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.
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