Wise as Serpents

I.

Northward up the valley of the Hudson and into that of the Mohawk, Lanny began one of those motor trips in which he combined business with pleasure. He had learned to drive as a boy, and loved the gentle purring of a well-cared-for motor. He enjoyed the variety of landscapes slipping by; his subconscious mind was pervaded by the presence of nature, even while his thoughts were occupied with his personal problems or the destiny of the world. If the mood took him he might turn on the little radio in the car, a combination of inventions by which music could be brought to millions of homes and to travellers on all the world’s highways.

Lanny Budd had learned to enjoy those pleasures of the mind and imagination which cost very little and do no harm to any other person. He had learned to take care of himself in a world that was often dangerous. He had learned what he could do, and tried not to grieve because it wasn’t everything. The world was tough and stubborn and changed very slowly; just now it evidently meant to grow worse before it grew better. Jesus, who had lived in a time not so different, had said to His disciples: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

In the trunk of Lanny’s car was a card-file listing hundreds of paintings with their prices, also a couple of bags containing photographs. He was what the English call a “bagman” and the Americans a “drummer,” but never in either land had there been one so exclusive. He would travel a couple of thousand miles and call upon only half a dozen clients, all of whom had invited him to visit them whenever he could. In each case he had telephoned to make sure the visit would be convenient. He would arrive at a country estate and the servants would carry in his bags; he would spend the night or a week-end, making himself the most acceptable of guests. He would tell about the great ones overseas and what they were doing and saying. He would inspect his host’s art treasures, and would say what he thought with judicious and precise discrimination. He would linger over the last treasure he had purchased for this client, asking how it was “wearing”—meaning whether the client still found pleasure in looking at it. If there was any uncertainty in the tone of the reply, Lanny would say: “You know I could probably get you an offer for it.”

When the time came to settle down to business and tell this client what the bagman or drummer had in mind for him, it would be one special item which Lanny had come upon in some old castle of the Rhineland or château of the Loire country; something that had caused him to exclaim: “This belongs in the Taft collection”—or whatever it might be. Sometimes he would come in his father’s station-wagon, bringing the painting with him; if he came early, ahead of his host, he would make bold to have the butler take down a painting from the head of the staircase and hang the new treasure, so when the host came in there would be a vision of glory hitting him between the eyes.

It was Lanny’s practice to let the work speak for itself; never, never could anyone say that he tried to force a sale or revealed anything but critical impersonality. “Be sure, this work will find a home before I get back to Connecticut.” And the host would know this was true, for money was free in America again; the fortunate few had floods of dividends rolling in, and it was a problem to know what to do with them. If you were collecting old masters and wanted an expert to bring you choice items, you behaved in such a way as to earn his respect: that is, you sat down promptly and wrote a cheque for twenty or forty or possibly a hundred thousand dollars.

All his life Lanny Budd had been learning how to handle the rich and powerful. In earliest childhood he had watched his father and mother doing it. In those days Robbie had been selling the instruments of killing. Generals and cabinet ministers had been the customers, and duchesses and countesses had been flattering and cajoling and “pulling them in,” all for a fee, of course. Early in his twenties, Lanny had discovered his own line; the sums were smaller but the techniques the same, and the psychology of the victims. The excessively rich were as shy as wild birds; everybody was hunting them and they took wing at the least hint of danger. They were abnormally sensitive and had to be handled as if they were made of wet tissue paper. They would absorb flattery like sponges—but only that subtle kind which assured them that they were above flattery. Each client was a separate problem, and love of beautiful art and love of wonderful self were tied up together in a knot of many complications.

II.

The last stage of this tour was Pittsburgh, where Lanny’s friend Harry Murchison made and sold immense quantities of plate glass, and was always interested in the latest news about glass-shattering in Europe. Harry had gained about two pounds avoirdupois every year since the outbreak of the World War, when he had come so near to becoming Lanny Budd’s stepfather. Now he was married to his former secretary, and Lanny never tired of observing the speed and certainty with which American women acquire the social arts. Adella Murchison was now a stately matron, perfectly sure of herself and her leadership in the cultural life of her grimy home city. Lanny had provided her with the lingo of the arts, and every time he came visiting she acquired a fresh supply with which to impress her friends. She was willing to pay generously, and when Harry objected: “Where on earth will you put another painting?” she replied: “I have heard you say that no excursion steamer is ever so crowded that there isn’t room for one more passenger.”

Adella was at their place in the Adirondacks, and Harry said: “I have got me the wings of a dove and I fly to my beloved every week-end.” He invited Lanny to come along, and when Lanny explained that he had an urgent engagement in Washington, his friend countered: “I’ll deliver you in Washington on Monday morning before I come back here.” When Lanny asked about his car, Harry offered to have a man drive it to Washington. When the rich want something, they get it.

Harry’s dove proved to be a comfortably equipped private plane with seats for a pilot and three passengers. It rose from the Pittsburgh airfield just after business hours and settled gently down on the Lake Placid airfield before sundown. Harry’s secretary had phoned to announce their coming, and Adella was waiting, driving the car herself; they wound through pine forests laden with pungent odours and came to what was called a “camp,” a quite sumptuous slab-sided mansion on a remote little lake. They supped on a platter of fried black bass which had been swimming in those blue waters a couple of hours previously. The couple plied their visitor with questions—Harry about the prospects for more glass-shattering in Europe, and Adella about the friends he had met and the paintings he had discovered on that unhappy but interesting old continent.

Presently it came out that the Murchisons had seen a play about Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and Lanny perceived that Adella’s imagination had been captured by the brilliant and wilful figure of the queen’s lover. “I can tell you where you can get a portrait of his wife,” remarked Lanny, “the unfortunate Amy Robsart. She was married when they were both mere children, and she was killed by falling down a flight of stairs. There were whispers that somebody had thrown her down, as a means of freeing her husband to marry the queen.”

“Is it a good painting?” asked the plate-glass lady.

“The painters of that time were none of them of the best. This is supposed to be the work of Marc Gheeraerts, whom the English call ‘Garrard.’ I am not sure if the attribution is justified, but it’s an interesting work. The painter was apparently more concerned with the subject’s elaborately jewelled clothes than with her character. All those Tudor ladies were so stiff in their corsets that it is hard for us to imagine them as having any life.”

“Where is the painting?”

“It is at Sandhaven Castle. The owner’s wife is Rosemary, my old flame; they neither of them care much about paintings, and every time Bertie gets into debt she invites me to tea and brings the conversation around to the price of old masters.”

So it was that Lanny carried on his business, having a card-file of paintings and another of customers, and matching a card from one with a card from another. Adella lit up right away; she had met Rosemary Codwilliger, pronounced Culliver, and had driven by the castle, and now she asked questions about both, and then about the unfortunate Amy Robsart. Lanny said: “You can read all about her in Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth.” He knew that this would make a hit, because Adella liked to have stories about her pictures, things that she could use to interest and impress people.

“What do you think it could be bought for?” she wanted to know, and he told her he hadn’t asked for a price, but his guess would be something less than a thousand pounds.

“I’d better not cable, because that might sound as if you were anxious. I am sailing for England at the end of the week and I’ll pay a call on Rosemary and take a stroll along the gallery and lead up to the subject tactfully. The Robsart family was connected with Bertie’s—I don’t remember just how and he probably doesn’t either.”

“You have sold us so many men,” remarked Adella, referring to her two Goyas and her double Velásquez suspected of being a del Mazo. “It’s time you got me a woman. Is she really pretty?”

“Sweet and rather pathetic,” replied the subtle expert. “I’ll send you a photograph, and you can decide whether you’d like to have the lady in your home.”

So it was that Lanny made money for the underground movement against the Nazis in Germany. So also it was that Adella made sure of receiving visits from a charming man who lightened the smoke-laden atmosphere of that city where she had been born and had raised herself from far down in the social heap to the very top.

III.

Set down at the Washington airport on Monday morning, Lanny got busy on the telephone and gave the password. “Gus” told him to call again at noon, and when he did so the order was to be at a certain street corner at a quarter to ten that evening. It happened to be raining, and Lanny with overshoes and umbrella stood watching the speeding traffic, standing back far enough from the kerb so as not to be too badly spattered. A car drew up, and the President’s bodyguard looked out and nodded.

“Not a very good night,” Lanny remarked as he stepped in. The other replied: “I’ll say!”—and that was all the conversation. They rolled up Pennsylvania Avenue, and into the “social door” of the hundred-and-forty-year-old building which had housed all the Presidents of the United States but the first. At the gate there was apparently no guard; at the door, which is the main front door under the white pillars, the guard looked at Gus and said: “Hello.” Avoiding the elevator, they went up a flight and a half by a rather narrow, red- carpeted staircase. An aged Negro servitor passed them, saying: ‘‘Evenin’, Mista Gus.” They stopped at one of the doors which was ajar; Gus tapped gently, and that warm voice which all the world had learned to know over the radio called: “Come in.”

The President was lying in bed, wearing pyjamas of blue pongee, covered by a knitted blue sweater, crew-neck style. His head was propped up, with a reading lamp at his left shoulder and a “whodunit” lying on the sheet which covered him. “Good evening,” he said to his visitor, not naming him; then, to the other man: “Thank you, Gus.” As the man started to retire, the President added: “Close the door, please.”

So the two conspirators were alone. Lanny took the chair by the bedside, and the other coughed slightly and reached for his handkerchief. “I am supposed to have a cold,” he said. “I am growing suspicious of my subconscious mechanism, for I notice that I develop the sniffles whenever I have a tiresome schedule like to-day.”

“I hope I am no part of the cause,” replied Lanny, grinning.

“You are what I wanted to be free for. Have you had time to think about the subject of our talks?”

“I have been motoring most of the time, and I’ve thought about it constantly.”

“Needless to say, Lanny, I haven’t had that much time; but I have made notes of several things I want to ask about.”

“Shoot!” replied the other; and without further preliminaries they got down to business.

Said F.D.R.: “There has grown up a practice on the part of our leading American industrialists to make secret deals with the big European cartels, whereby they share one another’s processes and inventions upon a strict monopoly basis. It appears from the social point of view a highly undesirable practice. I am not sure what I can or should do, but it seems clear that with wars threatening as they are, the government ought to get all possible information on the subject. Do you happen to know about it?”

“I have heard my father discussing it with his friends and associates. I know that such deals have been made with I. G. Farben Industrie and with A.E.G., the great electrical trust of Germany. I have been told that the du Ponts have such arrangements, also a prominent lead company and Standard Oil of New Jersey, I believe having to do with artificial rubber.”

“I am not proposing that you should do detective work,” explained the President. “That is the business of our Intelligence, and usually they get what they go after. But often we can save a lot of time and wasted effort if we know where the big booty is hidden and where to start digging. A casual remark dropped by one of the insiders may be worth more than tons of documents.”

“Quite so,” replied the other. “I have heard such remarks, and could easily make note of them. My father talks to me freely and tells me what this or that one has told him. I could be present on such occasions; the only reason I haven’t is that I am bored by talks about making money, even in the biggest amounts.”

“Do you intend to tell your father about these meetings with me?”

“I plan not to tell anyone, even my wife. It wouldn’t do any good, and the wisest and most loyal person might drop some hint by accident. In the case of my father, he is very bitter against your policies: income taxes in the higher brackets, and what he called ‘doles,’ and your ‘court-packing’—a long list. Just now the C.I.O. has got into his plant and is threatening a sit-down strike, and that makes him sore as the devil. If I told him I had met you, it would be the occasion of a long discourse, every word of which I already know by heart. My father is a kind and generous man, and has a sense of humour; you, Governor, would find him very good company, if only it weren’t for politics and your threatening his control over what he considers his private affairs.”

“It is something I have often observed,” remarked the “Governor” with a sad smile; “the conservatives have the best manners and are the easiest to get along with.”

“I have speculated about it. They have everything they want, whereas the advocates of social change are apt to be fanatical and narrow, and sometimes motivated by jealousy, one of the meanest of qualities. The conservative has a whole community behind him and he obeys its rules; that makes for serenity and pleasant feelings. The radical, on the other hand, has to make his own rules; he makes many mistakes, and tries his own temper as well as other people’s.”

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