The Portuguese Escape

The Portuguese Escape

ANN BRIDGE

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 1

Two young men were sitting under a gaily coloured sun-umbrella on the terrace of a restaurant, overlooking the Tagus between Lisbon and Estoril, a little detached from the crowd of people at the farther end, where a cocktail-party was in progress. One was First Secretary at the American Embassy in Lisbon, the other his opposite number in the British Mission, and they were talking with the easy frankness which obtains between diplomats who are also friends.

‘So she's really coming?' Richard Atherley, the Englishman, asked.

‘She
is
—she's in Madrid at this instant, and arrives here tomorrow morning. I have to support the devoted Mama at the station at 9 a.m.'

‘We really have to hand it to the Countess for getting her out at last.
How
long has she been at it?'

‘Well, it's ten years since she and old Count Páloczy came out themselves,' Townsend Waller said, ‘and I suppose when they found there was no hope of getting back to Hungary they started in trying to get young Hetta out. Say nine years ago.'

‘Why did they leave her behind in the first place? It seems a mad thing to have done.'

‘She was down with scarlet fever at her convent school when the Russians came in—it wasn't very practical to move her. And I don't think anyone realised, at that stage, what the Russian occupation was going to amount to, nor how permanent it would be. Anyway it was really urgent to get the old Count out: the Communists had him as a top priority on their liquidation list, because he'd been a main opponent of Michael Károlyi and the Béla Kun Communist revolution in 1919.'

‘1919! He must have been very young then.'

‘Not all that young—he was a whole lot older than Dorothée. You never met him, did you?'

‘No, he died just before I came.'

‘Pity. He was so nice, and a real
galant' uomo
,' the Bostonian said thoughtfully. ‘And this child was the light of his eyes; I don't think he was ever
not
thinking of her for half-an-hour together—while he was awake, that is. He spent the last nine years of his life in hell. It was a damned shame, for a man like that.'

‘A damned shame for any man,' Atherley agreed. But he had been doing sums in his head. ‘How old was the girl when they left?'

‘Twelve, I think.'

‘So she'll be twenty-two now. Good Heavens!—a grown woman, who hasn't seen her mother since she was a child. What a strange situation.'

‘Strange enough—especially when you consider Dorothée,' the American said, causing Atherley to give a short deep laugh, rather like the brief bark of a big dog.

‘Good God, yes.' He continued to think it over. ‘Where's the girl been all this time?' he asked.

‘I don't know—accurately. With the nuns, I suppose.'

‘I thought all the convents were washed up.'

‘No one knows that—no one really knows anything about actual conditions in Hungary. The child was traceable, and traced—because the Páloczys tried everything: Red Cross, Quakers, Hungarian Legation in Washington, American Legation in Budapest
and
in Vienna—with just precisely no result. At one point the Hungarian government tried to do a trade, the U.S.A. clamping down on the Voice of America broadcasts to Hungary in exchange for young Hetta: but of course the State Department couldn't agree to that. Then there was a round-about suggestion of money—so many thousand dollars to be made available for purchases of things they wanted. The Countess was advised against that, of course, but she wouldn't listen, and I believe she sprang half-a-million dollars. But still no Hetta.'

‘You don't say so!'

‘It's exactly what I
do
say. Ask for money, get money, and don't carry out the bargain.'

Atherley looked thoughtful.

‘That is really horrible, when you think what tre-mendous
“gentlemen”, in the best sense of the word, the Hungarians used to be.'

‘Did you know them?' Townsend Waller asked.

‘A little, yes. I was out there in 1939, shooting—only for a few weeks, but I stayed all the time in Hungarian houses, and got to know some of them rather well. It was a splendid way of life; it's hideous to think of it all being wrecked and ruined.'

‘Why was it so good? I thought it was pretty feudal.'

‘Feudalism
is
good—and pretty too!' the Englishman said roundly. ‘And just as nice for the peasant as for the prince! Don't go all bogus about the Common Man, Townsend; you know better in Boston.' Then as his friend laughed, he reverted to the subject of Hetta Páloczy and her exit from Hungary. ‘Whose idea was the Press Conference? Yours?'

‘Not on your life! It was Dorothée's own notion, and I know the Ambassador tried to shelve it; but of course she's an American citizen, and a free agent, and nobody could really stop her. Naturally Perce helped it along, once it was clear that Dorothée was determined to have it, and rounded up a good show of correspondents; but no one expected it to resound the way it did. I never remember anything like it, and nor does Perce; and he's been a Press Attaché for a long while, and a press-man for longer.'

‘Yes, it did resound,' said Atherley. ‘I should rather like to have been there.'

‘Dorothée did it awfully well; I have to give her that. She's nobody's fool, whatever one may think of her social efforts, and she didn't overplay her hand at all; she kept very quiet, just gave all the facts, and what had been done, and promised, and the broken promises—and threw in the old Count's death with quite a neat quiet little implication that he'd died of a broken heart. I daresay he did, even if it was technically a grippe—I would imagine he felt he just couldn't go on living in that agony about the girl any more. Anyhow the world press the conference got must have shaken up Moscow quite considerably, for it was just forty-eight hours before the telegram came to say that the Countess Hetta Páloczy was being shipped out.'

‘A telegram from Moscow?'

‘No, Budapest—but we all know where they take their orders from.'

‘Stinkers!' said the Englishman, without heat. ‘And what does your Ambassador say now?'

‘Oh, he's as pleased as a dog with two tails!' said the American, with a wide agreeable grin.

‘Well, here's to the poor little Countess.' Raising his glass, he saw that it was empty. ‘
Mais dois
,' he said to a hovering waiter, who swept away their glasses, and returned almost instantly with two more. Atherley gave the toast again. When they had drunk it, ‘I suppose no one has any idea what the girl is like?' he said thoughtfully.

‘I asked Johnson that, when he called me from Madrid to advise us that she was coming—all he said was “Silent”.'

‘Then she must be plain. Dorothée won't like that.'

‘She wouldn't like it so very much if she was a beauty,' said the American.

‘No. What the Countess would like is something in between—passably pretty, and chic. Can a woman from behind the Curtain be chic?'

‘I wouldn't think so, by what I hear from our people in Moscow.'

‘Poor girl! It really
is
a situation,' said Atherley thoughtfully—he never minded repeating himself. ‘You know, after all those years to come now, a grown woman, quite
fresh
to Dorothée—'

‘Look out! Here she comes!' his friend adjured him hastily. The table at which they sat was just at the top of the flight of steps leading down from the restaurant to the broad roadway which runs along the north bank of the Tagus, now bordered with the dark shining shapes of parked cars, so that anyone descending the steps had to pass close by the two young men. Atherley glanced round. A tall woman, obviously middle-aged but still slender, was moving with rather deliberate gracefulness towards them, accompanied by a man whose black garments, and still more the peculiar combination of urbanity, experience, and astuteness of his expression unmistakeably indicated a dignitary of the Roman Catholic Church.

‘With her familiar spirit!' Atherley muttered irrepressibly.

‘
Will
you shut up!' his companion repeated anxiously. When she reached their table the Countess Páloczy paused.

‘Are you two not at the party, or are you contracting out?' she asked, with a little smile.

The two young men sprang up.

‘A little of both, Countess,' Townsend Waller said. ‘We are at the party, but we had business to discuss.'

‘Practically in conference!' she said, with slight mockery. ‘You know Monsignor Subercaseaux, don't you?'

They both bowed.

‘But naturally—I hope rather well,' said Atherley, holding out his hand to the priest. In fact Atherley always enjoyed the company of the Monsignor—his high degree of intelligence, his subtlety, and his remarkably uninhibited freedom of speech were all most entertaining and refreshing, the young man felt, in the stereotyped and conventional society in which they both moved.

The Countess was speaking to Waller.

‘You will be at the Rossio tomorrow morning? I— well, I shall be glad of support. It is so sad to be meeting the child alone.' There was a slight stress on the last word.

‘Yes indeed, Countess—I'll be there. I'm afraid your daughter will have an awful night, in those little coffins of sleepers they've put on now from Madrid.'

‘Are they bad?'

‘Oh, ghastly! They've almost doubled the number of sleepers to a coach; you can hardly turn round, the washbowl's the size of a tea-cup, and there's no room for luggage—you can't fit in a hat-box!'

‘I don't suppose Hetta has much luggage,' the Countess said measuredly. ‘Very well—till tomorrow morning. Goodbye. Goodbye, Mr. Atherley.' She moved away, still accompanied by the priest.

‘I like Subercaseaux,' Atherley said when the Countess Páloczy's Rolls-Royce, gliding noiselessly to the foot of the steps, had borne the pair off. ‘He can be such fun.'

‘He's entertaining all right; but do you think, Richard,
that he's really a man of God?' the Bostonian asked, turning deep-set, suddenly serious eyes onto his friend. Atherley laughed out loud.

‘You dear old Pilgrim Father!
I
don't know. If he is, it's too heavily overlaid with the wisdom of the serpent to be very obvious; but I don't exclude it. Nothing is ever obvious about R.C. priests, not even holiness—and there have been some very holy ones. Why does it worry you?'

‘I don't think ministers of religion should get mixed up in politics,' Waller said slowly.

‘But Townsend, does he?'

‘Oh Richard, be your age! None of these foreign royals and politicos here stir a foot without consulting him. I bet you he arranged this marriage between the King of Calabria's daughter and the Comte de Bretagne's son; and I shouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that it was he who tipped the Countess off to hold that Press Conference.'

‘He did a good job, if so. But if he does give advice— and I'm sure his would be good—it's as un-obvious as everything else about him.'

Townsend Waller stared earnestly at his friend.

‘Richard—forgive my asking—but you aren't thinking of becoming a Catholic, are you?'

At that question Mr. Atherley's laughter became like the baying of several bloodhounds, causing heads to turn at the more populated end of the terrace.

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