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Authors: Geoffrey Household

Thing to Love

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Thing to Love

Geoffrey Household

 

 

 

 

 

Likelier the barricades shall blare

Slaughter below and smoke above,

And death and hate and hell declare

That men have found a thing to love.

— G.K. CHESTERTON

CHAPTER I

[
October 12
]

F
ROM THE SENTINEL'S WALK
above the western wing of the President's Palace the reveille floated into the empty avenues and silent port of San Vicente. The fifths of the lone cavalry trumpet were sweet and unsubstantial, a fountain tinkling through the stone balconies and colonnades, until the call ended in two high and melancholy wails — militant as Roman tubas sounding over Spain, barbaric as a salute to the sun, while blood from the torn heart, audible in the still air, dripped from a priest's bared elbows to the altar.

The archangel who had so worthily announced to the Pacific the coming of day unscrewed the mouthpiece of his trumpet and shook a compact gob over the parapet onto the terrace below, leaning through an embrasure to watch it fall. It was a rite of private superstition. If the gob reached the fourth row of flagstones, the new day presented itself well; if the fifth, it was to be a superlative day; if ever it should fairly reach the sixth — spray did not count — it would mean a new and glorious girl, or perhaps, more dully, promotion.

That morning it reached only the third. Trumpeter Corporal Pepe Menendez cursed his luck and endeavored to improve the omen by spitting heartily over the rampart. This unjustifiable
attempt to coerce the gods landed, caught by a first puff of breeze, at the foot of the staff while his country's flag was being hoisted. The eyes of the officer of the day, though professionally blank, were still able to distinguish circumstance from pomp. As he stood at the salute, an imperceptible wrinkling of his forehead lifted the cap peak high enough to see the red horsehair of the trumpeter's helmet vanishing behind the parapet.

Pepe Menendez stood to attention upon his lonely height, hoping that the accident would be ascribed to a passing bird. He wondered whether or not to imitate the scream of a gull — having disputed with them the refuse of the foreshore, he could whistle their anger well enough to deceive anyone — but decided to leave ill alone. He took a melancholy pleasure in seeing the omen of the flagstones proved very possibly correct. At least he had not been practicing an empty rite.

Except for his comrades of the Presidential Guard, few were awake in San Vicente to hear the ethereal expertise of Trumpeter Corporal Menendez. A three-quarter sun, now visible above a dark steel line which might be cloud or the foothills of the distant Cordillera, struck at the blank modern avenues. Their eccentricities of cubes and octahedrons, lacking any stir of population, seemed to be without human object — mere abstract blocks designed by architects for the teaching of other architects. The scatter of pedestrians was going home from night shifts in the factories, not setting out for the day. The white ribbon of the quays between low warehouses and the high, black sides of silent ships were empty of all but the cloaked figures of police and customs officers. Outside the fashionable cafés quick shadows stooped along the tables and terraces, looking for bread, cigarette butts and the debris of delectable mollusks before the brooms of aproned waiters extinguished hope.

Separated from the uneasy feet of the trumpeter by the painted ceiling of his bedroom, Gregorio Vidal lay comfortably awake. It was the only period of the day when his agile brain could wander at ease and — if he wished — irresponsibly. He would have liked to extend it by shaving himself; but convention obliged
the President of the Republic to be shaved by a valet. That meant conversation. Vidal was utterly unable to ignore the presence of another human being. This genial characteristic was his greatest strength as a politician, and created a heart for Vidalismo.

Vidalismo
. To have a political philosophy called by one's name, as Stalinism or Gaullism — that was a far cry from the student of economics, thirty years younger, for whom Socialism was going to change the face of the world. Well, it had. Who was it said we are all Socialists now? But what really was the content of Vidalismo? It was hard to see a creed — or a creed that anyone was likely to die for — in a mere administrative effort to reach a North American standard of affluence and industry without going bankrupt in the process.

He didn't much like all that he was doing to his country, for he and his generation had been brought up in a kindlier San Vicente with a beauty of low horizontal lines enclosing plazas and avenues between which ran narrow streets fronted by white and yellow walls eternally crumbling in the sun and pierced by the black archways of courtyard, passage and warehouse. His modernization of industry and the capital, his necessary but unwelcome steel and concrete, were lumped together by his opponents under the name of the “Coca-Cola Culture,” loosely suggesting that Vidalismo had neither the sweet clarity of water nor the human mystery of wine. But they could say what they liked. He was determined.

Power? Did it corrupt? He did not think so. He, lying there in bed, was the same man who had so unexpectedly become Finance Minister after the revolution of 1950, whom the Chamber had appointed President in 1952, who had been elected and reelected by the people in 1955 and 1959. The exercise of power left one, as it were, no time for power, at any rate in the form of deliberate, conscious leadership. Prisons, police, censorship — very little of all that had been necessary. He had used the carrot rather than the stick. It was the democratic way, in fact the only way, to get things done in a country where effort, prolonged and precise, was uncongenial to the majority. Carrots were essential. The real difficulty was the shortage of men with the ability to
collect them. It was unfair to describe Vidalismo as a club for contractors. Vidalismo sought out and rewarded energy. Vidalismo was the Managerial Society.

The inspiration was so invigorating that Gregorio Vidal sat up and rang the bell to begin his day. He was of course perfectly familiar with the term and its meaning, but it had never before occurred to him that policies which he had believed to be empirical fell so exactly into an up-to-date definition. He had no intention of changing his admirable trade-mark of Vidalismo, but it was highly satisfactory to have an established standard against which to measure it. The Managerial Society relieved him of some lonely doubts, as Concha Vidal could not. The Presidenta was most able, but she had no regard for general principles. His personnel manager, one might call her. He wondered what she would say if he did. The vigor of her language could be embarrassing.

This pleasant sense of being, after all, in good economic company remained throughout the Presidential toilet and breakfast with Concha. It even continued through a short Cabinet meeting, and added a genial sense of confidence to his interview with Major General Kucera. Vidal respected the commander of the San Vicente garrison, but uneasily. The reactions of soldiers who were too professional could be as disconcerting as those of trained accountants.

Physical difference, too, had something to do with it. Gregorio Vidal was small and distinguished, with a delicately pointed beard. He was aware of and cultivated his resemblance to the Spanish viceroys whose portraits — white hands, white faces upon black velvet — patterned the cool dusk of his office. Major General Kucera, on the other hand, was big and shapeless, though one had to grant him the muscular grace of a well-fed puma. In the presence of such calm and solidity, Vidalismo had often seemed a little too agile. The Managerial Society, however . . . Well, its confident business was to manage.

The soldier who filled the high-backed chair opposite his desk had such an air, such a Northern air, of being about to misunderstand the subtleties of government that Vidal found some little difficulty in coming to the point. Yet there Kucera waited, answering
one meaningless courtesy with another and apparently able and willing to do so indefinitely. He was as improbable as a heavyweight boxer who has learned to fence.

“We have not seen much of you in society recently,” the President said. “Very busy?”

“Just internal organization,” Kucera answered lightly.

“Any special reason?”

“No. We are breaking down the Brigade Group into smaller Combat Groups. It's a possible solution of our communications problem. The better the division, the less likely I am to be able to supply it.”

“I see. Internal organization. Yes. Entirely within your province, my dear General. But when you used the phrase I thought you might be concerned with — well, morale.”

“Not in the least.”

The general shook his head. There was a slight, pleasant smile in the corners of his massive mouth. It emphasized the sincerity of his answer, given without overconfidence or any suggestion of criticism.

“There is, you know, some unrest,” said Vidal casually.

“Among the civilian population, yes.”

“Your officers?”

“You can't expect your officers to belong to one party only, Don Gregorio.”

The President doubtfully supposed not. He had intended Fifth Division to be out of politics and devoted to the service of the State whatever party was in power. Since he himself was in power that should have meant absolute loyalty to him. But it hadn't quite worked out like that. The Division's loyalty was to Kucera.

Twenty years earlier the Army of Guayanas had suggested, according to its employment, the male chorus of a cheaply produced musical comedy or a trigger-happy band of escaped convicts. Nothing on earth would have induced Vidal then to admit it, for the Glorious Army was a matter of faith, not of reason. But he well remembered the arrival of Vladimir Kucera in 1945 — a young Czech officer trained by a highly scientific army which had never had a chance to fight, blooded as a volunteer trooper in
France, later commanding his Free French squadron of tanks in Africa and Italy and at last emigrating to Guayanas as a homeless man with the techniques of modern war as his only asset. He had been just the type of immigrant the country wanted, fitting into Vidalismo before it existed.

He had also fitted into the country. He improved his Spanish till the accent was barely noticeable and accepted the change of stress which altered the clumsy sound of Kúcera to the more Castilian Kucéra. When he became a citizen of the Republic, he was commissioned with the acting rank of major. Kucera was so obviously destined for the chief of somebody's general staff that Vidal, when he became President, seriously considered establishing one. But what was a necessity for great States such as Argentina and Brazil was an absurd luxury for Guayanas. It would also have resulted in applications from every young officer of influential family to join the staff and remain in San Vicente.

The next best thing was to create the nucleus of a first-class professional Army, and to entrust the training and organization to this sympathetic expert. Miro Kucera got his Division, the command of the San Vicente garrison, and the rank of major general. His military superiors, as soon as they observed that he tactfully relieved them of a lot of routine and made little extra work, had no objection. Nor had Miro. He treated generals of the Republic, when every month or so he saw one of them, with punctilious military honors; but he took his orders direct from the President.

“Your independent groups . . . ?” Vidal asked. “You are not expecting to meet atomic tactical weapons?”

“Not on our present budget,” Miro Kucera replied. “I am planning for the worst that could happen in the world in which we live. And that is an attack on two fronts with thirty-year-old tactics and air support slightly superior to our own. All I need to meet it are hard-hitting Combat Groups, able to fight and hold wherever they are — forest, llanos or mountain.”

“And you would like to carry this reorganization through the whole Army?”

“I might like it, Don Gregorio. But it would not be practical.”

“You think it would cause alarm across the frontiers?”

“I think it would cause a lot more among the generals.”

“They could be removed,” Vidal announced, unable to resist an empty gesture of magnificence.

“From the Army, no doubt. But not from politics.”

The President played with the papers on his desk. Kucera was completely out of politics, and perhaps the only responsible figure in the whole country who had nothing to gain or lose by a change of government. He ought to have more to lose.

“Suppose the enemy was internal, not external?” Vidal asked.

“My appreciation of that has to be military,” Kucera answered with a first trace of stolidity. “My Division has been trained to fight on interior lines. If there
are
no interior lines . . .”

Vidal was well aware that the general knew what he meant and had avoided comment. This foreigner — that, after all, was what he was — might not have in his blood the feel of revolution, the acceptance of it as normal political practice, but he must sense the bubbling of the country — the quite unjustifiable bubbling — as clearly as anyone else.

“I see. Yes. A General Strike, for example. Well, those are
my
problems. Let us return to yours, my dear Miro. This regroupment. The question of equipment. Now we live, whether we like it or not, in the Managerial Society . . .”

Vidal paused. It was the first time he had tried out the phrase, and it was effective. The general looked impressed and interested.

“That, to my mind, means: Find the expert; devolve all responsibility and trust him! I want this shortage of equipment cleared up, and not by a committee of the Ministry of Defense. I propose to co-ordinate the Army estimates under the control of a single executive.”

“If you have the right man . . .” Miro began doubtfully.

“I have. You.”

“Me? It would have to be very thoroughly worked out, Don Gregorio. My first impression is that a general in active command of troops should not be in control of expenditure. I have no time
to worry with the defense budget and government auditors.”

“You would not be worried. I am offering you complete control of the Army contracts.”

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