Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, February 27, 2024


 "Hot Water" by Val Gielgud  (from The Great Book of Thrillers, edited by H. Douglas Thomson, 1935; earlier publication possible; reprinted in Great Tales of Terror, edited anonymously, 1991)

" 'The regrettable truth about all Secret Service work,' said Casimir Sipiaghin, 'is that it must be devastatingl;y boring, revoltingly squalid, or unspeakably tragic.  Personally I hate boredom, I abominate squalir, and I find tragedy does not suit me.' "  He went on, " 'Spyng is altogether a dirty business.  If you wish me to talk about it, you will have to buy me more vermouth cassis.' "

Sipiaghin was a pre-war Russian, the only person the narrator knew to have been a professional spy.  His story goes back to 1919, when he fled from Russia and landed in the Polish police, and was given the job of running the Frontier Intelligence Service against the Bolsheviks.  For four months, he was stationed in a run-down hotel in Kovno, Lithuania -- windows shattered, cramped quarters, and although modern conveniences had been installed, there was no running water.  The one bright spot ws that most of his agents were women, planted across the border in various capacities, usually as nurses or typists.  One of these agents was a girl named Tatiana, the daughter of a rich merchant who had been shot by the Reds.  Tatiana managed to be placed as a typist-stenographer to the political commissar attached to the Soviet Fourteenth Army.  Before being placed as a spy, she and Sipiaghin were lovers.  Although Tatiana had ended the affair, Sipiaghin remained deeply in love with her.

Returning from a two-day undercover mission, all Sipiaghin could think of was a hot bath.  The weather had been vile, his disguise had been that of a peasant, and he was feeling "dirty and depressed to the soles of my boots."  Climbing the stairs to his room, he called out to the landlosrd to prepare buckets of hot water for a bath.  When he got to his room, Sipiaghin was surprised to see Tatiana there.  

She evidently had something important to tell him, but that could wait until he had his bath.  Instructing the girl to wait for him, he crossed that hall to the bathroom, where the landlord had filled the tub half way with very hot water.  But the landlord had forgotten to provide a bucket of cold water to lower the temperature.  There was a jug of cold water by the basin in his bedroom, so Sipiaghin returned to his room for it.  There he found Tatiana with a black box that he had hidden under his bed; the box containing many important secrets gleaned from his spyng.  Tatoana stared at him, saying nothing.

Just then, his chauffeur, Stefan, entered the anteroom.  He told Stefan to remain in the rooms with Tatiana while he took his bath.  He needed the time to consider what to do.  He still loved Tatiana and to expose her would mean her certain death by firing squad.  (He later learned that she was forced to act because the Russians held her mother and threatened to kill her if Tatiana did not do their bidding.)  What to do?  What to do?

Spyng can be unspeakably tragic and an altogether dirty business...

A brief, sharp, poignant tale.

Val Gielgud (1900-1981) was a pioneering radio and television broadcaster and writer..  He was appointed Head of Production at the BBC in 1929, where he oversaw all radio drama produced over the next twenty years, and was credited with inventing many of the radio techniques still in use today.  In 1930, he successfully directed the first ever television drama in an experimental transmission of a short play by Pirandello.  Nine years later he was seconded to the BBC Television Service to direct a short play based on one of his short stories.  He returned to radio and in 1946, was named the head of BBC Television drama; but Gielgud's heart was in radio.  During the 1950s, he directed his brother, john Gielgud, in a radio series based on the Sherlock Holmes stories; Ralph Richardson appeared as Dr. Watson, and Gielgud himself appeared in one episode as Mycroft Holmes.  Gielgud had determined tastes in drama.   He abhorred soap opera, and had no truck with many modern playwrights, and rejected Beckett's Waiting for Godot as a radio drama.

During his career, he wrote or co-wrote twenty-six mystery novels, one short story collection, two historical novels, nineteen stage plays, four screenplays, forty radio plays, and seven nonfiction books, as well as editing two anthologies.  His best-known book was Death at Broadcasting House (1934; filmed that same year).

Giielgud was married five times.  His mother's third husband was the brother of Czar Nicholas II.  As mentioned above, he was the brother of actor Sir John  Girelgug.  He was a great-nephew of noted actress Dame Ellen Terry.  Val Gieldud was awarded the CBE in 1958.

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