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August 2003 Review

Web Page Progress

As I still haven't had any takers for the chat/forum I've decided to remove it from my main site. It will now only remain on the UK site, readstoriesonline.com. This site is now up to date after it's platform upgrade.

At some point during this month my payment system will go through a slight change when the payment pages get a revamp. If there are any problems please email me.

Writing Progress

“The Friendly Ambassador” is into the final lap now. I have the end in sight as you might say. At the moment I have paused on Chapter Forty, but I think it will reach maybe into the middle to late forties before I finally get through all I wish to say. It's been a very interesting journey so far, and I think my writing has improved a lot during this time. I like the story and all the characters, and its been a shame to see some of them depart. I've tried to keep true to the spirit of each character, so I think they all have a good representation.

As I mentioned last month, “The Heroic Englishman” will be converted to a short story and will begin appearing in a couple of months or so. I've also decided to drop “The Curfew” for a little while to allow “A Fine Woman” to catch up. So this month sees “A Fine Woman: Part III” take its turn in the Short Story Serial. “A Fine Woman: Part II” has been added to the List Page. Next month its “A Fine Woman: Part IV” and “The Curfew: Part IV” will follow the month after that. Complicated, isn't it? But do you care?

August's Short Story: A Fine Woman: Part III

1948

Sister Marie-Therese had summoned Sister Anna-Marie with more tea and sandwiches when it became apparent that Captain Taylor was going to stay for some time. It was already late afternoon. And as Sister Anna-Marie laid the sandwiches before him, Captain Taylor looked up at Sister Marie-Therese appologetically.

“I'm sorry, Sister. But I did say it was a long story.”

“You did. And I also said I had the time to listen,” Sister Marie-Therese replied with a gentle smile. “There is no hurry. Eat. Take your time.”

Sister Anna-Marie left and Sister Marie-Therese blessed the food before they began. She took such delicate and neat bites from her sandwich, almost like a child. Captain Taylor watched her as he drank his tea. When he took up one of the sandwiches he was surprised to find that he was quite hungry, so he spoke as he ate.

“By early 1944 the duel between Helga and Obersturmführer Meir was in full swing. She had already smuggled forty-two children and seven adults into France. Jacob was getting very good at sneaking into and out of the camp. Helga was also doing rather well as a spy. The information she gave to André was very helpful during the preparations for D-Day in June. In fact the agent known as Trojan was becoming very important to the intelligence departments in London. It wasn't long before her codename became known in Germany too. Even Obersturmführer Meir knew the name.”

“But he didn't suspect her?” Sister Marie-Therese asked as she took another neat little bite from her sandwich.

Captain Taylor shifted his position on the chair once again. He was sure his left buttock was going numb. He took another large bite from his sandwich. “I'm not sure that he knew about her spying. All I know is that he had other things on his mind when it came to Helga.”

1944

February was cold. White plumbs surrounded Bismark and Tirpitz as they panted and pulled Helga forward. They were running over the top of the hill. Helga was wearing a rich and expensive fur coat. Boots adorned her feet and she wore a fur hat on her head. When they ran over the brow of the hill and were on their way down the other side, Helga accidentally on purpose let go of the two leads. Bismark and Tirpitz bounded forward at the gallop. Helga gave chase, shouting after them.

“Bismark! Tirpitz! Come back, my boys! Come back here at once!”

In reply both dogs barked and ran faster. Helga ran after them, clutching her hat.

-o-

Jacob was dressed in old clothes that had been left unwashed and un-cleaned. They were very similar to the clothes he was wearing when Helga first found him, but they had actually belonged to one of the first boys who had been rescued. Jacob’s old clothes had been burned long ago, so Helga had decided to keep the outfit, as it was impossible to simulate the correct smell and look any other way. By now the affect was perfect. The outfit stank, and Jacob stank. But he didn’t care as he edged closer to the wire fence. He was carrying several straps and belts in his hand, and he kept low as he edged along the fence looking for something.

Beyond the wire fence was the railway line. A long train was already in the siding, the large black and red engine smoking and steaming in the cold morning sun. Steam also rose from the long line of railway trucks. Soldiers ran along the far side of the train. They wore heavy coats and carried machine guns. Jacob could hear the shouting as he found what he was looking for. He lay on the ground and waited until he heard the rattle of the doors before he carefully unfastened the previously cut wire and crawled through. And once on the other side he carefully refastened the wire before hurrying towards the distant line of railway trucks.

-o-

Obersturmführer Meir walked along the side of the train watching as the prisoners climbed out of the trucks. Those who took too long were hauled out. The soldiers just dragged them out and they fell on the ground. Some of the soldiers climbed in to the trucks and pushed the people out. And there was no respite once they were out. The soldiers pulled them, punched them and kicked them, shouting at them constantly. Shouting was the only sound to be heard. It was a constant rattle over the background noise of the resting steam engine. It even drowned out the pitiful cries and wails of protest from the prisoners.

Meir stared at them all, his hands clasped behind his back. It was all they deserved. They were just as disgusting as usual. Filthy and stinking, all of them. The railway trucks wouldn’t even be fit for animals afterwards.

“Scharführer! Hurry them up!”

“Yes, Obersturmführer!”

The prisoners were bullied into a column in an orgy of shouting, smacking and kicking. But above the shouts of the soldiers and the hissing of the locomotive the unmistakeable sounds of dogs barking gradually began to be heard.

Obersturmführer Meir raised his head. “Damn that woman!” he whispered and then raised his voice. “Scharführer! Double the guard on the perimeter! Get me a squad at once! And have those prisoners taken inside now! Hurry, man!”

The Scharführer clicked his heels and raised his hand in salute. “At once, Obersturmführer!”

The shouting and bustling increased as the soldiers ran in different directions. Meir hurried towards the hillside with half a dozen men while four times that many rushed along the wire fence. That meant that the number of soldiers left behind to guard the prisoners was drastically reduced. And they had two jobs to complete, causing them to be spread out even more thinly.

While most of the soldiers spread out along the side of the column, others ran among the prisoners, shouting and pulling at the bundles they held. The prisoners were now bewildered and in confusion, they didn’t know what was going on, all they knew was that the soldiers hit them harder and shouted at them louder. There were screams and tears as their last pitiful belongings were snatched or knocked from their grasp and kicked and hurled aside. The soldiers lined up along the column kept back anyone foolish enough to try to retrieve anything, and soon a long pile of bundles began to form next to the column. Some of the prisoners fought to hang on to what they had left, and scuffles broke out. Children screamed and cried as they were separated from their parents in the melee and the only result was that more of the prisoners ended up on the ground, battered and bleeding. And in all the commotion no one noticed the extra boy in their midst who ran out from under the train.

Jacob fitted in far too easily. No one noticed him, not the soldiers or the prisoners. He was just another dirty and pitiful figure among the rest. Only the child he stood next to would look up at him and wonder. Jacob always concentrated on the children, spiriting them away one at a time. It was always the same process.

Jacob would jump out from under the train, run to the line of prisoners, move next to a child that was on it’s own, whisper to him or her and hold their hand, and then dart back to the railway trucks, pulling the child underneath with him. He would choose his moments carefully. The more noise, confusion and turmoil, the better. If people were being killed, it was better. He didn’t want anyone noticing his arrival or his departure. And once he was under the train with a child he would use the straps and belts to tie the child to the chassis of the truck.

Finding a child on their own wasn’t difficult. In the confusion many children became separated from their parents. Jacob would wait and watch and then dart forward. The child would be happy to follow any kindly face. And at first his conscience pricked him as he caught sight of a mother and father searching for their child afterwards. The soldiers didn’t care and never helped them. They just beat everyone without thought. Jacob would see them crying and think about rescuing them, or at least telling them what he had done. And sometimes he had to fight not to give in to the impulse. It was just too dangerous. He kept telling himself that in the end they wouldn’t be angry with him for what he had done, and instead he took advantage of the turmoil they caused to hijack another child.

Sometimes he would find two or three children together, brothers and sisters, or sometimes they were unrelated at all, as he Peter, Antoinette and Klaus had been. He would take them all at once, tying them each under a truck. He always kept one child to a truck, just in case.

But sometimes the adults would realise what was going on, no matter how careful he was. They would see him run away with a child and thrust their own forward when he next looked out, beckoning to him. When they helped like that it was a lot easier. But it wasn’t always the case. And if more chose to follow him than he was prepared to take, he would have to quickly abandon his mission, hiding under the trucks and hoping that none of the prisoners would give him away while he waited it out.

Jacob didn’t like having to rely on others for his safety, so he concealed himself from everyone, keeping his head down and choosing the children carefully, picking only those that were isolated and without an adult near them, and running out and back only during the highest commotion, no matter how long it took. But with experience and success, he did begin to take adults too. He picked on single parents with one or two children, but only if the parent was a woman. It was harsh but Jacob had learned that this was the best way. He had tried the wrong way once before.

He had picked on a complete family unit. There had been both parents and three children. They looked calm and approachable. But as soon as he made himself known to them he knew it had been a mistake. The father questioned what was going on, who he was and where he was taking them. It took too long, and it attracted too much attention. And once he had convinced them, everyone else around within earshot wanted to come too. It caused a riot with the soldiers running forward. Jacob had to escape on his own and only just made it when the soldiers began shooting. He took no one that day. And he kept away from the men after that.

A mother with a single child was best. They were easy to convince. They were more desperate, they were more willing to believe and to grasp at any alternative, any chance at all of escape, straight away. They would even push their children forward and beg him tearfully to take them before he had finished explaining. Jacob would take them both. It helped to have a mother with him to sooth the children. And a mother with several children would be even better, as he could finish his mission quicker.

In the end, the number of people Jacob rescued depended on the number of trucks in the train minus one. And once he ran out of belts, that was it. So he made his last choices carefully.

Today was no different to any other. Jacob worked methodically, carefully, and with his heart and emotions restrained. He stuck to his now well-established criteria. He chose only the youngest children, the easiest to convince and to spirit away, the easiest to tie to the trucks, and if there was a mother with them, they could come too. And while he worked the soldiers remained all lined up on the far side of the column of prisoners, their view of the trucks and Jacob’s comings and goings obscured. And the soldiers among the prisoners moved forward all the time, working their way along the column as they forced each prisoner to drop their precious bundles. Jacob just worked along behind them.

He was nearly done when it happened.

Jacob had made his last choice. He had three sets of belts left when he saw a woman with two young children clinging to her. He glanced at the soldiers. They were nearly at the front of the column. In a few minutes the prisoners would be urged to move forward. He would have to leave soon. He turned to smile at the little boy strapped to the underside of the truck above him, put his finger to his lips, and then ran out.

-o-

Helga was never really sure how close she and the dogs would get to the site of the pit before the soldiers headed them off. She wondered what would happen if she actually reached it. How would Obersturmführer Meir react if he found her at the edge with her dogs running about at the bottom? Sometimes she wondered if that was what he wished for, that at last the game would be over and he could finally act against her.

Why was it that the threat of exposure was often far greater than exposure itself?

Helga ran after her dogs, but she didn’t run too fast. She had gone through the trees and was running down the hill when she saw the soldiers. Obersturmführer Meir was among them. She reduced her pace and then stopped. Breathing hard, she waited until he reached her.

Obersturmführer Meir took off his gloves and bowed to her. He smiled.

“Countess! We meet again, as usual!”

Helga was instantly apologetic. “I am sorry, Obersturmführer, but my dogs get the better of me in their eagerness.”

Meir took her outstretched hand and kissed it lightly. “Yes, I have noticed.”

She looked annoyed by his words and snatched her hand away. “Are you implying that I do this on purpose?”

“Not at all, Countess. But I begin to wonder if it might be easier for my men to exercise your dogs for you?”

She gave him her best disdainful look. “They could probably do with the exercise themselves. They must be bored with nothing to do but guard duty in that camp of yours.”

Meir continued to smile at her. “Ah, but you are wrong, Countess. My men have been very busy. We have had a series of escapes recently.”

Helga instantly became alarmed and clutched a hand to her chest. “Your prisoners have escaped? How dreadful! Am I in danger?”

The smile on Obersturmführer Meir’s face widened. “I very much doubt it, Countess. I have men watching your estate round the clock.”

Helga relaxed. “I am very relieved to hear that. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night for fear of some intruder in the house.”

“Be assured, Countess, if any of my prisoners are seen near your house I will be the first to know. And I will act instantly in your defence.”

“Thank you. That is very kind, Obersturmführer.”

He bowed again. “Think nothing of it.”

Helga could see two soldiers leading Tirpitz and Bismark up the hill towards her. One of them was quite muddy.

“I see my two errant charges have been recaptured.”

Meir glanced down the hill. “Yes. My men are becoming quite adept at hunting in this area. There isn’t much that they cannot find.”

“I told you the practise would help.”

He smiled again. It seemed to be what he did while he was thinking. “Will you be visiting the General again this weekend?”

“No. I have a little trip planned.”

“Ah, yes. The South of France. I believe you make the trip quite regularly?”

“As often as I can. The atmosphere here remains unpleasant, so I try to spend as much time away as possible.”

“I am doing all that I can to bring your distress to an end, Countess. Will you be going alone?”

“I usually try to take some of the children belonging to the tenants and workers on the estate with me. It is often the only chance of a trip many of their children have.”

“I see. I hope they all have the required papers for such a long journey, Countess. I wouldn’t like to think of you being detained.”

“Everything is above board, Obersturmführer. And at least while I am away you are not burdened with these escapes.”

Meir lost his smile. “Escapes?”

“My dogs,” she clarified.

His smile returned. “Ah, yes. Of course.”

Bismark and Tirpitz barked loudly and wagged their tails in greeting as the soldiers brought them to Helga. She took the leads they handed to her and bent down and patted and caressed both dogs, talking to them like children.

“Ah, my boys! You have led me and the good Obersturmführer a merry dance once again! What shall I do to punish you? Keep you out of my room all night? Maybe I will starve you! Who is to blame? I know you, Bismark! You follow your brother like the puppy you are! And as for you, Tirpitz, I begin to believe you think you should be Count! Now come on! Home!”

She straightened up and held out her hand to Obersturmführer Meir. “I have distracted you for long enough, Obersturmführer. I thank you for retrieving my dogs and I will be on my way.”

Meir kissed the hand she offered to him and clicked his heels. “It was a pleasure, as usual Countess. In fact any opportunity to detain you is a pleasure.”

“My, Obersturmführer, you will make me blush! Good day, to you.” She bowed and turned away.

Obersturmführer Meir watched her leading her dogs back up the hill towards her estate. When she was finally gone from view he replaced his gloves and turned to his men.

“What shall I do with the Countess, Scharführer?” he said to one of them.

“You are sure it is her, Obersturmführer?” he replied.

“Undoubtedly.”

“Then shoot her.”

“And cause turmoil in the Wehrmacht? Now of all times? No, Scharführer. I must be patient. My chance will come. Now back to the camp! All of you! Let us see what damage she has caused this time!”

-o-

The train backed slowly out of the camp, the engine billowing smoke in regular chugs. There were no people around anymore, only the bundles they had left behind remained to be collected and sifted through by the soldiers. More soldiers closed the gates after the train had departed.

A short distance down the line, before the spur connected with the main line, the train came to a halt. Here there was a water tower and coaling stage, and long hoses ran from the water tower alongside the track. The driver and fireman jumped down from the engine and picked up the hoses and turned on the water. They began to hose down the first truck, squirting the water inside. They opened up both sets of doors, washing out the truck completely.

Underneath the next truck, Jacob hastily untied the first of his charges, recovering the belts and running with the child to the next truck. He worked quickly, moving from one truck to the next, recovering each child and adult until it was time to run across to the nearby woods.

The driver and fireman closed up the doors on the first truck and moved on to the second. They were at one end of the train while Jacob and his charges were at the other. Neither of them were looking for anything, and neither of them wanted to see anything.

Jacob led his charges into the woods unseen, and from here he made his way to the summerhouse.

-o-

There was an argument going on in the summerhouse to the accompaniment of barking dogs and crying children. Bismark and Tirpitz were jumping up at everyone, and the children hung back in fear. Several of them were crying and clinging to two women.

Helga was furious. “Are you mad, Jacob?”

He shrugged. “What else could I do?”

“You should have left him!”

The ‘him’ she was referring to stepped forward apologetically and spoke in French. He was a large dark haired man with an unruly beard. “I am sorry, Countess- ”

“I wasn’t speaking to you!” she snapped, also in French. Then she turned on her dogs in equal anger. “Bismark! Tirpitz! Silence! Heel!”

Both dogs came to her and sat down obediently. Helga didn’t pause in her anger.

“And shut those children up!” she almost screamed.

Silence finally reigned in the abandoned summerhouse. It was achieved more through shock than fear. Mainly because the newcomers were surprised to see such a slight and aristocratic woman exude such anger and noise. Jacob was used to it by now and he stepped forward and grasped her hands.

“Countess, it is my fault, not theirs,” he said softly. “Their only fault is that they are Jewish.”

Helga was breathing hard, and she now leaned closer to Jacob. “Meir knows!” she snarled at him through clenched teeth. “And you know he knows! I have a right to be angry! Eighteen I can take! The two women I can take! But how do we explain a man, Jacob? Why is he not in the army? Why does he not fight or toil on the estate? How can he be spared for a holiday? Answer me these questions! Because they will most surely be asked!”

“He’s a Rabbi,” Jacob said simply.

Helga broke away from him and paced up and down, throwing her hands to the heavens. “Of course he is! What a simple solution! I can see it now! ‘Not to worry, Obersturmführer Meir, the reason this man is not at the front is because he is an out of work Rabbi!’”

She suddenly threw off her hat and slumped down on one of the frayed chairs. “I give up!” she exclaimed in despair. “It is all over! We will all be shot!”

Tirpitz sat up and laid his snout on her lap, his tail wagging slowly. “It’s no use you smiling at me!” she told him. “This is all your fault in the first place!”

1948

By the time Captain Taylor came to the end of this brief section of his story, the sandwiches were finished and their plates were being carried away by Sister Anna-Marie.

“It was one of the many times when Helga almost gave up,” he said as he put down his empty cup.

Sister Marie-Therese still held her last cup of tea. “How did they smuggle the Rabbi across the country to France?” she quickly asked.

“They disguised him as an old woman called Frau Heinrik, I believe.”

Sister Marie-Therese hardly batted an eye-lid at his reply. “So they continued?”

“Yes. And during the period between October 1943 and August 1944 Helga and Jacob successfully smuggled one hundred and twenty-eight children and thirty-five adults into France and into the arms of the Underground. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for one woman and a boy. They made twenty-six round trips altogether. Her last trip was in August, but by then everything had changed for her.”

There was a slight pause before Sister Marie-Therese asked the question she could tell Captain Taylor was eager to answer. “Why was that?”

“Because on the 20th July 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg put a bomb near Hitler in the Wolfsschanze. That’s the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in Poland. It wasn’t until all the reprisals started that Helga found out that her father had been involved in the assassination plot. He was shot a few weeks later, you see. She never even suspected. I suppose it must have pleased her in a way, because it meant that her father had shared her feelings and that he would have approved of her actions. But it must have been hard for her as well. Neither one of them really knew what the other was doing. And overnight she lost her father and went from being a rather cosseted and well-off Countess to being a hunted criminal. What made it worse was that without her father’s protection those who had been forced to turn a blind eye to her activities for all this time could now take full advantage. And at the top of the list of those wishing to do so was Obersturmführer Meir.”

End of Part III. Part IV next month.

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2003

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