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The Last Two Weeks of Georges Rivac
By Geoffrey Household
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Geoffrey Household
All rights reserved.
Until five in the afternoon when Karel Kren arrived May 21st was a Saturday like any other. Georges Rivac, since his clients mostly observed what they called le weekend anglais, was free to attend to his office work without the distraction of his secretary and was about to get down to the unwelcome business of checking her statement of profit and loss. He was an active, young import agent, jumping with energy and switching back and forth between excitement and depression according to the prospects of new business and the state of his overdraft. He preferred to be out selling. Accounts bored him; they measured success but had nothing to do with it.
He had had no warning that Kren was coming to Lille and was surprised to see him. A trade delegate from Czechoslovakia of obvious importance could not be expected to call on a minor, provincial agent. Rivac had met him two months earlier and sensed a mutual sympathy. He had been impressed by this tall well-dressed man with white hair and moustache who would pass as an experienced diplomat or distinguished soldier rather than a factory director in a communist economy. Though a little too serious, Kren had been helpful on questions of foreign exchange and seemed as sound a business man as any capitalist.
Rivac received the unexpected visitor with a formal courtesy which owed more to early training in Spanish manners than the long line of enterprising French bourgeoisie on his father's side. He had the impression that Kren was in a hurry, as well he might be if on his way to more important agents in Paris or Brussels. But even a hurried visit was to be commended; when a manufacturer needed reports and suggestions from buyers in a new market, direct contact with the grass roots of commerce was of more value than talking money in a glass-walled office on a statelier business street.
Karel Kren was full of a new model of the small four-stroke petrol engine which Intertatry of Prague was about to market. He produced from his briefcase two advance copies of the brochure, presenting them to Rivac with a pride which seemed to be divided between the lay-out and the actual product. The brochure was certainly a masterpiece all the way from illustrations to easy diagrams and a comprehensive list of spare parts. After discussing the improvements, Kren told him that Intertatry had several promising enquiries from government buyers. Rivac thought that very likely. The little engines for which he had found a ready market were rugged and cheap. A new model might well serve naval and military purposes as well as industrial. He asked if any of the official enquiries had come from Paris?
'Yes, and London. But over there they have their own methods. By the way, I believe you yourself speak English?'
Rivac replied that when he was a three-year-old orphan at the end of the war his English grandmother had come to the rescue and brought him up. England had been home to him as well as France.
'Did you like it?'
'Of course! Of course! Who wouldn't? But exasperating! Why the devil do they have to be so different from us?'
'I mean Europe.'
'Yes. I noticed when I was here before that we shared certain ideals. What do you include in your Europe, M Rivac?'
'The lot! Of course! Why not? We must make for you—you, our brothers behind what fools call the Iron Curtain—something you can look forward to, something worth serving.'
Rivac was an enthusiast for federal union. In his café circle he was tolerantly accused of lack of patriotism. They said it was because he did not know where he belonged with all that chattering over his office telephone in three languages. But he did know where he belonged. His allegiance to Europe was far from mere café talk, and his internationalism did not stop short at the long frontier from Lubeck to the Black Sea. He was a collector of agencies, one manufacturer recommending him to another, and acted as the local representative of several East European factories, among them Intertatry.
Remembering a little late that M Kren was a prominent figure in the trade of a communist country, Rivac cut short his excitable dissertation on 'us'.
'But I mustn't talk to you like that. I apologise. Naturally you are a member of the Party and have your own Europe.'
'Naturally,' Kren replied. 'But I understand your attitude. An internationalist does not have to be a communist. Remember always, M Rivac, if ever you have to suffer for your opinions, that our Europe still shares your blood and traditions.'
He dropped the subject and went on to explain that the import agency in London had no time to waste on generalities and sales promotion and wanted precise information from someone who could answer practical questions on the spot. The Ministry of Defence was interested.
'I had hoped to call on them myself but I haven't time. Would you like to do it? As our agent for the North of France you know quite enough of what we have to offer. Just fly over to London with these brochures. Charge us with all your expenses of course.'
Rivac, who was unmarried and could spare twenty-four hours from his rounds of the customers at any time, said he would be delighted. When should he leave and whom should he see?
'The sooner, the better. Now you can't just drop in and expect to be received by one of the Ministry's experts. But I can help you there. A man I was at school with. I was going to start with him myself. He's a government import agent and he'll take you round to the right man. Show him the new brochures and tell him you come from Lukash. That was my nickname at school. Lukash. Write it down, M Rivac!'
'And his name?'
'Herbert Spring. Go straight to his office on the first floor at 48 Lower Belgrave Street. Ring the bell marked Bridge Holdings outside the front door!'
'Should I suggest any—mettons—c'est à dire—token of gratitude for his assistance?'
'Good God, no! You are not dealing with an official of the Lille town council!'
Rivac apologised, saying that he feared he had become accustomed to rather smaller deals. He then asked Kren if he would care to dine with him. Very kind, but he had to catch the flight from Brussels to Prague. Some other time with great pleasure.
'Can I drive you to Brussels? We'll be there by seven—or seven-thirty if there's a jam at the frontier.'
'No, no! All arranged.'
'And your hotel?'
'No hotel. I had time to waste between planes.'
'You must be very tired.'
'Oh, I am used to that. I can stand anything, M Rivac, but pain.'
He looked for a moment drawn and much older. Rivac said he hoped there was nothing wrong.
'I meant—just an ulcer, you know.'
'A curse indeed! You must find time to take care of yourself, M Kren. Now, shall I write you a report when I return from London?'
'No, don't bother! I'll telephone you. And take care of these two brochures! It's essential that Spring should study them at length before he accompanies you to the Ministry. If he wants to hang on to them for a day or two, let him do so. You can trust his advice.'
Kren left at once. He was evidently a busy man of few words, perhaps more used to giving orders than discussing them. Though there was a lot more that Rivac would have liked to know, he possessed the essentials and they were inviting. He had visions of transferring his office from Lille to London—not that Intertatry business itself could justify a move, but a visit might reveal what chances he had and how many agencies he could take with him.
From Lille the Calais—Dover boat was as quick a route, door to door, as flying to London from Brussels or Paris. The following afternoon he crossed the Channel, spent the night at a hotel and on Monday morning called at Lower Belgrave Street. When he rang the bell of Bridge Holdings, Registered Office, a voice spoke from the panel asking his business. He gave his name and said that he had called at the request of Mr Karel Kren of Intertatry, Prague, to see Mr Spring.
Admitted to the building, he went upstairs to an opulent front door—with a smart brass plate which suggested that Bridge Holdings was in the upper class of Law or Finance—and was shown in by a clerk or manservant, probably the latter to judge by his formal black coat. In front of him was a longish passage with three or four white doors on each side; from the farthest of them a casually dressed man, correct for country as well as town, announced himself as Herbert Spring and cheerfully asked Rivac to come in. The large room he entered, more comfortable than severe, could have been the office of some eminent and genial bank manager.
'And now what can I do for you, Mr Rivac?'
'I come on behalf of Mr Karel Kren of Intertatry, Prague.'
'Prague, eh? I don't think the Bridge Holdings representative has any dealings with Intertatry.'
Rivac explained exactly what was wanted, gave a short description of the new model engine, stopped himself abruptly when he found he was slipping into the enthusiasm of the salesman and presented the two brochures.
'I see. Now who exactly are you?'
'I'm their agent for the North of France. Mr Kren called at my office in Lille the day before yesterday and asked me to run over and see you. He meant to come himself, but hadn't time.'
'He had travelled from Czechoslovakia?'
'Not directly. He had been doing a round of markets, I think, and was changing planes at Brussels. He had a whole day to spare, so he came down to Lille to show me these new brochures. I had been doing some very promising business for the firm, you see.'
'And he said I knew him?'
'Yes. He told me you had been at school together and would remember his nickname: Lukash.'
As soon as Rivac had said that, he saw the absurdity of it. Mr Spring was at least twenty-five years younger than Kren.
'There must be some mistake,' he exclaimed nervously. 'Mine! Of course it's mine! This is 48 Lower Belgrave Street?'
'Yes. And I am Herbert Spring. I'll try to clear it up, Mr Rivac, if you'll have patience for a little. Here's this morning's Times. And a drink, perhaps?'
He opened a cupboard, full of bottles, and looked a question. Rivac, lost and unhappy, replied that he would like a whisky and soda. He did not really want it but it was something to do while he collected himself and tried to think how the devil he could have misunderstood Mr Kren.
In quarter of an hour Spring returned, saying that he had been on the telephone to the Ministry of Defence.
'They know of Intertatry and agree with you that their miniature engines have some exceptional qualities, but there's nothing British industry can't do and no particular reason why they should be imported. It is quite certain, I am afraid, that nobody official has ever sent any enquiry to the firm.'
Rivac got up to go but was waved back into his chair. He could see that Spring was curious about him—and, good God, very properly!—but his sharp voice was still kind rather than accusing. Not for the first time he wondered what it could be that made people respond to him when they should have thrown him out.
'Now, suppose you tell me the truth about this visit and I'll see if I can help.'
'But I have told you. That's all I know.'
'Are you English, Mr Rivac?'
'No. French. Both my parents died in the last year of the war when I was three, and I was brought up by my English grandmother till I was fourteen.'
'How did they die?'
'My father was a hero of the Resistance. His name is on a plaque in the Rue Feidherbe at Lille. My mother died in Ravensbruck. She was Spanish by birth.'
'Then where does the English grandmother come in?'
'I admit that my descent appears complicated, Mr Spring. But that should be true of every European. My Spanish grandfather—we are clear so far?—married an English girl. They met upon a river in Asturias where they were both fishing for salmon and their casts became entangled—never to be separated, she told me, until he was killed in the defence of the Republic. She then returned to England.'
'I see you have the blood of three stern nations, Mr Rivac.'
'Thank you. I am very proud of it. One has to be proud of something.'
'Business not doing well?'
'I am content.'
'Do you represent Spanish firms too?'
'One or two. I like to use the language.'
'You speak that as well?'
'With a touch of the accent of León. My grandmother insisted that in honour of her husband we should speak Spanish together on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You see, there was no one else she could speak his language to, and she did not want to forget.'
Mr Spring was silent, examining him with a cordial curiosity as if he were a new importation to the zoo.
'This man Lukash, now. Suppose it wasn't just a nickname?'
'Oh, I am sure it was. He said so definitely. What else could it be?'
'What does your Karel Kren look like?'
Rivac described him at length.
'Well, I was hoping that I knew him, but I don't. Give me your address in Lille, Mr Rivac, and I'll get in touch with you if any explanation turns up. And Bridge Holdings might be able to put something your way so that your journey won't be wasted. Goodbye and good luck to you! Don't forget these brochures!'
Rivac returned to Lille in the afternoon, abandoning his dreams of a London office without any regret. Business in France was at least familiar and profitable. His instructions from Kren, now that he looked back on them, did seem inadequate. That was partly due to Kren's very hurried visit, but more questions should have been asked before dashing off to London. Enthusiasm again—that damned impetuous, instinctive enthusiasm of his!
Before going home he dropped into his office and found a message asking him to call the police on arrival. He did so and was told that the Police de Sûreté would send an agent round at once to see him. Rivac's startled imagination took off. Like any other self-employed business man he kept two sets of books: one for himself and one for the percepteur of taxes; but such small and traditional irregularities were not usually handled by the police. More probably it was a question of imports from Eastern Europe. Once or twice he had had friendly discussions with the Sûreté which took the form of warnings not to lay himself open to blackmail and in fact were tactful soundings of his political allegiance.
'It's about the suicide of M Karel Kren,' the agent explained.
Rivac, having settled the visitor opposite his desk and himself about to sit down, shot upright and collapsed back into his chair like a spent rocket.
'Suicide? Good God! When? Where? How? Impossible!'
'You did not see the papers this morning?'
'No. I was in London and came back half an hour ago.'
'We identified him from his passport and advised the Czech Embassy in Paris through the usual channels who in turn telephoned Prague. His office had no idea what he was doing in Lille, but said that you represented the firm and that he had possibly called on you. Your secretary then confirmed that he had and that you were in London on some business of his.'
'He did call on me—the day before yesterday.'
'At what time did he leave your office?'
'A little after six I should say.'
'It was six-twenty when he threw himself under a bus in the Avenue de la République.'
'Not an accident? You are sure?'
'The driver, his passengers and passers-by all agree that it was deliberate. We should be grateful for anything you can tell us. First, where was he staying? We have been unable to find out.'
'I asked him that. Naturally I was ready to drive him anywhere. I invited him to dine with me. This is quite appalling!'
'Yes, M Rivac. Where was he staying?'
'I am sorry. Of course! He told me he could not stop. No hotel, he said. I had the impression that he was changing planes in Brussels and had time to waste. So he decided to come over and see me.'
'Any special business?'
Rivac explained. He merely said that the Ministry of Defence in London was not so interested as M Kren had hoped. He did not go into all the details. Being inclined to reproach himself rather than circumstances he was a little ashamed of having given up too easily.
'Can you suggest any reason why he should commit suicide?'
'He did say something about not trusting himself to endure pain and added that he had an ulcer. An autopsy—is there to be one?'
Excerpted from The Last Two Weeks of Georges Rivac by Geoffrey Household. Copyright © 1978 Geoffrey Household. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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