Judgment on Deltchevby Eric Ambler
Foster’s dramatic skill is well-known in London’s West End theaters. So perhaps it wasn’t so surprising when he was hired by an American newspaper publisher to cover the trial of Yordan Delchev for treason. Accused of membership in the sinister Officer Corps Brotherhood and of masterminding a plot to assassinate his country’s leader, Delchev… See more details below
Foster’s dramatic skill is well-known in London’s West End theaters. So perhaps it wasn’t so surprising when he was hired by an American newspaper publisher to cover the trial of Yordan Delchev for treason. Accused of membership in the sinister Officer Corps Brotherhood and of masterminding a plot to assassinate his country’s leader, Delchev may in fact be a pawn and his trial all show. But when Foster meets Madame Delchev, the accused’s powerful wife, he suddenly become enmeshed in more life-threatening intrigue than he could have imagined.
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Where treason to the state is defined simply as opposition to the government in power, the political leader convicted of it will not necessarily lose credit with the people. Indeed, if he is respected or loved by them, his death at the hands of a tyrannical government may serve to give his life a dignity it did not before possess. In that event his enemies may in the end be faced not by the memory of a fallible human being but by a myth, more formidable than the real man could ever have been, and much less vulnerable. His trial, therefore, is no formality, but a ceremony of preparation and precaution. He must be discredited and destroyed as a man so that he may safely be dealt with as a criminal. Sometimes he is induced to confess abjectly to the crimes of which he is accused; but unless he has himself been a member of the party that now seeks to destroy him, such confessions are not always believed by the people; and when, for example, he is the leader of an unliquidated opposition party, it is better to observe outwardly the old legal forms, to bring witnesses, produce evidence, and let him try to defend himself.
So it was with Nikolai Petkov in Bulgaria, with Julius Maniu and Ion Mihalache in Rumania, and with many other liberals in Eastern Europe. Petkov they hanged. Maniu and Mihalache were condemned to solitary confinement for life. When Yordan Deltchev's trial took place, the pattern for such occasions had been already set.
The charges against him were of 'treason and the preparation of a terrorist plot to assassinate the head of the state'. The trial began before a People's Court on the 11th of June. He was described in the indictment as 'president of the Agrarian Socialist Party and formerly a member of the Provisional Government of National Unity'. In fact, he had been head of that government and also its Foreign Minister. He was still the leader of the only effective opposition to the People's Party regime that remained.
I had been asked to attend the trial and write a series of articles about it by an American newspaper publisher whom I had met once or twice when he had been visiting London. The request had surprised me. I had never written anything of that kind before and had thought at first that my name had been mistaken for someone else's. There had been no mistake, however, and I had decided to accept.
At some time or other, I suppose, most writers who have never done newspaper work indulge in the belief that, should the occasion arise, they would make brilliant reporters. Some of them, of course, are right. My case is different. With a solemnity that in retrospect seems pathetic, I looked up an old Times article on Deltchev, bought some of the likely books, and lunched with an economist who had once read a paper before the Royal Institute of International Affairs. I felt that I ought to learn something about the country I was going to visit, its people, and its problems.
The odd part is that I did learn one thing. It was over that luncheon that I first heard about the Officer Corps Brotherhood. It was referred to as a kind of joke.
Originally, it seemed, this Brotherhood had been a welfare association formed to protect and to help financially the families of a number of army officers who had been shot after the Macedonian Putsch of 1925. The founders were brother officers of the victims and sympathetic to their cause; but they were not wealthy men and it was not long before some of them became convinced that the most honourable way of helping and protecting the bereaved families would be to kill those who had condemned their men to death.
By the early thirties the Brotherhood had become a secret society of reactionary extremists and been responsible for at least twenty-eight political murders. Moreover, it was concerned no longer with simple acts of vengeance, but rather with eliminating potential sources of injustice that would later call for vengeance. As in the Brotherhood's dogma any politician or highly placed official with even remotely liberal ideas was a potential source of injustice, the problem of the Brotherhood became a matter of interest to all parties.
Attempts made by successive pre-war governments to bring actual murderers to justice and to suppress the organization had been only partly successful because never quite wholehearted. It was easy enough to disapprove of the Brotherhood, but courage was required to become actively concerned with an attack upon it. The Brotherhood had survived and although its earlier 'officers only' membership qualification had been relaxed and psychotics from many other sections of the community had found it congenial, it had retained much of its traditional military background. The symbolic revolver and dagger of other Balkan terrorist organizations had become for the Officer Corps Brotherhood the symbolic rifle and bayonet, and during the occupation the Brotherhood had snobbishly preferred to collaborate with the German Army authorities rather than with the Gestapo.
This latter piece of discrimination, however, had not deterred the Provisional Government, set up after the liberation, from making the first serious effort to stamp out the Brotherhood once and for all. Emergency powers had been used to the full. Membership in the organization had been made a capital offence, and arrests, summary trials, and executions had continued over months. So effective, indeed, had been the Government's campaign that there was little doubt in most minds that the Brotherhood had been betrayed from within. Interest in this aspect of the affair, however, had soon faded. When, during the elections, there had been none of the usual Brotherhood murders, it had been assumed with general relief that the organization was at last dead and buried. Now, astonishingly, the corpse had been exhumed and was being declared alive. For part of the case against Deltchev contained the incredible allegation that he, who as head of the Provisional Government had set out to destroy the Brotherhood, was in fact a member of it and the organizer of a plot to assassinate the head of the People's Party Government.
I left London at the end of May and arrived in the capital the day before the trial began.
Over much of South Eastern Europe the heaviest summer rains have fallen by early June, and the hardening mud of the roads is being grated into dust. The tinted walls of the villages glow in the strong sun, and the shadows on them are black and sharply defined. Only the higher Balkan peaks still have snow upon them. The corn is becoming tall and rich, and in the river valleys east of the Yugoslav frontier the fields of roses and white poppies that you see from the train are alive with blossom. But in the cities the air is humid, and the insects that swirl in the sunshine over the refuse in the streets or crawl from the dark recesses of hotel beds are in their lush heyday. At that time the human animal has a strange feeling of lassitude; strange because, although the body is sluggish, the mind is uneasily alert, as if it fears that something is being prepared for its discomfort.
I was met at the Central Station by my employer's local representative. His name was Georghi Pashik.
I saw him standing on the platform as my train drew in: a short, dark, flabby man in rimless glasses and a tight seersucker suit with an array of fountain pens in the handkerchief pocket. Under his arm he carried a thin, black dispatch case with a silver medallion hanging from the zipper tag. He stood by a pillar gazing about him with the imperious anxiety of a wealthy traveller who sees no porter and knows that he cannot carry his own baggage. I think it was the fountain pens that identified him for me. He wore them like a badge.
I know a lot about Pashik now. I know, for instance, that the black dispatch case that he carried so importantly rarely contained anything but a stale meat sandwich and a revolver, that the seersucker suit was given to him when he was working in a Displaced Persons camp, that one of the fountain pens came from Passaic, New Jersey, and that those facts can be related directly to his death. I know now some of the ways in which his mind worked and of the strange fantasies that possessed it. Then, he was merely a name in conversation -- 'our man there, Pashik, will fix you up with all the permits you need' -- a figure waiting on a station platform. I was not expecting a man of destiny to meet me.
He shook my hand and smiled in a friendly way.
'I'm delighted to know you, Mr Foster. Have you had breakfast?'
'Not yet. It's very kind of you to meet me.'
He gestured a denial. 'I have my car outside. We'll have to carry your luggage, Mr Foster. There are no porters at this hour.'
He spoke English well with an accent both foreign and American. He was not a prepossessing person. He had a plump, sallow face with several chins and a two days' growth of beard, and his eyes, as brown and limpid as a spaniel's, squinted slightly through the rimless glasses. He was businesslike and very courteous.
'Good journey, Mr Foster?' he asked as we walked out to his car.
'Any trouble at the frontier?'
'No more than usual, I imagine.'
'I'm very glad of that.'
In the station yard he put my suitcase in a battered Opel with no cushions on the back seats. He took my typewriter from me to put it with the suitcase and then paused, looking at it thoughtfully.
'You know, Mr Foster,' he said, 'sometimes the authorities make a great deal of trouble for visitors who they think may not be favourable to the regime.'
'Oh yes.' He put the typewriter in the car and then, with his hand still on the carrying handle of it, turned his head. For a moment he seemed about to say something very important. It was on the tip of his tongue. Then he changed his mind. He shrugged. 'Things are difficult right now, Mr Foster,' he said. 'I'm glad they made no trouble for you.'
He had an office in a building just off the Boulevard Marshal Sokolovsky. He called himself The Pan-Eurasian Press Service and represented a number of American and a few British newspapers whose proprietors had not found it necessary after the war to re-establish their own offices in the capital. He was energetic and gave an impression of efficiency. I had to be registered as a foreigner with the police and as a newspaper correspondent with the Ministries of the Interior and Propaganda; I also had to have a special permit for the trial. It was early evening before we had finished.
Although there was a good deal of waiting about in the various offices we visited, as well as the ordinary opportunities for conversation, our relationship did not progress during the day. For the most part he remained courteous but reserved, avoiding all discussions of Deltchev or the trial on the grounds, plainly insufficient at times, that we might be overheard, and introducing me to officials with a measured politeness that took no responsibility at all for my subsequent behaviour. He had very much the air of the man on the spot who, while giving the specialist from the head office all reasonable assistance, feels entitled to suspect that the results may not justify the trouble taken. This I could well understand; indeed, I would have shared the suspicion. What puzzled me as the day wore on was the growing realization that, understandable and appropriate though his attitude might be, it was only partly a disguise for professional jealousy and that he had some quite different anxiety about me to conceal. It manifested itself in curious ways: sudden bursts of cordiality followed by strained silences, moments when I looked up to find his brown myopic eyes contemplating me furtively, as if to assess my bank balance, and other moments, like that at the station, when he changed his mind about what he was going to say as he opened his mouth to say it. Evidently some bad news had arrived for me while I had been travelling, or he had a request to make that I would be likely to receive badly. The thought bothered me. Unfortunately, I already had a bad conscience about Pashik. I disliked him because of his smell.
I had become aware of it when we entered his car at the station. It was sour and musty and at first I was not sure whether it came from the car or its owner. I don't think that I have an unduly fastidious nose or that the stinks of urban humanity specially distress me. I have known other people afflicted with what is daintily called body odour without disliking them. Yet Pashik I did dislike. Perhaps it was that the personality expressed by his appearance and manner -- the suit, the American glasses, the dispatch case, the touch of complaisance -- did not in some peculiar way allow for a bad smell. I remember that when I found that he was the source and not his car, I took note of those with whom we came in contact in case what I was finding offensive was the body smell of a city rather than that of one particular inhabitant. But no; it was Pashik. And then, unreasonably, I had begun to dislike him and so was at a disadvantage for what followed.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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