Tanner's Twelve Swingers

Page 8

“And peasant clothing, something along the lines of what I am wearing. Milan Butec is an intellectual and a political leader. Dressed as a peasant, he will be less apt to be recognized.”

Janos assured me that appropriate garments of the correct size could be readily obtained. He could also furnish auto transportation to within a few miles of the frontier. From that point on, he said, we would be on our own.

We went to the kitchen and sat over cups of thick black coffee. Mme. Papilov excused herself once, returned with an eyebrow pencil, excused herself a second time and went away. Janos left us with the explanation that he would get hold of a wig and arrange for transportation immediately after breakfast the next morning. I poured fresh coffee for Butec and myself and fortified both cups with a tot of brandy.

“I know I am trouble for you,” he said. “I regret.”

“It is no trouble.”

“You are kind.” He stroked the air an inch from his chin, caressing where a beard had been for thirty years or so, then caught himself and stared at his hand. “Habits,” he said. “Men are so much the creatures of habit.”


“I have spent over twenty years as a scholar, a bureaucrat, a political minister. But before this, you know, I was with the Partisans. I was a resistance leader in the war against fascism. I gave orders, and men followed my command.”

“It was a heroic fight, and-”

“Please. My point is not to win applause for my actions of years past. It is simply that you should know that I appreciate the nature of command, of one man leading and another man taking orders. In this little expedition of ours you are clearly in command. You are the expert. I am the novice. Whatever orders you give, I am prepared to follow.” He paused, looked down at himself, and patted his plump stomach and short legs. “You, on the other hand, must appreciate that to order me to swim the English Channel or scamper across the Sahara Desert would be a difficult order for me to execute.”

He said all of this quite straight-faced, then let his face relax into the first smile he had shown me.

“We may cross the Baltic Sea,” I said. “But not under our own power.”

I filled my own coffee cup again. He covered his own with his hand, explaining that he wanted to be able to get to sleep. “One final point,” he said. “You are of course familiar with the old medical problem, whether the doctor shall save the life of the mother or the child when only one can be preserved. Some say that the younger generation should be shown preferential treatment. Others argue that a mother can have more children, while a child would have difficulty gaining a second mother. But in my case it is important that you realize the proper order of things. You understand the parallel, of course?”

“Your manuscript.”

“Yes. The book is my child. My only child. Your first duty is to that child, Mr. Tanner. The child must reach the West. If you can save the mother as well” – a quick flash of smile – “so much the better, and my eternal gratitude. But if one must be sacrificed, let it be me. I would rather live in my writing than in my flesh. Words endure longer.”

He rinsed out his cup at the sink, then headed for his bedroom, determined to prove that he could exist on a scant six hours of sleep. I put my own cup aside and had a short glass of brandy. He would, I knew, be at least as much of a burden as he thought he would be and probably a great deal more. But he was a man of valor and vision and a man who could hold on to a hard core of dignity no matter how undignified his appearance. Slipping him across one border after another seemed frankly impossible but not too much more so than the comparably Herculean task of smuggling the comely Sofija from Riga, Latvia, to Providence, Rhode Island.

Janos came back with a bundle of peasant clothing that looked like simple peasant clothing, and a dark brown wig that looked exactly like a wig. I took these things and Butec’s manuscript and the rest of the jug of brandy to my room and I sat around reading and drinking and planning while the rest of the household squandered six hours in sleep.

The manuscript, Milan Butec’s only child, ran to nearly 300 pages of typescript. The first order of business was to affix it to my person in such a way that I would have nothing to carry – and, consequently, nothing to lose or misplace. I cut up some oilcloth that had previously lined the bureau drawers in my room and I divided the manuscript into four sections and sewed each batch of script into a double wrapping of oilcloth. While I didn’t expect to swim either the English Channel or the Baltic Sea, it seemed wise to protect the script from water damage.

I found a roll of heavy adhesive tape in the bathroom cabinet. In my own room I stripped to the skin and used the tape to attach the four packets to my body. I taped one around each thigh, one to my back and one to my chest. I dressed again, and there were no discernible bulges where I had taped the packets. I crinkled a bit when I moved around, but one gets accustomed to that sort of thing.

In a more orderly world, of course, the entire book would have been handily transcribed onto a single spool of microfilm, which I could have swallowed in Belgrade and defecated in New York. Such a triumph of technology would have saved me the necessity of strapping oilcloth packets all over my person and would have been perfectly safe from anything but a sudden attack of rampant colitis. No doubt the professional secret agents arrange things in such a way, and the pudgy man from Washington may have expected as much from me. But I do not have microphones in my shoes or cameras in my tie clasp or innocent-looking fountain pens that dispense deadly gases in lieu of ink. One must make do with the materials at hand.

I tucked the charcoal sketch of Todor into a pocket. It was the only item in my leather satchel with which I was not perfectly ready to part company. I committed Sofija’s address to memory and studied her photograph until I felt qualified to pick her out of a rather small crowd. I incinerated the photo and the address in an ashtray, added the few books I’d brought along to Janos Papilov’s bookshelves, and left the slim leather satchel on the bed. I made the brandy last, and by the time it was gone, the rest of the house was awake, and it was time for breakfast.

Milan Butec came fully awake about the same time he finished his third cup of breakfast coffee. He had dressed himself in the peasant clothing Janos had provided, and it fit him surprisingly well. Janos’s wife drew in an acceptable pair of eyebrows, and I observed the process with interest; it was a task I would have to perform every time Butec washed his face. The eyebrows made an immediate difference, transforming him at once from Martian to human.

The wig helped too, but there was no getting away from the fact that it looked very much like a wig. Janos had not been able to get hold of any spirit gum, so we had to make hinges of adhesive tape and use them to affix the wig to Butec’s scalp.

Butec looked at the result in the mirror and paled at what he saw.

“In the West,” I said, “you will be able to grow the beard again.”

“Of course.”

“And dispense with the wig and let your eyebrows grow in naturally.”

“Of course. But in the meantime the less often I have to look at a mirror…”

Janos revealed an unexpected talent for barbering, using a pair of paper shears to give the wig a quick trim that made it conform somewhat better to the shape of Butec’s head. It still looked like a wig to me, but at least it looked like a well-chosen wig. With a cap covering most of it, the effect was greatly improved. Now, at least, he looked like a peasant.

But he didn’t walk like one and he didn’t talk like one, and all of this took coaching. The three of us worked out a blitz course in Instant Rustic Clod, with me as the teacher, Butec as the earnest pupil, and Janos as the critical observer. He had to exchange his military bearing and crisp stride and erect stance for the slouching, rolling gait of the peasant who knows how to cover many miles in a day. He had to train himself to mutter and mumble with the air of one who has learned throughout his life that no one is very interested in anything he might have to say.

It was no simple role for him to pick up in so short a time. I thought of that English king – one of the Henrys, I think the Second – who was supposed to have donned rustic garb and passed incognito among his subjects from time to time. I doubt that he really fooled many of them. But Butec, though hardly a natural actor, had the sort of practical mind that enabled him to know what he could manage and what was beyond his grasp. He would talk as little as possible, he assured me, and he would use the simplest possible words, and he would do his best to be a man whom no one would favor with a second glance.

By the time a wheezing, belching automobile came around to carry us to the border, he was ready.

The border between Yugoslavia and Hungary is an easy one. Whenever there is an extensive land frontier separating two countries, it is virtually impossible to patrol the border effectively. When a river forms the boundary, one may establish customs stations at the bridges. But Yugoslavia and Hungary have a long common border, and except for the central stretch where the Drava River divides the two countries, the border is not a geographical entity at all but merely a line on a map. The few roads that cross from one country to the other have customs posts. Between the roads there is nothing more imposing than a pair of wire fences thirty yards apart.

Our driver took us in nervous silence to within a dozen miles of the border, dropping us on the road that led from Velika Kikinda to the Hungarian town of Szeged. We walked northwest along the little-used road, and Butec showed that he had learned his lessons rather well. His legs relaxed into the easy gait of the Yugoslav peasant, and his eyes watched the ground ahead of him.

A few miles from the border we abandoned the road and cut east through a vineyard. Mme. Papilov had given us each a paper sack containing rolls and cheese and sausages, and I had tucked a flask of brandy into a hip pocket. We walked out of sight of the road and squatted among the grapevines to eat lunch. The grapes were not entirely ripe, but their tart taste was not unpleasant. We incorporated a few handfuls of them in our lunch.

When the food was gone, we nipped at the brandy and sat enjoying the feel of the hot noonday sun on our hands and faces. Butec the peasant looked years younger than Butec the politician. He sighed, smothered a belch, yawned, then stretched out flat on his back with his hands beneath his head. I thought for a bad moment that he was ready for another six hours of sleep. Then he began to talk.

“This is good for me,” he said. “This fresh air, this good, plain food, this exercise. Is it not a beautiful day?”

“It is.”

“And beautiful countryside?”


“The countryside where I was born is still more beautiful. You have been to Tzerna Gora?”

Tzerna Gora is Serbo-Croat for Montenegro. I told him that I had passed through the province several times.

“Do you know, perhaps, a town called Savnik?”

“I know of it, but I have never been there.”

“I was born in Savnik. Not in Savnik itself but in a cottage a few miles from Savnik. So one might say that I am a human being, or a European, or a Yugoslav, or a Montenegrin, or simply a man of Savnik. Every man has many such identities, depending upon the breadth of one’s view.”

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