Taking Luda to Tea
Cynthia Massingberd-Montgomery was doing push-ups in her room at the Commander Hotel. At least, that was what they called them in America. She, in English fashion, still thought of them as press-downs. Both designations were correct. One pushed oneself up by pressing down on the floor.
It was as if some malevolent genius had designed American English to give the same phrases different meanings and different phrases the same meaning. She found it most irritating. Standing, a little out of breath, she looked down from her window to the traffic below. There was a complex intersection nearby, and she had once seen a rather interesting accident between motorists who had emerged from their cars screaming at one another. No such luck today!
Unfortunately, even such an event would not have distracted her much from her overall problem. An agent such as herself, even one in a friendly country, didn't get much supervision. She had a general directive, that of getting a indirect message to the leaders of the Soviet Union, but she didn't yet know what that essage was to be. In any case, the execution of the directive was largely left up to her.
Not surprisingly, success or failure depended on the actions and abilities of people over whom she had, at best, partial control. Prominent among those persons were Luda Yezhova and Adam Yeremenko, two relative children from a culture entirely foreign to her own. There was nothing for it but to investigate as thoroughly as possible.
With that in mind, Cynthia's next lunch was with Mrs. Elaine Forsythe, one of the supporters of the IRSA. It wasn't often that she used fund-raising as a cover for something else, but Mrs. Forsythe had been Luda's first host parent.
After about a year, there was a maximally tactful note that, while Luda was a delightful girl whom she would be happy to see any time, there had been a marked increase in Mrs. Forsythe's social duties. Could someone else be found for Luda?
Cynthia had quickly complied, but the pleading of other, vaguely specified, commitments was almost always a cover for something else.
Unlike Joan Howard, who was married to an opportunistic businessman, Elaine's husband came from much older, and more sedentary, wealth. He was himself much older, a small wiry classics scholar of an amateur sort, unconnected with any university. He was a rather improbable husband for Elaine, an amateur athlete with a room full of tennis and golf trophies. Not exactly pretty, she moved with a grace and power which drew attention. She also had a good sense of humor, sometimes in evidence when she co-hostessed charity balls. She should have been perfect for Luda, or almost any refugee girl, but something seemed to have gone wrong.
Cynthia herself played tennis well enough to appreciate someone who played better, and there was always some athletic talk. She ventured, "I did wonder if Luda Yezhova with her height and reach, might be able to play with you. But she may not be athletic."
"Not particularly. I took her to the court a couple of times, but I think she's an indoor girl."
"Well, in supposedly shepherding these girls, I try one thing, and then another. She's at Radcliffe now, and she may end up marrying a Rockefeller."
That amused Elaine, who responded, "She might make an awkward addition to most families. All that passion and volatility."
"The stereotypes are so often true. That does sound Russian."
"How is she doing with her new host mother."
"I think they play wardrobe, with Luda now more or less a fashion plate."
"I still give her things, and I get thank-you notes in return, witty and amusing."
"Does she still come around?"
"No, not for some time. She's probably pretty busy at college."
"Some of these refugees give the impression that, as a result of their harrowing experiences, they can handle any little American challenges that come along."
"If I'd escaped in the hold of a Latvian fishing boat, I'd feel pretty built-up, too."
Cynthia hadn't heard the Latvian fishing boat story, but it didn't seem the time to pursue it. There was something in Elaine's manner that suggested that something fairly dramatic had happened while Luda was assigned to her. Elaine would hardly have precipitated it, and it must have arisen out of something Luda had said or done. But, it being clear that she wasn't going to get any more information, she let the conversation turn to other things.
Afterwards, Cynthia tried to work things out. Elaine still sent Luda gifts. Given Luda's dimensions, it wouldn't be practical to give her clothing that she hadn't tried on. Were those gifts money? Probably so.
As for the bust-up, there was always the classic au-pair syndrome: the girl who gets along with the family very well, so well that she seduces, or is seduced by, the husband. Luda, always tempted to do almost anything, could be such a girl. But Peter Forsythe? It seemed very unlikely.
Then, another possibility struck her. There was a little bit of the lesbian about Elaine. Not a lot, but it came out now and then. Luda was sensitive to people, and would have noticed. If something had happened on the spur of a moment, Elaine would afterwards be very much upset. She was a traditional woman with a definite place in society. Luda could laugh off a little casual contact, but not Elaine. Was Luda being paid to keep away? Both to prevent a recurrence, and to avoid the production of any gossip? After all, it would take no more than a look or touch of the wrong sort in public to make people wonder.
Cynthia had gone to Roedean, and her brothers to Harrow. It was accepted that teen-agers, both male and female, would go through a vague, and perhaps active, homosexual stage before settling down for the duration with a spouse. And, of course, some people didn't make the change. A little awkward, but it was accepted if pursued in a discreet manner. It was the Americans who had a much more intense sense of shame and guilt in such areas, and they would go a long way to avoid any hint of gossip. Indeed, Cynthia knew a family who enabled a daughter's female lover to live in a distant city. It was, in its way, the world's gentlest form of blackmail.
If that was it, Cynthia didn't like
her friend being blackmailed, even gently. Elaine could easily afford
the sort of money that would seem a lot to Luda, but it somewhat
compromised Cynthia's plan. She didn't want everything to depend on a
girl who could be bought by the highest bidder.
Lavrenti Beria had been known to take a woman right out of the Lubyanka prison, give her a chance to get cleaned up and nicely dressed, and then take her out to a sumptuous dinner. There would, of course, be French wine. And talk. It might be back to the Lubyanka for the woman, but he would have learned something.
A Radcliffe dormitory wasn't exactly the Lubyanka, but Cynthia used a similar technique. Afternoon tea at the Copley Plaza was expensive, but the expense was trivial in the circumstances.
The tea area, just off the main lobby, had the usual palm trees, but also a lot of little decorative touches which made the paying guests feel rather special. Cynthia, walking a little behind Luda, let the girl, in one of Joan's dresses, make her entrance. People certainly did look at her as she followed the diminutive hostess. That was good.
They were seated near a pair of rather elegant young women, which was also good. Luda didn't need to be near ugly people in order to captivate, and, indeed, was happy to outshine the attractive. Unfortunately, the women, who should have been talking about art or music in well-modulated voices, were talking about their wardrobes in voices that were too shrill. However, Luda didn't seem to notice.
Obviously pleased by the surroundings, Luda talked. In fact, rather too much. The problem wasn't that of getting information, but of getting a consistent credible account of her past.
The place to start, Cynthia thought, was with the parents. It had occurred to her that Luda's surname was the female variant of that of Stalin's former NKVD head and chief executioner, Yezhov. The red-headed dwarf had himself been executed by his successor, Beria, but his memory remained vivid.
Cynthia didn't know how common the name might be in Russia, besides which, Luda was certainly no dwarf. But her hair was, indeed, red. In any case, she didn't think she should raise that issue directly.
A fairly subtle guiding of the conversation did produce some results. Luda didn't say who her parents were, but she did say what was wrong with them. They were consumed with greed, they had no sympathy for the poor, they had only the most superficial interests, and they had no real friends. Cynthia asked, brightly, "Are they like Rachel's parents?"
"Oh no! Rachel's parents are transplanted town peasants!"
Luda seemed to catch herself. She wasn't dumb, and she didn't want to be caught showing contempt for peasants. By the time she made up for that slip, it had come out that her father was a bureaucrat. There was then a covering digression in which it turned out that, in every conflict, Luda had been right, morally right, while the other person had been very, very wrong. Her mother was always most wrong of all.
In the midst of the conversational chaos that followed, Cynthia tried to put things together. While she had spent years listening to stories and separating the plausible from the implausible, Luda was much more difficult than Adam had been. First, there was the matter of detail. Agents working under a cover did their research, often with the help of the KGB or CIA, and usually got their details right. Even Adam had his real or fictive Soviet past well in hand. Cynthia herself had once been told that she overdid it, and knew more than the person she was pretending to be would know.
Luda was at the other end of the spectrum. Many of the details were wrong, or in conflict with one another, and much that she said was fictive. But, of course, she wasn't a professional. She wasn't telling rational lies to protect herself, but irrational ones to make herself more romantic.
It was also becoming clear that Luda was a good deal less mature than her appearance would have suggested. Cynthia couldn't imagine that even the Soviets would have made her an agent. Indeed, Cynthia happened to know that the FBI people who interrogated her had come to the same conclusion. That, at least, eliminated one adverse possibility.
The way forward was to find out in
more detail exactly what was wrong with Luda's mother.
"Was she cruel?"
"Yes! And unfair. She'd let my sister do things she wouldn't dream of letting me do."
"Is this an older sister?"
"Two years younger. But she was a mousy little thing, probably still is."
"Well, at least you could get away when you went to school."
"I've sometimes wondered whether the school and the teachers were worse than my home and my parents. None of them dared think anything that would give the organs of state security the least unease."
Luda, the rebel, held her head up ostentatiously, as if to challenge any authority anywhere anytime. It was probably just show rebellion, the sort that disappeared quite quickly when confronted with real authority. But Luda probably had been in conflict with her society at some level in some way.
Cynthia, thinking how easy it was to manipulate girls like Luda, asked, "Did you get into political trouble?"
There was a slight pause before the affirmation. Cynthia took it that the trouble could be construed as political, but really wasn't. Finally, she said, "You know, Luda, there are girls in America who have major conflicts with their parents and schools and simply run away. They have to live hand and mouth, but they usually do survive."
"I've seen a little of that here. It's harder in the Soviet Union. You can't travel freely about the country, and you can be stopped and questioned anywhere anytime. You have to find someone to give you a place to live and a certain protection."
Cynthia nodded in sympathy, and Luda continued, "And, of course, it's risky for the other person."
With that, Luda threw up her hands. It was possible that some motherly woman had taken such chances for her, but, more likely, men had done it in exchange for sex. Cynthia replied, "Anyhow, you did manage to get out."
"I did get to Riga, where fishermen go out every day. If they're willing to abandon their families, they can just keep on going and escape. I happened to find such men, and there was little additional risk for them to take me along."
This was the de-romanticized version of the story, and Cynthia believed it. She said, "You've done very well. You're here, in college, and with good prospects. We've all had difficult experiences, and I think we can just put them behind us."
"Yes, I'm certainly doing all right. But I have no idea where it will all end."
"Most college girls are lining up to get husbands."
"I really don't want that. Men are so dishonest. Whatever they say, they just want to get you alone and grab at you."
This was said in a convincing tone. No doubt the Latvian fishermen were inclined to grab. So, probably, were most of the men Luda had met. Lying baldly, Cynthia replied, "I feel the same way. I guess that's why I'm not married."
Luda's face was flushed, and she leaned forward over the table, as if to say something. She hesitated, and Cynthia said, "I bet you want to know if I've slept with men."
The answer was obviously affirmative, and Cynthia said casually, "Many times. Never for money or jewelry, or anything like that. But to get things I really needed. When survival was at stake, there was no question."
"Did having to do that turn you away from men?"
"I think to a considerable extent. But it doesn't worry me now. I think I'm better off single."
Cynthia smiled gently, eliciting a little smile in return. Then, to cool the intensity, she asked, "How do you like your new host mother, Joan Howard?"
"Fine. She's nice, and she spoils me a bit. She also liked Rachel and Barbara when I took them there at your suggestion."
"Yes. You girls will find that families like that can ease your way. I'll suggest to Joan that she have you for an evening party where you can meet Mr. Howard."
Luda seemed to like that idea, perhaps sensing an opportunity. Cynthia then said that she had to leave for an appointment. She still wasn't sure what to think, but, in any case, it was well not to push too hard.