A Proper Little Charlie: A Charlie Bellman Story
Antonia T. Tiger
a short time after the events of "A Funeral in Berlin"
It was an awkward interruption to have an old comrade turn up, out of the blue, even if the fellow was now an Indian Prince, rather than a fellow officer in the 7th Rajputs. They'd been Subalterns together in Peshawar, at the tail end of the Afghan War, and Dizzy hadn't really changed that much. Both had aged, gained a slight softness in a few pounds of extra weight. Bellman made conventional noises of sympathy about Disleep's late father,and admired photographs of wife and children, and they'd gone out for a meal, shadowed by two servants who had the look of old soldiers, and who Bellman recognised anyway, from all those years before.
It had ended in a bar, with good beer, and the four of them pleasantly drunk and exchanging old soldiers' stories in Hindi. Bellman and Dizzy had their backs to the wall, just in case.
"So the police wear green, and those men in the brown uniforms are a private army?" Dizzy sounded puzzled. "I would not permit such things."
"Well, they're loyal to Hitler. And you have your own soldiers."
"Yes, but they are soldiers. At least I learned from you how important that is. They are not swaggering braggarts to scare my people. They are not Thugs," That word, Bellman knew, still meant something special in India. "They are warriors, men of honour, and I am of the warrior caste, and I am a trained soldier who has seen war, just as you are."
Bellman raised his glass. "The 3rd Battalion."
There was chorused agreement.
"But why do they hate the Jews so. They are not of my faith, but they are men of business. They are men of honour. And did they not fight for their country in your last war?"
"They did," agreed Bellman. "And I have helped such men escape this madness with their families. Twenty years ago I might have been trying to kill them, and now I help them."
"Charlie, we stood against the bandits on the Frontier. We were there to protect the people. And those bandits, I understood them. They had some honour. They stood by their own families. Not like these. It's not so strange a thing you do."
"The Germans are decent people. And I don't know why they do these things now."
"Captain..." That was one of the old soldiers. "...we knew that you were a man like us. You knew the land you came from. You were a farmer, and a warrior. And the King-Emperor had put us in your charge and care. And you knew war, in ways that we did not. You taught us well, and we pass on your teaching." He paused. "Captain,we heard you weeping in your tent. We saw your fury, and how you knew it was wrong."
"And now I play the babu in Berlin," said Bellman.
"Yes, sahib, you play the babu, but that is not you. Is that not a silk scarf tucked into your sleeve?"
"Charlie?" Had Dizzy chosen not to notice.
"A comrade told me of something he had to do in the war, when he was a diplomat in a neutral company. They were the Deceivers, but there is no victory in death. If, in some dark alley, my life is at risk, I will kill."
"This is truth."
"But they will hunt you down, as we hunted the bandits."
Bellman nodded. "Better to be judged by twelve men than to be carried by six."
There was a moment of silence.
"Yes," said the silent soldier. He raised his glass. "Justice!"
"With mercy," added Bellman, taking another mouthful of beer.
"Let us judge as we would wish to be judged," declared Dizzy.
Bellman knew he was drunk. It felt good. He was with friends. They knew the sun-bleached hills and they knew the sound of the passing bullet. They knew death, and what it meant to be alive. And they knew what a man should do, and why he could not.
German beer isn't English beer, but it is good. Like any good beer, it does more than quench thirst. So Charlie was a little unsteady on his feet when they turned the corner in Wilhelmstrass. A little unsteady, and his mind was less than clear. What he could see sharpened his mind wonderfully. The Brownshirts, bundled against the wet cold, laughing and joking. And what looked uncomfortably like a corpse in the gutter.
Disleep laid a hand on his shoulder. "Charlie, we are too drunk this evening. And that makes us close to being a mob."
Bellman nodded. "We should go in stone-cold sober, and not as if playing a game."
"You have seen the hillmen play polo." Dizzy stifled a laugh. "We shall retire to our hotel, and await your summons." There was muttered agreement.
Bellman blinked, and studied the scene. "There are no Policeman, and our sentries have fixed bayonets."
"We will watch you safe home."
"There are only ten of them," said the silent soldier.
Bellman looked down at his feet. "It is," he remarked, "the time of year a man should wear good boots, not these fripperies of shoes."
There were chuckles.
"In the morning, there will be Jewish families, seeking the permissions to come to England. And they will see those men, and turn away."
"Unless they see these men running like the gutter-dogs they are."
"Until morning," said Bellman.
And then he walked along the pavement, singing a rather bawdy song in English which any old soldier might recall, recounting the amorous exploits of a certain not-so-young Frenchwoman. And, if the Sturmabteilung might have tried to discourage him, the expectant grins of the soldiers at the gate was a discouragement for them, as was the appearance of other hard-eyed men, carrying heavy staves.
Charlie Bellman wasn't quite as drunk as he looked, nor was he brave like a hero in a book, but he held back the fear, kept it concealed, until he was safe back in his room. And then he slept, fitfully, which metamorphosed into a cold, vengeful fury. If he did nothing, children would die. But not while he could do something. The Frontier was here tonight, and he and Dizzy would fight together to drive it back, for one day at least. East might still be east, and west still might be west, but there were going to be brave men reaching across that gap again. The 3rd Battalion of the 7th Rajputs would not stand idly by.
Must watch out for the ten-rupee jezail.
Bellman woke with a dry mouth and a tongue that felt like old boot-leather, and he knew half the cure, at least. This was a morning when you would settle for water for your work, and maybe pretty foul water. No regimental bhisti, and when he took his breakfast he was most improperly dressed, but the Second Secretary, seeing the look in Bellman's eye, turned away without comment. Kathy looked at him, and served him an extra fried egg, as if she knew what he had in mind.
He had a quiet word with Sergeant Muldoon, and knew that there would be help at hand, should he need it. There were no police, at either the main gate-he looked, taking care not to be seen-or at the side gate by which he left the compound.
It felt more like a cantonment on the frontier than it ever had before.
He made the telephone call to Dizzy from a call box almost opposite the Gestapo headquarters on Prinzalbrechtstrasse, with deliberate irony. And, a precise half-hour later, as he shuffled past two scared Jewish families, mumbling a greeting in Yiddish, he could see, beyond the stormtroopers-and wasn't that a perversion of a hard-earned name for military virtue-three familiar figures in very ordinary clothes. Definitely not a Prince and his retinue, nor three of the King-Emperor's men, except where it mattered, in their hearts.
His Yiddish was terrible, but he thought they were trying to warn him. Right now, he looked old, but he didn't feel it. He felt almost young. Charlie Bellman was going to war again, not for King or country, not for jewels or a beribboned coat. But because, if he didn't, the evil of that day would creep a little further than it otherwise should.
And it wasn't going to be a fair fight. Not the weighted scarf around the neck of an unsuspecting victim, but a hard-driven boot, hobnailed, directed with no mercy. Fists weighted with steel and hardened with brass. A brain that knew every blow had to have a purpose, and that purpose was to stop an enemy. Dead if need be.
They would be fighting to inflict pain and humiliation. They would be fighting for their perverse pleasures. He would be fighting differently. Charlie Bellman had been taught things in places other than France and India. There was a manor house in England, quiet and discreet, but the core of the lessons was the same. It is not your duty to die for your country, but to make the other, the enemy, die for his.
It was the same in the mud of Flanders, and on the sun-baked hills of the Frontier, and on the cold streets of a Berlin morning. It was the same whether the adversary was a Maxim in a shell-crater, a stolen Martini in the Hills, or a dozen brown-shirted thugs, with their party armbands and their mean little eyes that had never looked farther than the next meal.
The Yiddish phrase which they heard the old man use sounded like an insult. When you don't understand the language you're hearing, the speaker can make a request for the time sound like the vilest provocation, especially if you're looking for a fight.
Across the road, Sergeant Muldoon heard the rhythm. and knew it for a Sergeant of infantry in full fury, but still at the stage of ear-straining quiet. He smiled slightly, and turned away for a moment. And then turned back, because he did know some German, and what he heard was just barbarism.
What he saw was poetry-the defiant poetry of St. Crispin's day or, if anyone were to dare write of it without the pen of a Shakespeare, of Mons, the Somme, and Passchendaele. The men who expected an old and feeble Jew met Mr. Thomas Atkins in righteous fury. The men who believed the War had been lost through treachery discovered their own personal betrayal as Charlie Bellman, who had fought the real stosstruppen of the old Kaiser Bill, showed the men of Hitler's Sturmabteilung what Herr Hitler, a decorated soldier, had not told them.
What Muldoon saw was a man against a band of street brawlers, and a man who knew that he was fighting for his life, as much as anything else. He saw that savagery in the service of some noble cause that had been the ideal of Christendom for more than eight centuries, and because he knew Charlie Bellman, he knew that he was seeing truth.
What Dizzy and his men saw, as they started to run towards the fight, was a man who seemed possessed by a warrior God. Or maybe four-armed Kali in her role as a protector, rather than as the Death-Goddess of the thuggee.
And what did the Germans see?
Bellman did not give them the time to see. He did not give them the time to think. And, most of all, he did not give them time to act. The warriors of old did it, and the warriors of fiction do it. It is Fred Astaire and Miyamoto Musashi, Nureyev and Scaramouche, Annie Oakley and soldiers at Mons. There is no thought, just action. As you or I walk, as you or I run or comb our hair, they dance, or kill.
And thus comes the strike of the boot and the armoured fist, smashing a knee or shattering a jaw. Thus comes the crippling pain that briefly makes a man helpless, while the warrior deals with other hazards. There is a knife, and all who have fought with knives, and won, will teach that you should expect to be cut. But if you are still thinking as you bring it into view, thinking about your grip, and where to strike, you will fail against the warrior. An arm will sweep yours aside, and a knee will drive hard into your groin, and the shock as your testicles are smashed upward will overwhelm you. You drop the knife, you scream, you fall, and that boot stamps hard down with no mercy.
Charlie Bellman was not being diplomatic.
There is, in the lands of the north, the legend of the berserker: the man who, in incandescent fury, goes shirtless, unarmoured, into battle. All fear them, for sometimes they forget who their friends are. Charlie Bellman felt no blind rage. The world seemed to run slowly, but, unlike a movie at the wrong speed, without any stuttering. And, as Dizzy, five yards away, came to an oddly slow halt, Bellman stepped sideways, past a slowly moving steel bar, turned, and struck. The last of the Brownshirts slowly opened his mouth as the hard driven fist smashed into his gut, his diaphragm spasming the air from his lungs in a way that was oddly silent. Organs tore and ruptured. A foot swept his feet from under him and, with an ugly little snapping sound, his head took an odd angle as he fell past Bellman.
"My God!" gasped Muldoon from across the street.
Bellman straightened, and stepped back a couple of paces, looking around him. He gave a savage little kick, and silence came to the street. He reached down, and picked up his hat. He did not seem short of breath, but he was breathing deeply, Dizzy saw, and there was no sign of Madness in his eyes.
"You took your time, Dizzy." There was no rancour in the words.
"I didn't want to spoil your fun." Dizzy had learned many things from the English.
"And the Gods were with you," said the usually silent soldier. His eyes sparkled. "Never have I seen the like."
"Nor I, sahib, and this is something I shall tell to my grandchildren."
Bellman looked around again, and then turned to face the Jewish families. "Ladies, gentlemen," he said in German. "please, go about your business in peace."
"You should go. We should all go."
"Yes, Dizzy. This not how diplomats usually do their work." Dizzy laughed, and now he understood how the English could rule so much of the world. It was their justice and their law, and their administration, which treated all who knew the rules the same. And it was, when all else failed, the men such as Charlie Bellman.
And, he realised, himself. He might never be able to do what he had seen, but he, too, was a warrior willing to risk everything for honour, and justice. He was, he knew, a man who would put his life in jeopardy to protect the weak. He had, up until now, only half believed in himself. Now he was certain.
Junkers, he knew, made good aeroplanes, but, he decided, a De Havilland would look much better. There was swastikas on Indian temples, an ancient symbol, but he would not support these perverts.
Bellman had hardly seemed to look at the passing traffic which had broken the eerie emptiness, but Muldoon knew he had seen it. And, as he walked into the gate and, by law and custom, back into England, Muldoon had said, simply, "Well done, sir."
"Thank you, sergeant." And then, more crisply. "The guard look smart, sergeant. Carry on."
Muldoon saluted. Bellman raised his hat to acknowledge the courtesy, walked across the narrow courtyard, and into the Embassy building.
In a large, lavishly decorated, office overlooking Wilhelmstrasse the Ambassador slowly shook his head. Bellman could not stay in Berlin. They'd have to get him home, and fast. But there was no way that he would surrender such a man to the Germans, even if they ever worked out what had happened. Just one man. He shook his head in wonder. Just one man.
Outside, he saw, two families were almost scuttling in through the gate. There was one thing he could do there. He walked to his desk and picked up the green telephone. "Get me the Consular Section, please." The switchboard operator was a nice girl, and did her work well. "Freddy? Henry here. We have two refugee families just walked in. Give them their papers, no quibbles. They can claim to have employment with the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and you will believe them. They can claim to have the offer of a job from the Mufti of Jerusalem, for all I care. And I want them out of Germany as soon as possible, before anyone in Prinzalbrechtstrasse can think to question them about anything which happened. Anything that nobody in the Embassy saw." Frederick Arbuthnot was no fool, and, more to the point, his office was on the front of the building too. "Yes, and I think we'll have to send Bellman back to London. Sorry, I know he works hard for you." He listened. "Oh, and tell him I think he's doing a wonderful job."
Somewhere in the upper reaches of the building, in a room that might once have been intended as quarters for a senior, but not important, servant, Charlie Bellman was cleaning his boots, carefully removing the mud and grime of the Berlin streets and restoring the gloss of a soldier's best boots. He felt, for what seemed to be the first time since a funeral in 1933, at peace with the world. And, he was sure, he would be going home. And then, perhaps, the Spontoons? No, he shouldn't expect to work with Saunders again, not after this mornings work. Shouldn't really expect to have a job.
He'd better collect that calendar from his office. He didn't want to leave that behind.
There wasn't much for him in England. He'd have to see how Joe was. And he'd have to see his wife. Nothing that could be done about that. But it would be spring in England, soon enough. Oh to be in England... That was Keats, wasn't it. Definitely not Kipling. No, no, and then his eyes passed over the chest of drawers, and, restng on top, within easy reach, one Browning brought easy recollection of another. Robert Browning, that was the poet. Keats was the bloke who wrote about skylarks and nightingales.
It was time to go home, wherever that was.
And that was one boot finished. Bellman started on the second.
Outside. on Wilhelmstrasse, three Gestapo officers had turned up, in their long coats of black leather, and were, unintentionally this time, intimidating the Police. Had Bellman known, he would have enjoyed their fear, as they wondered just what had done this. Yes, he would have thought, let the bastards fear me, as so many fear them.