The Watch Thief – Chapter 21

Brixton Prison, 26 June, 1916.

Sir Roger Casement brought pen to paper, fever converging at front of his head and clotting. Every sound in his cell came acutely. The malaria fed on him still. The next prisoner over was speaking constantly, a Hungarian accent, accentuating Casement’s own migraines. He was excited and annoyingly optimistic.

“I was active within the consulates of Europe! I am given to understand you knew, intimately, the consulates of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. That is where you produced your humanitarian report?”

Casement sighed and put down his pen.

“That was on the slavery and mutilation in the Congo, Mr. Lincoln.”

“Ah! My work on human rights was carried out in Belgium. France and Germany too.”

There was silence and Casement recognised it as a moment to return to preparing the address he was to make to the Old Bailey.

“I heard you met my old friend, Captain Von Papen, in Berlin,” sang Trebitsch. “You worked together on the British uprising in India.”

“He and I negotiated a declaration whereby Germany would not invade Ireland,” said Casement. “Now look. Mr. Lincoln. I’m very sorry but I must prepare for my hearing.”

“I know how this is. Your hearing is tomorrow. Mine is next week. Your prosecutor is F.E. Smith? I met him briefly at the National Liberal Club. A bully and a child.”

Casement said, “Smith has a mind to smear me. He has given the court intensely personal documents. Writings not intended for public spectacle.”

“A Mr. Maundy Gregory will have obtained those. A greasy little blackmailer who is Smith’s to call upon,” said Trebitsch.

On the bed in his tiny cell, Trebitsch dogged ears on his own sheath of papers, and then straightened them out again.

“Reginald Hall, Maundy Gregory, they’re all against us. Hall’s to blame you know. I’m a British subject but like you I hate England. They charged me with forgery; a trumped-up charge in order that I might be shot as a spy. But I outwitted them – I’m one of the brainiest of men!”

Trebitsch’s eyes rolled in his head and he tapped the sheets and the mattress.

“Mr. Casement, They have not heard the end of this!” he said.

From Brixton, Casement went to Pentonville and Trebitsch was sentenced to Parkhurst. His cell-mate was frizzy haired, barely an adult, five dots on the web of his sticky fingers. He was called Harry and Trebitsch entertained him with the story of a Brooklyn pick-pocket who swiped his own lawyer’s wrist-watch. Once he had tamed the boy he tried to teach him but had little luck. The other prisoners all knew about him. Piss off, spy! Hang the Kaiser, they jeered. He told them all he would have his revenge on England.

In the library, Trebitsch read in the newspaper of his brother, Simon. The article explained that he was an American soldier, caught with another man engaged in the act of sodomy. The matter came to the authorities attention after the escape from jail of his famous brother. Considered high risk, he was put under watch with the fugitive’s friends and family in New York. Simon had been sentenced to time in Alcatraz. Trebitsch persevered. He wrote to anyone he thought might make a difference. Dear Mr. Asquith, I am an ex-researcher for His Majesty’s Government, on poverty and European policy. He wrote any way that might make a difference. Dear Mr. Lloyd George, I am a former member of your parliament who through a travesty of justice has found himself incarcerated. Trebitsch feared his Harry, might try to pilfer his letters, his daily democracies, but he could barely read. Trebitsch read out the letters to The Mail, to The Times, but the lad who was called Harry simply laughed.

Margarethe could not see him but she wrote. She was working as a housekeeper; Ignatius and John were working in a hospital. He wrote back about his visit to the prison library and the hospital, which he enjoyed for the clean bed linen, good food and sunlight. Word of his writing had gotten around and became a commodity lent out to prisoners going to trial. A pacifist accused of treason and a simpleton denied his family visits, he represented both and they inspired him when he wrote to the Home Secretary. Dear Mr. Shortt and or the Foreign Office. Dear Mr. Crowe, you will be interested to learn… Dear Captain Hall, I hope we can each put aside enmities of the past, grown by misunderstanding. We both want what is best for Britain… The two page standard for letters of petition could not hold him.

“Warden Allison, there are a lot of devilish lies for which it would take a hundred pages to explain the calculated barbarities inflicted upon me!”

When British and French empires waged unjust bloodshed on the German people and their own people, he said, there was no controlling the weapons of war and a reckoning must come, Mr. Tyrrell, before you yourself are caught in the crossfire!! The letters to civil servants and cabinet members brought little positive response and one day Warden Allison called to inform him the request for extra facilities was denied. The extra facilities would have allowed a hundred pages explaining the necessities in his case so Prime Minister Lloyd George would understand a) his innocence, b) his value as an internationally recognised champion, c) his negotiating skills designed to bring war to a swift end, and part II) a just end. He would not have said he had told them so. Merely, he would have included citations referencing prior communications. Dear Mr. Kell, I write to you, head of MI5, as a former missionary and curate. I pray you will see past the abuse my name has suffered, knowing you are a man of God and we are all equal in his eyes.I have aided the allied forces with valuable espionage work! I am innocent in all of this and unjustly treated. Why are they doing this to me?

There were evenings when his thinking was clotted; intellect gummed, not exercising will. He smoked a cigarette, his first in weeks. The charm had gone out of it. He read from Margatethe but on one occassion was so sick he could not even imagine her. He could not conjure her voice. She was still unhappy. The locals did not appreciate the German in the neighbourhood. Ignatius and John had found jobs at a farm, after the hospital closed, but they were barely making ends meet.

It was a day in August 1917 hopping benches in the mess hall with Raven, Mather and Cholomondely, when he was withdrawn to rise. The governor stripped Trebitsch of his petition privileges for a year. He told no-one on the wing: he didn’t tell himself for a few days. Instead his thoughts were random: of parliament in recess and churchmen on sabbatical. A night later in the week, he slept deep five minutes and awoke, hyper-ventilating, feeling the wall of his cell for escape. He experienced the same the night after. He could not breathe.

Though the winter had come it was too hot. He pulled on his jumper. Yet lying in his vest the damp air wailed its way in. The draught slipped into his neck and shoulder and his head was heavy with tightness. He welcomed the work in the machine shop. One afternoon he returned to the wing completely drained and slept, smiling and thinking of the early rise ahead of him but Orpheus did not release him until late the following morning. He dreamt Margarethe had found her letters forged and was sobbing. The seat in the cell where he wrote was ill-fitting and his clothes clinged to him in punishment. He would go to bed immediately after each work day. His head rolled, a furnace around his eyes, the heat of sleep locking them. He slept longer and longer and the night tremors continued: Inside him there was another person, screaming; flapping; striking out at the walls. His bald head squeezed damp from the wrinkles and he turned over. And the next night, he awoke as that man with clenched fist. He knows he will die and is crying for mercy. He waits for the lights to be turned out, or moves in bed from the electric glare. There is nothing left he wants to do. In the morning he dreamt of Jody and T.C. Their wounds made him cry. Their voices were those of his sons, Ignatius telling his father when he moved things around, they stunk. Those two weeks, Trebitsch would not talk. In the canteen, other inmates mocked the silence. Trebitsch the mute. Go on, speak. A German had cut out his tongue. Let’s hear his explanation! Come out and speak or are you stuck with two tongues? Trebitsch snapped. He got up, enraged. Again, he could not breathe, nor could he speak, and this made it worse. His eyes rolled to the top of his head and he collapsed on the canteen floor.

In his cell, Trebitsch wiped saliva through stubble and complained aloud about Dr. James. He’d been in and out of the infirmary in an instant. His stomach kicked and he heard close in his ear those three days had passed. In the darkness of his bunk he heard the same voice in Hungarian and at that moment two streams of sweat fell towards each eye. An Englishman asked if the Speaker would inform the House when the cell-mate Harry had departed. Whether it was three weeks or days Trebitsch had been alone in there, he couldn’t recall.

Trebitsch had a recurring dream. He was never sure what it was: only slices were remembered, like the image of a sundial in moonlight. He did remember the recurring feeling when he awoke. He had multiples. The curate and the man of the consulate and the missionary who had a great German voice but no power. There was the spy who was constantly ill, his physicality flickering. Nervously he assured Trebitsch the darkness was good to hide in. They spoke out to him in half-sentences: in French, German, Hungarian and English.

“Copper water and silver chain, take us from sin,” said the oil baron.

“I didn’t make the rules. If you resign now…” said the missionary.

And the Federal Agent said, “What are you: bull or bear?”

Dr. James brought Trebitsch back to the prison hospital as his night tremors got worse. The hospital was lit, though smelled less sanitary than he was used to. An angular beam of light focussed on the needle in his hand. He felt no pain. He just watched the tube fill with yellow liquid and disappear into his veins. Whenever he awoke he sensed the other selves. They were looking for a convict. God save the queen, one of them called, and he heard how the child howled, the child Margarethe was pregnant with. Strange, he thought, I had forgotten my first son. He wondered if he had dreamed young Harry, but the missionary said he heard whispering on the YMCA steps. Trebitsch realised they’d had the conversation before. One of the nurses told him that a coming world willl sweep away a mad civilisation of suffering and more suffering. He replied he needed to go to the toilet. She fetched him a robe, which at first he thought belonged to that of a monk. Over the weeks, nurses took his temperature and he didn’t have to move. When fever got him, he turned in his bed with otherness until the pillow was in his mouth. He wanted it to end. Time ruptured and unravelled its chain. Every second was partitioned, louder.

Back in the cell, he examined the wall for coded routes of escape, seeing letters written into the wall. He tried to find his name spelled out by scrapes. He would make an anagram. But he could not be relieved and settled on the signs of his initials.The prison guards banged the bars, first like the sound of a carriage then more infernally. It was wrong, in the way the reconstruction of the Hotel Adlon was wrong. He wondered for a moment if it wasn’t Reginald Hall taunting him, clattering the bars with his revolver. He was gripped with the idea of going to Vienna but remembered The Hague would see him. He turned over on the mattress, to the brown bricked windows he dreamt again of broken glass on soil. Margarethe sat in floral spring dress. On the bed in the Mission House spare room she sat, still, like a hawk. Her hands were clasped with her mother beside, in purple. Neither flinched. Sir Bertie was in the hallway, laughing. The pillow was obstructing Trebtisch’s throat. Absolutely worthless, he heard a voice say. You will not be paid for the codes or for anything by us ever! Then black balls filled his vision, floating liquid mucus in tar, some hours of fragmented forms of the betrayed. They were many: Lypshytz, McCarter, Burt and Archbishop Davidson. Rowntree was there of course, interviewing him for a job with Jewish Missionary Intelligence. Herbert and Gilbert Samuel sang God Save the Queen. Marshals Proctor and Johnson complaining about curtailed nights out, his own brothers annoyed about peeling potatoes, Warden Hayes calling for him to be condemned in the Venusberg and the voices of the guards Keating and Danbeck and Charles Jundt, their trust betrayed to his advantage. His boys, far away, seemed to reach out for mercy from some far away island. It was the worst night of his life. In the five minutes before he awoke, Trebitsch assembled his other selves, seven of them now, and said they must pool their efforts. They had before. Reginald Hall had stopped them and he had sent millions of boys to die. Together his plan to crimson the oceans could be halted. His other selves murmured. Only the voice of the spy agreed firmly and this made the hairs on the back of Trebitsch’s head stand up. The dream itself, the recurring dream, was firmly tucked away from memory. As the fever fell, the other selves dripped away or stepped back into the walls. When he thought about it they’d declared their nationality and want for revenge, but he conceded he’d made this up after the fact. After five months in the infirmary he dreamt of balls of silver. He slept peacefully and was up and walking. The first reports came in of an Armistice in Europe. In dark cells, Parkhurst celebrated and he was his animated self again, even forgot for a time all ideas of revenge.

Dear Margarethe, my loving wife, I realise what I ask is bold but understand; there can be no other recourse. The Home Secretary laid this ultimatum with his order. So, my nationality has been revoked, and by extension of our marriage, yours too. You must understand. We are stateless. If you do not want our sons twisted against us, you will renounce Britain. Have them denaturalised. As for Julius, when I am released he will find a job with me. It vexes me to learn he has been killing for the British Empire. I might disown him. He is of age to make responsible decisions. We shall soon be out of this country, which I looked up to in spite of all her shortcomings, as by far the foremost country in the world in all that appertained to fair play, honour and justice. My sentence is now almost up, and I hope yours shall be soon too. I wish you a happy Christmas and promise a better one by next year. Your loving husband, Ignacz.

Trebitsch looked forward to the day. May, 1919, time yet to make the Versailles peace conference. Time to catch the dances and songs on Paris streets, or Budapest. He packed his few belongings and two officers escorted him into the light. The steam train carried them past the bomb sites into the green English hills and finally the glistening sun upon the rippling sea. He talked of his great happiness to the men at the docks at Harwich. One of the officers were called to the telephone and returned, gravely. The balls of light swirled manically: silver, then brown and not translucent; he was led to the train. On the orders of the intelligence services and Home Office they took him back to Pentonville, through the bomb sites. The last bars of light sped from him and he was led into the darkness, struggling, hysterical and the cell door locked.

c. Andy Luke.
The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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The image featured atop, sent to me by Laura Linham, comes from The Liverpool Post and Mercury – Wed July 6, 1916.


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