The Third Man
The Third Man
First published in 1949
ONE NEVER knows when the blow may fall. When I saw Rollo Martins first I made this note on him for my security police files: "In normal circumstances a cheerful fool. Drinks too much and may cause a little trouble. Whenever a woman passes raises his eyes and makes some comment, but I get the impression that really he'd rather not be bothered. Has never really grown up and perhaps that accounts for the way he worshipped Lime." I wrote there that phrase "in normal circumstances" because I met him first at Harry Lime's funeral. It was February, and the grave-diggers had been forced to use electric drills to open the frozen ground in Vienna's central cemetery. It was as if even nature were doing its best to reject Lime, but we got him in at last and laid the earth back on him like bricks. He was vaulted in, and Rollo Martins walked quickly away as though his long gangly legs wanted to break into a run, and the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year-old cheeks. Rollo Martins believed in friendship, and that was why what happened later was a worse shock to him than it would have been to you or me (you because you would have put it down to an illusion and me because at once a rational explanation—however wrongly—would have come to my mind). If only he had come to tell me then, what a lot of trouble would have been saved.
If you are to understand this strange rather sad story you must have an impression at least of the background—the smashed dreary city of Vienna divided up in zones among the four powers; the Russian, the British, the American, the French zones, regions marked only by a notice board, and in the centre of the city, surrounded by the Ring with its heavy public buildings and its prancing statuary, the Inner Stadt under the control of all four powers. In this once fashionable Inner Stadt each power in turn, for a month at a time, takes, as we call it, "the chair," and becomes responsible for security; at night, if you were fool enough to waste your Austrian schillings on a night club, you would be fairly certain to see the International Patrol at work—four military police, one from each power, communicating with each other if they communicated at all in the common language of their enemy. I never knew Vienna between the wars, and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm; to me it is simply a city of undignified ruins which turned that February into great glaciers of snow and ice.
The Danube was a grey flat muddy river a long way off across the second bezirk, the Russian zone where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away, the frost-nipped weeds where the snow was thin. I haven't enough imagination to picture it as it had once been, any more than I can picture Sacher's Hotel as other than a transit hotel for English officers or see the Kartnerstrasse as a fashionable shopping street instead of a street which only exists, most of it, at eye level, repaired up to the first storey. A Russian soldier in a fur cap goes by with a rifle over his shoulder, and men in overcoats sip ersatz coffee in the windows of Old Vienna. This was roughly the Vienna to which Rollo Martins came on February 7 last year. I have reconstructed the affair as best I can from my own files and from what Martins told me. It is as accurate as I can make it—I haven't invented a line of dialogue though I can't vouch for Martins' memory; an ugly story if you leave out the girl: grim and sad and unrelieved if it were not for that absurd episode of the British Cultural Relations Society lecturer.
A BRITISH subject can still travel if he is content to take with him only five English pounds which he is forbidden to spend abroad, but if Rollo Martins had not received an invitation from Lime he would not have been allowed to enter Austria which counts still as occupied territory. Lime had suggested that Martins might "write up" the business of looking after the international refugees, and although it wasn't Martins' usual line, he had consented. It would give him a holiday and he badly needed a holiday after the incident in Dublin and the other incident in Amsterdam; he always tried to dismiss women as "incidents," things that simply happened to him without any will of his own, acts of God in the eyes of insurance agents. He had a haggard look when he arrived in Vienna and a habit of looking over his shoulder that for a time made me suspicious of him until I realised that he went in fear that one of say six people might turn up unexpectedly. He told me vaguely that he had been mixing his drinks—that was another way of putting it.
Rollo Martins' usual line was the writing of cheap, paper covered Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter. His public was large but unremunerative. He couldn't have afforded Vienna if Lime had not offered to pay his expenses when he got there out of some vaguely described propaganda fund. He could also, he said, keep him supplied with paper Bafs—the only currency in use from a penny upwards in British hotels and clubs. So it was with exactly five unusable pound notes that Martins arrived in Vienna.
An odd incident had occurred at Frankfurt where the plane from London grounded for an hour. Martins was eating a hamburger in the American canteen (a kindly air line supplied the passengers with a voucher for 65 cents of food) when a man he could recognise from twenty feet away as a journalist approached his table.
"You Mr. Dexter?" he asked.
"Yes," Martins said, taken off his guard.
"You look younger than your photographs," the man said. "Like to make a statement? I represent the local forces paper here. We'd like to know what you think of Frankfurt."
"I only touched down ten minutes ago."
"Fair enough," the man said. "What about views on the American novel?"
"I don't read them," Martins said.
"The well known acid humour," the journalist said. He pointed at a small grey-haired man with two protruding teeth, nibbling a bit of bread. "Happen to know if that's Carey?"
"No. What Carey?"
"J. G. Carey of course."
"I've never heard of him."
"You novelists live out of the world. He's my real assignment," and Martins watched him make across the room for the great Carey, who greeted him with a false headline smile, laying down his crust. Dexter wasn't the man's assignment, but Martins couldn't help feeling a certain pride—nobody had ever before referred to him as a novelist; and that sense of pride and importance carried him over the disappointment when Lime was not there to meet him at the airport. We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us—Martins felt the little jab of dispensability standing by the bus door, watching the snow come sifting down, so thinly and softly that the great drifts among the ruined buildings had an air of permanence, as though they were not the result of this meagre fall, but lay, forever, above the line of perpetual snow.
There was no Lime to meet him at the Hotel Astoria where the bus landed him, and no message—only a cryptic one for Mr. Dexter from someone he had never heard of called Crabbin. "We expected you on tomorrow's plane. Please stay where you are. On the way round. Hotel room booked," but Rollo Martins wasn't the kind of man who stayed around. If you stayed around in a hotel lounge sooner or later incidents occurred; one mixed one's drinks. I can hear Rollo Martins saying to me now, "I've done with incidents. No more incidents," before he plunged head first into the most serious incident of all. There was always a conflict in Rollo Martins—between the absurd Christian name and the sturdy Dutch (four generations back) surname. Rollo looked at every woman that passed, and Martins renounced them forever. I don't know which of them wrote the Westerns. Martins had been given Lime's address and he felt no curiosity about the man called Crabbin; it was too obvious that a mistake had been made, though he didn't yet connect it with the conversation at Frankfurt. Lime had written that he could put Martins
How quickly one becomes aware of silence even in so silent a city as Vienna with the snow steadily settling. Martins hadn't reached the second floor before he was convinced that he would not find Lime there, but the silence was deeper than just absence—it was as if he would not find Harry Lime anywhere in Vienna, and as he reached the third floor and saw the big black bow over the door handle, anywhere in the world at all. Of course it might have been a cook who had died, a housekeeper, anybody but Harry Lime, but he knew—he felt he had known twenty stairs down—that Lime, the Lime he had hero-worshipped now for twenty years, since the first meeting in a grim school corridor with a cracked bell ringing for prayers, was gone. Martins wasn't wrong, not entirely wrong. After he had rung the bell half a dozen times a small man with a sullen expression put his head out from another flat and told him in a tone of vexation, "It's no use ringing like that. There's nobody there. He's dead."
"Herr Lime of course."
Martins said to me later, "At first it didn't mean a thing. It was just a bit of information, like those paragraphs in The Times they call News in Brief. I said to him: When did it happen? How?'"
"He was run over by a car," the man said. "Last Thursday." He added sullenly, as if really this were none of his business. "They are burying him this afternoon. You've only just missed them."
"Oh, a couple of friends and the coffin."
"Wasn't he in hospital?"
"There was no sense in taking him to hospital. He was killed here on his own doorstep—instantaneously. The right-hand mudguard struck him on his shoulder and bowled him over in front like a rabbit."
It was only then, Martins told me, when the man used the word rabbit that the dead Harry Lime came alive, became the boy with the gun which he had shown Martins; a boy starting up among the long sandy barrows of Brickworth Common saying, "Shoot, you fool, shoot. There," and the rabbit limped to cover, wounded by Martins' shot. "Where are they burying him?" he asked the stranger on the landing.
"In the Central Cemetery. They'll have a hard time of it in this frost."
He had no idea how to pay for his taxi, or indeed where in Vienna he could find a room in which he could live for five English pounds, but that problem had to be postponed until he had seen the last of Harry Lime. He drove straight out of town into the suburb (British zone) where the Central Cemetery lay. One passed through the Russian zone to reach it, and a short cut through the American zone, which you couldn't mistake because of the ice-cream parlours in every street. The trams ran along the high wall of the Central Cemetery, and for a mile on the other side of the rails stretched the monumental masons and the market gardeners—an apparently endless chain of gravestones waiting for owners and wreaths waiting for mourners.
Martins had not realised the size of this huge snowbound park where he was making his last rendezvous with Lime. It was as if Harry had left a message to him, "Meet me in Hyde Park," without specifying a spot between the Achilles statue and Lancaster Gate; the avenue of graves, each avenue numbered and lettered, stretched out like the spokes of an enormous wheel; they drove for a half mile towards the west, then turned and drove a half mile north, turned south. … The snow gave the great pompous family headstones an air of grotesque comedy; a toupee of snow slipped sideways over an angelic face, a saint wore a heavy white moustache, and a shako of snow tipped at a drunken angle over the bust of a superior civil servant called Wolfgang Gottman. Even this cemetery was zoned between the powers: the Russian zone was marked by huge statues of armed men, the French by rows of anonymous wooden crosses and a torn tired tricolour flag. Then Martins remembered that Lime was a Catholic and was unlikely to be buried in the British zone for which they had been vainly searching. So back they drove through the heart of a forest where the graves lay like wolves under the trees, winking white eyes under the gloom of the evergreens. Once from under the trees emerged a group of three men in strange eighteenth century black and silver uniforms with three-cornered hats, pushing a kind of barrow: they crossed a rise in the forest of graves and disappeared again.
It was just chance that they found the funeral in time—one patch in the enormous park where the snow had been shovelled aside and a tiny group were gathered, apparently bent on some very private business. A priest had finished speaking, his words coming secretively through the thin patient snow, and a coffin was on the point of being lowered into the ground. Two men in lounge suits stood at the graveside; one carried a wreath that he obviously had forgotten to drop on to the coffin, for his companion nudged his elbow so that he came to with a start and dropped the flowers. A girl stood a little way away with her hands over her face, and I stood twenty yards away by another grave watching with relief the last of Lime and noticing carefully who was there—just a man in a mackintosh I was to Martins. He came up to me and said, "Could you tell me who they are burying?"
"A fellow called Lime," I said, and was astonished to see the tears start to this stranger's eyes: he didn't look like a man who wept, nor was Lime the kind of man whom I thought likely to have mourners—genuine mourners with genuine tears. There was the girl of course, but one excepts women from all such generalisations.
Martins stood there, till the end, close beside me. He said to me later that as an old friend he didn't want to intrude on these newer ones—Lime's death belonged to them, let them have it. He was under the sentimental illusion that Lime's life—twenty years of it anyway—belonged to him. As soon as the affair was over—I am not a religious man and always feel a little impatient with the fuss that surrounds death—Martins strode away on his long gangly legs that always seemed likely to get entangled together, back to his taxi: he made no attempt to speak to anyone, and the tears now were really running, at any rate the few meagre drops that any of us can squeeze out at our age.
One's file, you know, is never quite complete: a case is never really closed, even after a century when all the participants are dead. So I followed Martins: I knew the other three: I wanted to know the stranger. I caught him up by his taxi and said, "I haven't any transport. Would you give me a lift into town?"
"Of course," he said. I knew the driver of my jeep would spot me as we came out and follow us unobtrusively. As we drove away I noticed he never looked behind—it's nearly always the fake mourners and the fake lovers who take that last look, who wait waving on platforms, instead of clearing quickly out, not looking back. Is it perhaps that they love themselves so much and want to keep themselves in the sight of others, even of the dead?
I said, "My name's Calloway."
"Martins," he said.
"You were a friend of Lime?"
"Yes." Most people in the last week would have hesitated before they admitted quite so much.
"Been here long?"
"I only came this afternoon from England. Harry had asked me to stay with him. I hadn't heard."
"Bit of a shock?"
"Look here," he said, "I badly want a drink, but I haven't any cash—except five pounds sterling. I'd be awfully grateful if you'd stand me one."
It was my turn to say "Of course." I thought for a moment and told the driver the name of a small bar in the Kartnerstrasse. I didn't think he'd want to be seen for a while in a busy British bar full of transit officers and their wives. This bar—perhaps because it was exorbitant in its prices—seldom had more than one self-occupied couple in it at a time. The trouble was too that it really only had one drink—a sweet chocolate liqueur that the waiter improved at a price with cognac, but I got the impression that Martins had no objection to any drink so long as it cast a veil over the present, and the past. On the door was the usual notice saying the bar opened at 6 till 10, but one just pushed the
Martins said over his second quick drink, "I'm sorry, but he was the best friend I ever had."
I couldn't resist saying, knowing what I knew, and because I was anxious to vex him—one learns a lot that way, "That sounds like a cheap novelette."
He said quickly, "I write cheap novelettes."
I had learnt something anyway. Until he had had a third drink, I was under the impression that he wasn't an easy talker: but I felt fairly certain that he was one of those who turn unpleasant after their fourth glass.
I said, "Tell me about yourself—and Lime."
"Look here," he said, "I badly need another drink, but I can't keep on scrounging on a stranger. Could you change me a pound or two into Austrian money?"
"Don't bother about that," I said and called the waiter. "You can treat me when I come to London on leave. You were going to tell me how you met Lime?"
The glass of chocolate liqueur might have been a crystal the way he looked at it and turned it this way and that. He said, "It was a long time ago. I don't suppose anyone knows Harry the way I do," and I thought of the thick file of agents' reports in my office, each claiming the same thing. I believe in my agents: I've sifted them all very thoroughly.
"Twenty years—or a bit more. I met him my first term at school. I can see the place. I can see the notice-board and what was on it. I can hear the bell ringing. He was a year older and knew the ropes. He put me wise to a lot of things." He took a quick dab at his drink and then turned the crystal again as if to see more clearly what there was to see. He said, "It's funny. I can't remember meeting any woman quite as well."