Inimical, a novel about process
Set in the interwar year of 1937, Inimical brings heedless English aristocrats to hobnob with German embassy staff at gatherings of the International Peace League — a front organization for the extra-governmental activities of more than one nation. Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb, reporter for the Mirror, and agent trusted with disparate assignments, but limited information; Greta Freund, former actress; H. Bruce Van Nest, propaganda master; and Werner von Kneussl, WWI veteran and embassy secretary, come together to play their roles. The guiding hand works as a machine…but the pawn has a heart.
Table of Contents
14 Soldiers of Peace
31 Turning the Corner
52 The Invisible Hand
69 The Power of Suggestion
80 The Mutual Friend
95 Alarm-Posts and Signal-Posts
101 Old World Diplomacy
112 Considerations Beyond Understanding
135 Tried in the Fire
165 The Hindenburg
A cat, having made acquaintance with a mouse, professed such great love and friendship for her that the mouse at last agreed that they should live and keep house together.
The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership
Boxing Day, 1936. Mid-afternoon on a mild Saturday, river mists and chimney smoke lingering in low places, eddies of rank cellar air trawled up by gusts of wind.
Soft rain was falling. A policeman stood on a street corner in Whitehall. He was meant to keep a general eye on things, report any odd visitors seen in the area. As a colleague had once remarked, “Define odd.”
He had volunteered for this duty. December, last year, he’d sent a card to his uncle in Leeds, his only living relative. The card’s design―a snow-bound cottage, one window aglow beneath an ornamented star―had induced, he did not know why, an impulse to make contact. He’d included a note of apology. The uncle had been gassed in the war; he wasn’t right in the head. So the constable had been told. He had never visited.
From his uncle’s wife, he’d received a three page letter. He’d had no idea she existed. Poorly spelt, sad and rambling, the letter told of his uncle…deeply touched, moved to tears. She apologized; they were wrong not to have tried visiting. “Some days,” she had written, “are bad”. She’d invited the constable to spend Christmas with them.
Their rooms had been hopeless, in a state of tidying projects half-completed, smelling of coal-fire and fish, overlaid, all of it, with the yellowed tones of a brittle photograph. His uncle had sat in silence; his aunt had been querulous and anxious. “Is there anything you’d like?” she had asked him, over and over.
Yes, there was. The constable was determined to work this holiday, or insist that he was expected to.
A grey terrier, trailing a lead, came stumping along the street opposite. One moment its tongue lolled ecstatically, the next the creature seemed to stop and blink, backtracking then to double-check a lamppost just passed. The several minutes’ anticipation before it became clear the owner was not to follow, were as close to a diversion as the day had thus far provided.
At 12:45 p.m., the constable’s attention was drawn to a corner building that faced him across the thoroughfare. Lights had been switched on in a first floor room; arched windows obscured by slatted blinds now threw an irregular copy of themselves onto the rain-glossed sidewalk. At the bottom of a short flight of steps was an entry door he knew to be locked.
The door opened. A balding man, wearing a checked coat, peered out; he surveyed the street and retired, shutting the door firmly. A black Morris saloon pulled to the kerb opposite. A passenger, sheltering under a mackintosh, made a quick exit through the rain. The constable, advised of this one o’clock meeting, allowed the expression of his face to rest between impassive and alert, avoiding curious…he was, in fact, bored.
Continued from “was, in fact, bored”
The corner room, entered by the man in the dripping mac, was not large, but with windows on two sides, it ought to have been well-lighted. The building’s architect had contrived, however, to recess the windows and panel the ceiling in such fashion that the ambience was dim where the table stood in the room’s center beneath a pendant lamp, and shadowy beyond the lamp’s sphere of influence.
This unofficial strategic meeting was being chaired by an Under-Secretary of the Admiralty, a man whose stooped carriage, shown to disadvantage by the off-putting checked overcoat, gave him the appearance of an unprosperous commercial traveler. His manner was subtly deferential; he gauged the moment that called for intervention by listening closely, saying little.
Also present were Military Intelligence officer Major Baines; Ogilvie-Collins of the Foreign Office, Fitzgerald of the Home Office, and Desmond Pope of SIS. Fitzgerald, ignoring the inconvenience of the coat-tree, which was blocked by a wheeled frame featuring cloth maps dating conceivably from the Boer War, hung his mac on the back of a chair and eyed the room testily.
“Hasn’t anyone provided tea, or coffee?”
The Under-Secretary, apologetic, mentioned the building’s not being fully staffed, it being a sort of holiday.
“You ought to have considered your fellow tradesmen and brought along some token of the season,” Baines remarked. “How are your country pursuits, Fitzgerald?”
“Ah. Now, you see, I’d always fallen for the propaganda, concerning these weekend cottage schemes. You suggest it’s a matter of contrast. How, then, do you find London?”
The men took their seats. Fitzgerald, ignoring Baines, addressed the others:
“What do you think of Lloyd George?”
Again, it was Baines who took him up. “A pillar of the Empire. They ought to name a frigate after him, if they haven’t done. Have they?” Baines directed this to the Under-Secretary. He, resolute, attended to putting his papers in order.
“Of course I mean his Christmas message to the Duke of Windsor. That remark about ‘shoddy’, or it may have been ‘shabby’, treatment. Disruptive. Gives these populists the idea they’re getting a boost, when everyone ought to be decent and let the King get on. Put this sorry business in the past.”
“Shabby business. One might say.”
Baines had risen to middle rank, but in the ordinary course of a military career, he did not seem destined to have a string of letters following his name. He had not exhibited the strict obedience and unquestioning respect that led to commendations. He had, on the other hand, at the sharp dealings required within his particular department of the War Office, proved himself capable of initiative and audacity.
The Under-Secretary now took charge. “All right, gentlemen, I believe we’ve had enough gossip. We are meeting today to discuss a serious matter. We had better begin it.” He caught the eye of Ogilvie-Collins. “I’d like to have an overview of the present state of our respective intelligence. With regard to Spain, do we anticipate an altering of circumstances within the next few months?”
As they understood, it was not so much a question of sharing intelligence, but of airing such information as inter-ministerial courtesy permitted. Further, whatever line Ogilvie-Collins took would set the course for additional revelations. The Under-Secretary himself could not admit to knowing more than his position officially allowed, so only by oblique means could he prompt greater frankness in lower ranking officials. Ogilvie-Collins consulted a black calf-skin memorandum book, its glinting gold corner tabs rivetingly displayed while he held his audience in suspense.
“No one ever buys me nice things,” observed Pope in an undertone to Baines.
“We hope, through overtures of friendship, and perhaps support of a more material nature, to retain Italy as an ally. France is expected to acknowledge Italy’s attitude in respect to Mediterranean rights. Working towards a common goal is a means of strengthening bonds, yet may also sharpen differences.” Ogilvie-Collins delivered this remark with diplomatic significance, laying his memorandum book flat on the table. “One may view the prolongation of the conflict as an opportunity. The withdrawal of the government to Valencia need not be a setback. The non-intervention committee has begun the work of stabilization. Within the next few months, we should have measures in place to prevent the Spanish conflict from escalating into a general European war.”
“Well, that’s a nice statement for the papers,” Baines remarked, exchanging a look with Pope. “I had the impression the non-intervention committee had begun the work of meeting in order to decide when its members could all agree to meet, so as to agree to set aside for discussion what they hope to agree to discuss at the next meeting. In its own way, however, that sort of work is highly stabilizing.”
Pope, who was known to Major Baines and Ogilvie-Collins, known by reputation to the Under-Secretary, and had never before been seen or heard of by Fitzgerald, was a man of drab appearance, with a manner reminiscent of a ship’s cabin steward―both self-effacing and insolently observant.
“Ogilvie-Collins could probably explain to you the invidious position of the Valencia government regarding the national treasury,” Pope said. “You can’t blame them. They probably feel they’d rather see the money go to the Reds than the Fascists…Russia has acted as a friend.
“Spain’s weakness might be understood if you consider an objective…we’ll say the defense of a city. Barcelona, if you like. Assume, for the sake of argument, they’ve purchased a handful of Russian tanks, one or two anti-aircraft guns, half a dozen or so of the little Polikarpov fighters…now, win or lose in the short term, the defenders’ position erodes continually, because it is inevitable they will, in battle, suffer losses.
“Being under conditions of war, they have no economy to speak of. They expend their treasury, a resource difficult for the Spanish to maintain, much less renew; they lose materiel, and are less able to replace what they’ve lost. Whatever they buy is in the nature of speculation. They can’t guess…or put it another way, they can only guess, what numbers of armaments they will need. At the same time, they can’t risk obtaining too few, when in future they may obtain none at all. It’s the inherent weakness of a position of defense. The aggressor dictates; the defender responds.
“So, consider our area of interest, these so-called volunteers. They have an economical way of doing business―knowing their objectives, calculating degree by degree how to achieve them. Their aims are pragmatic, rather than ideological.”
“Your assessment,” said the Under-Secretary, “concludes that the die is cast for the Republicans? In time, they must be defeated by the insurgents? In that case, what do you say about this role the Germans and Italians are playing?”
“At present, they seem to be technical in the matter of advice, and practical in the distribution of troops and machinery, but they will prefer that the rebel generals lead their own armies to victory and claim the credit.”
Fitzgerald, seated next to Pope, pointedly addressed his remark to the room. “Hasn’t the Blum government stepped up its activity in Spain? I thought there were nearly as many French soldiers among the volunteers as Germans.”
Ogilvie-Collins, highly trained, offered neutral observations. “The National Socialist regime has refused to honor certain provisions of the Versailles Treaty. Their claim is that the terms were imposed, rather than negotiated. Quite recently, as you may be aware”—he turned to Fitzgerald, delivering his next words eye-to-eye, for Fitzgerald’s benefit—“the Germans have signed an anti-Communist pact with Japan. Taken together, these are mere indications. Monsieur Blum is well aware of the powerful opposition he faces within France from conservative elements. He has not, to my knowledge, deployed the French army to Spain; he perhaps might be more active in discouraging citizen volunteers.
“The question is”—Ogilvie-Collins returned his remarks to the Under-Secretary’s attention—“to what extent can any nation commit itself to providing aid without tacitly supporting another nation’s political aims? And how to avoid implying a promise that further aid may be forthcoming, or that a higher degree of involvement may be possible? Political enemies can make a great deal from any association. To be labeled a ‘friend of Spain’ could be highly disadvantageous to Blum and the Socialists, should the label be used as synonymous with Communism, or to imply that a covert understanding exists between France and Russia regarding the future of Spain.”
Pope had information to add. “I wouldn’t say the French can be dismissed as so many ardent Socialist brethren. France’s position regarding her neighbor is far too precarious. You understand. All participants and observers create intelligence. Choose the right men, and you have expert intelligence—a sizing-up of the enemy that may put you a move ahead on the board. Would the French ignore opportunity…not work it to their advantage?
“I will also note,” he added, “we’ve counted no small number of Irish volunteers among the insurgents. They may return to Ireland when the conflict ends. Or they may make their way to America.”
“And return to Ireland at some future date?” asked the Under-Secretary. “Does the Foreign Office feel, then”—again he addressed Ogilvie-Collins—“that Britain can reconcile herself to Franco?”
“We must, taking into account our special interests in the area, consider the possibility of a Franco regime as preferable to a Communist beachhead in Spain. And the insurgents have at least defended the Church, making them a sounder species of totalitarian than the National Socialists, with their persecution of Christians.”
“Spain,” the Under-Secretary said, summarizing, “appears to be progressing with a degree of inevitability towards an end to her conflict. Should the non-intervening nations hold steadily to their course, we may expect natural pressures to bear more on Valencia than on General Franco’s insurgents. The Russians may surprise us, but if we have read Mr. Ogilvie-Collins’s tea leaves correctly, he anticipates that the fascists will war-monger over a trend towards Communism. Questions? Then I will ask Mr. Fitzgerald to share any concerns of the Home Office.”
“We have concerns.” Fitzgerald felt he had been made an object. It rankled. He had happened to comment on France; he didn’t care about France. “The air raid precautions program. I don’t think anyone fully appreciates the complications, the issues that have been raised. The barrage of questions that want answering…these things can’t be solved merely by providing an allowance of money. The public feel ill-treated.
“Now the Air Ministry has been given a role to play. I would be grateful if they took over the whole job. Far more likely we’ll muddle each other’s efforts, neither knowing what the other is doing.”
Baines said, “I might have pointed that out; however, your own analysis appears flawless.”
Continued from “appears flawless”
With unconcealed annoyance, Fitzgerald continued: “Is it a bad thing to pursue a goal with some idea of order? We have local authorities implementing the plan at every possible stage. We have scare-mongering on the part of the press—with, I may say, a cavalier lack of human feeling. Perhaps there are interests in common among the press, the arms manufacturers, and the Air Ministry.”
He faced the Under-Secretary across the table; his expression conveyed: There, it’s been said.
“I refer again to the matter of cooperation,” Fitzgerald went on. “In Britain, we see tens of thousands of foreign visitors. My office has responsibilities, others have control. We have deadlines, others have information…or resources. We hear complaints, our ability to investigate is hampered, and by whom?”
“But aren’t His Majesty’s public-spirited subjects of any use?” asked Baines. “I thought the police were generally informed when someone appeared in a coastal hamlet ‘looking foreign’.”
Fitzgerald lost patience. “Do you pay attention? Making work isn’t saving work. Do you think having to take that sort of thing seriously, and follow up on it, is a substitute for sound administration? Then I could wish it all on your lot.”
The Under-Secretary allowed a minute to pass.
“Have you anything else to add at present?” he asked Fitzgerald, who replied that he did not. With a glance to gain the approval of the Under-Secretary, Baines stood and began his address.
“I would say we’ve come to the watershed. Everyone has done his duty, and Fitzgerald’s concerns about specific threats to the blessed plot are well taken. These things are in the nature of the subject I am about to illuminate. Please consult Mr. Pope’s map.
“What you see depicted are the North and South American routes of the airship Hindenburg. We are in the final week of December…her first North American service begins in the spring. That is the length of time in which we have to act.”
“Is it espionage we’re concerned with?” asked Fitzgerald.
“The assumption generally has been made that an airship is a suitable vehicle for that purpose. Certainly it is an ideal one for the collection of weather data: the behavior of ocean currents, turbulence patterns at low altitude, and so forth―all of which is perfectly above-board, yet still quite useful from a military perspective.
“Nevertheless, if you’ll notice that on her South American flights, the Hindenburg travels nearly over the port of Gibraltar…”
“Are you suggesting that the Germans would use the Hindenburg for a bombing raid?” Ogilvie-Collins interrupted.
“I’m telling you that she is herself a bomb. Bear with the scenario, please; Pope and I will gladly answer your questions afterwards. Let’s assume that on her next North American flight, or in the near future, she issues a distress call, requesting permission to make an emergency landing at the nearest airfield. The manoeuver might require a change of course that could bring her above Dover, Portsmouth, Southampton, perhaps Cherbourg on the French side.
“While we are all officially at peace, it would be impossible to refuse the request. She can’t be directed to land in a safe area clear of our strategic ports, because of the large ground crew needed to bring her down. Yet, should a catastrophe occur, the result may be massively devastating, particularly where we have fuel stored, sheds and warehouses stocked with inflammable materials.
“She might, at the last instant, give the appearance of making an inimical move, but it would be useless to intercept. How do you shoot down a hydrogen inflated airship without helping to achieve her design…assuming that she is being employed in a stealth attack?
“You will recall that on her maiden voyage, the Hindenburg suffered engine trouble—which event could lend plausibility to a future claim of distress. And you will recall that on more than one occasion, while flying over England or France, she has requested, and been granted, permission to change her course due to weather conditions. Permission granted, of course, because at present there is no choice.”
“And,” added Pope, quelling an effort by the Under-Secretary to raise the first objection, “bear in mind the whole thing could be passed off as an accident. It might take months, recovering and rebuilding…certainly at great expense. There may be legal complications. How often does any nation have the chance to materially disable an enemy, yet still have the leisure of months to observe and plan before launching further hostilities?”
“I gather,” said the Under-Secretary, “the idea being presented is that the Hindenburg might at any point in her voyages, leaving or returning, and under cover of a ruse, have it so arranged that she would be detonated, in a manner of speaking…the circumstance so engineered as to be highly damaging to some vital area of British defense?”
“But the passengers and crew, obviously. It would be a ruthless sacrifice. And how would they get away with it, in any case?”
“In the first place, Fitzgerald,” Baines answered him, “a passenger list is only a representation of names. The Nazi regime has recently taken steps to exert a much stricter control over the operations of the Zeppelin Company. They’ve dispatched its original managers and replaced them with party members. They’ve begun restricting travel permits and limiting areas of access. In a matter of months, it may be unlikely that any foreign visitor will be able to book a ticket on the Hindenburg, or that anyone outside Germany will be able to confirm information supplied by her leaders.
“In the second place, a nation that considers herself at war has a tactical advantage over those acting under peacetime assumptions. While we temporize and prevaricate…by which I mean, stall for time and placate ourselves with comfortable lies…they are able to proceed with carefully laid plans. To ask a highly trained crew of dedicated party members to participate in a military exploit which would confer the glory of heroism if successful, is not outside the scope of wartime demands. One can, in fact, think of scenarios in which the operation needn’t be a suicide mission, but as we haven’t got hours in which to conjure, we will adhere to the point.”
“It’s my understanding,” Ogilvie-Collins observed, “that the Hindenburg is considered a source of pride, or a useful propaganda tool, at any rate.”
“Going by the evidence,” Pope answered, “you may safely assume that she is represented on public occasions as a source of pride, and is undoubtedly useful for propaganda. Yet, consider, that one means of expanding and improving airbase facilities and service lines in the border region has been to maintain the Zeppelin industry and make every show of being committed to it. During the period when military expansion was curtailed, the airship program proved a great resource. Last spring’s manoeuvers were nothing on a grand scale, but clearly, tactical planning had been needed.”
“Let me say specifically,” Baines took over, “that we watch Mr. Göring closely. It is not the dramatic staging of public events, nor is it the rearmament and conscription that are of greatest concern. Those things needn’t be concealed, as events have made plain, provided the argument that ‘strength means peace’ can be used as cover. Behind those two levels are activities that represent long-term planning, and must be assumed to anticipate warfare. Centralizing and militarizing state authority is an avenue to rapid mobilization. Consolidating power over currency and raw materials, one assumes, is a foresighted measure against isolation.
“Apropos of our subject, Göring is an aviator. He has publicly boasted about the modernity of the Luftwaffe. It seems doubtful he will be pleased to maintain the Zeppelin Company facilities where he could be expanding his own air force, now that the gloves are off, so to speak.
“Compare airships to planes as commercial passenger ventures. One sees the future clearly. Within the next decade, the number of airbases will increase, because they are essential to military purposes. The airship is virtually useless in modern warfare. Owing to the time required to launch and land them, one hardly can send out numerous airships in succession, as one can with planes. Even a country anticipating a long period of peace must concede the Hindenburg and her sister ships to be artifacts. Within a few years, one would in any case have expected to see them mothballed. On the other hand, a nation planning for hostilities, a nation having already an investment in the Hindenburg, might think of practical solutions to practical problems. Any open declaration of war renders the Hindenburg worthless.”
“The Wehrmacht depends on the Ruhr,” added Pope. “Should she attack, Germany will want to protect her most valued assets by creating buffer states. Well, how do you come over a border? You do it sudden, like the ravening Hun, right?” Faintly, he winked. “Meanwhile, we’ve observed that the Germans have, at every opportunity, gathered intelligence on methods of defense and technologies belonging to their former adversaries. In addition, Göring has made a number of veiled statements to the effect that Germany will never start a war, but will only respond to provocation. Yet we see Germany engage in increasingly provoking behaviors. Consider that two of her aims may be achieved through the scenario we are discussing: First, as mentioned, to do harm, observe the consequences, and learn from the experiment…as she is essentially doing in Spain; second, to push a peaceful democracy further towards the brink of hostilities.”
“If,” Baines followed up, “someone is unable to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a straightforward question; rather, he continually hints and evades, it can be only because he relishes playing that particular game. The game is brutality, thuggery. Our people are being harried about, driven to paranoia. I can’t envision Göring as a man scrupulous about speaking falsehoods. The motives you attribute to others are your own motives. What you fear others will do to you, are those things of which you know yourself to be capable. We would be wise to recognize that this obsessive cry of aggression, this harping on unfair treatment, is only the inverse of what we can anticipate in the future.”
“The only military advantage an airship might have,” added Pope, “is the element of surprise. And the only opportunity for making use of surprise is when the attacker is operating under wartime assumptions, and the victim is ignorant.”
“Our clear duty in these circumstances is not to be taken by surprise,” Baines concluded. “Now. Your questions, gentlemen.”
The Under-Secretary maintained a watchful silence, while Ogilvie-Collins and Fitzgerald appeared to struggle with different frames of mind—anger on the part of Fitzgerald, and a desire on the part of Ogilvie-Collins to find the correct phrasing of a measured response.
Finally, he spoke:
“It seems early to assume Britain needs to plan for war, while every endeavor is being made to sustain peaceful relations among the European states. Don’t suppose that we are idle, when viewing the militancy of the German government. Just as we needed to weigh our response to their venture in the Rhineland, we need to balance our desire to protect ourselves from the threat of war, with a rational consideration of the costs of war. I believe, and I know my superiors believe, that keeping lines of communication open and extending practical economic aid will see us through this time of crisis.”
“Mr. Ogilvie-Collins,” said Baines. “The Foreign Office must rely on you a great deal.”
“All right then.” Fitzgerald pushed his chair back and seemed willing to rise to a confrontation, but remained seated. “You, Baines, and the other gentleman”—with the barest nod at Pope—“have presented this specious…this appeal based on speculation, which is no doubt menacing if one believed in it…”
“All this busy trouble over air raids,” Baines said quietly. “Your own concern, Fitzgerald. Do you suppose this looming terror of which we find ourselves relentlessly reminded, this freedom to reach over us with a hovering fist of iron disguised superficially as the hand of friendship…”
“What is your point?” Fitzgerald had become tense, as one tolerating the grinding of a drill. He’d snapped out his question.
“I thought you understood my point,” Baines replied. He found himself surprised by the outburst. He supposed Fitzgerald to have depths; he would not have found the conflict with the Air Ministry so affecting. “You see, I do pay attention. You’ve thrown me off my stride…however, my small idea was to shed light, merely, on an additional aspect of the case.”
“And what would you expect anyone to do about it?” Fitzgerald spread his hands; he looked at the Under-Secretary.
“What would you like to do about it?” asked the Under-Secretary.
It was a simple question, yet left Fitzgerald stymied for a moment among possible interpretations.
“Ignore the whole thing,” he said at last. “Tell the Germans they can’t fly the Hindenburg near our coast any longer.”
“Their airspace already has been restricted. On what pretext are we to change the rules? The action could be taken as an aggression, and Britain must never be seen as the aggressor,” the Under-Secretary reminded him. “I suppose we might look foolish if we seemed to suspect the unprovable. The threat inherent in many scenarios can be demonstrated after the danger has occurred. That is why we have these strategy meetings. Where the risk is high, one prefers to prevent the danger.”
Baines stepped away from the table to take a more expansive view of the room, and leveled his summary argument at the balking Fitzgerald, not without a degree of commiseration.
“Consider the proposition this way, given that my theory disturbs you. We’ll dispense with everything speculative and put nothing on the table but known facts. I give you three.
“One: We have an aircraft which is dangerous in the very nature of its construction, which has the relative freedom to fly over areas of vital defense; which under present conditions can in the event of emergency extend that freedom of access to a near unlimited degree. If the Hindenburg requests emergency permission to fly over restricted areas, we have no means of determining the validity of the request.
“Two: The aircraft in question is under the control of a government whose behavior has grown increasingly warlike and secretive.
“Three: The officers of the company operating and administering the aircraft have been replaced with party adherents aligned with the aforementioned warlike and secretive government.
“So, Fitzgerald, if you base your opinion on fact alone, can you be perfectly comfortable with your idea of ignoring the whole thing? Would you feel quite safe, were we to adjourn at once, having elected to do nothing?”
Fitzgerald, under the rising suspicion that he had been invited to the meeting to play a role, and had managed after all, for having said so little, to have done the job of a Doubting Thomas—it had been Baines who’d mentioned contrast—took a generous interval to weigh his response.
“No. I can’t be put in the position of deciding. It isn’t my place to decide. I can see the strength of your argument well enough, but I don’t like it. I don’t like the import of it. I know the military will carry on, and let the Home Office know what they’ve been up to when it seems convenient to them.”
Ogilvie-Collins said, “The Foreign Office will expect to be kept informed of any action under contemplation.”
“Very well,” said the Under-Secretary, “we’ve achieved a consensus of opinion that the scenario must be acted upon. Should we do so, how might we proceed?”
Baines answered. “The Americans have for some years been involved in a program of observation and information sharing with the Zeppelin Company, which has offices in the city of New York. We have friends well placed to offer advice and assistance regarding the inner workings of the company, and its people. Our plan, therefore, is to consult with these contacts in America.”
There might have been a certain glint in the Under-Secretary’s eye, but it was well concealed. “A prudent course, indeed. I suggest you begin immediately.”
“We have, in fact, already initiated inquiries.”
As they were leaving the meeting room, Pope remarked to Baines, “Fitzgerald has taken against me.”
“Only because of the difficulty in observing the niceties with your lot. You cloak and dagger men aren’t permitted to mix in decent society.”
“Fitzgerald is the tradition-bound sort who likes standing on protocol. Sensitive to a slight, as you might have noticed. He won’t speak to you because he’s never been properly introduced to you.”
“Do you think he’ll cut up rough?”
“There is a distinction, Pope, between men who are terribly fond of rules and men of duty, tedious as they both can be. I believe that once having committed himself, Fitz will come down on the side of right.”
Soldiers of Peace
“I will not close my house against any one lest the Lord close His house against me.”
“If you have a guest in your house and conceal anything from him ’tis not the guest that will be without it but the Lord Himself.”
So run the rules in ancient Irish manuscripts.
Lands and Peoples
The windows of the Waldorf hotel glowed with a confident yellow warmth, as though the distinguished clientele within fueled—like blubber or candle wax—their own comfortable aura. But outside, a disheartening, persistent rain sluiced sooty grit across walkways and into gutters. Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb, a general assignment reporter for the Mirror, angled through the crowd of men sheltering beneath umbrellas, and women with their evening wraps tented over their heads, who jostled towards a line of taxis and private cars.
Malcolm-Webb’s destination was one of the hotel’s off-limits-to-the-rabble banqueting rooms. He had hoped to locate without assistance the area reserved for the press, experience having taught that such places as the fine hotels practiced a line in condescension cowing to one’s humanist tendencies.
Of course I don’t belong here, he told himself. I have no excuse to offer.
He found his hopes defeated by the Waldorf’s discretion towards its patrons. There was brass and plushness in the lobby, but there were no signs. And as he could not spare his dignity by peeping round corners, he applied at the reception desk, where a clerk allowed himself to be pressed into service.
To his credit, this clerk spent only five minutes or so stacking papers and arranging pens before leading the way; and Malcolm-Webb, having no other coin in his pocket, at length surrendered the half-crown he’d had better plans for.
“At Maidstone prison, that’s a decent month’s wage.”
He said this only to himself, after the man had paused expressively, had even—sarky wretch—bowed from the waist and remarked, pocketing the coin, “You are very generous, sir.”
Journalists, Malcolm-Webb found, had been stored at the press table, well to the rear of the room, thus to prevent their commonplace appearance disturbing the assembly’s formality. The assembly in question comprised the local membership of the International Peace League, guests, and highly honored guests. It was the presence of German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop that had brought on the press coverage. Ribbentrop was seated at the speakers’ table, next to Lord Wrentsley; he, of the Peace League’s Home Counties chapter, its highest ranking British official. The other speakers were unknown to Malcolm-Webb.
Continued from “unknown to Malcolm-Webb”
Having arrived late, he padded a narrow pathway between table and chairs, with his back to the wall, and came to rest, among relatively thin ranks, beside his friend Boyle from the Telegraph. The first in a rigorous program of after dinner lectures was in mid-flow.
A black banner hung from the wall behind the speakers’ table. A smaller version of this was draped over the front of the table. They were lightened somewhat, these funereal decorations, by coronas of gold at their centers, encircling the Peace League’s emblem. Upon this, eschewing doves and olive branches, the group’s aims and purposes were symbolized by a ring of stars (one for each member nation) on a field of green, at the inside of which was depicted an outreaching hand, suggestive of, as Malcolm-Webb supposed, international cooperation, rather than imperial greed. He noted lapels among the audience pinned with the same emblem.
According to the schedule, this present light being shed on the state of European affairs emanated from a Dr. Njegoran.
“Any news?” Malcolm-Webb asked Boyle.
“Here? It’s all over my head so far.”
“Quiet times since the abdication. Did you happen to see how our photographer caught the spontaneous reaction, after the news broke, though? Touches the heart, how ordinary folks will gather on the street round their copy of the Telegraph. You can’t buy that sort of publicity.”
“I never read the Telegraph. And don’t tell me you never look at the Mirror, I know it already.”
“A blight on your toadying rag. Now what makes the Mirror think these peace-mongerers worth taking notice of?”
“Oh, any glittering affair attended by prominent names is worth the odd paragraph. If you know more than I do, tell me who among this lot offers the most interest?”
Boyle squinted. “Make notes. You’ll find the story practically writes itself.”
Malcolm-Webb had already jotted a few shorthand notes, reflecting what he felt was a poor understanding of Njegoran’s subject. He fielded a glower from the Echo man; and attended to Boyle, who made no effort to lower his voice.
“Old Wrentsley, now…he was in Belfast with the Royal Army during the last war. A great man for non-intervention, where the European states are concerned. After the present speaker finishes…”
Njegoran had finished. Another man had taken his place; Malcolm-Webb’s impression was that introductory remarks had filled the interval. “Hold off a moment…”
“When I suffer these lapses of attention,” Boyle remarked, “I make appeal to forbearance…citing the erudition of the speaker and the adroit apprehension of the distinguished audience, in excuse of my ignorance. After that, I throw in some bollocks. Never had a complaint.”
“Ah. You’ll need to teach me that. You were saying…”
“The next speaker is Ribbentrop’s deputy, a secretary of the German embassy. Ribbentrop will not be speaking. I mean the man is Werner von Kneussl. Might have been Count von Kneussl…there’s romance if you like. Family lost its lands in Bohemia after the war. When the Czech government took over, Kneussl would have no part of any claim against it…he repudiated the title.” Boyle had the Irish knack of relating a saga in the number of syllables with which he could invest a single word.
“Kneussl is known to be hell on Communism. Then you have Feuillat, French, travels without portfolio, parking his nose in here and there.”
“Foo-laht?” Not overstating his skepticism, not coming the Cambridge scholar over Boyle, for in truth, Malcolm-Webb had no guess as to Boyle’s own schooling, he added: “Is that how you pronounce his name?”
“It’s how I pronounce it. How it’s meant to be pronounced is one of those philosophical questions. Feuillat is famous for finding a way to work any speech round to his special topic, him being the crony of a man called Ponnard, him passed over for a deputy minister’s post. We’ll see if the peace of Europe can be made to hinge on a political squabble in the French government.”
“Doesn’t it always, in fact, hinge on that? Why should a junior post matter, though, in any case? Wasn’t Ponnard talented enough to run the show?”
“Oh, a small position is key. You can get a deal more work done with less power.”
Kneussl was now taking his place at the speaker’s lectern. He was probably in his mid-forties, and had in every respect the appearance one would associate with a Bohemian count, from widow’s peak and brooding eyes, to elegance of costume. The women present showed their awareness of this by a stirring of the attention that had begun to flag following the last speaker’s distribution of mimeographed charts. Although assured of a committed audience, Kneussl stood at the lectern for a while, drawing them in, in the manner of a practiced rhetorician. Boyle gave a suppressed snort.
“By traditional,” Kneussl began, “the start of a new year is a time when we speak of our hopes. The hopes of all nations are the same. We hope for safety. We hope for prosperity. We hope for peace. We look to our leaders to provide the means to these ends: a well-ordered society, unrestricted trade, vigilance against our enemies.
“That we may have order, we must have consensus, and a willingness to confer power. That we may have unrestricted trade, we must have cooperation among the states of Europe, and a shared belief in the future. And if vigilance is to be of any use, we must know whom our enemies are, thus not to place obstacles in the way of our friends.
“We know that men who are elected to lead are fallible. We know that many who seek to influence political affairs are corrupt. The International Peace League exists because we know that the work necessary to achieve our worthy aims cannot be left to fallible and corrupt judgment.
“Most of you will recall Europe, as it was, before the late conflict. Often these years of peace had been called Golden. Yet many states were slow to modernize, many submerged peoples discontented. It was a time of untried faith. Europeans believed in all-conquering machines of war; we believed the ambition of the state and the approbation of God were one. These were illusions. Yet, had the cataclysm not occurred, new political ideas would have taken hold in their natural course.
“After the conflict, the dearth of leadership gave an opportunity to such men as would never otherwise have crept into daylight from the shadows. Men without plans, but eager to offer schemes; men incapable of action, yet pleased nonetheless to disturb the social order, to prod the mob with promises. Shabby charlatans whose philosophical abuses and economic alchemy have done nothing to make the world a happier or more peaceful place. Therefore I ask, if the culture of the past had been so wrong that it needed to be dashed from the face of the earth, to what can the people of Europe point as a cultural rebirth sufficient to justify this struggle of nearly two decades?
“To steer a straight course, to be not lured aside by the temptation of ideas; to trust one’s true compass, when the sun appears to rise in an alien sky; to work hard when the work seems unrewarding—requires a spirit of national pride. Restoring pride means restoring faith in tradition. Tradition unites us; tradition reminds us of our common heritage. The rightful inheritors of the future are those with a clear purpose, those representatives of many European states who have gathered tonight with the resolution to make our purpose clear to our leaders. In the face of this resolve, our leaders must deliver to us a world of safety, prosperity, and peace.”
Kneussl bowed, to polite, restrained applause, and took his seat. Yet his words had left many Peace Leaguers inwardly moved; almost, in some cases, giving way to rallied. The assembly kept its seat, but here and there, a spoon could be heard to strike against a wineglass. Mr. Trotter, the League’s secretary, who was acting as master of ceremonies, returned briskly to the lectern, and introduced Feuillat.
“They have a well-heeled crowd here. Any idea how the group obtain their funding?” Malcolm-Webb asked Boyle.
“You mean to say, who in this lot are the serious backers and who just the ordinary punters? From all I’ve seen, the nobs pass chiefly on the lending of their illustrious reputations. The real money comes from the foot soldiers of peace, if you like—the ones who met in Vienna at the Christmas holiday. If you make a habit of reading the papers, you learn these things.”
“The news escaped me. And what sort of work do they do, exactly?”
“You’ll be asking Lord Wrentsley that.”
Malcolm-Webb, accepting the fairness of Boyle’s position, returned to his notes on Feuillat’s speech. Feuillat had begun with words of esteem for the efforts of his colleagues; he was now demonstrating the reliability Boyle had predicted.
“…who abandon conviction in their politics to adopt the latest fashion. For what is power without principle? If you are ungrateful to those who have helped you in the past, and helpful to those who have been ungrateful to you; you will find that you have made enemies of your old friends, without yet making friends of your old enemies…”
“Now,” Boyle said suddenly, “if you’ll ask Mr. Trotter, then. He can tell you every bloody word of these speeches, every man and woman present tonight, including you and me…even the names of the waiters. A great mind for the little facts, he has. They ought to have him in the Secret Service.”
Eyes on his pencil, Malcolm-Webb remarked, “You don’t sound fond of Trotter.” Boyle, as far as he had ever heard, spoke of no one with fondness, but was capable of lesser and deeper dislikes.
“I only mention the man as a source. Assuming you had any notion of writing a story.”
And at this moment, Mr. Trotter was again taking the lectern, to introduce Lord Wrentsley. Wrentsley was in his sixties, of a spare, sinewy build; and had a habit of shifting about, picking up papers and putting them down, casting his gaze from side to side, as he spoke. He thanked them all for their attendance at the banquet, or rather, thanked the notes before him; he raised his eyes then, and gave special thanks to the guests and the highly honored guests. He looked across to the musicians and thanked, on the League’s behalf, those who could not be there, but had made generous contributions. Sifting papers, he proposed to read two telegrams sent by prominent supporters.
“We are grateful to have been remembered by Lord Nuffield during his travels. He sends the message that, ‘a charitable spirit is common to all civilized nations, and essential to moving forward on the road to peace,’ a sentiment with which I have no doubt we must all concur.
“Those who participated in our Goodwill Sessions in the Low Countries last summer, will recall meeting Henri Deterding and will recall also the interest he showed in the League’s mission; as well as the encouragement he offered during his address to the Secretariat. Sir Henri has sent a telegram in support of our proposed Open Letter to the League of Nations, and wishes us a general success in the coming year.”
Concluding with a few additional pleasantries, Wrentsley then allowed Mr. Trotter to wind up the evening’s business. Trotter reminded the membership of their upcoming obligations to “show the button” on Sister Cities Peace Day; Coronation Day, and of course, at the Kent Flower Show.
Wrentsley returned to sit with Lady Wrentsley at the main table. Stationed under tall windows whose black panes reflected the massive chandelier, and a thousand glimmers of light that danced from beaded raindrops, the musicians had waited, like the press, for the end of the speaking program. They began to softly waft strains of Dvorak, a piece Malcolm-Webb distracted himself trying to name.
Many attendees were leaving, but at some tables, close-connected and influential Leaguers now leaned into the evening’s important conversation. Now, it was permissible for reporters to approach their subjects. Malcolm-Webb moved to hover near the Wrentsley group.
“The Mirror…?” Wrentsley asked, after Malcolm-Webb had gained a moment’s notice, and introduced himself.
“I’m afraid it’s the paper I write for.”
“Certainly. Well, we are always pleased to share our mission with the public. Please sit down.”
He found a chair beside a middle aged woman, who wore a formal headpiece of feathers and netting, that matched an emphatically structured blue crepe dress.
“I am Elaine Norman,” she told him, offering fingertips. “My husband is Bernard. We are members from Kent.”
Feeling astray, for he knew of a Bernard Norman, M.P., Malcolm-Webb said, “I had the idea your husband was a member for one of the Dover districts.”
“Precisely. League members, of course. The Wrentsleys have settled at Harmswicke. Near Penshurst.”
In his mind’s eye, Malcolm-Webb scanned a map of the South. “Hall,” he suggested. “Or is it Abbey?”
“Yes.” She lifted her brows. “Their home. You know they lived in Ireland for many years. Over there,” she went on, turning her head slightly, as a decorous indicator, “where Herr von Kneussl is speaking with the German Ambassador…”
Malcolm-Webb nodded. He was seated in a position to observe without staring. “The couple flanking them on the right are the Fordyces.”
Ribbentrop took his leave, and the Fordyces moved in to chat with Kneussl. The husband, white-haired, barrel-chested and thin shanked, wore evening clothes badly. His younger wife showed a marked tendency to ignore him, positioning herself so that her back was half-turned against him, pushing her husband outside an exclusive circle of conversation. Elaine Norman faced Malcolm-Webb, and again raised an eyebrow.
“The Fordyces have a place at Tunbridge Wells; however, mostly they stay in London. Our corner is well represented tonight. You may meet a few Surrey people.”
“I am a Surrey person.”
“Why, you ought to ask someone to sponsor you for membership!”
He thought assuredly he would not. He was able now to place Mrs. Norman’s husband, presently engaging Lord Wrentsley’s attention.
“…I know of several held up at the ministry level. You appreciate the struggle involved in merely organizing one’s proposal and petitioning for funds; why, then, do we see these insupportable delays? Let me make this point…no first, let me say this…that I can―I will―supply details of two very worthwhile projects being held up by bloody-minded—” Shooting a guilty glance at Lady Wrentsley, he lowered his voice. “Quibbling.” And having got distracted, Norman at this juncture found himself in a verbal cul-de-sac. He brooded over his wineglass. “I mean to say. At the next meeting of the Executive Committee.”
“I trust you will,” Wrentsley said.
“And let me make this point.” Under steam now, Norman returned to his earlier topic. “The government are doing themselves no favor, standing in their own way. It is not just that people are out of work, you see—it’s that they’re afraid. These are unhappy times, Wrentsley. I can tell you, a lot of the agitators in the mines are not even locals… But suppose we are made able to offer useful work to those that can be trusted with it? Service to one’s country, I mean to say. No one is asked to cast his loyalties with one lot or another. We all ought to support England. Bring in more of the right sort, diminish the other sort’s influence. Good drives out the bad.”
“When you speak of influence,” Wrentsley answered, “I must tell you that mine is very minor. However, I do assure you we keep a watchful eye on Dover.”
Norman moved his seat closer and added in confidence—or, at least he adopted the manner of one confiding, for his words were to Malcolm-Webb perfectly audible: “If hostilities break out, the coastal areas are most vulnerable. Not just for the obvious reasons, but because during any military action, traffic must flow between the inland counties and the coast. We want to be establishing…hubs, if you like—strongholds to exert control over disruptive behaviors. Wait too long, and we’ll have no time to build a network of intervention when these seditious malcontents are given the signal to begin their worst damage. Whatever money is made available should go to the South.”
“It has historically been the case,” Wrentsley said, “that the ministries direct a greater amount of funding to projects in the South. But as to hostilities, our overriding goal is to avoid them. No one has forgotten the price Britain paid during the last war, which was fought largely on behalf of others, with too little benefit to ourselves. The dominions are our more pressing responsibility at present. I say this to you, Norman,” Wrentsley said, addressing the table, “because nature, as you know, distributes her gifts unequally. We have an opportunity to exert an influence―to anchor, through our great Commonwealth, a world that has gone adrift.
Continued from “has gone adrift”
“I say Commonwealth, Norman, I do not say Empire. Freedom of trade, not strength of arms, will end dispute and encourage cooperation. However, one cannot embroil one’s friends. Should a day come, when we require mutual sacrifice, we must offer mutual trust.”
Wrentsley had glanced across the table at Malcolm-Webb, thinking no doubt of press coverage, hence this applaudibly anodyne exchange. He added: “Our very sensible policy of non-intervention in Spain will, we hope, convey the strength of our position, which may have a salutary effect on the ambitions of other European states.”
“England,” broke in the Prince di Corti, the Wrentsley table’s highly honored guest, “commands a great Empire. Or”—he smiled at his host—“you may like to say, she has so many friends.” He paused, finished his glass of wine, allowed the waiter to replace it. “Yet the French may wish their friends the Russians to be of less help to the Spaniards. When we speak of ambition.”
“I was under the impression,” Norman said, “as to traditional alliances, that Britain is willing to come to the aid of France, because the alternative must be having the French come to our aid.” He enjoyed this epigram; he was pleased to have added it to the evening’s discourse. Norman wasn’t certain whether di Corti was blotto, or just diplomatically cryptic.
“England is safer apart from European affairs,” Wrentsley put in, without humor. “I believe this, though I offer it only as my own opinion. I cannot support entanglements, and if asked, I will give my opinion.”
This was mostly fine material, if rather patronizingly telegraphed, the kink in the tail of Wrentsley’s logic perhaps above the journalist’s head…
Malcolm-Webb dutifully jotted it all down.
Wrentsley and Norman digressed at this point, becoming engaged in a low, private conversation. One, apparently, on the deadening theme of tariffs. Malcolm-Webb found breaking in, as they would not look at him, difficult, so entered into an idle study of the Prince di Corti, done up in sash and medals, absorbed with his companion, she equally resplendent in a Paris gown…yet seemingly invisible to the other guests.
“It’s a shame his friend isn’t married,” Elaine Norman remarked. “These days, the three of them could go about together quite decently in public, but it really isn’t possible for us to notice her as it is.”
Number Five, an inopportune voice seemed to whisper. F-minor.
“He can’t pass her off as his stenographer?” Malcolm-Webb murmured, giving his head a shake.
Mrs. Norman looked at him.
“Well, I see your point.” He recalled that there was a Princess di Corti, who would not live in England, having some objection to the climate.
“Now,” she changed the subject, “since you haven’t been able to get anyone to speak to you, you must ask Lady Wrentsley about the League’s work. Ardith!” Lady Wrentsley, who with abstracted eyes had been listening to the musicians, turned, searching.
“Dear, this is Mr. Malcolm-Webb of the Mirror. Please allow him to interview you.”
He touched the hand of a thin woman somewhat overtaken by her gown’s billowing sleeves. She seemed to seek Lord Wrentsley’s approval before speaking, and like Malcolm-Webb, could not attract his attention. After staring at her husband for a moment, she relocated the reporter.
“Please do ask me anything.”
“Lord Wrentsley mentioned an open letter addressed to the League of Nations. Can you tell me what the content of the letter is expected to be?”
“I ought to begin by telling you something about our group and our work. You would have a better understanding if you knew how important…” She faltered here. “When my husband and I met Herr Stauber in Vienna…it was three years ago, I believe.” Her eyes moved as though inside herself she consulted a diary. “He…Herr Stauber, explained what the Peace League was meant to accomplish. August, of course, explains it all so well. He is able speak for such a long time.” She sat for a moment spellbound, musing on this faculty of Herr Stauber’s. She went on. “He told us how vital it was to have a chapter in Britain, one centered in the Home Counties…and we found ourselves quite inspired.”
Malcolm-Webb wondered whether he might, without being rude to a title (a deplorable relic of his upbringing which still he felt acutely), break this latest lacuna.
But at that moment, Wrenstley interrupted all of the table’s conversations.
“Kneussl! I’d thought perhaps you Germans had decided to leave us. Please take a seat.”
“His Excellency could not remain to speak with reporters.” There was no demostrable rebuke in this statement. Kneussl was, however, unable to join the group at once, his and their mutual status requiring a full display of continental manners.
“I find you well, Lady Wrentsley?” He bowed where he stood.
“And you, Herr von Kneussl.”
Having thus rendered null their reciprocal states of health, they exchanged nods. Kneussl offered greetings to Elaine Norman, addressed di Corti’s pariah with a grave courtesy, acknowledged the men…and ignored Malcolm-Webb, who concluded from this he had indeed been meant to take Kneussl’s remark personally. Kneussl then came to rest in a chair next to Lady Wrentsley.
“My wife has been speaking to the press,” Wrentsley told him. “Doing an excellent job, I don’t doubt, at fielding the persistent inquiry. Your question, Mr. Malcolm-Webb, was with regard to the Open Letter.”
“I am hoping to learn more about your group’s political position.”
“Ah…we are not political, quite the opposite. Our wish is very much to transcend any tendency towards regional infighting. But politics is the devil, as they say. Therefore we are forced on occasion to behave politically. Herr von Kneussl’s speech made that point as well. Where leaders fail, the populace must have some means of representing its interests.” He chuckled. Straying from his original trend of thought, he said to Kneussl, “I may borrow some of your material for my speech in Belfast next week.”
“Ardith, are you going to Belfast?”
Elaine Norman asked this, carrying them all further adrift.
“I always accompany my husband when he speaks.”
“And you’re not afraid? I thought there’d been some unpleasantness.”
“No.” A passage of music, a note of reminiscent clarity, like pale winter sun expressed in a minor key, stopped her. She stirred, then, and finished. “I’m not afraid.”
“Lady Wrentsley,” Wrentsley addressed Malcolm-Webb, “has always been my staunchest support. Perhaps you saw her letter to the Times? I would myself have said many of those things; however, I could not have given color to them so vividly.”
Malcolm-Webb, whose mouth had hung open in anticipation of a chance to speak, answered, “I’m afraid I can’t recall. Did her ladyship write concerning the objectives of the Peace League?”
“I apologize. I mustn’t be overbearing. My wife will be quite happy to continue her interview with you.”
“Oh, of course. I’m terribly sorry. I’ve forgotten where I was.” She seemed to take this upon herself, the interview’s having been run off the rails. Again faltering notably under the attention of the entire table, Lady Wrentsley found her bearings. “Well, it was November. Poppy Day you know. Are we talking about the Times, or was it something else?”
“He wants to know what you had said in your letter, Ardith,” Mrs. Norman prompted.
“I was thinking. As one does…of how it is that people are sometimes all in the same place…in their minds, I mean, or in their thoughts, perhaps. I wanted a theme people would recognize; one that would draw attention to this idea of commonality…and I remembered years ago at Girton, we were given a lecture by a man—I’ve forgotten his name—he was famous at the time for having edited the memoirs of Gladstone, and he told us a story…”
“Gladstone lectured at Girton?” Mrs. Norman asked.
“Elaine, don’t confuse me.” They waited. “It was called, I think, the parable of the ring…and its theme was virtue. All terribly symbolic. Or allegorical, if that is what one says. I thought it would just do for my purpose, but I could not recollect…” She broke off and looked round the table, not to add drama to her narrative, but to catch the eye of the Prince di Corti.
“Orfeo, is there something in the Decameron…”
“Nothing, in my opinion. I don’t know why they are so fond of it in the English schools.”
Malcolm-Webb felt the moment had to be seized.
“Lady Wrentsley, you’ve been very kind, but I can’t take up more of your time. I have an appointment to interview Mr. Trotter.”
“But Trots will be here all evening,” Elaine Norman said.
“I’m afraid I can’t be.”
As an afterthought, before leaving the table, he said, “Herr von Kneussl, how do you do, sir? I am Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb of the Mirror. You indicated you were willing to speak to reporters. May I ask for an hour of your time?”
Kneussl took a moment over his cigarette case. “I think I indicated not exactly that, but I will allow your interpretation. Yes, call, and we will see if you can be accommodated.”
Malcolm-Webb thanked Lord and Lady Wrentsley, told Kneussl he would most certainly call at the earliest convenience, bowed to the Prince di Corti, and for good measure, thanked Mr. and Mrs. Norman. While searching out Trotter, he passed Boyle, who remarked:
“You’ll be wanting to send a letter to the Waldorf management, thanking them for providing the lovely ambience. I sometimes wonder what I’d have been if I’d had breeding.”
The League secretary seemed to be doing paperwork; he was still seated at the speaker’s table, but stood as Malcolm-Webb approached to introduce himself.
“You are Mr. Trotter, I believe?”
Trotter, with a nod and a smile, said, “Please be seated, Mr. Malcolm-Webb.”
“Mr. Trotter, I’ve been told that you are an authority on the work of the Peace League.”
“Ah, nothing of the kind. But you must allow me to be of help in any way I can.” He spoke in quiet, modulated tones. He had, at an instant, placed his papers aside; he faced Malcolm-Webb with perfect attention.
“Are you, by any chance, Lord Wrentsley’s private secretary when you’re not doing this sort of thing?”
“I am not so fortunate. This ‘sort of thing’ is my whole employment.”
“Tell me what are the political objectives of the Peace League.”
“Oh, we’re not a political group.”
“I’ve heard that said. But you do something other than give dinners…you promote your point of view in some way?”
“Yes, certainly. The peace of Europe is of vital importance. We are very concerned with ‘promoting our point of view’ as you say.”
“Well, an organization can’t exist simply to favor peace on a general basis. There must be some method, some series of tactics, that you employ to promote your point of view, as I say.”
“But you’ve heard the speeches, and you’ve spoken with Lord and Lady Wrentsley. You must understand that we are constantly at work. We have chapters in nine European countries; and in the United States, two regional chapters.”
“What is the content of the open letter?”
“A statement of our position with regard to what the people have a right to expect from their representatives, signed by a plurality of our European officers.”
Malcolm-Webb saw that this circular pursuit might never end. “Do you have a copy of the letter, which may be published?”
“Of course we do. And of course we fully intend that the Letter will be made public, but not prior to its presentation before the League of Nations. I’m sorry for that, but I am sure you appreciate why this is necessary.”
At the Mirror offices, typing an unsatisfactory summary of the banquet and its speakers, Malcolm-Webb weighed the question of whether the Peace League could be hiding its agenda. Or, did its officers only manage its public image with care? Reporters, particularly those who pushed the editorial policies of the Mirror’s present incarnation, would be a sub-class to the League’s Cream of Britain membership. Should he meet any of them socially, he might possibly find them more forthcoming. One had tried, already, to recruit him.
And in the case of a news item more societal than political, only a paragraph would likely be picked up; though on occasion one’s entire piece might be pulled to fill a column. The gathering was noteworthy—an overview and list of attendees would convey that to the reader. But the story would take place elsewhere…alterations in the status of things that began with private understandings, arrived at in clubs and private homes.
After dropping his piece at a sub-editor’s desk, Malcolm-Webb used an office phone to make a series of inquiries.
“Well, it was Boyle’s idea,” he told his listener, off-hand. An auditor would hear a reporter, following up leads. “You may accuse me of going at it backwards. I only mean to say, why gather volumes of information, then piddle away hours trying to pull out the thread that signifies? Why not, when one has obtained the odd fact, employ it, thus to see if it opens floodgates? The dirty investigator’s approach, you may consider it, versus the conscientious academic’s.”
Kneussl’s room at the embassy was arranged austerely, and with no evidence of sentiment, though it had a good rug that arguably might be a personal touch. Malcolm-Webb had attended many subjects whose sense of self-importance required they idle all visitors before admitting them. He had waited upon truly important individuals; where, being bumped aside by last-minute demands, from the lobby with alert ears he had gleaned the story he could.
The efficient man, the sort who makes lists and checks off items, will view the dispensing with of a caller as one of his day’s successes. Such men never like losing a minute from their schedules. Kneussl, Malcolm-Webb guessed, was of this type…on arrival found prepared for the interview, not a paper showing on his emptied desktop, and passing with his visitor no time of day.
And this chat with Kneussl was not precisely an assignment…Malcolm-Webb hoped by it to gain a perspective on him. He had given up, for the time being, locating the Peace League’s objectives. He’d decided to pursue a different line.
“What is your opinion of the League of Nations?”
“That is an open-ended question.”
An obvious point, evenly stated. Kneussl was not a man whose face expressed his thoughts. But in a patient tone, as though Malcolm-Webb’s silence were a sign of low intelligence, he expanded, “My opinion would not be of significance, being only that; however, I can make for you a few observations. The representatives that the member nations have sent to the League are such as they feel can be spared for the job; if these men were highly valued for other work at home, they would not be sent to Geneva. They are asked to gain a consensus on various issues raised before the League, issues that most of them have not been given the authority to act upon; therefore, someone with actual authority—such as Mr. Eden—must go to the League to lend weight to discussions. Any agreement so negotiated will leave many of the member nations feeling unfairly imposed upon, in being expected to honor it, because the intervention of greater authority will leave them with the belief that their interests were not fairly represented.”
Continued from “not fairly represented”
“So you’re not optimistic about the League’s ability to further its own aims?”
“If you send someone in whom you have no great confidence to do a job without having given him permission to act, and without sharing the information that permits reasonable action, you must reasonably expect that the actual work will be done by someone else. What can we say about an organization conceived on that basis? The League of Nations is useful, at any rate, to point to when the question arises of what work is being done on a particular issue of concern. Clearly it generates a great deal of work.”
“Everyone has been speculating about Germany’s military ambitions. Ruling out intervention in Spain, how does all this aggression sort with a peaceful future for Europe?”
“There is no aggression, as you characterize it. No one wants war; we do not want war. Every nation wants secure borders…secure both from attack and from subversion. Germany needs a strong economy. When artificial barriers to trade prevent our economy from growing with our population, what is our best means of recovery?
“We have built our military in only a small way, compared to England or France; still, it has been a great help. Bear in mind, terms were forced upon us at the close of the last war; bear in mind, we complied with those terms even when the right of occupation was used to justify brutalities against us. Does it make sense for other nations to invest in their militaries and call this parity, but look to Germany and call the same thing aggression? The true aggressor has demonstrated her ideology. I will say it plainly―the French government is nominally Socialist. Do we rely on a name they choose to give themselves, when France is closely tied to Russia; when her intent is to place the nation she fears in a vise? An understandable fear might be addressed. Yet, when the true aggressor postures as the victim, builds alliances and defenses against a nation which has done nothing…what choice does that nation have, but to build reasonable defenses of its own?”
“Some people,” said Malcolm-Webb, “think that Spain is being used as a testing ground for planned hostilities. After all, the argument that remilitarization is only a reasonable response to others’ machinations doesn’t sort with the idea of developing new types of war machinery.”
“It should not be so remarkable that a nation will offer help to another in accordance with mutual political interests. In these other insinuations, there is nothing to acknowledge. I will say this about Spain, however…” Kneussl paused, but without visible symptoms of a search for the mot juste. “A country that bankrupts itself; that is reduced to borrowing and begging for outside help, will be left with no position from which to negotiate. Neither side in this civil war can improve its fate by finally wearing down the other. At best, Spain may become the weak partner in a bargain for money and protection.
“Germany,” he went on, “will not be a beggar state. We rely on ourselves. If we were called to honor an alliance in the event of hostilities, we would wish to be in a strong position. Victory would therefore make us stronger. But if…we were betrayed by the weakness of an ally, and forced to withdraw from the conflict, we would still be at a greater advantage than to have begun in a weak position.”
And, Malcolm-Webb thought, it’s better than losing. But he said: “Germany is beggaring Spain with her military intervention prolonging the conflict, one might argue.”
“I am not aware that anyone has argued that, however,” Kneussl replied, unperturbed. “We have not seen England eager to play a role in Spain, yet if the insurgents win, England may find the outcome acceptable.”
“While considering Germany’s economy, let me ask you about plans for the airship industry.”
“I can probably tell you nothing.”
“The Zeppelin company was placed under the aegis of the Air Ministry and then had some sort of shake-up in the leadership. Will they expand passenger service?”
“You would no doubt need to interview someone close to the matter. Captain Lehman is a dedicated officer by all accounts. Friedrich Christensen, I have met. Please consider seeking his advice.”
Malcolm-Webb departed the Baker Street tube station, as evening came on, and a yellow-grey mist welled up from the sewers, as it seemed, or from sodden earth; it gathered overhead in gaps where varying styles of roof and façade converged.
He returned to his rooms. He lived on the top floor above a second-hand furniture shop, one that fronted on the Marylebone Road. The area, feeling its kinship with nearby Lisson Grove, had gone mildly to seed. Gwen Dumphries ran her business on an informal basis, occupying her own flat over the shop, where she sat beside the wireless, and listened for the bell, all intelligence regarding the nature of visitors supplied by her Scottie, a tangled mat given the unsuitable name of Minx, but a dog that knew friend from foe.
The shop had a back entrance, for which Malcolm-Webb had been given a key; this, with certain manifestations of Guildhall mysticism…however, he had to go through the front to pick up his letters. His private post was directed to another address, at which he’d received one item of interest he was eager to look over.
“Here now!” he heard his landlady call out, followed by scrapings, bumps, and indistinct comments, as Mrs. Dumphries made her way downstairs. The dog emerged first; its mistress followed, waving in her hand an envelope. Scooping up the Scottie, she said, “It’s only this small thing from your Dad.” She seemed to regard the letter wistfully. “Maybe wanting to know if he might catch you at home this time.”
He had no intention of tearing into it and sharing its contents with his father’s amie de coeur. A year previous, making the same journey from Baker Street, his hat pulled low against a needling rain, Malcolm-Webb had looked up, and been amazed to detect his father in the act of entering the Dumphries establishment. The occurrence—though conceivably that emergency forecast by relatives reserving the right to disturb one’s peace—had seemed to him unfathomable.
He couldn’t have explained either why he made a sudden lateral move down a side lane. The act felt absurdly clandestine. His father’s unscheduled emergence from the pastoral vicarage where he ought to have been safely tucked away, had raised within Malcolm-Webb a conflict of dismay and bad conscience.
That was how he’d put it to himself, nursing his pint at the Wheatsheaf, an inn convenient in its proximity. This dereliction of duty was not so much a matter of feeling guilty (he did), as of looking guilty.
So he had looked, to be sure, in the eyes of Mrs. Dumphries. As expected, his father hadn’t endured a long wait. The elder Geoffrey’s superficial manner was always congenial, his chortle gratifying to the least utterance of random acquaintances. Stuck for long with them, he tended to grow brisk and absent.
He generally forgot he’d met them.
Yet this twenty minutes had bound Gwen Dumphries’s heart to a new allegiance. Malcolm-Webb might have picked up the fug of the pub, or she might always have suspected him capable of unfilial conduct; but since that day, her opinion had been reserved.
“Thank you,” he said to her. “Mrs. Dumphries, for looking after it. You do recall I’m going abroad tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’ve marked all that down. You’ll have no worries here.” Both things said as though, by asking, he’d accused her memory. “And I hope you’ll send me a note from America, if you’ll think of me at all.”
“I have no doubt I’ll be reminded of you at some point.” He made for the stairs. His landlady ceded the contest, but said, in the way of a final imprecation:
“I’ve put a sewing-table in your sitting room.”
“Of all things, I was hoping for a sewing table.”
She answered sarcasm with silence, fittingly enough, and freed Minx, who nosed Malcolm-Webb’s heels up the steps. On the landing, as a means of re-establishing cordial relations, he stooped to give the dog a pat. It replied by off-gassing with what seemed intent.
The sewing table looked brittle and brooding in its corner, what had been one of the few unoccupied spaces. The nature of the business meant that his rooms had acquired an overstock of unsalable miscellany, each of which, he believed, was either haunted or cursed. Setting aside the letter from his father for reading during an idle moment at sea, Malcolm-Webb shelved also one of the Mirror’s periodic reminders on style: ‘Ways in which we must not refer to people’; and opened the letter from his other employer. Its contents were characteristically terse:
T: record clean.
B: not of interest in present
S: dossier to follow.
And characteristically, the ambiguity answered nothing to his satisfaction. He knew that Boyle, owing to strong and deeply held convictions, disliked Lord Wrentsley, but hoped his friend had not made himself an object of interest in any respect. As for Trotter, Malcolm-Webb found himself unable to believe so perfect a specimen of the civil servant was nothing other than the Peace League’s secretary. The question raised by Lady Wrentsley’s passing mention of Herr Stauber had been merely a shot in the dark, or so he had supposed.
Turning the Corner
Prompt and appropriate change of voice and manner in harmony with the changing effects of language, is indispensable to the art of expression. Discourse is often like the dissolving view, interesting and effective largely from its contrasts. It requires one or more of the corresponding contrasts of quality, pitch, force, time, position, countenance, or movement.
The sky was a silken, muted blue, smug in its gloss as costly porcelain; yet on the Northwest horizon—it might have been a hundred miles away over the vastness of the sea—a bank of low white clouds portended sloppy weather ahead. Rain or shine was of little concern to the seasoned Atlantic voyager, for whose diversion the modern ocean liner provided a plenitude of entertainments.
Despite the biting winds of mid-February, a few passengers had come up to the boat deck. Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb made note of a particular group striking poses (in truth, a single pose, being trialed by minute adjustments) before the lifebuoy, the inevitable tableau proving to friends at home that they had sailed on the SS Bremen.
A woman, aged near sixty, and a younger man—fair-haired and somewhat handsome—stood bookend fashion. They were alike short and stout of build. The woman wore heavy brown tweed; the man’s fur collared overcoat, though well-kept, was in the style of a decade earlier. He beamed at the photographer; the woman showed a twitch of impatience. While their traveling companion persevered, they bore up, producing intermittently stronger and weaker effects in pleasant expressions. The photographer was a young woman, only somewhat taller than her companions, her trim black coat and toque hat fashionable, though not expensive. She struggled, with each gust of wind, to keep a long fur boa from blocking the camera’s lens.
In the spirit of shipboard camaraderie, Malcolm-Webb introduced himself and offered assistance. The others nodded; the man stepped forward, hand extended.
“I am August Stauber!”
This was delivered as a loud announcement. He slapped Malcolm-Webb’s arm, and introduced the women: “Miss Greta Freund, Mrs. Aldwin Branstadt.” They, thoroughly American, proved chatty and welcoming; Stauber, an Austrian visiting the States for the first time, civil and showing signs of bonhomie, his efforts to communicate kept at bay—the typical fate, Malcolm-Webb thought, of a man traveling with two women.
“Shall I take the photos, while you join the others, Miss Freund?” he suggested. At close range, he noticed her enveloping scent of high floral notes, and the green and white pin stuck to her hat. The ship’s photographer, shouldering his case of equipment, appeared on deck at this moment, shooting Malcolm-Webb the glare of a competitor.
Continued from “of a competitor”
They posed, Greta taking Stauber’s arm, Mrs. Branstadt folding hers opposite, everyone assuming camera-ready smiles, these somewhat strained by the prolonged exposure.
Malcolm-Webb bent to his work.
“Uh…is there any film, actually, in the camera?”
Miss Freund’s smile faded; she looked at him with surmise.
“Well…maybe there isn’t. I’ve never had a camera before. People take pictures of me.”
He looked her up and down…but did so in stealth through the viewer. “I’m sure they do. But I think we’ll have to abandon this project. I’m awfully sorry.”
“I don’t see why.”
This remark hadn’t struck Malcolm-Webb as a witticism—cheeky if anything—but Stauber barked a hearty laugh.
“No film in the camera! I think we will go in for coffee now. Unless you like to stay out in the cold.”
“You,” she said to him. “Never mind.”
They were leaving, but she turned to Malcolm-Webb, saying over her shoulder, “Come with us.”
The steady-going Bremen, first out of the gate in the race for speed―the race which had inspired the British to build the Queen Mary―stressed luxury and adherence to the five-day schedule. Passengers might have noted an undertone in the dispatch with which comfort was provided, and punctuality maintained: Should one book passage elsewhere, one might find priorities of another sort.
Malcolm-Webb followed his new friends into a second-class café. Beneath the recessed panels of its decorative ceiling, small tables were arranged in rows. Each had a white cloth, the four corners falling from the table’s edges in perfect triangles. Comfortable round-backed chairs sported bolstered armrests. The room’s moldings and trims were dark and buffed to an incandescent glow; its sheer curtains white, the light muted, the drapes red and white damask, the décor run through with repeated touches of red and white. Modernity was acknowledged by columnar lamps along the paneled periphery.
Malcolm-Webb turned left, followed by Mrs. Branstadt. Greta took an eccentric course to the right, and Stauber broke away to accompany her. They reunited at a common table approved by Malcolm-Webb for its being near the room’s center. His seat had a view of the exit, a sheltering pillar at the right…this not so broad he could not see whether the table on its opposite side were taken. Mrs. Branstadt removed her coat. Greta removed hers, handing coat and boa to the solicitous Stauber. Stauber preferred wearing his own, but passed along his hat and the women’s things to a waiter. Malcolm-Webb, ignored in the bustle, put his hat on his knee, and like Stauber, retained his coat. Stauber’s open lapels showed a loden traveling suit, another thriftfully maintained relic of the ‘20’s. He was still inclined to tease Greta about the camera. She placed it on the cloth, as evidence in consideration.
“I met a man in Vienna who kept asking me to buy it from him. He didn’t want paper money, just whatever coins I had. For the silver and copper. I think it’s a good camera.”
Malcolm-Webb picked up the Leica and turned it over. “It’s a very good camera. How did you get it through customs?”
It appeared he’d surprised her. Her voice rose, incredulous; she came near rolling her eyes. “What, is there supposed to be something about cameras? Huh! I just tell the customs guy, ‘Look at anything you like.’” She swept the table with an open palm.
“Ah…you’ve hit on the better method, no doubt. Success, however, may vary with the individual.”
He was asked about his reason for visiting America; he asked in turn about their European travels. They were, as Malcolm-Webb had known, a group of Peace League delegates, recent attendees at the Christmas convention. (Or perhaps the League would have called this their Winter Sessions.) The women had spent two months in Stauber’s company, visiting chapters in central Europe, strengthening the respective resolves of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. Their plan was to leave New York for Washington immediately upon arrival. He told them he too would be in Washington after he had conducted an interview in New York.
“What does it mean to be on general assignment?” Mrs. Branstadt asked. “Will you write about society or politics?”
“I may write about your organization. Was the Vienna conference productive?”
“Tell him,” Greta said to Stauber.
“What should I tell him?”
“He’s from London. They had one of the big meetings there.”
“But I could not attend.”
“As a matter of fact…” Malcolm Webb began.
“You attended yourself, of course,” Mrs. Branstadt said. “Mr. Trotter has given me a copy of the minutes, with his own notes.”
“Mr. Trotter is beginning to seem like an old friend.” Malcolm-Webb perceived a shift in perspective. He had not been told to regard the Peace League as either favorable or unfavorable.
“Our Middle-Atlantic and Northeastern chapters are gathering in Washington at the end of February,” she went on. “We have a tentative promise for a speech from the Vice President, but Mrs. Garner will attend in any case. However, it would be a tremendous boost to have Mr. Garner’s speech over the radio.”
“You seem an active group.”
“We’re growing.” Mrs. Branstadt left a little pause. “And we benefit from having prominent supporters. Our people are concerned, naturally, about the trend of events in Europe. As Herr Stauber will tell you, peace is not a thing which can be assumed, but must be daily encouraged by the dedicated work of those whose interests are most at stake.”
Malcolm-Webb felt he ought to pull out his notebook and jot down this practiced statement―but perhaps the League distributed leaflets.
“Herr Stauber,” he asked, instead, “what is your role in the International Peace League?”
“In simple terms, I am President and Founder. But I call myself the Discoverer of the Great Principle. I say discoverer…it is too large a thing to claim authorship of, as though it had been simply one man’s philosophy. The Great Principle, you must understand, is essential to human existence.” Stauber, fully prepared to launch, stopped here and looked Malcolm-Webb in the eye. A seasoned man with a mission learns to recognize a certain glazed expression.
“Essential,” Malcolm-Webb repeated. As to rambling speeches, he’d grown a journalist’s thick hide. And he needed all Stauber could tell him.
Stauber went on, “A state, let us say, may incur debt. It may default on its debt. Yet the state must continue as an entity, and so derives some means to postpone the reckoning of these matters, or to set them aside. An individual within the state incurs debt; he defaults on his debt…and he is driven to ruin by the mechanisms of the state. No subject of the state is free from being taxed, yet the burden of taxes may drive any subject to dependency. When the number of dependent subjects grows, the state demands a higher burden of taxes. To enforce the payment of these, the state brings the weight of its laws to bear. Those who cannot pay are hounded into poverty, thus dependency.
“If the leaders of the state cannot play the role of compassionate friend, nor can they set an example for the common man to follow, what is the leader’s worth to him? So, the Great Principle. At the level of common humanity, laterally speaking, there is no important difference from one nation to another; all share the same needs and wants. We may suppose that the people have a role in government, yet government conducts itself in such a way that the citizen’s interest is set aside in favor of the powerful man’s ambitions and quarrels. We have a League of Nations. We need a League of Peoples. The classes must not be led astray by appeals to culture or nationality. We are not political beings—no, the common people are, on the contrary, at the mercy of politics. When nations declare war, the leaders withdraw to safety…the common people suffer. If it were impossible for national leaders to act against the interests of humanity; if the voice of humanity was as powerful as its numbers, peace would be the rule.”
“You’re advocating a sort of Communist scheme?”
“Not at all. Not at all.” Stauber was emphatic. “If I were a millionaire, I would have all the more reason to trust my fortune to the enduring truth than to political whim―this is precisely the message I bring to America. Americans want peace, but they will prefer to be given direction. You see, they equate peace with isolationism—but isolationism will be no refuge if it is interpreted as doing nothing about the crisis in Europe. Our work is serious. It must be continuous. The enemy will not be content to leave events to follow their own course. And I include when I say ‘the enemy’, the Communist and the Nationalist extremists alike. We have seen their work in Spain, in the Balkans…you must not suppose they do not also do their work in America. Every person who believes in peace must encourage his leaders to give scope to those who are actively fighting the enemies of peace, not such as merely preach a doctrine of isolationism as an excuse to avoid disturbing their comfortable lives!”
Stauber’s amiable way at the start of his speech had grown dire by this, and impassioned. Some of the other café patrons had suspended their conversation to listen. Mrs. Branstadt hailed a waiter, asked for more coffee, making a business of canvassing requests from the rest of the group. When their table seemed to have lost its status as an object of interest, she said to Stauber, in a low voice. “Most of that will do nicely for our Washington conference, except the last part. You can’t tell people their lives are too comfortable. Remember, we’re fundraising.”
“But for people to give their money, they must see the urgency of the cause.”
“August, for many years, before I was married, I worked as a sales clerk. Our most inviolable rule was that when you offer a criticism, you speak of ‘other people’. Other people make mistakes, never the person you’re talking to. When we would have a sale, I‘d say to the ladies, ‘I’ve seen customers pass up a bargain; I’ve heard them reason to themselves there’ll be plenty to go around. I’ve known it happen too often…a customer thinks she can afford to wait, and ends up disappointed.’
“Do you understand me? She has to believe she’s smarter than the ones who make the poor choice; but she has to come to it on her own, not because I told her so.”
“I find you admirable, Mrs. Branstadt, but my work has nothing to do with the shop counter.”
“It is only a means of understanding.”
“But, August.” Greta pushed her cup and saucer towards the center of the table. She leaned on her forearm and faced Stauber in closer consultation. “I want you, when you give your speech, when you face the audience, to look for me. I’ll be sitting up front with our group. Pitch the whole thing to me, and forget everyone else. Say what you would say if we were alone.”
Stauber studied her face as though mentally he rehearsed the idea. “But I might yet say something of which Mrs. Branstadt would disapprove.”
The cabin occupied by the two women was a compact space. More of it seemed to be taken up by Greta’s clothes, lipsticks, powder boxes and perfume bottles, jewelry cases and hand luggage, than by the sum of Mrs. Branstadt’s possessions. Malcolm-Webb had been invited to teach Miss Freund the mechanics of the Leica, though it strained the cabin’s resources accommodating a third person. He shifted a cobalt blue bottle and a velvet drawstring bag from a steamer trunk sturdy enough to sit on, and pointed to the camera’s workings.
“This ring adjusts the aperture that controls the amount of light to which the film is exposed,” he began, while Mrs. Branstadt read through notes for the upcoming conference, and Greta looked bored.
“So, for instance, if you were in a dimly lighted room, or in bright sun…”
“What?” She asked this rubbing her eyes, as though having dosed off for a moment. He felt, despite her adding, “I’m listening”, that a point was being conveyed. He gave Miss Freund a considering look and offered a suggestion:
“If you’re not seriously interested, we might abandon the project.”
“Well, we could, but I don’t want you to be sorry.”
“I’m quite at ease.”
A stewardess brought the tea cart, which called for a circular shift in position, sending Malcolm-Webb in temporary retreat behind the door. Settling afterwards with a cup, he observed:
“Whenever I’m interrogating anyone in your group, I find a tendency to shear off tangentially. Tell me something about the history of August Stauber. I asked him yesterday and—as you will recall—got a portion of his philosophy and a bit of speech-making. I still can’t say I understand how he founded the Peace League or what the Peace League is, exactly.”
The women exchanged a look that yielded the question to Greta.
“Well, first of all, he hated medical school. The men in his family were always doctors…like his father was a doctor. But his grandfather, way back, was a cavalry officer. I guess Austria had some kind of war in the 1860’s.” Greta shrugged, and in the manner of Lady Wrentsley, in thoughtfulness allowed the words to linger.
“Outlandish practice.” Very much to himself, Malcolm-Webb murmured these words.
She brightened. “August’s mother was a Russian Jew. You could call his parents social improvers.”
Stauber had confided, Greta in turn confided, that he’d often felt embarrassed by his mother. Unapologetic, Frau Doktor Stauber had visited the poor districts at the outskirts of Vienna; her politics Marxist, and distributed with her charity. She’d urged her husband to go to the front, to leave behind his comfortable surgery.
“Only, though,” Greta said, “she was dead set against August leaving medical school. But he couldn’t wait to volunteer for the army.” At the outbreak of fighting no one had felt more joy, none longed for victory so much, as reluctant scholar August Stauber.
And when Stauber came home, emaciated from dysentery, deaf in one ear…but counting himself among the lucky, it was his mother of whom he’d learned no word and could find no trace. He knew his father was alive; he didn’t want to see his father.
He had once been enamored of his grandfather as an ideal, embodied in the boy’s imagination as a monument, a figure seated on horseback, sabre raised. August’s grandfather still lived on a street nearby. Reared in a household of which Old Stauber disapproved, his grandson had never known him, and would not now, disabused of admiration by battles of his own, appeal to his grandfather for help. Greta told Malcolm-Webb she’d had trouble bringing Stauber out on this point: his homecoming, his desolated, hungry city.
He had, notwithstanding, a buoyant nature. He’d patronized the coffee houses, however ersatz their offerings; nudged his way deeper into a circle of ex-soldiers like himself, and with these comrades, developed his notions into theories.
He became editor of a magazine…he and his particular friend, a man named Kaufman, having also founded Radiosonde. It had been Kaufman’s vision. The name delighted the two young men; it meant, in this context, nothing. The magazine featured photography.
A photo might be taken from the Gloriette of the Schönbrunn palace, on the day of a state-sponsored rally, the near view framed by stark, winter branches. The caption might read: ‘Here is a leafless tree’. Another showed a military company, commanded by an unloved artifact of the war, while in the foreground, in sharp focus, one face filled the lower right. The caption read: “Here is an old woman’.
Kaufman insisted his magazine spoke only to art, and was not political, yet found his idea of subtle commentary produced a political effect. He was charged with throwing a bottle at a meeting. Agitators from another party had pushed in to drum up this melée.
Continued from “drum up this melée”
“But, of course, you know me, August.“ Jailed, he’d said this to Stauber. “I would not have done that. It might have been anyone.” Stauber, who, as he had mentioned to the police, had witnessed nothing, distanced himself from his friend.
“August decided after that his career needed to be the Great Principle. But he had to invent the Peace League…he says he started it by himself…to get people together in meetings.”
“Do you think he’s sincere?”
“Are you asking whether his ideas are dangerous or merely fraudulent?” Mrs. Branstadt cut in.
“Granted, the quality of being sincere and the quality of being dangerous are more likely to be mutually compatible than exclusive— However…what attracts followers to the group? Is the Great Principle so persuasive?”
“People may join a group whose tenets they don’t believe in, for the purpose of advancing their own interests. But they also need to protect those interests. No one wants to risk looking foolish, or find himself associated with something criminal. So, yes, without a plausible doctrine, you can’t attract important people and develop a large membership.”
He detected the makings of a tangent in her response…but this conversation being off the record (for the good it would do), he might pursue forthcomingness with a greater tenacity.
“What is the work of the International Peace League…I mean, to use specific examples, if you will? They tell one constantly how hard they intend to work—at what, precisely?”
“Well, I’m surprised. You seem intelligent. You’ve already spoken with Herr Stauber and Mr. Trotter.”
“To hell with Mr. Trotter.”
“As soon as you’re at ease, you start taking liberties,” Greta remarked.
“I’m sorry. I mean to say, hang Mr. Trotter.”
“What the Peace League does,” Mrs. Branstadt said, “is recruit new members and raise funds from their contributions, for the purpose of holding our conferences and sessions, and for expenses associated with recruiting new members. I’m sure I can’t put it any more plainly.“
“But the Great Principle?”
“Well, you have to have a point of view. What are your speakers going to talk about?”
“Okay,” said Greta. “See, in the U.S. we have political districts…you have boroughs, or something like that, in England.”
“One might say so, more or less.”
“Oh?” She gave him a moment to continue this corrective course. “Okay. See,” she said again, “we’re a group of people with a cause. We’re active, we’re ready to vote for our agenda. When we move into your district, we get to work… And all the time, we bring in new members. Any politician would like to match his agenda to the Peace League’s agenda.”
“Helpful if you had one, in that case. You say all you do is recruit and raise funds?”
Mrs. Branstadt sighed, and at last vouchsafed illumination. “Mr. Malcolm-Webb, you’ve seen for yourself that both the British and the German governments have established a presence in the Peace League. The American government has a presence as well. At some point, when the group has amassed enough power, one of these nations, or more than one in collaboration, will superimpose its own agenda on the Great Principle.”
“What the Peace League does,” added Greta, “is recruit heavily among local leaders who are already members of other organizations with a similar point of view. That way the membership of an established group can be delivered to the Peace League wholesale. It’s more efficient than one person at a time.”
“So we come back to the question of what Stauber’s role is, and whose agenda he represents, if any. Is he sincere?”
“We know what his role is,” answered Mrs. Branstadt. “President and founder of the International Peace League. Precisely what it ought to be.”
Malcolm-Webb had, through the use of brief reference points—that must to others be incomprehensible, but served their author as aide-mémoires—recorded two observations in his notebook following this interview. One, that the American women (he presumed through the deployment of wiles unavailable to the British agent who had compiled Stauber’s dossier) had ferreted out additional helpful background. Two, that what had seemed a facetious, or flirtatious, passage in their conversation might, in light of his present understanding, be taken as evidence the Americans were unwilling to wait for the Peace League to attain its full potential. They were shaping the message, shifting it by degrees onto a new tack.
Outside the dining room, he offered Greta his arm, an encouragement to remain at his side. Her dress was red, an airy, drifting fabric; she wore a rhinestone-spangled watch with a velvet band, and was entrenched in her usual cloud of scent. When—having used merely the word “distinctive”—he commented, she told him:
“I like wearing a lot of perfume…it makes a good test. If a man’s going to pick at you, you can cross him off right away.”
“I may, then…I hope…consider myself not wholly dismissed, as you’ve let me off with a warning.”
She ignored this. After he’d helped her into her seat, and taken his own, she expanded on her theme. “So, you know, I dress as expensively as I can afford to, too. You have to let a man know—I mean, anyhow, isn’t it kinder to say it without words?—if you’re a cheapskate, buddy, don’t bother coming over.”
“I’ve always thought there was something in the way women dress.”
Too much, he told himself, in Greta’s case. She had both rated him and confided to him her methods. His standing with her must be lower than Buddy’s. Sensibly, he changed the subject. “Shall I order? Do you recommend the Neuenahr beef? A sort of trade name, I take it, as they’ve left it untranslated on the English menu. Or just a dish of ineffable quality.”
The noise she made sounded to Malcolm-Webb like an impatient blowing of air through the teeth. “I’m not the expert. Sounds like fancy doings to me.” She met his eyes. “Don’t look at me. That’s what we say where I come from. Anyway, order it and see if you can eat it.”
“So why,” she asked, after the food had arrived; after they’d conversed for a while on general topics, “do you want to work as a reporter, when you say you went to Cambridge? Shouldn’t you be, no offense, a lawyer, or something? I knew a guy in St. Louis…”
Malcolm-Webb said under his breath, “None taken.”
“…Mr. Farber…he rented a room from my grandmother. Used to write for one of the papers there. He was young then, you know.” She sketched an orbit with the stem of her wineglass. Going about hither and thither being what the young did, as Malcolm-Webb surmised. “He got his start shadowing some old boozer who covered the racetrack. Mr. Farber called it an on-the-job education. By the time I knew him he was kind of a seedy old man. I guess I figured anyone could get hired to write for a newspaper.”
“Yes, one would imagine so. My saving grace. But as to education, I’m afraid Cambridge was for me a minimum requirement.” He said this, thinking of his father’s letter, with its parish gossip; thinking also of August Stauber’s embracing of history, throwing off the burden of expectations. “It is my constant desire to amount to something one day…but ten years ago, it had to be either Cambridge or the army.”
“The army…you mean officers’ school?”
“No, I assure you. You’re thinking of the rank-and-file American soldier, the rough sort of chappie who can improvise a cannon from drainage tiles and baling wire. The strength of the British army has always, on the other hand, lain with its ability to train up the least promising of civilians to maintaining perfect regimental ranks in the face of enemy fire. We’ll keep throwing them over the top, Colonel…find out how much firepower Fritz has got!”
“I can’t picture it.”
He didn’t blame her. His last words had been delivered in mimicry of a Sir Douglas Haig…so far as he knew…and he felt he’d baffled her utterly. But he shook his head. Why joke, after all?
“No one ought to picture it.”
She looked at him, appraising. “I have a friend with a degree from Columbia, and he’s done everything.”
“Must take up one’s time quite a bit, doing everything.”
“He works in Washington…he can put you in touch with some of the people you should be talking to.” She threw him the wide-eyed look that indicates either significance or mischief.
“I see,” he said. “Then we do not speak idly of your friend.”
“Whatever you mean. Anyway, H. Bruce Van Nest was a man I met in Hollywood.”
A startling, but on reflection, unsurprising revelation. Miss Freund was an actress.
“We were at Columbia. The studio, not the school.”
“Van Nest is the friend?”
“Ask him what the H. stands for…he’ll tell you something different every time. I’m not sure his mother knows. He’s from Florida, which always seems funny to me, I don’t know why.”
“I’ve known people find Dorking amusing. Though as entertainment, I would rate it fodder for a seaside holiday brochure, as from where one may take a train.”
A moment of silence followed.
When she spoke, Greta chose a topic of her own. “So…I was in a comedy called Wonderful News. My first scene, I walk up the street with my little parcels.” She made a representative gesture, a hugging motion of her arms. “And I get knocked over by a man chasing a dog. All I got that time was ‘Oh my!’” She shrugged. “And I had to dub it in. I was gonna say, ‘Cripes!’ They got worried people would think the line was rude. Well, so, it can’t all be har-dee-har. Did you ever see I Heard the Angels Call?”
“Are you referring to a cinematic endeavor?”
“Well, it’s a movie. The lead got her start in Berlin…but, you know, before the talkies. She came to America with a big reputation. She was supposed to be French. I mean, the character was, in the movie. Her sweetheart got shot down. In his plane, in the war, right? He dies clutching the locket she gave him. So later, his best friend knocks on the cottage door while she’s talking to her sweetheart’s picture. I mean, it plays very sentimental. When you come back to me, we’ll be married.” Greta played it, this scrap of dialogue, and the suggestion was powerful―in the consonants and vowels she stressed or softened―of a German actress striving to sound French. She then cocked an ear to a non-existent rap on a cottage door; pantomimed the tentative, fearful opening of it. “The best friend holds out the locket. Just like that. He doesn’t speak. But she gets what it means. She falls down on the floor.” His dinner guest flung herself sideways, but didn’t fully act the moment. “The critics loved that scene. You never saw I Heard the Angels Call?”
“I would probably have avoided it on religious grounds. You’ve brought the pathos to life for me, however.”
“Harry Cohn wanted her under contract right away, before she started getting expensive. I’m telling you, ’cause she was the star in Wonderful News. So, we’re making a comedy, right? How do you tell a joke?”
“Once an Oxford don visited the city of Aberdeen…” He left off and waited.
“That’s a joke?”
“It would be if I tried doing justice to the dialect.”
“Well. I was going to say, it takes a certain delivery. She kept giving the same flat reading, everything that was supposed to get a laugh. She couldn’t do the business. The director was having fits ’cause we were behind schedule. Whenever he raised his voice, she forgot how to speak English.”
“What do you mean by ‘business’?”
“The business―that’s what sets up the joke. I’ll tell you a line from the movie. The girl, call her Isobel, walks into the parlor of her hotel suite and says, ‘I know what you’re up to’. It’s not a joke, right? So why is it funny? Because…when she went into the bedroom she was talking to Sherwood—I mean the male lead, the boy. But just then he sees the door handle turn, so he goes out the window onto the ledge…’cause he doesn’t want whoever it is to catch him there. Mr. Rousseau comes in carrying a box with a mink stole in it, looking for a place to set it down. Isobel comes out fixing her earring.” Greta put fingers to her own earring, and angled her head to one side. “Like that. So she doesn’t see it’s Mr. Rousseau in the room instead of Sherwood. She’s finishing up what she was saying to Sherwood…which up to the punchline is not in the script, just patter…but see, Gregory, Mr. Rousseau assumes she’s talking to him. He realizes he’s in Isobel’s room instead of his wife’s. So you get…right?…how he thinks Isobel means it when she says she knows what he’s up to.
“So she flings the earring away, seeing him, and Mr. Rousseau jumps, seeing her, and knocks the table over, and the mink stole spills out. Isobel asks him if he’s trying to be funny. He says, ‘I never try to be funny. So far as I know’. He’s one of those befuddled English types.” Greta paused. “No offense.”
“I can’t imagine I should take any.”
“Mr. Rousseau was played by an old music hall artist. He said, artist.” Here, Greta laughed.
“Yes, I believe they prefer it.” And a tick late, for having mused on this, Malcolm-Webb tried a laugh as well.
“He could do all sorts of character parts.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Butlers, murderers, piano players…I don’t know. He could pull out a classy accent that made him sound just like an M.P.”
“Some M.P.’s sound just like Southwark.”
“Okay,” she said. “Anyway, most of the cast were very patient, but the star kept saying she couldn’t see why it mattered. The line was in the script. She was saying it the way they wrote it. They ought to have made it funny. Then she’d do it just the same…then she’d fling her earring like this…”
Greta shook a tepid wrist.
Malcolm-Webb, reaching inside his jacket for his reporter’s notebook, murmured, “I see.”
“When you do comedy, you have to do it big.” She made her eyes big, as though this illustrated the point. “When you drop something, Gregory, you have to drop it. When you trip over something, you have to trip over it.”
“Geoffrey,” he reminded her. He felt the time had come. But now she was telling him a story.
Greta, along with a fellow bit player, had been watching a slanging match between director and star. The actress had the advantage, attacking with vituperation in her native tongue; then in hauteur withdrawing, to resume English at last with the air of one wronged. The director had struggled to keep his temper, while sizing up his opponent’s weaknesses.
Greta had been translating for her colleague’s amusement, choice vulgar phrases. The director gave her a sharp look. He then announced an early lunch.
“Now, darling girl. I would like you to deliver a message to the cow.”
“You want me to tell her she’s a cow.”
He waggled a finger. “None of that. Communicating in the gentle accents of the Reich, you will tell her…in fact, you will show her…exactly how I expect her to perform her lines.”
“So, I was like an overstudy. I played the role first, and then she played it.”
“And were you given credit for that?”
Continued from “given credit for that”
“This friend of yours…”
“H. Bruce Van Nest. He worked in Columbia’s publicity department. See, every set has a studio flunky lurking in the shadows. Our picture was having trouble. The trouble was making delays. The dish made its way up the chain. They sent Mr. Van Nest to look things over. When I was just waiting around on the set, I would talk to him.
“We got onto the topic of what makes something funny, whether there are really people who have no sense of humor. I would’ve thought yes…but he says, basically, no. ’Cause some people can laugh at other people, but they can’t laugh at themselves. And a lot of people understand a joke, only they can’t make a joke. So it’s relative. I mean, it depends on how you define sense. Now think,” she told him.
For her benefit, he scratched his head.
She shook hers. “A lot of the storytelling you see in the movies is done with images, right? Um…cluing in the audience without words.”
“Pantomime, sure. But I mean more like, if a woman comes on wearing a mink coat and a diamond necklace, she’s rich, right? So you have a whole explanation you don’t have to take the time to make. Suppose you have a scene with no dialogue where a man is walking down the street…probably wearing a tux, to make it funnier. Next you see a painter on a scaffold with a bucket of paint behind him. You see the guy in the penguin suit getting closer; you see the painter scooting around on his platform. You know what’s gonna happen, right?”
Malcolm-Webb, taking the rôle of the tux-wearing gent, made a creditable show (he was willing to believe it) of doffing, with a face of wrath, an invisible bucket…and drew, to his pleasure, a lilting laugh.
“Well, see, it’s a useful idea. Dramatic stories have a framework. People recognize the nature of them—but funny stories have a language… So you can put across something specific if you set up a sequence of events the way you would set up a joke.”
“And what sort of use do you expect to make of this?”
“H. Bruce makes a lot of use of that sort of thing. He’s a student of human nature.”
“Ah. I’d have gone into that line myself, but the rents in London are too high.”
Her smile was a little thin. “Then think about this…what if you have a suspense story, where the hero is rummaging through the bureau, and the bad guy is sneaking up with a gun in his hand. But what if instead of a slow take with the hero looking over his shoulder, and another slow take with the bad guy creeping along, you did a series of fast cuts back and forth between the hero and the bad guy? Wouldn’t it start to look like comedy? So why is that?”
“Because you’re giving an example of Bergson’s theory. The fast cuts would impose a mechanical appearance on the characters.”
“Okay…I don’t know about theories. The point is, audiences have fixed expectations about different types of stories. If it’s a melodrama, anyone who starts out happy is headed for misery. If it’s a mystery, whoever looks like the murderer at first isn’t the one. If it’s comedy, anyone who starts out miserable ends up happy, and no one really gets hurt. The question is, how did those expectations get established in the first place?”
“Through generations of theatre, before the movies were invented.”
“But if people believe this is how a story goes…a sad story, or a happy story, a funny story or a horrible story, then even when it’s a real story, they expect the kind of ending or moral they’ve always seen in fiction.”
“The universal language of symbolism?”
“But it’s not symbols, like a cross or a flag—it’s about a narrative, a public idea that if a certain thing happens, then another thing has to follow. That’s H. Bruce’s area of professional interest. Professional interest,” she repeated, as though relishing the phrase—Van Nest’s, Malcolm-Webb assumed.
“So you say he was on the set to watch the filming and report any trouble he noticed?”
“Not exactly. See, studio bosses don’t make mistakes…but now and again they want to break a contract.”
“And they anticipate difficulties?”
She waved a hand. “They can break a contract. They can break an actor if they want. But they need something to point to…you get me? If someone’s late to the set, or she fights with the director, rumors can turn up in the papers. Sometimes, when people read things about themselves, they get mad. Sometimes people who get mad do things that aren’t good for them, like marching into the boss’s office, or mailing him a letter…you know, all those things you shouldn’t say in front of witnesses, and never put down in writing. It’s possible to push a troublemaker out the door, if you have proof she’s a troublemaker.”
“And is your friend as charming as he sounds—if I understand correctly that petty manipulation is the nature of his job?”
“Ha. Don’t get on your high horse. Aren’t the newsboys happy to print Hollywood gossip? Sometimes you see that kind of thing in politics, too. Anyway, you’ll like H. Bruce when you meet him. Everyone does.”
He felt inclined to flout tradition by disliking H. Bruce without having met him. Throughout her exposition, Greta had sketched an accompaniment to her verbal imagery. Here was the painter obliviously slapping brush to wall; here was the detective’s hand burrowing in the bureau drawer; here was the indignant starlet writing the letter she would come to regret. And here was a shove and a curled lip, the studio boss cavalierly cashiering the troublemaker.
“I know I’m going to regret asking…but how did this bloke Rousseau end up in the wrong room, and why was this other bloke on the window ledge?”
“Well, there’s a scene in the hotel lobby where Mr. Rousseau’s coming in through a revolving door. He has his valise, some flowers for his wife, and a newspaper, and he gets stuck going around a couple of times, then pops out and trips on the carpet. A bunch of people start calling pages, rolling luggage carts one way and another while he’s picking himself up. Oh, you can see it, can’t you?”
He could, rather, and somewhat to his dismay.
“And so in the middle of all that, a man brings the mink from the cleaners, and gets into a shouting match with the desk clerk. Mr. Rousseau thinks it belongs to his wife…’cause to cover her guilty secret, she told him she sent her mink out to be cleaned. But it’s really Isobel’s. Only it isn’t.”
“No…it wouldn’t be, would it?”
“So, he just saw the paper he wrote it down on get sucked out the door…the room number. But he thinks he’s caught a break. And he heads off to the wrong suite.”
“Having got custody of the wrong mink…?”
“Well, the right mink, sort of. And then that bit I told you about.”
Malcolm-Webb felt he must resist these minks. “So we find…what is it, Sherwood?…on the ledge. What next? He falls off?”
“You’d think that was funny?”
“You tell me in comedies no one gets hurt.”
“But a guy pressed up against the wall of a high-rise? If you saw it real life, you wouldn’t laugh.” She peered at him.
“No.” He said this firmly. “Presumably, then, we have some species of deep psychology. Confronting of one’s hidden fears.”
She shook her head. “You can’t be afraid of hiding on the ledge of a high-rise. I mean, sure if it happened…but how’s it gonna happen?”
“Fear has a reputation for being irrational. However, let us suppose the plunge from on high to symbolize the hidden fear of poverty―or sex, as the case may be.”
“That’s not so far from the truth, though. People have good reason to be afraid of poverty. Sex, I don’t know.”
Considering the riposte this remark would seem to call for, Malcolm-Webb concluded he’d got himself nicely trapped. He resorted to blather. “Well, you’ll forgive me if I find it…”
She glanced over her shoulder, and looked at her watch. And though he subsided gratefully, Malcolm-Webb hoped these motions mere force of habit. He’d thought they were getting on well.
“If we make it safe,” Greta said, “we can laugh at things that aren’t funny. Because the story you’re being told says you don’t have to worry about the man on the ledge. But what if you were trying to persuade someone to do something…or, what if you wanted to stop them doing something? What do you have to make that person believe? Either he’s safe choosing, because he knows the story, or he isn’t safe. He doesn’t know what’s coming next.”
“Obviously, these things have wide-ranging implications. So if you’re training an assassin, you want him to laugh at his victim?”
“That’s moving from one subject to another! Huh… I guess you’d want someone who’s detached, who doesn’t see any consequences for himself, and doesn’t see the victim as someone who gets hurt, in a human way. There could be wide-ranging implications. Ask Van Nest when you meet him. I only learned these things from him.”
“You haven’t remained in Hollywood, it appears?”
“Oh, you think?” She touched her hair.
Kiddingly, she was putting him in the wrong…yet he knew himself to be in the wrong, and somehow hopelessly at that. “My contract ran out. Bruce was already working in Washington by that time. It was a lucky thing he looked me up.”
And looking up, Malcolm-Webb saw Stauber dining alone. The Austrian man of principle was enjoying coffee and fruit; he waved and beamed a smile, but shook his head at Malcolm-Webb’s ‘won’t you join us’ hand signal. Stauber was in evening dress, and not badly turned out. Perhaps he’d spent money on this gear. Perhaps it was worth knowing what he did with his money. Greta turned and waved to him, a fluttery sort of motion.
“August asked me to go dancing,” she told Malcolm-Webb.
“Go, of course.”
Returning to his cabin, Malcolm-Webb questioned how much of this conversation was in the nature of pure information, how much might be considered cultural enlightenment…and whose culture, in any case? He’d tried not to feel deflated by the discovery that Greta had dressed for Stauber. She’d stood, slipped the watch off her wrist, and tucked it into her beaded bag. Many years past (for his father had for many years been a widower) Malcolm-Webb had heard his mother say it was not done, wearing a watch dancing. Rude to one’s partner, this was, suggesting you cared about time.
On the verge of leaving their table, Greta had turned back. “I can’t ask you to join us.”
The remark was half-question, but he’d shaken his head. “It would be awkward.”
These thoughts had no place intruding in his work. Possibly, her Hollywood anecdotes could be dismissed as irrelevancies. But one irrelevancy kept occupying Malcolm-Webb’s attention. When she’d spoken of joining her friend in Washington, Greta had called him Bruce, dropping the humorous affectation of the initial that stood for nothing.
The waters of New York Harbor gleamed white-gold in their brilliant ripples, on this mid-winter morning, as the Bremen cruised to her berth. A tug, one of three escorting the Norddeutscher-Lloyd liner, had hauled alongside, bringing morning editions of the important papers.
“Now, take a look at that.”
A man in a brown suit, a head shorter than Malcolm-Webb, stocky, surprisingly coatless, pointed to a grim-looking cluster of watchers on the dockside.
“I don’t particularly see anything.”
They’d spoken the day before. Malcolm-Webb had joined the crowd gathered to watch the Bremen’s seaplane take off. Launched from a catapult device, the plane delivered mail in advance of the liner’s arrival, one of the touted amenities of traveling on the Bremen.
“There’s a lady,” his new friend had mentioned then, nudging Malcolm-Webb’s arm, pointing to a woman who leaned over the rail, eyes pouched and shoulders bunched against the cold. She wore a fur coat, one stiffly constructed from slivers of pelt, but her hat was flannel. Platinum strands fell onto her collar. Her face, grown soft at the jowls, was less youthful than her hair.
“Know her. Got on at Cherbourg by herself, no maid, no friend, no old man.”
Tantalized by an idea of having seen this woman once…at least her picture, and in the context of scandal, Malcolm-Webb had answered neutrally. “Sad case.”
“Now when you get to New York,” the man went on. Waiting, as preparations to launch the plane were underway, they had spoken briefly on the theme that unites travelers. The man took another of his odd pauses to scan the crowd, to watch with interest the progress of a crewman who pushed through while offering courteous apologies. “Don’t miss the Empire State Building. You’re never gonna see a view like that.”
Malcolm-Webb felt this to be a fair appraisal. A lingering trace of superstition following his conversation with Greta had left him resolved to avoid the Empire State Building.
At this time of year, many of the Bremen’s passengers were those American types whose business was business, though in some cases diplomatic or military business. On deck, they clustered together, shifting their attention between their newspapers and the harbor’s increasing activity.
The near holiday spirit that accompanied the arrival of a big liner was a new experience for Malcolm-Webb; New York’s high rises admittedly an impressive sight for a Londoner. America had the advantage of being seen at her best from this approach. Amid steam and clank, the Bremen hailed and was hailed in return by the flotilla she had accumulated. Dockside spectators and passengers began to make each other out.
“Here you go,” said the man in the brown suit. Malcolm-Webb saw what he meant. The group on the dock, well away from the Norddeutscher-Lloyd home pier, which, he judged by the uniformed cordon that held them back, they were forbidden to approach, unfurled a banner. Those on shipboard were unable to read its message in whole, but the lettering of its central theme had been painted large: TERRORISTS. The right margin of the banner featured a caricature of Hitler. The Bremen sailed under the Swastika flag.
Malcolm-Webb’s copy of the Times had provided the anti-climactic answer to the question of the Peace League’s open letter, which, having been wedged into a League of Nations session by a prominent supporter, proved to have been a restatement of Stauber’s gag; the Great Principle augmented by a pledge to work hard. The passengers whom he found himself among, travelers from America, England, Germany, France, searched faces along the pier, and reached hands across the rail. They had stacked their small luggage at their feet; they pushed forward, jostling for a place in front.
Greta and Mrs. Branstadt, adopting that sideways posture favorable to navigating a crowded narrow space, wove through these comings and goings. Mrs. Branstadt held, and deployed, a small train case as protective shield. Greta, with her own bag, was proving something of a hazard to herself and others.
He laid a hand on her arm.
“Miss Freund, we may not see each other again. I would like an answer from you.” Her intelligence could detect the not altogether authentic in his solemnity, but she laughed—the pleasing one of genuine amusement.
“You’ll see me before you know it, but go ahead.”
“Mrs. Rousseau…she of the mink—you’d mentioned a guilty secret? I’m afraid I can’t resist.”
She paused while the ship in the throes of its docking maneuvers gave off a vast jet of noise and steam.
It was a place-holding negative, without context…unless she’d meant: No, no one can. She thought for a moment. “I told you she lied about sending her mink to the cleaners. Her maid—yours truly—can’t find it, and Mrs. Rousseau thinks her brother’s hocked it. Well, it was Isobel…it was really Harold…but anyway, she borrowed it. You remember that part I told you?”
He nodded. He found it unjust in Miss Freund to have thrown a belated transvestite named Harold into the midst of things, but steeled himself, and said nothing.
“So he goes to his own room, hands the mink to his wife, and says, ‘I believe this is yours.’ There are two guilty parties, see. And he goes and puts the evidence under both their noses.”
She pushed up her lower lip, doubting him. “Mrs. Rousseau’s family lost all their money in the stock market…the real reason she won’t let Harold marry Isobel if Isobel hasn’t got any. She snuck her brother in the house and gave him the chauffeur’s job…told him her husband would never recognize him as long as he kept his hat pulled down.
“So…this is good. The brother is coming up the hallway in his striped pajamas. Mr. Rousseau is backing out of his room talking to his wife. The brother spots him in time and pops onto the window washers’ platform. Sherwood is out there already, wearing evening dress, ’cause he almost got caught searching the trunk of the man who stole the countess’s necklace. He says, ‘First day on the job?’”
Malcolm-Webb chuckled in contrition, visualizing this apparent motif, but here again, perils were emerging—unexplained countesses, for one. The man in the brown suit emerged from the crowd, swiveled to Greta, and said, “Don’t I know you from someplace?”
Her face lit up, sufficient reward for Malcolm-Webb. But his acquaintance added, “It’s the next line from the movie. The chauffeur says to the guy, ‘Don’t I know you from someplace?’”
“Oh,” she said. “Did you like the movie?”
“I thought the acting was not so great. Gimme Irene Dunne.”
“Anyway,” she told Malcolm-Webb, “the brother got into a fender-bender driving the family car. He needed to come up with the money to pay off the other guy, so his name wouldn’t end up in the papers. So, you know, he pawned the mink.”
“Right.” She hoisted her bag, and turned to leave. “Some guy chasing a dog almost ran in front of him.”
The Invisible Hand
“We must make provision for the winter,” said the cat, “or we shall suffer hunger. And you, little mouse, must not stir out, or you will be caught in a trap.”
The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership
February 19, 1937. On North Capitol Street, in Washington, D.C., stood a building of undistinguished character, one that resembled the home office of a small utility…a gas company, perhaps. Constructed a decade earlier, it had a façade of dark glazed brick, with opaque blocks of glass obscuring its lower story interiors from public view. Subsidiary administrative offices belonging to the Department of Naval Intelligence were housed within. The rooms were large and square, the lighting fluorescent, the walls pale green. In one of these uniform spaces on the second floor, Admiral Wenham had scheduled a meeting with British embassy attaché Arthur Newbolt.
Newbolt was here introduced to Dennis Campbell, a man of about thirty-five, with a stocky build and greying hair, brush-cut. Campbell’s presence was a surprise. Newbolt had spoken only to Wenham; thus, he had expected a private talk with Wenham. He was not introduced to the fiftyish stenographer stationed shadow-like, at a corner desk.
“I’d like to begin with Mr. Campbell’s photos,” Wenham told him. These were not photos per se, but slides, loaded into a projector that faced the wall. Wenham himself obligingly closed the blinds. Neither were they Campbell’s; but the covert work of an unnamed agent. Campbell, with flat professionalism, sequenced through images of the German Daimler and Dornier works, briefly commenting as needed.
“We also have pictures of improvements and additions to the airbases at Friedrichshafen and Frankfurt,” Campbell said, “but those aren’t substantially different from intelligence we’ve already received on that point.” Newbolt felt that he was not qualified to judge the technical aspects of these images; he frankly said so.
“Arms production in itself is less significant than a change in the level of activity. Any concentration of a particular type of production, or in a particular region, could indicate preparations. You have to begin with transportation routes and supply lines…so you might be building roads and laying rails; you have to have a short-term plan for mobilization and a long-term plan for re-supply. Of course, Mr. Newbolt, you’re concerned about an air attack. Air strength is suitable for a limited, retaliatory action…or…softening. A country that thinks of expanding its borders…”
Campbell allowed Newbolt to speak; Newbolt chose rather to wait.
“Anyway,” Campbell said, “we know where the borders are.”
“It is all one,” Newbolt answered. “An attack on one of our allies amounts to an attack on Britain.”
Continued from “attack on Britain”
“If a massive air attack were launched, would it be enough? How long do you expect a country, let’s say Belgium, to hold out?” Campbell’s tone was neutral, his manner merely curious.
“Well, bombing raids are in themselves, certainly, devastating, and demoralizing to the inhabitants. Nevertheless, one assumes that at some point an army must occupy conquered territory. A very formidable war machine might maintain bombing raids in advance of an occupying force, but on how many fronts simultaneously might it be possible to fight that type of war?”
“That, Mr. Newbolt, is a point worth considering.”
Newbolt removed from his case the packet which had been delivered by special courier to the British embassy only that morning. Newbolt had received this from his own superior, whose sole comment, on handing it to Newbolt was that the report within had been requested. Without breaking the seal, Newbolt offered the packet to Admiral Wenham.
“I have been told that this contains a comprehensive study of the entire timeline of events, a thorough analysis of all evidence that was recovered from the site, and a detailed set of photos taken at the debris field, with commentary from the team which did the work. We have no other copies of these documents in the U.S. at present. I don’t know if you were expecting to discuss them.”
“As a matter of fact, when the others come in, I plan to hand it over to someone who will know what to make of it. Like you, Mr. Newbolt, I’m not qualified to judge the technical aspects.” He placed the report on the table. It had been compiled by the British government’s investigative team in the wake of the R101 airship disaster. He turned back to Newbolt and said:
“Let’s talk about your country’s position.”
“Our concerns, as I have been instructed to represent them, are these: We want no incident which may be seen as politically provocative. We want nothing to occur which gives the appearance of sabotage or interference. We understand that the Germans’ interests are invested in a policy of encouraging the United States to maintain its neutrality; that, therefore, they will be reluctant to engage in the trading of accusations with a power they wish to keep out of European affairs.”
“I expected that,” Wenham said, “and I want to explain that we’ve taken your points under consideration, and we intend, or, I should say, we hope, to put forward a course of action that ought to neutralize any threat. We’ve discussed the idea that the first North American flight is best, both to alleviate your fears and concerns at the earliest opportunity, and because it’s the most plausible occasion for staging a press event.”
Newbolt showed signs of having a question. Wenham stopped him.
“Before you say anything, I need to make it clear that although we’re meeting here in the Naval offices, this operation is being conducted under the administration of Mr. Campbell’s team, and he will take charge at this point.”
Campbell crossed the room to stand in front of Newbolt and looked at him directly.
“I’m going to bring two people in. These two will provide you with information that ought to clarify your understanding, Mr. Newbolt. The way we’ll be conducting our conversation is not what you may be used to. This is not a question and answer session, but after you’ve heard what these men have to say, you may receive additional information in the future. It may come from my office, or it may come from another source.”
Campbell opened a connecting door to an adjoining room, and beckoned. Two men entered, one tall, fortyish, balding at the temples; the other diminutive and having the sallow skin of a heavy smoker. He, in silence retreating to a corner, placed his briefcase on the floor, and began to search his pockets. The other watched him light a cigarette, then stepped forward, shook hands with Admiral Wenham in passing, and introduced himself to Newbolt.
“Mr. Newbolt, I’m H. Bruce Van Nest. We appreciate your help.” He indicated the sallow man; Newbolt, though he looked across expectantly, was unable to make eye contact. Van Nest’s associate―the expert, it seemed, to whom Wenham had referred―slipped to the table and unsealed without compunction the R101 report. Newbolt supposed from his indifferent perusal, that he found its contents unsurprising. Then Newbolt became aware that he was himself observed, by Van Nest.
“I’m afraid I can’t introduce you to this gentleman by name. He’s in the U.S. without the permission of the Russian government, working on a project we place a high value on. No disrespect intended. Keep your friends close and your émigrés closer, right?”
Newbolt was taken aback. He decided this was humor, and that he would ignore it. Neither did the Russian show any reaction. He swept the report off the table, crossed the room, and pushed it into his briefcase. Van Nest went on, unconcerned.
“Let me give you an overview. Mr. Campbell and I work in a sector of the Department of Commerce. It’s a fairly young branch of government…mainly regulates trade and traffic, scientific inventions, and communications. Now in the nature of things, when a new invention or utility comes along—let’s say radio or the airplane, to name two items of interest—people begin to think of new ways to make use of it. Some of the things they think of are harmless, some may be worthwhile innovations that the government will want to adopt, and some will be criminal. The obvious challenge being that you can’t make laws to anticipate all the crimes people might think of committing.
“Clearly you have a need to monitor and observe. You need an agency that collects information, organizes information, and redistributes information as needed to prevent the illicit potential of a new invention from getting ahead of the government’s ability to control it.
“When I worked with George Creel, one of the things we learned was that perception has a lot to do with decision making. If you’re setting out to do a job and you believe you control the causes and can predict the effects, you’re confident of the outcome. If you begin to suspect that someone else is controlling the causes that are producing the effects you observe, you lose confidence that the outcome you were hoping for is either predictable or safe. The key is in the degree of doubt. Someone hopes to achieve a goal, sees possible evidence of an influence at work that appears to be more than coincidence, yet still falls within the realm of plausibility. What’s the natural reaction? Depending on how much is at stake, he either suspends operations until he can learn more…or he may give the whole thing up.
“Let’s think about popular conceptions. That is, think about the sort of ideas that take hold of the public mind. If you’ve read a newspaper today, you probably have some idea of the big crime story in town, the big political story. What you might not realize is how often a story starts somewhere in the middle, and how readily we accept this. Suppose you’d seen a headline today, saying: ‘Third Body Found in Potomac Neighborhood’, or let’s say: ‘Senate Defeats Tax Bill’? You don’t disbelieve in the other two corpses, because you missed reading the first reports of them. You don’t doubt whether there can really be a tax bill, because you never saw anything about it at the time it was drafted in committee.
“True enough, we take all news stories on faith, to the extent that we don’t go out and investigate them personally, and we rarely know anyone involved in them. But when a story begins in the middle, we infer the missing information from the context. And inference, to put it bluntly, is making something up in your mind. When you understand how much of what people are sure they know is in fact what they’ve inferred, you understand that a lot of the public narrative can be controlled.
“Newspaper editors see hundreds of stories, but they choose to sell papers…that is, to put sensational or lurid items on the front page. There are dozens of small acts committed every day that are part of the truth, but don’t exist in the public narrative. When people explain events to themselves based on what they believe they know, the explanation isn’t necessarily connected to the things people actually do, which don’t exist in the form of a story. The public narrative results from selection, from stories that devolve to the same themes, until people grow so accustomed to those themes, they become skilled at looking for them. They learn to pick out signs that point the way to a familiar narrative, even in contradiction to other signs that the event in question doesn’t conform.
“Let me make that clearer. Consider a guy whose general idea is that America is in a state of moral decline. If he sees a story about crime, what’s his take? Another sign our country’s going downhill. Suppose my general idea is that socialist elements hidden in our government are destroying American freedom…I see a story about crime and I think: If we could get the right people elected, the street would belong to the citizen, not the gangster. Now suppose I have a reason to form a political alliance with the other guy. What do I need to do? I need to link my general idea with his through the medium of this piece of public information, this thing, this event. So I tell him America is definitely in a state of moral decline and has been ever since the socialists started taking over our institutions, and what’s the proof of it? Look at the crime rate!”
He stopped and looked at Newbolt, who felt called upon to show some comprehension. “You make an interesting point,” he hazarded. “I’m not sure I understand how it bears on our project.”
“I was hoping to address one of the concerns you raised. You mentioned Germany’s position on American neutrality.”
A moment of bafflement caused Newbolt to miss the next few words of conversation between Van Nest and the Russian. It seemed to Newbolt that Van Nest had not been in the room at the time he’d explained Britain’s concerns to Admiral Wenham. Of course…you could assume nothing about people who did this sort of work. As to any specific way in which the matter regarding Germany had been addressed, he could not at the moment spare the time to think about it.
Now the Russian produced a fresh cigarette, and moved from his corner of the room to stand near the table. He said:
“I am an engineer, sir. You have heard of radio wave detection, you know what it means?”
“Well, I understand the general idea…” Something about hearing himself use the phrase made Newbolt pause. He went on:
“…with, obviously, no background in engineering.”
“In our laboratory, we have been working on improvements to the concept, using the higher frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, what you might think of as radio transmissions. Specifically, we have been working on a system to direct the beam with more accuracy over a greater distance. There have been certain collateral effects observed in association with high frequency electromagnetic radiation. We would be grateful for the opportunity being provided to make trials and modifications to our prototype equipment. It is always difficult to do extensive testing where one needs to create an artificial environment, build test vehicles, possibly construct new buildings to accommodate the experiment…to do all this without information leaking out.
“Without the means of testing in a setting comparable to such circumstances as one would encounter in the field, one can only attest to the theoretical potential of the system. But to test openly, on a sufficient scale, is impossible to achieve in complete secrecy, and may subject personnel and equipment to unknown risk.” He broke off and smoked, looking ruminative, leaving Newbolt room for comment.
“I believe I understand the reason for not asking questions,” Newbolt began carefully. “The nature of the operation calls for a high degree of discretion…however, I must ask this: Is the proposal safe?”
“Safe, in respect of secrecy, or in terms of potential casualties?” asked Wenham.
“Both, one assumes.”
“As I have described,” the Russian engineer said, “the chance to test in the field allows us to observe effects beyond anything we can produce in the laboratory. It is much safer to take advantage of this chance than to call attention to our work with extensive preparation and a public series of trials. As for local security, I have nothing to say to that.”
“But are these tests dangerous to human life?”
“You are thinking of the volatility of the hydrogen gas. Let us assume a linear range of possibilities. At one end, nothing out of the ordinary happens; at the other end, perhaps disaster. What are the possibilities in between, and what factors might induce any one of them? In addition to such things as may be brought about by our own testing, we have all the risks normally associated with airship mechanics. The question is: What particular possibility would you like to consider? I can discuss with you the probable odds of any given outcome, and the factors related to our work, and those unrelated to our work, that might bear upon the outcome; and to what degree each of these factors could potentially influence the outcome you have in mind; and the degree to which any one factor increases or diminishes the likelihood of any other factor. That is the only answer.”
The Russian’s framing of the dilemma was rational, and his manner was frank, but Newbolt recognized this to be an impossible challenge. He was an educated man; he knew enough to suppose that some mechanical part, subjected to some type and amount of stress, might fail. A trained engineer could supply a thorough analysis of the part’s function and the stresses it had been designed to withstand; but to account for one scenario, merely raised the question of the next scenario, and the next one after. Highly specific inquiries, even had he been the man to make them, seemed only to lead down a blind alley, and the answer to the broad question, “Can anything go wrong?”—was, as always, yes.
He was, however, by training and profession, a representative of Great Britain, and acting in his nation’s interests was within his scope. To know more of this plan meant only to take on unnecessary responsibility; to know enough to communicate its import, and reassure his superiors that the operation was progressing satisfactorily, was Newbolt’s mission.
“Well, Mr. Newbolt,” Van Nest asked, “any more we can tell you? How much do you think you understand?”
“I understand,” Newbolt answered, “that you are developing a sort of radio-wave detection system and are eager to test it. I believe, or I have got the impression, that you hope to use the opportunity of arranging for press coverage, in order that the activity and equipment at the site will provide a diversion. I gather that this diversion may augment a plausible explanation that might be put forward should your testing produce effects which are noticeable and possibly alarming…and that the intention is to produce effects which are noticeable and perhaps alarming, for the purpose of creating the suspicion of some sort of influence at work. Finally, that doubts must be raised as to the possibility of something unexpected occurring which can’t be satisfactorily explained, and yet can’t be dismissed. All of which will generally produce a discouraging effect on any plan which may exist for using the Hindenburg as a covert weapon.”
“So you feel ready to communicate your position to your chiefs?”
Newbolt thoughtfully agreed, and thanked Admiral Wenham, Van Nest and Campbell. He hesitated a bit over thanking the Russian, but chose to address him as “sir”. He then took up his case and departed for the British embassy.
Arthur Newbolt had some notion of writing his memoirs one day when he retired from the Foreign Service. He kept his notes in a diary, taking care to avoid anything compromising…although he might on occasion, exercising literary license, recast the irresistible story; and, having some skill in coded communication, he had worked out a system for reminding himself of events that might one day be de-classified.
His recent meeting had been one of the odder experiences of his career. He noted that at one point, he’d found himself confused by an incongruity, and inwardly concocting an explanation for it. Then again, he recalled Van Nest’s mentioning of a man, Creel, for whom he’d worked, as though Newbolt would know this name; he had, in short, been told a story that seemed to start in the middle. And yes, on consideration, the agency Van Nest had referred to, never had been said to actually exist. It was left as a matter of inference. A reasonable way, Newbolt presumed, of demonstrating the effectiveness of persuasion.
Continued from “effectiveness of persuasion”
He jotted in his diary one other observation: He had been the only person in the room who’d actually framed the alleged operation in real terms. No one else had spoken of a plan, or a strategy, or had even acknowledged Newbolt’s own summary. If, in unimaginable circumstances, he were asked to testify to the conversation, he could attribute the idea he had described to no one other than himself.
Malcolm-Webb was in Bethesda, Md., among the audience at a convening of the Radio Club of America, D.C. area chapter.
The present lecturer was, as he had it in his notes, a scientific chap from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describing his deployment of a pulsed high frequency beam projected through an oscillating electromagnetic field…this done for the purpose of observing its effects on various inert gases contained in a vacuum. His simple aspiration, if Malcolm-Webb got him, was to conduct further tests of an identical nature on additional gases, subjecting these in every case to greater or lesser degrees of pulsation and electromagnetism. Malcolm-Webb found himself with no clue as to why this should be of interest to the crystal-set hobbyist.
On the authority of H. Bruce Van Nest, he had come here to interview the next speaker, Senator Benjamin Nathan. Nathan was Van Nest’s near-colleague, being one of the Senate Committee on Commerce, and would with luck prove a less enlightening speaker.
On meeting Van Nest, Malcolm-Webb had not disliked him as expected, but had not liked the suspicion that the congenial Washington flack meant to steer him (first by proxy, speaking with the voice of Miss Freund; now with thumb applied direct) along a predetermined path, in accord with some undisclosed objective. And though he must suppose this an objective shared by his own employer, having fallen in with the Americans, Malcolm-Webb was no longer certain whether these paths still converged, or whether he was now being used to further some new purpose. He felt irritable as well about the impossibility of finding out what Van Nest and Greta had discussed, without betraying an interest in what they’d discussed.
The scientific speaker had erased his calculations from the blackboard. The M.C. stepped up to introduce Benjamin Nathan to the audience, remarking that the Senator needed no introduction. Nathan, short, dark-haired and energetic, opened with a story from his Navy days, an anecdote about his training as a radio operator. He called attention to an earlier speaker.
“Commander Pitman told his wife he was a Harvard man. She’s spent the last twenty years waiting for him to say something intelligent.” Pitman and the audience enjoyed the joke; Malcolm-Webb jotted it down. As with the young Nathan, naïve to the vulgar call-sign, there was meaning here, lost on the bloke from London.
“The radio art means a lot to me,” Nathan went on. “I’ve met some of the best people I know through this club. Look at the cross-section of professionals and amateurs we have here today. Operators, tinkerers, inventors, broadcasters, engineers…all contributing their imagination, their enthusiasm, and their hard work, to expand the reach of radio. I like that―because not every industry can consider itself also a community of friends.
“What do friends do? They look out for each other. In America, a lot of people are alone at some point during their day. People work long hours; they get discouraged at times they can’t find work. Housewives, old folks, factory workers, farmers…radio reaches out, finds people in every station of life and speaks to them as a friend. Like a friend, your radio tells you the news, gives you advice, warns you about dangers. Because of radio, whether you live in Washington or Los Angeles, you know the same stories, you sing the same songs. The radio, in the lonely room of some forgotten man, allows him to believe the President of the United States of America knows he’s there and speaks to him directly.
“Radio can be a force for good, but let us not forget that, in the wrong hands, it can be a tool to serve the agenda of those who would like to undermine our free society. The minds of lonely people are fertile ground for specious and facile political arguments. The power to reach a wide audience is a great responsibility. I ask you to make it your personal pledge, that in these days when Americans must set aside our differences and work toward a common goal, you will always promote over our airwaves a message of goodwill and American values.”
As Nathan and his aide were hurrying up the aisle between rows of seats, Malcolm-Webb stepped forward to introduce himself. Nathan cut him off.
“I don’t mind at all.”
This, mid-way through Malcolm-Webb’s apology for troubling the Senator.
“Would it be acceptable…?” he began.
“Ride along with us.” Striding past, Nathan gestured with an ushering motion. Efficient sort, Malcolm-Webb thought, following the senator to the waiting Packard. Nathan told his aide to get in front with the driver; after pulling out and progressing half a block, they were held up by traffic.
“In your last statement, where you had mentioned ‘fertile ground’…was this an allusion to Communism?”
“Communism!” Nathan smacked a hand on the front seat-back. “Listen, do you know how easily anyone could set up a secret radio network and use it to organize seditious activities, under our noses? That’s exactly what the Reds in Europe have been doing. They make a list of enemies, they start campaigning against whoever’s on the list—individuals, businesses, whole governments. They start with intimidation tactics, but sabotage…or terrorism, if you want to call it that, is a cheap commodity. Subversives don’t need a large membership or a lot of money to get mileage out of torching a building or setting off a bomb. In Europe, and especially in Russia, you have a system built on corruption. The people tend to be weak-minded; they don’t know what it is to live in a free country. A lot of those places came too late to democracy. No one is going to get away with it in America…I mean a rule of terror.
“But, see, the trouble is, even in tough times people here have it easy in a lot of ways. A kid from a soft background gets attracted to big ideas…that stuff seems romantic to a youngster who hasn’t seen a lot of life. Political outsiders can throw off some swagger, and when their circle of influence widens, they take on the misfits and unstable elements who can’t understand that for the leaders all this revolution talk is just gasbagging. You may have noticed the political criminals who get caught are always pathetic…and the ones who egged them on never get caught. We have to keep an eye out for the weak spots in our society. We can’t hang onto our way of life by letting down our guard. So when I give a talk…yeah, I think it’s important to remind people of their duty.”
Malcolm-Webb felt he had only himself to blame. He was used to politicians. He had asked for it, this excerpt from Senator Nathan’s Speech on Communism. He hoped for better luck with his second question.
“I’d like to ask you about America’s isolationist policy towards Europe.”
“Right. We’ve got a lot of government resources invested in these New Deal programs. You don’t push big money into something like that, then go off getting involved trying to solve everyone else’s problems.” Something over-brisk in Nathan’s “like that” made Malcolm-Webb suspect he opposed this use of big money.
“We have to stick with the course we’ve chosen. It’s the same for you over in England. You can’t take on the cost of rescuing Spain. You’ve got your own economy that needs putting back on the rails. Personally, I believe the League of Nations isn’t structured to benefit America. We are a world power. We’d be expected to take a strong position on whatever issue was up for debate, but as soon as we took a stand, we’d be vulnerable to the accusation that we don’t understand European affairs, or else we’d be accused of throwing our weight around. If we declined to take a strong position, we’d be accused of not providing leadership. Why put up with it? We can decide when and to what extent we’re going to get involved over there at whatever point it coincides with our own interests. And without committing ourselves to involvement in issues that have nothing to do with our interests.” He turned, allowing within the car’s interior, a broader space for the throwing out of his hands. “I mean, those guys, a couple of years ago, they were debating a resolution to protect sea birds from oil. Is that an international issue? Why do we have the Audubon people?”
Malcolm-Webb spread his own hands. Nathan was still speaking.
“So, basically, we can have the advantages without the drawbacks when we stay out of it…why should we want all the drawbacks and none of the advantages? Some people will tell you that war is good for the economy. No, war’s unhealthy. It’s like taking out a loan for five thousand dollars, and calling yourself five thousand dollars richer. You can’t concentrate the wealth in one sector, and let other sectors go begging. People should be buying houses, cars, refrigerators…” He trailed off. They had stopped again, next to a city bus. For two blocks, an advertisement for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s weekend fares to New York had filled their left-side windows. Nathan discovered an idea.
“Where do people go on the weekends?” He enumerated, holding up his left hand, knocking down splayed fingers with his right. “They look at leaves in the fall, they go skiing in the winter…”
“Christmas.” Diffident, the aide contributed a word.
“Holidays, sure,” Nathan agreed. “Write this stuff down, Kirby.” Kirby searched his pockets, pulled out a notepad, lost the pen which also sprang free, and bent awkwardly over his knees to grope for it.
“The changing seasons motif. It’s kind of hackneyed.” Nathan paused.
“Kind of hackneyed,” Kirby repeated, writing.
“Where do people go in the spring?”
No one spoke.
Filling the void, Malcolm-Webb suggested, “To look at flowers, perhaps?”
Nathan refused him. “No, that doesn’t sound right. The whole family gets in the car, drives off to look at flowers. It’s weak. I’ll come up with something.
“Anyway”—he began making sense again—“in wartime you lose as much as you gain, economically. Maybe you put some people to work, maybe you move some raw materials…but people stop buying things. They can’t buy things, for that matter. I’m not talking shortages, either. You’re gonna have shortages. But I mean…it’s wartime. You can’t swank around when everybody’s sacrificing, right? And all the jobs all that purchasing power might have created, can’t grow.”
So Nathan, who moved about Washington sharing his message, was an advocate for the isolationist faction. The strategy of non-intervention, to the extent that it dovetailed with national self-interest and conservative use of resources, could be laid seamlessly alongside the goals of an appeasement-minded organization. Appeasement and peace as objectives were near-relatives; they were not identical.
However, as their next stop was one on the International Peace League’s Washington schedule, Malcolm-Webb considered the implications. The British government had a strong faction that wanted the Empire to remain sovereign and apart from affairs in Europe, even at a cost. America had also a strong, and perhaps―measuring the balance of economic power its supporters held over their opponents―a much stronger faction of isolationists.
Self-interest might keep each nation in its separate sphere long enough for the crisis to pass; if hostilities could thus be prevented, the non-interventionists, using the Peace League as a vehicle, might align profitably with the Germans. Britain, in the event of a general war in Europe, needed America to come to her aid; whereas a non-interventionist alliance with Germany would effectively make America the enemy of Britain.
Complicating the question was the fact that in America and Britain, factions alone played the game, so to speak, while the Germans were wholly committed. The Peace League’s direction, then, might be revealed sooner than supposed. He’d seen evidence the American contingent controlling this operation were prepared to strike in boldly.
Malcolm-Webb had turned these things over while writing in his notebook, so as to seem preoccupied, rather than rudely silent. He asked Nathan about the countryside they were passing through.
“We’re in Virginia now. You’re right, nice corner of the world out here. A lot of horse farms. We’re actually only going a few miles outside the capital.”
He began an anecdote about a Swiss envoy and a hunting party which had occurred at the private home where the Peace League luncheon was being held. The Packard pulled onto a graveled drive, which led to an expanse of glazed brick laid in a chevron pattern. The colonnaded house in the main showed its age beneath white paint, with gouges of missing brick, and mild slumping from recessed mortar marring its surface. Two wings of perfect symmetry, constructed of flush, impeccable grids, appeared to have been added by the owners. Strikingly clean windows were framed by black shutters. All the fat prosperity on which the sun cast its rays was strikingly clean, tidy, manicured; the sky Quaker Lady blue, the grass basking on the sloping pastureland just beginning to green in anticipation of spring. In grazing pens as cultivated as parkland were horses glossy to their polished hooves. The stables and white fences sat adjacent to each other, square and true, freshly painted.
“It turns out the guy didn’t trust his wife,” Nathan finished. “But obviously he couldn’t say anything.”
“I’d always heard if you don’t hunt, retiring to the library with a book is the best procedure.”
The interior of the house was done in greens and whites, Impressionist landscapes selected for their tonal uniformity of lilac and sand occupying the lower two-thirds of the walls, flocked damask paper in ivory covering the upper third. Lilac and sand were the colors of the Aubusson; blue and white Chinese urns, focally placed in corners, echoing mantelpiece ginger jars, were filled with forced hothouse daffodils―white daffodils. He located Stauber, whose voice tended to carry. Mrs. Branstadt was there, wearing an afternoon dress of taupe silk noil, high-necked, highly respectable. He did not see Greta. This Peace League event’s speakers had done their day’s work, a great relief to Malcolm-Webb.
The atmosphere was informal. A catered buffet had been laid on three long tables in an adjoining room, one perhaps used as a ballroom in less prosaic days, spanned by a black and white tiled floor, its high ceilings framed by rows of arched windows.
Nathan, launching Malcolm-Webb into the throng with a forceful pat on the shoulder, told him not to miss the buffet. “When they throw one of their shindigs, Taggart’s worst enemies angle for an invitation.”
“What are these?” Malcolm-Webb asked Mrs. Branstadt, meeting her at the dessert table.
“Hmm…yes. And what are those?”
“Mud Hen Squares.”
“Ah. I lean towards the pralines.”
“They’re all southern dishes. Eleanore Taggart is a Daughter of the Confederacy. She’s introducing the Peace League to her heritage.”
“And what does a Daughter of the Confederacy do?”
“Celebrates her heritage, I would think. The political position is a little untenable at this point.”
“Do they mesh well with the Peace League, these daughters?”
“Well, both groups do tend to hark back to old times.”
“I have to confess this milieu is alien to me. I’m afraid I’d manage badly as a guest. Fortunately, being a member of the press, I have license to offend.”
“Politics in America isn’t like England. There’s no House of Lords. We don’t have fixtures, unless you count the Supreme Court. It’s hard for anyone to put too much stock in protocol, because half the people are always new.”
“But Mrs. Taggart is something of a famous hostess?”
She eyed him. “When you say famous, are you being funny? I saw you come in with Senator Nathan.”
“I did hear she has a good Sisley.”
“Well, her husband is here somewhere, so be quiet.”
They crossed the room to join Stauber, who was speaking with Eleanore Taggart. She proved to be a toothy woman, a hand-grabber, tall and elaborately chignoned.
“I cannot stay in America for many more days,” Stauber was saying. “I very much hope, while I am here, that I can find at least some news of these relatives.”
Continued from “news of these relatives”
This was a thing to witness, Stauber playing the courtly Viennese. Putting it on thick, Malcolm-Webb said to himself.
“Ethel! Who do we have?” Their hostess, not to be rude in ignoring Stauber’s remark, leaned over and hooked him by the elbow, while taking up Mrs. Branstadt’s hand and Malcolm-Webb’s in succession. Mrs. Branstadt made the introduction. Stauber said, “Mr. Malcolm-Webb. I am very glad to see you again!” They shook hands, and Stauber extended a photo of a late Romanov period family grouping. “My mother’s cousins from Sevastopol. I know of one, this man here, though he is of course so much older now. He should be in this city, but I don’t know how I will begin to find him in the time I have.”
“There are Russians in the ballet, of course, and in the symphony,” Eleanore Taggart said. “And I see no reason why I can’t go on helping, even after you’ve gone home to Vienna. I know all sorts of people. I’d have fun tracking your cousin down. I’ll write to you, and you can write to me, then we’ll know our letters are getting through…”
Benjamin Nathan walked up to the group, accompanied by another man, one about whom Malcolm-Webb found something off-putting. This was not the harsh reddened skin of his face—the product of outdoor pursuits, drink, or both; not the contrasting paleness of hair and eyes, the prim tailoring of his gabardine suit, nor the conspicuous gold of cufflinks that sported some obscurity in symbols either fraternal or purely decorative.
Malcolm-Webb watched a quelling hostility deepen when the man looked at Eleanore, saw this disguised by the social smile directed at Nathan, and afterwards cast vaguely over the group. There was portent here, some ugly retribution foretold…he felt it was not too much, in the privacy of his own mind, to believe so.
“Louis, this is Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb; Geoffrey, Louis Taggart. I don’t have the honor of knowing the lady.”
Malcolm-Webb introduced Mrs. Branstadt to Nathan and his friend. Taggart’s performance was complicated. He began with a near-snub for the man whose hand he had just seen his wife clutch, switched like an automaton to his best approximation of cordial warmth in welcoming Mrs. Branstadt to his home. He shot a hard, unfriendly look at Eleanore. She in turn made the briefest of eye-contact with her husband, and moved closer to Stauber, whose existence Louis Taggart had left unacknowledged. Was Nathan capable of deliberate mischief? Malcolm-Webb decided it was time, at any rate, to seek out Newbolt.
“I’m sorry you missed my little talk. Rather a good one, considering I had to knock the thing together at the last minute.” This, Newbolt had observed, when Malcolm-Webb found him making a second forage through the buffet.
“The chicken is worth notice, by the way. I’m not sure how it’s meant to be eaten…makes a bit of a mess.”
“I was wondering”—he’d stood nodding through Newbolt’s inconsequential remarks—“if you wouldn’t make a copy of your speech available to me for reference? I’ll stop by for it myself, if you’ll leave it at your desk.”
“Lucky thing for you I’m not extemporaneous. I’ll just let you have my notes. And by the way,” Newbolt added, “when you edit the thing down, leave out the Cobbett quote if you must. Only a bit of vanity.”
Having a limited budget for expenses, Malcolm-Webb had found a hotel on New York Avenue, several blocks from the center of Washington. The conductor of his train from New York City, along with a fellow passenger, had recommended it, as Malcolm-Webb presumed, in a conspiracy directed against the defenseless stranger.
Excusing possible faults, it could be said at least that the room smelled all right, discounting mustiness; and that it showed no signs of vermin. He did not mind its being the size of a cupboard…merely a chance to know its charms better. The room was furnished with a bed and a small table beside the bed. A chair had been jammed against the connecting door to the next room, thankfully kept locked. He enjoyed a few inches of navigable carpet between articles of furniture; less so did he enjoy the noisy radiator beneath the window. The view was alarming, the window opening, for maximum vertigo, something above knee-height. The hotel was eight stories high; Malcolm-Webb had fetched up on the sixth—but found the feeling of menace sufficient. He kept the blind closed.
He had notes to sort, from his interview in New York with an officer of the American Zeppelin Transport Company, the U.S. branch that represented the interests of its German partner. The interview had not been highly productive. He’d asked about the future of the Hindenburg’s sister ship, presently under construction. He’d asked about the company’s profit forecast. The American officer had waxed enthusiastic regarding the capacity and luxury of the projected airship, and optimistic about the industry’s future. Malcolm-Webb could derive from such statements, delivered in salesman’s platitudes, nothing that amounted to a decent feature-piece. His private conclusion was that either the American branch was pursuing separate interests of its own, or had poor information coming out of Europe.
Moving on to Newbolt’s material, he reviewed the text of the speech, beginning with Newbolt’s introductory statement that: “The taking of precautions is not a symptom of weakness or defeatism; rather, precautions are in themselves the strong course of a prudently governed nation.” Newbolt proceeded then, with the quote from William Cobbett:
“Such unintellectual people might have thought that we had ‘conquered France by the immortal Wellington,’ to little purpose, if we were still in such fear as to build alarm-posts; and they might, in addition, have observed that, for many hundreds of years, England stood in need of neither signal-posts nor standing army of mercenaries but relied on the courage and public spirit of the people themselves.”
The quote was acceptable within the context of Newbolt’s speech, though it was the point at which Malcolm-Webb was expected to begin extracting the encoded portion. Newbolt had indicated that everything from Cobbett onwards required careful paraphrasing.
Malcolm-Webb had no information about the nature of the references; his ignorance created an added layer of security. He would faithfully transcribe all nouns and phrases, even (perhaps particularly) those crossed through or jotted in the margin. The Wellington mention called to mind Waterloo, of course, and might point to an expected event or a planned course of action…the alarm-posts and signal-posts were suggestive.
Deniability was more important in ordinary intelligence work than a high level of encryption. The picture people had of secreted notes done in cyphers and symbols, dispatched in the garment hems of couriers crossing enemy territory, had some validity in a wartime setting, where the agent was of less value than the message itself. On a day to day basis, it was disastrously inefficient to risk a channel established through perilous, painstaking effort, by engaging in sneaking, conspicuous behavior. The work was done under the surface of transparency, communication being nothing more than an understanding between two or more persons. A man in Newbolt’s position could not be seen passing notes, but he could write letters and make speeches. Malcolm-Webb’s role in this highly sensitive matter bridged the gap, in that he was able to move in circles and contact people Newbolt couldn’t.
Cobbett quote from Rural Rides, 1825.
The Power of Suggestion
It is our business to be thoughtful about our surroundings; not unpleasantly critical, hurting people’s feelings for the sake of things, but we should form intelligent opinions about the objects in our homes. Far from being indifferent, we must either like or dislike everything and know definitely the reasons for our feeling.
Household Arts and Sciences
Helen B. Cleaves
At Union Station, wheeled carts rattled, commuters whistled and shouted, bunched together and broke free; while in the background, noise echoed and reverberated, aggregating into a roar, breaking off into individually distinct voices. It was 3:00 p.m., and Malcolm-Webb, weaving his way among the bench seats, stepped on American toes in a manner he would not have employed at Victoria. He found Greta where they’d arranged to meet, perched on a lunch counter stool. He had puzzled, since their last parting, over this question of how he might see her before he knew it. A conventional phrase, he supposed, but unless she were disguised—
He spotted her easily. She looked smartly turned out, with her cherry-colored beads, a suit of navy admixed with green, the hue Malcolm-Webb had been taught to call Prussian blue.
“I missed you at the Taggart affair,” he said.
Greta stared at him. “You mean I wasn’t there. I went shopping.”
He glanced at her hat, which was asymmetrical and trimmed in grosgrain ribbon.
“You’ve seen the hat,” she told him. “I bought new shoes. These earrings are new.”
She was using a tone of voice. Malcolm-Webb offered a weak compliment. “Yes, of course…I remember.” He didn’t. “But I quite enjoy seeing it again.”
The coffee they ordered cost a nickel; the lemon meringue pie ten cents.
“How do they determine,” he speculated, hoping to recover from some undefined error, “that pie ought to cost twice as much as coffee?”
“It doesn’t cost twice as much—it costs a dime.”
“I didn’t realize that.”
“’Cause you’re cheap. You think that’s money, ten cents. Anyway, since lemon meringue is all they’ve got, it’s not a question of how much…it’s a question of take it or leave it.”
“Travelers’ economics.” The speaker was Van Nest, who joined them, or had somehow been there all the while, unnoticed…in the midst of such activity, Malcolm-Webb could not be certain.
“All you got is lemon meringue?” Van Nest asked the waitress.
Continued from “asked the waitress”
“It’s what the lady brought this time. If you came yesterday, you could have had rhubarb.”
“Rhubarb in February?” asked Greta.
“She puts it up.”
Greta touched Geoffrey’s arm, nodding towards Van Nest. “What does the ‘H’ stand for?” she asked him.
“What you want with that?” the waitress asked.
“Grilled cheese, and get ’em to put some mayo on it.”
“Well, sure. You want ketchup?”
“Ketchup, plenty of coffee, and…” He scanned the offerings, then spotted his quarry in a glass countertop case.
“…two of those doughnuts.”
Greta and Van Nest appeared to be great friends. Malcolm-Webb watched her steal a doughnut bite by bite while Van Nest watched, with a self-satisfied half-smile, his own hands work fork and knife, combining hash browns, fried bread, and soft cheese into a ketchup-soaked mélange.
His Dixie passport earned attention.
“I’m from Norfolk. I don’t mean I’m from Virginia,” their waitress told him. This was a joke, its import vouchsafed to Van Nest with a wink. On each pass from grill to counter, she leaned over to speak a friendly word; on the way back, she topped off his coffee.
Mrs. Branstadt, armed with plaid umbrella and the middle-western traveler’s distrust of humanity, fought past a slow-moving family group. The father had stopped to consult a train schedule; the mother, holding the daughter by the hand, continued in oblivion to walk the concourse. Last in line, an old woman, alert and agitated, smacked the man repeatedly on the shoulder.
“No, I can’t do anything about it,” he murmured.
Mrs. Branstadt stopped behind Van Nest and stood waiting. Two men who’d come up close on her heels remained there. They shared a uniformity of dress and manner, the older having pronounced facial bones and a cynical expression. In contrast to his suit and tie, he carried what looked like a carpenter’s leather satchel. The younger, round-faced, having the bouncing mannerisms of a natural talker, said, “Hey, chief!” to Van Nest and winked at Greta; then set about observing the crowd, his professionalism doing little to belie Malcolm-Webb’s impression that he was employed by the government.
Van Nest leaned sideways and laid one hand flat on the counter, dividing Greta and Malcolm-Webb. “So, we’re seeing the last of you, Geoffrey.” He said this affably enough. “You’re headed back to the U.K.”
“I feel as though I were there already. Somewhere in the Orkneys, perhaps.”
“I told you, you can’t tell what he means half the time.” Saying this, Greta turned her head. Malcolm-Webb saw the back of her hat, and Van Nest’s raised eyebrows.
She had sent a note to his hotel, asking him to see her off. He hadn’t expected the over-informed Van Nest to be a member of the party…but the time had come, he supposed, for adopting the philosophical view. Malcolm-Webb had envisioned himself pottering through life, his career compensation adequate to his spiritual needs, until he one day bumped athwart a female counterpart. This would be an attraction of mutual diffidence. He had allowed his heart, these last days, to wax a bit giddy.
The National Limited, which the Americans planned to board, might haul in from Baltimore at around five p.m. Mrs. Branstadt and the two men stood debating the train’s reputation for punctuality.
Miss Freund soon would go off with them…that would be all.
“I have something for you,” she said. With an alacrity calculated to forestall apologies for not having thought of her in return, she snapped open her handbag. The article she pulled out was a small glossy photo, one of Greta herself gazing, with the deceptive innocence of an ingénue, at some heavenly object. Scrolled lettering canted across the right bottom corner.
“What sort of name is Grace Farmer?”
“An American sounding name with the same initials. What sort of name did you think it was?”
“Well, I’m awfully pleased.”
“Do you want me to sign it?”
He handed her his pen, and, across the bottom of the publicity photo, she wrote, “Yours, Greta.”
Van Nest had requested no Pullman service on the private car that, on the authority of the Department of Commerce, had been coupled to the train’s last regular passenger car. At times the highest level of secrecy was needed, no better choice existed than a rail car, en route to its destination. The arrangement precluded anyone’s listening in, and limited the number of participants to those present. No scenario involving a file clerk in an adjoining office, or a janitor mopping the hallway floor, could complicate the investigation if information leaked. The scope would be contained to a small number of suspects; they, at the outset, having understood their position.
Once the train moved beyond the city, building up speed to a comfortable rhythm, and the car became surrounded by the steady drone of its own motion, Van Nest addressed the group:
“Folks, one objective of this operation is to control potential variables. We need to take measures to reduce the exposure of American citizens; we have to honor our pledge to our friends in the U.K. to keep their government away from suspicion. If we do our jobs, in the ultimate accounting there should be no indication of activity.
“We have an event which needs to be placed in a framework. Certain perceptions need to be created. In the aftermath, the event needs to suggest itself as fitting into a familiar-seeming story; a story that people readily adopt as an explanation of the event. I’d like Mr. Lorenzini to talk to you about the idea of a framework.”
Dewey Lorenzini took off his jacket, which had looked uncomfortably tight across the shoulders. He stretched, shot his winning smile at Greta, said, “Thanks, chief”, then launched with a self-conscious formality of diction, most of his eye-contact continuing with Greta. Once or twice he seemed to address Mrs. Branstadt, or glanced at Van Nest for confirmation of a point.
“Going back twenty years, more or less, the foundations of our work were established in the field of wartime propaganda. Back then, America was beginning to test the effectiveness of public information, distributed in a focused way, and on a large scale. In the post-war years, we had two kinds of crime taking over the country in ways we’d never seen: Organized acts of political terrorism as a result of Communist infiltration, and gangland activity resulting from Prohibition. The scale of these criminal enterprises was new to America, in the level of planning, the sophistication of weaponry, and the means of communication.
“First, and naturally, some of the vast amounts of armaments produced during the war had found their way into the black market after the military demobilized. Second, the world in general changed since the end of the war. Back then—1918—not so many people kept cars, lots of people still didn’t have phones…”
He stopped, and laughed softly. “My Ma is this way with the phone. She don’t like to answer it…my father or my brother has to—’cause it might be bad news.” He shrugged. “Well, what I always think is, in the old days, you’d see someone come up the street…I mean, you’d see a kind of look on his face, and you’d say to yourself, ‘Oh-oh.’
“Now you pick up the phone, you don’t know what’s on the other end…could be great, could be rotten, could be nothing. So I get my Ma…I see it. We’re never gonna know how it used to be, when you could take bad news slow, us younger people.”
“Yeah, we oughta stop and think about that.” Jerry Gray—the carpenter—spoke, deadpan. “You went into the wrong line of work, Dewey.”
Lorenzini, without changing the direction of his gaze, shoved the satchel with his foot, striking his partner on the ankle; then raising his voice to cover Gray’s profanity, he resumed, non-anecdotally. “Let’s consider the special problems in dealing with the Reds. Many of the agitators were foreigners; some were citizens, but still they came from immigrant communities. With these types of people you have a different set of circumstances. Some don’t speak English, some speak a kind of patois, using words from the old country that have taken on a specialized meaning in their neighborhood, one that can vary from city to city, or region to region. Establishing a network of informants in a community like that is a challenge. These people recognize an outsider…they catch on fast when someone’s story doesn’t ring true. They have close ties, not only within the neighborhood, but going back to the old country.
“Only certain types of outsiders can plausibly move into, and make themselves trusted in, a community like that…maybe a priest, a teacher, a social worker. But that creates recruiting problems. You can’t engage those professions without involving a superior, most times—and you never want extra people involved. It’s human nature. Having a secret makes people feel important; feeling important makes them behave in ways that are indiscreet.
“The other downsides are that people in jobs like that—that are more callings—may have too much pride to act as informants; and the areas they can traffic around in are limited.
“Now let’s consider the criminal gangs that started operating during Prohibition, manufacturing and selling illegal alcohol. Since a lot of money was involved, some of the wrongdoers were not your typical members of the criminal classes. Some were even operating within the realms of law enforcement and the courts. The particular problem of bringing these people to justice, beyond simply that the system itself was corrupt, was the degree of violence they were capable of inflicting to maintain their organization. In the length of time it took to bring cases to trial, the intimidation, the pressure they put on witnesses, could destroy months of work.
“We realized that winning the battle against these new threats meant a new way of thinking. We couldn’t rely on local outfits doing the best they could with methods that belonged to the past. We needed to adopt the knowledge we’d gained from our public information program to develop specialized techniques.”
Lorenzini stopped, and aimed at Greta a comic face. “Yeah, that’s a lot of me running my mouth.” He snapped his fingers. “Okay, suppose you’re a bookkeeper for a small company…say you’ve been stealing from them, just small change. You got a simple scheme. You make a phony account for a guy called Tom Bailey, and you write him a five dollar check here, a ten dollar check there. One day you’re sitting at home. The phone rings, and someone asks if Tom Bailey lives there. What do you do? Well, you probably lay off your scheme, try covering your tracks…and if a long time goes by and nothing else happens, maybe convince yourself it was some crazy coincidence.
“Now think of a similar situation, except this time you’re stealing big sums of money, maybe tens of thousands, and you’re in partnership with two other guys at the office. The same thing happens with the phone call. But in this case, the stakes are a lot higher for you, and there’s no question whether someone else knows about the scheme. So first off, you’d probably ask yourself, ‘What is this, a joke or a threat?’ Next, you’d wonder which of your two partners is the most likely to do it.”
Lorenzini here cast a glance in Gray’s direction. Van Nest shifted, and sat forward.
“If,” Lorenzini went on, “you ask one of them and he denies it, do you believe him? Suppose he accuses you of making the story up? Even if your little crime ring doesn’t fall apart, you have to figure out what’s going on, who you can trust, before you take any more chances. In other words, when you’re dealing with people who are hard to get at for various reasons, you can find ways of making them police themselves. Any questions?”
He looked at Greta. She had noticed the clink of tools from Gray’s leather satchel.
“The house divided against itself. I get it.”
He cocked a forefinger at her. “You make a very good point, Miss Freund. Undermine the foundation. Exactly. Because a crime syndicate is a business, too; and a business can’t sustain itself when it reaches a certain crisis point where profits won’t meet expenses. It costs money trying to find all the rat holes and plug ’em. We don’t have to stop every job that’s being planned, we just have to stop enough. Using our special techniques, we can do it with only a small expenditure of our own resources.”
“Greta is my best student.”
It pleased her to get one of Van Nest’s compliments; she smiled, catching Lorenzini’s grin. But she didn’t thank her boss.
“Now,” Van Nest went on, “we’re talking about the concept of creating a framework for an event. You remember Black Thursday? Who’s got an idea of what caused the stock market crash?”
“The banks,” Gray said at once.
“So tell me about the banks.”
“Well. Okay, I should’ve let someone else answer. Lemme think. It was…they were speculating…they were making bad investments with people’s money.”
“So that’s a theory. But can you sit here and give me the path, from start to finish, by which a bank, through the medium of a bad investment, might destabilize the market and crash the economy?”
“Nah, it’s a trick question. I’m not gonna claim I’m smart or anything…but I’d know the answer if I could look it up. I can’t look it up on a train car.”
“It is a trick question, Jerry, but you’re focusing on the wrong trick. I’m talking about perception. When you were asked to give a simple, off-the-cuff response, it came out easily enough. When I asked you to prove what you think you know, you recognized you can’t do it. What I’m saying is, if you had to research the answer, you’d be teaching yourself the answer—it wouldn’t be in the same category as what you gave a minute ago.”
“All right. What caused the stock market crash?”
Lorenzini tapped Gray’s elbow and nodded in the direction of Greta and Mrs. Branstadt. Gray, mouth open, took a deep breath, and said, “Holy Uncle Sam! Perception.”
“Panic,” Van Nest went on smoothly, “is essentially loss of confidence at its highest pitch. Any high stakes object is in a state of threat by definition. The perception of safety creates confidence. But what creates safety? Can the government prevent war, disaster, economic depression? Can religion? If you lose the perception that some entity is protecting you, you lose confidence in safety itself. A high level of threat combined with a high stake object creates an environment ripe for panic.
“The greater the emotional engagement, the more we feel pressured to act. When large numbers participate in the same actions, the pressure increases. High stakes objects lose their value; low stakes objects can obtain value. A good example might be that five-cent cup of coffee. What’s a nickel mean to you if you’re out of work? Our confidence, our sense of safety, is more fragile, closer to the precipice than we realize. The things we’re certain we know, are only stories we tell ourselves…our money, when it’s in the bank, is an article of faith.
“The crash was the first shock in the era of mass communication. When an idea can reach multitudes simultaneously; when an idea has enough power to generate a behavior en masse, the impact can be long lasting. There you have the weakness of propaganda. We can create panic; we can induce loss of confidence. But what reverses the effect? If trust has been crippled by the first event, what event recreates trust?
“According to the public narrative, we don’t blame the small investor or the ordinary guy for taking part in a pattern of behavior that resulted in bringing the economy down. The banks failed the people by loaning them money. Stores gave them credit, elected officials lacked the foresight to prevent mass hysteria.”
“But you can’t argue,” said Mrs. Branstadt, “that all the people who were put out of work or lost their savings were the ones responsible for the panic!”
Continued from “for the panic”
“I can’t, and I don’t. You’re digressing because your emotions are engaged. I’ve made a statement to illustrate my position, not to express a position on the statement itself. We’re still talking about how people perceive an event. Emotional engagement, you need to look at as one more useful ingredient of our work. And here you have the strength of propaganda: Certain aspects of character are so reliable, so deeply ingrained, that I can tell you how I’m going to influence your actions, and still influence them. You can count on deflecting an argument when you introduce anything that touches emotion. You can count on people digging in deeper if you embarrass them about their beliefs. You can count on defiance in response to injustice…that is if I feel you’ve been unfair to me.” Van Nest chuckled. “I may not care if you hurt the other guy. But…when a man who feels wronged meets another who tells him he was right, it creates the most enduring, sympathetic bond in human nature.
“We learned some time ago that public events can be stage managed. Because our ways…our options, for communicating ideas to the public have expanded, we’ve developed more sophisticated methods of setting the stage before an event takes place. The nation’s interests, at times, are best served by preparing the minds of the people to follow sign-posts that lead them to adopt a certain explanation of an event, when it occurs. The explanation that a person reasons out for himself is the explanation he’ll commit to. Some technical questions or complicated matters of international policy don’t mean much to the average guy, but everyone has his day to day concerns. We want to live in safe neighborhoods; we need to make ends meet at the end of the week…put supper on the table, pay the rent.
“Occasionally we need to build an environment in which the public perceives a threat to our society, an influence in political trends. When an event occurs, it will seem to offer proof of the threat. In this way, we have prepared minds waiting when we introduce our programs.”
The St. Louis neighborhood of Lafayette Square had been in its belle époque elegant and prosperous. The district had been knocked down twice: rubbished in 1896 by a tornado; blighted by the present economic decline. But commerce was creeping back. Not all of the aristocratic houses were gone; a few stood aloof, clustered at street ends, and new businesses encroached the neighborhood’s borders, rising on avenues shaded by half-grown trees.
One oak of venerable years sheltered a Second Empire survivor. The address, once a private home, had for years housed offices belonging to the U.S. government. Late in the war’s aftermath, and transitioning through early 1920, the building’s purpose had changed. The main parlor and library had been converted to workrooms where foreign-language documents were translated into English. Clerks checked authorizations and mailed copies as requested.
The grand hall was now an archive, with file cabinets arranged in a maze of window-lit and dim-shadowed passages; the pantry was used for building supplies, an understair closet had been outfitted with a modern furnace. The cellars weren’t used at all—these backed up with water when the storm sewers failed. The former second-floor bedrooms held unfiled material in boxes, documents of varying type that had accumulated during the war.
Van Nest had opened a normally unused room on the attic floor. He and Lorenzini were working at the two desks, coordinating reports that had been sent to St. Louis from agents in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, also a report from the local man. Greta was in another room, sent to help, in her supplementary duty as translator, with a stack of telegrams—kept apart from their talk for a reason of Van Nest’s.
If anyone had asked Van Nest’s secretary, Mrs. Garth, how much assistance his office assistant typically gave, Mrs. Garth would have said, “Ask Mr. Van Nest.”
Greta could type and file—for a patient dictator, she could manage shorthand. She loathed these tasks. At home in Washington, in quiet periods between Van Nest’s special assignments, she hung at his side; and he was happy with the work distribution, happy having a personal muse, off whom to bounce his inspirations. His staff simmered. Van Nest had reasons, as well, for not minding that.
“So…what is it you want Greta to help you with?” Whenever he put it that way, the trouble blew over pretty quickly.
He chuckled, thinking of this, and Lorenzini, standing by his chair fingering a folder, chuckled too, as though Van Nest had anticipated his next remark.
“I think this broad is too old.” Lorenzini dumped three stapled papers in front of Van Nest. “She’s seventy. She could die before we get finished.”
“Timing is everything.” Shrugging, Van Nest scanned the profile, and told Lorenzini the woman would make a reasonable choice, if they couldn’t do better.
The agents had been given a specific set of characteristics to use in compiling their list of candidates. The candidate must come from a heartland city with a working-class population and a traditional outlook. An abundance of choices might have existed; however, a secondary requirement was the city be a known site where an active faction opposed Germany’s National Socialists. The candidate, preferably female, must be of German extraction herself. She should come from a strong religious background, but would ideally have fallen away from church-going habits as an adult. She must be alone, isolated from family and social connections. She must be drawn to occultism and fortune-telling. Van Nest and Lorenzini continued discussing the pros and cons of various candidates.
Mrs. Branstadt, who paid frequent blameless visits to Lafayette Square on behalf of the local Genealogical Society, had done an hour’s research, exited the archive room, and gone up three flights of steps. She sat, still catching her breath, with her bag on her lap; she watched and listened with a face of asperity.
“Why are you debating whether you can make do with this one or that one who isn’t perfect, when I’ve told you, I know someone who is? Why don’t we just use Doris Kohler?”
“Well,” said Van Nest, “I can think of reasons not to use someone you know personally.”
“I don’t agree, in this case. Who am I, after all? Just an old busybody. I’ve written Doris a note.”
Van Nest eyed her, but at this initiative raised no objection, noting inside himself only that he’d tasked Mrs. Branstadt with training Greta. There was a kettle of fish, as his uncle would’ve said.
“Asking,” Mrs. Branstadt went on, “if she’d mind my dropping by with a little booklet. Now I hope she’ll be happy to have company. You would think so, poor thing. I’ll take Greta along. If we don’t need to talk about the Peace League, we’ll talk about something else. The two of us can start a conversation about that hocus-pocus business you have in mind, and it’ll be more natural than if I speak to Doris directly. It won’t feel like an interview to her, just friendly talk going around the kitchen table.”
Van Nest bounced his pencil and weighed her argument; he glanced over at Lorenzini, and said, “On consideration, ma’am, I think you have a point. We want to play this thing close to the surface. A little bit of fishiness wouldn’t even do any harm, when you come down to it, since Greta’s only an office girl, if anyone tried looking into it…get kind of embarrassing…raising a stink over nothing. What you think, Dewey?”
“Yeah…the questions someone could ask…it looks pretty safe. And then”—as did Van Nest, Lorenzini seemed to enjoy this prospect—“what’re you gonna do? You could just follow her around, I guess, and she’d lead you in circles.”
Van Nest, with a thoughtful face, rifled reports, and pulled out Doris Kohler’s profile. “I don’t call her perfect, though. They have her listed as Mrs. Kohler. We need a helper who won’t get talked out of things.”
“I’ve never seen any sign of a husband as long as I’ve known Doris, and that’s going back to the days at Berwickes. Some women call themselves ‘Mrs’ just to make their lives easier.”
“That’s funny,” said Lorenzini.
“It’s a funny world, Mr. Lorenzini.”
A daily consumption of crime stories had made Doris Kohler alive to the city’s front page opportunities. She was in a heightened state of nerves as she answered the door of her bungalow. She had heard, before the doorbell rang, the tread of work shoes on her wooden porch, and the voices of two men.
The better dressed of the pair tipped his hat to her; with his toe he nudged a tool kit at his feet. He introduced himself. “Mrs. Kohler, I’m Jerry Gray from the phone company.” He tilted his head, and jerked a thumb backwards. “This is George Shea. You don’t need to worry…I’ll be supervising his work.”
“Oh.” She turned her back on them, and let the men follow her inside the house. “The telephone. My old one went dead and I couldn’t call anyone. I had to ask my neighbor if I could use hers…” Trailing off through the living room, Doris ended her narrative and pointed.
“That it?” Gray sidled around her and hoisted the old candlestick. “Ma’am, do you keep a telephone in your bedroom?”
She was arrested in the act of straightening the armrest’s crocheted doily. “You’re not going upstairs, are you? I’ve never had a phone there.”
Broad’s got her scanties drying on the bedpost, thought Gray. “No ma’am. I’m just making sure we get you taken care of. Since you’ve got a very old model here, George is going to install a new phone for you, and I’m going outside to do a little work on the line. We should be gone inside twenty minutes.”
The Mutual Friend
They made her a grave, too cold and damp,
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe…
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp
Mrs. Branstadt having taken the liberty of telephoning, Doris Kohler had agreed to an afternoon of cards and coffee. Doris had a story to tell about her phone. She wasn’t used to the new one, but thought the reception was better. Did you call it reception? Mrs. Branstadt didn’t know. Doris spoke, just as Mrs. Branstadt remembered her doing, in a voice that quavered, an audible cringe. She had a habit of ending every sentence on a down note.
Doris seemed eager for company; she questioned nothing, recalled, even, that she too had thought of Mrs. Branstadt…not long ago…wasn’t it funny…she did not mind at all, she said, if Mrs. Branstadt liked to bring along a friend. Doris would have to shop. She began to prolong the conversation, worriedly listing tasks that occurred to her.
“Nonsense. I’ve really invited myself. I will bring a cake. You’re very kind, Doris.”
She had asked Greta to please leave her hotel early, to stop by the Branstadts’ for twenty minutes before Al would drive them to Doris’s. Mrs. Branstadt had a few words of instruction to impart.
In the neutral phrasing she’d selected for the occasion, she told Greta: “With these types of conversations, it’s good to keep theatricality to a minimum. The message should be remembered, not the source of the message.”
“Hmm…yeah…I see what you’re saying.”
The pace of Greta’s speech slowed to a standstill. It accelerated. “You want me to give you a little warning, change the subject or something, if I don’t think you’re putting it across.”
Mrs. Branstadt sighed. “Will you help me with the cake, dear?”
Among her clubs and civic groups, Ethel Branstadt enjoyed an authority in the arena of competitive baking. People looked forward to one of her cakes. She had promised Doris a cake. A free one, in the balance of things…yet of course up to standard…creole chocolate, frosting forked in a basket-weave design, piping swagged around its upper edge. Teamwork and careful handling were needed to negotiate plate and lid into the pasteboard box.
Continued from “pasteboard box”
Today Greta wore only a modest day dress. No man was expected at Doris Kohler’s house, and she didn’t dress for Al. Still, he made a little business out of being, with his wife’s young guest, the gentleman—bringing her coat and helping her into it, while Mrs. Branstadt buttoned up alone, and reached for her bag. He ventured, “If there’s any cake left over…”
An undercurrent of tension brewed in the Branstadt household. Al’s wife snapped, “Well, I can’t take it back! That would be nice.” She spoke to Greta. “Doris, you don’t want the rest of that, do you?”
This was acting, this dialogue mooted in sing-song. Greta wondered whether Mrs. Branstadt’s overplaying of it might be a test for her protégé. She nodded, therefore, while privately she disbelieved; and said, “You got it.”
Mrs. Branstadt spoke to Al. “I’ll have to make you another one. I may”—she passed him as he held the door open—“or I may not.”
Al and the cake kept a low profile on the Ford’s front seat, until he’d brought them to within a block of Doris Kohler’s house. He pulled to the curb. “You ladies mind getting out and walking the rest of the way? So she won’t think she has to invite me in.”
“You could stay for one cup of coffee, just to be neighborly,” his wife said.
“I’m not going to.”
The limitations of Doris Kohler’s small green and red kitchen forced Mrs. Branstadt to a tight grip on her box, her bag swinging from the crook of her elbow. Greta edged in front, scooting backwards, waving ineffectual hands at her colleague’s burden. She stubbed her heel on both the table’s and a jutting chair’s leg.
From Mrs. Branstadt, the first of these oaths, niceties practiced on Doris’s behalf, brought a frown, the second a muttered, “Please”. Doris was unsettled and underfoot. The three of them competed for floor space taken up already by the table—this covered twice, with a printed cloth over a layer of silver padding.
A wall clock, its cord trailing behind the refrigerator, projected a stream of noise into the room, a steady ticking interspersed with an electric buzz. Above the stove was an arched alcove, and here, something of Doris could be read…in miniature salt and pepper shakers, a rainbow glass toothpick holder, porcelain windmill, tin box painted with kittens, and a pincushion. Also, two powdered-wigged figures, also in porcelain, a flirtatious lady and her swain.
“Oh, that’s too pretty to eat!”
A batch of Russian teacakes, rolled by Doris into lopsided balls, clustered uneasily next to Mrs. Branstadt’s showpiece. She plunged her serving knife’s point into the rosette of chocolate curls at the cake’s center, and only then answered Doris. “Now don’t be silly, dear. I’m giving you the first slice. Greta, help Doris with the plates and forks, please.”
Close at Mrs. Branstadt’s heels, Doris darted to the left, in a distracting move, and snatched up the pasteboard box. She settled this among an accumulation of such boxes near the refrigerator. Mrs. Branstadt looked up from her carving. Greta stood, arms crossed, watching her.
“Greta,” Mrs. Branstadt said. “It would be a help if you and Doris would get out the cups and saucers. Please.” Turning to the countertop, she unplugged the electric percolator. She brought it to the table, where she found Greta keeping a mismatched stack of cups in balance, waiting for Doris, clattering in the cabinet, to hand across saucers. Emerging laden with these, Doris in her disconcerting way, leaned in suddenly on the right.
Mrs. Branstadt found the coffee full of grounds. The electric percolator, under better light, showed dismaying signs of a white cleaning paste adhering in its crevices. Her professional aim was to applaud Doris, however modest the effort; so far as was possible, to boost her sense of self-importance. Nonetheless, Mrs. Branstadt took back the percolator, dumped the coffee in the sink, found a clean wiping rag, inserted the basket firmly, and got a fresh pot going.
Someone tapped on the kitchen door glass. Doris, who had just sat down, pushed her chair backwards, grinding against the linoleum, placing herself in the door’s clearance. The door bumped, and Doris regrouped, stood and ushered in her visitor, introducing her as Mrs. Veidt.
“Wilhelmina, Ethel was my boss down at the store.” Then meek, as though her former boss might fault her conduct, Doris added, eyes on Mrs. Branstadt, “I asked her to come meet you.”
“Are you and Doris good friends?” Mrs. Branstadt asked Mrs. Veidt.
“Doris is a good lady, so helpful to me,” answered the neighbor, with a charitable smile that Mrs. Branstadt recognized. Anyone essentially kind, who came across Doris Kohler, felt a duty to look in on her from time to time.
“Well. Please stay and join us, won’t you? You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Doris?”
With everyone agreeable, and coffee served, a hand of Old Maid was dealt. Greta considered an opening gambit. Ordinarily, at a gathering like this, she would choose the subject of recipes…but in the kitchen their hostess seemed to have bad luck.
She tried, “I love the color you’re wearing, Doris.”
Doris was wearing a white cardigan, pilled. She had done something unflattering with her hair (an attempt, Greta speculated, to self-marcel), employing an armada of pins. But beneath the cardigan, she wore an indigo dress printed in tiny white triangles—and this Greta nearly coveted.
“You must like reading about the Paris fashions. Blue is supposed to be in all the collections this spring.”
“Oh, I don’t pay any attention to fashion.”
Ha, thought Greta, but persisted: “Do you ever look at that advice column they have in the paper? I saw a question I think was kind of funny. A woman wrote she worked in an office…and she says, I always try to dress stylishly”—Greta gave them this advice-seeker, her adopted tone one of fatuous self-admiration—“but every time I wear a new frock, there’s another girl in the office that copies me.” She became herself. “Doris! Know what Mrs. Who-the-Heck, the advice lady, said? You should take it as a compliment…! You know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, blah, blah. Now. Here’s what I would do…do you know what astrology is?”
“I think so.” Doris looked up from her fork and amended this. “I guess I do.”
“Once I found a little coupon in the back of a magazine…five dollars, kind of a lot—but I just wanted to, for laughs. I mean, send it in. See, it was for the American Institute of Astrology and Spiritualism.” To this name Greta gave a grand flourish, and noticed again—she’d had this impression a moment ago—Mrs. Branstadt’s gaze on her.
The word ‘theatrical’ came to mind…but she told herself, forget that.
“You fill out a questionnaire and they mail you a bunch of things. They tell you all about your personality and who you were in your past lives. They told me I was the Empress Theodora…which is fine, but I never heard of her. And they said I should always wear purple to attract good fortune. But you know, Doris, I hardly ever find anything in the stores purple, so I wear blue and red to split the difference.”
“The next color to purple for luck,” Mrs. Veidt said, “should be silver. Silver or white.”
“You can’t wear silver during the day.”
Mrs. Veidt shook her head. She wore a necklace of iridescent beads. She removed this and looped the beads twice. Her chair’s back nearly touched the door, but pushing with one hand under the seat, by inches Mrs. Veidt edged round. She dropped her beads over the doorknob. Doris stared, one hand sneaking upwards to fuss with a hairpin. Mrs. Branstadt’s mouth turned down at the corners.
“I’ve seen that,” Greta told them. “My grandmother had beads on all the doors. They didn’t keep evil out of the house. I think they shut it in.”
“Would anyone like coffee? Or cake?”
Mrs. Branstadt had just clipped Greta’s words.
She was not the older woman’s underling, and disliked, of all things, veiled correction…but for Doris’s sake, Greta composed a hurried face of welcoming attention. Her new friend had just turned to her.
“I’ve seen those spiritual ads. I thought maybe it was a cheat.”
“Sometimes you just have to take a chance and find out. I think there are lots of things we don’t understand. Do you believe in past lives, Doris?”
“I don’t know.”
“You were a good student in school, I can tell. ’Cause you look smart with those glasses.”
“Oh,” Doris said. “Thanks. Not that much.”
“When you studied famous people, didn’t you ever feel close to someone…maybe some other country, or a time in history?”
Doris picked up her cards, and though the game had been neglected, with lowered eyes she examined each. “Once, in English class, we read Ivanhoe…I thought that was a wonderful story.”
It was, at any rate, something. “Joan of Arc. It’s who I see you as. Don’t you think you could have been Joan of Arc in a past life?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, sure you could.”
The brio injected into these words brought a sad little smile; of engagement otherwise, Doris showed no symptom. Greta stepped back. “Well, I guess you can’t take it too seriously. See, I started telling you about the astrology and what-all, because I was thinking of the woman in the office. Remember? She should make friends with the girl who’s copying her, right? Then she’d say, ‘Hon, get your horoscope done!’ The girl finds out her true personality, her lucky color, and so forth. It’d change her whole outlook.”
Mrs. Branstadt took up the thread. “Greta makes a good point, Doris. As much as you enjoy astrology, I would think it gives you something to talk to the others at work about.”
This statement caused a blush. Doris said, “I don’t talk to anyone at work.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Greta leaned across the table and picked up her coffee cup, holding it in both hands. “I know exactly what you mean, Doris. They just want you to feel stupid, other people, for believing in something. Oh!”—Greta cocked an eye at her colleague—“by the way, I forgot the best thing. The horoscope kit comes with a little book that tells you what your dreams are. You get a bunch of blank pages to write them down. Mine don’t match anything so far. You’re supposed to be climbing stairs, or winding a ball of string, or picking daffodils. I never had a dream like that, did you?”
Doris seemed not to have…though at the picture Greta sketched, she laughed a little.
“I was hoping,” Greta forged on, “if you hear music playing…’cause I do”—here she held Doris’s eye—“it means maybe one day you’ll dance in Paris with a Grand Duke. That would be good, right?”
Doris laughed again. She had an inarticulate, subordinate person’s mannerisms, and laughed in this way only to be agreeable. Again it was not much to go on. Greta tried the question direct. “Did you ever have a dream that you thought was a message, Doris?”
This left a silence in the room, during which the sputtering clock could be heard. Mrs. Branstadt quickly filled the breach.
“Now I have. A dream that turned out to be true. It was about Al.”
“Not Al!” said Greta.
“It wasn’t”—Mrs. Branstadt spoke with some severity—“a romantic dream. It was during our trip to Europe. Al and I were in church, but instead of our usual pew, we were sitting at the front, facing the congregation. Mr. Eblin was speaking on a passage from Matthew, the one, you know, about the merchant who sold everything he had, and bought a pearl of great price.”
She noticed Greta, sipping coffee, drop her eyes over the rim of her cup, and raise them. Mrs. Branstadt was wearing, as every day but Saturday she did, her cultured pearls of modest price. On retirement from the head clerk’s post at Berwicke’s, she’d received these, along with a fruit basket.
“He didn’t sell the car, though.”
“Al didn’t sell anything! I’m talking about the parable where a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.”
“I don’t get the field.”
The puzzle was not for Greta to solve. She and Mrs. Branstadt ought not to sit talking to each other…she wished her mentor had clued her in. Again, with less finesse than Van Nest would have approved, she prompted Doris.
“What you figure? Al bought a pearl and hid it in a field.”
“A raffle ticket?” Doris shrugged. “Or…um…”
“Try to keep a secret,” Mrs. Veidt put in.
“So, then, what happened?”
“Al,” Mrs. Branstadt said, “kept trying to get up in the middle of the sermon. I had to take hold of his sleeve and make him be still. He said he didn’t like the way everyone was staring.”
“You mean…all that was your dream.” At last, it seemed these mysteries had excited Doris. She struck into the conversation almost naturally.
“When I got home; I mean in reality when I got home, I knew Al had something on his mind. I found out what, the first time I did the shopping. Because, you see, I always put a dollar in my hairpin jar every week, to save up. Al was fidgeting behind me…so I just gave a nudge to that empty jar. And he admitted it, then. He’d given my money to his friend Scrapper.”
“Is that his real name?” asked Doris.
Mrs. Branstadt considered. “I believe it is, yes…anyways, sort of a professional name. Since Al retired, he likes to fish most days. He says Scrapper knows where the fish are biting.” Mrs. Branstadt allowed them to appreciate this fact, and went on: “Anyways, Al spent two days dithering around instead of telling me. He promised he could get the money back. Well, I don’t care about the money!”
“So how come you’re in a stew?” asked Greta.
“Because Al doesn’t know about my pin money.”
“Didn’t he have to know about it?”
“No, dear, I’m saying, that’s my stash…I keep that by, so I don’t run out. You hide money too, don’t you?” Doris nodded; Greta, who spent everything she earned, did not. “I’ve never had a conversation with Al about it. Of course, we live under the same roof…he might have known. But he couldn’t make any claim to knowing. He had no business, getting into my private things as if we’d ever talked about it.”
“But then,” Greta said, thinking about the implications, “your pin money could be a hidden treasure…but it’s not exactly a pearl of great price, is it?”
“It stands to reason that if you receive a message from Scripture, there is a way to interpret it. The message I see is that Al got himself sorted. The angels shall come forth,” Mrs. Branstadt quoted, “and sever the wicked from among the just.”
Mrs. Veidt, who had listened, eyes on each speaker in turn, laid down the cards she’d collected. She drew one more. “Old Maid!”
“What you want to do, ma’am,” Mrs. Branstadt told her, “is pass that card off to someone else.”
Mrs. Veidt said, “I don’t know about this game, but I will tell you about my dream. We lived in a big house, one of the best, I think…but how would I know? I never left that house, I never saw anything. I think it was because when visitors came they said ‘How lovely it all is! How much they must spend!’ My mother cooked for this family and we lived in a room next to the kitchen…my mother, my sister Maria, and I. We girls were told, ‘Stay here in the kitchen, make no noise’—although we could play in the little garden. It was not a nice garden. You could see the chimneys, I mean the big factory chimneys, away over the wall. You could hear dogs barking. Frau Francke, the woman who owned the house, was sick, she was dying…but not fast enough.”
Continued from “not fast enough”
“Now, why do you say that?” asked Mrs. Branstadt.
Mrs. Veidt shrugged. “You would think a dying woman would be kind, open-hearted, because soon, what chance will she have with anyone to make peace? But she, even from her room, she found things out. What she knew, she used to do harm. So I say, not fast enough.
“It used to be that Herr Francke would come to sit with my mother in the garden; sometimes when it was nearly dark, they would walk together. Maria and I loved him. I thought he was my father…I knew nothing of course. One year, in the summer, that cold woman and her nurse had gone away…not to be cured—there was no cure—but to a spa where they had ways to keep her alive for a time, and she could learn all the talk and gossip. It may be gossip kept her alive better than medicine. Herr Francke took us away on a train. It’s funny to say, but I had never seen one. This was long ago, in the time of the good King Wilhelm.” She made a face. “Not the other one. We were fighting a war. How long ago do you think?” She asked this of Greta.
Greta, surprised, said, “Oh…”
“I am seventy-seven. I was ten. Soldiers were on the streets, at the station. I could not keep still, I wanted to look out all the windows of the train, see the city. It was like this. When I played in the garden, inside the wall, I thought a different place must be outside the wall. Then I saw the whole world was black and grey, the people and the horses, even they were black and grey. All this made me afraid…I can’t say why.
“The place we came to was called the Bodensee, a lake in the mountains, the bluest water. We didn’t see so many people…some officers of the army were staying there. Their wives wore such colors! Maybe they were not wives. I wouldn’t know. Maria and I played with our dolls. Mine was not so good, cracked across the eye.”
Mrs. Veidt sat, eyes downcast, clasped hands on the tabletop. She looked up with a tight half-smile, as though apologetic for this poverty.
“We looked at the beautiful ladies, and we made up clothes for our dolls to wear. This dress or that hat, she would have. How can I tell how it was? The city was so dirty, I was like a prisoner, but I didn’t know…until then I’d seen nothing of the world. If I knew anything beautiful was in the world, I would have made a picture of it like the Bodensee. I watched, and I saw things. No one saw me. I could not belong there.
“We stayed at a white hotel. This is how I remember, with flowers, red and yellow, along the walk. We played there, under the roof of a room outside, when it rained. We went to sail on a boat. We could look back from the water to the shore. I saw the white hotel, with all its windows making a picture of the lake, and the mountains, and the sky.
“Not long before we were going home, I had a dream, a nightmare. I was on the walk, alone. The shore of the lake was empty, all the people gone. The sky was blue, so lovely I felt almost dread…I felt the grey smoke of the city like a storm. I wanted to be inside, I ran up the walk…but so heavy, when I got to the stairs, I could barely climb. I reached for the door latch…the light changed, things shifted away. Again I was far down the walk standing near the lake. I felt the dread thing come closer, I ran faster, I tried to get inside…but again, when I reached the door, I found myself at the lake.”
“Can you guess what the dream meant?” asked Mrs. Branstadt.
“I’ll tell you. We were back a short time, when my mother said, “Maria and Mina, we must pack and go’. She would not have our questions, not then. But I will tell you, when my mother spoke to that cold woman to be hired as cook, she said that my father was in America. He was working to earn money to send for us. Frau Francke, you see, had found him. She had sent him money. She told my mother she had paid our way, and we must go. Herr Francke had no money himself; she had it all, he could do nothing to stop this. Now. A room, only a room was where we lived in America. And my mother and father, they had hard words to say to each other…that…” She broke off. “I have nothing to say. Here!”
She put her arm forward, and they leaned from their chairs to look. She rolled back the frayed cuff of her shirtwaist dress, and showed them a patch that stood out stretched and colorless against blue-veined, spotted skin.
“I tried to hide in the corner of the room, as far away as I could be. If I moved, I might make a sound. I would be blamed. There was a hot pipe beside me, I could feel it burn, but I couldn’t dare to move. So it was like that.” She pushed her sleeve back, and went on. “They needed men for the railroad. My mother told my father he had better go. And when he was gone, my mother took us away from this room to a house, where Engel the butcher lived. One time my father came back, but Engel sent him away and he never came back again.
“Maria and I were made to work in the shop. Our mother stayed out of sight. Every day, she would send us to buy the Zeitung. Everyone who was a customer, she made a note of all the little news she would find…this one is visiting her sister…that one’s daughter is getting married; this one goes to a meeting, that one goes to a funeral.
“Mother would say, when that poor so and so comes in, you ask! Or you see some other one…be kind to her, be generous. The business did well, because she worked at these things—but the people she took such care for didn’t know her, you see.
“And so my sister married, and my mother died. The butcher was not an easy man, but he was fair to me. He let me stay to work so I could live. Then he was dead, too, and all his family lived in Essen. We were Esseners ourselves. Did my mother come to know him that way? To me she never told. Only I and the man who helped in the shop, Veidt, were there to keep the business.
“For two years, while the family made their plans, we ran Engel’s together, to keep it for them. Then when they came, where would I go? Veidt said he would marry me. Ah! But I didn’t care for him, though. He says he will marry me, and he has hardly said a word to me in all that time!”
“But you did marry him?” Greta asked. “Why not go on working?”
“I am no family to these people. Can I beg them to keep me? Can I ask them to give me charity? No, nothing is right. I did what I could.”
Mrs. Branstadt said, “But they must have felt they owed you something―in honor, not in charity. Without you and Veidt, they’d have had no inheritance.”
“It was their property. What I did for them, they didn’t ask. They might give me a place, and one day, they have some relative or friend they wish to give a place to. Which is worse, to be married to a man you don’t care for, or to be pitied and hated?”
“But,” said Greta, pushing her point, “you knew how to run a business. You could have found a job someplace else.”
“It seems that way to you,” said Mrs. Veidt, “because you’re young and brave, like these modern girls. I was not.”
Her story left the group contemplative. A silence passed before she added, “This dream I have told you about, I sometimes think it has come back. Not the same as then, I know it, but sometimes I wake up with a picture in my mind so clear, of reaching for the door, afraid of the storm, and when I reach, the door is gone.”
As they walked up the street from Doris Kohler’s house, Greta said, “Mrs. Veidt turned out lucky for us, you think? Her story spooked me a little, though.”
“Sometimes we get unexpected help. But I wouldn’t bother about the dream. I put it down to an unforgiving nature…that must be the meaning of the closed door. You can’t go around wishing for someone to die.”
They found Al parked stubbornly at the corner. He stirred from his nap, after his wife had rapped on the driver’s side window. The women waited while Al hauled himself out of his seat, and came round to open the curb-side rear door for Greta. He cast an eye at the empty cake plate.
“Is Doris still the life of the party?”
“Never mind, mister.”
“We have something inside that makes us see meaning.” Greta looked, as Al drove them away, at the houses they passed. The front windowsills of one brick bungalow were adorned with colorful glass. Mrs. Veidt’s house—she would have bet on it. Mrs. Branstadt said nothing; she had a pointed way of ignoring certain types of remarks.
“I mean…” Greta clarified, invoking an impeccable name. “It’s what Bruce says. But can you really say the door has anything to do with forgiveness?”
Mrs. Branstadt was a sturdy Methodist; her interpretation of scripture tended to be facilitative towards her own problems, and analytical, if not circumstantial, when she viewed the problems of others.
“Obviously, if you were going to find symbolism in a dream, that’s the sort of symbolism you would find.”
“Her mother was a servant in Frau Francke’s house,” Greta persisted. “She didn’t have any choice about answering the questions she was asked. Maybe Mrs. Veidt is unfair…but using leverage to get information, and then using that information to force someone out of the country…that’s rough dealing, you have to admit.”
Doris Kohler sat at her kitchen table. Her guests had helped her clean and put away the dishes; they’d been kind to insist…but she had nothing else now to be busy with. As rare as visitors were for Doris, she found it pleasant sitting still awhile, thinking of everything they’d talked about. She indulged a wistful daydream of conversation that might be, if they all came back another time.
Mrs. Veidt’s story was new to Doris…they’d been, until today, friendly neighbors, no more. She’d done the old woman’s marketing last winter, when snow had piled for days, but other than exchange civilities, they did not really speak. She thought about the dream. The last part, Mrs. Veidt’s talking about the picture in her mind, made Doris resentful, somehow discomfited, as though the nature of the imagery had been familiar, not quite within her grasp.
A gradual awareness became certainty…that she was hearing the radio play in her living room. The sound had been subtle and barely noticeable at first; now it seemed distinctly a pattern of speech broken by snatches of music. This pattern, repetitive and unreal, had also a familiarity for Doris; she had heard something like it, hour upon hour, when her mother sat in the brown chair, dying. For months, the radio had been silent, the house hers.
A short, Doris told herself. And what did that mean…what did you do? She sat listening, immobile, then shook off inertia and went quickly to pull the plug. Muted street traffic, a car horn, someone calling out to another person, a prolonged and noisy gust of wind—these sounds Doris heard as she entered her living room. She became aware of the tick of the kitchen clock, the living room radiator kicking into sudden life, making her start. The radio had never been on.
She could not say when it had all started. It must have been recently, this impression she had on waking, that someone stood in the alley under her bedroom window. When she got up, after a time of wary listening, she could tell it wasn’t true. But the pattern, the same odd oscillation from indistinct murmuring, to tinny notes of music, she knew. It must mean something.
On the National Limited, returning to Washington from St. Louis, Van Nest sat leafing idly through the New York Times. He handed sections to Greta, and had noticed a suspicious assiduity in her checking and re-checking, as her eye scanned columns. His own eye had been making a cautious assessment. Greta wasn’t the brooding type…he thought her alertness instead a measuring of opportunity. He knew this boded confrontation. She gave him what he considered a trouble-making look, and pointed to a headline on the page she held.
“You saw this story about the Lindbergh anniversary race?”
“They don’t want Americans in the race,” she went on. “They think it’s too risky. But don’t you think…”
Now, Van Nest told himself, she’s going to launch some proposal.
“…if you wanted to take a risk, it would be your own business, wouldn’t it? A lot of things are not safe. People always say they’re trying to protect you. But don’t you think…”
“Miss Freund, I think you’ve got the devil in you this morning. I do,” he added, “recognize your point.” It might not be her point, Van Nest supposed, but before he’d shut up, she would come to believe so. “Advances in aeronautics can be achieved without stunts and breaking records. I think that’s what the N. A. A. has in mind. Any new design ought to be tested within the safeguards they’re talking about, and any distance or endurance goal can be achieved without tempting recklessness by handing out a prize.
“That’s got to be anyone’s rule…first you secure a position, then you move to the next position. You don’t move ten steps ahead, eight steps back, and call that progress, ordinarily. So you’re right, it’s a little self-serving to oppose the race, when aviation has gained from all this barnstorming, and they never took a stand…”
Van Nest stopped himself. If he finished one more sentence, he’d leave a hole—an open barn door, as it were—for her to fly through with whatever she was eager to discuss. He didn’t feel the time had come to be out-maneuvered by his protégé.
“I’m going along to the dining car, see if I can get a cup of coffee and a couple eggs. Come on if you want.” Plenty of chances to distract and sidetrack. He could regain the upper-hand.
In the Washington office, he told Mrs. Garth he had it in mind to catch up on meetings and asked his secretary to schedule as many as possible. Next he thought of work projects for Greta—a few days’ research, a day on the phone checking train schedules, for no purpose other than tactical evasion; a day in Maryland helping Dennis Campbell scout potential office locations.
This last assignment wasn’t busy work—their group had been in temporary quarters for two years. He’d finally secured a tentative promise that the budget could accommodate a move. Van Nest believed the way to deal, as to tentative promises, was to treat them as firm commitments and push them along. Detailed, optimistic progress reports, landing with regularity on the desk of an overworked bureau chief, could gradually induce the conviction that he’d backed the project from the start.
Working productively, Van Nest felt at peace, but on a Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Garth stuck her head in at the door and said, “One of the office girls wants to see you.”
It was unprecedented…but Van Nest saw himself as a democratic leader. No telling what sort of bind these girls can get themselves into, he was saying under his breath (and of course there was some telling, but Van Nest was a positive thinker), when his secretary allowed Greta to make an entrance.
“May I have a moment of your time, sir?”
He pushed his chair back, resigned. A thing occurred to him. “Wait, office girl?” He conceded her a rueful laugh, and added, “See, now, this is what happens when women get to gossiping. If I use an expression in a specific context, for the purpose of illustrating a point…”
“And, I want to tell you that Dennis Campbell is a considerate, gentlemanly guy.”
He scooted his chair forward. “Everyone says so.”
“You have the information I typed up for you?”
He looked her in the eye. “Right here on my desk.”
Greta thought he was taking a chance playing that card. “I won’t help you look for it.”
With a show of dignity, Van Nest removed a stack of folders. He placed these on a pile of bound volumes, reports his department was required to compile. The folders slumped and spilled their contents over the not-very-clean space he’d created.
“Anyway,” he said.
He’d asked her to find examples of public reaction to the American Communist party’s candidate of the 1936 election. “Browder filed complaints in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis…”
“They ran him out of town with eggs and tomatoes in Terre Haute.”
“Able was I ere I saw Terre Haute.”
“Why,” she asked, “did you want to know?”
“The career of an unpopular outsider. Is it the politics? Is it the man? Is it the ethos?”
“What’s an ethos?”
“Good question. What’s your other question?”
The office had a seating area, two chairs separated by a table, beneath two windows. She sat in one and said, “Come over here. I’m not talking to you standing in front of your desk. It makes me feel like a kid in the principal’s office.”
He took the other chair. She twisted to face him, and said, “All I have is an idea. You want it straight?”
“Don’t I always tell you?…come to me, whatever’s on your mind.”
She rolled her eyes—a thought, Van Nest admitted to himself, fairly straightforward in its projection.
“Okay, it’s this. We’ve reached a point where we’re not in control. Everything between now and launch is on the European side. We already know our partners don’t share all their information with us. And…” She stopped for a moment. “It might be that we have goals that aren’t the same as theirs. So maybe they would find out something and decide we don’t need to know it, or they can’t see why we’d want to know. Maybe it serves our purposes better if we don’t explain everything we’re trying to do. But still, we can’t be sure if we’re getting enough information, or the right information.”
“I’m proud to hear you state that so well.”
“I know. ’Cause you taught me everything.”
Sarcastic, rather than mollified. But at once sincere. “Don’t you think we need someone of our own in Frankfurt? If we don’t get a first-hand report, anything we get is what someone else thinks we need to know…we’ll never know what we’re not getting.”
He got up, paced, thought about Greta, sat down beside her again, and said, with caution, “We figure we’ve been getting reliable reports. Everything seems to be on schedule. This thing was conceived as a joint project…they take care of their side, we take care of ours. You have yourself in mind for this job?”
“Well, I do. If other people want a break, it’s up to them to say.”
“Okay. I’ll tell you this: If I decide to send anyone, I might consider you. You’ve got the language on your side, and I don’t know of anyone else off-hand—because we’re not bringing in new people at this point. But I really need your help here in the office.”
“Baloney,” she said. “Sorry. But any steno out there can run your errands and follow you around. You’ve trained me to do more than that.”
For a moment, he distracted himself, outlining a nascent theory on this phenomenon that confronted the cost-effective manager: Train a promising employee to take on more responsibility, find yourself pressured to promote her and hire more people. Something that could be quantified? Some ideal minimum of staffing between bare-bones and over? He darted forward, rooted out a scrap of paper from the debris on his desk, and made a note, dispatching it (under an ashtray) to an uncertain future.
Then, smiling amiably, Van Nest sat down again. Greta waited, silent.
“I know these special assignments are fun for you, and you get bored with the clerking jobs. But you know the boring work has to be done, and someone has to do it. It’s not exactly a valid argument saying, just let it be someone else.”
She was on this at once. He had an inkling she’d sorted his arguments in advance, and that already he’d lost.
“That’s true. But you don’t need to use your best people that way. You have a lot of girls who can do office work…you could hire a new one tomorrow. What were you just saying? You can’t send a new person on this assignment.”
He noticed she had neatly turned the mooting of the assignment into an assumption…yet he needed to raise another objection. It called for tact.
“We have a problem, Greta, with someone in our line who shows too much ambition. Ambition is a good thing, I like seeing it, but…we have delicate relationships here. I might have to weigh the question of why it would matter to you to do this job yourself.
“You’ve raised a good point, you’ve made me think―it’s what I expect my best people to do. And the more I think about it…the more I think you’re right.”
She didn’t grin at this capitulation; she thrust up her chin.
“But still, I have to make sure that we, not just you and I, but we as representatives, maintain an unimpeachable level of trust.”
Greta, almost never speechless, took a long interval to frame an answer. He wondered if she’d fully understood him, or if despite the careful phrasing, he’d simply offended her.
“If,” she said, “I were someone whose name happened to be, let’s say…Grace Farmer…would you worry about me having some special reason for wanting this job?”
“Personally, I’m not a worrier.” Still, the question ought to be asked. “I don’t think you’ve ever told me where you’re from.”
“I’ve told you lots of times. St. Louis.”
“You know what I mean.”
“The old people are from some place called Waltersdorf. I couldn’t find it on a map.”
“Sorry, it’s a consideration. To me, your price is above rubies.”
She folded her arms at this. “Well, put me to the test. Try me out with the assignment. I don’t see how I can prove if a story someone made up in their head is right or wrong. I can only do a job and prove how well I do it. If I’m no good, don’t trust me twice; but you have to trust your own judgment first.”
Alarm-Posts and Signal-Posts
“Top-off, Half-gone,” murmured the mouse. “They are such curious names, I cannot but wonder at them.”
“That’s because you are always sitting at home,” said the cat, “in your little gray frock and hairy tail, never seeing the world, and fancying all sorts of things.”
The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership
March 22, 1937. Benjamin Nathan was on the telephone. Kirby, his aide, had entered the office and been motioned to take a seat. Nathan noticed Kirby exhibit shiftings and fidgetings that coincided with pauses in the conversation. During these pauses, a female voice could be heard, her words indistinct.
“So Stauber couldn’t extend his stay any longer?” Nathan glanced up at his aide, who looked hurriedly out the window. “And he never came across that little cousin of his?”
Nathan thought this funny; the woman on the phone thought it funny. Her laughter came through with a sudden clarity. Kirby suddenly stood and paced across the carpet.
The fountainhead of Nathan’s campaign funding and organization sprang from a group of Great Lakes industrialists. Nathan liked to call them his Board of Directors; on the golf course, in clubrooms, they enjoyed this insiders’ designation. His Chairman (so-called) owned a shipping company, that moved cargo up the St. Lawrence, through the ports of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Kirby Sr.’s coterie could occlude this artery, or ease the pressure as they saw fit. And of their mechanisms, they disliked scrutiny.
The Chairman spent sleepless nights contemplating Communist influence on the docks; conspiracy-minded, he held a weekly conference by phone with his man in Washington. Kirby Sr. had a theory, for which he found evidence—a collection of newspaper clippings—that America’s economic stagnation had been engineered by the Communists.
“I’m thinking Hollywood. Makes sense—those people got the bully pulpit, don’t they? How many times you heard one of those smart jokes, sittin’ in the movie house…and you didn’t get it?” He had asked this of Nathan only that morning. “Mayer,” the Chairman said, “or Adolph Zukor.” He threw out these names, paused, and finished his thought. “Code talk. Stuff isn’t meant for the ears of you and me.”
“Well,” said Nathan, “Hollywood…”
Continued from “Well,” said Nathan, “Hollywood…”
He invested the word with possibilities. He resented the “you and me”, but said no more, only listened attentively, until pleasantries and assurances were needed.
Once, when they had been playing golf, the Chairman had beckoned, ushering Nathan into the rough. Kirby Sr. had then sidled up, leaned close, and confided his belief that an “American Troika” was master-minding this infiltration of the workforce. They would bring the nation’s commerce to a standstill; they would then take over. Kirby Sr. felt that the President of the United States was certainly one member of this Troika―the others were shadowy figures.
“I am not,” he’d told Nathan, “the only one who knows about this.”
Nathan had covered his embarrassed silence by answering, as one deeply honored, “I will never tell anyone we had this conversation.”
Nathan cultivated patience and a knack for implying agreement without saying anything quotable…because, inevitably, you have more office-seekers than generous backers. He intended to keep Kirby Sr. in his own camp. To that end, he had taken on Hiram Parker Kirby.
Nathan had agreed to introduce the Chairman’s son to the basic lessons of political life. He felt that Kirby might have a successful future…as a sales clerk or a waiter; he might yet, with a lot of shaking up, make a decent junior manager in his father’s firm. But, accounting for tendencies of Kirby’s towards inertia and overreliance, Nathan had been finding suitable errands for him.
He had reason to keep an eye on Eleanore Taggart—he wanted to know what she was doing on Stauber’s behalf; he wanted to keep her from doing too much. On the always present excuse of doing a favor for a supporter, he’d sent Kirby to drive Mrs. Taggart around town during her Stauber researches. Of course, she knew her way around better than Kirby ever would. Still it was possible, even in the most innocent of circumstances…entirely possible…for some kind of gossip to get started. Should the Chairman suffer any disturbance of his peace, while clipping his way through the morning papers, Nathan was prepared to step in. He had it within his power to suppress unflattering stories.
“Kirby, Mrs. Taggart tells me she is no longer in need of your services.”
Kirby stared unhappily at the phone.
“That probably makes you happy. Now you’ve got time to catch up on your other work. Be sure to write Mrs. Taggart a letter, tell her how much you enjoyed being of assistance to her, and so on.”
Kirby, at the door, hesitated, and concentrating his intellect through the discipline of polishing his glasses with his necktie, asked, “Mr. Nathan, if I thought of something, later on, that would help Mrs. Taggart…would it be a breach of manners to get in touch with her?”
“If you think of anything, or get any ideas, just come to me and let me take care of it. I have an obligation to your father, don’t forget.”
Nathan studied the business card Kirby had brought in. A few minutes earlier, his aide had pushed the door open, backed out in haste, knocked deferentially, then entered in full, bearing the card, after Nathan had sighed, covered the mouthpiece, and said, “Kirby!” Halfway through the distraction of Mrs. Taggart’s call, Kirby had remembered the card in his hand and thrust it across Nathan’s desk.
Nathan now heard a discreet knock at the door. He got up to usher his visitor in. He believed first impressions should be friendly.
“Mr. Nathan, I’m Grosvenor Small. Your aide told me you were ready…”
“I apologize for the phone call, Mr. Small. Please sit down. Would you like Kirby to bring in some coffee?”
“Not at present.”
Mr. Small had an accordion folder; he was eager to produce and make use of its contents, but felt preliminaries were needed. “First, I’d like to thank you for your kindness in seeing me this afternoon. I realize that as Deputy General Manager I hold a relatively junior post, but it seemed expedient to schedule a meeting while I was in Washington conducting other business on behalf of the company. We hope to avoid troubling the Board with this matter; that is to say, when we broach the subject, we hope to report that the matter has been addressed…or better still, resolved.”
“Sounds entirely reasonable. What’s on your mind, Mr. Small?”
As he unwrapped the folder’s fastening string, Small exhibited the mild excitement of one who has brought evidence to show; he emptied out several papers of varying sizes, many with additional sheets paper-clipped to the front. He rifled through the collection and chose samples to share with Nathan.
“Some of these letters have been received at our office in New York; some are facsimiles of letters received by our partner.” Hovering a forefinger, he indicated a variety in styles of address. Cerrtain writers had asked that their letters be directed to the personal attention of Dr. Eckener—a man no longer in charge of Germany’s zeppelin program, but the only name known to the general public (other than that of Count von Zeppelin, a recipient insisted upon by more than one correspondent). Not a few letters had been misaddressed and re-directed. The Zeppelin Company had recently moved operations to Frankfurt, while it continued manufacturing airships in Friedrichshafen.
“We have, as well, transcripts of telephone conversations. You’ll note the entire group of documents collected here dates from the early months of 1936, up to the present. Of course, as a phenomenon, this sort of thing isn’t unusual. Every passenger carrier attracts these people.”
“And you’ve been in touch with the police?”
“We’ve passed along everything expressed as a threat, although in those cases the communications are nearly always anonymous. Two things are of concern: First, we’ve had an increase in correspondents that, for want of a better term, one would call ‘cranks’―the sort of people who imagine they find messages encoded in the Sunday Times crossword, or hear voices that instruct them; second, the increase has been noticeable since the Hindenburg began flying under the colors of the present regime in Berlin.”
Nathan had been glancing over Small’s examples, which had translations attached where needed; he noticed one in particular where the correspondent had signed her name and provided her address.
“I’m always happy to help.” His heartiness was unshaded; the statement was factual—Nathan would rather take on too much and delegate among his own people, than have it said his door was ever closed. He paused for a beat or two. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’d like me to do outside of what the authorities are able to do.”
Small assumed the forward-leaning posture of a man about to speak in confidence, and said, “It would be inappropriate for me to name any of the members of our Board, as I haven’t permission to do so…but I’m sure you know who they are. We are operating legally within this country, whether or not it may be that by association, we have ties to a regime that is, unfortunately, a source of controversy. However, in this period of economic recovery, I know our government wants to lend its support to the welfare of any American business facing a threat to its profitability.”
“True, Mr. Small.” Nathan knew there had to be more. He waited.
“Hopefully…by some means…it might be determined”―these stepping stones, Small walked painstakingly―“whether this activity has a source. That is to say, if someone, or some group, might conceivably be instigating this activity for a political purpose…”
“Now when you say that—” Nathan took the letter he’d been reading and handed it back to Small. “I’m not going to say that this woman is a type. I don’t know her, I can’t make any fair comment about her. She did give us her name, though, so I can promise you we’ll investigate. It may be within the realm of possibility that she has something in her background that could link her to a subversive political group, just as you’re thinking.”
Small looked at Doris Kohler’s letter, and felt he ought to clarify his stand. “I don’t think in this case…”
“Well,” Nathan cut in, “of course, there is a type…you used the word ‘crank’ yourself…but we haven’t got evidence one way or the other. When I get a report, I’ll send it along. I intend, don’t worry Mr. Small, to make this a priority. I’m aware that we have a tight time-frame.”
Exactly ten days later, Kirby called on Grosvenor Small at his New York office. He bore a sealed envelope containing the Doris Kohler interview, and a summary of first measures taken on the anonymous items, in pursuit of leads.
Small was in conference with the company’s General Manager and its President; as a matter of protocol, he handed the unopened envelope to the company’s senior officer. The President reviewed its contents, shook his head over Doris Kohler’s conviction that dreams and voices had summoned her to fulfil a duty; that she’d been impelled to write by “a sense of danger”. Typical old biddy’s fairy tale. He passed that section to the General Manager and looked over the next section, a photostat of an investigator’s case notes.
The investigator had traced one of the anonymous phone calls to a Cincinnati bus station. Witnesses were being sought…the President figured this to be a long shot. The last sheet, a summary of proposed actions, made him sit up. He fixed the uncomfortable Kirby with a riveting eye and said, “What do you know about this?”
“Mr. Nathan would be happy for you to call him. He’s in his office today, sir.”
Kirby was sharp enough to interpret the President’s nod; he took up the phone and dialed, handing it to the President when Nathan answered.
“Senator, I’m looking over the report your aide brought. Now, I’m grateful for your help, but I’m a little concerned. You want to issue an alert to U.S. embassies and legations, stating that threats against the Hindenburg have been received?”
“Do you know how that could affect our business?”
“Sir, when you sent your representative, Mr. Small, to ask for my help, I understood this matter called for discretion. But you understand, of course, having read the investigators’ reports, that we’re unlikely to learn anything in the time we have between now and early May.
“Any leads on these anonymous communications could take months to follow up. How would you feel, taking your immediate concerns into account, if I were to tell you I’ll be in touch at whatever time I have some new information…and I had nothing else to offer? I assume you don’t find that acceptable. And more to the point, your company gets no protection. You wouldn’t have taken the reasonable course that’s available to you today to look out for both your own and your customers’ interests. Obviously, I want to treat your concerns with respect. And I know you want to treat your customers with respect.
“An alert can be managed on a level that keeps it well outside the bounds of adverse publicity; agreeing means nothing more than being able to say you did right by your customers…you thought of their safety.”
The President had a shrewd business sense; he recognized that Nathan’s argument, while persuasive, did not fully state the case.
“I have a couple of thoughts. We want to do the responsible thing, sure; on the other hand, if some business overseas, that we can’t possibly control, affects the safety of our passengers, we don’t want to be held responsible, simply by virtue of having taken a prudent step.”
“I can assure you, sir, that from the State Department’s perspective, the alert is based on ‘information received’. Your company doesn’t enter into it.”
“Okay, then. I feel better about that. I have another concern. We’ve got a good number of bookings for the coronation over in England. We may get more in the next couple of weeks. And I don’t want people spooked away.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about your return bookings.” Nathan considered this statement, decided it shouldn’t carry too much weight. He added, “I hope I can count on you to make our position clear to your partners. You know from experience the best way to communicate with them.”
“I’ll say what we generally do when we’re faced with an obstacle—that we’ve sought sound advice; that we’re taking appropriate measures, and that we feel the situation is progressing satisfactorily.”
Old World Diplomacy
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking? Mad or well advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!
The Comedy of Errors
April 27, 1937. Kneussl seldom visited his club in Mayfair. The Queen Anne manor now housing the Avignon once had been a fashionable town home…until an error in speculation forced a sale to the government, the owners seizing upon this saving excuse: “The dear old place has grown inadequate to our needs.” At length the government also had deemed Harmswicke House inadequate; like many structures with an attractive façade, its foundation hid troubling flaws. The house, free-standing in its youth, had got attached on one side. Its oriel windows were too closely abutted against the neighboring property; as though a victim of architectural apoplexy, its linear expression declined.
The club had been named for the resting place of its idol, John Stuart Mill. Members felt Free Trade to be a pure doctrine, one not properly adulterated by interests; and if not applied as pure doctrine, why then, the finger of blame could of course be pointed at this or that failure. What did it prove? The adventuresome spirit would never, in that case, have been entered into wholeheartedly.
They spoke to one another with civility and obliquity, the suspicion remaining that some members harbored protectionist leanings; particularly of late, with rearmament exerting its distorting effect on the economy. Now and again, one noticed a certain reserve—
For a handful had fortunes tied to industries relying on imported raw materials. The oldest and most gnomic members practiced so abstruse a British negative as to carry it to the fourth or fifth degree of deniability. Any doubtful member meeting another on the street could, in conscience, greet his fellow as a comrade, none knowing with certainty that his apparent enemy was not, within the interstices of his philosophy, a secret supporter.
In a room reserved for entertaining guests, the conversation was not about trade, but politics. The present speaker, in contrast with the usual membership, and by reputation, was forthright in his views. Today, having lunched well at the expense of a friend, he was feeling expansive. For the greater good, he was willing to set aside a personal grievance. Gaston Feuillat, when at home, stood with the Royalist cause. His logic was dispassionate. Persecution dealt on the order of the French right-wing press he felt undiplomatic; assassination plots most decidedly so. Feuillat deplored the open tactic. But he was proud, rather than discouraged, to be in the French minority.
Continued from “the French minority”
“Of course, the duc de Guise is a weak man; it is not of the least moment. Ponnard…” He decided against finishing the thought; he did not want to make himself angry. His disappointment in this matter went unreconciled.
Ponnard, many years ago, had attended the Congrès de Tours. One of the present Ministers of State―his unsuccessful sponsor―had been there; Blum had been there. Yet, because Ponnard maintained cordial ties to Royalist friends…well, Blum might perhaps have a sensitivity in the matter… Ponnard was an entirely reliable Socialist. Was the world such a place of incivility one could no longer form useful alliances?
“But why do you suppose,” Feuillat went on, “that Europe has descended into chaos time and again since the war? Why can my own France not sustain a strong government? The people have been seduced from the sensible politics by a succession of pretenders.
“In the past, we understood that those who lead a country must spend a lifetime preparing for the role. But what role? Because of course we know that all important affairs are decided upon privately by men who are specialists in their field; that agreements with neighbors are reached through diplomacy. The failures of the Great War, I will grant you; however, many wars have been prevented by these secret understandings. A nation has the power to extend or withdraw her hand…to be generous or to make demands. But these are delicate questions. Men who know each other well, and who have a certain practical finesse, are best at statecraft. The leader represents the powers of the state; he agrees to what his advisors suggest, and he holds the trust of the people.
“In the past,” he said again, “the heads of state knew their role; they were bred and educated to know their role; they married into alliances to strengthen their role. In the event they proved irredeemably foolish, they were well advised: They understood that their role was to keep out of the way.
“Today, government is full of those who insist on damaging the world with their own ideas. Power is conferred upon personalities. One starts a new political party and becomes a man of importance only by finding the discontented and promising them what the discontented want: to have the property and power of their enemies. Then the mischief begins―if your party cannot exist for any purpose other than to attack the institutions of the state, your party is by nature an offense to the state.”
Kneussl’s other guest receded, in his black suit, into the black depths of the leather armchair. He studied Feuillat, as though mentally he compiled a report; in a sense, he did. He had left his post in Frankfurt am Main to pay a visit to his friend, and to convey, face-to-face, a piece of intelligence. He had not been bored by Feuillat’s last remark. He found it sensible. There may be a time, he thought…it may be soon…when the French diplomats will be recalled to Paris. Were that so, knowing Feuillat could prove advantageous.
Kneussl, who had had the benefit of Feuillat’s views, sat expressionless, gazing towards the window. Someone had been by to clean it during the present dry spell; the dark paneled room was moderately imbued today with a diffuse light. He saw a branch scattered with whitish flowers, between the window and the narrow strip of garden. An iron railing held this display of nature in check.
“In Austria the joke was,” Kneussl’s friend began, with an intention of watching Feuillat closely, “that even to post a letter, you must go through four officials.” He spoke with an ardency that conveyed little humor; this, partly because he was a man of purpose, partly because the necessity of using English presented to him a particular challenge. He had grown up in Austria; he had lived in Germany for many years; his education had been conventional…he had, however, rarely been abroad.
“In so large an empire, you understand,” he looked at Feuillat, who gave him a polite nod, “naturally, you leave to judge those who know best.”
“Naturally, one does,” Feuillat said agreeably.
“You are in a hurry, you could make things happen faster.”
“Bribery. I am aware it was quite an industry of the old Empire.”
“Not so much bribery. No…if I know the man to help, and I have money to pay, how is that, except I am the one who deserves help? Even a Serb knows how to spend money. But if you have nothing, who can help you?”
“In other words,” Feuillat ventured, after making allowances, “you propose a type of underground economy, chiefly of service to the middle classes.”
In response to a keen but uncomprehending look, he elaborated. “Those who can afford extra attentions from their local officials purchase them; the rest must deal with the bureaucracy.”
“Bribes, what you call them,” the other man answered, “make it so the local authority will keep his agents. You may want a permit…this takes a year, maybe more. That makes work. But you don’t like to wait, you spend money. That makes jobs. All this is local, but none comes from taxes.”
“True enough,” said Feuillat, “and we have had systems of that sort in France. However, they are not entirely self-supporting; they tend to become unwieldy and decadent over time.”
He wondered if the other man’s reflections were driving towards a point, and if so, might be expected to arrive there shortly. Kneussl’s friend was some sort of policeman, not a polished speaker; Feuillat could forgive much, but had hoped to say more on his own theme.
“Austria is a small nation.” His interviewer stopped here and fixed Feuillat with a look. Indeed, Feuillat told himself, my new friend may speak in irony…but I will not take him up.
The man went on. “And the policymakers believe to solve everything with taxes. They stand for peace. This is what they say. With violence, they attack those who exercise—in peace—the right to speak on a street that is public. They represent the people, they say. Now, who do they represent, when thousands say otherwise? These they persecute and repress. But these same who are persecuted go to the courts and are given only a light sentence. The other party are condemned to a heavy sentence for their offenses.” He cocked his head at this, and lifted an eyebrow, as though to say, of course you agree, you have just said it yourself. Feuillat wished he had not. “They persecute a legal party in Austria, which is known. And so you have proof…proof from the courts, who is the criminal.”
“Ah, well, assuredly,” said Feuillat, fearing to tread. He suspected his encouragement would bring a spirited touting of Austria’s need to embrace the persecuted party in question.
A courteous tap at the door preceded the ushering in, by a near-invisible club servant, of Lord Wrentsley, sparing Feuillat. The three men stood; Wrentsley greeted Feuillat, and said, “Kneussl, I need to see you regarding a certain matter. I hope you will pardon the interruption.”
“Not at all.” Kneussl, whose English was quite sound, offered this ambiguity in the blandest of voices; he then introduced his friend, whose show of indifference on rising had been marked.
“Lord Wrentsley, Winter.” He left Winter’s rank unmentioned. A source of distinction at home might be provocation here.
“I have forgotten,” Winter announced, and with regret that Wrentsley’s arrival had prevented his making certain of Feuillat (the question would require more thought). “I will be late to catch my train. Kneussl, Monsieur Feuillat, my apologies.” He bowed to the two mentioned, and as he exited, pushed past Wrentsley with an insolence just sufficiently contained. Winter had lived through the Allied blockade; he saw in Wrentsley the embodiment of English brutality, and under his breath said with satisfaction, “Gott strafe England”. He might have been cheered to know that Wrentsley had been in Belfast in 1919, incurring enmity inherited from another political legacy.
“I seem to have done your friend a service, reminding him of his train,” Wrentsley said mildly. “I’m sorry to have missed the chance of knowing Mr. Winter better. I don’t suppose he’ll be returning to London soon?”
“Unlikely, I would think. He would suppose, in his position, the safest policy is to have nothing to say to an official of the British government.”
“Well, Kneussl, I’d not have expected it…your coming out like that.”
“Yes, I say so. This is not a diplomatic occasion. You will please tell me what is this errand you need from me.”
Wrentsley felt a certain diplomatic restraint nonetheless, noticing Feuillat show no sign of leaving; rather, every sign of taking part in whatever business was at hand. Wrentsley’s normally restless mannerisms were at work; he gave the impression of remaining in the room under constraint, while eager to rush off to some other deadline. Feuillat supposed Wrentsley to have some highly discreet affair to disclose to Kneussl, if the presence of an old friend could prove an obstacle. He was not inclined to leave, however, now that he might finish what he’d been about to say earlier.
“To be a man of trust, Kneussl, as we were discussing, is essential in a leader. Say that my government wishes to reproach another for some act of aggression, but in such a way as not to lay down the gauntlet; but then again, not to make empty threats and look foolish. There are things one can say frankly through diplomatic channels, and means by which one can say them. The aggressor can be reminded of her danger, the alliances of which she runs afoul; the enemies she will make and the friends she may lose. But suppose the representative gives offense? We can easily say instructions were misunderstood, even that they were disobeyed. The offender would be only moved quietly to another post. The leader, when he speaks of the incident to the people, remains a figure of trust.” He caught Wrentsley’s eye. “Sit down, relax. I want to say to you, that the English have an admirable system.”
Wrentsley took a seat, a relief to the others, who were also able to sit, protocol having required they stand in deference to their unexpected guest.
“You have a Parliamentary government, you have your Foreign Office, but all the while you have a Sovereign. He is not of the government, but his trust with the people is so high, that in any crisis, he has only to stand with the government, and the people feel a certainty that is unique, I think, to Britain. And this is because a Sovereign exists outside fashion in politics; he is an enduring public figure who builds trust as an investment builds interest. With a politician, that can never be. They come and go.”
The general trend of Wrentsley’s beliefs was that Britain, by sheer example, was good for Europe. Not only good, but necessary; without Britain to point the way, there would be no standard, no guiding star in the continental firmament, for stable representative government in Europe. Wrentsley was a liberal pacifist, believing human society to be on the brink of its greatest cultural awakening. Further, he believed in a series of educational reforms, whose architect was his Peace League fellow, Dr. Njegoran. These reforms were based on Njegoran’s dense work, The Noumenal Ingeminative: a Theory of Approach to Public Education, his variation on the familiar idea that the industrial and agricultural classes had nothing to gain from traditional schooling and benefited most from a basic curriculum followed by specialized vocational training:
The privileged class and the educated class are, in all relevant particulars, one; these maintain a network of connections which supplies members with a position in the social order, in government, and in the ecclesiastical hierarchy; these classes view the gentleman as an inherently superior breed; often they employ no other standard of merit, and the standard itself is held to be proof sufficient of merit within these classes which employ it. The stratum which produces factory and agricultural workers would thus be one by rights with its respective industries; yet no corresponding network exists. Thus again, no social position, no “living”, however modest, is guaranteed to this group. Yet the benefit to the state in such a relationship, would be a reduction in the use of those resources which are in the first place the result of productivity. The benefit to industry, should industry shoulder the burden of educating the labouring classes, would be a pooling of trained workers specific to particular enterprises, from which source a steady supply of superiorly skilled labourers may be drawn. The benefit to society would be to virtually eliminate that continual influx of unprepared workers, who often for precisely this reason—that of embarking upon employment without a trade—wind up out of employment, thus requiring the support of public funds.
Wrentsley and his set had faith in these reforms as the right path for Ulster; not only in and of themselves, but in the sense of leading by example. When education produced social advancement, and social advancement produced opportunity; when opportunity was followed by prosperity, even the Irish Free State would acknowledge what good government planning could achieve.
Wrentsley was pleased with Feuillat’s words, but felt a small qualification ought to be mentioned. “I must say, Feuillat, that the King is quite capable of grasping political ideas.”
“He is, nevertheless, very able in the role that has been thrust upon him, so to speak.”
“That is beyond doubt.”
Kneussl, who was given to profound silences, entered the discussion for the first time.
“Feuillat introduces a point worth considering. This new type of leader that we see in certain European states, would like to be a genius of policy, an instigator of action, a benefactor of patriots, and a nemesis to the disloyal―a sort of mythical man of parts. So, taking Feuillat’s ideal, where the leader is shielded from disapprobation by the mechanisms of the state…at one level, responsibility is deflected towards underlings; but at a deeper level, responsibility is obscured and dispersed to the effect that no one is responsible. The leader retains the appearance of trustworthiness; the state retains the appearance of credibility; the individual who accepts the blame typically continues his political life.
“As we’ve seen, legislative or parliamentary careers can last through decades with these setbacks and revivals. Chautemps comes to mind. With apologies, Feuillat.”
Feuillat shrugged. “Unquestionably, Chautemps is the best man to represent those who support him.”
“A man driven from office today may be a hero or martyr tomorrow, when popular opinion shifts.” Kneussl leaned forward and picked up a newspaper that Winter had brought with him and neglected to take away. He rolled it up, and began using it as a pointer to emphasize his remarks. Wrentsley glanced at the table; it held nothing else of interest.
“This new type of leader,” Kneussl continued, “would like the public to always regard him in this heroic light. He must be infallible; he can never be wrong. Officials are required to create stories to account for inconsistency or tactlessness―even stupid or offensive behavior has to be justified. He will tend to surround himself with inferior advisors. The best men won’t advise a mistaken course; yet he won’t permit the suggestion that his course is mistaken.
“An excessively active leader, even assuming such a man is capable of good intentions or reasonable ideas, places his nation on a path to isolation and extremism. Accept an untenable construct—the state, embodied by the leader, is never wrong; everything the state does is good, unquestioning loyalty is owed to the state—and you must, of necessity, be an extremist. The alternative is to disassociate yourself from the state, or to accept a dangerous isolation within the state.
“The greater the conflict of isolation and extremity, the greater this effect of Unwirklichkeit. The nation exists in a state of insularity in which the government measures its successes against a manufactured social and political environment; on the other hand, the people react to events that are only anticipated or imagined.”
“Which leads to instability,” suggested Wrentsley.
“Instability is unavoidable. Closing a door to every argument will not make opposition disappear. It only increases the pressure.”
“Well, Kneussl, you make the future seem quite hopeless. I can’t believe things are as bad as that… We surely have it within our power to avert the crisis.”
“If the crisis can be averted, certainly over time, one would expect a disenchantment with the current political experiments. I only say the present conditions must produce instability.”
Continued from “must produce instability”
“That, however, is viewing the matter from the diplomat’s perspective. It may be that the military concerns and the armaments firms would enjoy a war…but there are numerous interests aligned on the side of peace. Perhaps the authoritarians are hostile to every approach; yet it may be possible to sidestep traditional channels, thus to push along one’s goals.”
And those who trade in subtleties, Kneussl said to himself, sometimes imagine no one else has thought of sidestepping; but he left it to Wrentsley to elucidate these goals. Instead, Wrentsley allowed an interval. He then said, “Just as in Ireland, for example. One can’t sensibly expect to overcome the history of the place; but one can move forward by addressing deficiencies, which, if corrected…that is to say, by doing so, we might bolster…”
By great fortune, from Feuillat’s point of view, Wrentsley was arrested here by the interior question of whether he wished to speak of a generally progressive trend and work down to the specific, or whether he ought to begin with the successful advancement of the individual, and build to grander themes. Feuillat, familiar with Wrentsley’s Irish preoccupations, rose with all the esprit politesse allowed, and said, “I will take my leave now. I cannot be late for another appointment.”
“No doubt you’ve thought of it in time,” Kneussl observed.
When Feuillat had been seen off, Wrentsley once again sat down. Kneussl sat down. Wrentsley collected his thoughts and watched Kneussl closely…an unprofitable exercise. He said, “Guernica.”
Kneussl said nothing, and Wrentsley went on, “I suppose I’m just rather curious.”
“I don’t find the name particularly curious.”
“There has been some suggestion in the papers already, that the bombing was entirely a German affair.”
“The things that are suggested in the papers”—Kneussl adapted a tactic of Feuillat’s—“undoubtedly are an example of the sort of things the papers are willing to suggest.”
“Hence,” Wrentsley persisted, “I hope for illumination.”
“Will it do you any good?”
“It can do no great harm. One supposes the harm already done.”
Kneussl contemplated the room, the phone on the small writing desk, the window, the ceiling—where a project to patch cracks in the plaster had apparently been abandoned with the work unfinished—the fireplace, not always, at this time of year, in use. He had nothing to say that demanded a high degree of privacy, but wondered if Wrentsley were somewhat unworldly.
“Think of it in these terms. The Spanish generals must select their targets; it is beyond consideration that our military would have its own objectives in Spain. The Luftwaffe would be concerned with fuel. A plane can fly so far to perform its task; it must then return to its base. I presume, without knowing, that the Luftwaffe command would give the Spanish generals a range within which to choose targets, and a target would be suggested. There may be other factors, which I am unqualified to guess, but those would be questions of a technical nature. The results of a bombing raid are nothing to dispute; the reason, only the men who made this decision could say.”
Morally unsatisfactory, Wrentsley thought, supposing one must interpret the bombing of Guernica as a cold sort of committee work. For his own purpose, he need know only that Britain was in no danger of being impelled into an international crisis. Not during this transitional phase, with the coronation on the near horizon, and Baldwin leaving.
“Well, Kneussl,” he said, following these reflections. “I’m grateful for your help. Now, I must ask your help in another matter, and I’m afraid it will be something of an imposition.”
To this, Kneussl gave no encouragement, only a bored glance…so it seemed to Wrentsley.
“Some friends of ours have sent a girl over. They’d like her to be given entrée to move freely about Frankfurt. The thing needs to be accomplished as soon as may be.” The last words were casually delivered; Wrentsley made the significance clear with a look of import.
“Is she in London?”
“They’ve placed her with a Peace League family…in Bourdon Street, I believe.”
“So then,” Kneussl said, becoming at once brisk. “If you have no further business, Wrentsley, I will leave for my room. You may communicate to this girl that she should come to the embassy at five o’clock. You will give her some paper to show the guard.” Knowing the intricacies with which diplomats avoided discomfiting others, he knew also the opposite case. When one asks for an appointment, one never expects the request to be granted immediately.
The knock on the door, if not precisely at 5:00 p.m., was respectably within a minute or two. Punctual appearance counts for much in first impressions. Kneussl had no picture in his mind of this person to whom he had tacitly agreed to give help―any female who worked at a job would be a “girl” to Wrentsley—even a contemporary of Lady Wrentsley’s.
Greta, ushered in by an aide, approached the desk, a grand and imposing example of embassy furniture. It had almost nothing on its surface, but occupied an expanse of territory between Greta and Kneussl.
“I am Werner von Kneussl. Please sit.”
She sat, and waited.
It was not, she thought, such a fancy tactic; she had had plenty of the old scrutiny in her acting days.
“Allow me to understand,” he said at length, “what you are requesting of me.”
She had been promised by Wrentsley that he’d “paved the way” with Kneussl and that she had nothing to worry about. The precipitate demand for a meeting had seemed a small cloud on the horizon; still, she hadn’t expected to be interviewed. Van Nest, who had cronies Greta had never met, had told her―had, to be specific, suggested to her―that if they’d been in a position to discuss something of that nature, they would have agreed the reports they’d been receiving were over-confident in tone. Her mandate was to nose around for indications of doubt or suspicion in the air; factory gossip or café chit-chat would mean that at a deeper level, something had gone badly wrong.
Yet if Kneussl took the position of knowing nothing, she couldn’t decide what to tell him.
“You don’t know why you hope to visit Frankfurt? Do you know where you expect to stay?”
“Just as in London, with a Peace League family. It’s arranged.”
“I will need your information.”
“Klemens Steiner, Bahnhofstrasse, 62.”
He opened his desk drawer, removed one of his cards, wrote these things on the back, then between two fingers lifted the card to Greta, with an up and down motion telling her to check whether he’d heard her correctly.
“Is this a shop?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”
“You expect to make your way by yourself?”
“The Steiners will meet me at the station.” She placed the card on the desk and pushed it back across.
“I think it’s likely they will not.”
She couldn’t guess what this meant; she waited for him to continue, wondering if the whole scheme had become useless.
“Whom were you expecting to see during this visit?”
Whom…ha. She had little to lose now; she decided she would use the only angle of attack available. “I might have misunderstood Lord Wrentsley. He told me you’d agreed to help.”
“It’s a question of the sort of help you need.”
She’d been briefed on nothing worth hinting at to someone potentially hostile, perhaps not the insider implied by her contact, but a man capable instead of cryptic remarks that might lead in any direction. She sat back, baffled, wondering if she ought to concoct a story, or leave to seek Wrentsley again.
Kneussl allowed the silence to linger; he could easily dispatch her to make her way alone. Winter would keep her contained. Her intention, he guessed, was to meet someone, some pre-arranged liaison. If not that, then she was to stir trouble, ask questions. Winter could arrest her if he liked, or simply have her watched—at any rate, she must be permitted to feel for a time that she was not watched. Kneussl had no information to give Winter; they would learn nothing by a premature detention. Also he wasn’t sure to whom they would give offense by doing this. Surely it was too minor an affair to risk an international incident. Interrogation must be for the same reason out of the question…
Also, because she might gather information, and could do so simultaneous to planting it, all under the guise of an aggrieved innocence. He looked across and met her eyes. She gave him a truculent stare in return. This one, he felt, would make short work of a subordinate, if Winter didn’t take the matter seriously enough to attend to it himself. The idea that had inspired the remark Greta found cryptic reasserted itself. He pushed the card back again, laid the pen next to it, and said, “Write down the address of your house in Bourdon Street. I will come to get you tomorrow, early.”
She was startled. “Why?”
“Because you don’t have much time, and your ideas are impractical. If you wish to remain discreet about your purpose, this can wait. When we are in Frankfurt, you will tell me what you plan to do, or you’ll do nothing.”
“But why should you…” She stopped herself sounding like a sorry office girl and tried reason. “I don’t expect you to take that kind of trouble.”
“This is not trouble, this is responsibility. You have important friends.”
“Important people take an interest in your mission, then.” She hadn’t written her address; he took the pen and tapped it twice on the card to remind her.
“I intend to help you as much as possible.”
Considerations Beyond Understanding
A voice from out the Future cries,
“On! On!”―but o’er the Past,
(Dim Gulf!) my spirit hovering lies,
Mute, motionless, aghast!
“To One in Paradise”
Edgar Allan Poe
Kneussl arrived early, as forecast, during breakfast. For the Fordyces, Greta’s hosts, he was able to be charming. No, of course, he would not disturb them; no, he would not take tea or toast. He thanked Mrs. Fordyce for her kind offer. He would wait in the hall. Muriel Fordyce wavered over her own teacup. In a moment she had bolted, unable to ignore this visitor, leaving her husband to entertain Greta. Colonel Fordyce applied himself to marmalade, poured another cup of tea; he lifted the pot, suggesting a willingness to pour for Greta. She shook her head. She didn’t want tea in the morning.
The Colonel thought of a remark:
“You say you hope to do a bit of traveling on the continent. Wise thing…set off at once.”
This advice—if it were advice—seemed to hang between them. The colonel cocked his head towards the window. Greta ventured, “I think he wants to. Herr von Kneussl.” She paused. “Leave right away. Is it raining, you mean?” She tried to size up the length of time polite manners required her to remain seated.
Colonel Fordyce, suffering—unfortunately undisguisedly—in like manner, the two of them listened to his wife’s airy regaling of Kneussl with conversation. From the breakfast room they could hear Muriel’s murmur, a low confidential tone; Muriel’s skittering laughter; Muriel, emphatic and more highly pitched, so that “worried”, and “one does what one must” came through clearly. Kneussl only once or twice prompted her with a comment.
Greta, coming to a decision, stood; the Colonel stood. She offered a weak early pleasantry―“Thanks so much…that’ll just hold me”—indicating toast and marmalade. More (she would have to think of a few) would be exchanged before she got away. Albeit life with the Fordyces was awkward; life with Kneussl was bound to be worse.
The evening before, Colonel Fordyce, looking very much a man burdened by duty, had held fast to one of two brown upholstered armchairs on either side of the fireplace. Greta had been placed, at Muriel’s insistence, in the other. Muriel, with a Bloomsbury-esque attitude of informality, had folded in her silk pyjamas like a descending parachute, onto the rug. She’d propped her head, chin in hand, on her husband’s footstool. She’d wanted Greta’s Hollywood stories.
Continued from “Greta’s Hollywood stories”
“I suppose, having been there, you know all the sort of thing they won’t print in the papers.”
Muriel wanted someone other than herself to cite, as Greta knew, when repeating (the hoped for) outré gossip about queers and druggies. But Greta did not feel hateful towards any of these people, that she would trade on them like that; in Hollywood you did what you could to keep awake twenty hours a day, working a night job, making every casting call.
She mentioned one or two people. Her hostess shook her head. Something of rueful triumph seemed to play about Muriel’s lips. Greta had once touched the person of Wallace Beery…an actor Muriel had at last heard of. It had been one of those opening-the-wrong-door gags. Greta’s hand had been featured on screen; other than in ensemble scenes, she had not.
And for this dearth of dish, she’d lost status with Muriel.
She came back downstairs, trunk packed and hat on, pleased with herself for having had everything organized. The Colonel, not, for his eagerness to give her godspeed, wholly projecting a concern for the parquetry—his grunt and downward glance mere indications—had taken custody of the trunk. He smiled at the departing guest. They arrived in the hall, where Muriel and Kneussl faced each other in continuing conversation, angled to not see the Colonel and Greta, who waited in polite silence, inching closer. Muriel was saying, “We don’t want them to think of us as Liberals, we’re not political. Alvin, you know, is an awful old Tory. You always make the point, Werner…and it’s so true―our enemies will try to divide us. Exactly the reason I encourage Alvin to be involved. And do you know, he even managed a little talk on preparedness. At a public house.” She spotted her husband, but went on imperturbably, “You see, Alvin is making himself useful. What we want new members to understand…”
Kneussl had no reservations about interrupting.
“It won’t do.”
They were all, for an instant, mystified; then, stepping forward, rolled map in hand, he rapped this on the trunk.
“Because of the Vauxhall?” Muriel asked. “Don’t worry, darling.” She spoke to Greta, her eyes coming round from holding Kneussl’s halfway through the endearment. “I’ll lend you my little travel bag, and you can take just the things you need. Come along!”
They trailed back upstairs, Muriel, Greta…the Colonel between them, dragooned by his wife’s pinching fingers. Kneussl studied the map he had been vexed over, having by his hostess’s hospitality been prevented from doing so earlier.
Muriel told her husband what to fetch: “Oh, and the little train case, too.” Muriel’s luggage proved sumptuous cream ostrich with tortoiseshell handles; Greta was embarrassed to accept these things…yet had been put in a position where she couldn’t refuse them. And like many who lend their valued possessions, Muriel compassed the recipient round, shifting from foot to foot, offering advice.
“If you do get a smudge, don’t worry about it. I’ve had these for ages, I really have.”
Kneussl, under the eye of a witness, treated Greta with courtesy, as he stowed her bags and held the door for her. Muriel hovered on the walk to wave them off.
“Such a dashing little car! Alvin won’t buy anything that isn’t a stodgy old saloon.” She glanced over her shoulder, but the Colonel, unmoved by any sentimental wish to part with his guests on the street, had remained indoors. Her eyes returned, too quickly for Kneussl, and caught him checking his watch. She met Greta’s, her smile grown somewhat cold.
“Fun for you, dear.”
To Kneussl, she said, “The next time my husband goes off with his Territorials, I’ll ask you to take me for a drive.”
The immaculate roadster, nearly a decade old, might have been on its first outing. Once in traffic, Kneussl told Greta, “Your trouble over the packing has put us behind schedule, but I believe we can make up the time.”
She thought of one or two possible answers.
She opened her mouth and closed it. In the midst of this false start, she had decided only sarcasm could do justice.
“Oh…my fault. Why didn’t I guess about the car?”
And it didn’t work, of course. All his concentration was on weaving in and out among the slower vans and buses, getting them out of London in the shortest order. She didn’t like men who threw their weight around. Her arrangements had become someone else’s property; again she feared her reason for being here might no longer exist. She said to Kneussl:
“How do I know this isn’t some kind of dirty business?”
He thought this sounded like a phrase from the American cinema, slang of the sort he associated with gangster pictures, an expression of the “double-crossing” variety. The idea was absurd. Her apparent lack of sophistication would only lead to putting herself in danger; she ought to be grateful to be traveling under protection. And why couldn’t Americans, in any case, speak English? Glancing at her, however, he saw that she was hunched against the door, arms crossed over her midriff, creating as much distance as practicable in the two-seater’s close quarters.
He found her grotesquely insulting. Did she have no notion of social order, none of propriety? He thought of a ruthless practical solution. Swerving towards a petrol station, negotiating the corner, he bumped the kerb while flinching away from a taxi that sped from the entrance at the same moment. Taking caution, then, Kneussl proceeded forward as far as possible, along the narrow apron between the pumps and the low brick wall that separated this from the walk. He meant to indicate he wanted no service; he was merely stopping. Greta watched Kneussl exit the car, and fretfully examine the tyres. An attendant leant against a wall by the garage entry. He was talking to a motorcyclist.
“Hold up, Bellerby,” he said, holding up his own hand.
He walked over to Kneussl, cast on the car from bonnet to boot a look of exaggerated appraisal, gave to Greta the same treatment, as, tugging her skirt, she opened her door and backed out.
“Assist you with anything, sir?”
“Thank you, no.”
The attendant retreated from these grim words, and exchanged a few sotto voce remarks with his friend. Their conversation then resumed a normal, somewhat excited pitch, as they debated a spinning wheel game. How was it fixed? Mate of his works the crowd, the cyclist said, lays on the first flutter…
Kneussl rummaged in the boot. He handed Greta a leather case. She looked at him in surprise, and he said, with pointed formality: “Please accept the use of this for your protection, at any time you feel unsafe.”
“But…what is it?”
The case, admirable in itself, had an embossed design, glossy brass fittings. Kneussl withdrew from his pocket a key. He dropped the boot lid, laid the case on top, unlocked it, and made a beckoning gesture. He began to think her stupid, that she did not yet understand him.
“Will you,” he said, “see inside?”
Inside was a Mauser pistol. She removed this from its recess, holding it delicately and ineptly in a semi-lateral position. He had not anticipated her doing such a thing. Had she fumbled or dropped the gun, any of them, Greta, Kneussl, the attendant, his friend, might be the random recipient of a bullet.
“Is it loaded?” she asked.
“If,” he said, with tight restraint, “you are feeling nervous, put it back. You see, all this is your own choice.”
He watched her shift and hesitate between left hand and right hand, reached out and stayed her wrist, extricated the gun, and snapped it into place. He retreated to the driver’s seat, confused and irritated. Greta got into the passenger’s seat, setting the gun case at her feet in a guarded way, as one adding the final touch to a house of cards.
“What’s the idea?” she asked.
After some thought, he said, “Have you never been trained to use a gun?”
“Why would I want to?”
He met her eyes directly. She seemed calm. Her tone had been conversational. He started the car, backed with wariness, got well past the two pillars that narrowed the entryway, and seized a chance to dart into the flow of traffic. He was struck by unease, doubt. What he thought he’d seen, perhaps after all he had not seen. He had told himself a person of her class or type must be in many ways unfamiliar; he would not understand her.
He had fallen under a misapprehension…that earlier she’d said something, conveyed it. She had said nothing, of course.
“You don’t, at any rate, expect to be treated badly?”
Greta snorted at the word “expect”, but reminded herself how she’d campaigned to be here…and how her presence made work for other people. She uncrossed her arms and sat up.
“But why does it have to be a mystery? Where are we going?”
“Nothing has to be a mystery. We are going to an airfield in Surrey, not far from Lingfield.” He shot her a glance. No, of course the names were meaningless. “You don’t have much time. It’s best to go by plane.”
“Why do you keep saying I don’t have much time? You don’t even know what I’m doing.”
“Yes…you haven’t told me what you’re doing.”
“Well, I wish anyway you’d slow down.”
It was unnerving, being a passenger in an open car. She didn’t find this dashing…she felt vulnerable, unsound in her seat, afraid of removing the hand from her hat. Kneussl obeyed without a word, not slowing down enough to invest the gesture with contempt; acting, nonetheless, with a high-handed dispatch. He had a way of making civility seem rebuking. All along he had been using superficial good manners to treat her rudely. She decided to try the sociable approach; maybe she could get him to like her a little.
“I was in Prague…maybe you heard…for a Peace League meeting. I thought Prague was a friendlier city than Vienna.”
His frown made it clear that, to the contrary, her words were both liberty and offense. She racked her memory, and added, “I love old churches.” It wasn’t much; and this mention of Kneussl’s birthplace bad form, after all. She ought not to have made free with Lord Wrentsley’s intelligence. Now that she could not take the words back—her companion’s deafness to them communicating, she thought, plenty—what she’d taken for advice seemed more a warning:
“You must regard Kneussl as not altogether German.”
She rooted again for something to engage his sympathies. “Do you know what a rosarian is?”
Goaded by her prattle into a single, emphatically negative shake of the head, Kneussl told himself he had no notion…it might be some sort of religion. He wondered why she should wish to introduce that of all subjects; then again, Americans had this reputation, for this tedious insistence…
“A person who has a passion for roses. Herr Zschiegner—do I say that right?—our sponsor in Prague, he was a rosarian. He kept a notebook where he made sketches on one side, I mean on the,” she lifted her hands to check, “on the left-hand page, and wrote notes on the right.” She worked an invisible pencil in the air. “It was already like one of those books you could buy. I told him, ‘You should publish that’…but he didn’t think he could, for some reason.”
Zschiegner had been an artist; his paintings, like his ink drawings, composed of lines, heavy, black, deeply etched into the paper; meticulous botanical renditions that, for one devoted to his roses, seemed to imbue them with sinister intent. He had done a portrait sketch of Greta that produced much the same effect. His oil paintings had no recognizable subject, only lines—which, he had told her, “must be thin as the edge of a knife”.
“He had some feud going on with a neighbor, who was a kind of Alderman I guess, whatever they have. Always threatening he could use his authority…eine hungrige maus, he said, Herr Zschiegner. The neighbor had a fruit tree that was growing over the wall…”
Kneussl found this unbearable, and said to her repressively, “I have not been to see my mother—our old house is in Aussig…though, true, I have lived in Prague as well—I suppose you haven’t heard so much. Not for nearly twenty years.” Then he added, in a tone so calculatedly flat that the effect was extremely cutting, “I’m interested to learn that you enjoyed Prague.”
Interested to learn, Greta echoed, that I wasn’t getting the half of it before. And why must she put up with him at all?
If she was not the smartest girl in the room—to use an expression—she knew how to play a scene. Herr von Kneussl looked down on her. He didn’t want to hear her talk. He seemed unhappy with his mother. She could guess where to stick the needle in.
“I know exactly how you feel,” she said, throwing on this insinuating phrase, a top-spin of camaraderie, and laying a hand on his coat sleeve. “I have to go to St. Louis pretty often, but I never go home…I mean, back to the old neighborhood. I got away from those people a long time ago.”
He mistrusted this. He began to see, behind her American mannerisms, something planned. “I’m sure you’re mistaken.” He fell silent, and she did not back-peddle, explain, or defend herself. “To suppose,” he added, “that your experience has much in common with mine.”
“Oh, never mind about me. Small people have small feelings.”
So. She had induced him to break a rule, steered him to a place of disadvantage. Had this been a diplomatic occasion—the useless phrase he’d tossed at Wrentsley—having somehow committed an offense, he would owe her a concession.
Yes, when it is unnecessary to say anything, say nothing. Through his work, he’d met high-level Americans, cultured Americans at Peace League functions, but never what he thought of as one of the ordinary class. He could not quite credit her with Machiavelian cleverness…he found he didn’t want to…and hoped she did not parrot lines of dialogue, rehearsed with her by Wrentsley.
But he knew of ways to speak with every sort of difficult person. What neutral topic could set things right?
“Do I understand you, that you live in St. Louis?”
“No, I don’t. I grew up there. Sometimes I have to travel there with my boss. I was only saying…it makes me afraid I’ll run into one of them.”
“Ah. And what would happen?”
The topic, far from being neutral, was inexcusably personal; he ought to stop himself, letting her lead in this way.
“Oh, a castle!” She pointed, turning to watch the receding summit. Now trees obscured her view. They drove through a region of low hills, a near landscape of dark, ivy-grown trees, limbs chalky with lichen, lime-hued moss brighter than April’s new leaves. The straw-colored middle distance was hazy, the far ridge refracting blue light. Frontal clouds crossed the horizon like sea wash, ocher-bottomed and pale grey.
They were on the Eastbourne Road; Kneussl needed to find a turning for Blindley Heath. She didn’t have to answer his question. He had chosen badly in asking.
“Is this where the Fordyces live when they’re not in London?”
He took a moment to see the road on which he was driving come at the windscreen pell-mell; and saw ahead a grassy incline, crossed by a hedge. A solitary house, flanked by outbuildings. A stream, lying low between high banks, more an interconnected series of shallow, obsidian pools than a flowing current. The change of subject was arresting. Her mind seemed to tack about erratically.
“Tunbridge Wells, you mean. If you are a friend of the Fordyces, they will probably invite you to stay.” They invited everyone…but not for insult had he refused Muriel. Kneussl would have found his time wasted at a country house party.
“I’m not friends with the Fordyces! Lordy, I don’t even know them. I think Colonel Fordyce was happy to see me go. Okay. You asked what would happen?” Again, she didn’t answer at once. In another two miles, they would reach the aerodrome.
Continued from “reach the aerodrome”
“I felt like every day of my life, I was being peeled down to nothing.” She illustrated this simile with gesture, and Kneussl darted his eyes away. “If you can’t say anything, if you can’t do anything—if you can’t want anything—it’s like you’re not even there. Because…what makes someone exist at all? You say, this is what I think, or this is what I care about, and the other person listens. Treats you like you’re worth something. If everything you ever do is wrong, and everything you ever say is stupid, how are you even a human being?” She had not meant to say this. She flushed, to make matters worse, and added, “See, I know how they are. Everything that comes out of their faces beats me down.”
Having got it all out, and too much, with a compressed mouth she turned her own face to the scenery.
Kneussl smiled, though his passenger would not have known it. These were bad feelings, merely…and so he had done her not much harm.
Traffic close to town had been brisk; as they struck away from the Eastbourne Road, it grew sparse. Another two or three minutes passed, and they came to a drive dividing a stand of trees. Certain of these, too near the edge, showed boles carved by passing vehicles. The trees were further afflicted by a sequence of signs nailed on the right and left. Kneussl pulled the car in as far as the first, and slowed.
He read these words aloud, yielding to an impulse to hear himself do so. No, certainly, his curiosity had not been out of turn. Her eyes were dry. He thought she had laughed a little.
A short distance on, another sign read: “This is Not a Road”. They recited this at the same moment. They sat in resolute silence passing the third.
“We Ask You Not to Trespass“.
A shed of block construction stood at the head of the drive; from inside billowed fumes of an aromatic chemical nature. The shed had a low window beside its wide-open door. A fan was bolted across the window. The fan, hammering like a tractor motor, also clinked intermittently, as though at any moment one of the bolts would fly loose. Kneussl sounded the car’s horn once, without effect. He tried again.
A man leaned his head out, and withdrew it. He reappeared, after a moment, in whole, stepping from the shed, fastening a cap to his head. He lifted this to Greta. He did not approach the car, or venture beyond his protective barrier of fog and racket. He waved them forward and to the right, where parking might presumably be discovered.
Kneussl drove ahead to an open area of close-cut grass. He stopped the car before a white building, a single story with a pitched roof. Another sign, a hoarding in effect, tall enough to block the view, was covered with messages and notices. Greta studied the arch of painted wood that greeted the public. Its background was sky blue, its border a depiction of vine leaves, gold; at the center, a coat of arms. The device looked to Greta like a trio of winged French horns.
Beyond the off-limits area accessed by this back entry, sheltering trees that lined a ditch gave way to sun and open fields. Here could be appreciated the full scope of the aerodrome. Maintenance sheds, rows of hangars, a wide tarmac of packed earth and stunted turf, and the headquarters of a business, one advertising itself as assembling kit-built planes, filled the view like an orderly encampment.
The private drive and immediate environs were under occupation of the local flying club. The sign listed its officers, and offered a Latin motto:
Virtus praemium est victoria.
The club, she read, through its window (on which were other things posted behind protective glass, including pictures of student pilots posed grinning, each with a hand on the wing of the club trainer, ‘Foxy Flo’) gave flying lessons; its aviators, exhibitions and joy-rides. The club maintained two hangars of its own in this section, an ell adjacent to the main structures of the aerodrome.
Kneussl left the car, telling Greta to wait. She watched him enter the headquarters.
Her little story, begun with the intention of sorting things between them, had left her abashed. Not, on the one hand, did she need Herr von Kneussl’s respect; nor, on the other, could she necessarily salvage her mission. He was in control of the day; she must await the outcome. She thought of Bruce’s axiom: “Be alert and take your cues from the other person”.
Aloud—taking the other person into consideration—she said, “Ha!”
The door swung open. Kneussl, speaking, followed out a tall, fair-haired man.
“Something may have interfered with your preparations; otherwise, as you requested we be here at half seven, and as we are only ten minutes late, I would have expected to find you ready, or nearly so.”
Greta got out of the car, and looked across the field to where a small monoplane was landing.
“One doesn’t know whether clients will be early or late, or whether they will turn up at all.” Their pilot, as she supposed him, had been with his nonchalant gait blocking Kneussl. Hands in his coat pockets and face austere, Kneussl broke free as the man, catching sight of Greta, walked over to introduce himself.
“You are Miss Freund, I have been told. I am Anton Aerendael.” He swept out a continental gesture, enfolding her hand in his and bowing over both.
“Oh, you should give lessons!”
“I do. Miss Freund, you are taking a small holiday?”
Kneussl had known, of course, that the mildest and most civil of observations, touching the subject of inefficiency, will tend to bring the pace to a standstill. He moved to stand before the sign board, studying the notices posted by the Air Raid Precautions Committee, these offering variety to the reading public. The local chapter engaged with a sporting view towards outstripping neighboring counties, in the staging of events and the tacking up of advisements. Their pilot, in command at the moment of Kneussl’s fate, might easily pass several minutes in idle chitchat.
“I wouldn’t,” Greta answered Aerendael, “call it a holiday, but I hope I get the chance to see something. I’ve never been to Frankfurt.”
“But you have a friend to show you the sights. That will be lovely for you.” Aerendael waved to the man who had landed the by-now-familiar Foxy Flo, taxied beyond view behind the hangars, and was now ambling towards them.
“Mr. Walker, you are needed to take that car away.” He returned his attention to Greta. “Miss Freund, you are much of a traveler?”
“Not really, but I love to travel.” She looked at Kneussl, who had got the bags, and his gun, out of the car, and now in silence gave over custody to Walker. A thousand provocations would induce from him no comment or notice; he did not look at Greta.
Though bemused by the conversation’s artificiality, for the ears of her companion she added: “My little stories aren’t very interesting. How long does it take to fly that far?”
“An hour, perhaps, to Bruges.” He shrugged. “I may stop there to refuel; I don’t like to buy petrol in England. I have a better price in Bruges.”
A minute or two passed, and Walker returned. He had driven the Vauxhall round the side of the office and left it under the shade and dropping catkins of a birch tree, in the open and in plain sight.
Aerendael said, “Now, we get started.”
He flung an arm round Walker’s shoulders; at a leisurely pace, the two crossed to the nearest hangar. A prolonged period of nothing discernable ensued, followed by the man from the mechanic’s shed trotting up the drive, touching his cap again to Greta in passing, and disappearing himself into the hangar.
Anton Aerendael had married a Tonbridge woman. Her father and uncle made their livings as estate agents, jointly employed by their own firm, its reputation so well established that its existence was never mentioned. Aerendael had been the club’s first flight instructor, a position now held by Mr. Walker. Aerendael found schedules and appointments tedious. Marriage to respectable connections had enabled him to fund a small venture of his own, permitting, as Managing Director of AerBridge Services, Ltd., the most tolerant of working environments for his sole regular employee…himself.
The name was a source of pride. Aerendael would not have been Aerendael, if he had not named the business after its proprietor, the spelling of the alias he’d adopted from his place of birth proving merely fortuitous. Then again, the name evoked a tribute to his wife, which did no harm, while also it conjured the pleasant picture of a nimble hop across the Channel.
The financial backing of his wife’s relatives, and local interest notwithstanding, AerBridge Services, Ltd. was a business always on the brink of insolvency. That might have surprised anyone who had noted the frequency with which Aerendael made his cross-Channel hops, not to mention his North Sea junkets. Most of his passengers were friends, near-friends, friendly acquaintances, or friends of friends. Mixing among county society as one did, inevitably one met many people who needed favors. Some were kind enough to grant favors in return. His company had so far earned enough to cover expenses, and the most modest of small profits—one must do at least that, for one must appear quite dull before the eyes of the Inland Revenue—and these successes provided encouragement to Aerendael’s wife in her earnest efforts to introduce more influential friends to Anton.
Aerendael visited a number of aerodromes, in England and on the continent. He was always interested in the stories his fellow pilots told. The only aviation legends that mattered, however, were the ones that got printed in the papers. A plane could develop engine trouble…this happened all the time. During an emergency stop, one’s passengers might decide to make other arrangements—busy people could not be kept waiting about.
If a troublesome official needed to be happy, it was best to guide him to a familiar landmark. As soon as he confessed having read of a similar case in Essex…Cornwall, it might be…Yorkshire, if it made any difference—Aerendael could say, “Yes, quite so. You see that aviation is not an exact science.” People tended still to be amazed and somewhat frightened by aeroplanes, worried about what might fall out of the sky. Between the known and the unknown, lies mystery.
The business in the hangar seemed an extended affair. Noisy metallic clanks, intermittent shouts, and a sound like the bleat of badly oiled gears, had issued from the hangar; yet so far, nothing in the shape of a plane. Kneussl stared meditatively at the clouds above the distant hilltops.
Since they had been left to stand together waiting, two people poles from having anything to say to each other, Greta supposed he was making it a special point, this ignoring of her. With nothing to think about, she found her mind’s ear tuned to a song. The song had no words that she knew of; she’d heard a band play it, more than once. First, a clarinet solo, next a pounding drumbeat—one of those get-you-on-the-floor numbers popular in nightclubs. She found herself humming, tapping out a few absent-minded steps; she did a half-spin…then realized the clouds on the horizon had lost interest. After a brief meeting of the eyes, Kneussl affected not to have noticed her.
She paced a bit. Then saying under her breath, “Nuts to you, pal”, looked at the grass trodden by her shoes as she walked. A foot or two ahead, a ruby red glow, captured in a beam of sunlight, flashed near the walkway. Greta crouched down and rooted the object out…only a piece of glass, one with a little of its pressed pattern remaining and some gilding at the edge. But who at a flying club would use such a fancy goblet, and how did it get broken? Her imagination conjured a picture, a couple winging off on their honeymoon, toasting each other with joie de vive—with champagne, for that matter—and tossing the glass away as the plane soared into the sky.
It was highly cinematic…however, she should not have been silently acting the scene. Kneussl was looking at her again, this time in a noticing way, his brow furrowed.
“I guess I’m a nervous flyer,” she said, facing him down.
He said, seriously, having given this a moment’s thought, “You should keep your mind on your schedule.”
“On my schedule?”
“Review your plans for the day, create order in your mind. That will keep you from worrying.”
“But your schedule,” she said, “must be all out of order. Mr. Aerendael is kind of slow getting started, whatever he’s doing.”
These were not the choicest words for establishing friendship…if they could ever be friends. He looked loweringly at the closed hangar, winced, as did Greta, at a piercing scree-thwank, followed by the promising sound of a motor, and said, finally, “I will put things right when I have the opportunity.”
Aerendael’s helpers pulled open the hangar door, scrambling ahead to position themselves fore and aft the plane as it puttered onto the taxiway, guiding it with hand signals. Once Aerendael had this, notably larger than the trainer she’d expected, positioned before a broad, open field, he cut the engines, and jumped out. Walker ran back to pick up the bags. Aerendael took Greta’s arm and escorted her himself, helping her aboard and into her seat. Kneussl, he left to his own devices. To Greta, he said, “If you have questions, you must ask now. When she is flying, too much noise.”
“What if we have bad weather?”
“Ah! You do remind me.” Aerendael scanned the plane’s interior. Oil-stained blankets were stacked, with housewifely tidiness, in what amounted to a cargo hold; Greta’s bags lined up and secured in a space behind one seat. With a dissatisfied pursing of the lips, Aerendael rooted about in the cockpit. At length he obtained a rag, which he folded into a neat square. He handed this to Greta, saying, “If you feel airsickness.”
It was a hazard unsuspected, and Greta feared the rag unlikely to be adequate in case of real need, but she would do her best for Aerendael…she liked him…the acquaintanceship might even have spoken something in Kneussl’s favor, but that Kneussl so emphatically did not.
Her question had been inspired by a light rain pelting the windows. She pictured the plane struck by lightning. Maybe such things never happened. Walker climbed to his seat and spread a map over his knees, the man from the shed shut them in; Aerendael taxied a short distance. Greta felt compelled to ask it.
“Could the plane be struck by lightning?”
“Of course.” Aerendael opened the throttle, and the engines roared. The plane bumped over turf, not a very great distance, before it lifted into the low clouds.
Once airborne, they were enveloped in noise, buffeting, rattling, rushing. The plane sometimes gave a lurch like a motor car rocketing over a rutted road. Greta, so far, felt un-queasy. She had never been in a plane before and was enthralled by the view. Kneussl, she thought, must be absorbed in a deep and interior contemplation of his schedule; he showed no interest in England’s villages and coppices seen in miniature.
“Oh, the ocean!”
It was impossible to share, but when they passed out of clouds into blue sky, and broke over blue water below, she touched his sleeve, meaning it this time.
Strictly speaking, it was the North Sea, and no one else on the plane could hear.
Kneussl had been trying steadfastly to think in pragmatic terms. Enforced solitude was dangerous; all one could do was consider. All his efforts to control the exigencies of unwelcome duty had gone…not wrong. Wrong can be set right. Aspects of careful plans were fissuring off on odd trajectories, creating new responsibilities, or doing unknown harm.
Unknown variables, unknowable outcomes. Normally he would clear the fog by doing any task that could be done. At present, nothing could be done, and nothing, for Kneussl, felt oppressive.
He had once seen an accident, the watchers on the ground never suspecting…as the plane had not banked into its next circle, but rather descended away from the aerodrome, coming to earth in a slow and peaceful arc. It had become lost behind the trees.
They’d looked at one another. And none had believed, was willing to believe, the column of black smoke could mean what it did.
Continued from “could mean what it did”
What it was possible to become accustomed to.
Soaked by unceasing rain, seeing the flesh of one’s feet peel like a corpse’s, bitter cold acutely, or for months, dully present, warmth and shelter forgotten; the painful dragging of oneself from the ground to labor at each soulless task, purpose and strength forgotten; every vision, every dream, every word, every thought, a delusion; sanity forgotten. Dread hovered and groped, drawing near whenever one fell away, which had to be―one could not keep moving forever.
The sun, scintillating over a patch of snow, shooting sparks in red, yellow, green, blue―he concentrated on the pure light, able now to find it soothing. Soon, clouds moved in, frigid late October air reminding him that time was short. Subjects of the Emperor Franz-Josef’s vassal-states had been goaded, more than swept, into an Austrian passion of revenge. The old man was safe, and needn’t concern himself now. From some circle of Hell he watched his soldiers crushed in defeat; and that, God willing, was the lesser of his torments. Defeated…yet the war continued to grind them and to drive them, and would do so, Kneussl imagined, until the last spark had winked out. Early victories, an insanity of hope, had been succeeded by this cascade of failure. And that was familiar, comforting in its way. If duty might only end.
Exposed on steep alpine terrain, three hundred or so retreating soldiers rested. They rested uneasily, harried by the close pursuit of the Allied armies. The Italians had been bolstered now by the French and the British; Kneussl’s own regiment become a combined force of remnants. They rested uneasily in any case, their nerves ragged…they had gone days without rations. At an instant one fell into exhausted sleep; at an instant, the smallest noise dashed oblivion away.
Oberleutnant von Kneussl was the officer in command at present, for only a day or two, he hoped. His Oberst was dead, lost as a British bombing raid had gouged holes in their retreating lines. Their group had become disconnected; thus far, no one of higher rank had arrived to take charge. His discipline was lax, he had no pride in it…but soldiers had been deserting steadily, intermittent stragglers arrived; their only objective was to keep moving.
“You have to give a good account of yourself,” Leutnant Winter said. Winter was acting as subaltern in this ad hoc chain of command. He came from another unit; they hadn’t until yesterday known each other. “It would surprise me,” he continued, “if any Slav was still here tomorrow. They are worse than useless.” This was not by any means the most virulent abuse Winter had expressed towards the deserters. Kneussl had mentioned, on first acquaintance, and neutrally, that his mother was a Czech. Winter appeared incurable.
Dispirited, punished, the men retreated over stony, pitched ground that resisted at every step, their progress small justification for their labor. They had achieved a redoubt, where a shelf between steep climbs enabled a gun emplacement. The gun had been shallowly trenched in behind a natural barrier of protective rock, augmented by others moved, in lieu of sandbags, and placed there for that purpose. At some point during battle, the gun had been sighted, a shell spinning from an answering gun miles away had mauled the crew out of action. Three docile, emaciated horses stood tied at the bottom of a sharp descent, in a shelter created by an outcropping. One shell-shocked gunner had survived otherwise uninjured, four others lay dead. The sixth lived, having suffered that fate peculiar to so many in this war—the ghastly wound, the protracted agony that yet evaded death. Now and again, he made a sound, a whimpering repeated and repeated, escalating finally to a shriek. At such times the men froze and no one spoke. To Kneussl this inarticulation was the song of a mesmerist, the message the angel of death’s.
The shell-shocked gunner had been easy to prod up and push along. The howitzer, the big Skoda, the grinning survivor, should not be left as a war prize. They could disable the gun and abandon it…or, in strictest terms of honor, carry it with them, to make some new last defense.
Winter liked this fancy, the unyielding stand; he believed in the bellowing leader’s breath of inspiration. He thought that within this choice they could still find a chance for heroism. But Winter’s shoulders were not those on which command had fallen.
Naturally, the enemy ought not be permitted to turn this weapon, but Kneussl had a self-annihilating, an almost charitable urge, to make them a gift of it. The Italians, now they were getting the best of the fight, might like going on; and if so, he wished them luck. Only, of course, his own luck—this obscene farce, rather, of remaining alive to endure this moment—must run out. As Winter said, he would soon be called to account.
He knew he was about to make the weak choice, thus, and hedge the consequences. He would order the gun moved—the gesture would suit Winter—and the task proving impossible, as it must, they had tried.
Kneussl, knowing the men could not be interested in this work, was uninterested in volunteers. He gave orders to the nearest loiterers to ramp the gun onto its limber; at the same time, he sent others to fetch the horses…these starved animals, stumbling on rotten hooves. Not much work could be expected of them. Their harness had been left in poor order, nothing adequate for the hitching even of three, where six were wanted. He ordered the frailest led to the place where the wounded gunner waited death.
Tying the animal proved unnecessary; it stood with its neck bowed, haunches quivering…but from sickliness, past fear or reaction.
Centimeter by excruciating centimeter, they shouldered up the gun to a level place away from the track where Winter had ordered the soldiers to form ranks and march forward. The heavy gun could not be an impediment or a danger. It would have to go last. Not last, though, because Kneussl had one further responsibility. They had done all that was decently humane for the wounded gunner, but food, water, morphine, bandages, were beyond their means. To end his ordeal with a bullet seemed reasonable in the abstract. The man in command must perform this reasonable act.
Near death, the gunner’s sensitivity seemed supernatural. He opened his eyes, meeting, despite the softest footfall, the gaze of anyone who approached. Kneussl had committed acts in the name of war…but to step forward and pull the trigger felt to him like murder. He prayed for this thing alone, the arbitrary mercy of God.
At the lowest level of the slope still visible from Kneussl’s vantage, clusters of refugees were gathering, more making their way up the incline. Soon, he might find his command relieved by someone of greater authority. And as the newcomers mixed in, a rumor began to spread through the ranks that the enemy were taking prisoners. Someone asked if prisoners were fed. No, came the grim joke…or perhaps this was only the truth…they would be lined up at the top of a trench, and shot.
From the emplacement trench, Kneussl climbed, and ordered the men to move the gun forward, in readiness. The horses were whipped, the soldiers shoved and hauled, so close to the edge they could work from one side only. A scream from the wounded gunner assaulted Kneussl’s ears like the whistle of an incoming shell. A death wail, he told himself. Dead. The horses pitched and staggered, and the gun lurched into what seemed an irrecoverable position. The man who’d been guiding them dropped his arms, letting the horses go; he had stood with blank, stupid eyes while the gunner’s cry trailed away. He met Kneussl’s eyes with a sickening smile.
And this was insufferable, the suggestion he read there, that he had entered into some covenant or conspiracy with these men; worse still, that his private game with fate was so easily discerned. Focusing on nothing for a long moment, only the bot-flies swarming over the eyes of the horse nearest to where he stood…
Kneussl blinked. Some blackened matter, clotted, that was all…but the eye wanted still to impart something, some human message.
“I’m sorry for you,” he said.
He looked finally at the man. “Why don’t we laugh about this, soldier? Or it may be you’re not a real soldier―you can afford to laugh. It may be that, after the generals had grown desperate enough to conscript the criminals, the lunatics, and the imbeciles, they could lower their standards only once more, and so accepted you. I’m sorry for you, then, if you’re merely an idiot from some maggot-infested pigsty of a mountain village, where all one finds are inbred idiots. I’m sorry for you, if you’ve lost an intellectual contest with a horse, and can do nothing about it, but stare and laugh. Perhaps we can correct the army’s mistake, as we have determined what you’re fit for. When you go home to your village, you will do as a beggar on the street…supposing there is a street.”
All this was good, he thought. He had not raised his voice, lost the thread, fallen into meaningless repetition. He could go further.
“Or, no, if you go to the city, you may even earn your keep, you will only match wits over crumbs with the rats in the gutter…”
In actuality, though, rats were intelligent, were they not? More so, perhaps, than…he felt it possible; he had seen uncontrolled horses run simply mad—in which case the conceit…
He stopped this.
“But you’re of no use here. Soldier, stand aside!” Kneussl pointed abruptly to a place out of the way, and the man obeyed, head down, moving with a limp unobserved before, that conveyed his sense of ill-treatment. Kneussl had intended to take over the horses himself, but discipline had fallen off badly; the others were entertained by their comrade’s disgrace. While he had been speaking, he had noticed…been distracted by…gestures, low talk, derisive laughter. Sounds carried a great distance in the mountains. He thought he could hear the hum of a plane’s motor; the harbinger, perhaps, of another bombing assault. The sky was an icy blue, the clouds slate, tinted orange at the horizon. No one else seemed aware.
As though philosophically, Kneussl said, “When we fail consistently at objectives that others are able to achieve, who is at fault? We Austrians have held ourselves above the Turks…are we so different? Are we more than crippled dependents, kept in the dark, pushed aside? The Turk wished to be rid of the Armenian. The Turk may be shamed, he may see his country butchered in the aftermath, but he may take some comfort. While the world looked aside, he dispatched his own enemy. We, who began this war counting Serbia as our enemy, have struggled for years, and have not defeated her, though we have plundered our own house to heap fuel on the bonfire. No, we have not destroyed our enemy…we have destroyed ourselves. We nearly have destroyed the world. We had gained the feeblest grip on Serbia, and even that has been wrested back. We have been the despair of our allies. Our enemies could be forgiven for wondering if Austria would not suffer more to see her soldiers repatriated than shot.
“Now, when everything is lost, you find yourselves challenged by the least of tasks. I ask you to put one foot in front of the other, and to carry away our belongings. So. It seems when your commander asks your service, you give nothing. In retreat and dishonor, you make obstruction, which is to give less than nothing. Are you soldiers? No. You are idle, useless time-servers, pitying yourselves…and for the rest of your lives, you will be this…nothing. Nothing!”
Trenched in at Galicia, he had risen cautiously from a sheltered position to meet a telegrapher’s runner bearing a message…the message might have been anything. Keeping low, fearful of the sniper’s bullet, he had reached out his hand. A shell had exploded, almost overhead.
Kneussl had been away from the front for some time. For some time, every assaultive nervous sensation, every sound, smell, touch, every shift from light to dark, had ignited under his skin. He despised the other shell-shock cases. Of all alternatives, that worse than death had seemed to him thought, and time for it. He had wanted nothing more than to return to the front.
Still, unexpectedly the echo…invasive, clamorous…made it difficult to speak.
“Nothing,” he’d found himself repeating. More he no longer recalled.
He’d fallen silent, and this was more satisfactory, or so it had seemed; slackness and indifference in the men eradicated. He felt he had brought the hammer of aristocracy down upon the rabble. The soldiers answered with antipathy, and he was glad.
From the right, he heard a man say:
“I can tell you something about nothing.”
Impossible to tell the man’s rank; he was dressed like a battlefield scavenger. He looked at Kneussl with meaning, and Kneussl believed they knew each other, but had no idea of a time they’d met.
“They’ve had to beg for an armistice, your leaders; they will accept what they’re offered…if you don’t like to think so, you will learn differently. The world is smaller than it was. Bohemia belongs to the Czechs now. That won’t do you any good, citizen von Kneussl. In reality, you’re not one of us.”
Speaking with a specific and vengeful knowledge, but for what cause?
A sound like gravel sliding from a bucket…then, within a silent emanation of dust, the heavy gun sheared away and vanished, along with the horses and nearly with one of the men. A circle had moved closer to Kneussl and the stranger, when he had spoken news of the armistice. Winter, who’d walked over to lend Kneussl his support, grabbed the endangered soldier by the arm and roughly shoved him onto the path. They heard a clanking crunch, distressed animal cries swiftly silenced. Kneussl went to look over the edge. Winter followed with one or two of the others. Both horses were dead. One had split across the rib cage against jutting rocks. This bloody flesh the men gazed upon dispassionately, perhaps wistfully. It was no remarkable sight.
Winter said, after a while, “This is not a safe place to stand for long.” The ranks had begun a spontaneous march under pressure from new arrivals. The stranger had gone. Kneussl shoved his way across to where the third horse stood untethered. He would not allow it to fall into enemy hands, not the least thing that might be of use. Fate had supplied an answer. He drew his pistol, touched the barrel to the animal’s glazed, watering eye, and fired, point blank.
Continued from “fired, point blank”
Aerendael, following a flight plan of his own, had headed for Bruges, but Bruges was not his destination. He had been cleared outwards to land at Bruges with two passengers, but there would be an emergency. Later, he would land at Frankfurt with two passengers as expected. One did well to establish that so many things were possible. If authority cared very much, Aerendael would say: “Certainly, you must ask me to pay a fine, if you believe I have violated the law in any respect.”
One did well to cooperate; indeed, to offer an excess of goodwill and amiability.
He and Walker sighted northward along the Bruges-Sluis canal, flying low, and crossing just over the border into Zeeland. He began a shallow descent, then neat as a pin, touched down on a grassy area that bordered a dirt road, coming to a stop opposite a cluster of squat, tile-roofed canal houses. The last of these partially concealed a canvas-backed motor van. Aerendael jumped from the plane. A man on a bicycle, emerging from behind the houses, rode up and began a conversation with him. Walker attended to Greta and Kneussl, bustling them to earth. He invited them to have a look round.
“Ever seen one of them Dutchie windmills, ma’am?” Walker pointed with a hastily lit cigarette. “Half a mile yonder.”
Despite Aerendael’s eccentric timetable, they were making fair progress. It was not late, but nearly ten o’clock. Walker had addressed all his comments to Greta. She glanced at Kneussl, and called after Walker, “Thank you!” She wondered why she was playing the role of hostess.
Perhaps this added delay was unforgivable to her companion…Kneussl said nothing whatever to Greta, aloof as they walked along the canal. She decided to stop. She was wearing heels, and teetering over grass was uncomfortable. She didn’t want to walk. A pair of birds wove an intricate pattern of flight, skimming the glassy water, shooting nearly straight up, diving in tandem, separating and weaving together again. Kneussl came to wait beside her.
The stranger, a man named Janak, had surfaced as a bureaucrat of low, insidious authority, in the new Czech government. He was as devoted to the Communist party as Winter had, in time, become to the party of National Socialism. Janak’s relentless, inexplicable grudge continued―at every opportunity, he threw obstacles in the way of Kneussl’s legitimate claims.
After the war, Kneussl had been incapable of fighting this persecution. He’d felt degraded making use of a title attached now to nothing. Feeling he would not be audience to this performance, he backed away from Janak. He offered no resistance.
But as do many persecutors, Janak aggressed without provocation, pushed and sought attention. He demanded information, generated petty documents requiring signatures.
A sympathetic family friend had offered a post in Weimar, and Kneussl escaped there, settling after a time into the diplomatic corps. He had no use for the past, no interest in knowing why Janak so liked him for an enemy. Janak in frustration at this passive stance climbed down, and began dropping hints.
In some way Kneussl had found himself magnetized by this combat between them. Ashamed to discover he had after all done harm, he addressed Janak in a public letter.
“Though it pleases you to martyr yourself to a lovelorn servitude, I have no power now to alter your position. You must bend your own knee, Herr Janak.”
Amid the heightened, divisive politics of the time, Kneussl’s story began to win admirers. Secretive by nature, seeing nothing romantic in his own character, he hadn’t recognized this as a benefit to his career.
The sky was filling with an advance line of broken grey clouds. Little gusts of wind disarrayed the netting on Greta’s hat. She drew this away from her eyes and tucked it under the brim. It was the sort of weather that could, according to Mr. Farber, put money in your pocket. He’d had a habit of spending afternoons on the back porch; coming and going with her chores, Greta couldn’t always avoid him. He would catch her by the wrist, show his bad teeth in a weird and insistent grin. She could hear him say it—“Whenever it cools off, and you get a snappy little breeze going, outsider’ll bring it home. You know why that is, kiddo? Gets ’em frisky.”
That didn’t seem like a reasonable thought to share. She wondered whether Kneussl had been dislodged somewhat from his original plan. He might be tired, or discouraged…or just bored. Had he given up speaking to her altogether?
“What do you suppose Anton is up to?” she ventured.
This topic Kneussl found inexpressibly dull; he would have her know it, as Greta gathered from the tenor of his comment…though certainly she’d seen him blink at Aerendael’s Christian name.
“He mentioned petrol. Beyond that, I can’t imagine.”
“It seems like,” she went on grimly, “he works a little outside the law.”
“I don’t know why you would say so.”
“Well, then, I guess I wouldn’t say so.”
He found he’d offended her again. He was not in the habit of offending people. However, this woman didn’t need attention; she was not important…she needed only to be understood. Only a thing impossible.
And there was this nuisance about her, that she wouldn’t trust him, so he couldn’t guess in what specific way she would need in Frankfurt to be confined; therefore, to whom he could confer the task. He knew it dangerous to share ideas solely with those of one’s own class and background—essentially agreeing with oneself.
One must acknowledge others, befriend them (as often the matter was expressed) by asking them about themselves, at the risk of hearing banal and unenlightening trivia…which was why he seldom made this approach to mere acquaintances. He didn’t want friends, social invitations taking up his time, irrelevant details of people’s lives to be remembered.
Yet an effort would have to be made. He must acknowledge this American, bring about some level of confidence. No doubt her secret was hardly worth knowing—but then why endure it, this knife edge of uncertainty?
“You were telling me,” he began, surprising her after the long silence. He stopped, unable to recall the name of the city she’d mentioned.
“You were saying,” he tried again, ignoring Anton, “that you were on bad terms with your family.”
Greta thought she might be mistaken, but it was something like a question, and so she answered: “I don’t quite see it that way. ‘Bad terms’ sounds like things started out okay and then something went wrong. I don’t remember things being okay. It was always going to be okay, anytime that wasn’t right then…and if it didn’t cost money. They used to make promises about things we’d all do together…but my father wasn’t a steady worker, so…
“We lived with my grandmother. Her house was the family asset. Our money came from renting out rooms—to all comers, like a fifty-cent flophouse.”
Because of Mr. Farber, she’d lied about sweeping the porch.
“I did everything, ma’am.”
“Hmm. Well. I’ve been up and down the stairs. I take it I missed you.”
This bald stating of a thing that could not be true demanded confession. Greta had been told to wax the floor in one of the airless upstairs rooms; she could not now postpone it.
July in Missouri could be a time of staggering heat, humidity like a wall that with effort you could push through. By late afternoon, few living things had the will to struggle against the Mississippi valley’s implacable summer. Yet she’d labored, sweating, because the price was not too high. To be up here meant an hour or two of solitude.
In time, one of them, her mother or grandmother—they were alike in this habit—would peep round the door, cast an inspecting eye over the floor, catch the lemonade ring on the bureau…withdraw without speaking. Neither did the Freunds speak during meals. From the kitchen Greta could hear their boarders in the dining room—and there was laughter, foul language at times, smoke drifting from cigars and cigarettes.
The rag and tin would be placed on the sideboard. Greta was expected to note the burden to others represented by these implements of disappointment.
At the moment, the smell of wax was making her light-headed. She leaned on the windowsill, and occasionally her misery was fanned away by a blast of wind. She felt something clutch at her finger. A pale brown moth, the kind they called a miller, had for a moment fluttered to life. It spun in circles on its back; subsided once more to a death-like state. The high branches of the backyard oaks blocked the horizon, a stockade framing the blue-violet portent of a thunderhead. She hoped, as she always did, a tornado would spin out of this, and render her grandmother’s house to splinters. She saw herself scavenging through debris, rooting out nickels and dimes, until she had pocketed enough for a ticket West.
“I haven’t seen any of them for more than ten years.” She was echoing Kneussl, and she had nothing else to say to him…but her voice had sounded unsteady, and she couldn’t let it go. The onus of his judgment seemed unreasonable. She would not be left looking weak because of a question.
“I’ve seen my mother wring her hands all day over a broken knick-knack. I don’t know how you can be too smart, or too good, or too careful, to never break anything, or make a noise, or make a mistake. I don’t know how you can be perfect, no matter what you do. You aren’t born knowing how to do things. I guess you might call that ‘bad terms’. I call it a bad bargain, anyway.”
And she added, giving him a shrug,“That’s life.”
Bad terms. They were only words—why did she throw them back like that? Why did she do these things, take harmless expressions and manipulate them into offenses? It was an odd sort of gutter fighting. When Muriel Fordyce had been rattling about her mother, he’d murmured, “No doubt you’re equal to it.” He did not care in the least. Muriel had taken the remark as high flattery.
Miss Freund…he faltered over referring to her in this way, even in his own mind… He didn’t want her to have a name. He foresaw the name recurring, taking him unawares, in an accusatory telegram…
She had told him more about herself, and he knew less about her for knowing these things. What he ought to say, or wished to say…
The first time she’d introduced the subject of her past, he had not expected it; just now, he’d brought it out deliberately. To ask for the story a third time meant he had yielded to it, this unsettling fascination it had acquired.
Walker, far down the path, whistled for their attention, and gestured at them to return.
Aerendael, at work in his own territory, making ready for a quick departure, had shed the veneer of cultured manners. Kneussl and Greta were hurried aboard. Aerendael taxied into position for take-off. A car slowly moved towards them, raising a trail of dust along the dirt road. The man on the bicycle, jaunty, and looking like a well-heeled innkeeper in his red waistcoat, rode to the car and remonstrated with the driver.
The cargo area was empty now with the exception of Greta’s luggage; the oil-stained blankets seemed to have been stowed away. That, leaving aside tyres freshly patched, was the only change. Walker watched the interaction between the two men on the road.
“Are we expecting trouble?” he asked Aerendael.
Their associate was a local official of modest authority…it was his genius, and his value to Aerendael. He drew a small salary, his bailiwick was insignificant, but he was thorough and reliable in his work. The regional council to whom he reported had learned that he could be given additional duties, and was eager to take them on. No small bureaucracy likes the cost of adding offices merely for the purpose of assessing another fee, or enforcing another ordinance.
The man on the bicycle had thus, through this process of accumulation, become an omni-purpose village elder to whom inhabitants addressed all matters political, and many that were personal. All things taking place within his sphere of influence, he knew of; those things that needed to be communicated higher up, he decided. Aerendael had a small network of helpers in England, but trusted his countryman’s sophistication in these international affairs.
The conversation did not end, but gave the appearance of lapsing into congenial themes. The man on the bicycle took off his hat and waved it, signaling “go” to Aerendael. Kneussl had begun making notes, with the idea, Greta supposed, of setting his schedule in order.
Tried in the Fire
“Now all is finished one’s mind will be easy,” said he, and came home in the evening quite sleek and comfortable. The mouse asked what name had been given to the third child.
“It won’t please you any better than the others,” answered the cat. “It is All-gone.”
“All-gone!” cried the mouse. “What an unheard-of name! I never met with anything like it. All-gone! Whatever can it mean?”
The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership
They stood outside the door of number 62. True enough, this address had proved a shop, but the windows were shuttered and latched. Nothing could be seen through the door; inside, a blind had been pulled down and fastened behind the glass. The glass itself was clean, with only unreadable traces of gold lettering that had once told something about the business…its nature or the name of its proprietor…and had not been thoroughly scraped away. The black paint on the shutters was fresh. Nothing about the façade looked disrespectable, yet the shop seemed unoccupied.
“Fräulein, what is your opinion?”
The question was neutral. The phrasing invited her to make a mistake. Greta had not been expected today; she had not been expected to arrive at the doorstep. There might be a reason for secrecy—if so, the secret belonged to someone else.
Kneussl stepped back and studied the windows above the shop. He went to the door and rapped out a peremptory summons. He waited, listening. The shop had no bell.
“I’m sure it doesn’t matter. I have money,” Greta said. “I can go to a hotel.”
“You’ve made arrangements. If the Steiners have not been truthful with you, I would find that unusual.”
Unusual. She had given him the address; he would have had it checked. She hadn’t thought of it. Greta knew of no reason to lie for the sake of helping these strangers; or of any reason to think they needed help…but she’d been on the verge of saying, “I must have made a mistake about the address.”
Kneussl abandoned Greta by the door. He walked a short distance up the street…he’d left her no instruction. She hesitated where she was, and watched Kneussl observe the scene with seeming abstraction. Everyone on foot was on the move, no one loitered. Traffic was sedate. One did not see the London habit of hauling sideways across a lane, and edging in by jerking forward.
Across the street, at the end of the opposite block, the blank, reflective windows of a grey stone building’s upper story interested Kneussl for a moment.
Continued from “for a moment”
“Should we go?” Greta asked when he returned.
“No, I don’t think so.”
She wondered if he were capable of waiting on the doorstep until the Steiners appeared, and of keeping her at his side in suspense, without disclosing his intention.
A uniformed officer walked briskly up the street, and stopped before number 62. He said, “Herr von Kneussl.”
“I believe the Steiners are at home. They are expecting Fräulein Freund.”
The officer nodded, drew a truncheon from his belt, and stepped up to the door. With perfect courtesy, he ushered Greta aside. Using the weapon, he pounded out a thunderous racket. Greta looked away in embarrassment; despite which, she saw no one on the street seem overly curious. But Kneussl had implied this was done on her behalf: this doubling of authority, this disturbance-making noise. The reverberations caused the glass to crack at a diagonal across the lower right corner. When the door swung back, the piece fell, pinging out a series of brittle notes, the rest of the glass intact.
It was Steiner who had answered the door; silently he pulled it further back and let them in. He was a small man, shorter than Greta, probably in his fifties. As they entered, he retreated into the room, meeting no one’s eyes. Whatever had once been sold here, the shop was no longer in business. The shelves were empty. Nearby, thin strips of light from the shuttered windows patterning its dusty surface, stood a counter for conducting trade―and that too was empty.
“I am not the owner of this property,” Steiner told them.
“Have you been asked to say so?” the officer said. “Why would you not answer the door at once?”
“I answered at once, when I heard you knocking.”
The officer was dissatisfied, ready to regard this answer impertinence; on the other hand, Steiner might easily claim to have heard nothing earlier.
“It will not inconvenience you, I hope,” Kneussl said, “to have Fräulein Freund as a guest today. You were expecting her tomorrow.”
“It is all arranged.”
“You say this is not your property. Is this your true address?”
Steiner stepped out of the sheltered space behind the counter; he avoided the officer’s sphere. Still with his head down, he picked up Greta’s bags, which Kneussl had brought in. Steiner had information to give only in answer to a direct question; but as he had been asked, he said, “I will show you where we live.”
It was mid-afternoon, and the stairs they climbed were in darkness. At the landing, Steiner quickly hiked the train case under his arm, then opened a door. Small illumination was thrown onto a small space. They saw the gaslight fixture missing from the ceiling, the fitting sealed, four conical shades nested on the floorboards. The fixture itself, jutting wrought iron leaves of ivy, tilted near the stairs.
In the apartment, Steiner’s wife sat, hands crossed on her lap. She looked at her husband, glanced at and looked away from the two men. This room, too, was poorly lighted, a pair of sooty windows allowing a pale half circle to fall below them. The Steiners’ sitting room had been furnished with miscellany, cheap things readily carried upstairs. Two rugs were piled one on top of the other against drafts. An empty chair, upholstered in threadbare velvet, was greased with a human shape, seat and back. The Steiners had a trunk, a standing closet, shelves and a bureau.
The officer approached the chair in which Frau Steiner sat, positioned his boots close to her feet, and asked, “Why do you not stand up?”
She did, now placed in awkward, subordinate closeness.
“What is your name?”
Kneussl pushed open the door to the other room. He asked, “Who else lives here?”
“No one,” said Steiner.
“These people.” The officer spoke to Kneussl. “They don’t want to look at you when you speak to them…they don’t want to answer questions. You can’t tell what they’re thinking.”
Kneussl did not agree or disagree. He said to Greta, “I will not be here tomorrow; I have other business. My best advice to you is, stay where you are.”
He walked to the door, looked back once at Greta, and left with no further word, no acknowledgment of the Steiners. The officer followed in the same fashion, but without looking back.
The Steiners, in their cautious way, waited for Greta—to give explanation of herself, she thought. She had been cast on them as an unwelcome burden…she was that, she knew it now. One who’d come to this city expecting to be passed from one pair of competent hands to another. The notion was childish.
She’d asked for their help…no, she had not asked for help. Others had made the arrangements. She was the instrument through which the Steiners had been subjected to intimidation. She knew of no reason for it, other than to place, at the outset, a wedge of distrust between herself and her hosts. She ought to leave.
She repeated the offer rejected by Kneussl. “I have money of my own. I can go somewhere else.”
“You’ve been told not to leave,” Rosa Steiner said.
Irritated, Greta shook her head. “I wasn’t told anything.”
Rosa fell into silence again. Greta thought of Kneussl’s habit of ambiguity. Had he been offering real advice, or was she meant to feel threatened? If, in his eyes, she needed that, to feel threatened—so that she would fail, she supposed—shouldn’t he just say why? Wouldn’t fear convince, where hope rebelled?
Bruce would have said, “You don’t know what other people are thinking, so listen to them tell you.”
She saw herself entering the Steiners’ home a day before she was expected, in the company of a policeman and someone of unknown authority. She’d just implied that she didn’t consider herself answerable to advice. Who did she appear to be?
All she could offer, though, was what she had already offered.
“I will leave if it’s less trouble.”
Steiner waved his hand. “This is not the first time we’ve answered these questions. They come back because they think we tell them lies.”
“I guess you want to be helpful,” Rosa added. “If you leave, it won’t be helpful.”
She showed the accommodations they were able to offer, more at ease when conversation was limited to simple facts. The washroom was downstairs. The small bedroom, Rosa told her, they wanted her to use. Greta didn’t question their sacrifice; she had learned, staying in other people’s homes, that the civil thing was to accept hospitality, not insist others could not have intended what they had decided.
The bedroom proved austere as the sitting room, furnished with a rug, a metal-frame bed, and a wooden chair. The upstairs quarters were one half of a larger space, the building’s windows paired, a dividing wall hammered up in the center, providing each bedroom with one window. Greta, having time to examine these things, concluded this was true of her neighbor over the wall. Awkward carpentry had not altogether filled the gaps around once ornate molding, the craftsman solving his problem by chopping this away where it obtruded, plastering and painting over the ill-fitting parts. The wall was thin. Greta heard someone walk across the floor, a voice speak crooningly, the begging cries of a cat.
The lights were of the pre-war type, still wanting a match to light them. The shop below had new lighting to show off its non-existent wares. Work on the landing appeared suspended. Steiner came into the bedroom.
“You maybe want me to light the gas?” He met Greta’s eyes briefly, and almost smiled.
“I would be afraid.” She found herself hovering, watching the process. As though interest taken could be a form of thanks.
She followed him to the sitting room, where he lit the other lamp. A low flame welled, the light grew, soft and weak. Where the early twilight that falls between city buildings could be seen behind spatterings of grime, the light threw the exposed windows into contrast. Steiner did not close the curtains. He said, “Anyone can see what we do here. We don’t have secrets.”
They were not having supper, she realized. Casual talk on earnest themes felt wrong; she needed to pry no information from the Steiners, and had no reason to use the Peace League as a false premise. They seemed uncomfortable with Greta in the room, exchanging glances more than once; finally, Rosa said:
“Please don’t sit up with us.”
The washroom offered a sink and a single towel, this clearly not to be used for blotting make-up. She rinsed off as much cold cream as possible; she wiped the rest on a corner of her dressing gown. Tomorrow, Greta thought, might require an unprecedented change of routine.
Following a sheepish dash through the Steiners’ parlor, she found she didn’t need the light in her room. She hadn’t thought to bring a book. She pulled the chair to the window, opened this, and sat for a while, letting the heavy air clear.
She woke, doubting much time had passed since she’d laid down, trying to sleep. She folded the too-warm comforter to the foot of the bed. The room felt again airless and clammy. A radio played swing, a quiet sound; the Steiners’ voices quiet as well. But perhaps because the building’s upstairs apartments had been cheaply partitioned, Greta could hear some of their talk.
“Whatever we are asked to do, we’ll do. Only if we are asked.”
“It may be she’ll leave, and we’ll never know why she is here.” The radio program might be a friendly noise to counter isolation…or the Steiners, discussing her, might have wanted music to blanket their words. In her half-waking state, Greta found the effect vaguely mesmeric.
“If you talk to her, say only what needs to be said. They may ask what she told you. She may tell them something different. The less we say, the less we have to remember. They would like to have us fall into a trap, to make a character for us; not to say, ‘you are lying’, but, ‘these people tell lies’.”
Rosa thought her husband was too loud. They lowered their voices…after this, Greta could make out nothing else. Should she take Kneussl’s advice, she must at least go out to buy papers and magazines. Or tomorrow, with the Steiners making a point of not speaking to her, would be a trying day.
In their modest quarters, the Steiners ate modestly, a breakfast of bread and weak coffee. The short rations weren’t necessary. Greta could have bought a good breakfast and treated her hosts as well, but overnight she’d grown painfully conscious of her position. All was not right with the Peace League’s arrangements…she was intruding here. She was distrusted.
Someone knocked at the shop door, a tentative tap, yet audible. Rosa got up, and went into the bedroom. She came back to the threshold and leaned out, motioning to Greta.
“Look, see if you know this one.”
Greta found she could look down from that angle and see who was standing on the street below. She could not see his face…but he was wearing the hat he had always worn, and the only suit he appeared to own.
She took to the stairs, making haste in her surprise; and tugging back the blind, showed her face at the door. Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb, knuckles poised, seemed just to have ventured knocking again.
“I was concerned about your glass. It seems a bit precarious.”
“Never mind, come in. What do you happen to be doing here?”
“Searching you out, of course. Seeking favors.”
She turned towards the landing, expecting the Steiners to have followed, but they weren’t there. She didn’t know if she ought to take Geoffrey up and introduce him.
“You’ll have surmised I’m visiting Frankfurt on assignment.” His tone was sardonic, his manner tense, and in some respect, disapproving. She was supposed to guess—or to surmise—that he meant something other than what he said. “I read German tolerably, but I confess I don’t follow the spoken language well. I hope you’ll serve me as translator.”
Against this affected speech Greta made charitable allowance; she was so glad Geoffrey had come, she meant in whatever case to take him at his word. But he was making her wary.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to leave.”
His face showed anger, a thing she’d never seen in him.
“You’re under house arrest?”
“Herr von Kneussl thought I shouldn’t.”
“Then I gather your whole purpose in being here is to loiter about some benighted storefront until Kneussl drops by to share with you his next thought.”
The comment was nearly funny…still too vehement in its delivery. Kneussl had been brought into their scheme by Lord Wrentsley. He had so far been hostile and hindering; but he’d escorted her here rather than refuse. Geoffrey might be able to explain this, whether Kneussl was theirs or not…the question would have to be asked indirectly.
“You’ve met him,” she began.
“I have listened to him expatiate his Nazi philosophy and otherwise obstruct my efforts to conduct an interview, yes.”
She didn’t feel she could mention Lord Wrentsley by name, and couldn’t think how else to phrase the question of integrity…Geoffrey’s hard feelings not the point.
“I thought our friends in London…”
“Oh, don’t make such heavy weather of it! You don’t trust Kneussl. Neither do I. The difference being, I don’t want to.”
He studied Greta’s face. He saw he was making her unhappy, and for this felt unhappy with himself. “You’re well, I hope?”
She blushed, and Malcolm-Webb watched her cast about, to find her appearance reflected by the shuttered glass, a weakness that made him feel both caddish and touched.
“I guess I look like something the cat dragged in. I’m fine, though. Geoffrey, would you take me to lunch?”
“Of course I will.”
She whispered to him, “I’m starving”; turned her back, gave a small, consoling wave over her shoulder, and trotted upstairs to speak to the Steiners…though if, in her room, she could hear low conversation from another, she assumed they might also.
“Will you come down to meet my friend?”
Rosa at once went to the window and looked out at the street. Greta considered. If they distrusted her, questioned her motives, what might they think about a man she’d brought into their home and to whom she wanted them to speak? She didn’t like her choices being a worry to the Steiners.
“I’m going to leave. I’ll be back after a while.”
“You will be back early, before dark?”
“Well, sure”—she heard something dismissive that had crept into her tone—“I’d think so.”
She had great sympathy for the Steiners…but lost patience, placed at odds with them, forced into this stony, begrudging communication.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
Steiner answered, “We have all we need here by ourselves. Others may want to know who you have come to meet. Your business does not concern me, and your business does not concern my wife.”
And of this, Greta hadn’t missed the implication; Geoffrey also had implied it. Yesterday, when she’d arrived here, she had voiced the idea of leaving. Today, facing a morning with no prospect of walking out the door, she’d felt restless and anxious, ready to abandon the mission, wanting only to be in a safe place. Her resolve had hardened on this—to escape, with Geoffrey’s help; to be disgraced, yes…she knew it.
Continued from “she knew it”
“The problem with the Peace League set,” he was saying. “With country house Liberal intellectuals generally, is that they are fatally attracted by this idée reçue…this bastardized offspring of the Utilitarianism inherited from their Victorian ancestors. The unpleasing prospect isn’t the endless debate about what constitutes the greatest good, it is their unshakeable faith in their own fitness to craft laws and administer them.”
They were at a shaded table, among a crowd of lunchers, whose conversation provided a comforting backdrop, both privacy and protection. Greta, simultaneous to formulating her plan’s details, awaited opportunity to enlist Geoffrey, rather than listen to him with attention. Indeed, he’d lost her at ‘idée reçue’.
“Do you know the people who were helping me in London?” she began, going back to her earlier effort, feeling still unwilling to mention a name, even that of the Fordyces, aloud. Hunched over his lighter, Geoffrey lifted a quizzical face, then took up the subject again.
“This confident belief that a class superior to all others has been invested by God, or by nature…as you will…with the authority to determine the fate of the lower classes, is entirely Victorian. To a bucolic world, where wars were distant colonial affairs, the Great Chain of Being must have seemed unchallengeable. Not to say that these…I’ll call them philogenicists―a combination of philanthropy and eugenics—not to say that these philogenicists don’t have an opinion of themselves as doers of good. Their idea is to instruct the lower classes that they are capable of so much, and no more. A worker has a place; the worker will be happy when his proper place is discovered, and the rest of society will be happy to see him put there. They would like to engineer a newer and brighter society through social programming, forgetting that the goal of the social program is to relieve social conditions―not to alter the types of people who compose society.
“This idea of useful work done by useful men is well and good, but it trends towards downward mobility―it can’t do otherwise. Invariably, life produces setbacks: a death in the family, the loss of a job, overwhelming debt. Assuming that within a class individuals are able to advance beyond their present status, future generations will progress to a higher standard of living. Place, however, an outside limit on advancement through the medium of these educational schemes…say to the laboring class, ‘We have tested you, and have determined that you belong to the factory, the farm, the mine’—and every setback redounds upon the next generation. No one is permitted to advance, while inevitably life pushes them back.”
Greta liked Geoffrey. He was trying to save her from the Peace League…a notion she found both sweet and strange. After all their talk together, did he not understand? She tried teaching herself this face, that of a professional man’s wife, head cocked at a listening angle, mouth faintly smiling…although, like any speaker who has hit his stride, Geoffrey no longer monitored his auditor’s level of boredom. She noticed two men push among the chairs and tables. The older trailed behind, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, sucking at the stub of a cigarette, his jaw rigid. The younger was alert, scanning tables, meeting eyes. Seeing Greta and Malcolm-Webb, he found what he’d expected. He spoke to his friend. They came over and took seats, lighting fresh cigarettes, the one drawing case and lighter from a breast pocket; the other touching his to the butt of the last.
After introductions, the younger man got up and ordered a round of dark lager, to which Greta said, “Ich kann nicht.”
Geoffrey’s German was adaptable to small talk; her help was needed with more detailed conversation. The older man had been an engineer, head of a team of engineers, he told them, employed by the Luftschiffbau, the Zeppelin works in Friedrichshafen.
“Now, I may not work again.”
The younger, his relative by marriage, had been a crewman on the Hindenburg. He was a native of Frankfurt.
“You say that too often,” he told his friend. “Everything can change in a day.”
Rapidly the first round of lager was succeeded by the next, and soon another. Malcolm-Webb knew himself out of his element, yet barriers were being broken here; sociability demanded one follow the lead given. The crewman wanted them all convivial, in hopes, he told them, of cheering up his friend. Despite this encouragement, the engineer had lapsed into an inward-looking silence. Malcolm-Webb, on the other hand, found himself expanding towards a regrettable tendency to express his more complicated thoughts in German. He’d wanted to say, No, you mustn’t place it all in God’s hands—as the engineer had just promised them he meant to, and with a face of despair—no, that commonplace merely renders heaven a convenient escape-hatch for blackguards, in abdicating responsibility—but what he heard himself say was:
“Der Himmel macht…eine Falltür…für bösen Menschen.”
The crewman moved his chair closer to Greta’s and said to her, his whisper confidential, “We have a parkland not far from here. I think it’s time to walk for a while.” He turned to his friend, who had been induced to utter a few pessimistic words, gave his arm a shake, and raised his voice.
“And yet,” the crewman said, “you know we have all lived through times when we have had to wait with patience. It will be better in the future.”
They were not far from the University. They walked to the city’s new park, the grounds of the Chateau Gruneburg, which the Baron von Goldschmidt-Rothschild had felt himself irresistibly moved, two years earlier, to offer to the Hitler regime as a gift to the nation. They strolled idly, until they came to an isolated stand of copper beech, apart from auditors. Geoffrey, whose muddled state, for this walk in fresh air, had somewhat abated, took up the work of an interviewer:
“You were employed by the Luftschiffbau until October of 1936?”
The crewman stood respectfully by, deferring to the engineer’s seniority. The engineer lit his next cigarette, made abortive gestures indicating his effort to frame the narrative, and said at last:
“When the Air Ministry took charge, a certain man was appointed as a Director of the Reederei. I will not say any name. This man is a close associate of an Air Ministry high official. For a time, he asked to look at documents, to know how the company was organized. That seemed to be his job.
“One day, the leaders from each work area were asked to report to this Director. We were asked for the names of all the men who reported to us. They knew this information; they wanted to watch our faces while we spoke the names. They questioned us…it was to determine our loyalty to the government. They asked, ‘Who on this list of men do you know to be a communist?’ And I would say of course, ‘No one.’
“No! I think none of my men had ties to the red councils of the old days, none at all. But they would say, ‘That’s not likely, is it? Out of so many, none has ever spoken against the government?’ You see how the question changes. I told them, ‘My men are all good workers’. And they have no answer to that. All they do is read the list over again to you, ‘Is this man loyal?’ ‘Is this man loyal?’ Maybe you get tired after so much of this, and look away at some point. That, they seize on as a sign. ‘So you have doubts about this one.’ What they meant to do was to remove so many of the old workers, who were first in their hearts loyal to Dr. Eckener and the spirit of the past, and replace them with party members. But more, they wanted to divide the leaders from the workers, make everyone afraid and distrustful of everyone else, teach us to obey and do our jobs without feeling free to speak.”
Agitated, he went on hurriedly, in a louder voice, “I tried in good conscience to shield my staff, and my reward was to be seen as an informer, because two were questioned and one dismissed…”
A couple, students by their appearance, crossed the green at an angle, passing nearby. The engineer broke off, moved towards the pair and stared at them intently. They stared back, startled, and moved away. “Others,” the engineer said, rejoining the group, his voice unsteady, “who easily gave names had no trouble. After some weeks, I was told my work had suffered. They said I could go on leave only at half pay.”
“But you’ve given up your job altogether.”
“For various reasons.”
His friend had watched all this, carefully observant; watched Greta while she translated, which she did without artifice. She felt engaged by the engineer’s story—echoed, without trying, his emphatic tone; understood, without wishing to, his emotional state. The crewman offered no story to explain his own dismissal. He said, “Here is something I can tell you. They talk about new routes to Africa…it would make sense. Africa has not many passable roads and good railways. An airship can carry a large cargo where nothing else can.”
“With a wartime purpose in mind?”
The crewman shrugged. “Everything might have a wartime purpose.”
Greta and Malcolm-Webb walked into an open area of grass and pathways where a speakers’ platform was under construction. Here and there, clusters of uniformed officials directed activities. A holiday atmosphere was being staged, a feeling of suppressed, and not altogether joyful, anticipation—as park visitors, keeping well back, watched, chatted, pointed. An industrial workers’ group, identified by the banner hoisted in the hands of two outflanking members, rehearsed a song. They ranged in age from the twenties to the fifties. Somberly dressed like churchgoers, they wore somber expressions.
“May Day,” Malcolm-Webb told Greta.
“May Day. The Nazis turn out for it in a big way. They did last year. Press coverage is a bit more restricted this time.”
“Ask me anything.”
“Will you take me back to the Steiners’ apartment, and stay with me while I get my bags, and will you take me to the station?”
“It seems a pointless exercise, doesn’t it, traveling so far, only to flee the scene?”
“I said, will you?”
He looked at her closely. “I am here only to place myself at your disposal. You may just manage slipping away under the searchlights. No doubt,” he added, seeing that she was annoyed, but not sufficiently annoyed, “your friend will be asked to speak on the festive day.” He nodded towards the construction. “He delivers a stirring address in English, but likely he surpasses himself in the language of Goethe.”
“What a thing to say! If you’re implying I like men who are hostile and snobbish, you must think I like you.”
What a thing to say.
But Greta could be shrewd…it was shrewd linking him to someone he so much disliked, while leaving the greater question in an ambiguous state.
“You’d like me to help you,” he said to her, “as though you don’t suppose―it hasn’t occurred to you to ask―that I have any purpose being here which supersedes your whim of the moment. Miss Freund, you don’t appreciate people. I mean that in both senses of the word…you don’t truly understand others and you don’t value them.”
She didn’t answer. She turned and began to walk, rapid thoughts matching the rhythm of rapid strides. She had been stupid to think she could not follow her own plan by herself. She had let herself be spooked…she had feared being pulled out of line, just as she was boarding her train…but why? She was a harmless visitor, one who’d done nothing. Really, she could just keep walking, leave right now, directly. The Steiners were in the Peace League; they would send poor Muriel’s train case and travel bag. Some arrangement could be made.
He had fallen in with her. She’d meant to ignore him, but she stopped.
“Will you let me apologize?”
“If you don’t want to help me, please don’t. I thought you might, that’s all.”
“I will help you at all times, in all places. Clearly you don’t understand. When you were in London, why did you go to Wrentsley? You could easily have found me.”
Because it hadn’t occurred to her to look for Geoffrey; because she’d been told to go to Wrentsley. Because until this moment she’d supposed them colleagues.
“I was following advice.”
“Well, then. You may take your friends as you find them.”
They had reached the periphery of the park. “This way.” He nudged her arm to turn her in the right direction, then respectfully stood off.
“Have you changed your mind, or are you just walking along with me, pointing out my mistakes?”
“At the risk of correcting another of your false impressions, I haven’t refused to help; I’ve done nothing but insist on helping.”
They walked now, side by side, at a slow pace. Greta studied shop windows, as though serious consideration of the wine-colored hat was the reason she turned her back on Geoffrey.
“Remember the last time I saw you…”
He began, and gave it up, unable to proceed in any way that felt unembarrassing. Thus far, he had bored her, irritated her, and offended her. He had no reason to hope for greater achievements…but said, in an off-hand manner: “At any rate, you were probably larking about. Just a careless valentine, taken too much to heart.”
“Valentine?” She looked at him, needed too many seconds to remember, then looked distressed. “Oh! Well, it was February, but I never thought of it like that. Anyway, it wasn’t a joke.”
“No, no. It’s a…I was thinking of…” He realized he’d shortchanged himself. To add to his list, he’d done a thorough job of it, making her hate this habit of allusions—but he’d set foot on the path and must continue. “There’s a novel…by a chap named Hardy, in which a valentine is used to humorous effect. The thing came to mind.”
She looked, he was sad to note, lost for words.
“Whatever you mean,” she finally chose to say, as she had said once before.
Greta walked ahead, then stopped in front of a bookshop, reading the titles on display.
“I think,” she told him, “one day you’re going to meet someone…a lady reporter maybe—probably. You’ll walk with her along a city street, talking about books and speaking French. And she’ll say, ‘I’ve never really felt I’m making a contribution. I ought to be in Spain, visiting the refugee camps’.”
She startled him by voicing this character’s―this putative lady reporter’s―line, in a high-toned Mayfair accent that sounded flawless. Greta could not have spent enough time in London to have picked up the nuance; Malcolm-Webb’s memory fingered as chief suspect, that music hall blighter. Worse, he found the effect disturbing…Greta, without the gaudy finish; Greta transfigured by British refinement. She had called him a snob and he’d taken it indignantly. He shouldn’t find this mirror-image Greta attractive. But she could be shrewd. Of the various points of offense she had touched on, the safest to answer was her cavalier reference to Spain. He began, knowing he sounded like Wrentsley addressing the Lords:
“There is something to be said for…”
A black saloon car pulled up close to the curb, inching along the sidewalk behind them. A moment ago, Greta and Malcolm-Webb had shared the walk with a crowd of shoppers. As the car approached, people began discreetly to back away. A second, identical car, came up the street, slowed to a crawl as it passed the first, then sped off. The black car came to a full stop. Greta and Malcolm-Webb stood isolated and apprehensive. An officer exited the driver’s seat, walked around and opened the rear passenger door. He addressed them by name.
“Fräulein Freund. Herr Webb.”
He pointed; they understood. They got inside the car. The interior was not outfitted for the transportation of prisoners. Either of them could have opened a door and run up the street. Fear kept them obedient.
Hauptsturmführer Martin Winter turned from the front passenger seat, making eye-contact with Greta and Malcolm-Webb, each in turn; he then sat forward so that he might contemplate the traffic while questioning them.
“Is it sense?” he asked, in English. “You have questions. Not, you should suppose, that we are not always helping.”
“Are you?” asked Malcolm-Webb.
Continued from “asked Malcolm-Webb”
“Go to your consulate. Say, ‘Which Ministry should I ask?’ You are not free here to show disrespect! You find men dismissed from their posts. Why won’t they lie, if so? Is it sense to talk of nothing in a public place, but to hear stories, you hide?”
“I have to agree it makes little sense when you put it that way,” Malcolm-Webb answered, arch. “However, your government had gone to some trouble acquiring the park, which is a public place within the meaning of the act. Why should you characterize our enjoyment of your city’s amenities as clandestine?” He was improvising his reckless strategy as he went along, choosing words from the Norman aspect of the language. The officer, he was pleased to note, turned three-quarters of the way before catching himself react, and reverting his gaze ahead.
“When did you make this meeting with Fräulein Freund?”
“We met by chance. We have an old acquaintance in common.”
“You will tell me the name.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Now, or in time.”
“Write down,” said Malcolm-Webb, “that they hope they serve God; and write God first, for God defend but God should go before such villains. Masters, it is proved already that you are little better than false knaves, and it will go near to be thought so shortly. How answer you for yourselves?”
Greta was not stage trained. Often she’d heard actors, in a sort of competition with one another, bring forth snatches of Shakespeare. She knew, without recognizing Geoffrey’s quote, something dangerous to be afoot. Winter recognized neither the Dogberry reference, nor the source; nor did he follow the meaning. But he was aware of a deep insult. He said nothing. He said nothing for the full space of ten minutes. He then opened his door, ground his cigarette in the gutter, and addressed Greta in German.
“Your friend drinks too much, it seems. You are careful. Were you told to be careful?”
“I don’t understand.” She planned to be careful in answering his questions, however.
“Fräulein, why did you visit the park?”
“To have a private conversation.” She thought she would tell as little of the truth as possible, but knew she must be truthful.
“What did you see there?”
“We saw work being done.”
“Did you speak to anyone, other than the men whose stories your friend wanted to hear?”
“Did you see anyone?”
Well, of course, dozens of people, but that wasn’t what he wanted. “A couple passed by us while we were talking; they didn’t say anything. They were no different from any of the others.”
“You were watching the workmen. Do you know what they were doing?”
“Building a sort of platform, for speeches.”
“You know that.”
“I suppose I don’t know. It’s just an idea.”
Malcolm-Webb watched Greta, cautious with her answers…frightened, he thought. He said, “Fräulein Freund is not involved in this. I asked her to help me. I am the only one who ought to be answering questions.”
Winter, not acknowledging that Malcolm-Webb had spoken, said to Greta:
“Fräulein, how many people do you know in Frankfurt?”
“You don’t know anyone?”
“I don’t know anyone.” She said it steadfastly, as the best of a bad situation. In practical terms, she knew nothing of the Steiners. They amounted to very slight acquaintances, but she would not inform on them.
“You haven’t come here to meet anyone?”
“We’ll go now.” Winter spoke to the driver.
Near midnight, Winter himself escorted Greta to the Steiners’ door. He used a key to open it, and turned on every light in the shop.
“Fräulein, you will not leave here, you will not meet anyone.” He had no need to speak emphatically; Winter was not a man she would disobey. “I may come for you in a day or so and deliver you to the station.”
It was all he had to say, and he left.
He had been prohibited from questioning her extensively…he had allowed her to wait, therefore, in a windowless room for several hours. He had not been prohibited from doing that. He’d assigned two officers to Malcolm-Webb, both of whom spoke indifferent English. Winter supposed that obstacle might prolong the interrogation.
Exiting the washroom, Greta found Rosa waiting on the stairs.
“Do you want food?”
“Yes, please, thank you.”
She felt her own humility; that she was taking, for unfair reasons, someone else’s needed things. Greta was given a tin of cold stew, and more of the bread they’d had with their breakfast many hours earlier, beer to wash it down. Rosa sat in the other chair. She watched her guest eat, guarded still, but willing now to be companionable.
“We are not poor. I’m sorry for this…but right now, it’s best not to go too many places, say too much.” When Greta, dusting crumbs, looked up, Rosa went on. “I’ll explain. Maybe I’m posting a letter…so I stand waiting. A woman I knew years ago taps my shoulder. She says, ‘Rosa, that’s you?’ She tells me her life has not been good lately; she tells me things I don’t want to know, but what can I do? I’m having this conversation. I don’t know who might hear.
“Maybe I’m buying a chicken. I go to the counter. A man―I never saw him―tells me I took his place. I say, ‘Please’.” Rosa bent forward, spread her open hands, demonstrated how she would yield and not resist. “He looks at the others, he looks at me…he says, ‘You think you can get away with that’.
“What do you suppose? In life, those things happen. But things that happen can be forgotten. One day, someone might ask me, ‘What did that woman say to you?’…‘Do you remember this man?’” Rosa nodded towards the door, the dark landing beyond. “Do I know what story someone has told?”
“I see that.” Having gained first-hand experience, Greta could now.
“It’s only for a time we have to live this way, then it gets better.”
And while she did not disbelieve this, Greta found herself without an answer.
“Do you know Herr Goetz?”
“I’ve never heard the name.”
“He owns this shop, these rooms.”
“I was given your name, and this address.”
“That’s true, but we have nothing to do with the Peace League.” It was a statement, not a question, nor a criticism. Rosa offered nothing else in explanation.
“I made a mistake, then,” Greta said finally. “I thought you were with the League, and you knew what was going on.”
Confined to a small space, with little conversation, she found the hours painfully slow. She thought of enduring days on end like this; it seemed to her intolerable. But his timeframe, the policeman’s—he had never told her his name—was unknown. He might deliver her to the station tomorrow, or his exercise of authority might last for a week; she might be driven at length to try another escape. The situation had become lunatic…maybe she would become lunatic.
The Steiners gave her books to read, three volumes on botany, plates inside the covers embossed: “From the library of Manfred Goetz”. She had never read anything but novels and magazines. For a day and a half, Greta spent desultory passages of her imprisonment with the Baron Konrad von Fiege’s (1902) Subalpine Flora of the Eastern (Volume 1), Western (Volume 2), and Southern (Volume 3) Carpathian Range.
The saxifrage (she read) found growing abundantly in this region, s. repens, is certainly the same species as s. doringii, which Dr. Döring described, and of which he had made his useful sketches, after exploring the Western Carpathians, in the period, 1830-1832. The western variety is distinguished by its larger, darker leaves, without the prominent veining; however, I have obtained samples of s. repens and planted them under conditions reproducing both the aridity and the exposure (drying winds and fluctuations of extremes in temperature) of the eastern zone, as well as the rockier, denser soil found near the tree line of the western zone, where s. doringii is to be discovered. The growth habit of s. repens alters in response to its environment, producing its characteristic and respective forms. I submit, therefore, that s. repens and s. doringii are not separate species, but separate adaptational varieties of the same species; for the eastern flora of the Carpathians was unknown to Dr. Döring.
Of the May Day celebrations, not much could be seen from her window. Speeches were broadcast over loudspeakers, the sound, from so far away, not quite human, but having a strange persistent rhythm and echo. She might have gone downstairs to listen to the radio; last night’s music had broken the monotony of reading. Today the Steiners didn’t want the radio on. Out of respect, then, Greta stayed in her room, listening to street sounds. Towards sunset, a Luftwaffe squadron obliterated all else, roaring to a pitched, buzzing screech, and shaking the earth like thunder.
Around 9:00 p.m., she heard the music program begin once more, the sound prodding her into awareness. No popular tunes tonight…the selections were sentimental and patriotic. She’d been sitting, her chair pulled up to the window, for hours now; she was in a state of inertia, tired, underfed, mentally unoccupied until her mind had become dull.
The muted radio broadcast a familiar tune.
Tommy Cochran played a melody on the set’s rehearsal piano. An ornate Parlor Gem of the 1890s, a grande dame treated shabbily, the piano had an atonal skew in its upper range, and Tommy, the purist, winced at each misfired note. Their director, passing by, leaned across, struck three or four discordant keys, and said, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
He did these things to make Greta laugh. Tommy, concentration breaking belatedly, raised his head.
“Was he talking to me?”
“I think,” said Greta, “he was talking to the piano.”
“Son of a bitch.”
Tommy had been cast to give the film a boost, to bring his radio audience to the movie house.
He told her, “I stole part of the tune. Dead guys don’t sue for royalties.” He chuckled. Greta thought he was probably serious. He played the bit for her again.
“You recognize that?”
Tommy, at the piano, showing off.
He had an education, Greta didn’t. He wanted her to say something he could turn into a punchline, quote “this broad I know” in one of his between-numbers anecdotes…he would keep pushing, while he called it teasing.
He said, “I’m just having fun with you.”
“I guess it’s ‘Chopsticks’,” she said, defaulting.
Tommy laughed. “Sure it is. Sure it is.” He told her, demonstrated for her, plinking out notes one at a time, that the tune was part of the overture to Die Fledermaus.
Still, he’d had a confident swing to his personality. She’d liked being seen with him—
(Band Leader Tommy Cochran On the Town with Starlet)
She’d liked believing she was in love with Tommy. But what was it, really, she asked herself now…when you were in love with someone? They didn’t go out that often. The fun he said they were having left her feeling shortchanged.
This is news to me
If you’d asked me what the future holds
I’d have made no prediction
So strong was my conviction
My routine left no room for change
In my scheme nothing new or strange
Strange, that on this day
Life seems new to me…
“That little segue, from strange to Strange…that’s the whole business, right there.”
Technical work, the bee in Tommy’s bonnet. He’d told Greta you had to act a song, find the emotion in the lyric. “You’re dreaming up the words as you go along…that’s how you play it.” Composers, partial to their own arrangements, did not always feel gratitude for Tommy’s off-the-cuff style. To force this casual effect, he argued with his band, beating them up over little improvisations, the missed fraction of a second.
“Grace, don’t you know Van Nest is married?”
She thought about Tommy, walking up to her on the set, startling her. Bruce had been telling her about his work and ideas. What was the harm?
“So what? Can’t I talk to someone?”
“Yeah, hon, you can talk to everyone.”
That had been years ago.
She’d told herself Tommy was already famous, she was nobody. He probably wanted an excuse…he lived in New York, he didn’t want some kind of obligation when the film was over.
She would not have obligated him.
She thought about Geoffrey telling her she didn’t appreciate people. I do, she answered him. I’m sorry, Geoffrey.
The saxifrage, growing in harsh winds, clinging to graveled, un-nourishing earth, spread low; it crept on the ground and scarcely flowered. But sheltered, it unfolded its leaves and raised its flowers in new colors. Had no one taken it from the cold, placed it in the sun, this would be…to anyone’s eyes…a small unlovely thing, rooted in stone, reaching to the sky.
Malcolm-Webb’s Shakespeare quote is from Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, Scene ii; speaker Dogberry.
Greta’s director’s is from King Lear, Act I, Scene iv; speaker Fool.
By her watch, it was near 6:00 a.m. She had recognized the peremptory knock, a funny thing to realize you knew about someone; also, the early hour. But, for having slept in her skirt and blouse, she’d awakened fit, at the least, to answer this summons. Greta combed her hair, blessed the bouclé that would not wrinkle, covered the miserable silk with the jacket she buttoned while hurrying downstairs to usher Kneussl into the shop. As she’d passed through the sitting room, she hadn’t seen the Steiners. Could they have gone out so early?
But they weren’t prisoners; she was a prisoner. “Do I get my bags?” she asked.
“Today I expect you to tell me why you’re here.”
She discovered that she didn’t know what to ask. He ought to be all right. To raise the question was to presume otherwise. “My friend, Mr. Malcolm-Webb,” she began again, “was taken into police custody. Did they let him go?”
“In London, you were reluctant to discuss your purpose in visiting Frankfurt. If there is something you wish to see, you have only today.”
No, he was not going to hear the question. She had nothing whatever she wanted to see, or was even, within the original terms of her mission, required to see. Geoffrey had helped her obtain information she could creditably report. She wanted to go home. Kneussl, she understood, was determined to push her until he believed he had got the truth out of her.
Yet she did want something…only for personal reasons. The request would cause far too much trouble; he would certainly put her on the train.
“Where is this lake called the Bodensee? Is it possible to go there?”
He actually looked at her. “Some hours from here, near Friedrichshafen, of course. As you know.” He held her eyes. “We have an early start, it can be done.”
“That’s my only request, then.” She contradicted herself immediately. “I wish you would tell me about my friend.”
“You will not see your friend again.”
“I don’t believe you!”
Not believing him was immaterial. They were soon in his car, a Daimler, suitable for speed; and this time, she could not complain. She knew they wouldn’t speak during the drive. Their last silent journey had been short; today, they would spend hours meditating, each in isolation.
Continued from “each in isolation”
Along the riverside lowlands, where grasses grew tall on the banks, and trees spread wide and low under a fierce, emerging sun, she might have been on a Sunday drive in Missouri. The terrain, taken by itself, was not so different; and, again, what she recalled of Sunday drives had been disappointing enough—the fuss over weather that threatened change, remarks on the oddness of other people. I don’t like the looks of that road…no good getting a flat. Why don’t we wait ’til we get home to eat?
The car vaulted into higher elevations, passing farmsteads in their tidy patches of cultivation; she saw a medieval tower that capped a ridge of rock. She had believed the door to escape was open, that her other life would look like this. A man and a woman in a car, the vista grand…poster art taken from a movie scene.
Being here, she felt something else. She began to believe she might die today. She might be put out of the car to wander. She might be hated for being a stranger.
After more than an hour, the motion of the car was lulling, and fighting sleep seemed pointless. She did not expect to impress Kneussl.
The car bumped to a stop. Greta stirred, fell dozing again, then forced wakefulness, knowing she would have no idea where they were. Kneussl had been standing outside the car, smoking a cigarette, watching her sleep, perhaps. He opened the passenger door, and told her, “I am giving you lunch at this place.”
They were parked close by a cluster of timbered houses, backed with minimal clearance against a pitched slope, herded here by an outward curve in the road. One house, by a hanging signboard, identified itself as a roadside inn; an ivy-grown upper story was jettied over the entry. Kneussl guided Greta inside, escorted her to a table, and helped her to her seat.
He sought the proprietor. She watched the two men speak to one another. Kneussl took out his memorandum book, opened it, and showed a notation to the innkeeper, obtaining some agreement. She saw the man point to a writing desk that faced the window opposite the stairs, and saw him answer another of Kneussl’s questions. Satisfied with the information, her traveling companion seated himself at the desk, putting his back to the dining room and Greta, and picked up the phone. She must take him at his word, apparently. His plan was to do some sort of work; she was going to have lunch.
The proprietor came to her table. “My name is Franz Kurtz. You may call me Franz, or Kurtz, as you like. I will bring your food soon. Yes,” he waved away her puzzlement, “your friend says: ‘No delays’.”
“May I have coffee?” she asked.
“Ja, sehr gut. I will bring it.”
She discovered that Kneussl had ordered for her precisely the meal she’d ordered for herself at the café yesterday…which omniscience could not now, of course, astonish.
No, she told herself, two days ago. Time was becoming muddled. She noticed that the inn’s only other patron, a woman who spoke to Franz with a British accent, had at her table a plate of pastries. The woman’s husband joined her. As she wasn’t paying for the meal, Greta could hardly order à la carte, if that were the right expression, but she’d had nothing like dessert for days. She felt that between gulping her coffee and attacking her lunch, she must have been staring hollow-eyed at the couple, for they kept putting their heads together and giving her surreptitious glances. Kneussl appeared, sitting down with her, and the British travelers turned resolutely to their own affairs. He ate nothing, but called for more coffee. He gave Greta the impression, studying intently her efforts to finish her meal, that she was putting the schedule off.
She was looking, Kneussl thought, more alert, less defenseless than when she had answered the door that morning. That was as it should be. No one had done anything to her. Driving, he had spent some hours weighing the question of whether she could be more than an engineered nuisance. He was nearly certain she had no purpose here at all…but it would not wholly answer, this conclusion. She was the center of activity. He would never know where the wrong decision had been made if he couldn’t bring the issue to a finer point. She seemed unhappy. It should not be so difficult, inducing her to sacrifice whatever she was holding back. She didn’t behave like one who felt confident of success; yet she dodged him with persistence, unexpected in her moods, and unfathomable.
“I’m ready to go,” she told him. “Is it much farther?”
“Some miles, not very far.”
The lake, glimpsed through trees along the shore, seemed vast. Greta wanted to stand where she could see beneath the rippling surface. Kneussl, looking for a place to leave the car, wanted quietude, no holiday makers, none of the trappings and constructions associated with them. At one point, the road ran well above the water; looking across, Greta could see tiled roofs amid a dense cluster of fir trees. They passed through cold, resin-scented air, and returned to sun. Where again the road hugged the shore, Kneussl found a wide berm, safe enough. Here the lakeside was uninhabited.
Mrs. Veidt’s dream had left an arresting picture in Greta’s mind. She could not suspect the old woman of practicing on her…the fear, then, was her own. She ran from the road down the slope, and the wind that blew, as she scrunched her eyes against it, felt far from spring-like. Distant sat a chateau, highly situated on a promontory thrust from the shore, casting light from its walls, these heightened by atmosphere into whiteness. It could not be imagined into a hotel. There was no pavilion to be seen…perhaps a pavilion had not been what Mrs. Veidt had described. No, the structures Greta saw fronting the Bodensee (“You will call it Lake Constance,” Kneussl had said, as though closing a gate) looked nothing like Mrs. Veidt’s story. These houses, though unpeopled, felt watchful.
This was wealth…not wealth in and of itself, but inheritance, entitlement, privilege—of the insular, barricading sort. She had ridden once through Beverly Hills; almost she’d fancied music in the air, the manor houses all so giddy in their newness, their owners so pleased to have them seen.
She heard the cry of a gull. She saw there were dozens of boats on the water—sails, dashes of white far away. She might be in the wrong place. Indeed, she must be…so many places were possible. And Mrs. Veidt might have invented the white hotel, not knowing she did so, conferring on it the plausible unreality of a dream; confusing, through the passage of years, this with memory.
The images arising in Greta’s mind while Mrs. Veidt had told her story, existed in no other human mind that had ever lived, in no human world that had ever been. This was a simple enough truth to understand. What had she expected to see here? The lake, a blue eye, stares at heaven; the blue eye of heaven stares back. Neither knows the other.
Kneussl watched Greta, saw her silhouetted against the blue water. Her body swayed…as though feather-light and buffeted by the wind. Looking for something, handbag hugged to her chest. Searching, fingers rising to her hat brim. A habit of hers.
The behavior was surreal. She couldn’t be playacting. He put it to himself that way, and felt doubtful. Was there a conceivable reason for this, anything to be gained? She could lead him astray in a hundred ways that might make sense. Nothing she did made sense. Was she innocent, artless?
No, she wasn’t…yet, she could be.
He went halfway to where she stood, and said, “Come here. Answer a question.” She returned, waiting then, in front of him.
“What are you looking for? Why this place?”
She lifted an open palm. “I don’t have an answer.” It was no good, after all. She could never explain her foolishness over Mrs. Veidt.
“Don’t tell me something that isn’t true. You asked me to bring you here. Answer my question.” He watched the play of her hand and heard her sigh.
“Someone told me a story, that I couldn’t stop thinking about. It was like my story, somehow. But not really, just the feeling of it.” She held his eyes, and couldn’t interpret the way he looked at her. “See? There’s no point. I don’t know why I’m here.”
An innocent thrown into the machine…but the machine can’t be stopped. Should she prove to be innocent. Determining others’ motives by reading their reactions is merely a form of divination. These questions and answers could gain no authenticity, for that a veneer of state authority allowed them. Well, that was wisdom, Kneussl told himself. He had promised Winter he would find her out.
She surprised him then, saying, “The men from the park. Would they be arrested for talking to a reporter?”
“What is your opinion?”
“I don’t have one!”
A second passed, and she added, “I’m afraid. I don’t want to cause trouble for anyone.”
“When Winter questioned you, did he ask about these men?”
His name was Winter. He had not asked. “He wanted to know what I saw in the park.”
“Why do you think you were stopped?”
“Because…” Framing in words what she had confidently supposed to be true, she felt unconvinced of her own reasoning. “Well, because one of the men had complaints about the government. The way they’d made him quit his job.”
“Did the other say anything?”
“He…told a story about Africa; he had a lot of sympathy for his friend.”
“But Winter asked you what you saw in the park.”
“Please tell me what I don’t understand.”
“You sprang the trap yourself. You were watched; it was anticipated you had arranged to meet someone. This is not a matter of unhappy men seeking to give information to a foreign reporter. Has it occurred to you yet that Winter did not need to ask you what he knew already? That business has nothing to do with you.”
“But you’re wrong! Geoffrey just turned up. I never arranged to meet him.”
A motor splintered the silence that had settled around them. The harsh sound died. Abruptly it started again. They heard voices, and a boat drifted into view. Laughter. The motor was started a third time; finally, it churned out a steady tatoo. The boat receded towards open water. Kneussl had flung out his hand as though reaching for something; he turned this into a gesture of dismissal.
“Do you hear yourself? Do you believe yourself? Is it possible?”
A thing that’s true should certainly be possible. But Greta saw that her picture of things, her interpretations drawn from this view, had merely seemed truth to her. She had not been trusted to know what might have helped.
“Well…Geoffrey knew where to find me. Maybe he arranged to meet me. Maybe he had something in mind besides his interview. You’ll just have to believe that I’m stupid.”
Kneussl found her unsophisticated. It had been his first impression; he still felt so. He wondered again if she had ever listened to herself speak…so freely. The result of her errand mattered to someone more than she herself mattered.
“It requires no special power to obtain information that is willingly provided by the target.”
He said this in a manner abstracted, as though quoting a handbook. “Travelers leave their names everywhere; their movements are easy to follow. Targets are put at a disadvantage by making it known to them that their information is on file, their activities monitored.”
Greta listened with attention. She didn’t know if she’d answered his questions; she had no idea in what respect he was answering hers. He then looked at her directly, and said, “The press in Germany is censored, but anti-government groups believe the papers from London, New York, Paris, are not censored. Journalists who run afoul of the Gestapo write detailed stories, full of indignation, when they arrive home. These stories are considered true because they appear in uncensored papers. The reputation of the Gestapo is enhanced. Their propaganda work in Germany could not influence opinion more effectively.”
“Why did you say I wouldn’t see Geoffrey again?”
“If you return to London, you may see whomever you like.”
“Why do you say if? Am I allowed to leave?”
“When you choose.”
She felt once more the impulse to run. She saw herself absurd, scrabbling in heels up the bank, clutching the bag she’d been afraid of leaving in the car. He might let her go. He might truly not care what she chose. She walked, instead, to the water’s edge, feeling pressured as though they were arguing. Yet so far as she could grasp, they’d done nothing but speak at cross-purposes. She walked further, watched small waves stirred by the passing boat beat the surface of an anvil-shaped rock, water droplets thrown into random arrays of prismatic light.
She looked up. A man was walking in her direction. He wore a white straw hat that hid his face, and carried a satchel slung at his side. His movements—graceful, sedate—were oddly disengaged from his environment, as though the ground were not uneven and ascending. She watched as he drew nearer, the sun bright against his shirt. He had not been visible when she had come to this spot, and now he was approaching. She felt the earth pivot on this point of contact. He was the numen of the lake, the place-spirit. She stepped towards him. He reached into his satchel, and handed her a paper. She’d thought he would not speak, but he said, “Pay attention, please.”
As her hand closed on the paper, Kneussl pushed in front of her, his gun drawn, thrust into the man’s face, point blank. The man looked up from beneath the brim of his hat…his expression benign. He said nothing more. The pressure broke with a shock wave, Greta dissolving in tears, certain she would see a man killed. Kneussl lowered the gun, seized the man’s arm; propelled him along the way.
He was only a missionary. He had handed her a tract. The unreal state of a moment ago, those peculiar words that had come to her mind, embarrassed her now. Greta smoothed the pleats her clenched fist had made, and read:
Le Seigneur est ma lumière et mon salut; qui aurais-je crainte?
„Du bist der Christ!“
Hast mich mit deinem Blut erkauft
Und mich mit deinem Geist getauft
Der Herr giebt Sieg
You are an unfinished letter; written in an unfinished heart…
Hesitant, she showed the tract to Kneussl. He paused over the words, lips parted, seeming to sound them out to himself. Then: “Throw it away.”
But she couldn’t…what did he mean for her to do, throw it on the ground? She put the paper in her bag, found her handkerchief there, wiped her eyes.
Kneussl remained close to Greta, watching her, aware of having harmed her, unintended. He was tethered to this woman, and she was his salvation. He felt exposed, unnerved. Seeing the man approach her, face hidden, Kneussl had been overtaken by a conviction this was Janak. Meeting the eyes, he’d seen a stranger. He had not seen in the missionary’s gaze an unjudging calm, but a condemnation of his own delusion, his insanity. Had Greta not been with him, he would have fired the gun, obliterated his mistake. He knew it.
And this was not her fault. He had lost control and allowed too much; she had not forced his coming here. Fighting error after error, he had lost control. He had told her more than he should have.
He had more to tell.
“August Stauber, who is known to you, has been arrested.”
“On what charge?” She began to feel the pressure she thought had broken, reclaim territory. Kneussl’s remoteness no longer seemed arrogant. His face was unguarded, bleak.
“I have no specific information. He was followed to a mountain lodge near the Austrian border. He was arrested meeting there with an agent of the Russian government.”
Continued from “Russian government”
“Can you do something for me?” She recognized significance in the circumstances of Stauber’s arrest, but she had liked him. “If it becomes possible; if you can do it without causing yourself any trouble…I want to know what happens to August.”
“That would be unwise.”
He was amazed at her. Did she believe she was part of a circle of friends who would keep in touch? Did she believe she could ask a favor of anyone? Did she worry, still, and even so, that she would cause trouble? Holding to his purpose, Kneussl continued: “The American naval observer, who would ordinarily have assisted on the Hindenburg, was called off duty; this happened some time ago.”
He was telling her that her mission was not over.
How do you change a routine, a pattern of behavior, a methodology, without raising doubts; when is it safe to do so? Stauber had been in Washington, asking questions―looking for a relative, he had said.
Geoffrey had offered Greta a way out; Kneussl was giving her the information she’d been sent to find. The closer to the heart, the more pervasive her dread had become. She had resisted all knowledge that narrowed the focus towards this choice…she could offer nothing else. She must be entirely safe. No one had suggested otherwise. She must believe it herself, or she would be the one tacitly making the suggestion—
“Can it be arranged for me to return to America on the Hindenburg? Is it too late?”
At last, when he’d thought it impossible, she had chosen. “You will agree to our conditions?”
She nodded. He did not understand this fearfulness. She was not being coerced; she was, in effect, making a pledge.
“Will I be able to contact someone, to let them know about my change of plans?”
“You will be expected to do so.”
As they swung onto the Bahnhofstrasse, a black car pulled close behind Kneussl’s Daimler and followed to number 62. Kneussl escorted Greta to the door, put his hand on her shoulder and held her back, while Winter unlocked the door with his key. Winter was accompanied by two officers; he let them push past and ushered ahead—a smile on his lips—Kneussl and Greta, before following last. This liaison had been arranged and expected. As the Daimler had passed a sentry post along the way, a call had gone through to Winter…but he had known the call would come.
The Steiners, in their sitting room, seemed also to have expected this latest intrusion, or become resigned to having their home entered in this fashion. They stood at once. Winter glanced over the room in distaste. The Steiners he did not look at. He walked into the bedroom. One of his officers followed. Kneussl, guiding her by the elbow, followed with Greta. The other officer, known now to the Steiners, said, “You will remain here.”
Uncertain whether they had permission to sit, they continued to stand. The silence, discomfiting to them, was not so to the officer. He gazed unseeing over their heads.
The bedroom, occupied by only four people, was yet a crowded space. Winter stood near the door, watching as his officer conducted a search. Greta stuck to Kneussl, who―once the officer had examined the window frame and curtain―drew her there, backing himself into the corner. Winter stood aside while his man checked the door, running a finger along the top of its molding; the officer then, with workmanlike efficiency, lifted the bed on one side and rolled back the rug, repeating this procedure on the other. He tossed Greta’s clothes from the back of the chair onto the mattress, and turned the chair upside down. Everything to this point he replaced exactly as it had been found.
He next removed the bedclothes, shook them out, and threw them on the floor. He took a cutting tool from his belt and slashed the pillow. He considered the mattress, standing back as might an artist applying his next brushstroke. He made two long cuts from head to foot, two shorter cuts from side to side. His probing, in proportion to this destruction, was rather cursory. He threw Greta’s travel case on the bed and dumped its contents. He slashed the lining, horrifying her, as she thought of Muriel. He rifled the items she’d left in the bag, tossing undergarments; no smile on his face, but comment in the flick of his wrist. Kneussl, deeply embarrassed, turned his back to the room, and looked down at the street.
He could have left all this to Winter. After delivering Greta, he had no further role to play. But he had a sense of debt; he would have felt cowardly, dishonorable, had he not stood by her. He deflected his mind from that. He thought about what he would have done if she’d chosen differently. He would in either case have turned her over to Winter. She must then be questioned without restraint, and if she could give no satisfactory answers, held in custody until someone provided them on her behalf.
“I will have that.”
The officer motioned for Greta’s handbag, turned it over, and shook it. Something wedged across the top was keeping the contents from spilling. He pulled out the tract. He read it through. With a shrug, he spun the paper away towards her feet, dumped the other things, and slashed the lining. Kneussl shifted his position, and witnessed with reluctance these proceedings, seeing the room transformed into chaos, Greta white-faced, propped against the window frame, staring at her possessions on the floor.
The officer cast her handbag aside and moved on, at Winter’s nod, to a more meticulous search through the hems and linings of her clothing. She slipped away from the window, knelt on the floor, tugged the bag towards herself and set it upright. She began gathering odds and ends…a lipstick, her compact, passport, a scattering of bills once held by a rubber band, her wadded handkerchief. Kneussl pushed away from the wall and crouched next to her. Winter, keeping a severe eye on his officer’s thoroughness, turned to observe his friend. He suppressed a noise. It had sounded like a derisive laugh.
Greta reached for the paper, finding it lodged against the baseboard, one corner held fast; Kneussl’s hand neared hers as she worked it loose. Perhaps he’d meant to be of help, this coming together only a fraction of a second’s miscuing. She saw him glimpse the words he’d read at the lake.
He snatched the tract from her fingers, stood, and ripped it in half.
Telling himself he was here for no reason, Kneussl heard a clearing of the throat, and saw the officer guarding the Steiners questioningly eye him. They had all turned, the Steiners with anxious faces, the officer curious. The gaslight flared briefly, a low flame, inches away. Kneussl thrust the two halves of paper into the fire. Rosa caught her breath as an arc of light shot across the room. Until the last moment, he held these and let them burn; at last he threw them to the rug and crushed the ashes under his heel.
“You may have something further to say to Fräulein Freund?” Winter’s voice, his choice of words, had some suggestion about them. Kneussl hadn’t noticed Winter bring her into the room, holding her by the arm.
He looked at Winter, shied from meeting Greta’s eyes, said, “Go about your business.”
She was in a grey windowless room, furnished with a cot, a table and chair. It was something like a cell, but one not intended to hold a prisoner. A room designed for prolonged interrogation, she thought. Her stay would not be prolonged. They had put her in charge of a policewoman for the final phase of the security clearance: a search of her person, a thin dressing gown substituted for the clothing she’d been wearing. She had then been passed back to Winter, who told her she would have no official status as a passenger on the Hindenburg. She would not be allowed to leave her cabin without escort.
Winter had taken her to a room with a desk, hand gripping her arm, propelling her along at a pace slightly faster than she was able to walk. He’d picked up the phone and handed it to her. The speaker, waiting, identified himself as a special envoy to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. He did not give his name, but promised to deliver her message.
She had been left in this room for some hours, told she would be taken away in the evening. Her mind felt more at ease when she sat quietly, attention focused on each noise she could hear, eyes open; lying down, closing them, allowed terrors to crowd in. She heard a door bang shut, the noise of it hitting her eardrum like a blow. Brisk, heavy footsteps in the hallway. Two men, she thought.
The door opened. Winter and another officer, one of the two she knew, entered. Winter looked at her, studied her. He allowed the moment to linger; finally he said, “I have this for you, from Herr von Kneussl.”
He was pleased to see her sit up, a distinct reaction, face and body. He held out a folded paper, keeping it just outside her reach. She had to step forward, once and again, to grasp at it. When he allowed her to have the note, she bent away from his scrutiny.
“Something I have done, may have been misunderstood. I have the highest regard for you.”
The two sentences seemed disconnected, as though words unexpressed belonged between. The period at the end of the final sentence sat at a distance, an ink blot where the pen had rested. She thought he must have meant to say more, wanted to say more.
“Now give that back,” Winter said.
“Why can’t I keep it?”
He whipped the paper from her hand, and tucked it into his pocket.
Kneussl had shown up unexpectedly with this request. Under his friend’s eyes, and with pleasure, Winter had read the note at once. He read challenge in Kneussl’s stare, and gave a nod that might be thought reassuring. His friend had slept badly; in time he would think better of this unwise act.
Above all, one should not write discreet words in one’s own hand. Confess, or say nothing. An artifact might come to light anywhere. Winter would not be the one to say so. Instead, he’d said:
“Rely on me. I will give her the note. I will tell you her answer.”
“I don’t ask you to tell me anything.”
And as much as it made him laugh, Winter thought Kneussl’s behavior beyond understanding. He had started all this, alerting Winter about the American, asking him to keep her contained. It was the impurity in the blood, Winter guessed, the Slavic aspect, that caused this irrational weakness.
The German lyric adapted for use in the missionary’s tract, is taken from Glaubenskampf, oder Freud und Lied eines Missionars in Deutchland, E. F. Wunderlich, 1882
For we cannot understand of God what He is, but only what He is not, therefore we cannot see how God is, but only much more how He is not.
May 6, 1937. The drenching rains and thunderstorms had barely cleared by 6:00 p.m. Finally, the winds fell away. The Hindenburg, advised against landing during the late afternoon’s threatening weather, approached Lakehurst for the second time, receiving her latest radio message from the station commander: “Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing.” This was at 6:08 p.m.
But while the Hindenburg’s crew held her forward momentum in check at the mooring mast, a cold breeze from the south shot up. She had dropped ballast at intervals; she had finished valving gas—the ship was in the best possible trim, yet not the most satisfactory. She had a heaviness astern; a deviation from ordinary expectations, troubling but not alarming. At 6:10 p.m., the landing crew, a greater number of whom were civilians than naval personnel, heard the landing station signal, and stood ready.
A process took place before the bow trail ropes would be dropped to the ground crew. The engines were reduced to idling speed, thrown ahead and astern. The Hindenburg was positioned, with a final burst of power. The starboard rope came down, the port rope followed. Newsreel cameras: Paramount, Fox, Universal, Pathé, swung from the airship to record the activity on the ground. The port bow trail rope was coupled, winched; a southeast gust made the rope spring taut. This was at 6:21 p.m.
Along her route, observers with field glasses had watched her. She was a great attraction―filmed, photographed, talked about. Some observers, mixing unobtrusively among the interested public, were charting her course, recording positions within a synchronized timeframe.
The Hindenburg was in the crosshairs of two beams, one from a distance of no more than twenty miles, the other nearly eighty miles away, at an elevation of 500 feet, north-northwest of Lakehurst.
The older radio detection system had been tested and proved accurate at this lesser distance; the experimental system was to be measured against it. The observers posted along the Hindenburg’s charted course, falling within the sweep of the beam, reckoned real positions by sight.
Continued from “positions by sight”
Nearly eighty miles away, on the leveled top of an Allegheny foothill, double fencing surrounded a concrete block building. The fencing had signs posted: “Danger High Voltage”. The air vibrated here with a drilling hum, the hum pitched to a particular tone, rising in volume, subsiding to a buzz. About three hundred feet distant stood a rank of towers topped with rectangular parabolic transmitters.
The building was constructed in two parts. The two parts were meant to be accessed separately; they had no connecting door. The workspace, referred to as the Control Room, was staffed by three men. Sitting on a wheeled chair, ankle propped on his knee to make a writing surface, sallow face grim with concentration, one man jotted in a notebook. He occasionally made small sketches. His grey suit was disheveled, the cuffs of his jacket and his white shirt stained brown with nicotine. Had someone opened the exit door, noticed yellow dandelions sprouting with tenacity despite the fresh-laid gravel, he would have noticed as well a formidable scattering of cigarette butts.
The Russian engineer’s assistant worked facing the wall. He used a table that had, through compromise, been wedged into the room. The front door, banging against its edge, had gained a sharp-centered dent; the table’s corresponding corner had begun to splinter.
Visitors were rare, permitted only with clearance and authorization, and in the company of one with clearance and authorization. The assistant had been jolted out of a waiting trance only by the Russian himself, who in eccentric inner-thought often circled the building. Each time, the Russian stood abruptly and slipped through the exit; each time, the rear door banged shut, and the assistant felt an intolerable tension that made his work difficult. Each time his mind relaxed, the front door collided with the table.
When the assistant looked at the wall, he saw a topographical map. When he checked the clock, he turned to look over his shoulder. He hunched at the table’s inside corner, cradling the handset of his phone. He took notes. The assistant’s task today was to stay in contact with Lakehurst. The third staffer, at a small desk adjacent, wore a radio headset. His equipment was powered by heavy electric cables, laid along the floor. He studied the display on a cathode ray tube, and recorded each flash.
The installation’s scope was far greater than that of the older system, the product of another laboratory team’s different objective, which had proved its accuracy at 200 megacycles. Here, with more space, and more secrecy, the Russian’s team had, for periods, sustained frequencies above 300 megacycles. America had an interest in a mobile detection system, for wartime applications; America also had an interest in her northern border.
War in Europe, America neutral, Canada a member of the British Commonwealth: a scenario that needed early consideration. Heavy border installations would appear unfriendly―a genuine concern―besides exposing America’s intentions and capabilities.
Bryant, the assistant, spoke into the phone, made a note, tilted back to see the clock. He checked his watch. It was either eleven or twelve minutes after 6:00 p.m. He made his voice audible to the others. “She’s hauled up to the mast. I guess that means we’re done.”
The Russian, finishing a sketch, continued it, his back to Bryant. He laid down his pen, studied his work, replied at last, “I have not said so.” He lit another cigarette.
Bryant turned back to the table, leaning over this with a hand cupping his ear. He listened to a description of the Hindenburg’s progress. The technician scooted sideways from his station, half removing his headphones. He had a question…but the Russian could be forbidding. His back to the room, the engineer sat folded over his notebook. The technician thought better of asking. His was a simple job; it didn’t need to make sense.
At 6:27 p.m., Bryant said, “It’s done what?” He stood up, still holding the phone. He looked at the map for a moment, laid the phone on the table. He sat down, picked up the phone and listened again. He said, “Just a minute, okay, just a minute…” He got up and went to where the Russian engineer sat, still absorbed in his calculations, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Please stop the test.”
The Russian developed a sort of tightness about the face, not what Bryant would have called a smile. He said nothing. He took up his full ashtray, and exited, dumping it as he left. He walked to a door that gave entry to the building’s other half. The door had two warning signs posted on it; the Russian found a key in his trouser pocket, unlocked the door, slipped inside, and shut the door behind him.
The technician stared at Bryant. Bryant shrugged. “Something went wrong.” He was struck by the inadequacy of language. A thing cruel and sober should not have a suggestion of irreverence; yet things do not ordinarily blow up. Planes fall from the sky, ships sink. He felt like he was making a poor joke, but explained as best he could.
Malcolm-Webb was paying an unaccustomed visit to the chief assistant editor’s office. He had never been worthy of this attention in the past. He had returned from Frankfurt a subject of news, rather than a nameless reporter of news.
“The poor old invalid! Come in! Sit down!”
Stowers chortled much over his obscure joke. Malcolm-Webb took a seat, and Stowers subsided. He then said, “I’ve been up before the magistrates.”
“Cheltenham, you know. Where I can be discovered at the weekends, pottering about the moated grange.” Stowers, podgy, artificial in manner—yet known for a ruthless fault-finder—enjoyed taking stock of the effect he produced.
“Making my way among the crooked lanes, aloof, as the poet has it, in giant ignorance, I navigate the thoroughfare of Devonshire Street. Some old dodger breaks cover not ten paces ahead. I am going fifteen at the most. Notwithstanding, dutifully I brake. He steps back. I wave him on. He waves me on. The old cat and mouse game, you see. The pressure got to me…that is as much as I can offer in my defense. Awful din from the audience. I mean, of course, from the gawping herd. Hectored on in this fashion, I managed to nudge the old blighter, just when I’d thought it safe to scrape by. Seven pounds, two shillings, six pence—that, my lad, was the upshot.”
“Did you want to ask me anything?” Deciding he had no frame of reference for responding to Stowers’s anecdote, Malcolm-Webb ignored it.
“No, no, I understand you’ve handed in your copy to Mumford already.” Stowers widened his eyes, by this to telegraph comic incredulity at Malcolm-Webb’s doing of his job, and with something like conscientiousness. He went on, “The public expects certain things; we mustn’t disappoint it.”
“Then we should shut down operations.”
The editor drew back in his chair. “That was uncalled for.”
On second thoughts, Stowers chortled again, but mildly. He grew serious. “We’ll sell hundreds more papers if we don’t spring this thing right off the bat. Therefore, Miss Sörgen”—he imposed upon the reporter’s name, in his humorous way, a mad world of umlaut—“will write two or three ‘coming attractions’ pieces; your bit, as star witness, to appear a few days hence.” Wistful then, Stowers added: “I suppose the Gestapo didn’t rough you up a great deal?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, no one needs to know that. We’ll build anticipation. I hope you have written something worthwhile, for the enlightenment of the laboring masses?”
“Read the story.”
He had been held for three days and two nights. Unable to guess the duration of his imprisonment, Malcolm-Webb had suffered a heightened anxiety over his prospects. He had begun to feel he’d spent a week or more in the windowless room, answering the same questions. But not, as the engineer had warned, precisely the same questions―the phrasing varied. They hadn’t seemed interested, though, in catching him out; the process had been oddly formalized.
How had he come into contact with the Zeppelin Company workers?
Merely by asking around.
Who had given him their names?
When did he arrange to meet Fräulein Freund? He had, he’d told them, discovered her by pure coincidence. His answers weren’t provable; he doubted they were believable.
At night, however, or what passed for night—the overhead light being left to burn continuously—he found that when he was able to fall asleep, he would be awakened almost at once by a sort of noise. He wasn’t aware of the noise when it occurred, and couldn’t afterwards recall quite how it had sounded—only that it had, in fleeting dream-states, depicted itself variously as a slamming door or gunshot. After two nights, his nerves had been raw. On the second day, the original thrust of the questioning dropped away. They spoke more often about Greta; they introduced little assumptions.
“She asked for your help.”
“No,” he said, “I asked her to help me.”
A long interval.
“We have had a different impression.”
Of course, his conversation with Greta, in the park, on the street, could have been overheard. By the time the detainment had ended, he was no longer certain what he’d told them. Before being escorted to the station by a uniformed officer, and in the manner of a public example, Malcolm-Webb was told he would not be permitted to return to Germany.
On the ferry Antwerp, he had written his story; after a decent night’s sleep, he’d proofed it, before handing it over to the sub-editor. He’d thought it well done, and hoped to see his name on it. Stowers’s wish, during the period in which the editor meant to deceive the public, was for Malcolm-Webb to lie low.
He couldn’t comply; he needed to know where Greta was. He had not himself been harmed, but his poor job playing protector might have harmed her…he thought they had parted not quite friends…why should she write then, even if she were well? She might not.
Knowing the nudge and wink of fellowship, that clubbiness which made eliding past sources possible, to be an avenue closed to Peace League outsiders, he had tried in any case securing an appointment with Wrentsley. He must say what he’d said to the Germans—that he’d spotted Greta on the street, had not wished to intrude, seeing her with Kneussl…had thought to follow her to her hotel, etc.
He found himself forestalled. First by a ministry secretary, next by a private secretary, at last by Mr. Trotter. And even Trotter had snubbed him, via junior clerk.
“The secretary will be happy to accept your call tomorrow, sir, when he expects to be at his desk all the morning. Do you have any particular message?”
Malcolm-Webb chose to reply that he did not.
The only person he could reasonably contact was Kneussl—to some degree, they shared this secret; and Kneussl, he presumed, had answers. He had had them all along. He would understand, however contrary his nature, the need for discretion. Malcolm-Webb supposed at worst the interview would be refused. Instead, he found the German embassy would not confirm whether Kneussl had returned to his London post.
Half-past four in the morning on the seventh of May, Gwen Dumphries summoned him to the phone…the caller bloody Stowers.
“Obviously, we have a change of plan. See me first thing.” Stowers paused. “I know there is a Great Scheme…” And having delivered this platitude as a duty accomplished, he went on, “What we must determine, you and I, is our particular angle of attack.”
Standing half-asleep, Malcolm-Webb mumbled, “With respect, sir, you make no sense.”
“I mean to say, we can only rush to press at a certain pace. They’ve had an accident with the Hindenburg, that’s what. I expect we’ll sell a few papers today. Since you had to get up to answer the phone,” Stowers added, referencing the commonplace joke, “please try to arrive at the earliest hour.”
Mrs. Dumphries for a while had stood alongside, hoping to be first possessor of some excitement in the way of gossip. Finding Malcolm-Webb’s end of the conversation dull, she had wandered off. He’d left his door open; the excuse provided, she had sidled in to poke about. He discovered her at his writing desk, hands grasping Greta’s photo.
“I don’t know that one. Grace Farmer.” She spoke as a collector of rarities, having spotted some gewgaw of special interest. “Shame you haven’t bought her a lovely frame.”
She looked at Malcolm-Webb, looked at the photo, replaced it and made tidying motions. He understood she had him pegged, as the pitiful sort whose mind creates imaginary attachments.
Stowers said, “I have decided, after ploughing through my little file of clippings, that the sabotage angle needs playing up.”
“What sabotage angle, for heaven’s sake?”
“Now, now, you’re going to accuse me of not reading your story, and I know I saw something. Bear along for a moment…” He skimmed a few typewritten sheets, rumpled from Mumford’s cut and paste work. “Here. You say the engineering subject was employed at Friedrichshafen, yet you found him loitering about Frankfurt. Why should that be so?”
“Looking for work, I should think. A hobby, one understands, of the unemployed.”
Stowers glanced up at Malcolm-Webb, gauging his temper. “We don’t need to be that specific.”
“I’m not changing a word of the story.”
“Of course you aren’t.”
Stowers sat quietly. Time passed, and Malcolm-Webb wondered if he were about to be sacked. The possibility seemed out of bounds, yet Stowers was famous for that sort of thing.
“Rumors of sabotage,” the editor said darkly. “Well, after all, one might need to slip something into the gossip section. Geoffrey, what do you call a rumor?”
“Well.” Malcolm-Webb felt he must be wary. “A bit of gossip, as you say. Something unsubstantiated.”
“Something made up?”
“I should think so.”
Stowers chortled. “Then anything I put in the paper, and call a rumor is, by definition, a rumor. Do you agree?”
“I’d rather not say.”
This careful answer proved highly amusing to Stowers, to the point that he dabbed at his eyes before continuing, “Of course, Geoffrey, I like your idea best. We will observe the competition closely, and hone our strategy.”
Malcolm-Webb knew better than to suppose he had really taken a stand. Headlines and sub-heads could be larded with every sort of lurid suggestiveness; he had no control over the process. He returned to his desk, and for nearly an hour sat on the telephone with the German embassy. He was eventually allowed to speak to an aide; the aide informed him that Herr von Kneussl had left that day for Berlin.
Fitzgerald sat on a blocky Chesterfield. He found himself staring at the cracked oxblood leather of the armrest. Each time he shifted, one pestiferous loose button snagged at his jacket. He was embarrassed to be here; yet he felt it unlikely anyone he knew would walk through the door. The antechamber, and the office, in which Fitzgerald’s wife was receiving her consultation, belonged to a Dr. Charles Phillips. Phillips called himself a psycho-therapist; he had published two volumes on the “science” of hypnotism. Abigail Fitzgerald’s anxiety, a nightmare of air attacks and bombs, had consumed her reason. Her search for a remedy, for peace of mind, consumed her time (as, he told himself in uncharitable mood, the housekeeping did not); often Fitzgerald’s time as well. He felt ashamed for hoping, as ardently as he did, that she would tell none of their neighbors about the hypnosis treatments.
He had finished scanning the ads on his paper’s front page―he always did this out of habit. His Somerset cottage was nothing grand. It required work he couldn’t afford or manage himself…but one found bargains here and there. Quiet country weekends, for Abigail, were an increasing necessity.
Continued from “increasing necessity”
He leafed along, past the suicides and road accidents, the gossipy coronation bits. He glanced at the international page. A story in the third column stopped him, left him holding his paper in suspense, his mind suspended in thought. First, he thought of Baines. Baines had sent word, a supercilious and unconvincing word, in Fitzgerald’s opinion, that all things pertaining to their secret arrangement would be code-named “Harriet”. As Fitzgerald believed Baines more than likely having a joke, he had expected to see nothing of the sort.
After this, Fitzgerald thought of Abigail. He longed, and not without sincerity, for the hypno-nonsense to bring her round. He feared this Hindenburg affair―already they hinted at sabotage―would do her harm.
“I may be one of these persistent optimists one reads about,” Baines told the Under-Secretary, “but I believe we won’t see a return of the airship menace.”
Baines had shown up in uniform, without an appointment; he had happened by, while about other business, the Under-Secretary might have supposed. Equally, he might suppose otherwise…but he was interested in what Baines had to say.
He kept an electric burner on the seat of a guest-chair, and on this, a tea kettle, from which he produced a metallic black Ceylon that fueled his work. Others viewed the offer of a cup with trepidation. Baines waved his hand at tea, but accepted a cigarette.
The Under-Secretary said: “The loss of life troubles me. I can’t imagine the accident, whatever its cause, as being other than coincidence.”
Baines gave a sharp laugh. “Coincidence would be a fine thing. Our side of affairs was managed very nearly impeccably. I can reassure you on any point regarding my own work; I have no means of addressing the question with regard to others’ work.”
“I merely feel that we can’t be callous.”
“Whereas I am certain we can’t. I, as you know, take these matters in earnest.”
Baines stood up and walked to the window. He admired the view from the Under-Secretary’s room―appealing terrace houses in vermillion brick, with contrasting quoinage and dentil effects dotting the roofline, somewhat superimposed in soot about the cornice-work…but still appealing.
A glossy green Sunbeam below darted cross-traffic and pulled to the kerb. The following car balked, was thrown into reverse, lurched some feet ahead, at which point the driver experienced either a crisis of nerve―likely enough, Baines thought―or the car suffered an engine stall. A roadster in third position, whose driver had lost patience, revved with a sound audible from four stories up and shot between the two offenders with inches to spare.
“Do you happen to live over that way?”
“My address is no secret. I’ll write it down for you.”
“No, no.” Baines was surprised. “I don’t come at things sideways. If I want information…what I mean to say is…I’m curious about the cost of ownership.”
The Under-Secretary was rewarded to see Baines nonplussed, if even mildly. However, he took the question, as Baines had put it, in earnest. “I believe those houses are mainly in foreign hands, as it were.”
“I’ve been told I have an alienating influence. Send word if you spot the discreet estate agent’s notice.”
“What else have you come to discuss?” The Under-Secretary had afternoon appointments.
“Nearly impeccable, as I was saying,” Baines picked up the thread. “One of our men compromised himself, in a completely amateurish way.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. I hope no great damage was done.”
“If we have lessons to learn, now is the time for us to learn them. We are only somewhat embarrassed to be bested by one of our allies.”
The Under-Secretary waited. Baines had more to say, but uncharacteristically checked himself; then, deciding differently, he added, “The trouble is, they don’t play the game like gentlemen.”
Van Nest was solicitous…and careful. A coffee tray waited. He had thought, and took some pride in having done so, of asking Mrs. Garth to bring it in.
He said, “Sit down.”
She wouldn’t. He said again, “Go on, sit down. I’m pouring you a cup of coffee.” Greta’s pride was a study; he hadn’t yet learned all the rules. Her left wrist in a cast, she couldn’t manage as independently as she liked, but still she’d thrust in her right hand, tried lifting her own cup and saucer…and made an awkward job of it for Van Nest. Coffee slopped onto the tray. He guessed the point taken.
“Doing all right for yourself.”
She didn’t answer, and it hadn’t—just in case—been precisely a question.
On any ordinary day in Van Nest’s room, Greta was used to dodging a stack of lunch dishes waiting collection on the floor. She had often seen a season’s worth of coats tossed over chairs, a hazardous umbrella, by rust glued in place, loom over the top drawer of a file cabinet. Had someone periodically tossed through the doorway a box of folders and papers, to fall at chance and accumulate where they would, the office might typically have looked as it did today. They were moving in September, and Mrs. Garth—correct in her assessment that this job would get worse before it got better—wanted her boss to make an early start.
He looked Greta over, found her not as dolled-up as usual. It was a sort of mechanical problem, Van Nest told himself. He thought of his wife. Zeda had stopped wearing lipstick at some point…he must have noticed, too, or he couldn’t have realized it, just now.
“So how’s the wrist? Giving you any trouble…?”
She gave him a narrow little glance.
“Any pain I mean?”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. I gave a whole statement already.”
He nodded. She sat for another silent minute, then said: “Why don’t you fire me if you want to?”
“No…no.” Van Nest broke into a grin. “No, I’m through being nice. Brass tacks from now on.”
Mrs. Garth had collected Greta from an Asbury Park hospital. She had been detained there only because she’d needed to wait for Mrs. Garth. The fall had fractured her wrist, the pain a pulse communicating through overcrowded signals. She hadn’t known it was broken, until they’d told her. She had pocks and dents on her arms and legs, the skin of her knees and the palms of her hands. Mrs. Garth had expected her to be in shock.
“You can stay with us for a few days. You don’t have to be alone.”
Greta didn’t discount the value of the gesture; she knew that Mrs. Garth disliked her. The Garths rented an apartment on 9th Street; they held the A-position, the ground-floor corner, of a four-square duplex. For a few days, Greta could shorten her commute. Had she been in a bad state, a few days hardly would have helped. And she preferred being alone.
She wasn’t in shock. It was a vacancy she felt, not horror. Far northwest on B Street, Greta’s furnished room was cheap for Washington…fifty dollars a month, three times what she’d ever paid in Hollywood. She didn’t keep her place tidy, and the neighborhood wasn’t quiet; but she could huddle here on her own sofa, toughen up, find routine again.
“Am I going to be blamed? I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t have done anything. Will they think I did?”
Van Nest thought he could get her through this. He would not have placed Greta on the Hindenburg…she’d made the choice. She’d been hemmed in—but was not, he was interested to note, inclined herself to fix blame. He had a rising respect for his protégé, for having perceived this…that she had to prove she believed the craft was safe, or, choosing otherwise, appear to believe it unsafe. He couldn’t argue with her logic, but the men who had checkmated her knew the other moves they’d made.
“Did you follow every instruction you were given? Did you disobey any order?”
“I stayed in my cabin. I never left my cabin without calling for an escort. That’s what I was told to do.”
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“Outside the crew, no.”
“Then think about this. A lot of care was taken to eliminate possibilities. If anyone could believe you were capable of sabotage, they’d need to imagine some device no one’s ever thought of. And besides…” He stopped himself. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.”
“I’m not that smart, you mean. I’m sure they don’t think so, either.”
“Thank you. The other concern would be some confederate; someone you could have passed information to. Obviously, if you never talked to anyone, you didn’t, unless again…” Again, he fell silent.
“…if they watched you closely enough.”
She squinted at him. “But I don’t think that matters. Can you stop someone from believing what they want to believe?”
To overcome disequilibrium, you have to feel in control. Of control’s three elements, distance was a given. At least now she was home, she ought to feel herself secured from their reach…provided fear could be held in check. Time was inevitable. Time had passed already. Van Nest had told Greta to come in when she felt up to it; she’d stayed home yesterday…she was here now. Time, these days, he thought, had got the habit of rocketing along. But reason, he could help her with.
“Fabricating a story isn’t easy. It isn’t safe. I’ve said it before―people are comforted by a narrative that unfolds like a familiar fairy-tale. But in life, events don’t follow the pattern of a story. One thread out of a thousand inter-connecting occurrences isn’t even the making of a story. The process is incredibly random. You can’t control all the people who know something…you can’t even guess who they are. You can’t control all the peripheral and tangential evidences that just moving in human society generates. And after you’ve brought the first thing to light, you can’t imagine what else may come out.
“People oftentimes aren’t aware of what they know until happenstance opens their eyes. You recall the talks we used to have. You take a simple premise: Two people meet, they miscommunicate…you layer in complication, throw in coincidence…”
He wrinkled his brow. “Storytelling…writing a script…lying…is motivated behavior. The lie may be to deflect blame. It may be political. Everyone who’s participated in a scheme, or who knows about it, has the potential to expose the lie by accident or for advantage—and the liar is in danger because the lie is fixed in time. Each action becomes a point on a graph.
“Unravel that thread―you won’t find randomness. You’ll find people connected to each other, a pattern of behavior, events occurring in sequence…one after the other. I can’t promise we’re dealing with people who understand these things, but they’re in no position to point to you without pointing back at themselves. I don’t think they’ll do that.”
Greta didn’t doubt the strength of his argument. But she didn’t feel menaced—she felt severed. The days in her cabin had been easier to bear than her first experience with isolation. She had not been hungry; she’d been able to sleep…and had known she would soon be free. These externalities made her passage a kind of steerage rather than imprisonment. Her mind kept circling around the same questions: What did he think he had done? What would she have misunderstood?
The distant, old-fashioned phrase he had used, did he mean it as dismissal? If you’re only saying goodbye, why say anything at all?
The Hindenburg had crossed the Atlantic, the voyage uneventful; once rid of the nuisance that was Greta, the ship’s state of watchfulness would give way to ordinary practices. They had wanted her off before the other passengers. A steward knocked at the cabin door, telling her he would escort her forward. They walked the promenade, passed the lounge. A shudder rippled the hull. The shudder might have been accompanied by a sound; if so, the sound was soft, and simultaneous with the wave of impact. The steward looked over his shoulder, decided nothing had happened, and said to Greta:
“Why are you stopping here?”
A step forward. Heat like a furnace rushing into the passage, propagating to fierce intensity. It hurt to touch the air…the air was unbreathable. Her steward pushed her to the window.
“Could anyone be blamed?”
“Well,” said Van Nest, slowly, “let me work this out for you. Let’s imagine the world is perfect. We’re going to fly an airship across the Atlantic…and we know all passengers to be above suspicion. We assume nothing will happen. Let’s say now, in a second instance, that all passengers are suspect, but the probability of any particular passenger being dangerous is low…and if one is, we can’t guess which one. We create a standard for security and we adhere to it, treating everyone as equally dangerous, equally safe. Let’s say, in a third instance, we have cause to identify a particular person as a danger, but nothing indicates our suspect is prepared to act. We create a higher standard of security for this individual; we watch and guard him…her. Let’s say we have a fourth instance, in which a passenger is brandishing a weapon, making violent threats.
Continued from “making violent threats”
“We throw out the first case, because a perfect world doesn’t exist. We throw out the last case, because we would never allow that passenger to board the craft. So we have two other cases: normal operating procedure, and what I’ll call a special circumstance. We’ve made every allowance. We’ve accounted for every possible way in which we believe this person may threaten us. Yet, something goes wrong.
“Our question, then, is…was this a failure of security? If so, we blame ourselves. Was the accident engineered by some unimaginable means? If so, no one can be blamed. You can learn from the unforeseeable, you can’t prevent it. Or…was the accident caused by something external to security? Were we just distracting ourselves?
“You and I have the advantage. We know this has nothing to do with policing. It has nothing to do with you. We know you were never anything but a distraction. But I don’t think you need to doubt whether in time, weighing all the factors, others will come to the same conclusion.” He told her these last things carefully, emphasizing time, factors, conclusion…hoping the message would sink in.
Greta thought about Mrs. Van Nest. Divorce was expensive, she supposed. The Van Nests had been separated for years. It seemed funny to let half your life linger in the background. And to not really mind.
“Why did you tell me my job was to ask questions, find out if anyone was spreading rumors about sabotage?”
“I didn’t say that was your job.”
No…the suggestion had been hers.
“I was nothing but a distraction. I don’t even know what you mean by that.”
She’d been naïve, her intention to please him discounted, her ignorance used for a purpose. Greta accepted a degree of ruthlessness. They told lies, played people for fools sometimes. She might find herself dealt with as she had dealt with others.
But never had the people whose help she’d sought believed in her. On her own mistaken intitiative, making busy work of nothing, she‘d caused havoc without knowing what she did.
“Why not tell me the truth?”
“I don’t see how asking questions is incompatible with being a distraction. I don’t see what you think I haven’t been truthful about.”
“Because…you don’t say things that are truthful or untruthful. You just phrase everything so you can deny it, or pretend to be misunderstood.”
He saw her flinch. She was affected—afflicted, he might have said—by her own words.
“It’s a business consideration. I’m not speaking to a single audience. The way I phrase things protects you, and me, and the people we work with.”
“Protection! You should care whether people live or die, if you’re protecting them!”
This vehemence surprised Van Nest. He intervened with himself before he could work up to any offense. She had gone through what he had no right to rebuke. He told her, “I apologize. I may be too clinical about this. I’ve been trying to help. But remember what I say: No degree of expertise confers a higher value on speculation. Talking about causes would be fantasy at this point.”
He wasn’t the hero she had once seen, when she’d accepted him at his own valuation. H. Bruce Van Nest was the man with an answer for every question, and Greta had begun with everything to learn. She wondered now if he used his way with words, his handiness with explanations, to distance himself from consequences. Had he chosen his phrasing to steer her towards a point of view…to contain her, as he would say?
Trying to hold Greta’s eyes, Van Nest found himself a little worried at this withholding of opinion. She’d always been quick to agree with him, his gratifying, reliable sounding-board. In earnest, he said to her, “Every aspect under my control, I managed to the best of my ability. What was beyond anyone’s control, may come to light in the investigation.”
“I hope it does. Do you need me to help you with this?” She swept her plastered arm over the disorder.
He stopped worrying. She had touched on a point of pride Van Nest was happy to share.
“No, go on home. See, I’ve worked this process out—I don’t butt in until Mrs. Garth gets fed up and starts tidying. Then I offer to give her a hand, and she tells me what she has in mind. That way I don’t waste my time, and her nose doesn’t get out of joint.”
Mrs. Garth stepped in to remove the coffee tray. Her eyes bore more than a suggestion, as she looked at Van Nest, that she had something in mind. She viewed the stack of documents soaking near an overturned cup. In a kind of slow motion, as one who might otherwise have slammed it down, Mrs. Garth set the tray aside.
“Do you want to save these?” she asked, holding by one corner a dripping sheet of carbon paper.
Van Nest glanced up. “You decide, Mrs. Garth.”
He was sorry Greta distrusted him. He was deeply interested in this dynamic. What environment could you create, what character traits of the individual could you exploit, to restore trust?
An agent in foreign territory, of course, couldn’t be given more information than was necessary. Two hazards existed. Isolation, exposure to risk, could create a disengagement of loyalty; interaction, on the other hand, daily contact with the other side, might create attraction.
Through the remaining days of May, witnesses told their stories at public hearings held in three venues: Lakehurst, Asbury Park, and New York City. Leaving aside theories of sabotage, the panel weighed questions of fuel and ignition. The witnesses, some of whom were aboard the Hindenburg but were not experts; some of whom were experts, but had not been aboard, gave divergent testimony.
Heinrich Bauer, a watch officer, said the heaviness in the stern was not outside normal experience; his testimony was supported by Commander Rosendahl of the U.S. Navy. Dr. Eckener, of the German Commission, and not an observer on May 6th, believed the heaviness signified an exception.
Weather conditions were reviewed in meticulous detail. Watch officer Albert Sammt and passenger Nelson Morris recalled light rain only, Anton Wittemann, training aboard the Hindenburg for a future command, gave a detailed report, describing varying conditions with passing heavy rain. Bauer reported heavy rain. Rosendahl and Sammt saw nothing out of the ordinary in the approach to the mooring mast. Others said they saw the Hindenburg turn sharply in her approach. Dr. Eckener, evaluating the statements of witnesses, felt she had turned sharply.
The crewman in charge of the landing party, port side, testified to seeing the outer cover flutter in a “wave motion”; his testimony was corroborated by another crewman, stationed on the mooring mast. Dr. Eckener confirmed that circumstances existed under which release of gas might produce a fluttering motion. Albert Stoeffer, a cook, testified that at the moment of combustion he was watching the starboard landing crew handle the starboard rope.
The accidental-cause scenario required a breach in a gas cell, a significant release of gas following the breach, a source of ignition, and ignition occurring while the Hindenburg idled at the mooring mast. Various means by which a gas leak might have occurred were mooted: a failed valve, a broken hull wire, flying shards from the engine or propeller. Various sources of ignition were raised and examined: electrostatic discharge, ball lightning, high frequency induction. German Commission member Professor Dr. Max Dieckmann mentioned that the Germans were particularly interested in the last possibility. A small radio transmitter belonging to an airline company whose beam traversed the Lakehurst field was pointed to; far more power would have been required to produce resonance.
Van Nest ushered Greta to his own chair, and handed her the phone. He left the room, allowing her to take the call in private. He went to an adjacent room, and sat down with Dennis Campbell. They listened to the conversation over a speaker.
“You’re surprised,” said the caller.
“I don’t know.”
“I will take the liberty of assuming so. I would be, being you. Surprised that is…yet honored.”
Greta thought about this statement. “Are you playing both roles in this story?”
She heard him chuckle. About this chuckle was a hint of self-satisfaction. “You, I’ve been told, are Greta Freund. The honor is mine. You’ll forgive the conceit,” the caller went on. “Few people listen to me. I’m grateful for your close attention.”
“What were you going to tell me?” She felt she could be a little rude. He hadn’t introduced himself yet.
“I know something about you, and your work.”
“I haven’t got any work.”
“Ah. Then you’ll be open to considering my offer. I’m pleased to hear it. My name is McReynolds Baines.”
“McReynolds, did you say?”
“I am unfortunately required to inflict my given name on the unsuspecting at introduction. You won’t hear it again. Call me Baines.”
“You’re offering me something?”
“My dear, I have a little concern in London. We are in need of every sort of help to get the business going. Friends have told me your skills are exemplary.”
Campbell and Van Nest looked at each other.
“You gonna give her a raise?” Campbell asked. “Or maybe a real job?”
“I can’t offer anything.”
He knew it was true. No money, no privileged assignment, would beat London at this point. Van Nest hated to have Greta poached away like this; she was not only his friend, she was an invaluable asset. At the office, he used her presence to study group behavior, female…a book otherwise closed to him. He was amazed at the how busy the girls got, the emotional heights, the conspiratorial plotting. You could learn something every day.
And then, on the other hand…and he supposed Baines had noticed it, too…Greta disturbed and drew attention. The world was full of femmes fatale. Most were useless, far too self-aware in their practices. Greta didn’t try to affect others; she didn’t see herself in that light. She did and said things that were off-kilter; she put other people off-kilter. Through some accident of background or experience, she possessed that irreplaceable quality—she could be played as a wild-card, a near-perfect disrupter.
Baines was saying, “You needn’t worry. The job I have in mind is well suited to your talents.”
“All I try to do is get along.” She made no claim to having talent. Greta felt far below the height of confidence with which she’d last set off for London. Then again, he might be laughing at her.
“Now, now, nothing wrong about that. Getting along is what we all must do in wartime.”
“We’re not at war.”
“I am at war.”
*Brief quotes (radio message “conditions definitely improved…”, “wave motion”), and general information, are taken from the Report of the Hindenburg Airship Investigation, published in the Air Commerce Bulletin of August 15, 1937.