“Now this,” said the Duke, “is indeed a pleasant surprise. I thought you might bring fresh light to bear upon some aspect of this affair — but to have your actual help was more than I had dared to hope.”
“Very fond of Rex,” said Simon briefly.
“I know,” De Richleau nodded, “but our situations are so different. My life is one of leisure — in fact, now that old age is creeping upon me, and more and more pursuits become barred to a man of my years — I find it increasingly difficult to pass my time in an interesting and agreeable manner. You, on the contrary, as a young partner in a great financial house, have always to be on the end of the eternal telephone. You even grudge a single afternoon spent away from your office in the City. I had imagined that it would be quite impossible for you to get away.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I was — er — thinking of taking a holiday — going down to Monte for a few days — might just as well go to Russia!”
De Richleau smiled rather grimly. “I fear that this will be a very different kind of holiday, my friend. However, we will not talk of that. It is some days since I received this letter, so I have already made certain inquiries and preparations.”
“Tell me,” said Simon, shortly.
“First I cabled to my old friend, the President of the Chesapeake Banking and Trust Corporation — Van Ryn the elder — for news of Rex. Let us go into the other room, and I will show you his reply.” As he spoke the Duke left the table and threw open the door for his guest.
“Yes, I’d like to see that — I’ll take my brandy with me, if you don’t mind.” Carrying his glass, Simon Aron led the way into the big library.
It was not so much the size or decoration which made this room in the Curzon Street flat so memorable for those who had been privileged to visit it, but the unique collection of rare and beautiful objects which it contained. A Tibetan Buddha seated upon the Lotus; bronze figurines from Ancient Greece. Beautifully chased rapiers of Toledo steel and Moorish pistols inlaid with turquoise and gold, Ikons from Holy Russia, set with semi-precious stones, and curiously carved ivories from the East. The walls were lined shoulder-high with books, but above them hung lovely old colour-prints, and a number of priceless historical documents and maps.
De Richleau went over to his desk and, taking a few flimsy sheets from a drawer, handed them silently to Aron.
Simon read out the contents of the cable:
“Rex very unsettled since return from Europe last summer — went lone hunting expedition in Rockies August September — went South America October — stayed West Indies on return trip — went Russia late November against my wish ostensibly investigate commercial conditions properly accredited by me — letter received dated December fourth stating safe arrival no news since — became worried end December put inquiry through Embassy — Rex left Moscow December eleventh destination unknown — all efforts to trace movements so far unavailing — spare no expense cable any news immediately now very anxious Channock Van Ryn.”
Simon nodded. “Expensive cable that!”
The Duke crossed his slender legs, as he settled himself comfortably in an arm-chair. “That I think would hardly matter to Channock Van Ryn, and Rex, you will remember, is his only son. I am not surprised that he is anxious, but if there was ever any doubt about the message having come from our young friend, I think this cable places the matter beyond dispute.”
“Umm,” Simon nodded. “Now let’s see — today’s the 24th of January, isn’t it? At any rate, it’s nearly seven weeks since he disappeared from Moscow.”
“Exactly, but there is one comfort: we know at least that he has not been knocked on the head in some low quarter of the town and his body flung into the river — or pushed under the ice, rather — for, of course, the Moskawa River will be frozen over now. He must have fallen foul of the secret police in some way — our young friend is nothing if not inquisitive — and I believe there are very definite restrictions as to what visitors to the Soviet may, or may not, see during their stay.”
“Wait a moment!” Simon slowly revolved his brandy-glass, holding it in the palm of his hand to warm the spirit through the thin transparent glass — “Wait a minute,” he repeated, “that cable said ‘left Moscow for an unknown destination’!”
“Yes,” agreed the Duke, “and during the last few days I have been gathering information regarding other places to which he may have gone. I think you would be surprised at the knowledge which I now possess of the towns and railways of the Soviet Republic.”
“How — er — did you set about it?” Simon asked curiously.
“The obvious way, my friend.” De Richleau’s clever face broke into a sudden smile. “I paid a visit to the London office of the ‘Intourist’, which as you may know, is the official travel bureau of the Soviet. For some time now, Stalin and the present group of Kommissars have thought it desirable that people of the anti-Bolshevik states should be encouraged to visit Russia. For one thing they spend money which the Soviet badly needs — for another, they are shown certain aspects of the Bolshevik State, such as the great Metalurgical works, and scientifically run agricultural centres, of which the Kommissars are justly proud. It is hoped that they will return to their own countries with a glowing picture of the benefits of Communism for the masses.”
“But you can’t just take a ticket and go to Russia, can you?” Simon spoke doubtfully.
“Almost — but not quite, they have been very clever.” The Duke spread out his slim hands. “You wish to go to Russia? Good! To what part would you like to go — Leningrad, Moscow, Keiff, Odessa, the Crimea, the Caucassus? Would you like to stay four days — or four weeks? To start in the north, or in the south? All you have to do is to tell — us — The ‘Intourist’. We will be your servants in a country where there are servants no longer. Here are all sorts of itineraries, all ready planned. They can be varied to suit your purpose. Is it the treasures of the old world, that we have so carefully preserved, which you wish to see — or the marvellous industrial developments, by which Russia will lead the world in a few years’ time? Let us plan your journey for you. We will take your railway tickets in advance, and provide you with hotel accommodation during your stay. Of both there are four grades; and which you choose depends only upon what you wish to pay. Good meals will be provided for you, and the prices of the tours include not only entrance to all museums and sights of interest, but to the theatres and places of amusement as well. What is that? You fear you may have difficulty with the language? But not at all! An interpreter will be placed at your disposal — You do not wish to go with a crowd of people like a tourist? Certainly not! You shall have an interpreter entirely to yourself — there is no extra charge. You see, my friend —” Once more the Duke spread out his elegant hands as he finished his word-picture of the persuasive advertising agent of the Bolsheviks.
“Clever,” Simon said softly. “Oh, very clever!”
“Exactly.” De Richleau smiled again. “And that little Bolshevik interpreter will be your guide, philosopher, and friend, from the time you arrive until the time you leave this very interesting country. You can secure neither railway tickets nor hotel accommodation without consulting him, and although this excellent ‘Intourist’ will cheerfully get your passport visa for you to enter the Soviet — should you by chance desire to change your plans, and forget to inform the little interpreter — you will find it quite impossible to secure the necessary visa to get out.”
“I see.” Simon laughed his little nervous laugh. “And that’s where the fun begins. Supposing we wanted to get off the beaten track — to some place that the itineraries don’t mention — what happens then?”
“That,” said the Duke, slowly, “is a different matter. I talked vaguely to the polite young man at the bureau of visiting Archangel. He pointed out that the port would be frozen over at this time of year; an uninteresting place to visit, he seemed to think. I spoke of other towns not mentioned in the official guide — and the winter scenery in the Urals. He said that there would be no suitable accommodation. In fact, he was not helpful in any way.”
“Have you any idea what conditions are like out there now?”
De Richleau shrugged. “It is difficult to say — the reports of people to whom I have spoken vary so greatly. There is little doubt that the towns are overcrowded and food scarce. Everyone has to surrender thirty-five per cent of their wages to assist in the accomplishment of the Five Year Plan. The whole population is pauperized to this one end. Some say that the masses will not stand the strain, and that through this, and the lack of technical experts, the plan will fail and there will be counterrevolution. But with these, I think, the wish is father to the thought. Others contend that the enthusiasm for the Plan is tremendous, and that the sacrifices to assist in its accomplishment are made with the same fervour as that displayed by the early Christians in their attempt to convert the world. The truth, I think, lies somewhere between these two.”
“That’s more or less what I’ve heard.” Simon solemnly nodded his head up and down. “Mind you —” he added, “The Five Year Plan is only the first of a series, and they’re up against tremendous difficulties — it’s such a big place — Russia — and nine-tenths of the people couldn’t even read and write before the War; population’s about a hundred and eighty million, and the whole thing’s run by the Communist party, which is only about a million and a half.”
“But, my friend, that million and a half of a few years ago, is nearly four million today. Every day thousands of young people are graduating from the enlarged universities under high pressure, and every one of them is a Communist. That is one great factor in their favour; they control the intelligent youth of Russia, the other is their fanaticism. With them the Communist ideal is a religion. Ambition, comfort, leisure, personal relations, everything must give way to that. That is why I believe in the long run they are bound to triumph.”
Simon’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps — I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Christianity hasn’t triumphed or Islam — and they were fanatical enough. Still it won’t be yet awhile, and anyhow it’s not our business. When do you think of starting?”
“I am leaving tomorrow,” the Duke replied, somewhat to Simon’s surprise. “You will understand, I had not counted upon your company, and I felt that every day was of importance. Traces that our friend may have left in his passage will tend more and more to become obliterated; and I do not care to contemplate what Rex may be suffering in a Bolshevik prison. It was for that reason that I made all speed — even to secure a special diplomatic pass through a certain Embassy, where I have particularly obliging friends.”
“All right,” Simon agreed. “I shan’t be able to get away for a few days, but I’ll follow you as soon as I can.”
“Do not follow me, my friend, but join me in Moscow. I have elected to go by sea to Gothenburg, and hence by rail via Stockholm and St. Petersburg — or rather Leningrad as they call it now. It will take some days longer, but you will remember that the messenger posted Rex’s letter in Helsingfors. It is my intention to break my journey there for forty-eight hours; I shall advertise in the Finnish papers for news of Rex, and offer a substantial reward. If fortune is with us, the messenger may still be in the town, and able to inform us more exactly regarding our poor friend’s misfortune and his present whereabouts.”
“Yes — that’s sound. Thanks —” Simon helped himself to another cigar. “We shall miss our Hoyo’s —” he laughed suddenly.
“Not altogether, I trust,” De Richleau smiled. “I have dispatched two hundred in an airtight case to await our arrival.”
“Won’t they be opened at the frontier? Customs people pretty troublesome about anything like that, I should think.”
“Not these, my friend — I sent them in the Embassy bag — and that, at least, is one privilege that we, who used to rule the world, retain — as long as we have friends in the diplomatic service there is always that wonderful elastic Embassy bag — passing the Customs without examination, and giving immunity to correspondence.”
Simon’s dark eyes flickered at the Duke with an amused smile. “That’s wonderful,” he agreed, “and if the food’s going to be bad we shall enjoy the Hoyo’s all the more. I’ll tell you one thing I’m worried about, though. I can’t speak a word of Russian! How are we going to make our inquiries?”
“Fortunately I can,” De Richleau replied. “You probably do not know it but my mother was a Plakoff — her mother again was a Bourbon-Condé, so I am only one-quarter Russian — but before the War I spent much time in Russia. Prince Plakoff possessed immense estates in the foothills of the Carpathians. A part of that territory is now in the enlarged Rumania, the other portion remains in the new Soviet of the Ukraine. I stayed there, sometimes for months at a time, when I was young. I also know, many of the Russian cities well.”
“That’s lucky,” said Simon. “Now what exactly would you like me to do?”
“Go to the ‘Intourist’ and arrange for a stay of perhaps a fortnight in Moscow; let them obtain your passport visa in the ordinary way — that will take some little time. Book by the direct route to Moscow, via Berlin and Warsaw — you will cross the frontier at Negoreloye; I will meet you in Moscow after making my inquiries in Helsingfors, and combing the Consulates in Leningrad for any information which they may have.”
Simon nodded his bird-like head. “What about the Embassies here. I suppose you’ve done what you can?”
“Yes, but quite uselessly. The American Embassy had already been questioned by Washington on behalf of Channock Van Ryn, but they could add nothing to Moscow’s report that ‘Rex left on December 11th for an unknown destination’.”
“How about mun?”
“Who?” asked the Duke, vaguely.
“Money — I mean,” Simon corrected with a grin.
“I would suggest a good supply; at one time visitors to the Soviet were forced to deposit all foreign money at the frontier; they were given Soviet roubles in exchange, and any surplus of these which they had left over they could exchange once more into their own currency when they left the country; but that is so no longer. It is permissible to carry any currency into Russia, only the amount must be declared, in order that no question can be raised as to taking it out again.”
“Won’t they be suspicious if I — er — bring in more than I should need in the ordinary way?”
“Yes, perhaps. Therefore it would be best if you declare only one third of what you bring; conceal the rest about you — in your boots or the lining of your waistcoat. I am sending a reserve for myself by way of that excellent Embassy bag. It is quite possible that we may need a considerable sum for bribes, and, if we can find Rex, for arranging a method by which he can be smuggled out of the country. If we declare all that we have when we go in — it might be difficult to explain upon what it has been expended, when we go out. You must remember that all travels, hotels, food — practically everything is supposed to be paid for before we start.”
“Jack Straw?” queried Simon, suddenly “I can’t help wondering what he meant by that. Do you think there’s anything to be done there?”
De Richleau ran his hand lightly over his forehead. “What do you suggest?”
“Well, I’ll tell you. I don’t think it would do any harm if I went up to Hampstead one evening — had a look at the people that go there these days — we might get a line.”
“An excellent plan; you will have ample time.”
“Do you happen to have an atlas?” Simon asked with a little laugh. “I’ve almost forgotten what Russia looks like!”
“But certainly, my friend.” De Richleau produced a heavy volume. A table was cleared of its jewelled crucifix, its jade god, and the signed photograph of King Edward VII; then the big atlas was opened out. For a long time the handsome grey head of the Duke remained in close proximity to the dark Semitic profile of Mr. Simon Aron, while the two talked together in low voices.
Some two hours later De Richleau saw his guest down the broad stairway of Errol House to the main hall, and out into the silent deserted streets of Mayfair.
“You will not forget Jack Straw?” he said as they shook hands. “And twelve o’clock at the Ilyinka Gate in Moscow a fortnight hence — it is best that we should seem to meet by chance.”
“I’ll be there,” said Simon, adjusting his top-hat upon his narrow head. “The Ilyinka Gate, Moscow, at twelve o’clock, fourteen days from now.”