Inimical, a novel about process
Set in the interwar period 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
94 Alarm-Posts and Signal-Posts
100 Old World Diplomacy
111 Considerations Beyond Understanding
134 Tried in the Fire
164 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 vice? 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.”
(More to come)