A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
There was a knock at the door.
Victor Comstock awoke abruptly, his heart pounding. He looked about his comfortable bedroom, almost as if he were uncertain of his surroundings.
"Guten morgen, Herr Arnold," came a cheerful voice from behind the bedroom door.
The remainder of the fog cleared from his brain. "Guten morgen, Corporal Schirmer."
"I have your breakfast here," the voice continued in German.
Victor sat up in bed. "Danke." He propped the pillows up behind him, then requested the person behind the door to enter.
This revealed himself to be a middle-aged man with a luxuriant, pointed moustache, dressed in the uniform of a German orderly. He carried a tray covered with crockery, the coffee cup steaming with that fragrant-smelling beverage, another container rich with the scent of warm milk, the plate smelling faintly of fish, and laid it on Victor's lap. "There are fingerling trout this morning, Herr Arnold," he said, uncovering the dish, revealing two small, nicely broiled fish with sauerkraut on the side.
Victor sniffed approvingly. "This looks delicious, Corporal Schirmer."
The orderly nodded his head, clicking his heels together. "Colonel Holtz wishes to see you after you have eaten. He would like to show you your new broadcast facilities."
He looked impressed. "They are finished then already? I am always impressed at the speed of the Third Reich!"
"We are proud of our efficiency, Herr Arnold."
He had just begun to sample the trout when a girl appeared in the doorway. Unlike the stereotypical German girl of literature and Third Reich propaganda, she wore her dark hair pulled back with a headband, and was wearing a school uniform, her face. "Mother wants to know when you're going to let Mr. Comstock come downstairs and have a proper meal!"
The "orderly" lost his attentive look and fixed the girl with a dark stare. "Mr. Arnold is still practicing."
"Rubbish!" the girl said cheerfully and grinned at Victor. He had to smile back; she looked, he thought, as Betty Roberts might have if she had been an English schoolgirl rather than a country girl from Indiana. "He's letter perfect, you said so last night. So come downstairs and have some proper kippers, Mr. C- Arnold, and clotted cream and scones. I don't expect you'll get anything like that from Jerry!"
She vanished and the "orderly" laughed. "That's my Edwina. Always to the point." He sobered. "She's correct. You are letter- perfect, which is a good thing. Our contacts intercepted your invitation. You're to make your way into Germany after the holiday."
Although he had adjusted to the idea weeks before, Victor still felt his throat tighten. "They've accepted the entire story? That Jonathan Arnold is on the side of the Third Reich?"
"Hook, line, and sinker, as you Yanks say," the man said briskly. Now that he was not speaking German, he was revealed to have a crisp public school British accent. "You might as well relax for the next few days and enjoy Christmas with us, although you do need to keep writing Mr. Arnold'sor should I say your?essays. Our contact will pass them on as always."
He removed the tray from Victor's lap. "I do think we should keep calling you Mr. Arnold, as well, just so there's no slip-ups with your responses. I'll speak to Edwina about that." He regarded Victor with troubled eyes. "Conserve your strength. You'll need it soon."
He closed the door behind him quietly.
Victor rose from his bed, neatly turning his covers back to air as his mother had taught him so long ago. His clothing was hanging in a wardrobe on the other side of the attic room, cater corner from the small iron fireplace with its carefully banked coals still glowing, and he stood before the open cabinet, choosing undershirt, shirt, garters, socks, underwear. His trousers and jacketor rather Jonathan Arnold's, for they were of a vulgar plaid as fitted the personality they had created for Arnoldwere hung up on the clothes tree next to the wardrobe. Methodically he put on each piece of clothing, neatly folding his pajamas and tucking them in the drawer of the wardrobe, trying not to think.
He had done nothing but think in the past few weeks, trying to get himself in Jonathan Arnold's mindset. Odd how he'd thought in the beginning it might be easy, since he'd participated in college theatricals. But this wasn't Oscar Wilde. He had to respond as Jonathan Arnold, in his totally alien philosophy.
The past week had been the worst.
What had made the military think he could do this? And why had he even said yes? He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of the day he had woken up in Charing Cross Hospital to find three men in uniform surrounding him: his host, whose home they were using for his training; General Todhunter, who had first asked him to come to London to broadcast; and Colonel Pipping, who had objected to the entire project and acted as a grating Greek chorus during the planning stages.
But it was too late. Histheirsubterfuge had worked. The Germans accepted Jonathan Arnold as a champion to their cause.
He stepped down the narrow stairs to the first floor of Harford House, the large British country house he had found himself in for the past few weeks, then down to the ground floor and the dining room at the rear of the building. He'd met the family only briefly during this training period; they were ordered to stay out of his way lest they break his concentration. But it seemed this morning energetic Edwina had rebelled.
He entered the dining room shyly to be welcomed by his earlier visitor, in reality Brigadier-General Oliver Harford Carstairs, OBE, of MI.5. He sat at one end of the long oaken dining room table, with Mrs. Carstairs, a fair-haired, smiling English matron at the opposite end. On the other side of the table, the Carstairs' daughters, Edwina and Penelope, aged ten and fourteen, respectively, were waiting for him to begin their meal. He had no doubt that their hands were folded in their laps and their feet were flat on the floor. English children seemed trained to be quiet and polite, like American children of another era.
There was another sibling, William, the eldest. He was flying for the RAF and would be home on leave on Christmas Eve.
He took the other place that was set, across from the girls. Penelope, a more reserved version of her younger sister, also in a school uniform, but of a different, upper school, said, "Good morning, Mr. Arnold."
Edwina echoed, "Good morning, Mr. Arnold."
He nodded. "Good morning."
Carstairs rang the bell and the serving maid, Molly, began to bring hot dishes in. As Edwina had promised, there were kippers, something called kedgeree that he had not yet acquired a taste for, and hot, homemade scones with clotted cream at the side. Victor preferred plain butter for his scones and deftly plied them with the fresh article, directly from the cows Carstairs kept on the farm property.
If he narrowed his eyes enough, the old-fashioned English dining room, with its smells of hothouse flowers, beeswax polish, and peat fire could bring him back in time. He'd grown up eating in a dining room such as this one, perhaps less richly appointed, but with long curtains and old furniture and shining sideboards, presided over by a jolly colored woman named Amalia, his father the economics professor at one end of the table, his mother at the other. Like Edwina and Penelope, he had sat, hands folded in his lap, feet flat on the floor, until breakfast was served and Father had finished Grace.
Carstairs said Grace here, and the family began to eat. Edwina then piped up, "I'm so glad you've come downstairs today, Mr. C- Arnold. Tonight's the night I send my letter to Father Christmas!"
Victor asked, bemused, "Won't it post too late?"
Penelope asked, eyebrows raised, "Do American children post their letters to Father Christmas? How odd!"
He cocked his head, asked softly and curiously, "Yes, they do. You don't? How does he get your letters then?"
Her eyes sparkling, Edwina said, "Oh, I'll show you tonight. Cook's making jam tarts for tea and we'll have a jolly time afterwards. Of course the hols start tonight and that makes it even better."
Victor smiled to himself as he forked out another piece of kipper, separating the tender flesh from the bones. English children might have different customs, but they were as glad as American children for their upcoming Christmas vacation!
They ate the remainder of breakfast leisurely, then the children left for their respective schools. Carstairs excused himself; he had an appointment at Whitehall. Mrs. Carstairs did whatever Mrs. Carstairs did during the day, and took callers later in the afternoon.
Victor went into the study.
He remembered the first time he had entered the room, over five weeks ago. He was still limping on his left leg then, injured by the collapsing brickwork at the BBC. Two weeks earlier he had awakened in the hospital after being unconscious for a week.
Paul Schiller was already in the room. He was as tall and thin as Victor, with an ascetic face and aquiline nose, and cold grey eyes.
"You are Herr Arnold?" he asked abruptly, in flawless German.
"Ja," Victor had answered quickly, locking eyes with him. Carstairs had said he would meet the man who would be his tutor in the study. Schiller was obviously that tutor.
"Gut, gut," Schiller had responded, then switched to accented English. "That was very good. You think quickly. Now we must turn you into Jonathan Arnold, unequivocally. You speak German?"
"I studied it at college. It was a language of scholars back then."
"It still is, should you find the correct scholars."
For a week he had only reading to do: newspapers, reports, books, Mein Kampf. Slowly his rebelling mind became immersed in the philosophy of the Third Reich. For the first few nights he could scarcely swallow any supper, so unnerved was he at the ideas presented in the volumes. One matter-of-factly discussed the enemies of the Reich and solutions for dealing with them. The cold words burned into his brain: "The extermination of the vermin known as Jews is possible when done using these methods..."
After the first week Schiller had him begin writing essays in the persona of Arnold. He tore unsatisfactory ones to bits, mercilessly edited others, nodded approvingly at the successful ones and forwarded them through some mysterious channels of the espionage network. In two weeks a Berlin newspaper with "Arnold's" opinions appeared, then another. Word came that the Germans were interested in this American expatriot.
It was no different than writing Amazon Andy, really, he tried to convince himself. Just another fantasy world.
One with death and destruction always lying in wait on the path ahead.
One morning Victor entered the study to find it transformed during the night. It was now a smart cafe, and Schiller, wearing an overcoat and dressed in a German fashion with a homburg hat placed on the table before him, was seated at one of the tables, being served strong coffee and pastries by a nondescript blond woman in a waitress' uniform. He was reading a Berlin newspaper.
"Guten morgen, Herr Arnold."
And so it began. Now he had to "think on his feet" as Arnold, answer as Arnold. It was here he perfected the loquacious uber-Texas accentreally Victor's imitation of a former college roommate. Intelligence began to pass rumors that Arnold was a Texan, a former radio station employee fired for his pro-Nazi views. This interested the Germans even further. They already had a British stooge, the unctuous "Lord Haw-Haw" and an American broadcasting for their cause would be so much better.
Another morning the study was transformed into a train depot's waiting room. Victor had found a valise along with his clothing that morning, and obediently had carried it with him, not knowing what to expect. Schiller sat at one of the benches, reading another German newspaper, this from Weisbaden. The nondescript waitress was now a nondescript German matron. Carstairs himself was here in his German orderly's uniform in which he'd begun serving Victor his breakfast each morning.
Victor sat down next to Schiller, composing himself.
Schiller began to laugh, showed Victor the paper. There was a photograph of nicely dressed men and women kneeling in the street, scrubbing at the cobbles in the road. They all wore yellow Stars of David on their breasts.
"See those damn Jews! There's where they belong, on their knees, like dogs. Next we shall hear them barking and whining!"
He managed to swallow the bile rising in his throat and respond in kind. Carstairs got up and left. Another man, one Victor recognized as an adjutant who called on the Brigadier occasionally, but presently dressed in a German officers' uniform, entered.
Later Schiller told him his conversation about those undesirables of the Reich was not strong enough. "You must allow the hatred to take over your heart."
Victor was tired. He had snapped, "As it has yours?"
Schiller looked at him, startled, then laughed, a sardonic, angry sound. "We'll try again tomorrow."
Carstairs came upstairs to speak to him that night. He had barely touched the dinner sent up to him.
"Losing your nerve?" he asked as he'd sat down in the chair that sat next to a little table next to the window.
Victor was staring out that window at the lawn below where Edwina, bundled in a thick coat, was walking along the top of a squat stone wall separating the lawn from some now-dormant flowers. "Maybe."
"Paul told me what you said to him," Carstairs added after a long silence.
"He's very good at what he does," Victor said bitterly. "Quite infused with the anger of the Reich."
"Yes, he's quite good." Carstairs regarded him, then dropped the Arnold persona for a moment. "From experience. Comstock, Paul is a Jew."
When Victor wheeled, his face expressing the shock he felt, the Brigadier added, "He escaped from Europe right after Kristallnacht, the only member of his family who did so."
Schiller was not in the study today. It was back to its usual configuration as a man's retreat, large leather chairs before the fire, a huge rectangular desk where one could write business letters, books set into the wall on either side of a large fireplace with a mahogany mantelpiece, hunting prints and Landseer dog reproductions on the walls. Someone, presumably the downstairs maid, had draped the polished wood with a garland of ivy, trimmed with small red ribbon. It was the room's one concession to Christmas.
That made him unreasonably happy. How could he write Arnold's next invective if surrounded by the trappings of the holiday?
He sat through the morning writing one essay, then another, resenting every word of them, but one week of his life had taught him that one did not always do what was wanted in life, just needed. These had a Christmas theme without his thinking about it, one on how soft American children were waiting for their fantasy presents, cowboy suits and Oz books and tea sets while German parents had the correct idea: giving their children gifts that would prepare them for their roles in the world: the boys military toys and junior uniforms, the girls baby dolls and housekeeping tools. A second essay railed at the teachings of the so-called Carpenter of Nazareth as so much pacifistic pap to keep the lower orders in line. The strong needed no God.
Carstairs was evidently at Whitehall all day. Even though the Brigadier had told Victor he was on holiday, he was not surprised when the door to the study opened and the adjutant served his luncheon, also in a German orderly's uniform, addressing him in German. It was now second nature to reply in kind. To Victor's relief he talked only of German progress on the battlefield.
After lunch he scribbled out a third essay, then laid them all in the dispatch box Carstairs kept for that purpose on an entry table to the study. In winter it became dark early, and now, as clouds gathered as well, he turned on one of the lamps, then selected a book from the dozens lining either side of the fireplace. He wanted something innocuous, as far away from German goosestepping as he could manage, and settled on a copy of Barrie's The Little Minister.
His first indication that is was late afternoon was Edwina peeking through the open study door. "Mum asked me to tell you that tea will be at five tonight, since it's a high tea."
Victor glanced up at the large square clock over the mantelpiece. It was already five after four. He glanced out the window and discovered it was snowing, fine, nearly invisible flakes.
She saw his glance, grinned. Her cheeks were so ruddy! She'd probably just come in from the cold, he decided. "Isn't the snow wizard?"
He nodded, silently.
He admired Carstairs' daughters. They didn't understand it all, he knew, but both Edwina and Penelope were aware their father worked with spies, that tall, grave-eyed Mr. Comstock was going to pretend he was German to gather intelligence to help fight the Jerries. They said not a word to classmates or friends. They knew instinctively this was not to be spoken of to anyone outside the family. The servants were unaware they had been screened; when young Gerhard the stablehand had been taken away they had been told his mother was sick and he had had to leave. He was not much of a risk, but his ancestry had been; Carstairs had found him another position far away from Harford House.
"Come see our Christmas tree," Edwina bade him, excited. "Father had them deliver it from the market this morning. It's in the scullery until tomorrow night."
"All right," Victor said, leaving the book under the lamp and following her. The essays he had written seemed to clutch at him as he walked past the dispatch box and he shuddered inwardly. Thank heaven here he would see something normal, a family readying for Christmas.
He followed Edwina down the hall and past the green baize door into the kitchen. The cook, her hands shaping scones as fast as they could, smiled at them as they crossed the flagstones. Edwina tugged at the heavy wooden scullery door, and then they were inside.
It was chilly in the unheated room, but an excited Edwina didn't notice. The electric light overhead illuminated the small pine tree in the corner.
He was taken back again in the whisk of a memory. The fad for ceiling height Christmas trees had just gained momentum when he was a boy. His mother still preferred the traditional tabletop tree, and that's what they always had until...
Aunt Margaret never had a tree. She thought it was for children and Victor was certainly not a child when he had come live with her. He remembered his mother's trees, lovingly strung with bead chains and popcorn strings, hung with a few shiny balls bought at Woolworth's, cotton ornaments, and gingerbread men. The last were his to eat when the tree was taken down after the New Year.
"Are you well, Mr. Comstock?" Edwina asked anxiously.
"I just remembered something, that's all," he said gently, touching the tips of the little spruce. "It's a beautiful tree."
"And here's our mistletoe," Edwina continued, pointing to the object in the corner. "Pen and I have been working on it all week."
He wasn't familiar with the term, but the item was fairly simple: two large embroidery hoops fastened together at cross angles, strung with alternate bands of red and white ruffled tissue paper. At the top where they joined, a thread hung a big piece of mistletoe so that it dangled in the middle of the whole affair.
"What is it you do with it?" Victor asked, after admiring the workmanship.
Edwina looked at him, puzzled. "Why, Father will hang it over the dining room table, of course. You don't have them in the States?"
"No," he admitted.
She shook her head sadly, then showed him the boxes of ornaments that had been brought in from the eaves under the big barn. There were velvet cornucopias lined with lace, roses, some of the German kugel he remembered as a child, stars made of tinseled wire, bead ornaments and garlands.
Edwina finally pulled out a box that was evidently meant to be the coup de grace, she presented it with such a flourish. "Look how many we have! Father says we should enjoy them this year, for if the war goes on much longer we shan't have any next year."
Victor regarded them curiously. They looked like long candies wrapped in shiny colored paper, with frilled ends, only these "candies" were nearly a foot long. He thought for a moment, then asked "They're Christmas crackers, aren't they?"
"Of course." Edwina said, astonished.
"I've heard of them but I'm not certain what they're for."
Edwina's eyes goggled in surprise and sympathy. "Oh, Mr. Comstock, don't you Yanks have anything good for Christmas?"
He had to resist his sudden impulse to laugh at her earnest face. Anything good for Christmas! Tell It to Santa and the yearly reading of A Christmas Carol and the broadcast of holiday music Gloria Redmond, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Helen Forrestand Yuletide themes on their daytime serials...
"We have other things we do," he assured her.
High tea was certainly "jolly," as Edwina had indicated. The cook had outdone herself with cinnamon scones and jam tarts, the lightest of sponge cakes served with more jam and something called "Bath buns." Penelope was particularly delighted about the last, which Victor discovered were yeast rolls containing raisins and sprinkled with sugar on top. As a final touch, Cook brought in what Mrs. Carstairs called a chocolate gateau. True, due to shortages, the gateau was small and less sweet than usual, but each of them had a small piece.
Since next evening William would be home and the celebration reserved for family and guests, Carstairs had all the servants come in the dining room when the meal was finished. They had been expecting this and came in neat and smooth in their working clothes, aprons removed, hair taken out of caps and nets. Victor sat back, amused, as the Brigadier made a pseudo-lord of the manor speech to them, thanking them for their service that year, and Mrs. Carstairs handed out a Christmas bonus to each person, who bowed or curtsied as fitted their sex and said a polite thank you. The amount must have been quite generous, for the upstairs maid peeked into her envelope and gasped, then burst out on her own, "Oh, thank you, marm!"
Now they retired to the parlor and Carstairs himself kindled the fire. His adjutant came in as he did so, whispered something to him, and he nodded, then the man unobtrusively left. Carstairs whispered to Victor that his latest essays had gone out in the evening post. "Good show," he'd added.
Victor wished he hadn't mentioned them. Suddenly sobered, he retreated to a chair in a corner, next to the front window overlooking the street. Snow was still falling steadily.
"We're ready for you now, 'Dwina," Carstairs said affectionately, for the girl was sitting in the big armchair with a letter in her hand, trying to be as quiet as she could, but it was quite obvious she was bursting with suppressed energy. "Why don't you tell Mr. Comstock what you are doing, since the American boys and girls have a different custom?"
She turned grave eyes to him. Before tea she had changed into a bright red wool frock with white trim around the collar and hem, making her look almost elfin in appearance. "I wouldn't trust my letter to Father Christmas to the post, Mr. Comstock. It's too unreliable!"
This was greeted with a shout of laughter from both her parents.
"In any case," she said soberly, "it seems such a commonplace way for him to get his correspondence."
She showed him her letter. He noticed four or five things on the list, written in a neat schoolgirl hand, including "some books" and "a new Sunday frock." Then she took the fire, bent over the fireplace, and put the missive into the flames.
Except that it didn't stay there. Before the fire had a chance to touch it a draught caught the piece of notepaper and blew it up the fireplace. Her face was glowing as she straightened up.
"You see," she told him, "we put our letters in the fire. If the wind takes them instead, the fairies transport the letters to Father Christmas in a flash and, if you've been good, you get what you've asked for."
The family settled down to play games which Victor cared only to observe. There was a guessing game of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, a half-hour of Blindman's Buff which the Brigadier declined to participate in, and finally another guessing game, this of kings and queens.
When the clock struck seven it was Edwina's bedtime. So close to Christmas she made her exit without a murmur, kissing her mother and father reservedly on the cheek. Finally she stood before Victor, still seated in the corner by the window.
"Did you like our Father Christmas custom?" she asked him shyly.
"It's very nice," he said in a low voice. "But what would have happened had your letter not gone up the chimney?"
She laughed. Over her shoulder he could see her sister smiling. "There's a trick to it, you see. Pen taught me when I was very small. You leave the door to the room a little ajar. It creates a draught and up goes your letter. You see? Now it's gone to Father Christmas, really truly."
Soberly, he asked, "Really, truly?" and she nodded.
Then he smiled. "I see. Good night, Edwina."
He excused himself not long afterwards, leaving the family to enjoy themselves alone by the fire, and climbed the two long flights to his attic room. Someone, probably the little upstairs maid who had been so excited over her Christmas bonus, had kindled a small fire in his room, so the chill was taken off, but he was still cold inside.
Despite having gone up to bed, he was restless. He used the temperamental gadget the Carstairs called a geyser and had a hot bath, then readied himself for bed, but once lying down he could not be still. Finally he slipped from under the warm quilts and padded across the cold floor to the window. The snow had stopped and there was a three-quarter moon that lit the light coating like diamond dust sprinkled on lawn and tree branches. Once, on a summer night in Pittsburgh, he'd walked under a moon like that along the riverfront with Betty Roberts. He'd made some small talk about the confluence of the rivers.
He sighed, returned to his bed, lacing his fingers behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Through his mind flickered the words of the essay Paul Schiller had him read so many weeks ago. "The extermination of the vermin known as Jews..."
He too would be considered vermin if his true identity was ever revealed.
After a long time he rose again, sat at the little table set under the window, scribbling a few lines on notepaper. Then he crossed to the little fireplace, stirring up the ashes and adding small kindling that sat in a washpan next to the hearth. The fire was soon burning briskly.
He opened the damper, took a last look at the letter, then tossed it into the fire.
He was in luck. With his window set ajar as Edwina had cannily left open the door to the parlor, he had created a draft. The notepaper spun about the top of the flames for a second, clearly illuminating the black ink, before it was spun and pulled up the chimney.
He closed his eyes, seeing the words in his mind.
"Dear Father Christmas," he had written with the simplicity of a child, "please let me make it home someday."
He hoped it would work.
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