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A Young Lady in Awkward Circumstances
The Navy Department, The Bureau of Steam Navigation, Washington, D. C., Dec. 8, 1930
The words that wafted out of the inner office on the wings of a southern accent were as nearly obscene as the speaker, Admiral Snelling, could make them. He didn't know any really bad words, but his plaintive voice nevertheless expressed considerable emotion and a touch of hysteria.
No one in the outer office could have petended not to hear, and it secretly amused Cynthia Harding to watch Miss Boscombe's face. Cynthia, the junior secretary, carefully adopted an impassive expression. Miss Boscombe was likely to be her boss for years to come, and anyone who took Admiral Snelling less seriously than Miss Boscombe did would be a marked woman. The safest thing was to pretend to hunt for something in a drawer, and thus hide her face altogether. Cynthia hadn't bothered to vote for years, and she was equally leery of other political acts.
Miss Boscombe, a homely woman of fifty five who looked older, had sovereignty over only the limited domain comprising Cynthia and the office furniture. Her ideas about the organization of that domain were quite rigid, and her orders left little room for individual initiative. They concerned, not only the work, but general deportment as well. If Cynthia had uttered even a single "damn" on the occasion of a typing mistake, she would have been reprimanded severely. Since there was nothing Miss Boscombe could do about the admiral's lapse, the joy which it produced in Cynthia contained a certain amount of malice.
The admiral was still carrying on when Sally, the secretary from down the corridor, dropped in with some misdirected mail. Cynthia caught her eye in a conspiratorial manner. Sally wasn't subject to Miss Boscombe, and, turning partly away from the latter, she did an imitation of her expression. While Sally was a rather pretty young woman, her one point of resemblence to the older lady consisted in somewhat protrusive front teeth. Taking advantage of that fact, she drew her chin in and down sharply, hunched her neck, and produced a wild look in her eyes. It was a passable imitation, not only of Miss Boscombe, but of a thieving jack-rabbit frozen in a farmer's beam of light. They had just talked about Miss Boscombe at lunch, and Cynthia had said,
"She comes from people who spit tobacco between their teeth. Now that she has a certain respectability, she tries to maintain a Sunday School atmosphere in the office."
Sally hadn't been content with that.
"It's not just that, she's terrified when that dumb old admiral of yours gets upset and swears."
Sally's present imitation was obviously meant to reinforce her earlier point. It also, despite an element of cruelty, suggested that Miss Boscombe was more to be pitied than hated. Cynthia continued to resist that notion. She had asked before,
"How could anyone be afraid of a man who'd be more dangerous as an ally than an enemy?"
Sally had laughed in agreement, but without entirely conceding the point.
"When he gets upset like that, she's afraid that he'll do something unmanly."
"Do you suppose he'd go 'boo-hoo-hoo,' or would it be some kind of retching noise?"
Sally, evidently finding the question an absorbing one, had remained pensive for a moment. Then, shaking her hair away from her face, she had replied,
"I don't know. But I do know that old Adele will fall completely apart if he ever does cry."
As Sally now went out the door, she added another quick imitation which caused Cynthia almost to laugh out loud. Catching a look of fury from Miss Boscombe, she again bent her head to her papers.
A few minutes later, a laugh could be heard, also from the admiral's office. It could only be that of Lt. Commander Murphy. It was a relaxed and knowing laugh, only slightly muted for the benefit of the admiral. It also had a hard undignified edge to it, as if its owner were attempting to help his leader out of some embarrassing imbroglio. To Cynthia it sounded as if the admiral had had his trousers stolen in a whore house, and had called on Commander Murphy to aid him in recovering them. She didn't share this thought with Miss Boscombe, but did wonder whether she could have sunken any lower in that lady's esteem had she done so.
It was fairly obvious that Miss Boscombe disliked Commander Murphy almost as much as she did Cynthia. Fiercely loyal to her admiral, she occasionally let it slip that the commander wasn't sufficiently respectful, particularly for someone who had risen from a common sailor. It must have hurt her even more to hear what Murphy then said.
"A regular bastard and son-of-a-bitch. But wouldn't the joke be on us if he turned out to be right?"
Cynthia did realize that most subordinates didn't treat their admirals so casually, and she could almost see the steam coming out of Miss Boscombe's nostrils. It wasn't hard to guess her thoughts. How could anyone address an admiral with obscenity and without even a 'sir'? A man of Murphy's rank was supposed to be, not an advisor, but a mere assistant. Miss Boscombe always said how much she hated people who put on airs.
Cynthia, on the other hand, liked Commander Murphy much better than the admiral. He was that sort of good looking middle-aged Irishman who knew how to flirt gently with a young woman without implying any desire to cheat on his wife. Moreover, Cynthia had immediately seen that the commander was much smarter than his admiral. If there was anyone who could bring any sense to the hopelessly confused bureau in which they worked, it would be Commander Murphy.
The cause of Admiral Snelling's discomfort was the recent visit of Mr. Sheldon Stone, a newly appointed functionary in the Navy Department. The admiral knew only that Mr. Stone was an efficiency expert, and that he presumed to know how to save money in the Bureau of Steam Navigation. Under ordinary circumstances, the admiral would have refused to allow any such person as Mr. Stone in his office. However, the young man had what amounted to the backing of President Hoover, and he couldn't be entirely ignored. It was this fact, even more than Mr. Stone's unpalatable personality, which had brought Admiral Snelling to that state of high waspishness in which he occasionally threw his eyeglasses against the wall.
One of the few things Cynthia Harding and Miss Boscombe agreed on was their dislike of Mr. Stone. Miss Boscombe resented his arrogance and his contemptuous manner. Cynthia thought that he was utterly one-dimensional, devoid of humor, and lacking in warmth. She had once remarked to Commander Murphy,
"The best thing about him is that he looks exactly what he is. That tight pinched face and the thick little glasses. I bet the reason he's so thin is that he grudges the time it takes to eat properly."
By this time, Mr. Stone was already on his third pass through the Navy Department. He had begun by discovering that the Chief of Naval Operations, despite his resounding title, was merely an administrator. While he theoretically stood over the all-powerful bureaus and adjudicated disputes between them, there were very few disagreements that reached him.
The most important bureaus, such as the Bureau of Navigation and the Bureau of Construction and Repair, had had long independent histories during which time they had marked out their turf for all eternity. A corollary of this arrangement was that each bureau was careful not to infringe on the prerogatives of the others. The officers in charge realized that it would be to their ultimate and mutual disadvantage to get into quarrels which would have to be settled by the CNO or, worse, the Secretary of the Navy. The bureau system depended for its strength on a gentlemen's agreement, and the chiefs of bureau were all gentlemen.
On his second pass, Mr. Stone embarked on a campaign to reorganize the bureau system. Unfortunately, it operated in sufficiently subtle ways to deflect his opening frontal assault. Moreover, the bureau chiefs had their allies in Congress, and were quite capable of organizing enough political pressure to counteract that of Stone and the Secretary. Momentarily checked, Mr. Stone was now attempting to find a weak link among the bureau chiefs. It was this reconnaissance in force which had so disconcerted Admiral Snelling.
Three o'clock was coffee time at the Bureau of Navigation. Cynthia made the coffee in the percolator in the outer office, and Miss Boscombe took a cup in to Admiral Snelling. It was his practice to then dictate letters to her while sipping his coffee. Cynthia did the same for Commander Murphy, but he seldom dictated letters, preferring to write them out longhand. He now, as often, invited Cynthia to have some coffee with him.
Cynthia had a rather curious history which was, in some ways, the mirror image of Miss Boscombe's. Instead of growing up in the slums of South Richmond, her family had occupied a rather privileged position in Charleston, South Carolina. However, at about the age at which Miss Boscombe was beginning to make good, Cynthia, in the view of her family, had gone irrevocably and hopelessly bad.
Like other girls who had left good homes for bad company, Cynthia retained a certain knack for dealing with the gentry. Admiral Snelling, himself a South Carolinian, seemed to think her a delightful young lady. In order to please him, she brought back the accents and gestures of her girlhood. With Miss Boscombe, on the other hand, she was much more matter-of-fact. Her tone did not then give the impression that she would be delighted to volunteer for extra work.
With Commander Murphy, Cynthia had begun the same way as with the admiral. Murphy had looked sharply at her, given a little laugh, and told her that he had started in ships' boiler rooms as a stoker. She had responded by telling him that she had last worked as a waitress in one of New York City's less distinguished restaurants.
On this day, the conversation turned to the new ships that Mr. Stone thought unnecessary. Cynthia took a sip of coffee, crossed her legs, and said,
"The admirals seem so childish where battleships are concerned. Their old toys are dirty and no longer glamourous. So they scream and cry and demand new ones."
"I'm afraid there aren't going to be any new ships under the Christmas tree for them this year. But they won't be the only ones. How do things look for your daughter?
"There's damned little for most daughters of single mothers, but she already realizes it. I must say, she takes it with better grace than some of our admirals."
"Do you suppose we might some time need some admirals who aren't children and some battleships that aren't toys?"
Cynthia was a little puzzled.
"Perhaps eventually, but no one has the money to go to war do they?"
"No, but wars are won and lost ten years before they begin. It's the preparation that counts. In other words, what's going on now."
"I certainly hope not. Even from my lowly position I can see that very little is being accomplished on our side."
Murphy agreed affably and remarked,
"In peacetime, our armed forces generally manage to retain only rather mediocre and unimaginative officers. At best, they're good-natured and slow moving. At worst, they're petty and mean."
It was to Commander Murphy's credit that he didn't even glance in the direction of Admiral Snelling's office as he mentioned the less attractive of these character traits. He then smiled and added,
"There are, however, some enterprising officers in the middle ranks who .."
Cynthia, in mock disgust at his egotism, cut him off with the question,
"What enemy are these enterprising officers preparing to fight?"
"Japan, obviously. Didn't you know?"
The telephone rang in the outer office, and Cynthia ran to answer it. Since she wasn't supposed to receive personal calls, she had to speak as if she were answering a routine enquiry. After a short time, she advised the caller to inquire at the Bureau of Construction and Repair. When she returned to Murphy, he asked happily,
"Are there many people who get our bureau confused with the Bureau of Construction and Repair?"
Cynthia, in order to deflect that line of questioning, asked him about Japan. Murphy replied with some animation.
"I was posted there for only a short time, to replace an Assistant Naval Attache who had gone sick. Of course, I didn't know Japanese, and didn't really learn much. But I picked up the atmosphere. We're very much hated there. It was just after we put pressure on the British to terminate their alliance with the Japanese. The Japanese thought, rightly, that it was because they were Asiatic and yellow, and thus didn't count, that the British gave in so easily. It was a severe humiliation, and it discredited all their statesmen who'd taken up a pro-western stance."
"Were people unpleasant to you?"
"Not at all, at least not in any language I could understand. But there's a nasty mixture of subservience on the surface and arrogance behind it. They'll crawl up to you, but you can sometimes see how much they want to kill you."
Cynthia gave a little shudder, but replied,
"I know we're hated all over Europe, particularly in France. And often for good reason. But that doesn't mean they want to go to war with us."
Murphy considered for a moment, and then shook his head.
"It's an entirely different sort of thing in Japan. For one thing, there's a whole class of hot-headed and imperialistic young officers. There's nothing like it in our navy, or any of the European ones. They're a little like the most obnoxious teen-agers you can imagine. But they're also filled with dreams of glorious death in battle in the service of that funny-looking little emperor of theirs."
Cynthia interrupted quickly.
"I don't find that too alarming. Present company excepted, I wouldn't trust the officer corps of any service in any country. Our people might go to war for different reasons, and with a different style, but it'd be war all the same. The saving grace is that they aren't in control."
Murphy responded pleasantly, but firmly,
"Unfortunately, the young Japanese officers come a little closer to being in control. In particular, they go in for assassination of civilian statesmen who are seen as insufficiently militaristic."
"I've met some young officers in our service who're angry and disillusioned because they think they're stuck in dead-end careers. I suppose I could hide one in the closet, all set to shoot Mr. Stone the next time he comes in."
Ignoring her, Murphy persevered,
"Secretary Adams would be in danger if he were in charge of their navy. He's seen as not doing much to get new battleships. If this were Japan, a group of young ensigns and lieutenants might well burst into his office and kill him at his desk."
"If they did, the police would come and take them away."
"In Japan, people don't call the police without thinking twice. Senior officers might either tacitly approve the assassination or be afraid to say anything. The statesmen and ministers are extremely careful how they treat the services. It's a situation that doesn't look good for us in the long run."
Cynthia looked at Murphy coolly.
"I guess you must know, but I find it hard to imagine. Anyhow, I didn't think we took them all that seriously as a navy. Didn't one of their battleships capsize when they launched it?"
Murphy smiled as he replied,
"That was only a small ship, and it was long ago. It's also rumored that all Japanese have bad vision, and can't fly airplanes for that reason. Shall I give you some more comforting beliefs?"
Cynthia remained silent for a moment, gathering more from the way Murphy looked than from what he said. He seemed hardly aware of her presence as a woman. That was enough to make her respond sharply,
"I think all you people make up and exaggerate threats to get new ships and promotions."
"You should know by this time that someone with my background has no chance for high rank. I also have nothing to gain from war."
"Wouldn't you at least be promoted to full commander and given a ship?"
"Very likely not. To be frank, I wouldn't even want one."
Cynthia had never heard a naval officer say anything like that before. She asked,
"Isn't it heresy not to want a ship?"
"It certainly is. That's because very few of our officers have been in combat at all. They identify strongly with the victors of 1898. They think war at sea means shooting at people like the Spanish who hardly ever manage to shoot back."
Cynthia lowered her voice to a whisper, and pointed to the next room.
"Did you know that our leader is often called John Paul Jones because he makes so many gallant declarations from his desk?"
Murphy smiled thinly as if he would rather not be told things of that sort.
"If I were given a seagoing command, it'd probably be a destroyer. I'd be an elderly captain with years of bureau rust surrounded by younger better men."
"I bet you'd quickly get onto it. A few weeks, and they'd all be wearing their caps at the same angle you do."
"I was torpedoed in a destroyer in the last war and still have burns to show for it."
With that he pulled up his left trouser leg to show Cynthia the grossly discolored flesh. Seemingly enjoying her reaction, he continued,
"I think I'll let other people man the destroyers next time. I'll stay right here in the bureau."
"Those scars are horrible. I would've have gotten right out of the navy as soon as I could."
Without answering her implied question, Murphy said,
"In the old days people got arms and legs lopped off with cannon balls, and that couldn't have been much fun either. But a modern warship is an envelope containing masses of explosive and quantities of oil. It's mostly a matter of getting trapped somewhere and being burned alive. With aircraft carriers, its even worse. There's aviation fuel all over the place."
When Murphy was serious his eyes still twinkled, and it was hard to imagine that there wasn't a joke somewhere. Not wanting to find the diverting irony in a vision of a listing aircraft carrier with burning gasoline flooding over men trying to escape, Cynthia was glad when Captain Matthews stuck his large bluff frame in the door.
"Hello, Murph. What are you up to besides spending your time with pretty girls?"
"Always happy to share them, Captain. Have a seat. We've spent half the day talking with Mr. Stone."
Captain Matthews clapped one hand to his head, half playfully and half dramatically.
"I'm glad I didn't get here any earlier. I suppose he is sincere, though. Anything new come out of it?"
Cynthia got up to get coffee for Captain Matthews, but he shook his head.
"No thanks, Cynthia. I've just had three cups up at BuAero. My hands are shaking as it is."
As she continued to drift out the door, Murphy called after her,
"There's really no need for you to stay any later today, Cynthia. I'll tell Miss Boscombe I sent you on an errand."
Thanking him, Cynthia went to gather her things before Miss Boscombe could intercept her. She could just hear Murphy remark in an undertone to his companion,
"A great girl, but you have to be a little careful what you say in her
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