A Revised Message
Sir Isiah Linsky, fighting a cold, sat sniffing and snuffling at his desk. He was late, having had an extra large breakfast and three cups of coffee with the idea of curing himself. It seemed not to have worked, and he had missed his first appointment of the day. Since it was with his embassy’s very boring assistant cultural attache, the thought of having missed it bucked him up a little. Then, looking at the calendar, he saw that his next appointment was with Mrs. Elsa Sombor. That was a surprise! His secretary must have penciled her in that very morning. That suggested a certain urgency.
Sir Isiah knew Elsa primarily from the philosophy discussion group that met monthly. She was very sharp, and, while only sometimes agreeing with him, she agreed with him more often than did anyone else in the group. But this was the first time that she had ever turned up at the embassy, and he doubted that she had philosophy in mind.
Between snorts, sneezes, and thoughts of Elsa, Sir Isiah couldn't do anything useful. So he dealt himself a hand of solitaire in a space on his desk which he created by pushing everything else randomly aside, some items falling to the floor.
Elsa came whipping into the room, shook off her coat, and came to embrace him. He held up his hands warningly as he announced, "I'm spewing germs, my dear. You may save the affection for our next meeting."
Elsa seemed undeterred, but, since there was the desk between them, she took a chair and said, "I don't regard it as a virtue that intelligence services put more energy into playing games with one another than in collecting facts about the outside world."
"No, I don't suppose that is a virtue. Perhaps they ought to stop doing it."
It was said with a smile, and brought a derisive laugh from Elsa. She continued, "The message was from you, wasn't it?"
"It was delivered to me by Luda Yezhova, a little friend of Cynthia Massey. Since it contained words that Luda wouldn't have known, I assumed that she'd memorized it. Escaped Russian girls don't utter phrases such as 'Her majesty's government considers that....'. So I assumed that it came from you."
"That's Foreign Office gobbledegook, Elsa. I don't talk that way."
"Not quite. But there's a common assumption between that kind of talk and the message Luda gave me. The Foreign Office Johnies speak in that way because they can't imagine that there's any majesty anywhere outside England."
"Just so. But I still don't understand."
"The message, I believe verbatim, was this: 'All the American nuclear weapons in Britain are stored and guarded by the Royal Marines, and can only be used with the permission of the British government.' Isn't that nice?"
"Why would that have to come from me?"
"Because there's a reference to the 'Royal Marines.' No one who isn't English calls them that. They're the British Marines, or, in this context, just ‘marines.’ But you people, imagining that there's only one royalty, and hence only one Royal Marines, persist in that."
"So, this message you refer to may have been drafted by an Englishman. As they say here, so what?"
“It came from Cynthia Massey, a British agent."
"I do happen to know her. Isn't she American?"
"Isiah, I haven't yet met anyone who's been fooled by her American act. And I know she's a spy. So she's a British spy. But she couldn't get up to anything like this without your blessing. You may even have drafted this little message in your own charming way."
“It is so hard for a foreigner to seem American. How do you manage it?"
"Because, as a Hungarian, I started from a quite dissimilar language, and from a culture without all your imperialist assumptions. Cynthia gives herself away in two minutes of conversation, and you do when you try to write something that purportedly comes from an American."
"Yes. Well, Hemingway was once told by a prominent Englishman that, while he couldn’t claim to be a gentleman, he might be taken for one in Italy. You and Cynthia might try being American in one of the aboriginal regions of Australia."
"We're not as hopeless as that, Elsa. Neither of us sounds like Bertie Wooster."
"No. And, of course, you aren't pretending to be American most of the time. And I don't want to be mean about Cynthia. I do consider her a friend."
"A fine woman. You probably know about her being in occupied France."
"Yes, I do. And I admire that. I've never had the Gestapo after me. However, her intelligence is of a highly rational, and even scientific, kind. Moreover, despite certain episodes, she's really quite high-minded."
"You know about those episodes?"
"Yes. And her secrets are a lot safer with me than with any of your people."
"Quite possibly. And you conclude from all this?"
"Cynthia's a horrible player of the game. Entirely unsuited for it. In fact, a menace to all of us."
"Really Elsa, she's had quite a string of successes."
"Oh, I know that, Isiah. She's really good at two things. Sex, as I have reason to know. And speechwriting for American politicians. That's a function of her rationality and education. American political speeches are full of embarrassing baloney and utter bullshit. Along comes a British gentlewoman who writes with simplicity and power. That bowls them over. You could do the same thing."
"I don't want to retire here and become a senator, thank you very much."
"However, all that granted, Cynthia doesn't have the sensitivity to people and nuances that are needed to fool people like me. Please don't have her sending any more messages through utterly hopeless intermediaries."
"I certainly won't after this fiasco. However, there is one point to be made, Elsa. One shouldn't conclude from the circumstances of its delivery that this message is false."
"No. We're warned against that mistake in elementary logic courses."
"I say this because, if you reported this little episode in detail, others might make that mistake."
"So, then, Isiah, where do go from here? Are you feeling well enough to take a walk in the park?"
"Oh yes. Actually I feel better in fresh air."
Elsa spoke first, "You must believe me to be a Soviet agent, or you wouldn't have directed this at me."
"Some people seem to think that you and Eric are with the Czech St. B. Is that any different?"
"Not essentially. But, since we're Hungarians, that's never been the most comfortable fit. The Soviets have just now put down the Hungarian revolt in the most brutal way. A number of our friends have disappeared, probably executed. That's virtually the last straw."
"You could go to the FBI, fess up, and change sides."
"We're still socialists, as opposed to greedy capitalists. Since we haven't been arrested or interrogated by the hard men of the FBI, the people who believe that we're spies must not have told the Americans."
"No, I don't believe that they're likely to."
"So we have some freedom of action, you and I."
"Mainly, we're operating against the background of a possible war with weapons of indescribable destructiveness. I try to be extremely careful not to make such a war more likely."
"You slipped a little this time, but I haven't reported anything."
"Yes, good girl indeed. I, too, want to make such a war less likely if that is possible."
"We don't sit at the top table and make decisions, you and I, but we do transmit information, or lies, as the case may be."
At this point, Sir Isiah felt a sudden uneasiness in his stomach. He said, "Dear God, I must be coming down with flu. I think I'm going to throw up."
"Here's a bench. You can kneel on it and let go over the back."
Sir Isiah did as instructed, and, as Elsa rubbed his back gently, he gave way to largely involuntary convulsions which propelled what was down below out of his mouth, and, seemingly out of his nose. Gasping, he allowed Elsa to mop with a handkerchief she fished out of his pocket. Then, standing with her help, he allowed, "I actually feel a bit better now."
"We'll get a taxi and get you home."
"As to the matter we were discussing, if we could make war only two per cent less likely, that would be an enormous achievement."
"Your basic idea wasn't bad. The Russians are more paranoid than the Americans, who have them pretty well encircled. The less threatened they feel in fewer directions, the less likely they are to attack."
"So you agree?"
"In principle. That message was much too crude and transparent, but, since you've gone to such trouble to give it a good pedigree, I'll substitute something they're more likely to believe."
"Again, good girl!"
"Since I am such a good girl, it's unfair that I have such a bad reputation."
As Linsky got into the taxi, Elsa waved and called out,
"I'll call tomorrow to see how you are. Please give my regards to Cynthia."