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A Need to Go Abroad
The U. S. Capitol, Washington, D. C., September 2, 1936
Cynthia Harding, for the first time in years, felt like a secretary in danger of losing her job. It was, in fact, a much worse sensation than in the old days. This time, it wouldn't simply be a matter of walking across the street and finding a comparable job. All she knew for sure was that it was a mistake for her to talk with reporters. Here in the ante-room to the chamber in which the senate committee was meeting, she saw Commander Murphy sitting across the way. But she doubted whether she was supposed to acknowledge her friendship, or even her acquaintance, with him. Was she a danger to him, or was he a danger to her? Various people had spoken to her in different ways. Admiral Ricketts had cursed and sworn, and told her to deny everything. Mr. Sheldon Stone had been much more constructive, but, at the same time, rather more byzantine.
In all her meetings with Mr. Stone over the years, it was the first time that Cynthia had been called in to the actual office of the Undersecretary. Stone had changed in many ways since the day in 1930 when he had first appeared at the Bureau of Navigation. Cynthia reflected, ruefully, that she should have noticed the change much earlier. For a start, he had gotten married, and had gained twenty or thirty pounds. He no longer looked the underfed dangerous young man bent on rooting out and exposing every last inefficient and corrupt practice in the Navy department. He was now a man who knew that no organization is perfect.
Moreover, during Mr. Stone's almost meteoric rise from assistant without portfolio to full Undersecretary of a department with an under-functioning Secretary, he had changed his whole style of management. He had become softer, less hurried, and had almost dropped his former acerbic arrogance. Underneath this superficial change there was a more important one, as Cynthia already had reason to know. He had found that indirect methods are more effective than direct ones.
Mr. Stone still wasn't loved, nor was he widely trusted. However, even before he spoke, Cynthia had come to the conclusion that a smart tricky man was as good an anchor in a storm as any. As she made a point of not catching Commander Murphy's eye, she remembered her conversation with Mr. Stone, virtually word for word.
"This must all seem rather puzzling to you, Miss Harding."
"That's an understatement. I haven't seen Admiral Ricketts alone for a long time. Why the scandal now?"
"Commander Murphy and I believe that it's actually quite simple. As you know, someone leaked to the Post the information that you had had an affair with Admiral Ricketts. There were pictures of you both at the Mayflower and elsewhere. Not to mention that arrest. The leaks must have come from the Japanese. Of course, we wanted them to know about it. Even if we'd known that they were taking pictures, we probably wouldn't have tried to prevent it."
"Why didn't they blow it then?"
"Their opinion of the admiral must have risen considerably since then. We hope and believe that it's for the wrong reason."
"Not Operation TEST?"
Mr. Stone had smiled confidently.
"We don't think so. Apparently it's because the admiral has been making so many statements in favor of battleships, as opposed to carriers. He's done that at my request, incidentally, as part of our campaign to put the Japanese off."
"I've been hearing from Mitsy lately that the battleship men in the Japanese Navy are having a comeback. So they thought D. D. was a danger?"
"Exactly. The backward elements in their navy naturally want the people they regard as futuristic dreamers to have control in our navy."
"Perhaps it's just that they've realized, at long last, what a good ship designer he is."
Cynthia remembered how Stone had wrinkled up his nose at that suggestion. She also remembered thinking that he had become a man who preferred a complex explanation, however simple he might consider it, to a genuinely simple one. He nevertheless replied with reasonably good grace,
"Yes. In the maze of intrigue we tend to get involved in, we should never overlook the naive explanation. Anyhow, they want him out, and they have enough ammunition to get him out. There's nothing I can personally do to save him. There's also no one I could call on who could and would save him."
"Is Operation TEST in much danger?"
"Some. But I think it can survive the storm with our help. Of course, you personally are due for some unpleasantness. I'm afraid none of us can spare you that."
"Do you know what the committee will ask me?"
"I have some idea. Fortunately, it's the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, and not the House one. That means we don't have Carl Vinson to deal with, at least not yet. Another nice thing about the Senate Committee is that its staff leaks information in every direction."
At that point Stone had paused and smiled. Cynthia remembered exactly how he had looked. Like a man about to pull a fast one.
"There will be questions about various incidents. You couold plead the fifth amendment, and your counsel might advise you to do so. However, I would prefer that you do not. In fact, it'll be best if you give the senators all the details they want. I can't imagine that you'd be prosecuted. Even if you were, the charge would only be a misdemeanor."
For a moment there, he had spoken the words of a responsible man advising a prospective witness to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But his tone had been too smooth for that. Cynthia had known better than to try to play his game with him, and had put her concern baldly.
"What worries me immediately is the prospect of losing my job and being destitute with a daughther to support."
"Miss Harding, you may not realize it, but your case has been discussed in some quite elevated circles. No one there is in the least concerned about money. You'll never be in need. The problem is just to keep the scandal entirely focused on the personal life of an admiral who has, quite frankly, outlived his usefulness."
There was no mistaking the reference when Mr. Stone spoke of 'quite elevated circles.' The Secretary was in the hospital again, and Cynthia very much doubted that Stone went to visit him. It gave her a thrill, even in those circumstances, to know that the president of the whole country knew about her. Not only that, he had discussed her case. Quite possibly, Stone's instructions were really coming from him. It was also a frightening realization. Behind her smart tricky man was another, even smarter and trickier. She bent her head to catch every word as Mr. Stone continued,
"If you can keep the committee and the public occupied with lurid details, and keep their attention away from your real work, then that work can continue. Perhaps in some unofficial form. In any case, as I've said, you need have no concern for your financial security."
Cynthia had felt considerably better. But only to be dismayed by Mr. Stone's next remark.
"The danger is that Admiral Ricketts shows signs of fighting this thing publicly. The only defense he could give, really, is that he was meeting secretly with you to coordinate Operation TEST."
"D. D. wouldn't do that."
"Men do surprising things under pressure of scandal. And this is a man who has always been rather prone to talk. Put him on the stand, ask him probing questions, and almost anything might come out."
"You don't want me to try to talk him out of it, do you?"
"No. You probably couldn't. But it'd be useful if he found himself in a position in which his only defense was taken away from him. A position in which even he could see the folly of protesting further. As the police say, we want him to go quietly."
Mr. Stone again gave his little smile, as if he expected her to join him in appreciating his humor. And then, as if that weren't enough, he had remarked, just as he was escorting her to the door,
"By the way, you're probably being followed, not only by the Japanese, but by the newspaper men. It would be best not to communicate with Commander Murphy, even by telephone. He is the link, isn't he?"
Yes, thought Cynthia, as she now looked at Murphy. The link. He was there only as a character witness. Or, at least, that was the content of a cryptic note she had received from Stone. At the moment it seemed highly unlikely that the scandal could be contained. If Ricketts had been concerned about keeping the secret of Operation TEST, he wouldn't have appealed to Murphy at all.
Cynthia wondered if it were any accident that she couldn't seek advice from the only man she trusted who was in a position to give it. General Mitchell was dead. Howard Pardoe was thousands of miles away. D.D. Ricketts was useless. Was she being bribed to shoulder the blame for certain people? All those people who weren't concerned about money? Was that just Stone's way of saying they were prepared to reward her for the right testimony? Looking at Muphy's impassive face, she couldn't tell. Then the call came.
The first shock for Cynthia was the size of her audience. She had expected a dozen senators, but hadn't realized how many aides they had, and how many members of the press were crowded into the room.
The chairman was, as chance would have it, a Charlestonian to whom Cynthia had once been introduced before her original fall from grace. She was pretty sure that he wouldn't recognize her, though the combination of her name and accent might start him thinking.
The first questions came from the chief counsel for the committee, a hard-looking man with a bald head and clipped speech.
"We have no wish to embarrass you unnecessarily, Miss Harding. However, it is important to establish certain facts. First, then, is it true that you were arrested on the night of April seventeenth of the year 1934 at the Lincoln House Hotel in Bath, Maine?"
"What was the charge?"
"I was first charged with registering under a false name, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. Later, all charges were dropped."
"Was Admiral D.D.Ricketts with you when you were arrested?"
"Was he also arrested?"
"Was the charge against him the same?"
"I'm not sure. I think so. He was also released."
"Can you tell us the circumstances of the arrest?"
"We were in our hotel room when the manager opened the door with his key and burst in with a deputy sheriff. The deputy grabbed me."
"Were you and the admiral dressed at the time?"
"He had his shoes and shirt off. I was in my underclothes."
"And you were not married to Admiral Ricketts?"
"Had you ever before taken trips with Admiral Ricketts while employed at the Bureau of Construction and Repair?"
"At least a dozen, I'm not sure."
"Was he always on official business when you accompanied him?"
"All but once or twice."
"Did you always share a hotel room with him?"
"At first, when Mr. Pardoe was at the Bureau, we took separate rooms. Later we shared the same one."
"On these later occasions, did you register as husband and wife?"
"Yes, at least he did."
"You mean that it was Admiral Ricketts who filled out the registration form and signed it?"
"Did he ever, as far as you know, use a name other than his own?"
"Yes. At least once."
"Do you remember the name that he used?"
"Where and when was that?"
"At the Plaza in New York City. It must have been in the spring of 1934."
"Thank you. Now, returning to those occasions when you shared a room, is it your understanding that those rooms cost more than they would have with a single occupant?"
"Yes, I think always."
"Did Admiral Ricketts ever say anything to you which indicated whether he intended to have the navy reimburse him for the expense of those rooms?"
"I remember one discussion of it."
"When was that?"
"It was at the Plaza that time."
"The time you were registered as Mr. and Mrs. C.C. Dodd?"
"How did the discussion begin?"
"I told him he couldn't charge the Bureau for the room that time."
"Do you mean to say that there were previous times when he had been reimbursed for a room that you shared?"
"He told me so. That Mr. Pardoe hadn't let him, but that there was nothing to stop him after he left."
"Thank you. Now to return to your discussion with Admiral Ricketts at the Plaza. How did he reply to your remark?"
"I've forgotten exactly what he said, but he seemed angry. He wanted to get reimbursed for the room."
"How did you reply?"
"I pointed out that we were registered under the name of Dodd, and that the receipt would be in the wrong name."
"What did he say then?"
"He laughed. He said he'd just cross out Dodd and write in Ricketts."
There was a pause and a stillness in the room. Cynthia knew exactly what she had done, and hoped that it would be enough.
The counsel finished quickly, and it was time for the members of the committee to ask their questions. The chairman, Senator Wallace, began. He was large, red of face, and had a voice that rumbled. Cynthia was sure he didn't remember her.
"Tell us please, Miss Harding, how did you come to be charged with resisting arrest?"
Cynthia now found herself calm and in complete control of her wits. This man was fishing for something funny or sexy.
"It was when the deputy grabbed me, sir. It was much too intimate. I screamed and tried to get away."
"Did he let you go?"
"No, sir. He wouldn't even let me put my dress on. I think it must have been then that I tried to spear his foot with the heel of my shoe. The heel broke, and he shouted in pain and said I was resisting arrest."
The whole committee was now smiling, and there were audible chuckles. What Cynthia said was more or less true, but she knew that she could hardly have made up anything which would have put them in a more relaxed mood. A mood which was unlikely to lead to difficult questions.
Senator Wallace asked a couple of questions which were intended to sound important, but which amounted to almost nothing. There were then some questions from a senator whose name Cynthia didn't catch. They went over ground already covered by the chief counsel, and served only to pin D.D. Ricketts to the wall even more securely.
The last questioner was a Senator Angleton of Virginia. Cynthia realized immediately that he was out to defend Ricketts and paint her as a disloyal mistress who had double- crossed him. She wondered if, as a Virginian, the Senator had some connection with the Ricketts family.
"Miss Harding, was it not true that you assisted Admiral Ricketts on Navy business on these trips."
"No, sir. He never dictated letters, or anything like that."
"My information is that you are not a secretary, but an administrative assistant. What does your work ordinarily consist in?"
"I do errands mostly. I think Admiral Ricketts promoted me so that I'd have more money."
"Please answer the questions, Miss Harding. I asked you what you did, not why you were promoted."
"I'm sorry, sir."
Looking at the faces in front of her, Cynthia saw that she had their sympathy against Mr. Angleton, and that she was being absolutely convincing. She was the dumb blonde with the drippy southern accent who probably couldn't spell enough to type letters. Running errands had been an inspired job description. What if some of the errands had covered thousands of miles? If that came out, it could be put down to modesty rather than perjury. Still, the senator wasn't willing to let it go.
"Did you never on any of these trips discuss the business of the bureau?"
"I don't recall ever doing so, sir."
Cynthia noticed in passing her first outright lie under oath. She was more worried about being asked if she had been to Haiti. He might be able to check that. Instead, he returned to the arrest.
"Let me ask you this, Miss Harding. Did you never think it strange that you were arrested?"
Cynthia didn't understand, but sensed danger. She tried to be unintelligent and literal.
"I don't think so, sir. We were in the room and we weren't married."
"Come now, Miss Harding. Men take, excuse me, their mistresses to hotels all the time. If they have luggage, they aren't arrested. Hotels don't want to be sued. You did have luggage didn't you?"
"Do you think anyone could have called the hotel and tipped them off? Someone in Washington, perhaps. Someone who wanted to see an important and valuable officer discredited?"
There had indeed been a call. The hotel manager and the deputy had been foolish enough to talk about it in front of her. But she didn't like anything that suggested mystery, and which could lead to further investigation. The reply was obvious enough, and she disclaimed any knowledge of such a call. She was aware of looking worried, but a dumb blonde certainly would look worried if pressed on things she didn't understand. Senator Angleton asked condescendingly,
"Do you have any other explanation for the fact that you were caught in a place where no one knew either you or the admiral?"
Cynthia didn't, but, by exaggerating and moving things around in time, she could produce one.
"It may have been that we were seen, sir."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the hotel had big windows overlooking the main street of Bath. Often, on our trips, the admiral would turn the lights out and ask me to stand in front of the window facing out. I would watch the people below and tell him what they looked like, and whether they were looking up at the hotel."
Cynthia stopped dead, seemingly embarrassed. She knew that her adversary didn't want to hear any more, but he had no way out.
"That surely couldn't have caused you to be arrested."
"Well, sir, the admiral always made me take off my dress in front of the window. Then he'd laugh and come up beside me and ask me if I thought the people below could see me. I don't think they usually could, but..."
Cynthia found herself blushing appropriately as she paused and put her hand to her face. The senators were all spellbound. Angleton seemed ready to explode. She continued before he could intervene.
"This time the admiral wanted me to take off my slip, too. I didn't want to, but it was dark, so I did. Then he reached off to the side and turned the lights on. Lots of people might have seen us. It wasn't too long before we were arrested."
Something a little like that had actually happened at the Plaza, but without any repercussions. Cynthia thought its fictional re-occurrence would silence the senator. Then, as he told the chairman that he had no more questions, she suddenly spotted Mr. Sheldon Stone back in the corner with the aides. He looked very pleased indeed.
Mt. Vernon Place, Washington, D.C., September 3. 1936.
Cynthia woke to her alarm, rolled over, and called to Dottie to start the coffee. Then she remembered. It had been several days since Dottie had left with Mary Elizabeth to visit the latter's family in Boston. That visit had, in fact, come at a providential time. The papers were full of the scandal, and, while they hadn't yet mentioned Cynthia by name, Dottie was old enough to know what was going on. On the other hand, Cynthia couldn't get up without her coffee. Dottie generally complained about making it and bringing her a cup, but she could always eventually be cajoled into doing it.
Glad as she was to have Dottie away on the day that her name would undoubtedly be in the papers, Cynthia wondered what she would do if Dottie actually did decide to go to the boarding school where Mary Elizabeth was going to introduce her. Cynthia, of course, had been enthusiastic about the idea, and, as she herself was the first to point out, she and Dottie had never been terribly close. Not nearly as close as Dottie and Mary Elizabeth, for example. But Cynthia was used to having someone around. At that point, she pulled the covers over her head and went back to sleep.
Afterwards, Cynthia wondered how she hadn't died of fright when she had awoken a second time to a loud pounding on her door. Athough it might have been newspaper reporters, she had immediately assumed that it was D.D.Ricketts. After all, that was how he could have been expected to react. Within seconds, she had tiptoed across the room, put on her robe, and started climbing out the rear window to the fire escape. She stopped when she heard Commander Murphy's voice.
"Cynthia, I can hear you. It's me. Please open up. D.D. is not, repeat not, with me."
Catching the note of amusement in his voice, she rushed to the door with relief and threw it open.
Murphy hadn't actually said that he was alone, but it was a considerable shock to find that the Undersecretary of the Navy had accompanied him on his first visit to her home. Conscious of the way she looked, and also of the state of her apartment, Cynthia almost screamed. She started to invite them in for coffee, but seeing with new eyes her clothing strewn everywhere, even on the floor, she realized what they must think. Particularly in view of her testimony on the day previous.
Both men seemed delighted by Cynthia's discomfiture. Murphy patted her familiarly on the back and said boisterously,
"We've come to take you to breakfast at the best place in town."
Mr. Stone added, obviously pleased with himself,
"Perhaps not to the Mayflower."
Before she could say anything at all, Murphy continued,
"Now Cynthia, I know all the things you're going to say. How you can't possibly go out without working on your face and hair and everything. You don't need any makeup and you can just run a comb through your hair. Put on any dress. That one over there, on the chair. All that matters is that they let us in to the dining room. And D.D. may be here at any minute. We'll be right downstairs."
Cynthia had never gone anywhere looking such a horror, but the men had been right. The headwaiter held her chair for her without even a grimace. And then, to her complete amazement, a couple of men at nearby tables looked at her with obvious admiration.
Inevitably, the topic of discussion was the previous day's committee hearing. Mr. Stone was very pleased with it, and went so far as to congratulate her on her testimony.
"I think you really saved the bacon. I'm pretty sure that Senator Angleton was gearing up to ask Murph here some very uncomfortable questions about his collaboration with D.D. But, after you got through, he must have figured it wasn't worth it. So he didn't utter a peep when Murph was on the stand."
Cynthia, still feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing, replied,
"I made it sound a good deal worse than it really was, you know. I suppose D.D. must know about it by this time, and I wouldn't blame him for being furious."
It was Murphy who replied.
"I talked with him on the phone last night. I don't think all the details of your testimony had reached him, but he did realize that he's got to go. I think he knew it all along really, but was waiting for the final straw."
"Was he angry with me?"
"He didn't seem to be, particularly. He was mostly engaged in carrying on some sort of fight with his wife. I heard bits of it over the phone."
Mr. Stone was impatient.
"None of that matters now, Cynthia. The fact is, we'd like to get you out of the country for a bit. How would you like to be an assistant to one of our naval attaches in Europe?"
"Well, it seems likely that Dottie will be in a boarding school soon. If it could be arranged to bring her over to visit me on vacations, I guess I could manage."
"Good. Now this is what we have in mind. What's interesting is the Civil War in Spain. The French and Italians have sent planes and pilots, and the Germans and Russians are beginning to send theirs. We, of course, can't legally intervene at all. But we'd like to send Whitby over with a squadron or two of volunteers on the sly."
Murphy, seeing Cynthia's puzzled look, explained.
"It's not that we care a great deal who wins, although we'd be on the Republican side. But it's a great chance to test our pilots and tactics."
Mr. Stone then explained,
"This, of course, would be illegal. That in itself isn't so bad. It might do us all a world of good to spend a couple of years in jail. But the real problem is this. It's basically a war between fascists on one hand and communists and anarchists on the other. The American public, on the whole, regards fascists as bad people. But you can't fight them without joining the communists or the anarchists. If it came out that we had done that, there would be a furor that could conceivably decide a presidential election."
As Stone paused, Murphy explained.
"It would be nice if it could be suggested to Whitby by someone like yourself that he might want to take a group to Spain. The trouble is that an air group requires, not only a base, but all kinds of logistical support on the ground. He's is no position to arrange for that. Our naval attache in London is a capable man who could arrange a good deal of that, but he's got to work entirely through intermediaries and be able to deny everything."
"I guess that's where I come in."
"Yes. You'll have another name, but even that isn't enough. In something like this, with such disastrous potential consequences, there have to be a number of middlemen of the right kind. You deal with a Mr. X, who deals with a Mr. Y, who approaches the Spanish communists. Suppose, then, that some journalist discovers that young American kids are flying combat for the communists. They trace the whole thing to Mr. Y. And maybe to Mr. X. However, you have chosen X and Y so carefully that the trail disappears right there. That's what we want you to do."
"What happens if it goes beyond X and reaches me?"
"You're a wealthy sentimentalist who uses her own money to back eccentric causes. You disappear before anyone can ask any further questions."
"Does the president know what you're proposing to do?"
Mr. Stone laughed.
"You're not very good at playing the naive one, Cynthia. Of course the president has no idea whatever of this. Nor does he know that we're running an illicit training program. Would you like to have a list of all the other things he doesn't know?"
"No thank you. I think I have a pretty good idea already. I'm sure, among other things, that he's never heard of me."
"Quite correct. You're only a minor functionary in the navy department.
You've been involved in a scandal, but presidents don't read the parts
of newspapers that talk about scandals."
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