Secret Police

“Geoffrey Household,”writes Orville Prescott in the New York TIMES, “is an Englishman who has lived almost as adventurous a life as his imaginary heroes. No wonder his tales are colorful. What is more, they are immensely readable .”Mr. Household is the author of ROGGE MALE and WATCHER IN THE SHADOWS,and his latest novel, OLURA,has been gaining new readers here and abroad.

A Story by GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD

HE WAS shabby even for a passenger who had worn for two weeks the same creased suit of semitropical clothes down in the immigrant accommodation of the M.S. Patagonia. He was aware that he had aroused the fury of a large and nationally important shipping line. And his passport was out of date.

“If you would be so good as to accompany me to my office, sir —" the port security officer invited.

Mr. Bernard Vasey came willingly enough, accepting a chair and a cigarette in the manner of a man who had a clean conscience and was superbly indifferent to his appearance. He managed it by forcing himself to remember that he was more accustomed to give orders to minor officials than to receive them.

“My passport is sufficient proof of British nationality, ” he said. “I am under no obligation to have it stamped merely to land in the United Kingdom.”

The port security officer made no comment except to ask why he had not had his passport renewed by the British consul nearest to his place of residence.

“He was seven hundred miles away.”

“Why did you not attend to it at Pernambuco before you embarked?”

“Because the Patagonia was due to sail.”

“Would you care to account for the fact that when the Patagonia called at Vigo you endeavored to remain in Spain illegally?”

“Any complaint from General Franco?”

“After you had paid your fare at Pernambuco you had little or no money left. Yet when you were forcibly escorted on board by Vigo police, it would appear that you had acquired a considerable sum.”

“I won it at cards.”

Bernard Vasey was conscious that his answer sounded weak. He felt embarrassed about that card session. He feared that he might be looking guilty and tried to regain the initiative.

“Inspector, you have undoubtedly been asked to grill me by a very angry shipping line,” he said, slightly raising his heavy eyebrows. “I question whether you are not exceeding your duty. And in any case you will not uncover any criminal activities.”

“Your third-class cabin was filled with flowers, bottles of wine, and other articles of value,” continued the security officer, unmoved.

“I declared them.”

“Where did they come from?”

“From friends.”

That seemed to shut him up. There was, after all, no reason why a poor third-class passenger should not have rich friends. What about students? But now this obstinate official, after drawing a blank with this nonsense about money, was off again.

“I see from your passport that you were in Cuba shortly before the revolution.”

“I was. A holiday. Why not?”

“Your political sympathies are left-wing?”

“My political sympathies vary, Inspector. From a business point of view I like to be on the winning side. On the other hand, the sight of desperate poverty does occasionally—Oh, Lord, I see! Cuba! Has something been passed to you by our consul in Vigo?”

“I cannot disclose sources of information, sir.”

MR.VASEY was at last perturbed. He had not returned to his own country for some years. To judge by newspaper reports — though he told himself that they always exaggerated — it was less free and easy than it had been. Possibly there were ways in which officials could make themselves quietly unpleasant to suspected Communists. He was confident that he could remake a satisfactory future for himself, but perhaps not easily with a question mark against his name.

“I shall have to explain,” he said. “I’m afraid I didn’t think it essential. To start from the beginning: having been offered free air passage from up-country to Pernambuco —”

“By whom?”

“By Brazilian police. Politics, not crime. My God, not what you mean by politics! It was just that I was aware of certain disreputable secrets in the private life of our newly elected state attorney.

I had no intention of spilling them, but he couldn’t take the risk. You wouldn’t take it yourself, Inspector, if you, for example — well, I mean — well, of course, such a thing is quite unthinkable.

“On arrival at Pernambuco I had just enough money to buy my passage home. The voyage dragged, as voyages do when one is unable to use the bar. Fortunately, third-class passengers are provided with free wine at meals. An insurance, no doubt, against the scandal of suicide.

“When the Patagonia called at Vigo two days ago, I resented my poverty more than ever. I had an old and precious friend in that city. His true name and responsibilities I shall conceal. Let us call him Don Alonso.”

“If I am to give any credence to your story, sir,

I shall require names and addresses.”

“Well, you won’t get them!” replied Vasey, his spirit momentarily restored by the thought of his old friend.

“Together with processions and descriptions,” the port security officer went on, ignoring him.

“I’ll be delighted to give you a description if it’s any good to you. Eyes, brown and generally laughing. Nose, classical. Let me see. Yes! About my size. Short upper lip. Mouth, thin and mobile. But since you aren’t likely to meet him, all you need to know is that his charm and efficiency have very rightly promoted him to a position where he is below the lieutenant governor of the province but considerably above — if I may say so without offense — the port police.

“Dressed as I was and so obviously destitute, I refused to go ashore and call on Alonso. I contented myself with leaning over the rail and unkindly watching the importunities of guides, curio sellers, restaurant runners, and taxi drivers as they attacked the first-class passengers.

“The noble people of Spain, Inspector, despise foreigners in the mass; from such pitiable objects one may extract money without demeaning oneself. But when a foreigner presents himself as an individual, he is considered to share the common sorrows of humanity. In remembering that, I began to feel ashamed of myself.

“I saw that all through that morning of melancholy sulking I had been putting pride before friendship. Alonso had never hesitated to call on me in days when he had nothing but a horse of doubtful ownership and the clothes he rode in. That was in Nicaragua. Though an alien, he could not resist dabbling in politics. At the time it seemed to me folly. But when he returned home to Spain, his experience proved invaluable.

“This debate within myself went on far too long before warmth and decency overcame the unsuspected Joneses in my character. I did what little I could to improve my appearance and set out for Alonso’s office. Fortunately it was hot enough to carry my coat, and my shirt was clean.

“Even so, the porter was not impressed and conducted me to a waiting room where the applicants for government attention were of the humblest. But my card at least was of virginal whiteness. I had some hope that it would reach Alonso’s desk. It did. Do you know the Spanish people. Inspector?”

“No, sir. They give very little trouble.”

“I only asked so as to know how much I must explain. There’s a grain of truth in most of the exaggerations, good or bad, which everyone has heard about them, and I think many of these myths derive from the splendor with which they give their hearts when they give them at all.

“Alonso shot out of his office sparkling with exclamations of welcome. He cleared up the affairs of the day with the decisions and efficiency of a Spaniard in a hurry, and took me out to lunch.

I had wasted too much time in hesitation. It was then two o’clock, and the Patagonia was due to sail in the early afternoon.

“From the terrace of our restaurant we could see her clearly — a fine twenty-five thousand tons of speed and luxury moored at the ocean quay. At quarter past three her siren roared a warning, and I regretfully pushed back my chair though we had only reached the fish. Alonso told me to sit down and stop fussing. The ship, he said, would not leave till after four. I assumed that he was in a position to know.

“There was now time to tell him something of my future plans and my sudden and disastrous expulsion from Brazil —”

“Would you care to repeat those facts to me, sir — very shortly?”

“I would not, Inspector. To you as an Englishman my story would appear most unlikely, whereas to Alonso it was obviously and instantly true. You are accustomed here to politicians who do not take their profession seriously enough to be corrupt.

“We had reached the comfortable stage of the cigars when the agent of the line joined us in the restaurant. He had been waiting for my friend at his office and had only just discovered his whereabouts. He begged Alonso to intervene with the chief of customs, who was holding up the Patagonia on a serious and complicated charge of inaccuracy in the ship’s manifest.

“Alonso provided him with coffee and a brandy and asked for details. It appeared that crates of sheet rubber at Vigo did not correspond to their proper weight and description. The customs suspected them of containing arms. They had been shipped from Pernambuco.”

Bernard Vasey looked at the port security officer and was satisfied by his reaction. His account of the agent’s interruption into lunch was quite true except for one detail. The crates had in fact been shipped from Rio. But he had noticed that his interrogator was allowing his attention to wander; it was essential that he should be convinced that every word was worth hearing. For that reason Vasey deliberately injected the mention of Pernambuco, and was gratified to watch the expressionless face across the desk become even more expressionless.

“Alonso at once sprang to attention, eager as always to help the underdog in any clash with officialdom. He cursed the customs and said that they were inclined to see bogeys under their beds; their informants were the dregs of the port and notoriously unreliable. He implored the agent not to be impatient with his country’s bureaucracy. It must be allowed to look ridiculous sometimes. That was the price a businessman had to pay for orderly government. He could not intervene, but since the matter could be said to concern the security of the state, at least he had the power to order the political branch of the police to investigate at once; they would see that the ship was not delayed a moment longer than was necessary to clear up this ridiculous rumor.

“I was very sorry that my friend should be drawn into all this, but it was luck for me. When the agent had left and Alonso had made a long telephone call to his office, we drove to his delightful bachelor home on the shore of the inner harbor, where we passed an hour or more with a swim, cool drinks in the shade, and the exclamatory conversation of old friendship. I was no longer anxious when I heard the distant bellowing of the Patagonia, for Alonso was in continual touch with her. He said that there might even be time — knowing the customs — for us to dine before the ship sailed. Anyway, he had asked a few friends out to meet me.

“Meanwhile his valet had been giving skilled attention to this suit, still spotted by the mildew of the rain forests and the nourishing soup of the Patagonia —”

“You said this friend of yours was about your size, Mr. Vasey?”

“Near enough. Slightly broader shoulders and less backside.”

“Why did he not lend you a coat of his own for this party?”

“That, Inspector, would have been an indelicacy. It would have shown that he had noticed and was ashamed.

“I was about to speak, I believe, of the party. There were two girls and one man. I will describe the man first, distinguishing him by the name of Juan. He had some connection with the family, and was undoubtedly a political boss and Alonso’s protector in high places. He must have been in his early fifties and looked it, though at the moment on holiday. He was a formidable fellow, somewhat like a frog — yellow and wrinkled with bags under his eyes. It was clear that he had often heard of me from Alonso.

“The girls were charming. When Spanish women get away from mother, Inspector, they are inclined to increase the distance rapidly. Frasquita was a poetess in a small way and descended from everybody who had ever mattered. Her real claims to distinction, however, were delicately physical. Luisa was a secretary in Alonso’s office. To the simple taste of a wider public she might have appeared a trifle severe in type. But a tiny waist and high intelligence amply compensated for what I may call her white-collar qualities—”

“If you would come to the point, Mr. Vasey. I am quite ready to assume that there was a mixed party.”

“I fear my story is still some pleasant hours away from its point, Inspector, but I will pass over them as quickly as I can. Meanwhile, let us not forget those twenty-five thousand tons of Patagonia, frantically calling on the British consul for help, radioing her home port, and subject to the inquisitions of what liberals call a police state and authoritarians a benevolent dictatorship. To make matters worse, the Patagonia cherished in her luxury suite the managing director of the line, impatient as any other tycoon returning from holiday.

“In order not to delay the ship, Alonso had cut right through all red tape and simply ordered the dubious crates to be hoisted back on board; they could be unloaded, after giving the customs time for reflection, two weeks later when the Patagonia called again at Vigo on her outward voyage to the Americas.

“I am surprised that the line did not accept that very reasonable solution. Perhaps it wished to and couldn’t. The managing director may have been determined to impress both his wife and his captain by a display of obstinacy. The customs may have complained that Alonso had no right to order any such thing.

“However it was, we had another visit from the distracted agent. Alonso was once more as helpful as a civil servant could be. He waived all formalities and said that of course the crates could be unloaded again if the agent could rustle up some dock labor to handle them at that late hour. No doubt a foreman and a gang could be found in the taverns. He guaranteed that the Port Authority and the Workers’ Syndicate would have no objection. But he offered the assistance of his police. Everything possible would be done to help the Patagonia out of the mess which those nitwits who called themselves customs officers had made.

“I could not help feeling sorry for the ship, Inspector, though my interest, as a mere passenger in the slave hold, was limited. All those first-class passengers, those pointedly virile officers in white and gold, those staterooms with private balconies, those lounges and bars which my imagination — for I hadn’t seen them — clothed most gloriously with paneling and tapestries! All that urgent cargo for which you here had booked the cranes, the labor, and the transport! When one thinks of the expense of it all and the charges for demurrage, one asks oneself—at least I do — whether the line should not have handed over some vast guarantee and cleared the ship. But Latins can be difficult when they stick to the letter of the law.

“It began to look as if I might be able to stay to dinner, though in Spain that meal is seldom taken before ten. Meanwhile the five of us settled down to a game of poker—”

“Assuming that your story is true, Mr. Vasey, how did you sit down to poker with no money in your pocket?”

“Alonso financed me, Inspector. I had flatly refused to take a loan from him or any assistance whatever, for I wouldn’t have him think that I had come ashore for that purpose. But I could hardly sit watching the game like an empty jukebox. Politeness compelled me to accept a stake.”

“It was at this game that you claim you won?”

“I did. At the time I put it down to being somewhat more sober than Alonso and Juan. I now think that unlikely. Indeed, I am regrettably certain that Alonso had arranged that they should lose to me whenever it could be done without arousing my suspicion.

“That was all the easier since our rules were complicated. The two ladies were playing strip poker when they lost, and for money when they won. It worked out to the general satisfaction. Luisa, for example, holding a full house against Juan’s four twos, raised him with all her cash winnings and continued to raise him on the alternative terms. Since she was a respectable secretary, the position, though not without its piquancy, was embarrassing. On the next hand we all threw in to her pair of kings, and thenceforth could reasonably consider her heightened color to be due to Alonso’s flow of liquor.

“I had just cleaned up a jackpot of fifteen thousand pesetas, and the poetess was looking charmingly like Botticelli’s Aphrodite — a picture, Inspector, but you will have found variations of the same theme on confiscated postcards — when Alonso was called to the telephone. He came back folding and unfolding his hands—his favorite gesture when life was getting him down — and said that we should have to leave to catch the Patagonia. He apologized to me and to us all. When I asked him why the devil he should feel it was his fault, he replied that the fact was — but this is so important that I will give you the ensuing conversation in direct speech, translating freely but with scrupulous accuracy.

“ ‘The fact is, Bernardo, that she can’t sail till I allow it,’ he explained, ‘but I have now run out of excuses for holding her. And here we are sitting down to a really promising evening with dinner nearly ready! Why do British lines have to be so infernally correct that one can’t get anything on them?’

“ ‘The hell they’re correct!’ Juan said (he must have been a brilliant administrator; he didn’t even have to stop and think). ‘I understand that there is a passenger missing from the Patagonia.’

“ ‘That wouldn’t stop her sailing without him,’ Alonso replied.

“ ‘We should have a case if he were a very undesirable immigrant. Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ he asked, turning on me fiercely.

“The bags under his eyes were frightening. They filled out when he was interrogating a suspect. I said I had nothing to do with Communism. For the moment I took him quite seriously. I was still trying to adjust myself to the revelation that all the Patagonia’s troubles had been engineered by Alonso.

“ ‘Have you ever been in Cuba?’

“ ‘Not since Castro. I was there a few weeks before.’

“‘A few weeks before!’ Juan exclaimed. ‘Did you hear that, Alonso? He is probably responsible for the whole thing. We can’t have a dangerous revolutionary of that sort loose in Spain. Hold the ship until the police find him!’

“ ‘I still don’t see how I can, Juan.’

“ ‘Have they reported a passenger missing?’

“ ‘No, they haven’t.’

“ ‘Deliberately permitting the escape of a political, Alonso?’

“ ‘It demands the closest investigation. I will hold the captain personally responsible. Or should it be the purser?’

“‘Damned if I know! Let Port Police sort it out!’

“ ‘What about the British consul, Juan?’

“ ‘What about him? Order someone with imagination to call on him at once and whisper “Cuba” loudly! Tell him that it is absolutely essential that the fellow be found and put on board the Patagonia. We don’t want to have to shoot him. Your deal, Frasquita, and remember what Bernardo told you about never drawing to the middle of a straight.’

“Inspector, it was dawn when the police found me wandering in the sort of street to which a drunk would naturally gravitate. After repeatedly embracing me, Alonso and Juan had turned me out of their car onto the pavement. They apologized for the unavoidable indignity and assured me that the police had orders to treat me with respect when I was picked up. In fact, they continued to apologize in such loud voices that windows were opening, and I had to beg them to drive off before they were compromised.

“Five minutes later I was asked for my papers by two unpleasant individuals in plain clothes. They arrested me triumphantly. I was hardly treated with respect. Firm but genial contempt for an intoxicated barbarian was the general tone. From the police station I was marched on board the Patagonia.

“There under the British flag the flow of language was regrettable. The jurisdiction of the ship’s masters is extensive, but they do not take advantage of it, Inspector, to prosecute their officers for public obscenity. My cabin door was locked upon me and only opened when we were safely at sea. That was well into the morning. Naturally the port offices had to open before the ship could be cleared.”

“Very interesting, Mr. Vasey. And the presents?”

“Oh, the presents! Yes, the presents. I can’t help feeling that without them the line might never have recommended that you should grill me. They would have written me off as just another irresponsible drunk who had missed his ship and aroused suspicion. But the presents were the last straw.

“Just before the Patagonia sailed, they had all been deposited in the first class, outside the purser’s office. Such delightful baskets! Such ribbons in the red and yellow of Spain! The purser naturally assumed that they were intended for the managing director of the line, and delivered them to his stateroom. So when the director had read and with difficulty believed the name to which all this film-star loot was addressed, insult was added to demurrage.

“My cabin was unlocked to admit a procession of grinning stewards who deposited the stuff on the opposite bunk, fortunately empty. Alonso must have ordered the lot well beforehand, but I have no doubt at all that it was Juan, still in an expansive mood and with the hangover yet to come, who insisted on the cards bearing the inscription: Comrade Bernardo Vasey, from his international admirers.

“May I catch my train now, Inspector?”