Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
Table of Contents  Last Chapter    Home Page
 Chapter 34

From the Diary of Marie Claude

I've always hated funerals. I suppose that's one reason I had such difficulty in making the arrangements for Charlotte's. Klaus telegraphed, saying when he would arrive and asking me to see to everything. I started by going to talk with an undertaker. The funeral home was tawdry beyond belief. How could I let such people touch Charlotte?

I asked Hans what we should do. He didn't know. For that matter, he hardly spoke. Except to say that it was his fault. That was nonsense. The whole hare-brained scheme was Charlotte's idea entirely. Besides, what normal eighteen year old boy would have refused to participate in a program of sabotage?

I think, in retrospect, that Hans and I both went off the deep end for a short time. We actually took it into our heads to dig a grave on the beach and bury Charlotte ourselves. I have no idea what Klaus would have thought.

In the end, the local newspaper editor, Mr. Jack Lang, was kind enough to step in. He found a church and minister, and an undertaker too. The church was a Baptist one, simple and ugly. I have been told that they are made ugly on purpose in reaction to the Catholics, whose aesthetic sensibility, the Baptists believe, interferes with religion. The minister was also simple and ugly. I don't know whether he, too, was chosen on the same rationale.

Mr. Lang performed an even more useful service when he talked the authorities out of arresting Hans for doing in the generator at the amusement park. Part of it was a matter of local politics that eluded me, and also had nothing to do with law. In addition, Hans had already enlisted in the army, and was due to report soon. They let him go with a lecture that was particularly idiotic and fatuous in the circumstances.

When Klaus arrived, I was a little surprised to see him covered with soot and grime. It turned out that he had come directly from conducting the trials on the C, L, and N without even stopping to change clothes.

I felt that I owed him an explanation. How had I allowed his wife to be killed? But, of course, I had none. Hans obviously felt the same way. He kept trying to reconstruct what had happened. He was sure that the first shot had been aimed at him. Had Charlotte started to follow him? Had the guard shot her intentionally?

Klaus assured him that a man being shot at is too busy trying to find cover to take in anything else. Klaus actually asked no questions at all. I think he merely humored us as we tried to explain. He knew what Charlotte had been trying to do, and nothing else mattered.

None of us were much interested in trying to get the local authorities to prosecute the guard. They called it an accident, and it probably was in the sense that an incompetent trying to shoot at one person is likely to hit someone else.

One of my principle impressions of the days right after Charlotte's death is of the utter hopelessness of all three of us under circumstances where there was nothing much to be done. We did little for one whole day but sit and look at each other. Then, the day before the funeral, Chalice Wadsworth arrived.

Malice is now eighty, and still very active. She somehow pulled things together. She hardly seemed surprised by what had happened. She must really have been as shocked as the rest of us, even if, as is likely, she had been afraid that Charlotte would come to a tragic end. Still, whatever her feelings, Malice made it obvious that she was going to carry on in her usual way.

Above all, Malice talked. Sometimes about Charlotte, sometimes about her usual concerns, and sometimes about the war. She got Klaus to explain exactly what had happened in the railway trials. When he described the near collision that had been covered up, I was sure that I detected a glimmer of amusement that vanished when he remembered where he was.

Malice then asked Hans and myself about our campaign to turn out the lights. I knew she was mainly trying to make conversation, but she was irresistible. By that evening, Malice had us restored to some kind of order, ready for the funeral. As she pointed out, Charlotte was far from the first of the family to die young. Her death, terrible though it had been, was in an excellent cause. It was thus much to be preferred to those of the many alcoholics and suicides in the family.

Since no funeral is good, a bad funeral isn't really very bad. The minister said some embarrassing things, but, just as I was thinking that we should have buried Charlotte on the beach, he finished. It was just as well that we didn't resort to the beach. If Florida is like most states, the undertakers have pushed through an embalming law. They would have arrested us and made us take them to the spot. They would then have dug Charlotte up for the purpose of embalming her.

It was immediately after the funeral that I introduced Malice to Mr. Lang. He came back to the hotel with us, and we had a long talk. At least, three of us did. Klaus was off to Cincinnati to take up where he had left off, and he took Hans with him.

When the farewells were concluded, we three sat down in a little lounge with wicker furniture which overlooked the ocean. A waitress brought coffee and doughnuts. Mr. Lang had met Charlotte only once, but that meeting had been enough. He had, he said, never met anyone at all like her. Indeed, he was so affected that Malice, yet again, found it necessary to extend her strong female hand to a man mired, so to speak, in emotional mud.

Mr. Lang was a perceptive, if somewhat inexperienced, young man. I could see it dawn on him that, if he had never met a woman like Charlotte, he had never met one remotely like Malice. I, for my part, would say that Malice was the original of which Charlotte was only one kind of copy. But, of course, no young man would have thought that. Still, when Malice offered to help us with our project of turning out the lights, he quickly took her up. There would, he said, be many meetings with local officials and businessmen.

In fact, Mr. Lang had got things well going. He devoted an editorial to Charlotte's death, and also printed the original letter she had given him, not the toned-down version he had insisted on. As he explained it to Malice,

"Even the local businessmen wouldn't expect me to play down a sensational event, and Mrs. Seydlitz' death was certainly that. Since she's beyond our help, we may as well use her death to focus attention on the campaign that was hers to begin with."

In the next few days, the three of us spoke at meetings of the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and numerous other groups. Malice, six feet tall and dressed entirely in black, was a striking figure. She told people that she was in mourning, not only for Charlotte, but for the crews of the tankers that were being sunk.

There wasn't much anyone could reply to that. On the other hand, I noticed, almost for the first time, what a nice smile Malice had. Set against that forbidding aspect, it was doubly striking.

Of the three of us, Malice was easily the most effective speaker. She said nothing that shocked anyone, and, amazing at least to me, she had suddenly become the ultimate diplomatist. However, she kept to the point. Men and ships were being lost because of the ineffectiveness of the blackout. Listening to her, anyone who had a neon sign must have realized that its days were numbered.

I think it was this sense of inevitability, rather than any moral qualms, that turned the lights out in Lagonda Beach.

As our campaign began to snowball, there was an extraordinary interlude, a meeting between Malice and Mr. Bubba Howard, the dreadful cracker who had indirectly killed Charlotte. I wasn't present, but heard the story from Mr. Lang. Malice had begun by giving him her sympathy and suggesting that he was as much a victim of circumstances as were we. Mr. Lang said that Howard, probably expecting threats, was absolutely flabbergasted. Ordinarily a very loud man, he was reduced to mumbling apologies.

There would be no lawsuits, Malice assured him, if he operated only in daylight and didn't turn on any lights at night. He was more than happy to agree.

Malice then signed Mr. Howard up to help us in our campaign. He wasn't much for conventional public speaking, but he turned out to be highly effective in approaching the less enlightened. Indeed, having been partially closed down himself, he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in putting other people entirely out of business. Malice used him like a dog on leash, sicking him on people too primitive for her to reach.

As with most successful campaigns, there's a point where opposition crumbles and everyone gangs up against the hold- outs. We then repeated the same procedure up and down the coast. Other newspapers had picked up the story of Charlotte's death, and Mr. Lang arranged more opportunities for us to speak. It took several weeks, a long time for the tankers, but a short time for altering public opinion.

Even after the lights were out, a good many tankers were sunk. However, it wasn't so easy for the U-boats, and they lost some of their own number in taking the added risks required to get their kills.

As Malice and I left Florida, Mr. Lang was himself preparing to go into the navy, where, as he remarked, he probably wouldn't be doing anything as useful as enforcing blackouts. I stayed with Malice a a few days in Bryn Mawr, and then set out to Cincinnati to get back in touch with my now thoroughly independent daughter.

[End of Fragment]

August 15, 1942 Letter from Marie-Claude Serrault to Chalice


Dear Malice,

On arriving in Cincinnati, I found Annette well and happy, particularly since she has been virtually running things here for some time. I may have trouble finding a niche for myself.

Klaus has been working hard, and seems more depressed than he was in Florida. I wasn't greatly surprised. There are many men who can suppress their feelings during times of crisis, but who are deeply affected in the ensuing months and years.

In any case, things are going well on the C, L, and N. I renewed my acquaintance with Frank Scrutt, who seems to be known everywhere as "Fearless Frankie." It did occur to me that someone without fear was the least appropriate person to put in charge of the frightening descent from Walnut Hills to the city. However, he has, in fact, found ways of improving operations. The result is that the descents are a little safer and less harrowing. At every hour of the day and night great engines are on both sides of the hill, and the low moans of their whistles can be heard up and down the valleys.

Last night, Klaus took me on a tour of the whole Cincinnati railway scene. He seems to think that I understand more than I do, but I've pretended to understand since babyhood. One of the most heartening sights we encountered, one that I did understand, was on the New York Central, very near a large and very smelly garbage dump.

At midnight, two long trains of loaded tank cars were running parallel on both tracks, headed north. And then, when they were past, two more trains came pounding up the slight grade behind them. Not having to leave the southbound track open for the returning empties, a true conveyor belt has been achieved. Even though I know how many trains it takes to replace a single ocean tanker, I feel increased confidence.

Paul Harker, unfortunately, is driving Klaus very nearly crazy. Since his original, very great, service in persuading the other railways to cooperate, there has been nothing much for him to do. He now occupies himself in making absurd and inane suggestions concerning the very delicate matter of moving all those trains. Since he's known as Klaus' right- hand man, the others think they have to take him seriously.

Even Scrutt hears him out with only a pained look on his face. Of course, they ask Klaus before they do anything, but Klaus has to spend a surprising amount of time and effort heading off the chaos that Harker seems intent on producing.

As if that weren't enough, Harker has conceived the idea that Klaus ought to re-marry. As it turns out, there are innumerable female Harkers, all of them, unsurprisingly, available.

Klaus can hardly turn around without being introduced to a sister or cousin. He is, of course, polite. That is then taken for encouragement.

The root difficulty is that Klaus, thinking he owes so much to Paul Harker, cannot bring himself to hurt the feelings of any Harker. The most he says is that he will never marry again.

Paul, however, takes such pronouncements only as a challenge to his powers of salesmanship.



Cincinnati, August 17, 1942

Marie-Claude later supposed that her letter must have been interpreted as a call for help. In any case, Malice arrived on the night train immediately after receiving it.

Klaus was glad to see Malice and cheered up. Annette was also pleased, more, Marie-Claude thought, than she had been at her mother's return. Malice was introduced to Frank Scrutt, and treated him as if he were a perfectly normal person. Scrutt looked pleased and a little bemused. But it was really Paul Harker whom Malice had come to see.

Since Klaus had never had an office and the railway was run from his home, even more than when Charlotte was alive, Harker arrived at eight every morning and left at five. Malice met him on her first morning in town and invited him to share her mid-morning tea, Marie-Claude joining them.

It was the first time that Marie-Claude had ever been in relaxed circumstances with Harker. He was usually extremely nervous when she was present, and she suspected that he didn't like her. Men of his sort were generally suspicious of foreigners, and of anyone who had any social pretensions. Moreover, now that Klaus had hired her to run the house for him, Harker might well perceive her as exerting a competing and nefarious influence.

Marie-Claude did catch Harker looking under her skirt a couple of times. There was obviously what Americans called a prurient interest there. But, not knowing how to properly express it, he became still more nervous around her.

Malice's teas were always brisk and cheerful, and she had a way of causing the depressed and the morose to brace up and be brisk and cheerful themselves. Harker responded quickly and well, at which point Malice gave him her sudden smile and asked,

"How do you think things are going, Mr. Harker?"

It had, for some time, puzzled Marie-Claude that a salesman as intuitive and sensitive as Harker wasn't better at disguising his own feelings for political purposes. On this occasion, it came out very quickly that he distrusted Scrutt and thought him reckless. Harker said,

"We could have a wreck on that grade any time. It'd scatter cars all over downtown, kill people, and put an end to the railway."

Everyone recognized the danger, but, after all, risks had to be accepted in wartime. It didn't take a very acute observer to see that, even though Harker couldn't have done Scrutt's job himself, he resented anyone in whom Klaus placed trust. Malice replied,

"If it does happen, you'll be the one who'll have to convince everyone that it won't happen again, and that we should continue operation."

Harker caught his breath, presumably at the mere thought of undertaking such a task. However, he did say that no one but himself could possibly succeed in it. When he then expressed doubt even about his own chances of success, Malice said,

"I'm sure you could. Mr. Seydlitz has told me a great deal about your accomplishments."

Marie-Claude added her bit, and it turned out that Harker responded rather well to flattery on her part and something that was rather more complex and subtle on the part of Malice. It did begin to look as if they could together keep Harker happy enough so that he wouldn't bother Klaus very much. Marie-Claude inwardly shuddered at the amount of time and energy it might take. It was also ironic that such an effort might contribute more to the war effort than anything else she might be able to do.

Before that first tea with Harker ended, Malice asked him what he intended to do after the war was won. He replied,

"I don't suppose any of us have given much thought to that."

"I think you should. It seems to be that you'd be better than anyone at looking into the future and formulating plans that might turn out to be very valuable later on."

Marie-Claude could hardly make out what Malice was getting at, but Harker seemed pleased. He then began to suggest all sorts of peacetime uses for the C, L, and N, and even for the Bellwether Railway. When she was alone with Malice that evening, she said,

"You have a good effect on Paul Harker. I don't think he went near Klaus or Scrutt today. But will it be necessary to soothe him every day?"

"I've had a talk with Klaus about him. Klaus won't admit that Mr. Harker bothers him, but, of course, he does. We agreed that it might be possible to send him out on field trips scouting out future business for the line, and also finding railways that could be bought cheaply."

"So that was why you encouraged him to get involved in long- range planning?"

"Well, I was just trying to distract him from day-to-day operations. But it does fit in with this other idea."

"I'd be happy to see the end of him. It bothers me that he keeps criticizing Charlotte."

"She must have been much too patrician for him. She probably took lightly everything that he holds most dear."

"She also had a way of seeming to take lightly, what she herself held most dear. That included Klaus."

"That would have infuriated Mr. Harker. His kind of loyalty to Klaus wouldn't have allowed him to tolerate his being teased."

"Klaus loved it when Charlotte teased him."

"Of course, but Mr. Harker doesn't think servants ought to tease the master."

"I hope he stops talking about Charlotte. She was my best friend after all."

"Oh, he realizes it. He's not insensitive. He's just trying to win you over to his opinion."

"But that's awful! He hasn't any right to try to batter down another person's feelings in that way."

"I expect he's done it all his life. You shouldn't take it personally. He's rather a dear in his own way."

"Malice, you'd think that Caligula was rather a dear in his own way, but it's thinking that that allows you to manage these people so well."

"At my age you can get away with anything. We need to have some more chats with Mr. Harker."

The very next morning, Harker himself suggested to Klaus that he should take a trip through Kentucky and Tennessee to see if some of the many little railways in the hills could be had at bargain prices. Malice later suggested to Marie-Claude,

"I think Klaus will buy a little railway and put Mr. Harker in charge of it."

"Just to get him out of his hair?"

"Klaus would never think such a thing, but it would have that effect."

That afternoon, at tea, Harker was in high spirits, full of plans for the railway development of some of the more remote regions of Appalachia. The conversation then shifted to Klaus, and, in the course of extolling his many virtues, Harker remarked,

"I think Mr. Seydlitz needs to re-marry."

Malice replied,

"I couldn't agree with you more, Mr. Harker."

Marie-Claude found herself amazed, but Harker positively glowed. Malice then added,

"I've got just the woman for him in Philadelphia, but I'll wait to introduce them until this crisis is over. Don't you think that romance is always distracting?"

Marie-Claude knew that Harker had plenty of his own candidates, but he seemed to realize that Malice was in a better position to recommend a wife for Klaus. She then added reassuringly,

"This one isn't at all like Charlotte. Charlotte was a delightful girl, but not right for Klaus. This lady is much quieter, and she'll know exactly how to make her husband comfortable and happy."

Harker smiled. It seemed that he really did have Klaus' best interests in mind.

When they were alone, Marie-Claude queried Malice about her plans for Klaus. She replied,

"I made all that up out of whole cloth. You must know, by this time, that there's no truth in me."

"Even if there isn't such a woman, it'll keep Harker from bringing his cousins around."

"Of course, you may be the one who's really going to marry Klaus once he gets over Charlotte. But I won't mention that to Mr. Harker. I'm not sure he'd approve."

"You think Klaus would really marry me?"

"Certainly. In a year's time he'll want to be married again, and it won't even occur to him to think of anyone else. We can have the wedding at my house."

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
Table of Contents  Last Chapter    Home Page