Paris, July 3, 1936.
Discreetly following Charlotte and Marie-Claude along the platform of the Gare du Nord was a well-dressed young man, M. Armand Saveuse. M. Saveuse, aged sixteen, was something of a prodigy, particularly in mathematics and philosophy. He had, unfortunately, been expelled from his Lycee.
The reason given was that he had been caught falsifying the records in the school office, raising the grades of students he liked, and lowering those of students he found unsympathetic. Along the way, he had given himself passing grades in subjects he found boring. Then, after being caught almost red-handed, he had, as usual, lied.
There had been a final scene in the office of the principle, M. Lessoud. At this meeting of the minds Armand's mother cried while his father gave way to fury. Armand had tried to look pitiful. Small and thin, with a rather squirrelly face, he had a way of shrinking within his clothes. It made him look like a waif, perhaps rescued from the sewers of Paris, and then dressed as a student. It was an impressive act, but the principal hadn't been fooled. He had known that Armand was dangerous.
For one thing, ever since Armand's arrival three years previously, the Lycee had been plagued by a series of rumors. These were never vicious, nor, strictly speaking, defamatory. But it wasn't good for the students to believe that one of the science teachers spent an hour, every evening, playing tic-tac-toe with his wife. Or that the English teacher had once produced singing commercials for a brand of toilet paper in New York.
At the same time, there had appeared a series of cartoons, posted prominently on the walls. Drawn with a light touch, they were never obscene, but they featured the faculty and those members of the student body who had won prizes of various sorts.
Again, they were never actionable. Many people would have thought them quite good. They sometimes caught affectations and revealed little pomposities which would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Some didn't even do that, and actually enlisted the feelings of the viewer in favor of the subject. For example, in a four window cartoon with speeches carefully (and anonymously) lettered with block capitals, the zoology teacher was shown lecturing about birds. In each window he looked a little more like a bird, and, in the final one, he seemed to be flapping his arms in an attempt to take off.
It was nothing more than a piece of whimsy, really, but M. Lessoud thought that such things tended to distract students from the real business at hand. He also knew perfectly well who had produced the rumors and the cartoons. No other boy would have had the subtlety. Armand had been confronted. But he was a consummate liar, good enough to make even the principal wonder if he could possibly have the wrong boy. There had consequently been a certain grim pleasure in M. Lessoud's mien when Armand was caught in something sufficiently grave so that there was no need to mention the rumors and cartoons at all.
On his expulsion from the Lycee, Armand had been virtually thrown out of his home. His father had severe views. Armand's habitual lies seemed to connote to him a certain moral sleaziness. Armand's mother, not in a position to defy her husband, made arrangements with her close friend, Therese de Coulaincourt. Armand was to stay with Therese and her husband until something more permanent could be found for him.
Therese was quite enthusiastic about the arrangement. She had always liked Armand, and she thought she would be able to wangle him into the Sorbonne later on. Ultimately, she believed, Armand had a future in politics. As she had remarked,
"He's no beauty, but look at Leon Blum. I wouldn't like to be a politician and have Armand for my opponent."
In the meantime, Therese had a few little jobs for Armand. One of them was to follow Charlotte and Marie-Claude to Luxembourg and see what they were up to.
Armand, of course, had no experience or instruction in surveillance, but Therese seemed to have confidence in him. She had managed, the day before, to have him see both Charlotte and Marie-Claude without himself being seen. Given that start, Armand had quickly developed the manner of the sort of professional investigator for whom there are no persons, only objects of interest and subjects for investigation.
The train to Luxembourg started out as an express, degenerating a little with each stop. Before finally reaching its destination, it reversed direction twice and went clanking from one country station to another. The border with Luxembourg was crossed in the early evening. Customs guards in comical uniforms stood impassively as the train passed slowly. No doubt they were under the illusion that they possessed great dignity.
Armand was always interested to arrive in a new place, particularly when he was on the trail of subversive activity. The first view of the capital came as the train drifted slowly around a curve. From the window there was a view past the locomotive to a largely empty yard whose tracks pointed to what looked like a half-sized model of one of the great Parisian termini. Having the lines, but not the bulk of a cathedral to steam, it was sufficiently dark in the twilight to look a little sinister. It was altogether a good setting for the kind of genteel mystery novel in which there is murder but no pain.
Just then, the locomotive began chuffing madly and giving off great clouds of black smoke. Leisurely though the last part of the journey had been, they were evidently going to come charging into the station in a belated burst of glory.
The women, seemingly able to attract porters without even waving for them, went tripping gaily into the station rotunda, as if on holiday. There was, on the right, a glimpse of an attractive cafe with greenery and umbrellas. The American woman, satisfactorily unaware of her follower in the shadows, stopped as suddenly as the smooth marble floor allowed, and gestured toward it. The other tossed her head and laughed. Apparently the suggestion to visit the cafe had been put humorously. Then both pivoted on their toes and made off in the direction of refreshment. When they had almost reached it, a large drunk, freewheeling in a stately fashion, emerged suddenly. There was an exchange of glances between the women. Both then turned and headed for the taxi rank.
It was always a problem for a youthful investigator to know when to jump into a taxi and order it to follow another taxi. He might be met with skepticism, laughter, or even a refusal to comply on ethical grounds. In this case it was unnecessary. The information provided had so far proven correct. There was no reason to doubt that the women would, as predicted, stay at the Grand Hotel Cravat. Moreover, there would be very few hotels in Luxembourg, perhaps only one, where women of this sort would be willing to stay. It would be impossible to really lose them.
The hotel was only a short walk from the railway station. The walk was, however, an illuminating one. The area next to the station was what one would expect. There were small hotels and shops, and only a few people in the streets. A couple of bars showed moderate signs of life, but not enough to concern the gendarme who stood on a corner picking at his teeth. Then came a precipice and a bridge over an abyss.
The river at the bottom was so small that Armand, looking over the rail of the bridge, could barely see it in the emerging moonlight. On the other side was an old fortress with batteries carved out of the rock faces. Although Armand, as a student of military history, was aware that cannon balls from old guns could still neatly remove one's head from one's shoulders, he supposed that they had become mere toys for children to clamber over.
As soon as Armand crossed the bridge, he found a different, and obviously much older, town. It, too, had a toy-like aspect. Armand supposed that the social life within the glittering houses must stand to that of Paris as the old fortress stood to the Maginot Line. The whole picture was really quite attractive. It seemed unlikely that the principals of lycees in the old town of Luxembourg placed great stress on Latin. They probably couldn't read it themselves. As for lying, they would be men of the world, not misplaced monks. It would be rare for anyone in Luxembourg to tell the truth when it was in the least inconvenient.
Front and center was the hotel itself, a little citadel of light and opulence jutting above the lush trees of the avenue. Armand, with his sharp young eyes, was able to pick out familiar luggage being carried up marble steps. The front hall, lit by a great chandelier, was partly visible from a position across the avenue. While the women from Paris weren't identifiable, some bright evening dresses and black suits flashed by. It was obviously the right place.
Armand's information was that the women had come to Luxembourg to buy a business. This purchase was presumed to be connected in some way with their unsavoury rightist politics, and might well be a cover for something else. The first object was to discover the address and nature of the establishment.
An examination of the streets behind the hotel revealed a large number of boutiques and fashionable restaurants. The women were certain to visit a good many of them, and the problem could well be that of determining which they intended to buy. It would be well to keep a list of places entered. It might then be necessary to find the right one by a painstaking process of elimination. In certain, hopefully remote, circumstances in which the trail was lost altogether, it might be necessary to invent some fictions for the benefit of Therese. In Armand's experience it had often been possible to guess the truth. However, if one wished to be believed, details had to be supplied.
If there was a subversive purpose in buying, say, a boutique, it would probably be to hide some sort of financial transfer. Such businesses, when owned by rich women as hobbies, could lose, or seem to lose, surprisingly large sums of money. The purpose could involve nothing more interesting than tax evasion. On the other hand, such a business could be used to cover the transfer of money or goods to hidden destinations. In such a case, the investigator on the spot could do little more than report the name of the business. The rest would have to be left to a financial analysis.
Armand soon discovered that it was no fun to watch and wait, and that it wasn't easy to remain in the same spot without looking suspicious. It did occur to him to hide in the nearby shrubbery, but he quickly realized that such an act could be self-defeating in the extreme. Finally, he took up the pose of a person waiting, rather impatiently, to be picked up. Between frustrated and irritated glances down the avenue, he kicked stones and chafed visibly at his plight. He was finally rewarded by a glimpse of Charlotte in an evening dress. Judging that she was unlikely to conduct any business so attired, or to leave the hotel at all, Armand, acting the part of one who has given up on his ride, trudged truculently off. Crossing back over the bridge, he found himself a room in a cheap hotel near the railway station.
For the next two days, the women led Armand a merry chase of the boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Fortunately, the fashionable district was really quite small, and, even when Armand lost his quarry a couple of times, he had only to wander around to again pick up the trail. For the rest, he merely acted the part of an idle and affluent young man who liked to eat and drink well.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy to pick out the boutique that was being purchased. There was only one that the women visited more than twice, and, on the second day, they remained inside after closing time. Walking by, Armand could see a four-part discussion taking place between Charlotte and Marie-Claude, the woman who managed the store, and a man he hadn't seen. No one was inspecting or trying on any clothes, and Armand regarded that part of the case as being closed.
Having followed the women back to the hotel, Armand wasn't terribly surprised when, in the early evening, Charlotte came out with her luggage. After a taxi had been summoned, she and Marie-Claude hugged each other effusively, and the former disappeared in the taxi. Assuming that she was headed for the station, Armand remained where he was to watch Marie-Claude's movements. Therese had told him that she was supposed to visit relatives in the area, and Therese wanted to know who they were. Armand remained until well after dark, this time waiting for a bus that seemed never to come, and then returned to his hotel.
The next morning, it seemed likely to Armand that Marie- Claude might travel some distance in order to visit her relatives. There was therefore nothing for it but to engage a taxi, at least for the morning, and possibly for the whole day. As he had feared, the driver was difficult. The only available story in such circumstances was that a jealous husband was having his wife followed. The driver snorted in a vaguely Tuetonic way. He seemed to dislike the idea of an invasion of morally inferior French women followed by an even sleazier army of shady sleuths. His patriotic qualms were eased only when he was offered an unconscionable sum for the morning's work. Now that it had been paid, Armand, in position down the avenue from the Hotel Cravat, reflected that it would be a terrible waste if Marie-Claude set off on foot
Very little seemed to happen at the hotel in the morning. A few people checked out and left with their luggage in taxis, and employees came and went by a side door. The doorman, aside from trying to seem alert, had little to do.
It was after ten when a car driven by a chauffeur pulled up. The man who emerged resembled the car. Both were thoroughly respectable, but a little shopworn. The man and the car might both have a good many kilometers left in them, but Armand felt that they weren't likely to be exciting kilometers. As the man went up the steps, the doorman, seeming to realize that the visitor wasn't really a Hotel Cravat sort of person, opened the door with much less than his maximum flourish.
Most people wouldn't have imagined such a relative for the elegant Marie-Claude Serrault, but Armand nevertheless warned his driver to be ready. His diligence was rewarded when Marie-Claude emerged from the hotel, followed by the man. As they were helped into the car, it seemed to Armand that she was much more distant with this man than she had been with anyone else. If she were ashamed of her relative, why did she bother to visit him at all?
When the car started up, it went slowly, and was easy to follow. It took a different bridge from the one Armand had crossed earlier. This one led to a district reminiscent of the early days of the industrial revolution, but, instead of abject poverty, there was a universal listlessness.
After a while, they reached an area of small but respectable row houses with well-kept front gardens. Then there was a turn to the left into a warren of mean streets. At one point, the driver ahead swerved to avoid a small child being chased by a slightly larger child, the latter apparently bent on mayhem.
They finally emerged from the residential district into a more open area near the railway. There was, on the left, a large empty field filled with weeds, partly overgrown railway tracks, and a broken-down truck. The driver ahead turned on to a dirt driveway which led to a good-sized building. Of blackened brick, it looked as if it had once been a factory, one that had discontinued production in the not very recent past. As Armand's taxi passed, there was visible a sign which proclaimed the building to be the property of the Tibodeau Brothers, forwarding agents with warehouse facilities.
The taxi dropped Armand off around the corner, and was instructed to wait. The driver must have thought Marie-Claude an odd woman to conduct her affair in an old factory, but he didn't say anything. Probably no Parisian perversion would have surprised him.
Armand was able to return inconspicuously, near enough to the warehouse to get a good view. Having changed some of his clothes in the taxi as they passed out of the pricier section of Luxembourg, he could now pass virtually for a street urchin. Sitting, as he was, on the curbstone between a closed cafe and a shop that did welding, he was sure that no one would notice him.
The car was parked by a small door in the side of the building, and only the driver was visible. Looking bored, he leaned against the hood and smoked. While Armand had lost sight of them briefly, it seemed that Marie-Claude and her companion must be inside. By this time, Armand felt certain that the man was not her relative, and he also dismissed the possibility that a sexual liaison was in progress. The only remaining possibility seemed to be that Marie-Claude was interested in buying the building, either on her own account, or, more likely, as Charlotte's agent.
On the face of it, a warehouse in Luxembourg was an extremely unlikely purchase for women such as these. Nothing could have been less glamorous. Moreover, it hardly looked very profitable. The factory had apparently failed, and, there being no other use for the building, it had been made into a warehouse. A warehouse near the docks of a great port, or at a major railway junction, might thrive, but this was hardly that.
The return of the party to the hotel wasn't very instructive. In fact, judging that nothing else Marie-Claude might do in the town would be of interest, Armand prepared to return, the next day, to what had now become the object of observation.
The trip by trolley disclosed more than had the earlier one by taxi. Now in the middle of the day, the passengers were mostly housewives and elderly people. The Grand Duchy had a slightly higher standard of living than France, and there appeared to be nothing to rival the worst slums of Paris. However, in Armand's surprisingly full experience, true poverty often had a spontaneity and color lacking in the lower reaches of the respectability that was here so evident.
As the trolley clanked along, Armand felt that he was making some progress in penetrating the mystery. According to Therese de Coulaincourt, both these women had connections with highly conservative groups. Some of those groups were so enamored of Hitler's stand against communism that they might work against France in the event of war with Germany. There had been much talk in the papers of 'Fifth Columnists.' These outwardly patriotic Frenchmen were only waiting for the outbreak of war to swarm over the country like locusts. Wherever they went, they would blow up munitions depots, wreck railways, and burn farms.
According to the stories, the most frightening thing about the Fifth Column was its present invisibility. For all one knew, one's next door neighbor would receive a secret signal in the night. By dawn, the municipal water supply would be poisoned.
It would have taken a much less sophisticated person than Armand to see through the dramatic excesses of such accounts. On the other hand, France was now in a unique position. Never before in its history had a substantial segment of the population had more confidence in a foreign government than in their own. Moreover, to even a rational observer, it did seem that only Hitler with his Wehrmacht had any chance of putting an end to communism in Europe.
One had to realize that women like Charlotte and Marie- Claude, while unlikely to poison the water supply, could still be dangerous enemies of the French Republic. On that assumption, they might now be engaged in doing something they didn't want noticed. If so, Luxembourg was the place to do it. Even within Luxembourg, this particular warehouse was as little worthy of note as anything its size could be.
The remaining paradox was why anyone would bother to subvert Luxembourg. In the last war, its defence against the Germans had consisted of one act. The Grand Duchess had driven out to meet the advancing columns, and had ordered her driver to park her car so as to block the road. Next time, according to what Armand could gather, no one was likely to display that much spunk. The answer must then be that the subversive activity was of such a nature that it could be carried out in Luxembourg, but aimed at France.
The trolley, wheels screeching, made a right-angled turn away from the direction of the warehouse. Armand, quickly consulting his map, got off at the next stop. The sky, already smoky, was now darkening as a storm approached. Armand found himself on a street which was long, narrow, and straight. The houses on both sides were so nearly identical that they merged into a virtually continuous wall on each side. If there had ever been any attempt to paint them different colors, the brown light from the sky colored them uniformly. The only living being in view was a woman half-way down the street, scurrying to get her groceries home before the storm broke. Armand's shoes rang loudly and hollowly on the pavement as he, too, hurried along.
At the end of the street there was a narrow passage between houses which gave on to a dirt road running beside the railway main line. The ruts were so deep that Armand, walking briskly, occasionally stumbled. The whole area remained silent until a local freight train came the other way on the far track, its column of smoke hardly distinguishable against the sky. A single man in the guard's van waved dispiritedly, as at a fellow sufferer. It was a gesture most unexpected in Luxembourg. But, then, the train might have come from across the border.
Armand was now approaching the warehouse from the opposite side, the side of the railway. It was only with difficulty that he recognized it at all. For one thing, a number of newer buildings and sheds were clustered against it, invisible from the street side. For another, the business was disclosed as being, or having been, a larger operation than had previously appeared. One of the older outbuildings, with a smokestack reaching high, had been the power plant. Its high arched windows were now smashed. An old sign then came within Armand's view. It indicated that the Tibodeau brothers had once been in the business of manufacturing springs of both the coil and leaf variety.
As the first drops of rain fell amid a thunderclap, it wasn't unnatural to move toward the outbuildings in search of shelter, perhaps under the eaves of one of them. At one point, Armand saw a few men unloading a freight car inside a shed. They didn't seem to see him, but, wanting to keep out of their line of sight, he headed for the old factory building.
There was only one track leading into the building itself, and the barred wooden double doors looked as if they hadn't been opened in some time. Armand, after first surveying the field, took a quick look through a very dirty window. There was still a deal of old machinery that had never been removed, and a few stacks of crates on the cement floor. No people were visible at all.
The wind blew the rain hard against the wall of the factory, but Armand pulled his jacket collar up and made his way to a little nook which provided some shelter. Huddled uncomfortably there, he was able to form some hypotheses about the history of the business. The spring factory, dating from the last century, had passed into German hands in the war. They, probably, had little use for it. Perhaps they already had better springs of their own. The Tibodeaux brothers, returning in 1919, had lacked the capital to refurbish the factory after its four years of disuse and decay. Perhaps, like so many others, they had hoped that German war reparations would buy them a new factory. In the meantime, they had gone into the warehouse business.
After a few years, it had been discovered that the factory building, with its single track, made a poor warehouse. It had much more space than necessary, but most of it was relatively inaccessible from the loading dock. However, business was momentarily good enough to justify the construction of sheds over some of the outside sidings. Motor lorries were then brought in over a dirt road to effect transfers to and from railway wagons.
Judging from the present low level of activity, this rationalization of operations hadn't been sufficient. The property had been used in virtually the only way in which it could be used, and was now apparently close to failure. It was crammed with useless buildings in poor repair, and most of the tracks were either empty or dotted with broken wagons. The price must be extremely low. In fact, it seemed that, if one were concerned only with getting the most industrial property for the least money, it would be hard to find a better bargain.
Now wet through to the point where he could feel water puddling in his shoes, Armand noticed another small brick building. Located where the yard tracks joined together before curving into the main line, it was barely visible in the storm. Unlike the other buildings, it showed light.
The thunder was now getting louder, and the wind and rain even stronger, but Armand thought that the building needed to be investigated. When he was almost up to it, there was a flash of lightning almost simultaneous with a thunder clap. It illuminated the immediate objective clearly enough to show a single track which led directly to a pair of large closed doors which took up almost the whole end wall. The building looked to be of about the same age as the main one, and it was possible to both shelter under its eaves and look in.
Armand knew that, even if he were detected, he would have a ready excuse. In the event, there was no need for concern. The only inhabitant of the building was entirely occupied in servicing the side rods of a small steam locomotive.
On reflection, one could see that it would be useful for a factory to have an industrial locomotive to move wagons around without having to call on the railway each time. Moreover, a warehouse, needing constantly to interchange wagons at the loading docks, would have even more use for such an engine. While the present scale of operation would hardly justify a locomotive, it was old and of small saleable value. Armand, as a railway enthusiast, recognized the engine as dating from before the turn of the century. The elderly man now working on it was probably the driver, fireman, and mechanic all rolled into one. He probably also came with the purchase.
The locomotive was a six-wheeled type with side tanks for water and
a coal bunker behind the cabin. It would easily be capable of assembling
all the wagons in the yard into a string to be picked up by the railway.
While slow, it would also be able to take a train of as many as twenty
or thirty wagons along the main line to the larger yards, either in Luxembourg
or across the frontier in France. It was this last possibility that caused
Armand to wonder. Was the locomotive an accidental part of the purchase,
or was it part of a plan?
When Armand returned, with no warning, Therese flung her arms around him. She then said,
"I had second thoughts after I sent you off. After all, you're only sixteen, and you've never been on your own in another country."
Armand reassured her, and attempted to make his report. However, she interrupted him with so many questions that he was able to impart his information only in a piecemeal and disorganized fashion. Finally, she said,
"I'm glad I sent you and not the sort of seedy private detective who might later attempt blackmail."
Whem they moved to a discussion of some of the implications of Armand's discovery, Armand said,
"It's an ideal place for storing large quantities of goods without anyone's noticing them."
"These rightists, through the leagues, are never terribly far from staging armed insurrection, particularly when there are leftward shifts in government. If they accumulated arms there, would they be able to move them into France quickly and easily?"
"I hung around the border for the best part of a day, and they never stopped a freight train in either direction to search it."
"So, if they wanted to arm groups like the Cross of Fire, they'd only have to dispatch their wagons to some selected point."
Armand nodded and replied,
"It occurred to me that having their own locomotive would be quite an advantage. Suppose that they wanted to time their rising to coincide with a German invasion. Luxembourg would be overrun in a matter of half a day, and there wouldn't be time for a normal pick-up of wagons from yards. But, with their own engine, they could get their wagons across the border in an hour or so. By that time, there'd be a great refugee stream, and there'd be an effort to get valuable railway equipment out of Luxembourg. Even fewer questions than usual would be asked at the border."
"What would happen to the wagons after crossing the border?"
"They'd almost automatically be taken to the big Paris yards. The only problem then would be finding them. If I were they, I'd put a man aboard one of the wagons to see where they ended up, and then report their position. With, say, twenty wagons, it ought to be possible to fully arm five thousand men and supply them for a few days."
"It'd be a very nasty shock for Leon Blum, on something like the second day of war, to find Paris occupied by the armed Leagues."
"The army could eventually regain control of Paris, but that would take a couple of divisions."
"And every division would be needed desperately at the front. Whatever Charlotte and Marie-Claude are up to, we'll stop them."
"That may not be easy."
"Marie-Claude isn't any match for us."
"What about the other one?"
"It's harder to know about Charlotte. There's ability there. She's been quite successful in business, and in the management of money. It's also a mistake to under-estimate Americans. But we have the advantage of knowing more or less what they're trying to do almost before they've begun."