Beauty and Intelligence
Madame Anne-Marie de la Billiere stood facing a full- length mirror in her underwear, letting her fantasies go wild. A man was coming to see her. He might be like Colonel Smith or, worse, like Mr. A. L. Seiss. On the other hand, he might be like Gregory Peck.
Madame de la Billiere was a few inches over five feet tall and was unusually erect in her posture, like a ballet dancer. She was quite slim, particularly at her waist and ankles, but her breasts were more prominent than those of a dancer. As she twisted and looked over her shoulder at the mirror, she gave a deep throaty laugh and decided that she looked French. Since she was pretending to be French, and was teaching French at a boarding school in Virginia, it was as well to look the part.
With one hand brushing back her black hair and the other at her waist, she flashed her black eyes and pouted. Then she burst out laughing. The French lingerie helped. In Russia, women's underwear was designed by people who hated women. This was better, far better.
Unlikely as it might have appeared, Madame Billiere came from a military family. Her grandfather, Marshal Shaposhnikov, had played a key role in the winter victory over the Nazis in front of Moscow, and was one of Major Ahkromeyev's heroes. In honor of her grandfather, Madame Billiere adjusted her fine nylon stockings, clicked together her little Italian high heels, and saluted her image in the mirror. Then, wondering what the boys and girls in her classes would think if they could see her, she blushed deeply.
Finally giving in to reality and supposing that her visitor would be the mean between Colonel Smith and Mr. Seiss, Madame Billiere took an expensive and ornate white slip from a drawer and slid it over her head. Then, standing in front of a closet, she chose a thoroughly respectable, but elegant, blue silk dress. As she did it up, she executed a few little dance steps in front of the mirror. It was a good thing for her wardrobe that, in addition to her modest salary, she had a pension from an obscure source. Since she took her meals at the school, there was, really, nothing to buy except her clothes.
Fairmile was some distance into the hinterlands of Virginia, and there was no reasonable way for Tom Williams to get there without a car. Fortunately enough, there was a notice on the bulletin board that Weston Harrison had one for sale. Tom wondered if it was the old Cadillac convertible that was always parked by his office, and he took the shuttle over to find out.
Once Weston learned the nature of Tom's business, he replied,
"It's a great car, but my new girl friend doesn't like it. I'll sell it to you for twenty bucks."
Tom was reaching for his money when Weston held up his hand and asked,
"Doesn't that little parking lot by Complab slope uphill?"
"Yeah, I guess it does."
"Is there a hill at all where you live?"
"It goes down a bit from Wisonsin Avenue."
Tom was expecting to be told that it was necessary to coast downhill to start, but Weston instead said,
"That's good. It doesn't go in reverse, but, if you park uphill, you don't have to push it backwards."
"It doesn't have any reverse at all?"
"No. It's no problem, really. The parking lot here is flat, so, when I come in, I drive it a few feet up into this little rock garden. Then, when I leave, I hop in, coast back twenty feet or so, and I'm gone."
Tom wasn't entirely convinced, and Weston insisted on taking him out for a spin, saying,
"I'll drive at first, just to show you how."
Once they were seated in the huge old car, he said,
"The muffler's also a bit shaky, but it makes a great sound. I always imagine that I'm in one of those old airplanes with a mechanic out in front all set to yell 'Contact!'"
The big V-8 did produce an impressive volume of sound, and a not inconsiderable quantity of smoke. They rolled back with a great jounce, and then went speeding down the driveway. There was nothing wrong with the engine or the acceleration, and they took the turn on to Connecticut Avenue at speed. Weston then shouted over the noise of the engine,
"When would you suppose that you'd normally have to back up?"
"In parking, I guess."
When they got to Chevy Chase Circle, Weston said,
"You just pick out a fairly generous space and do like this."
With that, he headed into a space, drove up over the curb on to the sidewalk, and, when the rear end was in, he steered the front end back off the sidewalk. He then made a gesture of modest vindication, as if to say that it was only a misconception, unfortunately widespread, that reverse gear was a desirable thing to have in an automobile.
When Tom started driving, he found plenty of power at his command, but noticed that the speedometer remained fixed on zero. When he mentioned it, Weston replied,
"There are a number of little things like that. But it's got a great engine, and it steers well."
When they returned, Tom, enjoying himself, drove up into the rock garden. Weston remarked,
"I've always felt that it's morally rather good to have no reverse and be committed to always moving forward."
"You must like your new lady friend a lot to be willing to give up the car."
"Well, I did make a little mistake one night, a matter of misjudging a grade. She had to help me push in her high heels, and was moderately unpleasant about it. But she's quite nice most of the time."
As he signed over the title in his office, Weston said,
"I'm getting great reports on you from all sides. I should give Arthur Burks credit for sending you, but I'm taking it for myself. By the way, I recruited Pete Helton for Complab a few months ago. How's he doing?"
It was hard to keep up with the twists in Weston's conversation, but, when Tom mumbled something vaguely favorable about Pete, Weston replied,
"Not so well, I gather. See if you can help him. We're all so much alike here that I thought I'd try to get someone from a little different background. I know he sounds a bit odd when he speaks, but there should be a niche for him somewhere."
Tom managed to summon up some enthusiasm for Pete, and Weston clapped him hard on the shoulder as he switched back to the car,
"You may notice that the gas guage doesn't work, but there's a length of heavy wire in the back seat that I've been using for a dip stick. She's almost full now. When you get out on the highway, just lay back your ears and let her rip."
On his trip down into Virginia to see Madame de la Billiere, Tom did as instructed. The car ran as fast as the driver's nerves would permit, and he did feel rather as if he were piloting an old bomber whose instruments and other bits and pieces had been shot away by flak and fighters.
Tom had never experienced a town like Fairmile. It was pretty in every direction, and was built around a college of moderate size and some distinction. The town was obviously populated only by nice people. The police probably harrassed and beat up any new arrival who didn't look respectable, and then put him on a departing bus.
The school was a little outside town, a handsome mansion on a hilltop. Although he had expected it to be almost deserted in the middle of summer vacation, there were quite a number of students strolling around, evidently in some sort of summer program. Parking on an upslope in front of one of the smaller buildings, he asked a passing female student for directions. She replied, in a wonderful accent,
"Are you someone's boy friend?"
Tom wasn't thrilled at being thought young enough to have a girl friend in a prep school, but he was willing to play games with a pretty young lady. He answered,
"Well, now, it all depends. If you're the boy friend of some girl I don't like, I'll just have to do a little match-making and find you someone better."
Tom eventually did get his directions without revealing that he had come to see Madame de la Billiere.
Just as he entered the mansion, he was intercepted by that lady herself. She wasn't what he expected in a Russian adventuress, perhaps a tall blonde Slav with slanted eyes and a cruel mouth. This lady was petite and dark-haired, laughing and vivacious. After having hustled up to him with incredibly quick small steps, she thrust out her hand and leaned to her right with a peculiar twist, as if to inspect him from the side. She was beautiful, of course, and there was, in fact, an Asiatic look to her eyes. She seemed to be amused that the CIA had sent her such a person as himself. She did say,
"I expected someone like Colonel Smith."
"One of your students just mistook me for the boy friend of one of the girls."
"I saw her talking with you from the window, but I wasn't sure whether you were the gentleman who was coming to see me."
"So you also thought I might be coming for one of the girls."
"No, but we're expecting a new teacher to arrive soon. I thought you might be he."
It might have been true, but Tom suspected already that Madame de la Billiere invented freely in the interests of tact. Indeed, she did, in a very few minutes, make him feel as if he were a much better fellow than he had previously supposed.
It was impossible not to mentally compare this lady with Sid. Anne-Marie, as she insisted that he call her, was probably about the same age, and, although quite different in appearance and manner, the net effect, at least on a man, was about the same. In both cases, Tom suspected that this effect wasn't accidental.
As regards dinner, Anne-Marie said,
"We'd be delighted to have you eat here, and you might find some of the people amusing. But, of course, we couldn't talk privately."
Tom's thoughts included,
(1) Here's my chance to have dinner alone with her.
(2) If I get her alone, I might not know what to say or do.
(3) Whatever I do, I'll have to find reasons to keep coming back.
(4) I'm good at fitting in with groups, and that'll allow me to make a good impression.
(5) If I have dinner with her at the school, we'll have to go out alone afterwards to talk about secret things, and that'll be more romantic.
Most of these thoughts favored accepting the invitation to dinner, which Tom did. Whatever his companion's thoughts might have been, she was far too good a hostess not to appear delighted at his acceptance.
They ate at a faculty table at one end of a large dining room, and Tom was duly introduced as the younger brother of an old friend of Anne-Marie's. It immediately struck him that the faculty was much like the one at his old prep school. Such people made good hosts, and Tom had a pleasant time at dinner. They didn't press him for details about his job, and they talked mostly about art and the National Gallery. Indeed, after a couple of glasses of the excellent wine, Tom was even drawn into recounting the use he had made of the Turner in which the wind was blowing in opposite directions at once.
After coffee, Tom found himself in a peculiar position, not sure whether he was on a date or a mission. Anyhow, on the way up, he had noticed the battlefield with a little cluster of restaurants and shops across the street. There was plenty of daylight left, and it seemed appropriate to suggest that they go there. Anne-Marie seemed pleased, and said,
"Even though I've been here a year, I've never seen it."
Tom had neglected to explain his car to Anne-Marie. When they started with a loud backfire, she seemed about to jump out. He caught her arm and reassured her, but she quickly asked,
"Is it on fire?"
When he explained further, she looked relieved and replied,
"When a tank is hit and penetrated by a shell, there's first a noise like that one. Then, a minute later, the whole thing bursts into flame. Unless the men get out quickly, they're burned alive."
That stopped Tom for a moment, and, before he could say anything further, Anne-Marie said,
"The operatives of our state security services always wear black and drive black cars. But, of course, everyone knows who they are. I can see that the CIA is much more subtle and better at disguises. Does Colonel Smith also drive a car like this?"
Tom wasn't sure whether Anne-Marie was joking. She let him get into the middle of his explanation that the CIA didn't furnish people like himself with cars before she touched him familiarly on the arm and gave him a delighted smile.
As they drove along, Tom kept looking at his companion. In profile, she looked almost Italian. It was when she turned toward him that there was something else, an unusual Asiatic expressiveness which seemed to have hundreds of forms, shifting by the second. He knew that she had been an actress, and asked about it. Anne-Marie replied,
"Yes, I was a member of a group that toured Siberia. My best role was Tom Sawyer."
That took him aback. She wasn't at all flat-chested, and he could hardly imagine how she could ever have been taken for a boy. She said,
"With stage techniques you can produce greater illusions than that. I just had to alter my voice a little."
She said that, under ordinary circumstances, no decent play could be put on in Soviet Russia.
"Any new play has to be filled with propaganda and heavy- handed moralizing. And even pre-revolutionary Russian drama is bowdlerized and altered to the point of destruction. But plays adapted from Mark Twain's work are very popular in Russia, and the authorities have never seemed to realize that there are serious and controversial elements in them."
"I would never have guessed that Russians would be attracted to Tom Sawyer."
"I suppose I must have portrayed him as a Russian boy. I didn't know how cynical American boys are. They aren't brought up to be believers."
"No, they aren't indoctrinated."
"Even before Lenin, I think Russians were born believers and worshippers."
Just then, they turned on to the road that went in to the battlefield, and arrived at a hilltop parking lot. There were many signs with maps and pointers explaining the action, but there were few people around. Tom said,
"It's quite possible that most of the men who fought here didn't really believe in either the abolition of slavery or states' rights. They may just have enlisted to impress their girl friends."
"Well, Russians do that too. But, usually, there is something more."
"I wonder if that helps at critical moments."
"I don't know. Anyhow, if courage fails, there's always the final solution - vodka and lots of it."
There was then a brief silence, after which Anne-Marie asked,
"What questions have you been sent to ask me?"
It was said with the air of someone who has been dreading something, and then decides to get it over with in a hurry. Even as she spoke, there was yet a different look on her face. Tom wondered if it was fear. Could she possibly think that she would be tortured if she didn't give the right answers? Tom was quick to reply,
"There aren't any questions. My job requires me to come to understand the kind of people who run the Soviet Union and make the decisions. It's understood that you had contact with such people, and that you might be able to help me."
"But that's practically the story of my life for some five years. You can't want all of that!"
"Not tonight, of course. But there's lots of time, and there must be some quiet restaurants where we can go."
"Then you'll be coming back often. I'm glad. It gets lonely here."
Tom's thoughts and feelings were in a happy chaos and turmoil, but, knowing that he was being taken for a CIA agent, he attempted to conduct myself in a way that wouldn't disgrace the Agency or cause Colonel Smith any concern. When he parted from Anne-Marie on her doorstep, she put out her small cool hand and grasped his large warm one.