Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 15

Gambling at Sea

Early August, 1936

The Seydlitz family, minus Erich, had hardly returned to America when the story of the exploding warehouse appeared in the papers. The "Fifth Column" implications of the explosion were played up, and the more erudite papers mentioned the Cross of Fire. Klaus jumped quickly to the conclusion that Charlotte was involved, but showed her one of the articles without comment. Her reaction was extreme, and largely confirmed him in his view. Neither of them mentioned the matter explicitly, but Klaus returned to France immediately to see what could be done.

Erich had moved from their hotel, and Klaus was able to find him only through Therese. Therese herself was willing to say,

"The magnitude of the explosion amazed me, and could have killed many people. But, anyway, the problem was well and truly solved. I don't have any regrets about the Cross of Fire leader."

"The papers said something about a boy being killed as well."

"He was with us. He's perfectly well. But all of this must sound crazy to you."

"It all started with a school paper I encouraged my young cousin to write. Then, things went out of control in all directions."

"How is Charlotte now?"

"Very upset. I'm sure she'll never do anything like that again."

"I hope she also gives up rightest politics."

"She's given me power of attorney to close the bank accounts that were funding the Cross of Fire."

"That's a good start, certainly."

"She's now staying with her aunt Chalice in Philadelphia. Chalice is a brilliant and sensible woman, and I'm hoping that her influence will help."

"Well, then, everything may turn out for the best. But you'd better do something about Erich. He doesn't have the makeup for this sort of thing."

"Did he do badly?"

"Not entirely. He did some things very well. But he isn't very steady, and he can't seem to put it behind him."

Therese's description of Erich, who was virtually in hiding, turned out to be an understatement. He was very much in fear of being prosecuted for the murder of Billotte, and wanted only the money to pay for a ticket back to America. Klaus put him on the train that very day.

In the next few days, Klaus cleaned out the bank accounts, which had more money in them than he had guessed. He then conferred with Therese and her father concerning the military railway plans. Two weeks later, they reached the point where anything further could be done by correspondence. All three Brossards saw Klaus off on the train to catch the ship.

On board the ship, a French one this time, Klaus found himself rather shunned by the people with whom he was seated at dinner. It hardly surprised him. They belonged to fashionable Parisian society, and, of course, his accent alone was enough to alienate them. Not seeing why he should have to suffer their presence three times daily for five days, he went to the head dining room steward to have his table changed.

The head steward spoke excellent colloquial English, and turned out to be the sort of happily cynical Frenchman Klaus liked best. When Klaus put his case in his usual way, the other stopped him half way through and replied,

"So we've seated you with some pretentious pills. Unfortunately, we're pretty full and there aren't many openings."

"If possible, I'd like to sit with some fairly ordinary quiet people."

"There aren't many of those on board an ocean liner, but I could put you with the lepers. Their kind of leprosy isn't catching, and I think you might find them amusing."

Klaus laughed and asked for details. The other replied,

"As you probably know, there are professional gamblers who spend their lives on liners fleecing the passengers. There are also women who operate in a number of ways. We know who they are, but they've never murdered anyone, or even stolen anything of value. It's not worth the effort to try to drive them off the ships, but we do sit them all together apart from the rest. That deprives them of their easiest and best opportunity to meet other passengers. How would you like to sit with them."

"I'd be delighted. They sound like a vast improvement."

"You can hint to them that I told you about them in advance. Then they won't try to lure you into any games."

He then added as an afterthought,

"I do hope you're not the sort who thinks he can beat gamblers at their own game."

"No, not in the least. Neither will I warn people against them. But it'll be interesting to watch."

During the long afternoon steaming down the channel, Klaus sat on deck and thought about Charlotte. In the end, he decided that a large part of the problem was that he had known so little about women when he met Charlotte, and was still not much wiser.

Going in to dinner, Klaus fell in with his table-mates from lunch, and was gratified to see that they ignored him, thus making explanations unnecessary. In his present mood, however, he wasn't displeased at the thought that they might be put out when they saw that he had abandoned them. Much as they might have wished to get rid of him, he sensed that they would have preferred to be the ones doing the ridding.

When he was guided to his new table by the steward, he found it empty. However, he had hardly sat down when it was necessary to stand up again. Two young women who looked like movie actresses, one blonde in a blue evening gown and the other dark in a maroon gown, were approaching the table. They were followed by two men in correct evening costume, a middle-aged one who looked like a corporation president and a young sun-tanned one with the look of a professional athlete. The leper table, it seemed, was far more glamorous than any other in the large room.

As the others sat down and they introduced themselves, Klaus got some smiles, brilliant enough to be professional, but also some sharp looks. The others, he realized, were trying to work out whether he was another gambler they hadn't met, or a potential customer. Klaus remarked easily,

"The steward said some of you play cards. I don't myself, but I was seated with some very stuffy people. He said you were much better company."

There was general laughter, and the older man, known as "Nick," replied,

"We don't always travel together on the same ships, but we work out an arrangement on the first day, even if we aren't already acquainted."

The blonde woman, Lily, added,

"The steward thinks he's causing us difficulty by seating us alone together, but, in some ways, it's more convenient. We do better by co-operating, and we worked everything out at lunch today."

Klaus, still in his extremely odd mood, pointed out and described the people who had hardly spoken to him at lunch. He then said,

"I wouldn't be at all unhappy to see them enter into a game of chance, particularly if they found it expensive."

There was again some laughter, and then some serious questions. Klaus replied,

"They're Parisians, and I'd say that they must be at least moderately wealthy. Of course, I'm no expert on jewelry."

There were then some looks at George, the younger man, and a throaty laugh from Nadine, the brunette. Klaus gathered that George knew a great deal about jewelry, but Nick said, looking rather hard at George,

"If any jewelry did disappear, we'd be hounded off the ships very quickly."

George acquiesced easily enough as he looked sideways at the Parisians, two couples in early middle age. He then replied,

"The woman on the right thinks she's wasted on the others."

Klaus hadn't noticed it when he was with them, but he could now see that it was true. One of the women, perhaps forty, was noticeably more attractive than the others in the group. She also had a petulant look when her husband spoke to her. Nick spoke to George,

"It would be better if you detached her as nearly in front of her husband as possible. Who will then console the husband?"

The others looked at Nadine and Lily, and they looked questioningly at one another. While they might have been the same age, not much over twenty, Lily, small boned and light in complexion, looked quite innocent. In less sophisticated clothing and without make-up, she could probably have passed for seventeen. Nadine, with her beautiful wide face and broad shoulders, looked as if she could slam a tennis ball from any angle or swim powerfully through the surf. In fact, she looked as if she went with George while Lily could easily have been Nick's daughter. After a moment, Nadine said, more to Lily than the others,

"He's certainly no prize, but let's try it together. He can choose, and then the one of us that's left can detach the other man."

Nick replied,

"I can probably manage both men at once if it comes to that."

Klaus gathered that the women attracted men, and, when they introduced them to their "father" or "distinguished friend," the men gambled heavily to show off to the women. He supposed that Nick employed the classic strategy of losing at first until the stakes were raised.

During the rest of the meal, they talked, surprisingly enough, of art. Only Nick was really knowledgeable, but he was, Klaus soon came to understand, the spiritual leader of all the gamblers on the ships. The others tried to keep up, and Klaus was asked extensively about the latest show at the Musee d'Art Moderne. At one point, Nick said,

"I sometimes take a week between voyages in Paris or London, but, even so, I don't see as much as I'd like."

Nadine, next to Klaus, said to him,

"The rich often aren't very sophisticated, but they're impressed if we know more than they do about art and music."

When the Parisians got up to leave, the three young people gobbled the rest of their deserts and followed them. Nick invited Klaus to remain for brandy, and moved over next to him. When Nick asked him what his business was, Klaus replied,

"I'm a railway investor in America. I spend most of my time examining particular railways from the track on up."

"I used to be a chemist. I made some minor discoveries, including one that still has some industrial applications. I have no real need to do this, but I like the ships, and, oddly enough, I take more solid satisfaction in a good voyage than in anything else I've ever done."

"I imagine there's quite a lot of excitement and suspense."

"Of yes. The others love it, too. Nadine and Lily are working their way through college. Neither comes from the sort of family that sends its daughters to college, but they're both quite smart, and this supplements their scholarships. We share equally in the winnings."

"Does George also go to college?"

"No. George has an entirely different sort of background. But I have a certain influence on him, and I'm trying to help him re-direct his hostility in useful ways."

As they talked on, Klaus found himself telling Nick something about Charlotte.

"She got into unfortunate political circles in France, people who tolerate, or even like, Hitler because he's opposed to communism."

"So you sent her home?"

"I took her home, came back to clean up the mess, and am now returning myself."

"Are these Parisians, the ones at that table, the same sort as those who corrupted your wife?"

"Yes, I suppose they are. Very much so, actually."

"I'm afraid we won't change them. They'll lose some money, and there'll be some scenes between the couples when we finish with them, but they'll go on as before."

Klaus nodded and Nick continued,

"But you'll feel better. And then, by the time that we get back, you'll have worked out what to say to your wife."

After dinner, Klaus went strolling on the boat deck for an hour. He vividly remembered coming eastward on a different ship with Charlotte, and began to play a guessing game as to the nationality of the passengers on the deck in which they had indulged themselves. It wasn't much fun to play by himself, and, while he usually enjoyed being alone, he now found himself wondering where his new table companions might be.

It was in the first class lounge that Klaus eventually came upon a party consisting of Nick, Nadine, Lily, and the two Parisian gentlemen. They were at a large round table with drinks scattered among the cards. Nick waved enthusiastically to him, and he took a seat between Lily and Nadine. The game was poker and Nadine said to him,

"You can play as I do and only try for small pots."

Klaus barely knew the rules of poker, but he managed to play without any embarrassing gaffes. Indeed, he quickly found himself winning quite a lot. The two Parisians, who had barely acknowledged having previously met him, eyed Klaus with some loathing as he raked in their chips.

Klaus wasn't sure whether Nick used marked cards or relied only on superior skill, but he suspected strongly that he would himself come out about even in the end. When both Parisians soon won bigger pots, he realized that the game was still in the early stages.

It was at that point that both Nadine and Lily dropped out of the game and turned their full attention to the two Frenchmen. Lily seemed more or less attached to the shorter one and Nadine to the taller. The shorter, whose wife was presumably with George, would be in the grip of strong and probably conflicting emotions of various sorts. The other man might be having fantasies of trading his wife in for Nadine.

By contrast, Nick had a gentle smile on his broad pleasant face. He appeared to be a normally busy man, relaxing to the utmost on his vacation and playing for stakes that hardly mattered. It was, Klaus realized, a mark of his artistry that it was one of the Frenchmen who suggested raising the stakes. Klaus suspected that he had in mind a fairly modest increase, but Nick responded affably in his lightly accented French,

"Oh certainly. We'll double them then."

The man who had suggested the revision looked grim, and his taller friend objected that he didn't have enough money in his pocket. Nick replied,

"That's no difficulty. Coming over, I lost more than I had in my wallet, but I just used travellers' checks."

He then looked to Klaus for assent. Klaus tapped his jacket pocket meaningfully and smiled. The game was on.

As Nick dealt, he added conspiratorily,

"It's just as well not to appear to be too serious. The stewards might think that one of us is a professional gambler."

It wasn't long before the taller Frenchmen won a pot at least double that of any previous one. It included a substantial travellers' check which Nick flamboyantly signed, and smaller ones from Klaus and the other Frenchman. It was obvious to Klaus, and certainly to Nick, that the man was on the point of clearing out with his winnings. He whispered to Nadine, probably suggesting that she accompany him. Nadine then showed why Nick had such confidence in her. While refusing to leave with the Frenchman, she became openly and irresistibly seductive, promising everything with her eyes and the shape of her mouth, if only he would stay just a little longer.

That delay in leaving the table was, of course, fatal. It was Klaus who began to get very good cards. He was never sure when to raise, but, by looking directly at Nick, he sensed what he was to do. Nick gave nothing that could be interpreted as a sign, but, still, Klaus knew. It took a surprisingly short time. The taller, and evidently less moneyed, Frenchman, having lost probably half the checks that were to finance his trip, was extremely concerned. It took no special insight to see that he was wondering what his wife would say.

Then, desperately gambling to get his money back, he lost what must have been the remainder. When he stood up, he didn't even press Nadine to come with him. As she turned to Klaus, the man tottered off with the expression of one who has lost, not only his shirt, but his trousers.

It took hardly any longer to dispatch the remaining Parisian. He became ever more stiff-backed, and even rejected Lily's attentions. When he left, probably with only a little money left for his trip, he did so angrily. Nick looked pained and made a gesture vaguely suggestive of duelling. When they were alone, Klaus passed the pile of his winnings, running to thousands of dollars, under the table to Lily. When she handed them to Nick, he asked Klaus,

"Did you take out your fifth?"

Klaus found himself laughing. The idea of helping fleece innocents at a gambling table, and then taking a cut of the proceeds, was hopelessly at odds with everything that he ever done. However, it suddenly seemed to him that too much heavy honorability amounted only to a kind of pomposity and pretentiousness. He found himself thanking Nick and assuring him that he would, indeed, pocket a fifth of the proceeds. Nick called for coffee and sent the ladies off with the money, explaining,

"They're much better than I am at keeping track of who put up what, and then dividing up the profits. They'll be back presently with everything worked out."

Klaus asked Nick how he had been so sure that Nadine could keep her Frenchman at the table. He replied,

"It was a gamble, a much more interesting one than any involving cards. I enjoy betting on my judgment about people. You see, I bet on you, too. You could have gone off with all the money."

Klaus then asked,

"Did you enjoy the suspense in chemistry, waiting to see whether a precipitate would collect on the bottom of the flask?"

"Often. But that's for young men. The compounds become so very complex in organic chemistry that it takes a young brain to comprehend them. For the middle life, this is a more relaxed and enjoyable mode of gambling."

"Well, of course, my work is also a form of gambling. I'm trying to patch together a system of little railways that will do the work of a big one. The odds aren't terribly good."

"If it fails, come join us on the ships."

In the next few days, Klaus occasionally met the Parisians on deck. While he might, quite easily, have been prevailed on to give his share of the winnings back to them, their frosty looks and abrupt changes of direction persuaded him that it had been a great and good thing to relieve them of a few weeks' spending money. No doubt, they would make arrangements with the New York correspondents of their Paris banks when they arrived.

During meals, the others talked occasionally and openly of opportunities and successes, but no one seemed to expect Klaus to take a hand in the fleecing of any other customers. Lily and Nadine often talked of their college experiences at Wellesley. On the third day, Lily remarked at lunch,

"A scholarship girl isn't really expected to know how to be a lady at Wellesley. They think I'm a tough vulgar little thing, but, still, they'd throw me out in a minute if they guessed what I did in the summer."

Nick said,

"Both Lily and Nadine have made great strides since I first met them on the Lusitania. I would say that they need only another year of college to become entirely plausible."

He had been looking at Klaus as he spoke, and the latter responded with the appropriate compliment, one that was entirely sincere. Lily then said,

"Nadine's doing better than I am. My voice is all wrong and sounds like the boiler works in Sandusky, Ohio."

Nick replied,

"The only trouble with your voice is that it's too high. Actresses almost always learn to lower their voices an octave. Your conversation is entertaining and good, and that's what matters most."

Klaus said to Lily,

"My accent is horrible in English, and even worse in French. But I'm accepted because it's obvious that I'm foreign."

She replied,

"Then I'll be foreign too!"

Pooling their various capabilities in the European languages, they concocted for Lily a blend of sounds that was hard to place, but didn't sound at all like Sandusky, Ohio.

That afternoon, Klaus found an empty deck chair in an obscure place and stretched out in it. Soon, Nadine came by and dropped into the next one, saying,

"I'm taking a vacation this afternoon."

Before Klaus could begin to make conversation, Nadine started talking. He gradually realized that her natural inclination was to talk a great deal, but that she was inhibited by the others, probably Nick in particular. Indeed, Klaus could remember a couple of times when Nick had given her a gently silencing look. He was, indeed, running what amounted to a charm school. It was quite possible that he had, at some point, taken Nadine aside and told her, in his fatherly way, that she talked too much.

On the whole, Nadine wasn't uninteresting. Despite her dark dramatic beauty, she didn't talk about herself for the most part. Moreover, while there wasn't much order in her remarks, she revealed herself to be an acute observer and mimic, with a nice gift for satire. It was only when Klaus did encourage her to talk about herself that she said,

"Of course, Lily and I say we're not interested in marriage. Any girl of any intelligence says that. I really mean it, but she's hoping to come upon her future husband each time she ships out."

Klaus suggested gently that it might be difficult to gamble successfully and look for a husband at the same time. In fact, it had been clear for at least a day that both young women made money, albeit very selectively, in other ways as well. These additional earnings wheren't shared around the group. Nadine replied,

"You really mean the other thing, of course. I'm rather sceptical myself. But we are discreet. Lily might conceivably manage to spend the night with one man while beginning an acquaintance with another who could turn out to be a suitor."

"Yes. I suppose that might be done. What does Nick think of your other activities?"

"He disapproves, of course. But we were well started before we met him. I'm sure he thinks our morals will improve under his influence. Just like George. Nick's always taking credit for getting him to stop stealing."

Before he could say anything, Nadine put her hand on Klaus' arm and said,

"Lily and I both like you. You're not as bossy as Nick."

"It seems to me that he really is trying to help you."

"Oh yes. And he has, too. It's just that we consider ourselves liberated young ladies, and it takes the edge off to have a pretend father in tow."

"I did see Lily yesterday with a rather nice looking young man. They seemed to be having fun together."

"He's her present hope, a young English doctor. But, in the end, she's always too honest and tells them."

"I see. Well, she's very attractive. Perhaps some man will think that she's the victim of circumstances, and will want to rescue her."

"As far as attractiveness goes, you haven't seen the half of it. She's just perfect without her clothes. I don't think any man could resist her then. The trouble is, if she does let a man see her that way, he wonders if she's a whore."

Klaus replied,

"I havn't quite thought these things out. Perhaps you could contrive to let the young doctor get a glimpse of Lily without thinking she intended it."

"Women like us are always trying to do things like that. Doors are left accidentally ajar and mirrors are placed strategically, but the situations are seldom very convincing. Respectable women are very careful not to be seen naked, and there's really no way around it."

"For that matter, I've hardly seen my wife naked."

"Really? Lily and I thought that you didn't have much experience with women. You're not at all like George. He knows women forwards and backwards, and can take advantage of them in a million ways."

"I suppose I was late to develop, and then there was the war. By the time I got to America, I was so far behind the other men that I could hardly speak to a woman without making a fool of myself."

"I doubt that you did that. But your kind of courtesy isn't usually what women want in a young man. It becomes more attractive the older you get."

"I probably never would have married if the marriage hadn't been virtually arranged."

"I didn't know that was still done. Are you coming back to America separately because you had a fight with your wife?"

Klaus suspected that Nick had said something to Nadine, but he hardly cared.

"We didn't have a fight exactly, but there was certainly some confusion. I'm not sure what'll happen when I get back."

"You are worried, aren't you?"

It seemed to Klaus that he wasn't worried. He was, in fact, enjoying himself on the deck of an ocean liner with a beautiful young women at his side. But, of course, he would be the last to deny that certain problems had arisen in connection with Charlotte. He replied,

"Well, I do wish I had some idea what to say to Charlotte when I get back. I really hardly know anything about women."

"Well, look. It seems strange for someone my age to try to help someone your age, but I might be able to. If you don't mind my asking some personal questions."

Klaus smiled with only slight embarrassment, knowing what the question would be, and assented.

"How does it go with your wife in bed?"

"Hardly at all. We fumbled around a bit at first, but neither of us knew anything. Then, we stopped trying."

"There are a lot more couples like that than anyone realizes. It's just a matter of technique. I'll teach you, if you want, and so will Lily. We'd do it free, but you can afford to pay and you might be the sort of man who has trouble accepting gifts."

Nadine laughed as she finished speaking and Klaus admitted that, in fact, he often did feel uncomfortable when he was given things.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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