|Wartime Cartoon Depicting the Oppression of Belgium |
Under German Occupation
I was a Secret Service agent, not a ridiculous young girl
Marthe McKenna, I Was a Spy (1932)
Marthe McKenna, then Marthe Cnockaert, was a Belgian girl who witnessed too much of the looting, destruction, and wanton brutality of the German invasion in August, 1914. She was generous enough to serve as a hospital nurse, and earned the high regard of the German medical authorities. But what she had seen and the harsh discipline of the oppressor which she, her parents, and their neighbors were all experiencing, inspired her to undertake the audacious career of a spy.
|Marthe's Second Memoir of Her War Service|
For two years Marthe was "Laura" of the Anglo-Belgian Intelligence system. She was brave and ingenious, and but for one of those small, fatal slips which have extinguished so many espionage careers, she might have continued her daring and invaluable "side-line" until the Armistice. However, she was detected, convicted, and condemned to death. Because of her splendid nursing record, and the tireless devotion she had shown hundreds of enemy wounded and sick, her sentence was commuted to imprisonment. And so this heroine—and she was surely that in two capacities—survived until the military prison door swung wide in Belgium. She afterwards married a British officer. Here is her account of her foiled effort to arrange for the assassination of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
|The Kaiser on an Earlier Visit to Brussels|
SUMMER had come. The sun shone down brilliantly on life in Roulers, and the songs of the birds made a pleasant contrast to the almost incessant roll of gun-fire. Stray shells still soared over the town occasionally, but they usually exploded in the air or plunged harmlessly into the fields. Curiously enough, for all that year the casualties from shell-fire had only been two aged cart-horses, which were to be sent to the knacker's yard within a few days in any case.
It suddenly began to strike me that something unusual was happening in Roulers. There was a tremendous air of animation among the Germans, but their activity was of a new kind, and not like that which used to take place before an attack. Sometimes it looked as though our conquerors had all gone mad. Fatigue parties spent their days polishing the floors of the hospital till they glimmered like glass, and men were tying rags on the end of long poles in order to dust the lofty ceilings. In the streets the German soldiers walked in clean new urn-forms, and their equipment seemed to have lost its battered appearance. Squads paraded in the streets, moving like automatons, practising the goose-step with eyes and faces of wood. Alphonse grumbled to me that he had had to spend the whole of the last evening, after returning from a heavy day with the ambulance under fire, in polishing and burnishing an aluminium bath in his barrack-room, and that when he had proudly displayed it glistening like a mirror to the hospital sergeant-major, he had condemned it as terrible, and called him an idler. He said that the troops in all the billets through-out Roulers were being put to work in the same way, and that everywhere the officers were making themselves unpleasant to the N.C.O.s, and that consequently these were working off their resentment twofold on the men. He told me that one old soldier, who had been a conscript 'before the War, said grimly that things were beginning to get quite like the good old times again
I asked one of the doctors in the hospital what all the excitement was about. He said nobody knew, but that H.Q. had suddenly decided for some reason to hurl the full force of its frightfulness upon the Roulers authorities, and that we were all feeling the concussion. I knew there must be some reason for this. Then one day Alphonse met me in the corridor. He paused for a moment in passing and said in an undertone: "The Kaiser is due at Menin next week. He will be coming on here later.-Can you find out the date and time?"
So that was it. I might have guessed. All that day I racked my brains how to get reliable information. Suppose that I succeeded in bringing about the death of the German Emperor. It was said that it was he who was responsible for the War; what, therefore, would happen at his death ? A sharp thrill of excitement ran through me, and I determined that there must be no mistake in this affair. Yet who in Roulers could provide me with the necessary information? It was well known that the Kaiser always kept his movements as secret as possible for fear of attempts on his life. The Monday of the week before the Kaiser's expected visit came, but my head was empty of ideas, and I began to despair.
‘Canteen Ma’ called at the door early. As she handed me our weekly vegetables, and I was examining them for freshness, she slipped a pincushion into my hand.-So they also knew! When I ripped open the pincushion in my room the message read: "Kaiser arrives Roulers latter half next week for brief inspection. Time and Date, etc. for information British aircraft.”
Elegant staff officers with tight waists and important faces began to flood Roulers. Then generals arrived in cars, and everybody went about in a bad temper. The General Staff were arrived in person to see that everything in Roulers was fit for the eyes of the mighty war-lord, and the heel-clicking could have been heard in Ypres.
When I answered a summons to the Oberartz' office on the Tuesday morning in the week before the expected Royal visit, he was seated with a tall Staff-Colonel, one of these steely-blue-eyed men with fierce fair moustaches brushed upwards. He rose smartly upon being introduced, bowed, clicked his heels, smiled in a refined manner, and bowed again. The Oberartz asked me to show the Colonel round the wards and to explain everything to him, excusing himself on the count that a number of bad cases had just been brought in and that his presence was needed in the operating theatre.
The Colonel followed me round, always seeming interested, always courteous. He never found fault with anything, and from time to time uttered well-bred little jokes to me which evidently amused him tremendously and which I pretended to be much amused at myself. He was certainly a very polished person. As we approached the door of the Oberartz' office on our return, he surprised me by suddenly saying: "Perhaps if you find yourself free you would care to lunch with me to-morrow, mein Fraulein ?"
The Colonel had shown himself to be a talkative man, and I saw a glimmer of hope in this direction.
"There is nothing would please me better, Herr Colonel," I assured him.
It might be said of that lunch next day that we got along "famously." At the end he swallowed his liqueur and called for a second.
“Mein Fraulein," he smiled, "Life must be tedious in the extreme here in Roulers for a girl of your standing and education." He gestured with his cigarette gracefully. "Would you not care to come for a while to Brussels, to see the opera, to eat decent food?" I coloured. Food was not what he was thinking about. His hand clasped my wrist.
“Do not be afraid, little one," he soothed. "It shall be as you wish. I shall not urge you. Command I will strive my utmost to make your stay a pleasure. I will personally guarantee your safety, and I can procure for you a special pass. And now I will escort you to the hospital, Fraulein. As for what I suggest, it is for you to decide." He rose and pulled back my chair.
Near the hospital gates the road was deserted and he paused and caught my arm. Then gently raising my chin so that his blue eyes gazed into mine he murmured: "Well, have you decided, mein Fraulein ?" I had been thinking furiously during the walk to the hospital.
“Herr Colonel," I said, "I have decided. I will stay with you in Brussels." He kissed my hand gently.
"What excuse will you make to obtain leave of absence from the hospital? " he asked, a trifle anxiously.
“My grandmother lives in Brussels. I will tell the Herr Oberartz that she is very ill and is asking to see me, and that you, Herr Colonel, have had the goodness to procure for me a pass."
“That is so," he laughed," I am a good Samaritan, indeed!” His arm was about my shoulder, and I think he would have kissed me had not a couple of young officers turned into the -street and saluted him rigidly as they passed. "Take the evening train to-morrow," he went on, his eyes returning to mine. "You should be at Brussels soon after midnight. It is possible I may have night work, I do not know. At all events my orderly shall meet you and bring you to my hotel, where a room shall be ready for you. I shall hope for the honour of your presence at break-fast at eight-thirty the following morning."
“I shall not be able to obtain leave for more than four days from the Oberartz," I told him; for I had rapidly calculated that that was the longest I could afford to find out the information I wanted, if I was to return to Rouleis and transmit what knew over the frontier. I might hear nothing, but on the other hand, this man was on the General Staff, and I might well trick him into speaking in an unguarded moment.
The Colonel saluted. "Mein Fraulein," he said softly, " it will be four days of Paradise. Until eight-thirty Friday, and the pass shall reach you to-morrow morning." He bent sharply from the waist, straightened, turned about and swaggered gaily up the dusty road. I stood watching his receding back, and the scent of the clusters of heliotrope on a nearby wall came to me on the warm air. It all seemed unreal and dreamlike. Had I really promised this stranger that I would spend four days with him in Brussels? Was I mad? To what had I committed myself? What chance had I of coming through such an escapade unscathed ? Why had I done it? For the sake of ravished Belgium. The thought comforted me, and I hurried through the grey stone gates and busied myself with other things.
On the Thursday morning before I left for the hospital a German soldier brought an official envelope to the café. It held the special pass and a travelling voucher. I said nothing to my mother of where I was going, for although she encouraged me in spying, I was afraid to tell her of the extreme risk to which I had now committed myself. I did warn her, however, that that night I had a long errand to perform which might keep me away for several days, but there was no cause for unusual anxiety. Now that my course was set, I felt no qualms. If I succeeded no sacrifice could be too great. I left a note for ''Canteen” giving her all details, and requesting as an afterthought that some other secret agent might be near me in the hotel in case of trouble, or in case I was myself unable to transmit information I was able to obtain. I suggested that an agent might pick me up at my hotel in Brussels, by reason of the fact that a ways, when not in evening dress, I would wear a button-hole of mixed snowdrops and violets without any green leaves at my collar.
A German military car was waiting outside the darkened station at Brussels, and the driver had soon settled me comfortably inside with my single suitcase. He handed me a note from the Colonel, excusing himself for his enforced absence and assuring me that for the future he had made arrangements that he should not be so detained.
I awoke next morning to find a trim maid letting up the blinds and flooding my spacious, unfamiliar bedroom with dazzling sunbeams. The silken curtains, the rich pile carpets, the wallpaper, and the soft billowing eiderdown were of deep peacock blue, and the dark furniture and the electric stove gleamed brightly. Upon the tray on which was my morning coffee was a small note in the Colonel's handwriting, and I did not need to open it to find a dead weight clutching at my heart. It had brought me back to realities. Within the hour I must meet my Colonel, and then what would follow? But somewhere near here was the Kaiser! How I hated this man whom I had never seen. This man whose vandals bad overrun my country. I must keep a clear head no matter what should happen. And, ruminating thus, I dressed.
My Colonel was delighted when I appeared in the spacious dining-room, and he devoured a huge breakfast with a light heart and much excited chatter. Being Belgian, and quite unused to a heavy meal and so much good-humour at this early hour, I left somewhat overwhelmed. After I had seen him off with promises to meet at lunch, I determined on a visit to the shops.
Walking along the Rue Royale towards the Grand Place it was heart-rending to see the change in beautiful "Petite Paris." Captured Allied guns stood in every possible space, some placarded with inspired news. The roadways badly needed repairs. It all looked shabby in the extreme. The thought struck me that I would like to let loose an army of mad painters to work their will, no matter what the result, so long as that drab, seedy look was eliminated. It suddenly struck me, too, that, irony of ironies ! It was the 21st of July !-Belgium's Independence Day, and here were a horde of marauders in field-green lording it in Beautiful Brussels. The passers-by did not seem cowed by any manner of means. Thank God, every one wore a stiff upper lip.
The shops were a great disappointment. "It is regrettable, Mademoiselle, but we are unable to renew anything. - Our stock is being gradually decreased, and where we are going to get fresh stock from, only the good Lord can say." The prices asked took my breath away. The half-blue painted shop-windows wore a thin look, for dummy show was everywhere. I nearly wept. I thought I would take a look at the old Grand Place. It was a spot that had always a restful appeal to me. Its noble and towering architecture would drive away my fit of blues.
Turning into the Boulevard Anspach I saw, trudging along, a company of English soldiers. Their prisoners' uniforms were dreadfully shabby, patches everywhere, and with pitiful, down-at-heel boots. The company drew along the kerb as a tramway car clanged its way down the street. As the car drew level with the prisoners a shower of cigarettes and tablets of chocolates fell amongst them from the windows. One of the German guards caught sight of the person on the tramcar who had thrown the edibles. With a loud shout he mounted the moving tram to arrest the culprit who had dared to violate a strict order. The civilian, seeing that he was discovered, vaulted lightly over the iron gate of the tramcar and made rapidly for a side-street off the Boulevard Anspach, the soldier following in hot pursuit, his rifle held at the ready. As the soldier arrived at the opposite footpath, he was obstructed by a small crowd of civilians who in their haste to get out of his way encumbered him the more. Suddenly I saw a foot slyly pushed forward, and the soldier lay sprawled and cursing on the footpath. The foot belonged to the mysterious safety-pin man whom I had last seen that night in the café, when he had stabbed the military policeman and effected the double escape. He faded into the crowd.
The Colonel had returned, and we had just sat down to lunch when I was aware of the noise of distant cheers, which gradually swelled closer, till I could distinguish that they came from Belgian throats; the tramcars passing the hotel seemed to clang their bells with a louder, more insistent warning, and the commotion outside grew in volume. Springing to our feet we hurried into the entrance lobby. The door was packed with the guests, all straining their necks upwards. I gradually pushed my way through, and there a sight met my eyes which thrilled me through and through. An enormous toy balloon was floating free and unfettered, 250 feet above us. It was bedecked in Belgium's national colours, the envelope painted with the Tricolour of France and Union Jack of Britain. Long streamers flew proudly from the sides, “Vive la Belgique," "Vive les Alliés," embossed thereon. It sailed majestically along in the faint July breeze. A defiant gesture, and a reminder to the invader that Belgium was still in soul free and independent. It was amazing to see the electrical effect on the civilians. Laughing jokes and words of encouragement were passed to each other as they went by, heads held more erect. The Belgian tramcar drivers beat a methodical and persistent tattoo on the tram-bells, motor-drivers gave answering toots, the cabbies cracked their whips defiantly. Deafening noises of all descriptions rent the air until a muttering roar rose over the whole city as the emblem of freedom slowly swept away. I heard the sharp crack, crack of rifles. The military authorities had given orders for the offending emblem to be destroyed. At each crack the tumult swelled the louder, until a final crack and the envelope was no more. The muttering grew fainter and fainter, but Brussels had celebrated its Independence Day!
The Colonel was furious over the affair. "Himmel," he said, "the organisers of such an outrage, a few irresponsible youths I suppose, little think what the result of such a stupid escapade can mean for the town."
"After all," I reminded him innocently, "we have to celebrate our Independence Day some way or another. And then our Independence is only eighty-five years of age !-Youth will have its fling, you know."
In the evening my gallant entertainer conducted me to a motor car. No orders were given, the driver evidently knew his destination. During our short journey I noticed that all the street-lamps and tramcar lights were painted a dark blue. The sky was lighted by the long beams of questing searchlights, and the distant staccato of anti-aircraft guns told of the activity of Allied raiders. The car pulled up at the entrance to an imposing private residence, set in its own grounds amid trees and shrubs. Several motor cars were parked in the grounds. A ring at the doorbell, a muttered conversation, and we were allowed to enter.
Strains of soft dance music greeted us as I let the attendant take my cloak. We descended marble steps into a beautifully appointed room, profusely decked with flowers and fragrant with perfume. Along one side of the room were red-curtained alcoves, and windows opened on to a shadowy lane along the other side. Ranged round a small dance-floor in the centre were tables. At these tables I saw noisy parties of officers of all services, and with them sat many beautiful girls with tired eyes, some Belgian, some German. Most of them were voluptuously wanton in their behaviour, for the champagne was flowing freely.
A bowing waiter led us to an alcove, and champagne was served to us. The hidden orchestra broke into a lively dance-tune. Almost without exception the officers wore that German class mark, a horrid gash down the side of the face received in some fencing brawl. Some wore monocles, and all had closely cropped hair. And the women-but who am I to judge, for my own country-women were there too! If asked, every one of them would have a harrowing tale to tell. Hounded down, driven to distraction by punishments meted out to their kinsfolk, subject to atrocities and unmentionable acts of outrage, they were caught in a holocaust over which they had no control, until they were literally driven into the arms of their oppressors by sheer want and starvation, utterly bewildered by a world gone mad. In all conscience the blame lay at the door of the invaders. The place was an ultra-select night rendezvous, a product and importation of warring Germany.
As the night passed into morning the company became madly uproarious, singing in uncertain chorus, shouting and embracing. Three noisy late-comers, very drunk, were going the rounds of the centre tables. One of them, a Lutheran minister, carrying a huge stock-whip, beat a drunken tattoo on each table with the whip, until, at one table, unable to keep his balance, he swept off several glasses which fell to the ground with a shattering noise. Wine stained one of the girl's dresses. She struck the minister savagely in the face. He raised his whip, calling her "A filthy Belgian sow." The other officers at the table grew excited.-He was pushed away and fell crashing on to another table with a roar of rage.
The scene might have developed into a very nasty episode, for I saw the Colonel's face grow set, but for a stern interruption from the entrance : "Gentlemen," grated a harsh voice, "by orders of the General Commanding, all officers must report to units at once. All civilians not of German nationality must produce their identity cards for my inspection."
Faint screams of protest came from the frightened girls, who hurried out of the room to seek for identity cards. The Colonel gripped my arm and whispered: "Say nothing. I will arrange this with the field-major. Von Bissing has lost no time. His chastisement of the town for the balloon imprudence comes quickly."
When we reached the hotel we heard that Brussels was to be fined 8,ooo,ooo marks, and that curfew was to be curtailed to five o'clock until further notice.
Three days passed at the hotel while the Colonel entertained me in the intervals of arduous duty. Had he not been an enemy officer he would have seemed a very pleasant companion. He was courteous, and honestly tried to do all he could to please me. I knew that I greatly attracted him, but beyond caressing my arm or my hand, and presenting me with flowers and small presents, he had paid me none of the attentions I had expected from his manner in Roulers.
Nor had he once visited my room.
|1933 Film of Marthe's Adventures|
Then on the next morning I returned to my room in the hotel after I had been shopping, to see the door standing half-open. At first I thought it was the servant who was late in cleaning out the room, but when I pushed the door wide, a German soldier was standing with his back to me gazing out of the open window. He had just placed two strange suitcases on the ground beside the bed. Then he touched his military cap, and smirking faintly walked out without a word. I knew what this meant. There could be no mistake in the rooms, for the Colonel's initials were on the suitcases. I sat down upon the edge of the bed, aghast. In my silly optimism I had begun to think I might learn what I wanted without having to go to such an extreme. I felt horribly lonely and frightened in a world of savage ogres as I dug my fingers miserably into the silk eiderdown, and the tears swelled to my eyes.
But this was absurd. Anything which had come to pass I had brought upon myself. I was a Secret Service agent, not a ridiculous young girl. I looked at my wrist watch, and it was about the hour when the Colonel returned to the hotel from his morning's work. He would probably be waiting for me over his vermouth in the lounge at this moment. Perhaps, smiling to himself at the trick he had played me. But was it a trick? Could I have expected anything else? I left the bed, powdered my nose, tidied my hair, and slowly proceeded downstairs, wondering how the Colonel would greet me.
In the lounge the Colonel left the palm-shaded alcove where he had been sitting and approached me with his well-bred smile. Bowing, he kissed my hand and conducted me back to his alcove, after ordering further drinks. He was suave and his talk was of trivialities. He made not the slightest hint about the suitcases in my bedroom. For the first time since I had arrived in Brussels I began to worry seriously as to where was that other agent whom I had requested should if possible keep me secret company. I had received no sign and had no idea where to look. So far I had got nothing out of my Colonel, and while he talked I was thinking to myself that I wanted the company of a friend very much.
As my eye wandered round the busy lounge an announcement of a Command Concert at the Opera House for that night suspended from a pillar caught my attention. I asked the Colonel to take me.
Certainly, mein Fraulein," he smiled. "It is a good suggestion." Then he stroked up his moustache and gazed naively at the ceiling. " Music will be a fitting prelude to other delights," he continued. "Incidentally to-night at the Opera is a great gala night, for the All Highest will be present."
My heart leaped. I determined that we should dine well that night, so well that wine should uniock his tongue. It did, but not to the extent that I had wanted. At the Opera there was a dense crowd of military men, but few civilians. When the All Highest entered and the orchestra crashed out" Deutschland Uber Alles," all leaped to their feet like one great wave.
Then followed prolonged cheering while the audience remained standing. I thought there sounded a note of artificiality in those cheers. The Kaiser took scant notice of the people all around him. As he listlessly sat back in his box among his glittering staff I detected a sad look on his face, as though bowed down by the weight of responsibility. And here was I, a spy, within a few yards of him, planning his death! The Colonel pressed my hand in the darkness of the box and I felt his lips brush my neck.
"Why do you look nowhere but at the All Highest, with that strange look in your eyes, my angel. Come, will you not pay a little attention to me?" he whispered, and it seemed to me that I started as though struck, but apparently he noticed nothing.
Back once more in the hotel we drank coffee and brandy in the lounge. My host leaned across the table. As he lit a match for his cigar his hand trembled. His breath smelt of alcohol, which was unusual for him. I looked away, not daring to think, and the disappointment of having been able to make him disclose nothing made it all seem so painfully futile. Soon now I should be alone with him and-a German lieutenant at the next table but one deliberately winked at me and looked away. For a moment I did not understand. The Colonel was talking but I heard nothing. Was this perhaps my secret agent? Within a minute or two the lieutenant looked at me again, nodded faintly, got to his feet and walked to the lift.
Come, little one," suggested the Colonel rising a trifle unsteadily. "You are perhaps tired. We will go to our room."
Upstairs he took me in his arms. “In a little while I shall return," he told me, looking toward my nightdress which was laid out on the peacock-blue eiderdown, and he went out with a smile, gently closing the door behind him. I stared round the room, hot knowing what to do next. Then I approached the window, let up the blind and gazed out on the calm night. Below in the depths ran a side-street, for my room was at the side of the hotel, and beyond stretched the roof-tops and spires of Brussels, rising so silent, gaunt, unsympathetic in the moonlight.
A little balcony lay outside my window and, opening it, I stepped through. The soft night wind ruffled my hair and seemed to give confidence to my burning senses. Suddenly a figure appeared upon the balcony next to mine. It was a man and he made a warning gesture with his hand. Only a few yards separated us. He slipped over the narrow space, gripped my rail, and in a moment we were standing peering into each other's faces.
I caught his hand and drew him into the light of the bedroom. It was the German lieutenant who had winked at me in the lounge, except that now he was clad in a black and scarlet brocaded dressing-gown beneath which I caught a glimpse of blue silk pyjamas. He grinned and smoothed crisp tousled hair. Then he lifted the lapel of his dressing-gown, showed me two diagonally placed safety-pins nestling there, and laughed.
"Good evening," he murmured. "I am an Englishman. I am on the Secret Intelligence in Brussels. There are several of us here. I daresay you were surprised to see me in a German uniform, but personally I was fitted into this job by our War Office before the war got started. We received warning of the important job you were on, and I was detailed to shadow you.
"You recognised the violets and snowdrops without leaves?"
"Yes," he nodded, and then took out his cigarette case, opened it, but suddenly, as an afterthought, shut it again sadly,
S'pose I'd better not smoke," he decided. " Old Colonel might smell it when he came back. Look here, have you succeeded in getting anything out of him? Tell me, what can I do to assist ?
"So far I have been unable to learn anything, but perhaps I shall know something before to-morrow morning." There was silence between us. "To-night is going to be rather a difficult one for me," I explained a little ruefully. He nodded, looking grave.
I wish I could help you," he said.
"You couldn't," I assured him. "It would only throw suspicion on both of us if you try to help me actively. I must rely on myself to-night. But here is where you can help. Suppose that I do manage to ascertain the information I want within time to make use of it, I intend to get back to Roulers immediately, as I can transmit the warning quicker direct over the frontier and thence by the regular channel to the Alr authori- ties near the line than you would be able to do from here."
"You may throw suspicion upon yourself by trying to run away," he put in.
I don't think so," I replied. "Why should he suspect me, and what could he prove even if he did? The line I shall take from now onwards is the frightened and virtuous young girl, and that would be my excuse for running away. In any case, I believe he would be somewhat anxious to keep my disappearance quiet from his friends, especially as he had no right to give me a special pass to Brussels in the first place. However," I continued, "it is possible that I shall not be able to elude the Colonel. In that case, as a warning to you of this fact, I shall wear green leaves with the bunch of snowdrops and violets at my collar, and I shall place my message in the ring of the steel bracket which clamps the water-pipe to the wall between our two balconies."
"I understand," he rejoined, and then looked hard at the Colonel's two suitcases which still stood untouched where the soldier had placed them by the bed. "Do those cases belong to your precious Colonel?" he enquired.
"Have you searched them for papers? "
"Not yet." He was down on his knees in a moment.
"Fortunately they are unlocked," he muttered, hastily running his hand through the contents with the hand of an expert, so that he did not disturb them. He drew out a packet of papers and ran through them with swift eagerness. He selected three and pushed the rest back whence they came.
"Nothing of much value," he grinned, removing one scarlet slipper and stuffing them inside. "Better than nothing, all the same."
He had one leg poised in the air as he replaced the slipper, when there sounded a rap on the door.
"The Colonel," I gasped. Then the door-handle began to turn. I choked back a scream. Turning I saw- nothing. The Lieutenant had vanished. But he could not possibly have escaped through the window in time. There were no cupboards for a man of his size. He had taken refuge beneath the bed.
The Colonel smiled a trifle vacantly, and then encircled me in his arms.
"You have not yet undressed, my angel," he chided. "Ali, but I see that you were about to unpack my cases," he said, his gaze falling upon the two open suitcases which the Lieutenant had abandoned. His lips sought mine, while my mind was in a whirl. What could I do? I must play for time. Somehow I must give the Lieutenant a chance to slip over the balcony into his own room.
"I cannot stay here after to-night," I whispered. "I am frightened - besides, what will the Herr Oberartz say at the hospital if I am absent when the All Highest arrives? There are various duties in the hospital which are specially assigned to me and it is essential that I should be present."
"Do not worry," replied the Colonel, "we have two days yet, and your leave can be extended. He arrives on Saturday to review the troops at eleven o'clock, and will afterwards inspect the place. He will not even stay the night, so that he will only take a cursory glance all round. I think that you could perfectly well stay away for the All Highest's visit altogether. What do you say, my sweet?"
So, at least I knew what I had set out to learn !
“I promised the Oberartz I would return," I mumbled, hardly aware of what I was saying, for I. was thinking feverishly of the man under my bed and what would happen if he were found. My lover held me close and pressed his lips on mine. I did not care, I was thinking, thinking furiously, desperately. In another room down the corridor German voices were singing. Sing - how could anybody in the world sing when such a ghastly dilemma was playing itself out in this bedroom?
Somebody was walking along the passage. Little did they think of what was being enacted in here. Suddenly there came a tremendous crash of glass, and then oaths followed by peals of unsteady laughter. The Colonel relaxed his hold,. listening.
In a second I was at the door, for whatever it might be it offered some momentary respite. Outside a blear-eyed Saxon officer of middle age swayed gently to and fro in an ecstasy of delight, and aimlessly brandished an empty wine-glass, in admonition of a silent waiter who was collecting heaps of shattered glass upon his tray. Crowded in a near-by doorway and peeping over each other's shoulders were the Saxon's comrades, applauding loudly. I hoped the Colonel would follow me out of the room, and so I rushed up to the gallant Saxon and asked what was the matter.
The officer stiffened and made an attempt at a bow which nearly overbalanced him, and then said: "Believe me, the explanation is quite simple, Fraulein. This pig-dog and myself tried to pass in the passage, but as you see there was not room for such an intricate manoeuvre," and his arm swept the passage, where at least five men could have walked abreast. "Therefore" he concluded," our momentum was such that we were unable to avoid a collision." As he said these last words the Colonel, to my intense relief, looking somewhat surprised and annoyed, came out and joined us.
The Major knew the Colonel, as did several of the others, and after preliminary bows and heel-clicking of a rather unsteady kind, he was hailed cheerily and two full glasses were passed over the heads in the doorway, although not without spilling a good deal upon the said heads, and eventually reached the Colonel and myself. Then everybody was talking, laughing and shouting, and the Colonel, because several of the officers there were senior to himself, had to remain a few minutes out of politeness. When nobody seemed to be looking in my direction I seized the momentary opportunity to slip back to my bedroom.
Here I double-locked the door and rushed to the bed. As I hoped, the Lieutenant had made his escape. One terrible crisis of that night had been got over, anyway. I was not sure what to do next, but I had not long to wait.
The Colonel was knocking on the door and fruitlessly turning the handle.
"Listen, my angel, I am waiting outside. Will you not let me in?" he was urging. "Perhaps it is that you are undressing," he said as an afterthought, "and you would prefer that I wait ?"
"Yes, I am undressing," I told him breathlessly.
"Very well, I understand. I will rejoin you later, and go to my friends for one quarter of an hour. Au revoir, my dearest dear. We shall meet again very soon," and I heard his footsteps recede up the corridor.
The drink I had gulped down in the other room must have been strong, for my brain was working with a bell-like clearness. All of a sudden, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I would run from the hotel immediately, while the Colonel was in the other room. I had all the information I had wanted. As for my suitcase with the few spare clothes I had brought with me, that could go hang. There was nothing there which could incriminate me.
With the help of my railway pass I should be able to catch a train before dawn for Roulers, and once I was outside the hotel and in public I did not think the Colonel would pursue and cause a scene for reasons I have mentioned.
I scribbled in pencil on a piece of writing-paper:
I reserve the right of a woman to change her mind. I was a young and foolish girl; I was carried away by you. Now I am going home, and I hope eventually you will forgive me.
Then seizing my special railway p ass and the key of the door, for I had decided to relock it on the outside and keep the key to perplex the Colonel for a few extra minutes while the distance between us widened as much as possible, I tore open the door and dashed straight into the solid grey form which blocked the way. It was the Colonel.
He smiled down at me and explained a little thickly: "My angel, I have just remembered that when I was holding you in my arms in our bedroom, I heard my cigar case drop to the floor from my breeches pocket. I had come to ask that you would hand it out to me, angel, for I loathe other men's cheap cigars; but, behold, here you come to meet me!" Suddenly the significance of the fact that I was still fully dressed seemed to penetrate his fuddled senses, and he may have noticed the wild look in my face.
"What is the matter, mein Fraulein? " he interrogated, holding me by the shoulders and gently forcing me back through the door. "Where do you go?"
“Please let me go," I breathed. "I have changed my mind. I am leaving for home.- Please, please - but forgive me. I am frightened, I ought never to have come. I was mad, crazy, but please let me go !" I tried to slip from his grasp, but he held me firmly, though not unkindly.
“Little one, little one, there is nothing at which to be frightened. Calm yourself. Sit down and I will fetch you a drink." He kissed my forehead tenderly, and I leaned away from him as far as I could as I looked around me wildly, feeling my last chance of escape had gone.
In an alcove of the wall beside the door stood the washhand stand with the basin and ewer of gleaming blue china. I looked up at the Colonel. He was neither intoxicated nor sober. He was not very steady, and I did not think his brain would work quickly. I let my body lie limp against his, with my head resting near his shoulder, then in a flash, I braced my limbs and leaped back with all my strength. I reached the washhand stand, and seizing the blue ewer, launched the whole contents full into the Colonel's eyes before he understood what was happening. He staggered back gasping, and just behind him, as I had calculated, were the two suitcases by the bed-foot. I rushed at him and threw all the weight of my body into a sudden shove. He toppled headlong backwards over the cases and I think his head struck the copper knob of the bedpost.
I turned and catching up my train pass and the door-key which had fallen to the floor, fled from my peacock bedroom, locking the door behind me.
A moment later I was hastening through the darkened and deserted lounge. The night doorkeeper wished me a polite good night. It was no business of his, but for all that he must have wondered where a lady guest in the hotel was going at that hour.
One hour and a half later I was lying back in the train, still breathless and incredulous, gliding swiftly through the night towards Roulers.
It was growing late when the train drew into Roulers. A woman passenger on the trains at that time was unusual, but my pass carried me safely through the military police at the barrier. Everybody was still in bed when I reached the café, but presently my mother was embracing me in the doorway. She did not question me as to where I had been. It was enough for her that I had returned safely.
“Canteen Ma' called here yesterday and left this," she told me, slipping a cheap pincushion into my hands.
The message read: "No. 63 is absent on a special mission until Thursday. If before that day you have urgent news to transmit you must yourself carry the information to the Van Root's farm-house along the Thourout-Roulers Road. You will knock at the door with two short and three long raps and hand your message to a fat woman (with a florid complexion) within. You will not allude to the message in any way, but will greet all as acquaintances."
I knew of the Van Roots, trustworthy folk who lived at a lonely farmstead among pine-trees lying nearby the highway. But the distance from Roulers was about fifteen miles by road, and as I could not risk using such a conspicuous route, it meant a journey of almost twenty miles by night over rough country side. I should have to leave Roulers as soon as darkness fell and make all haste for my destination. The Overartz must not know of my return to Roulers until after I had come back from delivering my message. I should have overstayed my leave, but I could excuse myself on the grounds of my imaginary grandmother's extreme illness and the fact. that I had heard in Brussels that the All Highest would not visit us until Saturday.
I left Roulers at ten o'clock that Wednesday night in a shower of rain and inky blackness. I had only a small torch to guide me and could wear neither coat nor hat, as anyone who had the appearance of having travelled any distance in those days was immediately under suspicion. One always had to look as though one were just running in to see a neighbour, whatever was the real nature of the mission. Food, shelter and if necessary a hiding-place could always be found with Belgians whose homesteads were en route, and no questions were ever asked or information ever given to prying German gendarmes, who both in uniform and plain clothes were sometimes to be met with in unexpected places. All along the route to the frontier was a string of farms, private houses, empty ruins and factories which formed a veritable network of relays for the runners with secret and vital information. Here, also, fugitives bound for Holland might lie safely hidden for months. It is when I remember these things, and the unselfish, fearless spirit that was manifested in those war days, that I feel proud of my countrymen.
The old town was only a mile behind me when the moon suddenly glided from behind a cloud, plunging the deserted landscape into a sea of light and shadow. The drizzle ceased and I felt the warmness of the night, but the rain had made the ground slippery and sodden, and the way was wild and strewn with small undulations. I had to break my way through hedges, and sometimes had to crawl through ditches, keeping a watchful eye for prowling figures. It was a terribly tiring business, but I cannot honestly say that I disliked it. Once only I saw human beings, and that was when I was crossing a road. It was at a bend where the hedges were high and the road was dark with trees. As I was in the middle of the road an approaching light appeared round the bend. I hurled myself into the waterlogged ditch as a gendarme bicycle patrol swept round the corner.
It was 6 a.m. by my watch when I came on an old house standing by itself, where a light was flickering in the lower windows. I was not certain of the way, so I called at the door to enquire. The aged woman who answered my knock showed no surprise at my muddy, bedraggled condition. She said not a word, but took my hand and led me in, patting my wrist softly. She gave me steaming hot coffee and bread and butter by the fire and then directed me onwards.
When I had walked three-quarter way up the stone-flagged garden path of the Van Roots' homestead I suddenly noticed beside the wooden porch two muddy bicycles. They were German military bicycles. My heart stood still, and I thought of retracing my steps. Then it occurred to me that to do so would be indiscreet as I might already have been observed from the windows. I advanced boldly to the door as though it was quite a natural thing to be smothered in mud from head to foot, but I thought it prudent to knock on the door like a chance caller and not to use the preconcerted signal. The red-faced fat woman herself opened the door and I greeted her loudly like an old friend. The passage behind her was empty, so I quietly rapped out the signal on the door-panel. She nodded, and I passed the note into her hand.
“It shall go immediately," she said, when she saw the ‘Urgent’ with which I had marked it. She glanced over her shoulder. "Two gendarmes on night patrol called here for food," she told me. "They are washing in the scullery. You must come upstairs before they see you, and hide among the rafters."
I stretched myself in the straw of the loft and fell fast asleep. An hour later she told me I might safely come down. After a square meal, which I took basking at a table in the sunbathed garden, she helped me indoors, washed me in a hip-bath like a small child; during which process I several times fell asleep; and having taken my garments to be brushed and dried, she led me to a feather-bed, into which I slipped blissfully, and closed my eyes.
At ten o'clock that night I started for home. I had determined to spend the next day with friends who lived half-way to Roulers, and to complete the journey the following night. Thus I calculated I could be home at 4.30 a.m. on the Saturday morning, and would have ample time to present myself at the hospital at my usual hour of seven o'clock.
As I set out to the hospital that Saturday morning the air was fresh and enlivening, the birds sang merrily and the sun shone in a blue sky. I thought of the All Highest sitting silently in his opera box, and wondered if to-day was to be his last. The streets were festooned with gay flags in honour of his coming. Alphonse was tinkering with the wheel of an ambulance before the steps in the courtyard as I approached. He looked at me searchingly, for although he could not have known where I had been, he may have had a pretty shrewd idea.
“Good morning, sister," he began. "Have you heard the news; it has just been received. The Kaiser is not coming to visit us after all. For the last few days the 'Seven Sisters' have flown over and bombed us regularly, so they have decided that it will be too dangerous for him."
I said nothing, for there was really nothing to be said.
Source: Material on Marthe's service and writings from Tony Langley's collection.