Dicky saw my son spill gravy down his shirt and smiled at me pityingly. The Cruyer boys were at boarding school; their parents only saw them at vacation time. It's the only way to stay sane, Dicky had explained to me more than once.
Silas carved into the meat with skilful concentration. There were ooos! and ahhs! from the guests. Dicky Cruyer said it was a 'sumptuous repast' and addressed Silas as 'mine host'. Fiona gave me a blank stare as a warning against provoking Dicky into more such comments.
'Cooking,' said Silas, 'is the an of the possible. The French have been brought up on odds and ends, chopped up and mixed up and disguised with flavoured sauces. I don't want that muck if I can afford some proper food. No one in their right mind would choose it.'
'Try la cuisine nouvelle,' said Daphne Cruyer, who was proud of her French accent. 'Lightweight dishes and each plate of food designed like a picture.'
'I don't want lightweight food,' growled Silas, and brandished the knife at her. 'Cuisine nouvelle!' he said disdainfully. 'Big coloured plates with tiny scraps of food arranged in the centre. When cheap hotel restaurants did it, we called it 'portion control', but get the public-relations boys on the job and it's cuisine nouvelle and they write long articles about it in ladies' magazines. When I pay for good food, I expect the waiter to serve me from a trolley and ask me what I want and how much I want, and I'll tell him where to put the vegetables. I don't want plates of meat and two veg carried from the kitchen by waiters who don't know a herring from a hot-cross bun.'
'This beef is done to perfection, Uncle Silas,' said Fiona, who was relieved that he'd managed to deliver this passionate address without the usual interjected expletives. 'But just a small slice for Sally . . . well-done meat, if that's possible.'
'Good God, woman,' he said. 'Give your daughter something that will put a little blood into her veins. Well-done meat! No wonder she's looking so damned peaky.' He placed two slices of rare beef on a warmed plate and cut the meat into bite-size pieces. He always did that for the children.
'What's peaky?' said Billy, who liked underdone beef and was admiring Silas's skill with the razor-sharp carving knife.
'Pinched, white, anaemic and ill-looking,' said Silas. He set the rare beef in front of Sally.
'Sally is perfectly fit,' said Fiona. There was no quicker way of upsetting her than to suggest the children were in any way deprived. I suspected it was some sort of guilt she shared with all working mothers. 'Sally's the best swimmer in her class,' said Fiona. 'Aren't you, Sally?'
'Get some rare roast beef into your belly,' Silas told her. 'It will make your hair curly.'
'Yes, Uncle Silas,' she said. He watched her until she took a mouthful and smiled at him.
'You're a tyrant, Uncle Silas,' said my wife, but Silas gave no sign of having heard her. He turned to Daphne. 'Don't tell me you want it well done,' he said ominously.
'Bleu for me,' she said. 'Avec un petit peu de moutarde anglaise.'
'Pass Daphne the mustard,' said Silas. 'And pass her the pommes de terre - she could put a bit more weight on. It'll give you something to get hold of,' he told Cruyer, waving the carving fork at him.
'I say, steady on,' said Cruyer, who didn't like such personal remarks aimed at his wife.
Dicky Cruyer declined the Charlotte Russe, having had 'an elegant sufficiency', so Billy and I shared Dicky's portion. Charlotte Russe was one of Mrs Porter's specialities. When the meal was finished, Silas took the men to the billiards room, telling the ladies, 'Walk down to the river, or sit in the conservatory, or there's a big log fire in the drawing room if you're cold. Mrs Porter will bring you coffee, and brandy too if you fancy it. But men have to swear and belch now and again. And we'll smoke and talk shop and argue about cricket. It will be boring for you. Go and look after the children - that's what nature intended women to do.'
They did not depart graciously, at least Daphne and Fiona didn't. Daphne called old Silas a rude pig and Fiona threatened to let the children play in his study - a sanctum forbidden to virtually everyone - but it made no difference; he ushered the men into the billiards room and closed the ladies out.
The gloomy billiards room with its mahogany panelling was unchanged since being furnished to the taste of a nineteenth-century beer baron. Even the antlers and family portraits remained in position. The windows opened onto the lawn, but the sky outside was dark and the room was lit only by the green light reflected from the tabletop. Dicky Cruyer set up the table and Bret selected a cue for himself while Silas removed his jacket and snapped his bright red braces before passing the drinks and the cigars. 'So Brahms Four is acting the goat?' said Silas as he chose a cigar for himself and picked up the matches. 'Well, are you all struck dumb?' He shook the matchbox so that the wooden matches rattled.
'Well, I say - ' said Cruyer, almost dropping the resin he was applying to the tip of his cue.
'Don't be a bloody fool, Dicky,' Silas told him. 'The D-G is worried sick at the thought of losing the banking figures. He said you're putting Bernard in to sort it out for you.'
Cruyer - who had been very careful not to reveal to me that he'd mentioned me to the Director-General - fiddled with his cue to grant himself an extra moment of thought, then said, 'Bernard? His name was put up but I'm against it. Bernard's done his bit, I told him that.'
'Never mind the double talk, Dicky. Save all that for your committee meetings. The D-G asked me to knock your heads together this weekend and try to come up with a few sensible proposals on Monday . . . Tuesday at the latest. This damn business could go pop, you know.' He looked at the table and then at his guests. 'Now, how shall we do this? Bernard is no earthly good, so he'd better partner me against you two.'
Bret said nothing. Dick Cruyer looked at Silas with renewed respect. Perhaps until that afternoon he hadn't fully realized the influence the old man still wielded. Or perhaps he hadn't realized that Silas was just the same unscrupulous old swine that he'd been when he was working inside; just the same ruthless manipulator of people that Cruyer tried to be. And Uncle Silas had always emerged from this sort of crisis smelling of roses, and that was something that Dicky Cruyer hadn't always managed.
'I still say Bernard must not go,' insisted Cruyer, but with less conviction now. 'His face is too well known. Their watchers will be onto him immediately. One false move and we'll find ourselves over at the Home Office, trying to figure out who we can swop for him.' Like'Silas, he kept his voice flat, and contrived the casual offhand tone in which Englishmen prefer to discuss matters of life and death. He was leaning over the table by this time, and there was silence while he put down a ball.
'So who will go?' said Silas, tilting his head to look at Cruyer like a schoolmaster asking a backward pupil a very simple question.
'People who know Brahms Four? People he'll trust?'
'Brahms Four will trust no one,' said Cruyer. 'You know how agents become when they start talking of getting out.' He stood back while Bret Rensselaer studied the table, then without fuss potted the chosen ball. Bret was Dicky's senior but he was letting Dicky answer the questions as if he were no more than a bystander. That was Bret Rensselaer's style.
'Good shot, Bret,' said Silas. 'So none of them have ever met him?' He smoked his cigar and blew smoke at Cruyer. 'Or have I misunderstood?'
'Bernard's the only one who ever worked with him,' admitted Cruyer, taking off his jacket and placing it carefully on the back of an empty chair. 'I can't even get a recent photo of him.'
'Brahms Four.' Silas scratched his belly. 'He's almost my age, you know. I knew him back when Berlin was Berlin. We shared girlfriends and fell down drunk together. I know him the way you only know men you grew up with. Berlin! I loved that town.'
'As well we know,' said Cruyer with a touch of acid in his voice. He cleared the pocket and rolled the balls back along the table.
'Brahms Four tried to kill me at the end of 1946,' said Silas, ignoring Cruyer. 'He waited outside a little bar near the Alexanderplatz and took a shot at me as I was framed against the light in the doorway.'
'He missed?' said Cruyer with the appropriate amount of concern.
'Yes. You'd think even an indifferent shot would be able to hit a big fellow like me, standing full-square against the light, but the stupid bastard missed. Luckily I was with my driver, a military policeman I'd had with me ever since I'd arrived. I was a civilian in uniform, you see - I needed a proper soldier to help me into my Sam Browne and remind me when to salute. Well, he laid into Brahms Four. I think he would have maimed him had I not been there. The corporal thought he'd aimed at him, you see. He was damned angry about it.'
Silas drank a little port, smoked his cigar, and watched my inexpert stroke in silence. Cruyer dutifully asked him what had happened after that.
'The Russkies came running. Soldiers, regimental police, four of them, big peasant boys with dirty boots and unshaven chins. Wanted to take poor old Brahms Four away. Of course, he wasn't called Brahms Four then, that came later. Alexanderplatz was in their sector even if they hadn't yet built their wall. But I told them he was an English officer who'd had too much to drink.'
'And they believed you?' said Cruyer.
'No, but your average Russian has grown used to hearing lies. They didn't believe me but they weren't about to demonstrate a lot of initiative to disprove it. They made a feeble attempt to pull him away, but my driver and I picked him up and carried him out to our car. There was no way the Russians would touch a vehicle with British Army markings. They knew what would happen to anyone meddling with a Russian officer's car without permission. So that's how we brought him back to the West.'
'Why did he shoot at you?' I asked.
'You like that brandy, do you,' said Silas. 'Twenty years in the wood; it's not so easy to get hold of vintage brandy nowadays. Yes - well, he'd been watching me for a couple of days. He'd heard rumours that I was the one who'd put a lot of Gehlen's people in the bag, and his closest friend had got hurt in the roundup. But we talked about old times and he saw sense after a while.' I nodded. That vague explanation was Silas's polite way of telling me to mind my own business.
We watched Bret Rensselaer play, pocketing the red ball with a perfectly angled shot that brought the white back to the tip of his cue. He moved his position only slightly to make the next stroke. 'And you've been running him since 1946?' I said, looking at Silas.
'No, no, no,' said Silas. 'I kept him well away from our people in Hermsdorf. I had access to funds and I sent him back into the East Sector with instructions to lie low. He was with the Reichsbank during the war - his father was a stockbroker - and I knew that eventually the regime over there - Communist or not - would desperately need men with top-level banking experience.'
'He was your investment?' said Cruyer.
'Or, you might say, I was his investment,' said Silas. The game was slower now, each man taking more time to line up his shot as he thought about other things. Cruyer aimed, missed and cursed softly. Silas continued, 'We were both going to be in a position to help each other in the years ahead. That much was obvious. First he got a job with the tax people. Ever wondered how Communist countries first become Communist? It's not the secret police who do the deed, it's the tax collectors. That's how the Communists wiped out private companies: they increased the tax rate steeply according to the number of employees. Only firms with less than a dozen employees had a chance of surviving. When they'd destroyed private enterprise, Brahms Four was moved to the Deutsche Emissions und Girobank at the time of the currency reform.'
Dicky smiled triumphantly at me as he said to Silas, 'And that later became the Deutsche Notenbank.' Good guess, Dicky, I thought.
'How long was he a sleeper?' I asked.
'Long enough,' said Silas. He smiled and drank his port. 'Good port this,' he said, raising his glass to see the colour against the light from the window. 'But the bloody doctor has cut me back to one bottle a month - one bottle a month, I ask you. Yes, he was a sleeper all through the time when the service was rotten with traitors, when certain colleagues of ours were reporting back to the Kremlin every bloody thing we did. Yes, he was lucky, or clever, or a bit of both. His file was buried where no one could get at it. He survived. But, by God, I activated him once we'd got rid of those bastards. We were in bad shape, and Brahms Four was a prime source.'
'Personally?' said Dicky Cruyer. 'You ran him personally'?' He exchanged his cue for another, as if to account for his missed stroke.
'Brahms Four made that a condition,' said Silas. 'There was a lot of that sort of thing at that time. He reported to me personally. I made him feel safer and it was good for me too.'
'And what happened when you were posted away from Berlin?' I asked him.
'I had to hand him over to another Control.'
'Who was that?' I asked.
Silas looked at me as if deciding whether to tell me, but he had already decided; everything was already decided by that time. 'Bret took over from me.' We all turned to look anew at Bret Rensselaer, a dark-suited American in his middle fifties, with fair receding hair and a quick nervous smile. Bret was the sort of American who liked to be mistaken for an Englishman. Recruited into the service while at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, he'd become a dedicated Anglophile who'd served in many European stations before taking over as Deputy Controller of the European Economics desk, which later became the Economics Intelligence Committee and was now Bret's private empire. If Brahms Four dried up as a source, Bret Rensselaer's empire would virtually collapse. Little wonder he looked so nervous.
It was Bret's shot again. He balanced his cue as if checking its weight, then reached for the resin. 'I ran Brahms Four for years on a personal basis, just as Silas had done before me.'
'Did you ever meet him face to face?' I asked.
'No, I never went across to the East, and as far as I know, he never came out. He knew only my codename.' He finally finished with the resin and placed it carefully on the ledge of the scoreboard.
'Which you'd taken from Silas?' I said. 'What you're saying is that you carried on pretending to be Silas.'
'Sure I did,' said Bret, as if he'd intended to make this clear from the start. The only thing field men hate more than a Control change is a secret Control change with a name switch. It wasn't something any desk man would boast about. Bret had still not made his shot. He stood facing me calmly but speaking a little more rapidly now that he was on the defensive. 'Brahms Four related to Silas in a way no newcomer could hope to do. It was better to let him think his stuff was still coming to Silas.' He leaned over the table to make his shot. Characteristically it was faultless and so was his next, but the third pot went askew.
'Even though Silas had gone,' I said, moving aside and letting Silas see the table to choose his shot.
'I wasn't dead!' said Silas indignantly over his shoulder as he pushed past. 'I kept in touch. A couple of times, Bret came back here to consult with me. Frequently I sent a little parcel of forbidden goodies over to him. We knew he'd recognize the way I chose what he liked, and so on.'
'But after last year's big reshuffle he went soggy,' Bret Rensselaer added sadly. 'He went very patchy. Some great stuff still came from him but it wasn't one hundred per cent any more. He began to ask for more and more money too. No one minded that too much - he was worth everything he got - but we had the feeling he was looking for a chance to get out.'
'And now the crunch has come?' I asked.
'Could be,' said Bret.
'Or it could simply be the prelude for another demand for money,' said Silas.
'It's a pretty fancy one,' said Bret. 'A pretty damn complicated way of getting a raise in pay. No, I think he wants out. I think he really wants out this time.'
'What does he do with all this money?' I asked.
'We've never discovered,' said Bret.
'We've never been allowed to try,' said Cruyer bitterly. 'Each time we prepare a plan, it's vetoed by someone at the top.'
'Take it easy, Dicky,' said Bret in that kind and conciliatory tone a man can employ when he knows he's the boss. 'No point in upsetting a darn good source just in order to find he's got a mistress stowed away somewhere or that he likes to pile his dough into some numbered account in Switzerland.'
It was of course Silas who decided exactly how much it was safe to confide to me. 'Let's just say we pay it into a Munich bank to be credited to a publishing house that never publishes anything,' said Silas. If I was going over the wire, they'd make sure I knew only what they wanted me to know. That was the normal procedure; we all knew it.
'Hell, he wants a chance to spend his pay,' I said. 'Nothing wrong with that, is there?'
Silas turned to me with that spiteful look in his eye and said, 'Nothing wrong with that, unless you need the stuff he's sending us. Then there's everything wrong with it, Bernard. Everything wrong with it!' He cleared the pocket and sent the ball down the table with such violence that it rebounded all the way back to him. There was a cruel determination in him; I'd glimpsed it more than once.
'Okay, so you're trying to prove that I'm the only one who can go and talk to him,' I said. 'I guess that's what this friendly little game is all about. Or am I mistaken?' I fixed Silas with my stare and he smiled ruefully.
'You're not the right person,' said Bret unconvincingly. No one else spoke. They all knew I was the right person. This damn get-together was designed to show me the decision was unanimous. Dicky Cruyer touched his lips with the wet end of his cigar but did not put it into his mouth. Bret said, 'It would be like sending in the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards playing "Rule, Britannia!". Brahms Four will be terrified, and rightly so. You'll have a tail from the moment you go over.'
'I don't agree,' said Cruyer. They were talking about me as if I were not present; I had the feeling that this was the sort of discussion that would take place if I went into the bag, or got myself killed.
'Bernard knows his way about over there. And he doesn't have to be there very long - just a talk with him so that we know what's on his mind. And show him how important it is for him to stay in position for a couple of years.'
'What about you, Bernard?' Silas asked me. 'You haven't said much about it.'
'It sounds as if someone will have to go,' I said. 'And someone he knows would have a better chance of getting a straight answer.'
'And,' said Bret apologetically, 'there won't be much time. . . . Is that what you mean?'
Cruyer said, 'We sent a courier over by tour bus last month. He took the regular tourist bus over there and came back as easy as falling off a log.'
'Do they let the tourists from West Berlin get off the bus nowadays?' asked Silas.
'Oh, yes,' said Cruyer, smiling cheerfully. 'Things have changed since your day, Silas. They all visit the Red Army memorial. They even stop off for cakes and coffee - the DDK desperately needs Westmarks. Another good place for a meeting is the Pergamon Museum. Tour buses from the West go there too.'
'What do you think, Bernard?' said Bret. He fidgeted with his signet ring and stared at the table as if interested in nothing but Cruyer's tricky corner shot.
I found their sort of conjecture exasperating. It was the stuff of which long memos are made, the paperwork under which the Department is buried. I said, 'What's the use of my guessing? Everything depends upon knowing what he is doing. He's not a peasant, he's a scholarly old man with an important and interesting job. We need to know whether he's still got a happy marriage, with good friends who make speeches at the birth celebrations of his grandchildren. Or has he become a miserable old loner, at odds with the world and needing Western-style medical care. . . . Or maybe he's just discovered what it's like to be in love with a shapely eighteen-year-old nymphomaniac.'
Bret gave a short laugh and said, 'Two first-class tickets to Rio, and don't spare the champagne.'
'Unless the shapely one is working for the KGB,' I said.
Bret stared at me impassively. 'What would be the best way of 'depositing' someone for this sort of job, Bernard?'
'I certainly wouldn't discuss with you guys the way I'd choose to go over there, except to say I wouldn't want any arrangements made from this end. No documents, no preparations, no emergency link, no local backup - nothing at all. I'd want to do it myself.' It was not the sort of private enterprise that the Department liked to encourage. I was expecting vociferous objections to this proposal, but none came.
'Quite right too,' said Silas.
'And I haven't agreed to go,' I reminded them.
'We leave it to you,' said Silas. The others, their faces only dimly seen in the gloom beyond the brightly lit table, nodded. Cruyer's hands, very white in the glare, crawled across the table like two giant spiders. He played the shot and missed. His mind wasn't on the game; neither was mine.
Silas pulled a face at Cruyer's missed stroke and sipped his port. 'Bernard,' he said suddenly. 'I'd better - ' He stopped mid-sentence. Mrs Porter had entered the room quietly. She was holding a cut-glass tumbler and a cloth. Silas looked up to meet her eyes.
'The phone, sir,' she said. 'It's the call from London.'
She didn't say who was calling from London because she took it for granted that Silas would know. In fact we all knew, or guessed, that it was someone urgently interested in how the discussion had gone. Silas rubbed his face, looked at me, and said, 'Bernard . . . help yourself to another brandy if you fancy it.'
'Thanks,' I said, but I had the feeling that Silas had been about to say something quite different.
Weekends with Uncle Silas always followed the same pattern: an informal Saturday lunch, a game of billiards or bridge until teatime, and a dress-up dinner. There were fourteen people for dinner that Saturday evening: us, the Cruyers, Rensselaer and his girlfriend, Fiona's sister Tessa - her husband away - to partner Uncle Silas, an American couple named Johnson, who were in England buying antique furniture for their shop in Philadelphia, a young trendy architect, who converted cottages into 'dream houses' and was making enough money at it to support a noisy new wife and a noisy old Ferrari, and a red-nosed local farmer, who spoke only twice the whole evening, and then only to ask his frizzy-haired wife to pass the wine.
'It was all right for you,' said Fiona petulantly when we were in the little garret room preparing for bed that night. 'I was sitting next to Dicky Cruyer. He only wants to talk about that beastly boat. He's going to France in it next month, he says.'
'Dicky doesn't know a mainsail from a marlinspike. He'll kill himself.'
'Don't say that, darling,' said Fiona. 'My sister Tessa is going too. And so is Ricky, that gorgeous young architect, and Colette, his amusing wife.' There was a touch of acid in her voice; she wasn't too keen on them. And she was still angry at being shut out of our conference in the billiards room.