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Authors: Howard Fast

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BOOK: The Pledge
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“Tell me.”

“Sure I'll tell you, and don't get your ass up and get sore at me, because I can see that's what you're doing. I had a girl friend back home, and you know what she used to call characters like you —
shiksa boys.
Good, educated parents who spoke real English right from the start, good private schools, good colleges, entry to anything. Bruce Bacon. You grow up with a name like that and with your looks and six feet from eating good food instead of garbage, and you don't even need brains. You're an American, Jack Armstrong. You remember Jack Armstrong on the radio, raise the flag for Hudson High, boys, Jack Armstrong loves Wheaties and so should you.”

“Oh, Christ, can it.”

“I'm getting to you.”

“I'm staying here,” Bruce said. “They're not forcing me out. They haven't got a leg to stand on, and I can blow this famine thing sky high.”

“Sure you can. Otherwise, what happens to apple pie and motherhood? Now let me suggest what will happen if you decide to stay here. One: they will remove your accreditation, and no wire service will be available to you. Two: they will stop your mail, and don't think they can't do it. Three: they will toss you out of your quarters at the palace. No hotel in town will book you. Where are you going to sleep? You go to someone like Chandra Chatterjee, and they'll arrest him. This goes with three. They arrested Majumdar last night —”

“When? Why?”

“Hold on,” Legerman said. “We'll talk about that. We're only up to four. Four: they'll plant something on you. The Limeys are brilliant at that. Plans, papers, whatever. Espionage. All or any of the above, and finally, five. Five might even be
one
if you're too damn annoying. Five is making you dead, completely dead. Run over by a half-track. Beaten to death by bandits. The streets of Calcutta swarm with killers — or didn't you know? Now I'm not making up crazy movie plots, believe me. I like you. You're straight. You're decent and honest. I want you at home, where there are few enough like you.”

“What happened to Majumdar?” Bruce asked, his voice hoarse.

“He was with the professor last night. They walked in and arrested him. British specials. That's it.”

“Well, what happens now? What do they do with him?”

“You guess.”

“Torture him, kill him? Is that what you're intimating?”

“Not intimating.”

“My God, Hal, can't we do something? I work for a great newspaper. I write for
The Saturday Evening Post.
These are important and powerful entities. They can reach into Washington — into the White House itself. I know people who know President Roosevelt —”

“Forget it,” Legerman said harshly. “It's done. We'll never see Majumdar again. He may be dead already. You don't know what workmanship is until you've watched these sweethearts. No, it's over for us. Get out of here. These fellers will take care of things themselves. They don't need you. Do you hear me?”

Bruce nodded.

“I want you out of here. Today.”

“I can't leave today. It's out of the question.”

“God damn you, will you listen? Why are we sitting here instead of at the palace? Because my guess is that they're there already. I have your orders right here in my pocket.” He took out of his jacket a long brown envelope and handed it to Bruce. “Waiting for you. From now on, you'll be watched, day and night. Who knows whether these orders would have gotten to you? Jill cut them, and then she put them on the major's desk. He countersigned them and left the office. Jill passed them to me. She'll claim innocence. They disappeared. Done. I signed Soutine's name and wrote A-One priority. No one will question it. No one ever questions such things in the army. I want you out of here.”

“You said Soutine?” Bruce asked weakly. “You mean General Soutine, the top theater commander?”

“That's right.”

“You're crazy. This is the craziest damn thing I ever heard about. This is crazy. You'll end up in the stockade for life.”

“Hell, no. I know what I'm doing.” Legerman grinned. “You know, I got you into this — the worst of it anyway. I owe you, and I like you. Don't worry about me, Bruce. I know my way around, and it ain't that different from Brooklyn.”

“I can't — my clothes, my notes, my typewriter — I just can't.”

“Listen,” Legerman said gently. “I know the bearer who works the door at the palace. I'll buy him a pint of hooch, and being that he's a Muslim, he'll be so happy for a chance to sin, he'll steal me the tiles in the lobby. He'll bring out your notes, and I'll bring them back. You got my word on that. Just give me your address.” He took out his notebook and a stub of pencil. Bruce gave him his parents' address on Riverside Drive and One hundred and eighth Street in New York, since Prudence was at the apartment and he had more or less given her possession.

“I left it there,” Legerman said, nodding at a jeep that was parked about fifty feet away. He stood up. “Let's go.”

Bruce stared at Legerman as if he had never seen him before, as perhaps he never had, a heavyset man of twenty-seven years, wide face, full lips, dark skin, heavy beard that turned his skin purple, and under a pair of shaggy brows, light blue eyes utterly at variance with everything else about him.

“How did you get a jeep?”

“Borrowed it,” Legerman said.

He walked to the jeep. Bruce followed, shaking his head, astonished, bewildered by what he was about to do, staring at Legerman, who was a genius, a lunatic, or a crook. If he was the last, Bruce couldn't for the life of him figure out what he was getting from this. On the other hand, he himself, Bruce Bacon, was engaged in something new in his life. Until now, with all the danger and killing and horror he had witnessed in Europe, it had always been inside the strong, indomitable arms of the United States Army, cherishing him, feeding him, protecting him, making sure that they would not have another dead correspondent on their hands. But this was something else entirely, with both the British High Command and the American High Command lined up against him because he had committed, or was attempting to commit, the unforgivable sin of breaking a story that no one wanted broken. He realized that neither the British nor the Americans knew how much evidence he had, nor was there any way he could prove to them that he had no evidence at all, and say to them, Look, fellers, let's drop the whole thing.

But what odds that they would drop the whole thing? Here was a nosy American correspondent who would not accept the fact that over five million — almost six million — people had died of a famine that was no more nor less than an act of God, aided and abetted by some hungry rice dealers, who were only doing what one was supposed to do in any business, which was to make a reasonable or even an unreasonable profit. It spelled trouble, and with a war still going on, even though Germany had been defeated, he who shook the boat was an enemy of the people, and in war, especially in this war, there was neither time nor mercy for such. The war effort was an enormous blanket that covered almost all of everything, even in India, where there was no war.

“You're crazy, I'm crazy,” he said to Legerman as the jeep rolled toward the airport.

“We're pretty sane. It's the rest of the world that's smoking opium.”

“You know they can pick me up stateside.”

“For what? What have you done? Your orders are valid. You've committed no crime. Come on, Bruce, shape up. Look at those coconut palms. This is the finest avenue of palm trees in Bengal. Doesn't that make you want to stand up and cheer? The hell with them! Once you're out of here, the whole thing will be forgotten.”

“But my luggage, my Valpack, my typewriter — a man who runs out on his luggage is suspect. There's no way around that.”

“Who says you're running out on your luggage. You had to catch this C-Forty-seven up to Delhi. It's the only Air Transport out of here today. Write a note when we reach the airport, and I'll have your stuff sent home via Ship Transport. It won't reach you for maybe a few months, but you got another typewriter. Right?”

“Right,” Bruce said weakly, realizing that Legerman was simply flying by the seat of his pants. He was desperate to get Bruce out of the China-Burma-India Theater of operations. Whether the danger he proposed to Bruce was real or not was something Bruce couldn't know. He found himself trusting Legerman because Legerman had the attitude of a man to be trusted.

An hour later, Bruce was sitting in a C-
47
that had taken off en route to Delhi. Legerman had bustled him onto the plane with such an air of urgency and importance that the night officer at control, a young captain engrossed in a conversation with a blond Red Cross lady, never even questioned the A-1 priority for a correspondent. At Delhi airport, Bruce had only an hour of waiting time, and then his priority put him on a C-
54
to Egypt. The C-
54
refueled in Egypt and then took off for the Azores, refueled again, and finally deposited him in Long Island, where, after fifteen minutes with customs, he was able to step into a big, comfortable Checker cab that drove him to his folks' apartment on Riverside Drive.

Three weeks later, an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the war with Japan was over.

NEW YORK CITY
Uptown

   

H
E LOVED
New York City. He loved the big, lumbering yellow streetcars. He loved the crowds, the endless parade of faces. He had read somewhere once that all the people, the bodies, the faces, were linked in a sort of network of vibrations that one felt without knowing that one felt it, and that buoyed up the spirit. Then would it have been the very opposite of it that he had sensed in Calcutta? But he was here now, dressed in civilian clothes, thin gray flannels, clean white shirt, and striped tie. The sun was shining. All was right with the world, and McGregor, who was his friend as well as the editor of a great national magazine, had invited him to lunch at “21,” and the week before, he had met a love of a girl at, of all places, church.

By and large, neither church nor religion played much of a role in the Bacons' lives. But there were moments when Elizabeth Bacon, Bruce's mother, felt that she must offer either gratitude or prayers in a more spiritual place than their apartment. The return of her son, unharmed, marked such a moment, and although she had been born a Congregationalist, she felt a little more comfortable among the Unitarians. William Bacon, Bruce's father, was indifferent to the whole thing, but being a good-natured man, he trailed along without demur; and it was on this occasion, at the Church of All Souls on Lexington Avenue, that Bruce met Sally Pringle, twenty-three years old, unmarried, and a year out of Vassar.

It was like a scene out of time, or out of Shakespeare, and where else, as Bruce pointed out later, does one meet the woman one loves but in church? In this case, it was facilitated by the fact that Elizabeth Bacon, Bruce's mother, and Denny Pringle, Sally's mother, were old chums who had not seen each other for at least thirty years. They met. Bruce, no loner, no swinger, no one-nighter, was instantly enchanted. If someone had asked him what he was looking for, physically, he would have admitted to the tall, long-legged type, firm, solid, fine regular features, light brown hair, blue eyes — and if a mind came with it, so much the better. That it was also a fair description of Prudence, whose “Dear John” letter had taken her out of his life at a distance of twelve thousand miles, mattered not at all.

So it was that, with the good feeling of a life disrupted and finally coming together with just the right ingredients, Bruce faced Jack McGregor and hoisted a celebratory dry martini. As a rule, Bruce did not drink before dark, but this was worth breaking a rule. He had spoken to McGregor on the telephone, and this was their first postwar meeting. He had sent McGregor a major piece of fifteen thousand words. McGregor had read it, but would not comment over the telephone. Thus the luncheon meeting. Such a luncheon was almost ritually divided: before the main course and with the drink, one discussed social matters; during the meal, one spoke of the city, the nation, the weather, etc.; with the coffee, one got down to business, which in this case was an abrupt declaration by McGregor:

“Bruce, I have to put it to you flatly. There is absolutely no way in the world that we can publish your piece.”

After a moment of silence, Bruce said, “Just like that.”

“Ah, no. No. You're no neophyte. You're in there with the best, and this is one hell of an article. It's an earthshaker.”

“But you can't publish it. So you feel free to lay it on,” Bruce said sourly.

“That's not called for.”

“No? Tell me why. Maybe I should be grateful.”

“Bruce, for Christ's sake, get off your indignation and come back to the world we live in. We've just wound up the biggest, goddamned awfulest war in the history of the human race. We killed the monster, and now we look at what he left behind. Have you read the reports about the killing camps, the abattoirs, the gas ovens? Do you know what the figures are that they're putting together — that Hitler coldbloodedly murdered six million Jews? It's not something the mind can encompass, because there is no precedent. It almost makes you sick to be a member of the same race. And now, when we're stiffening up against a Soviet takeover of the whole Continent, you want me to print something that accuses the British, our number one ally, of an action almost as inhuman, as unbelievable.”

BOOK: The Pledge
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