Whatever I was going to do, there were not many hours of the night left in which to act, and I was determined to be out of that house of ill omen before day dawned. If I could get clear of the hotel and at the same time ascertain that Semlin was as much a stranger there as myself, I could decide on my further course of action in the greater freedom of the streets of Rotterdam. One thing was certain: the waiter had let the question of Semlin’s papers stand over until the morning, as he had done in my case, for Semlin still had his passport in his possession.
After all, if Semlin was unknown at the hotel, the waiter had only seen him for the same brief moment as he had seen me.
Thus I reasoned and argued with myself, but in the meantime I acted. I had nothing compromising in my suit-case, so that caused no difficulty. My British passport and permit and anything bearing any relation to my personality, such as my watch and cigarette case, both of which were engraved with my initials, I transferred to the dead man’s pockets. As I bent over the stiff, cold figure with its livid face and clutching fingers, I felt a difficulty which I had hitherto resolutely shirked forcing itself squarely into the forefront of my mind.
What was I going to do about the body?
At that moment came a low knocking.
With a sudden sinking at the heart I remembered I had forgotten to lock the door.
THE LADY OF THE VOS IN’T TUINTJE
Here was Destiny knocking at the door. In that instant my mind was made up. For the moment, at any rate, I had every card in my hands. I would bluff these stodgy Huns: I would brazen it out: I would be Semlin and go through with it to the bitter end, aye, and if it took me to the very gates of Hell.
The knocking was repeated.
“May one come in?” said a woman’s voice in German.
I stepped across the corpse and opened the door a foot or so.
There stood a woman with a lamp. She was a middle-aged woman with an egg-shaped face, fat and white and puffy, and pale, crafty eyes. She was in her outdoor clothes, with an enormous vulgar-looking hat and an old-fashioned sealskin cape with a high collar. The cape which was glistening with rain was half open, and displayed a vast bosom tightly compressed into a white silk blouse. In one hand she carried an oil lamp.
“Frau Schratt,” she said by way of introduction, and raised the lamp to look more closely at me.
Then I saw her face change. She was looking past me into the room, and I knew that the lamplight was falling full upon the ghastly thing that lay upon the floor.
I realized the woman was about to scream, so I seized her by the wrist. She had disgusting hands, fat and podgy and covered with rings.
“Quiet!” I whispered fiercely in her ear, never relaxing my grip on her wrist. “You will be quiet and come in here, do you understand?”