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Saving the Queen
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1976 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Blackford Oakes was a good listener, but he had also developed skills at guiding any conversation in the direction he wanted to take it, including termination. Still, despite almost four years of practice with John Liebman, the skill tonight was offset by his roommate's lamentable condition: Though only 10:30, Johnny was quite drunk, and quite determined to tell Blacky in very considerable detail why, after all, he had decided not to marry Joan, the sufficient explanation of which Blackford knew but was careful not to reveal, namely Joan's antecedent decision not to marry John. Then Johnny, opening the window to reach for another can of beer sitting on the sill overlooking Davenport College Courtyard, discovered with horror that there were none left; and reaching into the cigarette box to dampen his frustration, discovered that he had simultaneously run out of cigarettes.
He turned to Blackford. "You and your goddamn ... continence. I guess after graduation you'll go into training for the Graduate Engineering School lacrosse team and inflict on the next guy the necessity to go out into the wild night, in search of a normal room, with normal people, and normal supplies of the normal vices of this world."
Johnny got orotund when he was tight, and Blackford smiled at the familiar chiding, but, mostly, at the prospect of Johnny's going out. It was safe to assume, in his present condition, that he'd be gone at least a couple of hours, and that would give Blackford the time to open and study the sealed envelope passed to him that afternoon by the assistant registrar, after receiving in the morning mail the unheard-of summons Please report Wednesday, March 14, at 4 P.M. (At Yale, mere registrars don't summon students thus peremptorily.) Out of sheer curiosity, Blackford had complied with the summons, rather than ignore it and wait for a conciliatory telephone call. Freshly returned from the war four years earlier, before Yale's bureaucracy became adjusted to dealing with war veterans, he once had been summoned — by the engineering dean himself — for missing a morning class. Engineering students were allowed no cuts. He appeared before the huge apple-cheeked, egg-bald bachelor who was rumored not to have left the Yale campus in forty years, except to take the baths in Germany during the summer.
"Mr. Oakes, why did you miss your chemistry class last Tuesday?"
"Diarrhea, sir," Oakes replied, with great gravity. Even as he said it, he winced at the memory of Greyburn College, where he had tested the limits of insolence as a fifteen-year-old, and lost, very heavily. But he was twenty-one now, a freshman, a war veteran, something, in fact, of a minor ace, and in an instant, he knew he would win this one. The dean paused just long enough to divulge, helplessly, his despair at framing an appropriate reply. He mumbled something about the necessity for maintaining rigid attendance records in the engineering school, and Oakes left, and cut as many classes thereafter as he was in the mood to do, without ever laying eyes again on the dean, except when the vast old man led the academic parades, carrying the huge mace, and looking neither to the right nor to the left, nor ever, under any circumstances, in the direction of Blackford Oakes, 1951.
Now, at the registrar's, he was put through to the assistant who had summoned him. Blackford was given a large envelope, with instructions to open it there and then. Inside was a typewritten note, attached by paper clip to a second, bulky envelope. The note said: The person who has handed you this package is cleared. The attached envelope is to be opened when there is no possibility of your being seen or interrupted. Take the note you are now reading, detach it from the envelope, and return it to the person who gave you the package. Further instructions will be given to you in due course." Blackford looked up at the registrar's assistant, a freckled man in his thirties, probably a failed graduate student who had eased into the educational bureaucracy and had acquired one of those special clearances Anthony had told him about. There was nothing more to say, so he returned the note folded, thinking to himself that he was off to a good start by folding it so as to conceal the printed matter.
"Thanks," he said, and walked out past the secretary, and the four bookkeepers. He wondered vaguely which of them had written on his March bill: "Mr. Oakes: Your account is three months past due." His stepfather paid all Blackford's bills promptly, once they were ninety days overdue. Sometimes, when he wanted a bill paid on time (his stepfather gave him fifty dollars a month and paid all his bills unflinchingly), he would type or write in disguised hand over the face of the bill: PLEASE REMIT. NINETY DAYS OVERDUE. He mentioned this to Anthony Trust, at one of their frequent meetings in New York, and was faintly surprised to hear Anthony, so urbane in all matters, say, "Avoid petty deceptions." To which Blackford had answered, "Avoid saying 'Avoid' anything," and Anthony flashed that total smile, so specially appealing for its rarity.
"When I ran out of money at Yale" — Trust had graduated a year earlier — "I bought a stamp: DECEASED. RETURN TO SENDER. It obviously didn't work at places like Mory's, where they would see me night after night — for them it was just a post office error. But it did work with lots of odd-lot accounts. Yet you see, Black, that was a major deception, and that's all right. And besides," he said, "when I get money" — this euphemism was standard for "when my mother dies" — "I'll pay everyone back through a lawyer who will announce that young Trust, who died while a student at Yale, is the posthumous beneficiary of a legacy, part of which has been reserved for paying bills outstanding at the time of his death."
Anthony Trust was Blackford's oldest friend. Blackford recognized that chronological seniority is an unreliable fix on friendship. He was surrounded by classmates who were fonder of classmates they had not known longer than a few months or years than they were of their own brothers or sisters, or of friends they had come upon as classmates at kindergarten, or grammar school, or high school. There is no correspondence between length of service as friend and intensity of friendship. But there with Anthony, the friendship had been both of long standing and of intensity. They had met as schoolboys during a period, in England, that had a gruesome climax. But that climax, although no doubt it annealed their friendship, did not bring it about. Black found himself situated to recognize, in Anthony, a quality he did not describe. But once or twice, in free-wheeling conversations with Sally, he ventured to say that, when all was said and done, there were those students at Yale who cared primarily about themselves, even if you interpreted this widely enough to include girls, grades, dogs, wives, children natural and unnatural, and dependent grandmothers — the whole lot. And others, who — somehow — felt, as automatically as anyone starting a long motor trip would feel the necessity to check the fuel gauge, the necessity to meditate regularly on the human condition. Anthony did this in a most natural way — rather like St. Theresa, with her worldly, workaday concern for the comfort of the sick sow and the dangers to the immortal soul of the King of Spain. ("Black! How dare you come out in favor of the Mundt-Nixon Act without asking yourself what its likely consequences are for lambs in the State Department who have strayed?") Anthony, for one thing, though formal of speech, was incapable of pomposity. Besides, he cared more about effective relief for those who suffered than about bombastic relief for those who formed committees. Often, the main purpose of "humanitarian" groups was to relieve themselves of effective concern for those who suffered. Anthony shrank from any form of reductionism: If you made the mistake, after the sixth beer at Mory's, of asking him to identify the principal source of evil in the modern world, he would pretend he didn't understand you. He disliked theoretical formulations. But, increasingly, those who knew him came to know what it was that principally horrified him. He said to Black, late one night at a beer joint on Park Street, "After Hitler, and Stalin, you had to say to yourself: Things have got to get better."
Trust influenced Blackford — more than that, had something of a hold on him — from the time they were at school together in England just before the war, and Trust was in the fifth form and Blackford a callow third-former. And now Trust had talked him into chucking plans for graduate school and, instead, applying for an altogether different line of work. Blackford's reasoning, at first, had been straightforwardly self-serving: The Korean War was beginning to go badly, he had received a note instructing him not to leave the country, his reserve unit was on stand-by notice. Unless he entered the FBI or a paramilitary research institute, or developed a sudden, gratifying disability, he might very well go from graduation to a quick refresher course in the latest fighter planes, with which he was dangerously current, having spent a month last summer mastering the new jet, and from there to Korea.
"Korea!" Trust said. "You thought France was a dull place to return to after a mission." Blackford had arrived in France in December 1944, fought several rather spectacular missions (he contacted, and destroyed, three Kraut ME109s) out of Rheims, contracted, and did not defeat, hepatitis in January, and celebrated V-E Day at the hospital in Maxwell Field.
"I have been to Korea," said Anthony. "Unlike MacArthur, I shall not return."
Blackford knew that of course Anthony would return, if told to do so. Either that, or he would quit. But he would not be likely to quit, at such a time, an organization he was selling to Blackford, even if he stressed, in their early conversations, only the advantages of the CIA over the United States Air Force in Korea. Blackford sensed the other factor on the following Saturday. They had been ushers at a wedding and were driving together to New York with that bleary after-party feeling that makes ritual conversation unbearably irrelevant, inducing great bouts of deep-talk. Soon he realized that Anthony felt himself a member of a brotherhood. His distinctive individualism had been already conspicuous at seventeen, at Greyburn College: Though a prefect, Anthony was never a member of the prefecture. In the naval air force, he would contrive to go to a movie whenever there was a squadron social function, or a threat of one. At Yale he was asked to join, and declined: a fraternity, an honor society, a secret society, and a literary society. His only apparent extracurricular involvements were an occasional letter to the Yale Daily News, acerbic, polished, and conclusive in the sense of unfailingly suggesting that any contrary opinion should not presume to expect from him any rebuttal, and membership in the Political Union and debating team, whose meetings he generally missed. But in those letters there was a strain of idealism. He did not believe in cheating, which wasn't that unusual; but it was awfully unusual to say so, in public: and rarer still to combine moralism with a debonair style. He thought the coup in Czechoslovakia the most devastating development in European history since Hitler's march on the Sudeten-land, and he was savage in his destruction of the local fellow traveler in the History Department who had dismissed it at a college forum as a natural pre-emptive Soviet maneuver against a fascist resurgence. The candidacy of Henry Wallace aroused his supreme scorn, and he actually tabulated the Communist fronts to which Wallace's most conspicuous backers had belonged, and on one occasion even defended, at a formal debate, the proposition: "Resolved, fellow travelers are worse than the real thing and should go to jail until they are old and gray." Sarah Lawrence won, defending the negative, and everyone cheered, and Anthony remained unimpressed. Although he was studying as an exchange student at Oxford when the Wallace movement realized its fiasco in November, he was amused by the virtually unanimous pleasure that defeat had given to campus spokesmen for liberalism — Blackford had sent him a copy of the Yale Daily News. "They caught up with me," he told Black.
Blackford tore open the envelope. He fingered then the longest form he had ever seen. Forty pages. Leafing through it, he realized it would take him a full dull day's work to complete. The questions were of a dogged thoroughness that made the comprehensive form for flight school in 1943 look like a driver's license application.
Blackford was methodical, and neatly put away in a file case a foot from his typewriter, all the necessary autobiographical documents reposed: birth certificate, draft card, discharge papers, curriculum and grades dating back to early childhood. He had neatly recorded the date of his mother's birth in Buffalo, and of his father's in Akron, and even the basic figures on his stepfather. He could see that he would have to explain in some detail the reason he spent the night in jail in Cambridge, but he thought the circumstances innocent enough — or was the CIA made up only of people who never attended a bachelor party? He had never belonged to any political organization of any sort, though he would certainly have joined America First if they had accepted fourteen-year-olds; and other than the air force reserve, there was only the fraternity at Yale, and the senior society, in response to any mention of which, he smiled, he would dutifully leave the room, as tradition prescribed. He knew how many countries he had visited, how long he had spent there, even if some of these countries he could not remember — he had been too young. Anyway, his father junketing about the world to exhibit and sell airplanes, it was natural, until the divorce, that Black should have jogged about with the family. He knew exactly whose names to give as references, though he would not give the name of Dr. Chase at Greyburn or of Mr. Simon, but — yes, he would give the name of Mr. Long, the athletic director, with whom, in the last ten years, he had exchanged discreetly worded Christmas cards. Filling out the form would be an ordeal, but Blackford had an engineer's aptitude for recognizing the necessity of painstaking detail: All progress, someone had written, is made by the taking of careful measurements. He realized about himself that he could become an accountant without any great strain on his spirit — provided, of course, there was plenty of after-hours activity.
Within three days he managed to complete the form by carefully synchronizing his work on it with Johnny's frequent absences from their little suite, and then he stuffed it into the envelope (plain) addressed to someone he had never heard of, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Two months later he became anxious and called Anthony, who said that there was no way he could help him, that it was altogether possible that he would never officially know whether Black had been accepted: that there was literally nothing to be done, inasmuch as the CIA people already knew from the covering letter that if it didn't act before the United States Air Force did, they would either lose Blackford to the air force or face the intricate job of extricating him from his unit without, so to speak, anybody noticing. This the CIA knew how to do, but since it was always something of an operation, it was preferable to act quickly, pre-emptively.
"If they turn me down, how will they do it?" he asked Anthony.
"You'll never hear from anybody again."
Excerpted from Saving the Queen by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1976 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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