A Proper Little Charlie: A Charlie Bellman Story
Antonia T. Tiger
a short time after the events of "A Funeral in Berlin"
Bellman had taken his overcoat off, and the wet and grimy outside was trapping the heat from the steam radiator under the seats. “Here you are.”
The guard looked at him a little oddly. “Filthy weather, sir.”
“Worse on the ferry. Either get soaked, or get seasick. I needed to see what horizon there was.”
“It feels bad enough here.” The train was swaying in a way that it shouldn't, that was sure. “I don't think it's been this bad since '27.”
Bellman nodded. Even here, with the fields gone and the train crawling through the East End slums on the last few miles in to the City, the wind was fierce. And Bellman knew that he didn't look entirely reputable.
Alive was feeling pretty damn good. And a hot bath at his hotel, with a change of clothes, would make a huge difference. But he ought to report to the Brigadier sooner rather than later.. At least he was alive to beg foregiveness.
It would be Captain Bellman, sir, at the hotel. They knew him from the time he'd still been in the army. And there would always be a few officers of the Indian Army around, either pausing in London at the start or end of home leave, or officially retired. It wasn't—couldn't be—home, but it would be a safe and familiar place, where he could gets his boots polished by somebody who spoke hindi, and the cooks knew how to keep caste. Oh, yes, Dizzy might stay at Claridges, as befitted his station in life, but, Bellman knew, he would be as happy there. It wasn't the Regimental Mess. It wasn't Peshawar. But they knew the drill.
Bellman smiled slightly. Even in the Indian Army, he'd never have made Major. He might have won a place at Quetta, but he doubted it. He didn't have the twisted mind needed to pass Staff College. Not that sort of twisted mind.
The Frontier was too dry, but he missed the heat of the sun. He didn't miss the bastards taking pot-shots when the battalion paraded. Spent bullets, slow, lumbering, lead slugs from a Martini with a worn barrel. It would have been dashed bad luck for one to kill a man, but they'd hurt if they ever managed to hit anyone. And there was the time when his platoon had spent three futile days hunting.
He'd gone out with them dressed more like a Sergeant than like an officer. If some hillman was out there taking potshots there was no reason to look too special. Bellman had even carried a rifle. It was more useful than a sword or a revolver.
Well, they knew he could endure the same hardships that they could. And they knew that he could meet the standards that he set for them. And, on the third day, scattered amongst the rocks like a handful of sun-dried khaki grapes, they's watched the hillman turn up with a rifle, and settle down in the cleft which Bellman had considered a very nice firing position, and fired one shot before discovering a ring of grinning Rajputs, who cheerfully insulted him at bayonet-point all the way to the Police Headquarters.
“Set a thief,” the Colonel had said, with a smile. “And how many of the squire's pheasants did you take as a boy?”
It had been pigeons, mostly, and much cleaner birds than those of London.
So, a little before noon, feeling clean and looking quite cheerful, Bellman walked into the Army and Navy Club. He wasn't a member, though he was not a stranger. After all, he held the King's Commission. “Captain Charlie Bellman, 7th Rajputs, to see Brigadier Donovan.”
He was expected. A club servant ushered him through to the bar, where the Brigadier was having a cheerful argument about roses with a member who had the look of a naval officer.
“Ah, Bellman. Good to see you. Allow me to introduce Captain Grimes, of the Royal Navy. Grimes, this is the chap I was telling you about.”
“Pleased to meet you, Bellman.”
“Sir. I hope the Brigadier hasn't been bragging on my behalf.”
“He tells me he can't think of a better chap in a tight spot. A drink?”
“A beer, something English. I've had enough of German brewing, though it's decent stuff. It's just not English.”
“Ah, the voice of the man home from foreign lands. Brigadier?”
“No more for me before lunch, Jerry.” He paused. “You had a rather eventful trip, I think.”
“Filthy weather in the North Sea, and I am no seaman.”
“Oh, Jerry and I have occasion to work together.” Meaning that Bellman could talk, this time.
“Pruning roses, sir,” ventured Bellman.
“Sometimes,” said Grimes. “Shall we go over by the window?”
Bellman picked up his glass.
“So, Charlie, you were on the boat train from Harwich?”
“Aye.” Charlie sipped at he beer.
“It will taste special,” remarked Grimes. “They've only found two bodies.”
“I feel damn lucky they'll not find a third,” said Bellman. “Two of them, white rabbits. The one with the brown patch around his left eye was called Fritz by the other, and may have once been in the Prussian Guard. Possibly at Ypres.”
“And his friend is called Harvey.” Grimes looked quite cheerful. “We've been watching them. You are a right bastard, Mr. Bellman, but you know how to stay alive.”
“I hope I haven't spoilt anything for you.”
“Donovan explained how you're organised things in Berlin, and I'd hate to have to try to break any spy ring you were running. These people, they will have agents left out on their own. We know some, suspect others, and I expect we will see a real panic.”
“Glad to be of service, sir.”
“Pure luck that they were discovered so fast. Railwaymen notice when the signals stop working on a main line.” The Brigadier shrugged. “Not quite a tragic accident, but it might have been a suicide pact. I've already started a rumour.”
“So you approve, sir.”
“No, and yes. I like my agents to stay alive, and anyone fool enough to come after you deserves all they get. But that business in Berlin...”
Bellman glanced at Grimes.
“I saw the report, Bellman. You are a remarkable man.”
“I don't want to make a habit of it.”
“Good.” Donovan nodded brusquely. “You have other talents which I would not want to have to replace. I'll want a report, of course, and I know you'll tell me all the mistakes you made. You will take your leave, and then I want you at the Manor. Teach them how to organise a network. And you'll have to learn some new stuff for your next posting.”
“I'm sending you out to join Saunders in the Spontoons. Sun, sand, and pretty girls—he sent me a calendar too—and the Embassy needs some competent staff. They have too many spies.”
Grimes almost laughed. “My chap, Fanshawe, I'll tell him he can rely on you. Naval Attache, so he's a sort of acknowledged spy. I think the Ambassador has set up his own spy ring to watch his own Embassy staff. I'm not sure where they all came from.”
“Saunders told me that he knew the Ambassador from when he was in Switzerland.”
“If the Spontoons get like Switzerland was in the war...” murmured Donovan. “You and Saunders, I don't expect you to enjoy it, if that's how it turns out, but I think you would manage to do very well. As it is, I have discovered that we have departments running agents who I never expected to. An ex-colony, so the Colonial Office has sent in agents. And the Board of Trade...” Donovan sighed. “You're a mad bastard sometimes, but I know what to expect from you. Grimes, anything else that comes to mind?”
“Lunch,” said Grimes. “My treat, I think.”
The asylum at Bracebridge stands on the ridge south of Lincoln, between the city and the new RAF station at Waddington. It was, for Alice Bellman, home. She was safe there, and comforrtable, and...
Bellman curbed his frustration. “I sometimes think I shouldn't come. Grief for me, and she doesn't know me,”
The Doctor answered, “It's hard to tell, one way or another, but you aren't wasting your time.”
“I feel like I keep running away. My next posting, it's half way around the world.”
“Your son visits. And I think he wonders—'am I going to end up like my mother?' ”
“He's a good lad.”
“We just don't know why these things happen. But he's very definitely your son as well.”
Bellman nodded. “And maybe I'm crazy in ways you don't see.”
The Doctor looked thoughtful. “Mr. Bellman, I do think this is the right place for your wife. We have our labels, but, most of all, she can still be a person here. She isn't dangerous, and she isn't in danger. But surprise her, or put her under stress, and I would fear a return of what what happened when she came here.”
Bellman nodded. “I know.”
“There are people here, mostly women, who are sane, but they did something that embarrassed their families.” Bellman knew what the Doctor couldn't say. “At worst, they were foolish, or naive.”
They were outside now. “Your wife is very good with the chickens.”
“I think she always was.” Bellman took his pipe from his pocket. “What would these people be like without you, Doctor? Without the farm?” He found his tobacco pouch. “I've seen 'em. That old man with the calf: he knew he was useful.”
“There's a chap who almost comes here on holiday. Life outside gets a bit too much, and he signs himself in as a voluntary patient, and while he's here he dresses the millstones for us.” The Doctor was almost smiling. “Without us, yes, I think he'd break.”
“You're a good man.”
“I don't get the hard cases. The people who are dangerous. They're over the river. 'First do no harm', that's what they tell us, but some of the things they'll do there.”
“I had a patient, a brilliant young man, but you could almost call him evil. And I had to send him there. What they did turned him into a walking corpse. They destroyed the person.”
Bellman winced. “I'd rather face the hangman.”
Bellman sucked on his pipe, drawing the match-flame into the bowl until the tobacco caught. “I can,” he said, “pray for God's mercy, if I have to face Man's justice. And I was in the war. I didn't see His hand in who died and who lived.”
“I think you can be a very hard man, Mr. Bellman.”
“And you can't be?” He smiled past his pipe. “Don't you have to do hard things sometimes? And don't we both have limits.” He paused. “I still have dreams sometimes.”
They shook hands. No platitudes: Bellman knew he couldn't cope with what the Doctor did. The Doctor rather thought that living Bellman's life would see him in the asylum as a patient. Bellman started walking down the avenue towards the gates. It was a pleasant day, the air clear and crisp, and he wanted to walk.
Ahead of him, across the cleft cut through the ridge by the River Witham, the cathedral, in the heart of the old, once Roman, city, glinted wet-roofed in the sunlight. He'd spend a night at the White Hart, and then there would be a train to catch, and one of the Canadian Pacific liners waiting in a dock.
It would be nothing like the calendar, he knew. No place was. But he could dream.
to be continued