“I hope you found this to be a typical American breakfast?”
“A little better than that,” I said.
“Potatoes, in particular, are difficult to obtain locally. But I find them so welcome a change from the endless rice. You slept comfortably? I am glad. I have taken a liberty, Evan. I have been presumptuous. I hope you will forgive me. I sent one of my young men over to the Orient to pack your bags and bring them here. Everything awaits you in the library. It occurred to me that you might not wish to return to the hotel and the watchful eye of Mr. Hewlitt, was that his name? I would have asked you first, but this was more easily accomplished early in the morning, and I did not wish to disturb your sleep. You are not angry with me?”
“I’m delighted. I didn’t want to go back to the Orient.”
“I thought not. And now as to the jewels and your girl friend. I have made inquiries. Not productive, but not entirely fruitless either. First, the gems.” He heaved a sigh. “The business of the theft, as you may have gathered last night, was carried out in a genuinely professional manner. And yet no local professionals in that line of work seem to have been involved. Nor have any known professional jewel thieves from outside been recognized in Bangkok of late. Nor, finally, have any of the jewels made their appearance on the international market. This last point is not of great significance, I do not think. Had I been concerned with the theft” – a wistful sigh – “I would not have attempted to disperse the gems for some time. Two or three months, at the least. Of course many persons prefer to move more rapidly. It is a question, I suspect, both of temperament and of organization.
“Now, as to the musicians – it does seem very likely that they were taken away to the north. No one to whom I spoke has heard anything about their having been taken out of the country, and my contacts might well have heard of it had it happened. You understand that in my line of business it is important to be able to enter and leave countries without going through Customs, so I have access to good information in that area. There have been no ransom attempts either.
“So I wonder immediately why anyone might kidnap them, eh? Perhaps they stole the jewels, and the kidnappers then stole them and the jewels. But I do not think so. Or perhaps they were kidnapped for political reasons, eh? I would not attempt to guess those reasons, but in the realm of world politics I have found it to be true that anything is possible, anything at all. As long as the motive of financial profit dominates, then a degree of logic prevails. But once political considerations are involved, ah, then lunacy and chaos enter in.” He shook his head. “In my native Switzerland we remained quite aloof from such politics. We let our nation serve as a maze for political rats from other nations to wander through, but we ourselves were never involved.”
“But that’s no longer the case,” I said.
So I told him about the situation in the Jura, a few hundred square miles of the Canton of Bern bordering on France. The Jura region, predominantly French-speaking, desired to secede from the German-speaking cantor and achieve autonomous status within the Swiss Confederation. Even now extremists were waging arson attacks against German-speaking inhabitants of the Jura, and political refugees were beginning to turn up in Paris.
“But this is remarkable,” Vaudois said. “I am from the Jura. It is only since the Treaty of Vienna that we have been a part of Bern.”
“And they wage attacks on the German element, eh? Have they much hope for success?”
“I doubt it, but-”
“You know of these people?”
“Yes.” I hesitated. “As a matter of fact,” I said, “I’m a member of the Council for Autonomy of the Jura. I haven’t been able to play too active a role, as it happens, but-”
“This is marvelous!” He beamed with pleasure. “No doubt my countrymen are severely oppressed, Evan. You must supply me with a name and address. I would be honored to furnish them with, oh, a small donation.”
After he had recovered from his attack of Juran patriotism, I told him my plan for getting into the north. Obviously I needed a cover. Neither my size nor my complexion would facilitate my passing as a Siamese, and I would not be particularly welcome as an American agent. But throughout the remote areas of the world the natives had grown accustomed to the periodic invasions of American scientists, especially of the simpler sort. With just the most rudimentary sort of equipment I could easily pass as an itinerant lepidopterist, chasing net in hand over the rice paddies of Thailand in a madcap hunt for elusive butterflies and moths. I wouldn’t even have to pursue any winged creatures. I could insist that I was only interested in the Bat-Winged Gobbletail or some such, and leave inferior species alone. And, with that sort of cover, I could visit remote villages and mingle innocently with the people, asking all sorts of irrelevant questions and trying to get a line on whatever pea-green butterflies and black people might have passed through the region.
“It is not impossible,” Abel Vaudois admitted. “You may make a list of the various articles you require, and I will have them purchased for you. There is no sense in your showing your face in Bangkok. And of course you will want a driver. I can supply a man.”
“I can drive.”
“But your driver will also be able to speak Siamese.”
“I speak the language.”
“You do?” He studied me. “That is hard to believe. I have lived here for years and remain at sea in it. And as you know, I am a good linguist. From birth I spoke German and French and Italian, albeit with a heavy Switzer accent. And I am fluent in several other European tongues. But this maddening language? I find it impossible. I say khao when I wish some rice, but the same syllable also means badly, or white, or old, or news. One little syllable with five meanings!”
“It is all a matter of inflection. For rice one would say khao, for badly one would say khao, for news one would say khao, for white one would say khao, for old one-”
“Stop, stop! You will give me a headache. Each time it sounds quite the same to me.”
“When you have the ear for it, the words sound quite distinct.”
“And you have such an ear?”
“I can get along in Siamese.”
“Then this will be a great help to you. Ah, Evan. Should you ever tire of working for this Chief of yours-”
“I don’t work for him, exactly.”
“Well, should you ever desire to work for me-”
“I am honored, Abel.”
“My good little friend. Such a madness, from Latvian armies to Siamese jewels to Negro singers. And opium in Africa, eh? You will make your list, everything you require. But first you must come for a look at my gardens. I think you will be impressed. An expense, to be sure, but of what use is money but for the provision of comfort and beauty? Come.”
I remained with Abel Vaudois for two more days while his men picked up the Land Rover and the other tools of the lepidopterist’s trade. Abel even thought to include a half dozen beautifully preserved specimens of local butterflies, each neatly mounted in a glass frame. I took the net into the garden and practiced catching various flying insects. I let them all go and after I’d done some damage to a clump of late-blooming hyacinth, I gave up insect-hunting in the garden.
Finally I left in the hours just before dawn, picking up the main highway north from Bangkok. The first stretch of road was broad and flat, with endless stretches of rice fields on either side. The road was built up high because during the rainy season the lands were frequently under water. Even with the height of the road it was occasionally impassable.
When the road got worse, I began to go into my act. I stopped in the small villages and bought my meals from the people, bartering silver coins for crudely spiced bowls of rice and meat. My equipment drew considerable interest, and the villagers were amused that someone would be foolish enough to spend time and money pursuing the pretty little butterflies. I redeemed myself in their eyes by explaining that I sold the insects at a handsome profit to rich collectors – thus it was these rich collectors who were the fools, and I was merely a shrewd tradesman. I would sit cross-legged around village campfires and show the tools of my trade and pass around the half-dozen mounted butterflies for everyone’s rapt inspection. I hadn’t yet bothered catching any butterflies of my own.
It was at one of these villages, far north of Bangkok, where the rice fields were more and more frequently giving way to stretches of bamboo forest and stands of teak, and where a few coins had bought me a water buffalo steak pounded by hand and rubbed with ginger and broiled over a wood fire, with a spicy root wine to wash it down, that I first began to feel genuinely at ease. In the distance were the noises of the nighttime wilderness – monkeys chattering in the trees, the far-off growl of a jungle cat after its prey, the hooting of an owl. And all around me were the soft voices of the local peasantry, its country’s pride, according to Goldsmith, which when once destroyed can never be supplied.
Here the soft voices spoke Siamese. But for the language and the food I could have been almost anywhere – on a hill in Macedonia where my son, Todor, lived, alongside a jungle stream in the Amazon Basin, in a green valley in Slovenia, anywhere. Here Bangkok and Manhattan were equally far removed, light-centuries away. Here people grew their own food and slaughtered their own animals and built their own huts and made their own music and drew their own pictures. Here there were no newspapers, no radios, no jukeboxes, no air conditioning, no central heating, no deodorants, none of the conveniences of modern civilization.
And here, too, I had my first word of Tuppence. Why, yes, an old woman told me, she had seen some people with black skins, a woman and some men as well. It was remarkable, she had not known there were persons in the world of such a color. They had passed through the village a day after Prang’s buffalo had calved, just nine days ago.
They were with the bandits, a man added. But he did not think they were of the bandits but were perhaps their prisoners.
“Bandits? Were they Communists?”
“What are Communists?”
I took a different tack. “How did you know that the captors of the black persons were bandits?”
“They took food,” the old woman said, “and did not pay for it, and pointed guns at us. Since they did not have uniforms, we knew they were not of the government, so they must be bandits.”
“Do bandits come here often?”
“Not too often. Farther north there are more bandits, and they are cruel to the villagers. But here only once in a great while do the bandits come to steal from us, and from time to time the soldiers of the government come north looking for bandits, and they too steal from us. But for the most part we are left alone, safe from soldiers and bandits, and we prosper.”
I learned more of the bandits as I moved to the north. There were many groups of them, I was told, and sometimes they fought among themselves and other times they battled the government forces. The bandits hated the government, I learned, and the government had vowed to exterminate the bandits, and it was the peasants who suffered most, as is usually the case. Often the bandits would raid a village and behead the chief of the village and force the young men to go off with them. And if a village chieftain cooperated with the bandits, then the government troops might raid the village and take the young men off to join the army, and the chieftain who had cooperated with the bandits would be shot by an army firing squad. The government had announced that some day all the bandits would be dead, and the bandits had announced that the government would be destroyed and the land would belong to the people, and the villagers sincerely hoped that someday all of the soldiers and all of the bandits would succeed in killing one another.