A Proper Little Charlie: A Charlie Bellman Story
Antonia T. Tiger
a short time after the events of "A Funeral in Berlin"
The North Sea is never, quite, friendly. It is a sea that has to be respected, even as she is seduced, and it is a sea which has trained the English for thousand years. It is a sea sown with English dead and its harvest made possible an Empire. Nelson was a Norfolkman, and the North Sea is half of Norfolk's border, and would be more if the fenmen let it.
Charlie Bellman was a yellowbelly, and proud of it, and no seaman, but his homeland of Lincolnshire is another sea-girt county, threatened by storm and high tide, and Linconshire has produced its own share of seamen, men such as Flinders and Franklin. Men of Lincolnshire had founded Virginia, with John Smith, and Men of Lincolnshire, perhaps too proud of the rightness of their faith, had skittered from Killingholme to Holland, to Plymouth, and then across the great ocean to Massachusetts.
Bellman preferred the tale of John Smith, and not just because of Pocahontas. He was a man who had planned the building of a new land, finding the craftsmen who could farm and build. Not like the men who got all the credit, and managed to arrive too late in the year to feed themselves.
The North Sea at the end of January can be a touch unfriendly, almost in the way of an over-jovial uncle who will slap you on the back at just the wrong moment. Some would almost call it mean, with hard winds blowing from the Arctic and tossing waves onto the shoals between England and the low countries of Holland and Belgium.
If one wants pleasure, this is not a time to travel.
Charlie Bellman had other reasons. He was not, exactly, a criminal on the run. There was no warrant, no hue and cry, and he had, in theory, Diplomatic Immunity. For what he had done, that could be challenged. Diplomatic Immunity was not a carte blanche that a Richelieu might issue, but a necessary protection for the legitimate business between rulers, and murder was not legitimate. At least, not often, though Charlie Bellman did not consider what he had done to be murder. He had been, almost, in fear of his life. There had been twelve of them, against him, and for some crazy reason they had thought he was a Jew.
Charlie Bellman had good evidence that he was not a Jew. He'd certainly never been approached by a mohel in the practice of his profession. But it didn't help that he'd wanted the fight. Not that the argument would stand up in a German court. It was pretty flimsy for an English court too.
So there he was, on the ferry home, heading for Harwich from the Hook of Holland, wedged securely in a chair in the bar, and drinking what might be the last good coffee he'd find in a long time. Well, maybe there was good coffee in London. You could find most things in London. It was, after all, the pulsing heart of the world's greatest Empire. China and Rome had been, so far, longer lasting. Rome, if you squinted just right at the map, had spanned continents. Neither had spanned the world. Never before had there been anything like the Royal Navy. And maybe never again.
And Bellman was part of it. He'd served most of the War in France, ordinary soldier, rising to sergeant, and then in one insane afternoon, he'd done things which, somebody thought, meant he could be an officer. No, meant he should be an officer, and he was a gentlemen. And there he was, Second Lieutenant Charlie Bellman.
Well, that was the name on his birth certificate, and in the parish register. It was who he was, and he wasn't going to let anyone change that. And so he was King George's good and trusty servant, even if he had to tranfer to the Indian Army to be able to afford to live on his pay.
And there, on the Frontier, he'd met Dizzy, another young subaltern whose father was a Prince, rather than a farm worker. And, partly through ignorance, he'd treated Dizzy as an equal. It wasn't actually wrong, and Bellman had learned fast, as an odd mix of fresh-faced subaltern, except that he was older than half the Captains and one of the Majors, and battle-hardened infantryman. He didn't remember with advantage his deeds: he told his platoon the hard and horrific truth, when it had been hard work, and where it had been pure, dumb, luck which kept him alive.
There was less luck than Bellman thought. There were things he did which he didn't consciously, think about, just as men with a certain sort of life sit in a bar with their backs to the wall, and where they can see the door.
And, in part because he was honest with his men, they forgave him his mistakes, and guided him, and worked hard for him. They knew he wanted them to live through war, and not die from stupidity. And, when war came, as it does on the Frontier...
Bellman woke, like a soldier. And he saw a face from that street, one of the women. “Yes, it is you. We thought you were Yiddish, and going to your death, and I marked that white blaze in your fur, and the slight crook in your jaw.” She was speaking German, which Bellman could almost think in after so many years in Germany. “There is a Nazi on the ferry, a pale-furred rabbit with a liver-brown blotch around his left eye, and I think he is looking for you.”
“Can you be sure?”
“No,” she admitted. She looked, Bellman realised, stronger now. Well, this was a British ship. “I cannot be sure, but I know the stench, and who else here would they want to look for. We are nothing to them.”
Bellman nodded. “I shall be careful. And thank you.”
“You gave us our lives.” She smiled slightly. “And I shall have an English child. Should I give him your name?”
Bellman hid his astonishment. “Choose a name of your people, You have a history to be proud of.” Charles? Charlie? “My son bears the name Joseph, which I believe came from your people.”
She puzzled for a moment. “I shall ask the rebbe.”
“If I am right, it was the name of a son of Abraham.”
She nodded. “I think I know, and it is a fine name. May blessings fall on you and your son. And your wife.” She smiled. “And be careful.”
“We all die,” said Bellman. “But perhaps our deeds will be remembered.”
“And for good reasons,” she said.
Bellman watched as she walked away, and, not for the first time, reckoned that the Nazis were insane. There was no master race. Being Jewish was not the mark of an animal. She was a woman. She spoke. She walked—-and oh how she walked—-and knew right from wrong. What was it with those people?
Bellman smiled slightly. He had his back to the wall, and faced the entrance to the bar. Now, all he had to do was to stay awake.
That last, he soon found out, was the hard part. He was not so young any more. He was not the sentry staring into the darkness. There was not ghost-light from flares, no rumble of the artillery, no sudden flash. No rattle of a pebble in a bully beef tin hanging from the wire. And he wasn't even tired, dammit. He had been able to sleep well, all week. Perhaps it was that the place felt so safe, that there was no sense of danger. He wasn't even carrying a diplomatic pouch.
There was nothing, except a half-warning from a woman he had saved. Though a ferry was a bad place for a murder. As long as nobody shoved him over the side, it was hard to get away. The same for a train, despite the old stories. So, unless somethiing happened at Parkeston Quay, it would be London—Liverpool Street—and once in the crowds of a city, the game changed again. Bellman nodded to himself, and then decided not to drink the cold coffee. Who knew what might have been added while he dozed. Don't take a chance. It was too much like the third cigarette from a match, though that didn't really matter because you never stuck your head above the parapet, or struck a match in the open. At most, the sniper saw a frustrating glow—just be careful about the loopholes.
And there were people in England who were Nazis, he reminded himself, and, just as in Germany, not all were low-class thugs. Not that you expected a wealthy man to do murder himself. Just steal and lie and rob, but not murder. It was a dirty deed, even if it was one he'd done.
Bellman shivered a little. They'd seen him, and they admired him. They'd seen him, and they were a little scared of him.
Never again, he told himself.
Daylight now, he thought, in a dismal, grey, wet, way. At least he was out of the weather. With his diplomatic passport he'd have no trouble. He was likely breaking several laws with the guns he'd acquired in Germany, Never mind, nobody would look, and he wasn't planning on doing anything illegal. At least, not blatant. Was the calendar legal? He thought so. It wasn't exactly scandalous. And it wasn't as if he was dodging the taxes on alcohol and tobacco, which was even a fine old tradition.
Damn, it was turning into a long night. But hadn't he seen that chap before. Oh, right, one of the Jews. Had they been watching over him? It felt a little odd that strangers would care to guard him, but he supposed that some people did care after all.
Good people, in a crazy world. People who didn't deserve what was been done to them. People who he'd risked his life for, and he found he didn't care what anyone else might think. She'd wanted to name her son for him, and that felt rather good.
He didn't go out on deck. The weather was filthy, and there were too many chances for an accident. The same for going down, alone, to the cabin he'd paid for. Though, with the roll of the ship, one could understand that. It had been the same on the boats from Boulogne. It was better to be able to see something outside, have a sense that the room was moving as well as yourself.
On the boats back to Boulogne, there were other reasons for that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Only a fool would be eager to go back to that war. At least, on the Frontier, he'd felt he was doing something useful.
And he'd been a sergeant himself. He knew how much it really meant when a havildar-major said that he was impressed. It almost meant as much as a compliment from the Colonel, and neither of them were fools.
Bellman smiled. It meant more than a compliment from the Colonel. And dammit, he'd left his platoon, and then his company, rather better than when he found it. Maybe not the spit and polish, but they knew how to fight, and that was what really mattered.
That, and knowing when not to fight.
It wasn't mist or haze, it was heavy rain and low cloud from which the Landguard fort emerged, on the north side of the harbour entrance and Harwich on the south, or was it the west? Bellman hadn't looked at a map, but there was something about the river-mouth, a sort of kink or dogleg, and Parkeston was upriver from Harwich.
Sheltered waters now, and less motion. Bellman hoped the weather was better when he left England for a new posting. If he got a new posting.
No, he told himself, stop brooding over it. You're coming home, and maybe there's an assassin after you, and you'd better not let your mind drift. Don't let some bastard surprise you. And, if you know what's coming, maybe you can surprise them.
After all, people don't expect death to come. They stop for a moment, rearranging their thoughts, and that's when you can strike. That's when the scarf can fly out from your cuff. That's the time for death.
But not mine, not today, Bellman decided.
He tipped the porters well, but not lavishly. The Customs officer, almost waved him through, though Bellman was scrupulous to declare the bottle of Advocaat. It was less than the limit, but he had to pay the duty on a pouch of good pipe tobacco. And then he was on the train, safely ensconced in a First Class compartment, and non-stop to Liverpool Street. After so long in Germany the carriage felt a little strange, but the railways in Britain did build their rolling stock narrow, compared to the Continent. More of it, he thought, was the buffeting of the wind, still half a gale and blowing across the tracks. It would be like that most of the way: Wind and rain and spent steam and on top of it all the dust and grime.
The headlines were about some rising young politician, a Sir Oswald Mosley, and the pictures, with the black-uniformed bodyguards, looked chillingly familiar. As homecomings go, it wasn't much. He couldn't imagine Keats, or Browning, writing about England on a day like this. Oh to be in England, now there's Nazis here...
“Filthy day!” said a voice. “You don't mind, do you?”
Bellman looked up: a well-dressed rabbit, with a clerical collar just showing at the loosened neck of his overcoat, and wearing wire-rimmed spectacles. Badly short-sighted, by the look of it. “Oh, no, of course not. Glad of the company,” he half-lied. “The weather is beastly,” he agreed.
“Mind if I smoke?”
Bellman waved a hand to the sign pasted to the window glass. “Rather you didn't. I'm feeling a little delicate after the crossing.”
“Oh, dash it!” Bellman caught the sound of the whistle. “Well, too late now. I didn't see you on the ferry.”
Bellman half-laughed. “I spent the night in one of the bars, drinking coffee, and looking out of a window trying to get my eyes to agree with my ears about which way was up. Skipped breakfast, and I'd been looking forward to it.”
“Now that's a feeling I know!” He stook out a hand. “Binghampton. I'm a missionary.”
The name sounded half familiar. “Bellman.” They shook hands. “Been trying to be diplomatic in Germany, or at least, as diplomatic as a consular department can be.”
“Don't know how you can stand them.” Binghampton paused. “I mean, I was in the war. I couldn't say they were trying to kill me, in particular, but you always knew that there was that chance.”
“The bullet addressed 'To Whom It May Concern'...” Bellman made a wry grin. “I know the feeling.” The train was rattling through some pointwork. “You learn fast.”
“Oh yes. Is that shell too close? And what a dying man looks like at the Hospital.” Binghampton shivered slightly. “And then I went to China, a mining town up north of Peking. Preach the Gospel, and help those who needed help. Heathens, all of them, but I think that most of them were good people.”
Bellman was getting an odd prickling feeling at the back of he neck. Was this guy for real? There was no sign of dark fur around his eye, but something felt wrong.
“Well, it's Manchuoko now, and I was very politely told to take leave, and don't hurry back. And here I am.”
Bellman, nodded, holding back his instincts. If this chap had been in Northern China, how had he gotten to the Hook of Holland. How could any English missionary have travelled unmolested through Russia: Nothing else made any sense, but that was just crazy. “You should write a book,” he said, quietly. “The things you must have seen.” He gestured towards the window. “Oh, I've been in Germany, maybe for too long, but what you see of places from a train becomes tedious. One grim little terrace looks just like another, and you hardly know where you are.”
“Just so, just so. This could as easily be China as England, for all that I can see today.” Of course, it was the overcoat. Hardly the dress of a mssionary, far too fine a cloth, and—he looked directly at his opponent—there was nothing in that fur. Not a trace. Yes, you coud use dye, and Bellman had been taught what to look for.
And then the door into the corridor opened, and another rabbit was standing there, this one with that deep-brown blotch around his left eye, and both carried guns, Luger pistols of the sort still issued to the German army.
“Damn,” said Bellman, with as little feeling as he could manage.
“My cousin, Fritz,” said the one who called himself Binghampton.
“I regret I cannot say I am delighted. Please, come in.”
“You English,” said Fritz. “Harvey, I think he suspected you.”
“But I was looking for you,” said Bellman. “Though your cousin's story felt wrong. And Harwich is the wrong port for a missionary travelling from China.” He paused. “The Bolsheviks,” he explained.
“Ah, you have me, sir. But no matter. Still, I thought I had a good story. I could have told you about Talbot House, too, though I have never been there. You British managed to keep us out of Ypres.”
“You came close.”
“Cooks and clerks, Mr. Bellman, against the Prussian Guard.” Fritz, Bellman realised, was old enough, and maybe tall enough. “What happened? What could go wrong?” And maybe arrogant enough.
Bellman slowly shook his head. “They were all brave men, that day. But courage alone is not enough. I wasn't there. I met one or two who were. One told me of how your Prussian Guard advanced, and died. His bones are somewhere between Ypres and Passchendaele now, but he had seen it all before. He'd seen what good riflemen could do, and our Army had learned from that. Yours...” He left the words unsaid. Maybe Fritz had just seen his comrades falling, like corn to the scythe, and never thought about how it had happened.
“Machineguns,” said Fritz.
Bellman shook his head. Harvey, he'd decided, was not the dangerous one. The way his hand held the Luger was betraying him. “Four to a battalion. Your Army issued more.”
“It had to be. I remember the fire. And cooks and clerks. How could it not be.” He stepped a little closer. Not enough, but closer.
“I was not there,” said Bellman. “I learned from one who was. I learned from an old Sergeant who had been in South Africa, and knew what Mauser rifles could do. My Army learned. So, eventually, did yours. You were not the fools in '18 that you were at Ypres. And we were not the same, but we still stopped you.” Oh, Fritz was hiding his anger, but it was there now.
“We were betrayed!”
“Sergeant Dove taught me how to shoot a Lee-Enfield,” said Bellman. “Those cooks and clerks, they were Regulars. Professionals. Shooting, and hitting with, fifteen rounds a minute, that was the minimum for them. We wore khaki, and we didn't polish our buttons. Dove said you were like tin ducks on a fairground shooting stall.”
And there was his chance. A pistol is not a club, and if you get close enough to us it as one, you are vulnerable. It takes time to react, time you don't really have. Bellman was sitting, but that meant it was easy to knock Fritz's arm, and the gun muzzle, safely to one side. And an angry man is fighting with the wrong instincts.
Two of them, both armed, and Bellman didn't really have room to fight. He didn't have that half-pace to put his weight into a blow. He wasn't wearing his army boots. And Fritz had the instinct that caught most of the impact on the inside of his thigh. But there were two of them, and they were getting in each other's way, and there was another door.
And a good soldier knows that sometimes, one must take the chance to run away.
Grab the strap, and pull down the door-window. At least it came open easily. Turn and block a blow, keep Fritz off-balance and Harvey trapped by a flailing rabbit. But time. The Luger was somewhere on the floor, and thank God it hadn't fired. This was still a private little murder, and it was best kept that way. No innocents at risk, just him, and them.
Reach through the window now, because there's no handle on the inside that releases the door-catch. The handle twists, not even a quarter turn, and the bolt slides, and...
Hellfire! There's a sixty mile an hour wind racing along the side of the carriage, and your arm is still through the window, and for a moment you're flying, and had that been Fritz pushing you, because that it just what you would do if one of them had been trying to open the door.
Bellman never admitted to screaming. Bellman's feet were scrabbling for traction on the rail-slicked footboard, all his weight on his arm. He wasn't sure what he did, the wind hammering at him and pulling at his overcoat, but he felt a bundle of cloth in his paw, and pulled. Hard.
There might have been a scream. The wind snatched the long-eared mass past him, lagging the train, and stopping suddenly a full yard from the ground, wrapping with dreadful finality about a signal post.
His feet found traction at last, and he dragged himself back into the comparment. Harvey was trying to find the dropped Luger. Which was, until Bellman nudged it with his foot, just inside the open door. There was a pair of spectacles, glass still whole but the frame twisted.
Bellman said nothing. A silk scarf, the end weighted with an old and worn twenty rupee coin, flicked from his sleeve, across Harvey's throat.
There were things a man could learn in India, if he was willing.