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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 21


  “It’s a damn shame!” cries Rick, while the baroness composes herself. “My God, son, those Bolsheviks could swoop down on Ascot tomorrow without a by-your-leave and help themselves to a fortune. Go on, my dear. Son, tell her to go on. Call her Elena, she likes it. She’s not a snob. She’s one of us.”

  “Weiter, bitte,” says Pym.

  “Weiter,” the baroness echoes approvingly and pats her eyes with Rick’s handkerchief. “Jawohl, darling. Sehr gut!”

  “Oh but you should hear his accent,” Mr. Cunningham calls from the door. “Not a wrinkle, you can quote me, same as my own boy.”

  “What does she say, son?”

  “She can manage,” says Pym. “She can handle it.”

  “She’s a damned gem. I’m going to see her right, you mark my words.”

  So is Pym. He is going to marry her at least. But meanwhile, to his irritation, he must hear more praise for my dear late husband the baron. My Luigi was not only the proprietor of a great palace, he was a financial genius and until the outbreak of war the Chairman of the House of Rothschild in Prague.

  “They were the richest of the lot,” says Rick. “Weren’t they, son? You’ve read your history. What’s your verdict?”

  “They couldn’t even count it,” Mr. Cunningham confirms from the door with the pride of an impresario. “Could they, Elena? Ask her. Don’t be shy.”

  “We give such concerts, darling,” the baroness confides to Pym. “Princes from all countries. We got house from marble. We got mirrors, culture. Like here,” she adds graciously, indicating a priceless oil painting of Prince Magnus in his paddock, done from a photograph. “We lose everything.”

  “Not quite everything,” says Rick under his breath.

  “When the Germans come, my Luigi he refuse to flee. He face the Nazi pigs from the balcony, got a pistol in his hand, don’t never been heard of since.”

  Another necessary break follows in which the baroness allows herself a delicate sip of brandy from a row of crystal decanters on the floor, and Rick to Pym’s fury takes over the story, partly because Rick is already tired of listening, but more particularly because a secret is approaching, and secrets in court etiquette are Rick’s alone to divulge.

  “That baron was a fine man and a fine husband, son, and he did what any fine husband would do, and believe me, if your mother was in a position to appreciate it, I’d do the same for her tomorrow—”

  “I know you would,” says Pym hastily.

  “That baron got some of the best treasures out of that palace, he put them in a box and he gave that box to certain very good friends of his and friends of this fine lady here, and he gave orders that when the British won the war this same box should be handed over to his lovely young wife, with everything it contained, however much it may have risen in value in the meantime.”

  The baroness knows the menu from memory and again selects Pym as her audience, for which purpose it is necessary for her to arrest his attention with a delicate hand placed on his wrist.

  “One Gutenberg Bible, nice condition, darling, one Renoir early, two Leonardo medical. One first edition Goya caprices, artist annotation, three hundred best gold American dollar, Rubens a couple cartoons.”

  “Cunningham says it’s worth a bomb,” says Rick when she seems to have finished.

  “It’s Hiroshima,” says Mr. Cunningham from the door.

  Pym contrives an ethereal smile intended to indicate that great art knows no price. The baroness intercepts it and understands.

  It is an hour later. The baroness and her protector have departed, leaving father and son alone in the great unlighted room. The traffic below the window has subsided. Shoulder to shoulder on the bed they are eating fish and chips which Pym has been dispatched to buy with precious pound notes from Rick’s back pocket. They wash it down with a bottle of Château d’Yquem from a Harrods crate.

  “Are they still there, son?” says Rick. “Did they see you? Those men in the Riley. Heavy built.”

  “I’m afraid they are,” says Pym.

  “You believe in her, don’t you, son? Don’t spare my feelings. Do you believe in that fine woman or do you think she’s a blackhearted liar and adventuress to boot?”

  “She’s fantastic,” says Pym.

  “You don’t sound convinced. Spit it out, son. She’s our last chance, I’ll tell you that for nothing.”

  “It’s just I wasn’t quite sure why she hadn’t gone to her own people.”

  “You don’t know those Jews the way I do. They’re some of the finest people in the world. There’s others, they’d have the coat off her back as soon as look at her. I asked her the same question. I didn’t pull my punches either.”

  “Who’s Cunningham?” says Pym, barely able to conceal his distaste.

  “Old Cunnie’s first class. I’m bringing him into the business when this is over. Exports and Foreign. He’ll be a tear-away. His sense of humour alone is worth five thousand a year to us. He wasn’t on form tonight. He was tense.”

  “What’s the deal?” says Pym.

  “Faith in your old man, that’s the deal. ‘Rickie,’ she says to me—that’s what she calls me, she doesn’t pull her punches either—‘Rickie, I want you get that box for me, sell the contents and invest the money in one of your fine enterprises, and I want you to take the cares off my shoulders and give me ten percent a year for life for as long as I’m spared, with all the necessary provisions of insurance and endowment if you go before me. I want that money to be yours to see the world right in whatever way you deem in your wisdom.’ That’s a big responsibility, son. If I had a passport I’d go myself. I’d send Syd if he was available. Syd would go. Cattle and pigs. That’s what I’m going to do after this. Just a few acres and some livestock. I’m retiring.”

  “What’s happened to your passport?” said Pym.

  “Son, I’m going to level with you, which I always do. That airy-fairy school of yours are hard bargainers. They want cash and they want it on the due day and that’s it. You speak her language, that’s the point. She likes you. She trusts you. You’re my son. I could send Muspole but I’d never be sure he’d come back. Perce Loft’s too legal. He’d scare her. Now slip to the window and see if that Riley’s gone. Don’t get the light on your face. They can’t come in. They haven’t got a warrant. I’m an honest citizen.”

  Half hidden behind the chipped green filing cabinet, Pym squints steeply downward into the street in covert counter-surveillance. The Riley is still there.

  There are no blankets for the bed so they make do with curtains and dust-sheets. Pym sleeps fitfully and freezes, dreaming of the baroness. Once Rick’s arm falls violently across him, once he is roused by Rick’s strangled voice calling out invective against a bitch called Peggy. And some time in the early hours he feels the soft female weight of Rick’s nether body in silk shirt and underpants backing inexorably against him, which persuades him it is more restful on the floor. In the morning Rick still will not leave the house, so Pym walks alone to Victoria Station carrying his few possessions in a splendid white box-calf suitcase with Rick’s initials in brass underneath the handle. He wears one of Rick’s camel-hair coats though it is too large for him. The baroness, looking more delectable than ever, is waiting on the platform. Mr. Cunningham is there to wave them off. In the train lavatory, Pym opens the envelope Rick gave him and extracts a wad of white ten-pound notes and his first-ever instructions for a clandestine encounter.

  “You are to proceed to Bern and take Rooms at the Grand Palace Hotel. Mr. Bertl the under-manager is first Rate, the Bill is taken care of. Signor Lapadi will Contact the Baroness and guide you to the Austrian border. When Lapadi has given you the Box and you have Confirmed in our Language that it’s all there, see him right with the Enclosed and not until. This is going to be the Saving of us, son. That Money you are Carrying took a lot of earning, but when this is over none of us will ever have to Worry again.”

  I shall be brisk with the operational
details of the Rothschild assignment, Jack—the days of hope, the days of doubt, the sudden leaps from one to the other. And I truly forget which street corners or codewords preceded the slow descent into inconclusion that has been my memory of so many operations since—just as I forget, if I ever knew, in what quantities of skepticism and blind faith Pym pursued his mission to its inevitable end. Certainly I have known operations since that have been mounted on quite as little likelihood of success, and have cost a great deal more than money. Signor Lapadi spoke only to the baroness, who relayed his information with disdain.

  “Lapadi he talk mit his Vertrauensmann, darling.” She smiles indulgently when Pym asks what a Vertrauensmann is. “The Vertrauensmann is man we are trusting. Not yesterday, maybe not tomorrow. But today we are trusting him for ever.”

  “Lapadi he need one hundred pound, darling”—a day or two later—“the Vertrauensmann know a man whose sister know the head from customs. Better he pay him now for friendship.”

  Remembering Rick’s instructions Pym offers token resistance but the baroness already has her hand out and is rubbing her finger and thumb together with delightful insinuation. “You want to paint the house, darling, first you got to buy the brush,” she explains and to Pym’s amazement lifts her skirts to the waist and pops the banknotes into the top of her stocking. “Tomorrow we buy you nice suit.”

  “Gave her the money, son?” Rick roars that night across the Channel. “God in Heaven, what do you think we are? Fetch me Elena.”

  “Don’t shout me, darling,” the baroness says calmly into the telephone. “You got lovely boy here, Rickie. He very strict with me. I think one day he be great actor.”

  “The baroness says you’re first rate, son. Are you talking our language with her out there?”

  “All the time,” says Pym.

  “Have you had an honest-to-God English mixed grill yet?”

  “No, we’re sort of saving it.”

  “Well have one on me. Tonight.”

  “We will, Father. Thanks.”

  “God bless you, son.”

  “And you too, Father,” says Pym politely and, butler-like, keeps his knees and feet together while he puts the phone down.

  More important to me by far are my memories of Pym’s first platonic honeymoon with a wise lady. With Elena beside him, Pym wandered Bern’s old city, drank the light small wines of the Valais, watched thés dansants in the great hotels and consigned his past to history. In scented, frilly boutiques that she seemed to find by instinct, they exchanged her battered wardrobe for fur capes and Anna Karenina riding boots that slithered on the frosty cobble, and Pym’s dismal school habit for a leather jacket and trousers without buttons for his braces. Even in her disarray, the baroness would insist on Pym’s judgment, beckoning him into the little mirrored box to help her choose, and permitting him, as if unknowingly, delicious glimpses of her Rococo charms: now a nipple, now the cup of a buttock carelessly uncurtained, now an amazing shadow at the centre of her rounded thighs as she whisked from one skirt to another. She is Lippsie, he thought excitedly; she is how Lippsie would have been if she hadn’t thought so much of death.

  “Gefall’ ich dir, darling?”

  “Du gefällst mir sehr.”

  “One day you have pretty girl, you talk to her just like this, she go crazy. You don’t think too tarty?”

  “I think perfect.”

  “Okay, we buy two. One for my sister Zsa-Zsa, she my size.”

  A tilt of the white shoulders, a careless pull at a straying hem of lingerie, the bill was brought, Pym signed it and addressed it to the provident Herr Bertl, turning his back on her and crouching forward in order to conceal the evidence of his perturbation. From a jeweller in the Herrengasse they bought a pearl necklace for another sister in Budapest and as an afterthought a topaz ring for her mother in Paris which the baroness would take to her on her way home. And I see that ring now, winking on her freshly manicured finger as she traces a trout back and forth across the fish tank in the grill-room of our grand hotel while the headwaiter stands above her with his net poised to strike.

  “Nein, nein, darling, nicht this one, that one! Ja, ja, prima.”

  It was at one such dinner, in the event their last, that Pym was so moved by love and confusion that he felt obliged to confide to the baroness his intention of leading a monastic life. She put down her knife and fork with a clatter.

  “Don’t tell me no more from monks!” she commanded him angrily. “I see too many of monks. I see monks of Croatia, monks of Serbia, Russia. God He ruin the damn world with monks.”

  “Well, it’s not completely certain,” said Pym.

  It took a lot of funny voices from him, and a lot of intimate fabrications, before the light came cautiously back to her brown eyes.

  “And her name was Lippsie?”

  “Well that’s what we called her. I mustn’t tell you her real name.”

  “And she slept with such a young boy like you? You made love with her so young? She was a whore, I think.”

  “Probably just lonely,” said Pym wisely.

  But her thoughtfulness remained and when Pym as usual saw her to her bedroom door she studied him closely before taking his head between her hands and kissing him on the mouth. Suddenly her mouth opened, Pym’s also. The kiss became intense, he felt an unfamiliar mound plying irresistibly against his thigh. He felt its warmth, he felt soft hair slipping against silk as she pressed more rhythmically. She whispered “Schatz,” he heard a squeak and wondered whether he had hurt her somehow. Her head twisted, her neck pressed against his lips. With confiding fingers she handed him the key to her bedroom door and looked away while he opened it. He found the keyhole, turned the key and held the door for her. He put the key into her palm and saw the light in her eyes fade.

  “So, my dear,” she said. She kissed him, one cheek other cheek, she stared at him as if searching for something she had lost. It was not till next morning that he discovered she had been kissing him goodbye.

  “Darling”—she wrote—“You are good man, got body from Michelangelo but your Papi got bad problems. Better you stay in Bern. Never mind. E. Weber love you always.”

  In the envelope were the gold cufflinks we had bought for her cousin in Oxford, and two hundred of the five hundred pounds that Pym had given her for the invisible Mr. Lapadi. I wear the cufflinks as I write. Gold with tiny diamonds in a crown. The baroness always loved a touch of royalty.

  It was morning at Miss Dubber’s also. Through the closed curtains, Pym heard the milk van clinking on its rounds. Pen in hand he drew a pink file towards him marked simply “R.T.P.,” licked his forefinger and thumb and began methodically turning through the entries until he had extracted some half dozen.

  Copy letter Richard T. Pym to Father Guardian, Lyme Regis, dated 1 October 1948, threatening legal proceedings for the abduction of his son Magnus. (Ex R.T.P.’s files.)

  Memorandum of 15 September 1948, Fraud Squad to Passport Control Department, recommending impounding of R.T.P.’s passport pending criminal investigations in the matter of one J. R. Wentworth. (Obtained informally through Head Office police liaison section.)

  Letter from school bursar to R.T.P. declining to accept either dried fruit, tinned peaches or any other commodity in part or full payment of fees and regretting that the governing board cannot see its way to educating Pym for nothing. “I note also with regret that you refuse to describe yourself as an impecunious parent whose son is destined for the clergy.” (Ex R.T.P.’s files.)

  Furious letter from lawyers representing Herr Eberhardt Bertl, sometime under-manager of the Grand Palace Hotel in Bern, addressed to Colonel Sir Richard T. Pym, D.S.O., one of a succession, demanding payment in the order of eleven thousand and eighteen Swiss francs forty centimes, plus interest at four percent per month. (Ex R.T.P.’s files.)

  Extract from London Chronicle dated November 8, 1949, declaring personal bankruptcy R.T.P., and compulsory liquidation of the eighty-three compa
nies of the Pym empire including, no doubt, The Muspole Friendly & Academic Ltd.

  Extract from Daily Telegraph dated October 9, 1948, recording the death in Truro Hospital, Cornwall, of one John Reginald Wentworth, after a long illness resulting from his injuries, beloved husband to Peggy.

  And a quaint little cutting, culled from God knows where, recording the arrest at sea, on the cruise ship S.S. Grande Bretagne, of the notorious confidence tricksters Weber and Woolfe alias Cunningham, masquerading as the Duke and Duchess of Seville.

  One by one, with a red pen, Pym numbered each document in the top right corner, then entered the same numbers at the appropriate points in his text by way of reference. With a bureaucrat’s neat manners he stapled the exhibits together and inserted them in a file marked “Annexe.” Closing the file he stood up, gave an unrestrained sigh and thrust down his arms behind him like a man slipping off a harness. The ghostly formlessness of adolescence was over. Manhood and maturity beckoned, even if he never made the distance. He was in his beloved Switzerland at last, the spiritual home of natural spies. Crossing to the window he made a last inspection of the square, the tired lights of England fading as he watched. Gravely he undressed, drank a last vodka, gravely took a look at himself in the mirror and prepared to put himself to bed. But lightly, very lightly. Almost on tiptoe. Almost as if he were afraid to wake himself up. On his way he paused at the desk and read again the decoded message that for once he had not bothered to destroy.

  Poppy, he thought, stay exactly where you are.

  7

  Five years ago Jack Brotherhood had shot his Labrador bitch. She was in her basket, rheumatic and shaking; he’d given her the pills but she’d sicked them up, then shamed herself by messing the carpet. And when he threw on his windcheater and took his 12-bore from behind the door, willing her, she looked at him like a criminal because she knew she was finally too sick to find for him. He ordered her to get up but she couldn’t. When he yelled “Seek!” she rolled herself on to her forepaws and lay down again with her head stuck stupidly over the basket. So he put down the gun and got a shovel from the shed and dug her a hole in the field behind the cottage, a bit up the slope with a decent view across the estuary. Then he wrapped her in his favourite tweed jacket and carried her up there and shot her in the back of the head, smashing the spinal cord at the nape, and buried her. After that he sat beside her with a half-bottle of scotch while the Suffolk dew settled itself over him and he decided she had probably had the best death anyone was likely to have in a world not distinguished by good deaths. He didn’t leave a headstone or a coy wood cross for her but he had taken bearings on the spot, using the church tower, the dead willow tree and the windmill, and whenever he passed it by he’d send her a gruff mental greeting, which was as near as he had ever come to pondering on the afterlife, until this empty Sunday morning as he drove through deserted Berkshire lanes and watched the sun lifting on the Downs. “Jack’s had too many miles in the saddle,” Pym had said. “The Firm should have retired him ten years ago.”