, Louisa, girl!" Capper stammered thickly. "I'll not fail you."
He watched the taxi trundle down the brilliant mirror of Unter den Linden, a sardonic smile twisting his lips. Then he turned back to the world of light and perfume and wine—the world from which he had been barred these many months and for which the starved body of him had cried out in agony. His glass stood brimming; money crinkled in his pocket; there were eyes for him and fair white shoulders. Billy Capper, discredited spy, had come to his own once more.
The orchestra was booming a rag-time, and the chorus on the stage of the Winter Garden came plunging to the footlights, all in line, their black legs kicking out from the skirts like thrusting spindles in some marvelous engine of stagecraft. They screeched the final line of a Germanized coon song, the cymbals clanged "Zam-m-m!" and folk about the clustered tables pattered applause. Captain Woodhouse, at a table by himself, pulled a wafer of a watch from his waistcoat pocket, glanced at its face and looked back at the rococo entrance arches, through which the late-comers were streaming.
"Henry Sherman, do you think Kitty ought to see this sort of thing? It's positively indecent!"
The high-pitched nasal complaint came from a table a little to the right of the one where Woodhouse was sitting.
"There, there, mother! Now, don't go taking all the joy outa life just because you're seeing something that would make the minister back in Kewanee roll his eyes in horror. This is Germany, mother!"
Out of the tail of his eye, Woodhouse could see the family group wherein Mrs. Grundy had sat down to make a fourth. A blocky little man with a red face and a pinky-bald head, whose clothes looked as if they had been whipsawed out of the bolt; a comfortably stout matron wearing a bonnet which even to the untutored masculine eye betrayed its provincialism; a slim slip of a girl of about nineteen with a face like a choir boy's—these were the American tourists whose voices had attracted Woodhouse's attention. He played an amused eavesdropper, all the more interested because they were Americans, and since a certain day on the Calais-Paris express, a week or so gone, he'd had reason to be interested in all Americans.
"I'm surprised at you, Henry, defending such an exhibition as this," the matron's high complaint went on, "when you were mighty shocked at the bare feet of those innocent Greek dancers the Ladies' Aid brought to give an exhibition on Mrs. Peck's lawn."
"Well, mother, that was different," the genial little chap answered. "Kewanee's a good little town, and should stay proper. Berlin, from what I can see, is a pretty bad big town—and don't care." He pulled a heavy watch from his waistcoat pocket and consulted it. "Land's sakes, mother; seven o'clock back home, and the bell's just ringing for Wednesday-night prayer meeting! Maybe since it's prayer-meeting night we might be passing our time better than by looking at this—ah—exhibition."
There was a scraping of chairs, then:
"Henry, I tell you he does look like Albert Downs—the living image!" This from the woman, sotto voce.
"Sh! mother! What would Albert Downs be doing in Berlin?" The daughter was reproving.
"Well, Kitty, they say curiosity once killed a cat; but I'm going to have a better look. I'd swear"
Woodhouse was slightly startled when he saw the woman from America utilize the clumsy subterfuge of a dropped handkerchief to step into a position whence she could look at his face squarely. Also he was annoyed. He did not care to be stared at under any circumstances, particularly at this time. The alert and curious lady saw his flush of annoyance, flushed herself, and joined her husband and daughter.
"Well, if I didn't know Albert Downs had a livery business which he couldn't well leave," floated back the hoarse whisper, "I'd say that was him setting right there in that chair."
"Come, mother, bedtime and after—in Berlin," was the old gentleman's admonition. Woodhouse heard their retreating footsteps, and laughed in spite of his temporary chagrin at the American woman's curiosity. He was just reaching for his watch a second time when a quick step sounded on the gravel behind him. He turned. A woman of ripe beauty had her hand outstretched in welcome. She was the one Billy Capper had called Louisa. Captain Woodhouse rose and grasped her hand warmly.
"Ah! So good of you! I've been expecting"
"Yes, I'm late. I could not come earlier." Salutation and answer were in German, fluently spoken on the part of each.
"You will not be followed?" Woodhouse asked, assisting her to sit. She laughed shortly.
"Hardly, when a bottle of champagne is my rival. The man will be well entertained—too well."
"I have been thinking," Woodhouse continued gravely, "that a place hardly as public as this would have been better for our meeting. Perhaps"
"You fear the English agents? Pah! They have ears for keyholes only; they do not expect to use them in a place where there is light and plenty of people. You know their clumsiness." Woodhouse nodded. His eyes traveled slowly over the bold beauty of the woman's face.
"The man Capper will do for the stalking horse—a willing nag," went on the woman in a half whisper across the table. "You know the ways of the Wilhelmstrasse. Capper is what we call 'the target.' The English suspect him. They will catch him; you get his number and do the work in safety. We have one man to draw their fire, another to accomplish the deed. We'll let the English bag him at Malta—a word placed in the right direction will fix that—and you'll go on to Alexandria to do the real work."
"Good, good!" Woodhouse agreed.
"The Wilhelmstrasse will give him a number, and send him on this mission on my recommendation; I had that assurance before ever I met the fellow to-night. They—the big people—know little Capper's reputation, and, as a matter of fact, I think they are convinced he's a little less dangerous working for the Wilhelmstrasse than against it. At Malta the arrest—the firing squad at dawn—and the English are convinced they've nipped something big in the bud, whereas they've only put out of the way a dangerous little weasel who's ready to bite any hand that feeds him."
Woodhouse's level glance never left the eyes of the woman called Louisa; it was alert, appraising.
"But if there should be some slip-up at Malta," he interjected. "If somehow this Capper should get through to Alexandria, wouldn't that make it somewhat embarrassing for me?"
"Not at all, my dear Woodhouse," she caught him up, with a little pat on his hand. "His instructions will be only to report to So-and-so at Alexandria; he will not have the slightest notion what work he is to do there. You can slip in unsuspected by the English, and the trick will be turned."
For a minute Woodhouse sat watching the cavortings of a dancer on the stage. Finally he put a question judiciously:
"The whole scheme, then, is"
"This," she answered quickly. "Captain Woodhouse—the real Woodhouse, you know—is to be transferred from his present post at Wady Haifa, on the Nile, to Gibraltar—transfer is to be announced in the regular way within a week. As a member of the signal service he will have access to the signal tower on the Rock when he takes his new post, and that, as you know, will be very important."
"Very important!" Woodhouse echoed dryly.
"This Woodhouse arrives in Alexandria to await the steamer from Suez to Gib. He has no friends there—that much we know. Three men of the Wilhelmstrasse are waiting there, whose business it is to see that the real Woodhouse does not take the boat for Gib. They expect a man from Berlin to come to them, bearing a number from the Wilhelmstrasse—the man who is to impersonate Woodhouse and as such take his place in the garrison on the Rock. There are two others of the Wilhelmstrasse at Gibraltar already; they, too, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of 'Woodhouse' from Alexandria. Capper, with a number, will start from Berlin for Alexandria. Capper will never arrive in Alexandria. You will."
"With a number—the number expected?" the man asked.
"If you are clever en route—yes," she answered, with a smile. "Wine, remember, is Billy Capper's best friend—and worst enemy."
"Then I will hear from you as to the time and route of departure for Alexandria?"
"To the very hour, yes. And, now, dear friend"
Interruption came suddenly from the stage. The manager, in shirt-sleeves and with hair wildly rumpled over his eyes, came prancing out from the wings. He held up a pudgy hand to check the orchestra. Hundreds about the tables rose in a gust of excitement, of questioning wonder.
"Herren!" The stage manager's bellow carried to the farthest arches of the Winter Garden. "News just published by the general staff: Russia has mobilized five divisions on the frontier of East Prussia and Galicia!"
Not a sound save the sharp catching of breath over all the acre of tables. Then the stage manager nodded to the orchestra leader, and in a fury the brass mouths began to bray. Men climbed on table tops, women stood on chairs, and all—all sang in tremendous chorus:
"Deutschland, Deutschland üeber alles!
Last edited on 19 May 2021, at 15:03
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