Fall of Giants
The first book in the Century series, 2010
To the memory of my parents,
Martin and Veenie Follett.
Cast of Characters
Senator Cameron Dewar
Ursula Dewar, his wife
Gus Dewar, their son
Josef Vyalov, businessman
Lena Vyalov, his wife
Olga Vyalov, their daughter
Rosa Hellman, journalist
Chuck Dixon, school friend of Gus’s
Marga, nightclub singer
Nick Forman, thief
Norman Niall, crooked accountant
Brian Hall, union leader
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president
William Jennings Bryan, secretary of state
Joseph Daniels, secretary of the navy
English and Scottish
Earl Fitzherbert, called Fitz
Princess Elizaveta, called Bea, his wife
Lady Maud Fitzherbert, his sister
Lady Hermia, called Aunt Herm, their poor aunt
The Duchess of Sussex, their rich aunt
Gelert, Pyrenean mountain dog
Grout, Fitz’s butler
Sanderson, Maud’s maid
Mildred Perkins, Ethel Williams’s lodger
Bernie Leckwith, secretary of the Aldgate branch of the Independent Labour Party
Bing Westhampton, Fitz’s friend
Marquis of Lowther, “Lowthie,” rejected suitor of Maud
Albert Solman, Fitz’s man of business
Dr. Greenward, volunteer at the baby clinic
Lord “Johnny” Remarc, junior War Office minister
Colonel Hervey, aide to Sir John French
Lieutenant Murray, aide to Fitz
Mannie Litov, factory owner
Jock Reid, treasurer of the Aldgate Independent Labour Party
Jayne McCulley, soldier’s wife
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
King George V
Mansfield Smith-Cumming, called “C,” head of the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau (later MI6)
Sir Edward Grey, M.P., foreign secretary
Sir William Tyrrell, private secretary to Grey
Frances Stevenson, mistress of Lloyd George
Winston Churchill, M.P.
H. H. Asquith, M.P., prime minister
Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force
Gini, a bar girl
Colonel Dupuys, aide to General Galliéni
General Lourceau, aide to General Joffre
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
General Joffre, commander in chief of French forces
General Galliéni, commander of the Paris garrison
German and Austrian
VON ULRICH FAMILY
Otto von Ulrich, diplomat
Susanne von Ulrich, his wife
Walter von Ulrich, their son, military attaché at the German embassy in London
Greta von Ulrich, their daughter
Graf (Count) Robert von Ulrich, Walter’s second cousin, military attaché at the Austrian embassy in London
Gottfried von Kessel, cultural attaché at the German embassy in London
Monika von der Helbard, Greta’s best friend
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
Prince Karl Lichnowsky, German ambassador to London
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg
General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, German chancellor
Arthur Zimmermann, German foreign minister
Grigori Peshkov, metalworker
Lev Peshkov, horse wrangler
PUTILOV MACHINE WORKS
Konstantin, lathe operator, chairman of the Bolshevik discussion group
Isaak, captain of the football team
Varya, female laborer, Konstantin’s mother
Serge Kanin, supervisor of the casting section
Count Maklakov, director
Mikhail Pinsky, police officer
Ilya Kozlov, his sidekick
Nina, maid to Princess Bea
Prince Andrei, Bea’s brother
Katerina, a peasant girl new to the city
Mishka, bar owner
Fyodor, corrupt cop
Spirya, passenger on the Angel Gabriel
Yakov, passenger on the Angel Gabriel
Anton, clerk at the Russian embassy in London, also a spy for Germany
David, Jewish soldier
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party
David Williams, union organizer
Cara Williams, his wife
Ethel Williams, their daughter
Billy Williams, their son
Gramper, Cara’s father
Len Griffiths, atheist and Marxist
Tommy Griffiths, their son, Billy Williams’s best friend
Mrs. Minnie Ponti
Giuseppe “Joey” Ponti, her son
Giovanni “Johnny” Ponti, his younger brother
David Crampton, “Dai Crybaby”
Harry “Suet” Hewitt
John Jones the Shop
Dai Chops, the butcher’s son
Pat Pope, Main Level onsetter
Micky Pope, Pat’s son
Dai Ponies, horse wrangler
Perceval Jones, chairman of Celtic Minerals
Maldwyn Morgan, colliery manager
Rhys Price, colliery manager’s deputy
Arthur “Spotty” Llewellyn, colliery clerk
STAFF AT TŶ GWYN
Mrs. Jevons, housekeeper
Dai Muck, sanitary worker
Mrs. Dai Ponies
Mrs. Roley Hughes
Mrs. Hywel Jones
Private George Barrow, B Company
Private Robin Mortimer, cashiered officer, B Company
Private Owen Bevin, B Company
Sergeant Elijah “Prophet” Jones, B Company
Second Lieutenant James Carlton-Smith, B Company
Captain Gwyn Evans, A Company
Second Lieutenant Roland Morgan, A Company
REAL HISTORICAL CHARACTERS
David Lloyd George, Liberal member of Parliament
CHAPTER ONE – June 22, 1911
On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.
The twenty-second of June, 1911, was Billy’s thirteenth birthday. He was woken by his father. Da’s technique for waking people was more effective than it was kind. He patted Billy’s cheek, in a regular rhythm, firmly and insistently. Billy was in a deep sleep, and for a second he tried to ignore it, but the patting went on relentlessly. Momentarily he felt angry; but then he remembered that he had to get up, he even wanted to get up, and he opened his eyes and sat upright with a jerk.
“Four o’clock,” Da said, then he left the room, his boots banging on the wooden staircase as he went down.
Today Billy would begin his working life by becoming an apprentice collier, as most of the men in town had done at his age. He wished he felt more like a miner. But he was determined not to make a fool of himself. David Crampton had cried on his first day down the pit, and they still called him Dai Crybaby, even though he was twenty-five and the star of the town’s rugby team.
It was the day after midsummer, and a bright early light came through the small window. Billy looked at his grandfather, lying beside him. Gramper’s eyes were open. He was always awake, whenever Billy got up; he said old people did not sleep much.
Billy got out of bed. He was wearing only his underdrawers. In cold weather he wore his shirt to bed, but Britain was enjoying a hot summer, and the nights were mild. He pulled the pot from under the bed and took off the lid.
There was no change in the size of his penis, which he called his peter. It was still the childish stub it had always been. He had hoped it might have started to grow on the night before his birthday, or perhaps that he might see just one black hair sprouting somewhere near it, but he was disappointed. His best friend, Tommy Griffiths, who had been born on the same day, was different: he had a cracked voice and a dark fuzz on his upper lip, and his peter was like a man’s. It was humiliating.
As Billy was using the pot, he looked out of the window. All he could see was the slag heap, a slate-gray mountain of tailings, waste from the coal mine, mostly shale and sandstone. This was how the world appeared on the second day of Creation, Billy thought, before God said: “Let the earth bring forth grass.” A gentle breeze wafted fine black dust off the slag onto the rows of houses.
Inside the room there was even less to look at. This was the back bedroom, a narrow space just big enough for the single bed, a chest of drawers, and Gramper’s old trunk. On the wall was an embroidered sampler that read:
BELIEVE ON THE
LORD JESUS CHRIST
AND THOU SHALT
There was no mirror.
One door led to the top of the stairs, the other to the front bedroom, which could be accessed only through this one. It was larger and had space for two beds. Da and Mam slept there, and Billy’s sisters had too, years ago. The eldest, Ethel, had now left home, and the other three had died, one from measles, one from whooping cough, and one from diphtheria. There had been an older brother, too, who had shared Billy’s bed before Gramper came. Wesley had been his name, and he had been killed underground by a runaway dram, one of the wheeled tubs that carried coal.
Billy pulled on his shirt. It was the one he had worn to school yesterday. Today was Thursday, and he changed his shirt only on Sunday. However, he did have a new pair of trousers, his first long ones, made of the thick water-repellent cotton called moleskin. They were the symbol of entry into the world of men, and he pulled them on proudly, enjoying the heavy masculine feel of the fabric. He put on a thick leather belt and the boots he had inherited from Wesley, then he went downstairs.
Most of the ground floor was taken up by the living room, fifteen feet square, with a table in the middle and a fireplace to one side, and a homemade rug on the stone floor. Da was sitting at the table reading an old copy of the Daily Mail, a pair of spectacles perched on the bridge of his long, sharp nose. Mam was making tea. She put down the steaming kettle, kissed Billy’s forehead, and said: “How’s my little man on his birthday?”
Billy did not reply. The “little” was wounding, because he was little, and the “man” was just as hurtful because he was not a man. He went into the scullery at the back of the house. He dipped a tin bowl into the water barrel, washed his face and hands, and poured the water away in the shallow stone sink. The scullery had a copper with a fire grate underneath, but it was used only on bath night, which was Saturday.
They had been promised running water soon, and some of the miners’ houses already had it. It seemed a miracle to Billy that people could get a cup of cold clear water just by turning the tap, and not have to carry a bucket to the standpipe out in the street. But indoor water had not yet come to Wellington Row, where the Williamses lived.
He returned to the living room and sat at the table. Mam put a big cup of milky tea in front of him, already sugared. She cut two thick slices off a loaf of homemade bread and got a slab of dripping from the pantry under the stairs. Billy put his hands together, closed his eyes, and said: “Thank you Lord for this food amen.” Then he drank some tea and spread dripping on his bread.
Da’s pale blue eyes looked over the top of the paper. “Put salt on your bread,” he said. “You’ll sweat underground.”
Billy’s father was a miners’ agent, employed by the South Wales Miners’ Federation, which was the strongest trade union in Britain, as he said whenever he got the chance. He was known as Dai Union. A lot of men were called Dai, pronounced “die,” short for David, or Dafydd in Welsh. Billy had learned in school that David was popular in Wales because it was the name of the country’s patron saint, like Patrick in Ireland. All the Dais were distinguished one from another not by their surnames-almost everyone in town was Jones, Williams, Evans, or Morgan-but by a nickname. Real names were rarely used when there was a humorous alternative. Billy was William Williams, so they called him Billy Twice. Women were sometimes given their husband’s nickname, so that Mam was Mrs. Dai Union.
Gramper came down while Billy was eating his second slice. Despite the warm weather he wore a jacket and waistcoat. When he had washed his hands he sat opposite Billy. “Don’t look so nervous,” he said. “I went down the pit when I was ten. And my father was carried to the pit on his father’s back at the age of five, and worked from six in the morning until seven in the evening. He never saw daylight from October to March.”
“I’m not nervous,” Billy said. This was untrue. He was scared stiff.
However, Gramper was kindly, and he did not press the point. Billy liked Gramper. Mam treated Billy like a baby, and Da was stern and sarcastic, but Gramper was tolerant and talked to Billy as to an adult.
“Listen to this,” said Da. He would never buy the Mail, a right-wing rag, but he sometimes brought home someone else’s copy and read the paper aloud in a scornful voice, mocking the stupidity and dishonesty of the ruling class. “‘Lady Diana Manners has been criticized for wearing the same dress to two different balls. The younger daughter of the Duke of Rutland won “best lady’s costume” at the Savoy Ball for her off-the-shoulder boned bodice with full hooped skirt, receiving a prize of two hundred and fifty guineas.’” He lowered the paper and said: “That’s at least five years’ wages for you, Billy boy.” He resumed: “‘But she drew the frowns of the cognoscenti by wearing the same dress to Lord Winterton and F. E. Smith’s party at Claridge’s Hotel. One can have too much of a good thing, people said.’” He looked up from the paper. “You’d better change that frock, Mam,” he said. “You don’t want to draw the frowns of the cognoscenti.”
Mam was not amused. She was wearing an old brown wool dress with patched elbows and stains under the armpits. “If I had two hundred and fifty guineas I’d look better than Lady Diana Muck,” she said, not without bitterness.
“It’s true,” Gramper said. “Cara was always the pretty one-just like her mother.” Mam’s name was Cara. Gramper turned to Billy. “Your grandmother was Italian. Her name was Maria Ferrone.” Billy knew this, but Gramper liked to retell familiar stories. “That’s where your mother gets her glossy black hair and lovely dark eyes-and your sister. Your gran was the most beautiful girl in Cardiff-and I got her!” Suddenly he looked sad. “Those were the days,” he said quietly.
Da frowned with disapproval-such talk suggested the lusts of the flesh-but Mam was cheered by her father’s compliments, and she smiled as she put his breakfast in front of him. “Oh, aye,” she said. “Me and my sisters were considered beauties. We’d show those dukes what a pretty girl is, if we had the money for silk and lace.”
Billy was surprised. He had never thought of his mother as beautiful or otherwise, though when she dressed for the chapel social on Saturday evening she did look striking, especially in a hat. He supposed she might once have been a pretty girl, but it was hard to imagine.
“Mind you,” said Gramper, “your gran’s family were clever, too. My brother-in-law was a miner, but he got out of the industry and opened a café in Tenby. Now there’s a life for you-sea breezes, and nothing to do all day but make coffee and count your money.”
Da read another item. “‘As part of the preparations for the coronation, Buckingham Palace has produced a book of instructions two hundred and twelve pages long.’” He looked over the paper. “Mention that down the pit today, Billy. The men will be relieved to know that nothing has been left to chance.”
Billy was not very interested in royalty. What he liked was the adventure stories the Mail often printed about tough rugby-playing public-school men catching sneaky German spies. According to the paper, such spies infested every town in Britain, although there did not seem to be any in Aberowen, disappointingly.
Billy stood up. “Going down the street,” he announced. He left the house by the front door. “Going down the street” was a family euphemism: it meant going to the toilets, which stood halfway down Wellington Row. A low brick hut with a corrugated iron roof was built over a deep hole in the earth. The hut was divided into two compartments, one for men and one for women. Each compartment had a double seat, so that people went to the toilet two by two. No one knew why the builders had chosen this arrangement, but everyone made the best of it. Men looked straight ahead and said nothing, but-as Billy could often hear-women chatted companionably. The smell was suffocating, even when you experienced it every day of your life. Billy always tried to breathe as little as possible while he was inside, and came out gasping for air. The hole was shoveled out periodically by a man called Dai Muck.
When Billy returned to the house he was delighted to see his sister Ethel sitting at the table. “Happy birthday, Billy!” she cried. “I had to come and give you a kiss before you go down the pit.”
Ethel was eighteen, and Billy had no trouble seeing her as beautiful. Her mahogany-colored hair was irrepressibly curly, and her dark eyes twinkled with mischief. Perhaps Mam had looked like this once. Ethel wore the plain black dress and white cotton cap of a housemaid, an outfit that flattered her.
Billy worshipped Ethel. As well as pretty, she was funny and clever and brave, sometimes even standing up to Da. She told Billy things no one else would explain, such as the monthly episode women called the curse, and what was the crime of public indecency that had caused the Anglican vicar to leave town in such a hurry. She had been top of the class all the way through school, and her essay “My Town or Village” had taken first prize in a contest run by the South Wales Echo. She had won a copy of Cassell̛s Atlas of the World.
She kissed Billy’s cheek. “I told Mrs. Jevons the housekeeper that we were running out of boot polish and I’d better get some more from the town.” Ethel lived and worked at Tŷ Gwyn, the vast home of Earl Fitzherbert, a mile away up the mountain. She handed Billy something wrapped in a clean rag. “I stole a piece of cake for you.”
“Oh, thanks, Eth!” said Billy. He loved cake.
Mam said: “Shall I put it in your snap?”
Mam got a tin box from the cupboard and put the cake inside. She cut two more slabs of bread, spread them with dripping, sprinkled salt, and put them in the tin. All the miners had a tin “snap.” If they took food underground wrapped in a rag, the mice would eat it before the midmorning break. Mam said: “When you bring me home your wages, you can have a slice of boiled bacon in your snap.”
Billy’s earnings would not be much, at first, but all the same they would make a difference to the family. He wondered how much Mam would allow him for pocket money and whether he would ever be able to save enough for a bicycle, which he wanted more than anything else in the world.
Ethel sat at the table. Da said to her: “How are things at the big house?”
“Nice and quiet,” she said. “The earl and princess are in London for the coronation.” She looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. “They’ll be getting up soon-they need to be at the abbey early. She won’t like it-she’s not used to early hours-but she can’t be late for the king.” The earl’s wife, Bea, was a Russian princess, and very grand.
Da said: “They’ll want to get seats near the front, so they can see the show.”
“Oh, no, you can’t sit anywhere you like,” Ethel said. “They’ve had six thousand mahogany chairs made special, with the names of the guests on the back in gold writing.”
Gramper said: “Well, there’s a waste! What will they do with them after?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps everyone will take them home as souvenirs.”
Da said dryly: “Tell them to send a spare one to us. There’s only five of us here, and already your mam’s got to stand.”
When Da was being facetious there might be real anger underneath. Ethel leaped to her feet. “Oh, sorry, Mam, I didn’t think.”
“Stay where you are, I’m too busy to sit down,” said Mam.
The clock struck five. Da said: “Best get there early, Billy boy. Start as you mean to go on.”
Billy got to his feet reluctantly and picked up his snap.
Ethel kissed him again, and Gramper shook his hand. Da gave him two six-inch nails, rusty and a bit bent. “Put those in your trousers pocket.”
“What for?” said Billy.
“You’ll see,” Da said with a smile.
Mam handed Billy a quart bottle with a screw top, full of cold tea with milk and sugar. She said: “Now, Billy, remember that Jesus is always with you, even down the pit.”
He could see a tear in her eye, and he turned away quickly, because it made him feel weepy too. He took his cap from the peg. “Bye, then,” he said, as if he was only going to school; and he stepped out of the front door.
The summer had been hot and sunny so far, but today was overcast, and it even looked as if it might rain. Tommy was leaning against the wall of the house, waiting. “Aye, aye, Billy,” he said.
“Aye, aye, Tommy.”
They walked down the street side by side.
Aberowen had once been a small market town, serving hill farmers round about, Billy had learned in school. From the top of Wellington Row you could see the old commercial center, with the open pens of the cattle market, the wool exchange building, and the Anglican church, all on one side of the Owen River, which was little more than a stream. Now a railway line cut through the town like a wound, terminating at the pithead. The miners’ houses had spread up the slopes of the valley, hundreds of gray stone homes with roofs of darker-gray Welsh slate. They were built in long serpentine rows that followed the contours of the mountainsides, the rows crossed by shorter streets that plunged headlong to the valley bottom.
“Who do you think you’ll be working with?” said Tommy.
Billy shrugged. New boys were assigned to one of the colliery manager’s deputies. “No way to know.”
“I hope they put me in the stables.” Tommy liked horses. About fifty ponies lived in the mine. They pulled the drams that the colliers filled, drawing them along railway tracks. “What sort of work do you want to do?”
Billy hoped he would not be given a task too heavy for his childish physique, but he was not willing to admit that. “Greasing drams,” he said.
“It seems easy.”
They passed the school where yesterday they had been pupils. It was a Victorian building with pointed windows like a church. It had been built by the Fitzherbert family, as the headmaster never tired of reminding the pupils. The earl still appointed the teachers and decided the curriculum. On the walls were paintings of heroic military victories, and the greatness of Britain was a constant theme. In the Scripture lesson with which every day began, strict Anglican doctrines were taught, even though nearly all the children were from Nonconformist families. There was a school management committee, of which Da was a member, but it had no power except to advise. Da said the earl treated the school as his personal property.
In their final year Billy and Tommy had been taught the principles of mining, while the girls learned to sew and cook. Billy had been surprised to discover that the ground beneath him consisted of layers of different kinds of earth, like a stack of sandwiches. A coal seam-a phrase he had heard all his life without really understanding it-was one such layer. He had also been told that coal was made of dead leaves and other vegetable matter, accumulated over thousands of years and compressed by the weight of earth above it. Tommy, whose father was an atheist, said this proved the Bible was not true; but Billy’s da said that was only one interpretation.
The school was empty at this hour, its playground deserted. Billy felt proud that he had left school behind, although part of him wished he could go back there instead of down the pit.
As they approached the pithead, the streets began to fill with miners, each with his tin snap and bottle of tea. They all dressed the same, in old suits that they would take off once they reached their workplace. Some mines were cold but Aberowen was a hot pit, and the men worked in underwear and boots, or in the coarse linen shorts they called bannickers. Everyone wore a padded cap, all the time, because tunnel roofs were low and it was easy to bang your head.
Over the houses Billy could see the winding gear, a tower topped by two great wheels rotating in opposite directions, drawing the cables that raised and lowered the cage. Similar pithead structures loomed over most towns in the South Wales valleys, the way church spires dominated farming villages.
Other buildings were scattered around the pithead as if dropped by accident: the lamp room, the colliery office, the smithy, the stores. Railway lines snaked between the buildings. On the waste ground were broken drams, old cracked timbers, feed sacks, and piles of rusty disused machinery, all covered with a layer of coal dust. Da always said there would be fewer accidents if miners kept things tidy.
Billy and Tommy went to the colliery office. In the front room was Arthur “Spotty” Llewellyn, a clerk not much older than they were. His white shirt had a dirty collar and cuffs. They were expected-their fathers had previously arranged for them to start work today. Spotty wrote their names in a ledger, then took them into the colliery manager’s office. “Young Tommy Griffiths and young Billy Williams, Mr. Morgan,” he said.
Maldwyn Morgan was a tall man in a black suit. There was no coal dust on his cuffs. His pink cheeks were free of stubble, which meant he must shave every day. His engineering diploma hung in a frame on the wall, and his bowler hat-the other badge of his status-was displayed on the coat stand by the door.
To Billy’s surprise, he was not alone. Next to him stood an even more formidable figure: Perceval Jones, chairman of Celtic Minerals, the company that owned and operated the Aberowen coal mine and several others. A small, aggressive man, he was called Napoleon by the miners. He wore morning dress, a black tailcoat and striped gray trousers, and he had not taken off his tall black top hat.
Jones looked at the boys with distaste. “Griffiths,” he said. “Your father’s a revolutionary socialist.”
“Yes, Mr. Jones,” said Tommy.
“And an atheist.”
“Yes, Mr. Jones.”
He turned his gaze on Billy. “And your father’s an official of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.”
“Yes, Mr. Jones.”
“I don’t like socialists. Atheists are doomed to eternal damnation. And trade unionists are the worst of the lot.”
He glared at them, but he had not asked a question, so Billy said nothing.
“I don’t want troublemakers,” Jones went on. “In the Rhondda Valley they’ve been on strike for forty-three weeks because of people like your fathers stirring them up.”
Billy knew that the strike in the Rhondda had not been caused by troublemakers, but by the owners of the Ely Pit at Penygraig, who had locked out their miners. But he kept his mouth shut.
“Are you troublemakers?” Jones pointed a bony finger at Billy, making Billy shake. “Did your father tell you to stand up for your rights when you’re working for me?”
Billy tried to think, though it was difficult when Jones looked so threatening. Da had not said much this morning, but last night he had given some advice. “Please, sir, he told me: ‘Don’t cheek the bosses, that’s my job.’”
Behind him, Spotty Llewellyn sniggered.
Perceval Jones was not amused. “Insolent savage,” he said. “But if I turn you away, I’ll have the whole of this valley on strike.”
Billy had not thought of that. Was he so important? No-but the miners might strike for the principle that the children of their officials must not suffer. He had been at work less than five minutes, and already the union was protecting him.
“Get them out of here,” said Jones.
Morgan nodded. “Take them outside, Llewellyn,” he said to Spotty. “Rhys Price can look after them.”
Billy groaned inwardly. Rhys Price was one of the more unpopular deputy managers. He had set his cap at Ethel, a year ago, and she had turned him down flat. She had done the same to half the single men in Aberowen, but Price had taken it hard.
Spotty jerked his head. “Out,” he said, and he followed them. “Wait outside for Mr. Price.”
Billy and Tommy left the building and leaned on the wall by the door. “I’d like to punch Napoleon’s fat belly,” said Tommy. “Talk about a capitalist bastard.”
“Yeah,” said Billy, though he had had no such thought.
Rhys Price showed up a minute later. Like all the deputies, he wore a low round-crowned hat called a billycock, more expensive than a miner’s cap but cheaper than a bowler. In the pockets of his waistcoat he had a notebook and a pencil, and he carried a yardstick. Price had dark stubble on his cheeks and a gap in his front teeth. Billy knew him to be clever but sly.
“Good morning, Mr. Price,” Billy said.
Price looked suspicious. “What business have you got saying good morning to me, Billy Twice?”
“Mr. Morgan said we are to go down the pit with you.”
“Did he, now?” Price had a way of darting looks to the left and right, and sometimes behind, as if he expected trouble from an unknown quarter. “We’ll see about that.” He looked up at the winding wheel, as if seeking an explanation there. “I haven’t got time to deal with boys.” He went into the office.
“I hope he gets someone else to take us down,” Billy said. “He hates my family because my sister wouldn’t walk out with him.”
“Your sister thinks she’s too good for the men of Aberowen,” said Tommy, obviously repeating something he had heard.
“She is too good for them,” Billy said stoutly.
Price came out. “All right, this way,” he said, and headed off at a rapid walk.
The boys followed him into the lamp room. The lampman handed Billy a shiny brass safety lamp, and he hooked it onto his belt as the men did.
He had learned about miners’ lamps in school. Among the dangers of coal mining was methane, the inflammable gas that seeped out of coal seams. The men called it firedamp, and it was the cause of all underground explosions. Welsh pits were notoriously gassy. The lamp was ingeniously designed so that its flame would not ignite firedamp. In fact the flame would change its shape, becoming longer, thereby giving a warning-for firedamp had no smell.
If the lamp went out, the miner could not relight it himself. Carrying matches was forbidden underground, and the lamp was locked to discourage the breaking of the rule. An extinguished lamp had to be taken to a lighting station, usually at the pit bottom near the shaft. This might be a walk of a mile or more, but it was worth it to avoid the risk of an underground explosion.
In school the boys had been told that the safety lamp was one of the ways in which mine owners showed their care and concern for their employees-“as if,” Da said, “there was no benefit to the bosses in preventing explosions and stoppage of work and damage to tunnels.”
After picking up their lamps, the men stood in line for the cage. Cleverly placed alongside the queue was a notice board. Handwritten or crudely printed signs advertised cricket practise, a darts match, a lost penknife, a recital by the Aberowen Male Voice Choir, and a lecture on Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism at the Free Library. But deputies did not have to wait, and Price pushed his way to the front, with the boys tagging along.
Like most pits, Aberowen had two shafts, with fans placed to force air down one and up the other. The owners often gave the shafts whimsical names, and here they were Pyramus and Thisbe. This one, Pyramus, was the up shaft, and Billy could feel the draft of warm air coming from the pit.
Last year Billy and Tommy had decided they wanted to look down the shaft. On Easter Monday, when the men were not working, they had dodged the watchman and sneaked across the waste ground to the pithead, then climbed the guard fence. The shaft mouth was not completely enclosed by the cage housing, and they had lain on their bellies and looked over the rim. They had stared with dreadful fascination into that terrible hole, and Billy had felt his stomach turn. The blackness seemed infinite. He experienced a thrill that was half joy because he did not have to go down, half terror because one day he would. He had thrown a stone in, and they had listened as it bounced against the wooden cage-conductor and the brick lining of the shaft. It seemed a horrifically long time before they heard the faint, distant splash as it hit the pool of water at the bottom.
Now, a year later, he was about to follow the course of that stone.
He told himself not to be a coward. He had to behave like a man, even if he did not feel like one. The worst thing of all would be to disgrace himself. He was more afraid of that than of dying.
He could see the sliding grille that closed off the shaft. Beyond it was empty space, for the cage was on its way up. On the far side of the shaft he could see the winding engine that turned the great wheels high above. Jets of steam escaped from the mechanism. The cables slapped their guides with a whiplash sound. There was an odor of hot oil.
With a clash of iron, the empty cage appeared behind the gate. The banksman, in charge of the cage at the top end, slid the gate back. Rhys Price stepped into the empty cage and the two boys followed. Thirteen miners got in behind them-the cage held sixteen in total. The banksman slammed the gate shut.
There was a pause. Billy felt vulnerable. The floor beneath his feet was solid, but he might without much difficulty have squeezed through the widely spaced bars of the sides. The cage was suspended from a steel rope, but even that was not completely safe: everyone knew that the winding cable at Tirpentwys had snapped one day in 1902, and the cage had plummeted to the pit bottom, killing eight men.
He nodded to the miner beside him. It was Harry “Suet” Hewitt, a pudding-faced boy only three years older, though a foot taller. Billy remembered Harry in school: he had been stuck in Standard Three with the ten-year-olds, failing the exam every year, until he was old enough to start work.
A bell rang, signifying that the onsetter at the pit bottom had closed his gate. The banksman pulled a lever and a different bell rang. The steam engine hissed, then there was another bang.
The cage fell into empty space.
Billy knew that it went into free fall, then braked in time for a soft landing; but no theoretical foreknowledge could have prepared him for the sensation of dropping unhindered into the bowels of the earth. His feet left the floor. He screamed in terror. He could not help himself.
All the men laughed. They knew it was his first time and had been waiting for his reaction, he realized. Too late, he saw that they were all holding the bars of the cage to prevent themselves floating up. But the knowledge did nothing to calm his fear. He managed to stop screaming only by clamping his teeth together.
At last the brake engaged. The speed of the fall slowed, and Billy’s feet touched the floor. He grabbed a bar and tried to stop shaking. After a minute the fear was replaced by a sense of injury so strong that tears threatened. He looked into the laughing face of Suet and shouted over the noise: “Shut your great gob, Hewitt, you shitbrain.”
Suet’s face changed in an instant and he looked furious, but the other men laughed all the more. Billy would have to say sorry to Jesus for swearing, but he felt a bit less of a fool.
He looked at Tommy, who was white-faced. Had Tommy screamed? Billy was afraid to ask in case the answer might be no.
The cage stopped, the gate was thrown back, and Billy and Tommy walked shakily out into the mine.
It was gloomy. The miners’ lamps gave less light than the paraffin lights on the walls at home. The pit was as dark as a night with no moon. Perhaps they did not need to see well to hew coal, Billy thought. He splashed through a puddle, and looking down he saw water and mud everywhere, gleaming with the faint reflections of lamp flames. There was a strange taste in his mouth: the air was thick with coal dust. Was it possible that men breathed this all day? That must be why miners coughed and spat constantly.
Four men were waiting to enter the cage and go up to the surface. Each carried a leather case, and Billy realized they were the firemen. Every morning, before the miners started, the firemen tested for gas. If the concentration of methane was unacceptably high they would order the men not to work until the ventilation fans cleared the gas.
In the immediate neighborhood Billy could see a row of stalls for ponies and an open door leading to a brightly lit room with a desk, presumably an office for deputies. The men dispersed, walking away along four tunnels that radiated from the pit bottom. Tunnels were called headings, and they led to the districts where the coal was won.
Price took them to a shed and undid a padlock. The place was a tool store. He selected two shovels, gave them to the boys, and locked up again.
They went to the stables. A man wearing only shorts and boots was shoveling soiled straw out of a stall, pitching it into a coal dram. Sweat ran down his muscular back. Price said to him: “Do you want a boy to help you?”
The man turned around, and Billy recognized Dai Ponies, an elder of the Bethesda Chapel. Dai gave no sign of recognizing Billy. “I don’t want the little one,” he said.
“Right,” said Price. “The other is Tommy Griffiths. He’s yours.”
Tommy looked pleased. He had got his wish. Even though he would only be mucking out stalls, he was working in the stables.
Price said: “Come on, Billy Twice,” and he walked into one of the headings.
Billy shouldered his shovel and followed. He felt more anxious now that Tommy was no longer with him. He wished he had been set to mucking out stalls alongside his friend. “What will I be doing, Mr. Price?” he said.
“You can guess, can’t you?” said Price. “Why do you think I gave you a fucking shovel?”
Billy was shocked by the casual use of the forbidden word. He could not guess what he would be doing, but he asked no more questions.
The tunnel was round, its roof reinforced by curved steel supports. A two-inch pipe ran along its crown, presumably carrying water. Every night the headings were sprinkled in an attempt to reduce the dust. It was not merely a danger to men’s lungs-if that were all, Celtic Minerals probably would not have cared-but it constituted a fire hazard. However, the sprinkler system was inadequate. Da had argued that a pipe of six inches’ diameter was needed, but Perceval Jones had refused to spend the money.
After about a quarter of a mile they turned into a cross tunnel that sloped upward. This was an older, smaller passage, with timber props rather than steel rings. Price had to duck his head where the roof sagged. At intervals of about thirty yards they passed the entrances to workplaces where the miners were already hewing the coal.
Billy heard a rumbling sound, and Price said: “Into the manhole.”
“What?” Billy looked at the ground. A manhole was a feature of town pavements, and he could see nothing on the floor but the railway tracks that carried the drams. He looked up to see a pony trotting toward him, coming fast down the slope, drawing a train of drams.
“In the manhole!” Price shouted.
Still Billy did not understand what was required of him, but he could see that the tunnel was hardly wider than the drams, and he would be crushed. Then Price seemed to step into the wall and disappear.
Billy dropped his shovel, turned, and ran back the way he had come. He tried to get ahead of the pony, but it was moving surprisingly fast. Then he saw a niche cut into the wall, the full height of the tunnel, and he realized that he had seen such niches, without remarking them, every twenty-five yards or so. This must be what Price meant by a manhole. He threw himself in, and the train rumbled past.
When it had gone he stepped out, breathing hard.
Price pretended to be angry, but he was smiling. “You’ll have to be more alert than that,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll get killed down here-like your brother.”
Most men enjoyed exposing and mocking the ignorance of boys, Billy found. He was determined to be different when he grew up.
He picked up his shovel. It was undamaged. “Lucky for you,” Price commented. “If the dram had broken it, you would have had to pay for a new one.”
They went on and soon entered an exhausted district where the workplaces were deserted. There was less water underfoot, and the ground was covered with a thick layer of coal dust. They took several turnings and Billy lost his sense of direction.
They came to a place where the tunnel was blocked by a dirty old dram. “This area has to be cleaned up,” Price said. It was the first time he had bothered to explain anything, and Billy had a feeling he was lying. “Your job is to shovel the muck into the dram.”
Billy looked around. The dust was a foot thick to the limit of the light cast by his lamp, and he guessed it went a lot farther. He could shovel for a week without making much impression. And what was the point? The district was worked out. But he asked no questions. This was probably some kind of test.
“I’ll come back in a bit and see how you’re getting on,” Price said, and he retraced his steps, leaving Billy alone.
Billy had not expected this. He had assumed he would be working with older men and learning from them. But he could only do what he was told.
He unhooked the lamp from his belt and looked around for somewhere to put it. There was nothing he could use as a shelf. He put the lamp on the floor, but it was almost useless there. Then he remembered the nails Da had given him. So this was what they were for. He took one from his pocket. Using the blade of his shovel, he hammered it into a timber prop, then hung up his lamp. That was better.
The dram was chest high to a man but shoulder height to Billy, and when he started work he found that half the dust slipped off his shovel before he could get it over the lip. He developed an action that turned the blade to prevent this happening. In a few minutes he was bathed in sweat, and he realized what the second nail was for. He hammered it into another timber and hung up his shirt and trousers.
After a while he felt that someone was watching him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a dim figure standing as still as a statue. “Oh, God!” he shrieked, and he turned around to face it.
It was Price. “I forgot to check your lamp,” he said. He took Billy’s lamp off the nail and did something to it. “Not so good,” he said. “I’ll leave you mine.” He hung up the other lamp and disappeared.
He was a creepy character, but at least he seemed to have Billy’s safety in mind.
Billy resumed work. Before long his arms and legs began to ache. He was used to shoveling, he told himself: Da kept a pig in the waste ground behind the house, and it was Billy’s job to muck out the sty once a week. But that took about a quarter of an hour. Could he possibly keep this up all day?
Under the dust was a floor of rock and clay. After a while he had cleared an area four feet square, the width of the tunnel. The muck hardly covered the bottom of the dram, but he felt exhausted.
He tried to pull the dram forward so that he would not have to walk so far with his shovelful, but its wheels seemed to have locked with disuse.
He had no watch, and it was difficult to know how much time had passed. He began to work more slowly, conserving his strength.
Then his light went out.
The flame flickered first, and he looked anxiously at the lamp hanging on the nail, but he knew that the flame would lengthen if there was firedamp. This was not what he was seeing, so he felt reassured. Then the flame went out altogether.
He had never known darkness like this. He saw nothing, not even patches of gray, not even different shades of black. He lifted his shovel to face level and held it an inch from his nose, but he could not see it. This was what it must be like to be blind.
He stood still. What was he to do? He was supposed to take the lamp to the lighting station, but he could not have found his way back through the tunnels even if he had been able to see. In this blackness he might blunder about for hours. He had no idea how many miles the disused workings extended, and he did not want the men to have to send a search party for him.
He would just have to wait for Price. The deputy had said he would come back “in a bit.” That could mean a few minutes, or an hour or more. And Billy suspected it would be later rather than sooner. Price had surely intended this. A safety lamp could not blow out, and anyway there was little wind here. Price had taken Billy’s lamp and substituted one that was low on oil.
He felt a surge of self-pity, and tears came to his eyes. What had he done to deserve this? Then he pulled himself together. It was another test, like the cage. He would show them he was tough enough.
He should carry on working, even in the dark, he decided. Moving for the first time since the light went out, he put his shovel to the ground and ran it forward, trying to pick up dust. When he lifted it he thought, by its weight, that there was a load on the blade. He turned and walked two paces, then hefted it, trying to throw the muck into the dram, but he misjudged the height. The shovel clanged against the side of the dram and felt suddenly lighter as its load fell to the ground.
He would adjust. He tried again, lifting the shovel higher. When he had unloaded the blade he let it fall, and felt the wooden shaft bang against the lip of the dram. That was better.
As the work took him farther from the dram he continued to miss occasionally, until he began to count his paces aloud. He got into a rhythm, and although his muscles hurt he was able to carry on.
As the work became automatic, his mind was free to wander, which was not so good. He wondered how far the tunnel extended ahead of him and how long it had been disused. He thought of the earth above his head, extending for half a mile, and the weight being held up by these old timber props. He recalled his brother, Wesley, and the other men who had died in this mine. But their spirits were not here, of course. Wesley was with Jesus. The others might be, too. If not they were in a different place.
He began to feel frightened and decided it was a mistake to think about spirits. He was hungry. Was it time for his snap? He had no idea, but he thought he might as well eat it. He made his way to the place where he had hung his clothes, fumbled on the ground below, and found his flask and tin.
He sat with his back against the wall and took a long drink of cold, sweet tea. As he was eating his bread-and-dripping he heard a faint noise. He hoped it might be the creaking of Rhys Price’s boots, but that was wishful thinking. He knew that squeak: it was rats.
He was not afraid. There were plenty of rats in the ditches that ran along every street in Aberowen. But they seemed bolder in the dark, and a moment later one ran over his bare legs. Transferring his food to his left hand, he picked up his shovel and lashed out. It did not even scare them, and he felt the tiny claws on his skin again. This time one tried to run up his arm. Obviously they could smell the food. The squeaking increased, and he wondered how many there were.
He stood up and crammed the last of his bread into his mouth. He drank some more tea, then ate his cake. It was delicious, full of dried fruit and almonds; but a rat ran up his leg, and he was forced to gobble the cake.
They seemed to know the food was gone, for the squeaking gradually died down and then stopped altogether.
Eating gave Billy renewed energy for a while, and he went back to work, but he had a burning ache in his back. He kept going more slowly, stopping for frequent rests.
To cheer himself up, he told himself it might be later than he thought. Perhaps it was noon already. Someone would come to fetch him at the end of the shift. The lamp man checked the numbers, so they always knew if a man had not come back up. But Price had taken Billy’s lamp and substituted a different one. Could he be planning to leave Billy down here overnight?
It would never work. Da would raise the roof. The bosses were afraid of Da-Perceval Jones had more or less admitted it. Sooner or later, someone was sure to look for Billy.
But when he got hungry again he felt sure many hours must have passed. He started to get scared, and this time he could not shake it off. It was the darkness that unnerved him. He could have borne the waiting if he had been able to see. In the complete blackness he felt he was losing his mind. He had no sense of direction, and every time he walked back from the dram he wondered if he was about to crash into the tunnel side. Earlier he had worried about crying like a child. Now he had to stop himself screaming.
Then he recalled what Mam had said to him: “Jesus is always with you, even down the pit.” At the time he had thought she was just telling him to behave well. But she had been wiser than that. Of course Jesus was with him. Jesus was everywhere. The darkness did not matter, nor the passage of time. Billy had someone taking care of him.
To remind him of that, he sang a hymn. He disliked his voice, which was still a treble, but there was no one to hear him, so he sang as loud as he could. When he had sung all the verses, and the scary feeling began to return, he imagined Jesus standing just the other side of the dram, watching, with a look of grave compassion on his bearded face.
Billy sang another hymn. He shoveled and paced to the time of the music. Most of the hymns went with a swing. Every now and then he suffered again the fear that he might have been forgotten, the shift might have ended and he might be alone down there; then he would just remember the robed figure standing with him in the dark.
He knew plenty of hymns. He had been going to the Bethesda Chapel three times every Sunday since he was old enough to sit quietly. Hymnbooks were expensive, and not all the congregation could read, so everyone learned the words.
When he had sung twelve hymns, he reckoned an hour had passed. Surely it must be the end of the shift? But he sang another twelve. After that it was hard to keep track. He sang his favorites twice. He worked slower and slower.
He was singing “Up from the Grave He Arose” at the top of his voice when he saw a light. The work had become so automatic that he did not stop, but picked up another shovelful and carried it to the dram, still singing, while the light grew stronger. When the hymn came to an end he leaned on his shovel. Rhys Price stood watching him, lamp at his belt, with a strange look on his shadowed face.
Billy would not let himself feel relief. He was not going to show Price how he felt. He put on his shirt and trousers, then took the unlit lamp from the nail and hung it on his belt.
Price said: “What happened to your lamp?”
“You know what happened,” Billy said, and his voice sounded strangely grown-up.
Price turned away and walked back along the tunnel.
Billy hesitated. He looked the opposite way. Just the other side of the dram he glimpsed a bearded face and a pale robe, but the figure disappeared like a thought. “Thank you,” Billy said to the empty tunnel.
As he followed Price, his legs ached so badly that he felt he might fall down, but he hardly cared if he did. He could see again, and the shift was over. Soon he would be home and he could lie down.
They reached the pit bottom and got into the cage with a crowd of black-faced miners. Tommy Griffiths was not among them, but Suet Hewitt was. As they waited for the signal from above, Billy noticed they were looking at him with sly grins.
Hewitt said: “How did you get on, then, on your first day, Billy Twice?”
“Fine, thank you,” Billy said.
Hewitt’s expression was malicious: no doubt he was remembering that Billy had called him shitbrain. He said: “No problems?”
Billy hesitated. Obviously they knew something. He wanted them to know that he had not succumbed to fear. “My lamp went out,” he said, and he just about managed to keep his voice steady. He looked at Price, but decided it would be more manly not to accuse him. “It was a bit difficult shoveling in the dark all day,” he finished. That was too understated-they might think his ordeal had been nothing much-but it was better than admitting to fear.
An older man spoke. It was John Jones the Shop, so called because his wife ran a little general store in their parlor. “All day?” he said.
Billy said: “Aye.”
John Jones looked at Price and said: “You bastard, it’s only supposed to be for an hour.”
Billy’s suspicion was confirmed. They all knew what had happened, and it sounded as if they did something similar to all new boys. But Price had made it worse than usual.
Suet Hewitt was grinning. “Weren’t you scared, Billy boy, on your own in the dark?”
He thought about his answer. They were all looking at him, waiting to hear what he would say. Their sly smiles had gone, and they seemed a bit ashamed. He decided to tell the truth. “I was scared, yes, but I wasn’t on my own.”
Hewitt was baffled. “Not on your own?”
“No, of course not,” Billy said. “Jesus was with me.”
Hewitt laughed loudly, but no one else did. His guffaw resounded in the silence and stopped suddenly.
The hush lasted several seconds. Then there was a clang of metal and a jerk, and the cage lifted. Harry turned away.
After that, they called him Billy-with-Jesus.
PART ONE. THE DARKENING SKY
CHAPTER TWO – January 1914
Earl Fitzherbert, age twenty-eight, known to his family and friends as Fitz, was the ninth-richest man in Britain.
He had done nothing to earn his huge income. He had simply inherited thousands of acres of land in Wales and Yorkshire. The farms made little money, but there was coal beneath them, and by licensing mineral rights Fitz’s grandfather had become enormously wealthy.
Clearly God intended the Fitzherberts to rule over their fellow men, and to live in appropriate style; but Fitz felt he had not done much to justify God’s faith in him.
His father, the previous earl, had been different. A naval officer, he had been made admiral after the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, had become the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, and finally had been a minister in the government of Lord Salisbury. The Conservatives lost the general election of 1906, and Fitz’s father died a few weeks later-his end hastened, Fitz felt sure, by seeing irresponsible Liberals such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill take over His Majesty’s government.
Fitz had taken his seat in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, as a Conservative peer. He spoke good French and he could get by in Russian, and he would have liked one day to be his country’s foreign secretary. Regrettably, the Liberals had continued to win elections, so he had had no chance yet of becoming a government minister.
His military career had been equally undistinguished. He had attended the army’s officer training academy at Sandhurst, and had spent three years with the Welsh Rifles, ending as a captain. On marriage he had given up full-time soldiering, but had become honorary colonel of the South Wales Territorials. Unfortunately an honorary colonel never won medals.
However, he did have something to be proud of, he thought as the train steamed up through the South Wales valleys. In two weeks’ time, the king was coming to stay at Fitz’s country house. King George V and Fitz’s father had been shipmates in their youth. Recently the king had expressed a wish to know what the younger men were thinking, and Fitz had organized a discreet house party for His Majesty to meet some of them. Now Fitz and his wife, Bea, were on their way to the house to get everything ready.
Fitz cherished traditions. Nothing known to mankind was superior to the comfortable order of monarchy, aristocracy, merchant, and peasant. But now, looking out of the train window, he saw a threat to the British way of life greater than any the country had faced for a hundred years. Covering the once-green hillsides, like a gray-black leaf blight on a rhododendron bush, were the terraced houses of the coal miners. In those grimy hovels there was talk of republicanism, atheism, and revolt. It was only a century or so since the French nobility had been driven in carts to the guillotine, and the same would happen here if some of those muscular black-faced miners had their way.
Fitz would gladly have given up his earnings from coal, he told himself, if Britain could go back to a simpler era. The royal family was a strong bulwark against insurrection. But Fitz felt nervous about the visit, as well as proud. So much could go wrong. With royalty, an oversight might be seen as a sign of carelessness, and therefore disrespectful. Every detail of the weekend would be reported, by the visitors’ servants, to other servants and thence to those servants’ employers, so that every woman in London society would quickly know if the king were given a hard pillow, a bad potato, or the wrong brand of champagne.
Fitz’s Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was waiting at Aberowen railway station. With Bea at his side he was driven a mile to Tŷ Gwyn, his country house. A light but persistent drizzle was falling, as it so often did in Wales.
“Tŷ Gwyn” was Welsh for White House, but the name had become ironic. Like everything else in this part of the world, the building was covered with a layer of coal dust, and its once-white stone blocks were now a dark gray color that smeared the skirts of ladies who carelessly brushed against its walls.
Nevertheless it was a magnificent building, and it filled Fitz with pride as the car purred up the drive. The largest private house in Wales, Tŷ Gwyn had two hundred rooms. Once when he was a boy he and his sister, Maud, had counted the windows and found 523. It had been built by his grandfather, and there was a pleasing order to the three-story design. The ground-floor windows were tall, letting plenty of light into the grand reception rooms. Upstairs were dozens of guest rooms, and in the attic countless small servants’ bedrooms, revealed by long rows of dormer windows in the steep roofs.
The fifty acres of gardens were Fitz’s joy. He supervised the gardeners personally, making decisions about planting and pruning and potting. “A house fit for a king to visit,” he said as the car stopped at the grand portico. Bea did not reply. Traveling made her bad-tempered.
Getting out of the car, Fitz was greeted by Gelert, his Pyrenean mountain dog, a bear-sized creature who licked his hand, then raced joyously around the courtyard in celebration.
In his dressing room Fitz took off his traveling clothes and changed into a suit of soft brown tweed. Then he went through the communicating door into Bea’s rooms.
The Russian maid, Nina, was unpinning the elaborate hat Bea had worn for the journey. Fitz caught sight of Bea’s face in the dressing-table mirror, and his heart skipped a beat. He was taken back four years, to the St. Petersburg ballroom where he had first seen that impossibly pretty face framed by blond curls that could not quite be tamed. Then as now she had worn a sulky look that he found strangely alluring. In a heartbeat he had decided that she of all women was the one he wanted to marry.
Nina was middle-aged and her hand was unsteady-Bea often made her servants nervous. As Fitz watched, a pin pricked Bea’s scalp, and she cried out.
Nina went pale. “I’m terribly sorry, Your Highness,” she said in Russian.
Bea snatched up a hatpin from the dressing table. “See how you like it!” she cried, and jabbed the maid’s arm.
Nina burst into tears and ran from the room.
“Let me help you,” Fitz said to his wife in a soothing tone.
She was not to be mollified. “I’ll do it myself.”
Fitz went to the window. A dozen or so gardeners were at work trimming bushes, edging lawns, and raking gravel. Several shrubs were in flower: pink viburnum, yellow winter jasmine, witch hazel, and scented winter honeysuckle. Beyond the garden was the soft green curve of the mountainside.
He had to be patient with Bea, and remind himself that she was a foreigner, isolated in a strange country, away from her family and all that was familiar. It had been easy in the early months of their marriage, when he was still intoxicated by how she looked and smelled and the touch of her soft skin. Now it took an effort. “Why don’t you rest?” he said. “I’ll see Peel and Mrs. Jevons and find out how their plans are progressing.” Peel was the butler and Mrs. Jevons the housekeeper. It was Bea’s job to organize the staff, but Fitz was nervous enough about the king’s visit to welcome an excuse to get involved. “I’ll report back to you later, when you’re refreshed.” He took out his cigar case.
“Don’t smoke in here,” she said.
He took that for assent and went to the door. Pausing on his way out, he said: “Look, you won’t behave like that in front of the king and queen, will you? Striking the servants, I mean.”
“I didn’t strike her, I stuck a pin in her as a lesson.”
Russians did that sort of thing. When Fitz’s father had complained about the laziness of the servants at the British embassy in St. Petersburg, his Russian friends had told him he did not beat them enough.
Fitz said to Bea: “It would embarrass the monarch to have to witness such a thing. As I’ve told you before, it’s not done in England.”
“When I was a girl, I was made to watch three peasants being hanged,” she said. “My mother didn’t like it, but my grandfather insisted. He said: ‘This is to teach you to punish your servants. If you do not slap them or flog them for small offenses of carelessness and laziness, they will eventually commit larger sins and end up on the scaffold.’ He taught me that indulgence to the lower classes is cruel, in the long run.”
Fitz began to lose patience. Bea looked back to a childhood of limitless wealth and self-indulgence, surrounded by troops of obedient servants and thousands of happy peasants. If her ruthless, capable grandfather had still been alive that life might have continued; but the family fortune had been frittered away by Bea’s father, a drunk, and her weak brother, Andrei, who was always selling the timber without replanting the woods. “Times have changed,” Fitz said. “I’m asking you-I’m ordering you-not to embarrass me in front of my king. I hope I have left no room for doubt in your mind.” He went out and closed the door.
He walked along the wide corridor, feeling irritated and a bit sad. When they were first married, such spats had left him bewildered and regretful; now he was becoming inured to them. Were all marriages like that? He did not know.
A tall footman polishing a doorknob straightened up and stood with his back to the wall and his eyes cast down, as Tŷ Gwyn servants were trained to do when the earl went by. In some great houses the staff had to face the wall, but Fitz thought that was too feudal. Fitz recognized this man, having seen him play cricket in a match between Tŷ Gwyn staff and Aberowen miners. He was a good left-handed batsman. “Morrison,” said Fitz, remembering his name. “Tell Peel and Mrs. Jevons to come to the library.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Fitz walked down the grand staircase. He had married Bea because he had been enchanted by her, but he had had a rational motive, too. He dreamed of founding a great Anglo-Russian dynasty that would rule vast tracts of the earth, much as the Habsburg dynasty had ruled parts of Europe for centuries.
But for that he needed an heir. Bea’s mood meant she would not welcome him to her bed tonight. He could insist, but that was never very satisfactory. It was a couple of weeks since the last time. He did not wish for a wife who was vulgarly eager about that sort of thing but, on the other hand, two weeks was a long time.
His sister, Maud, was still single at twenty-three. Besides, any child of hers would probably be brought up a rabid socialist who would fritter away the family fortune printing revolutionary tracts.
He had been married three years, and he was beginning to worry. Bea had been pregnant just once, last year, but she had suffered a miscarriage at three months. It had happened just after a quarrel. Fitz had canceled a planned trip to St. Petersburg, and Bea had become terribly emotional, crying that she wanted to go home. Fitz had put his foot down-a man could not let his wife dictate to him, after all-but then, when she miscarried, he felt guiltily convinced it was his fault. If only she could get pregnant again he would make absolutely sure nothing was allowed to upset her until the baby was born.
Putting that worry to the back of his mind, he went into the library and sat down at the leather-inlaid desk to make a list.
A minute or two later, Peel came in with a housemaid. The butler was the younger son of a farmer, and there was an outdoor look about his freckled face and salt-and-pepper hair, but he had been a servant at Tŷ Gwyn all his working life. “Mrs. Jevons have been took poorly, my lord,” he said. Fitz had long ago given up trying to correct the grammar of Welsh servants. “Stomach,” Peel added lugubriously.
“Spare me the details.” Fitz looked at the housemaid, a pretty girl of about twenty. Her face was vaguely familiar. “Who’s this?”
The girl spoke for herself. “Ethel Williams, my lord, I’m Mrs. Jevons’s assistant.” She had the lilting accent of the South Wales valleys.
“Well, Williams, you look too young to do a housekeeper’s job.”
“If your lordship pleases, Mrs. Jevons said you would probably bring down the housekeeper from Mayfair, but she hopes I might give satisfaction in the meantime.”
Was there a twinkle in her eye when she talked of giving satisfaction? Although she spoke with appropriate deference, she had a cheeky look. “Very well,” said Fitz.
Williams had a thick notebook in one hand and two pencils in the other. “I visited Mrs. Jevons in her room, and she was well enough to go through everything with me.”
“Why have you got two pencils?”
“In case one breaks,” she said, and she grinned.
Housemaids were not supposed to grin at the earl, but Fitz could not help smiling back. “All right,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve got written down in your book.”
“Three subjects,” she said. “Guests, staff, and supplies.”
“From your lordship’s letter, we understand there will be twenty guests. Most will bring one or two personal staff, say an average of two, therefore an extra forty in servants’ accommodation. All arriving on the Saturday and leaving on the Monday.”
“Correct.” Fitz felt a mixture of pleasure and apprehension very like his emotions before making his first speech in the House of Lords: he was thrilled to be doing this and, at the same time, worried about doing it well.
Williams went on: “Obviously Their Majesties will be in the Egyptian Apartment.”
Fitz nodded. This was the largest suite of rooms. Its wallpaper had decorative motifs from Egyptian temples.
“Mrs. Jevons suggested which other rooms should be opened up, and I’ve wrote it down by here.”
The phrase “by here” was a local expression, pronounced like the Bayeux Tapestry. It was a redundancy, meaning exactly the same as “here.” Fitz said: “Show me.”
She came around the desk and placed her open book in front of him. House servants were obliged to bathe once a week, so she did not smell as bad as the working class generally did. In fact her warm body had a flowery fragrance. Perhaps she had been stealing Bea’s scented soap. He read her list. “Fine,” he said. “The princess can allocate guests to rooms-she may have strong opinions.”
Williams turned the page. “This is a list of extra staff needed: six girls in the kitchen, for peeling vegetables and washing up; two men with clean hands to help serve at table; three extra chambermaids; and three boys for boots and candles.”
“Do you know where we’re going to get them?”
“Oh, yes, my lord, I’ve got a list of local people who’ve worked here before, and if that’s not sufficient we’ll ask them to recommend others.”
“No socialists, mind,” Fitz said anxiously. “They might try to talk to the king about the evils of capitalism.” You never knew with the Welsh.
“Of course, my lord.”
“What about supplies?”
She turned another page. “This is what we need, based on previous house parties.”
Fitz looked at the list: a hundred loaves of bread, twenty dozen eggs, ten gallons of cream, a hundred pounds of bacon, fifty stone of potatoes… He began to feel bored. “Shouldn’t we leave this until the princess has decided the menus?”
“It’s all got to come up from Cardiff,” Williams replied. “The shops in Aberowen can’t cope with orders of this size. And even the Cardiff suppliers need notice, to be sure they have sufficient quantities on the day.”
She was right. He was glad she was in charge. She had the ability to plan ahead-a rare quality, he found. “I could do with someone like you in my regiment,” he said.
“I can’t wear khaki, it doesn’t suit my complexion,” she replied saucily.
The butler looked indignant. “Now, now, Williams, none of your cheek.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Peel.”
Fitz felt it was his own fault for speaking facetiously to her. Anyway, he did not mind her impudence. In fact he rather liked her.
Peel said: “Cook have come up with some suggestions for the menus, my lord.” He handed Fitz a slightly grubby sheet of paper covered with the cook’s careful, childish handwriting. “Unfortunately we’re too early for spring lamb, but we can get plenty of fresh fish sent up from Cardiff on ice.”
“This looks very like what we had at our shooting party in November,” Fitz said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to attempt anything new on this occasion-better to stick with tried and tested dishes.”
“Exactly, my lord.”
“Now, the wines.” He stood up. “Let’s go down to the cellar.”
Peel looked surprised. The earl did not often descend to the basement.
There was a thought at the back of Fitz’s mind that he did not want to acknowledge. He hesitated, then said: “Williams, you come as well, to take notes.”
The butler held the door, and Fitz left the library and went down the back stairs. The kitchen and servants’ hall were in a semibasement. Etiquette was different here, and the skivvies and boot boys curtsied or touched their forelocks as he passed.
The wine cellar was in a subbasement. Peel opened the door and said: “With your permission, I’ll lead the way.” Fitz nodded. Peel struck a match and lit a candle lamp on the wall, then went down the steps. At the bottom he lit another lamp.
Fitz had a modest cellar, about twelve thousand bottles, much of it laid down by his father and grandfather. Champagne, port, and hock predominated, with lesser quantities of claret and white burgundy. Fitz was not an aficionado of wine, but he loved the cellar because it reminded him of his father. “A wine cellar requires order, forethought, and good taste,” the old man used to say. “These are the virtues that made Britain great.”
Fitz would serve the very best to the king, of course, but that required a judgment. The champagne would be Perrier-Jouët, the most expensive, but which vintage? Mature champagne, twenty or thirty years old, was less fizzy and had more flavor, but there was something cheerfully delicious about younger vintages. He took a bottle from a rack at random. It was filthy with dust and cobwebs. He used the white linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket to wipe the label. He still could not see the date in the dim candlelight. He showed the bottle to Peel, who had put on a pair of glasses.
“Eighteen fifty-seven,” said the butler.
“My goodness, I remember this,” Fitz said. “The first vintage I ever tasted, and probably the greatest.” He felt conscious of the maid’s presence, leaning close to him and peering at the bottle that was many years older than she. To his consternation, her nearness made him slightly out of breath.
“I’m afraid the fifty-seven may be past its best,” said Peel. “May I suggest the eighteen ninety-two?”
Fitz looked at another bottle, hesitated, and made a decision. “I can’t read in this light,” he said. “Fetch me a magnifying glass, Peel, would you?”
Peel went up the stone steps.
Fitz looked at Williams. He was about to do something foolish, but he could not stop. “What a pretty girl you are,” he said.
“Thank you, my lord.”
She had dark curls escaping from under the maid’s cap. He touched her hair. He knew he would regret this. “Have you ever heard of droit du seigneur?” He heard the throaty tone in his own voice.
“I’m Welsh, not French,” she said, with the impudent lift of her chin that he was already seeing as characteristic.
He moved his hand from her hair to the back of her neck, and looked into her eyes. She returned his gaze with bold confidence. But did her expression mean that she wanted him to go farther-or that she was ready to make a humiliating scene?
He heard heavy footsteps on the cellar stairs. Peel was back. Fitz stepped away from the maid.
She surprised Fitz by giggling. “You look so guilty!” she said. “Like a schoolboy.”
Peel appeared in the dim candlelight, proffering a silver tray on which there was an ivory-handled magnifying glass.
Fitz tried to breathe normally. He took the glass and returned to his examination of the wine bottles. He was careful not to meet Williams’s eye.
My God, he thought, what an extraordinary girl.
Ethel Williams felt full of energy. Nothing bothered her; she could handle every problem, cope with any setback. When she looked in a mirror she could see that her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled. After chapel on Sunday her father had commented on it, with his usual sarcastic humor. “You’re cheerful,” he had said. “Have you come into money?”
She found herself running, not walking, along the endless corridors of Tŷ Gwyn. Every day she filled more pages of her notebook with shopping lists, staff timetables, schedules for clearing tables and laying them again, and calculations: numbers of pillowcases, vases, napkins, candles, spoons…
This was her big chance. Despite her youth, she was acting housekeeper, at the time of a royal visit. Mrs. Jevons showed no sign of rising from her sickbed, so Ethel bore the full responsibility of preparing Tŷ Gwyn for the king and queen. She had always felt she could excel, if only she were given the chance; but in the rigid hierarchy of the servants’ hall there were few opportunities to show that you were better than the rest. Suddenly such an opening had appeared, and she was determined to use it. After this, perhaps the ailing Mrs. Jevons would be given a less demanding job, and Ethel would be made housekeeper, at double her present wages, with a bedroom to herself and her own sitting room in the servants’ quarters.
But she was not there yet. The earl was obviously happy with the job she was doing, and he had decided not to summon the housekeeper from London, which Ethel took as a great compliment; but, she thought apprehensively, there was yet time for that tiny slip, that fatal error, that would spoil everything: the dirty dinner plate, the overflowing sewer, the dead mouse in the bathtub. And then the earl would be angry.
On the morning of the Saturday when the king and queen were due to arrive, she visited every guest room, making sure the fires were lit and the pillows were plumped. Each room had at least one vase of flowers, brought that morning from the hothouse. There was Tŷ Gwyn-headed writing paper at every desk. Towels, soap, and water were provided for washing. The old earl had not liked modern plumbing, and Fitz had not yet got around to installing running water in all rooms. There were only three water closets, in a house with a hundred bedrooms, so most rooms also needed chamber pots. Potpourri was provided, made by Mrs. Jevons to her own recipe, to take away the smell.
The royal party was due at teatime. The earl would meet them at Aberowen railway station. There would undoubtedly be a crowd there, hoping for a glimpse of royalty, but at this point the king and queen would not meet the people. Fitz would bring them to the house in his Rolls-Royce, a large closed car. The king’s equerry, Sir Alan Tite, and the rest of the royal traveling staff would follow, with the luggage, in an assortment of horse-drawn vehicles. In front of Tŷ Gwyn a battalion from the Welsh Rifles was already assembling either side of the drive to provide a guard of honor.
The royal couple would show themselves to their subjects on Monday morning. They planned a progress around nearby villages in an open carriage, and a stop at Aberowen town hall to meet the mayor and councilors, before going to the railway station.
The other guests began to arrive at midday. Peel stood in the hall and assigned maids to guide them to their rooms and footmen to carry their bags. The first were Fitz’s uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The duke was a cousin of the king and had been invited to make the monarch feel more comfortable. The duchess was Fitz’s aunt, and like most of the family she was deeply interested in politics. At their London house she held a salon that was frequented by cabinet ministers.
The duchess informed Ethel that King George V was a bit obsessed with clocks and hated to see different clocks in the same house telling different times. Ethel cursed silently: Tŷ Gwyn had more than a hundred clocks. She borrowed Mrs. Jevons’s pocket watch and began to go around the house setting them all.
In the small dining room she came across the earl. He was standing at the window, looking distraught. Ethel studied him for a moment. He was the handsomest man she had ever seen. His pale face, lit by the soft winter sunlight, might have been carved in white marble. He had a square chin, high cheekbones, and a straight nose. His hair was dark but he had green eyes, an unusual combination. He had no beard or mustache or even side-whiskers. With a face like that, Ethel thought, why cover it with hair?
He caught her eye. “I’ve just been told that the king likes a bowl of oranges in his room!” he said. “There’s not a single orange in the damn house.”
Ethel frowned. None of the grocers in Aberowen would have oranges this early in the season-their customers could not afford such luxuries. The same would apply to every other town in the South Wales valleys. “If I might use the telephone, I could speak to one or two greengrocers in Cardiff,” she said. “They might have oranges at this time of year.”
“But how will we get them here?”
“I’ll ask the shop to put a basket on the train.” She looked at the clock she had been adjusting. “With luck the oranges will come at the same time as the king.”
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s what we’ll do.” He gave her a direct look. “You’re astonishing,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a girl quite like you.”
She stared back at him. Several times in the last two weeks he had spoken like this, overly familiar and a bit intense, and it gave Ethel a strange feeling, a sort of uneasy exhilaration, as if something dangerously exciting were about to happen. It was like the moment in a fairy tale when the prince enters the enchanted castle.
The spell was broken by the sound of wheels on the drive outside, then a familiar voice. “Peel! How delightful to see you.”
Fitz looked out of the window. His expression was comical. “Oh, no,” he said. “My sister!”
“Welcome home, Lady Maud,” said Peel’s voice. “Though we were not expecting you.”
“The earl forgot to invite me, but I came anyway.”
Ethel smothered a smile. Fitz loved his feisty sister, but he found her difficult to deal with. Her political opinions were alarmingly liberal: she was a suffragette, a militant campaigner for votes for women. Ethel thought Maud was wonderful-just the kind of independent-minded woman she herself would have liked to be.
Fitz strode out of the room, and Ethel followed him into the hall, an imposing room decorated in the Gothic style beloved of Victorians such as Fitz’s father: dark paneling, heavily patterned wallpaper, and carved oak chairs like medieval thrones. Maud was coming through the door. “Fitz, darling, how are you?” she said.
Maud was tall like her brother, and they looked similar, but the sculpted features that made the earl seem like the statue of a god were not so flattering on a woman, and Maud was striking rather than pretty. Contrary to the popular image of feminists as frumpy, she was fashionably dressed, wearing a hobble skirt over button boots, a navy-blue coat with an oversize belt and deep cuffs, and a hat with a tall feather pinned to its front like a regimental flag.
She was accompanied by Aunt Herm. Lady Hermia was Fitz’s other aunt. Unlike her sister, who had married a rich duke, Herm had wedded a thriftless baron who died young and broke. Ten years ago, after Fitz and Maud’s parents had both died within a few months, Aunt Herm had moved in to mother the thirteen-year-old Maud. She continued to act as Maud’s somewhat ineffectual chaperone.
Fitz said to Maud: “What are you doing here?”
Aunt Herm murmured: “I told you he wouldn’t like it, dear.”
“I couldn’t be absent when the king came to stay,” Maud said. “It would have been disrespectful.”
Fitz’s tone was fondly exasperated. “I don’t want you talking to the king about women’s rights.”
Ethel did not think he needed to worry. Despite Maud’s radical politics, she knew how to flatter and flirt with powerful men, and even Fitz’s Conservative friends liked her.
“Take my coat, please, Morrison,” Maud said. She undid the buttons and turned to allow the footman to remove it. “Hello, Williams, how are you?” she said to Ethel.
“Welcome home, my lady,” Ethel said. “Would you like the Gardenia Suite?”
“Thank you, I love that view.”
“Will you have some lunch while I’m getting the room ready?”
“Yes, please, I’m starving.”
“We’re serving it club style today, because guests are arriving at different times.” Club style meant that guests were served whenever they came into the dining room, as in a gentlemen’s club or a restaurant, instead of all at the same time. It was a modest lunch today: hot mulligatawny soup, cold meats and smoked fish, stuffed trout, lamb cutlets, and a few desserts and cheeses.
Ethel held the door and followed Maud and Herm into the large dining room. Already at lunch were the von Ulrich cousins. Walter von Ulrich, the younger one, was handsome and charming, and seemed delighted to be at Tŷ Gwyn. Robert was fussy: he had straightened the painting of Cardiff Castle on his wall, asked for more pillows, and discovered that the inkwell on his writing desk was dry-an oversight that made Ethel wonder fretfully what else she might have forgotten.
They stood up when the ladies walked in. Maud went straight up to Walter and said: “You haven’t changed since you were eighteen! Do you remember me?”
His face lit up. “I do, although you have changed since you were thirteen.”
They shook hands and then Maud kissed him on both cheeks, as if he were family. “I had the most agonizing schoolgirl passion for you at that age,” she said with startling candor.
Walter smiled. “I was rather taken with you, too.”
“But you always acted as if I was a terrible young pest!”
“I had to hide my feelings from Fitz, who protected you like a guard dog.”
Aunt Herm coughed, indicating her disapproval of this instant intimacy. Maud said: “Aunt, this is Herr Walter von Ulrich, an old school friend of Fitz’s who used to come here in the holidays. Now he’s a diplomat at the German embassy in London.”
Walter said: “May I present my cousin the graf Robert von Ulrich.” Graf was German for count, Ethel knew. “He is a military attaché at the Austrian embassy.”
They were actually second cousins, Peel had explained gravely to Ethel: their grandfathers had been brothers, the younger of whom had married a German heiress and left Vienna for Berlin, which was how come Walter was German whereas Robert was Austrian. Peel liked to get such things right.
Everyone sat down. Ethel held a chair for Aunt Herm. “Would you like some mulligatawny soup, Lady Hermia?” she asked.
“Yes, please, Williams.”
Ethel nodded to a footman, who went to the sideboard where the soup was being kept hot in an urn. Seeing that the new arrivals were comfortable, Ethel quietly left to arrange their rooms. As the door was closing behind her, she heard Walter von Ulrich say: “I remember how fond you were of music, Lady Maud. We were just discussing the Russian ballet. What do you think of Diaghilev?”
Not many men asked a woman for her opinion. Maud would like that. As Ethel hurried down the stairs to find a couple of maids to do the rooms, she thought: That German is quite a charmer.
The Sculpture Hall at Tŷ Gwyn was an anteroom to the dining room. The guests gathered there before dinner. Fitz was not much interested in art-it had all been collected by his grandfather-but the sculptures gave people something to talk about while they were waiting for their dinner.
As he chatted to his aunt the duchess, Fitz looked around anxiously at the men in white tie and tails and the women in low-cut gowns and tiaras. Protocol demanded that every other guest had to be in the room before the king and queen entered. Where was Maud? Surely she would not cause an incident! No, there she was, in a purple silk dress, wearing their mother’s diamonds, talking animatedly to Walter von Ulrich.
Fitz and Maud had always been close. Their father had been a distant hero, their mother his unhappy acolyte; the two children had got the affection they needed from each other. After both parents died they had clung together, sharing their grief. Fitz had been eighteen then, and had tried to protect his little sister from the cruel world. She, in turn, had worshipped him. In adulthood, she had become independent-minded, whereas he continued to believe that as head of the family he had authority over her. However, their affection for one another had proved strong enough to survive their differences-so far.
Now she was drawing Walter’s attention to a bronze cupid. Unlike Fitz, she understood such things. Fitz prayed she would talk about art all evening and keep off women’s rights. George V hated liberals, everyone knew that. Monarchs were usually conservative, but events had sharpened this king’s antipathy. He had come to the throne in the middle of a political crisis. Against his will he had been forced, by Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith-strongly backed by public opinion-to curb the power of the House of Lords. This humiliation still rankled. His Majesty knew that Fitz, as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, had fought to the last ditch against the so-called reform. All the same, if he were harangued by Maud tonight, he would never forgive Fitz.
Walter was a junior diplomat, but his father was one of the kaiser’s oldest friends. Robert, too, was well-connected: he was close to the archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another guest who moved in exalted circles was the tall young American now talking to the duchess. His name was Gus Dewar, and his father, a senator, was intimate adviser to U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. Fitz felt he had done well in assembling such a group of young men, the ruling elite of the future. He hoped the king was pleased.
Gus Dewar was amiable but awkward. He stooped, as if he would have preferred to be shorter and less conspicuous. He seemed unsure of himself, but he was pleasantly courteous to everyone. “The American people are concerned with domestic issues more than foreign policy,” he was saying to the duchess. “But President Wilson is a liberal, and as such he is bound to sympathize with democracies such as France and Britain more than with authoritarian monarchies such as Austria and Germany.”
At that moment the double doors opened, the room fell silent, and the king and queen walked in. Princess Bea curtsied, Fitz bowed, and everyone else followed suit. There were a few moments of mildly embarrassed silence, for no one was allowed to speak until one of the royal couple had said something. At last the king said to Bea: “I stayed at this house twenty years ago, you know,” and people began to relax.
The king was a neat man, Fitz reflected as the four of them made small talk. His beard and mustache were carefully barbered. His hair was receding, but he had enough left on top to comb with a parting as straight as a ruler. Close-fitting evening clothes suited his slim figure: unlike his father, Edward VII, he was not a gourmet. He relaxed with hobbies that required precision: he liked to collect postage stamps, sticking them meticulously into albums, a pastime that drew mockery from disrespectful London intellectuals.
The queen was a more formidable figure, with graying curls and a severe line to her mouth. She had a magnificent bosom, shown off to great advantage by the extremely low neckline that was currently de rigueur. She was the daughter of a German prince. Originally she had been engaged to George’s older brother, Albert, but he had died of pneumonia before the wedding. When George became heir to the throne he also took over his brother’s fiancée, an arrangement that was regarded by some people as a bit medieval.
Bea was in her element. She was enticingly dressed in pink silk, and her fair curls were perfectly arranged to look slightly disordered, as if she had suddenly broken away from an illicit kiss. She talked animatedly to the king. Sensing that mindless chatter would not charm George V, she was telling him how Peter the Great had created the Russian navy, and he was nodding interestedly.
Peel appeared in the dining room door, an expectant look on his freckled face. He caught Fitz’s eye and gave an emphatic nod. Fitz said to the queen: “Would you care to go in to dinner, Your Majesty?”
She gave him her arm. Behind them, the king stood arm in arm with Bea, and the rest of the party formed up in pairs according to precedence. When everyone was ready, they walked into the dining room in procession.
“How pretty,” the queen murmured when she saw the table.
“Thank you,” said Fitz, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. Bea had done a wonderful job. Three chandeliers hung low over the long table. Their reflections twinkled in the crystal glasses at each place. All the cutlery was gold, as were the salt and pepper containers and even the small boxes of matches for smokers. The white tablecloth was strewn with hothouse roses and, in a final dramatic touch, Bea had trailed delicate ferns from the chandeliers down to the pyramids of grapes on golden platters.
Everyone sat down, the bishop said grace, and Fitz relaxed. A party that began well almost always continued successfully. Wine and food made people less disposed to find fault.
The menu began with hors d’oeuvres Russes, a nod to Bea’s home country: little blinis with caviar and cream, triangles of toast and smoked fish, crackers with soused herring, all washed down with the Perrier-Jouët 1892 champagne, which was as mellow and delicious as Peel had promised. Fitz kept an eye on Peel, and Peel watched the king. As soon as His Majesty put down his cutlery, Peel took away his plate, and that was the signal for the footmen to clear all the rest. Any guest who happened to be still tucking into the dish had to abandon it in deference.
Soup followed, a pot-au-feu, served with a fine dry oloroso sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The fish was sole, accompanied by a mature Meursault Charmes like a mouthful of gold. With the medallions of Welsh lamb Fitz had chosen the Château Lafite 1875-the 1870 was still not ready to drink. The red wine continued to be served with the parfait of goose liver that followed and with the final meat course, quails with grapes baked in pastry.
No one ate all this. The men took what they fancied and ignored the rest. The women picked at one or two dishes. Many plates went back to the kitchen untouched.
There was salad, a dessert, a savory, fruit, and petits fours. Finally, Princess Bea raised a discreet eyebrow to the queen, who replied with an almost imperceptible nod. They both got up, everyone else stood, and the ladies left the room.
The men sat down again, the footmen brought boxes of cigars, and Peel placed a decanter of Ferreira 1847 port at the king’s right hand. Fitz drew thankfully on a cigar. Things had gone well. The king was famously unsociable, feeling comfortable only with old shipmates from his happy navy days. But this evening he had been charming and nothing had gone wrong. Even the oranges had arrived.
Fitz had spoken earlier with Sir Alan Tite, the king’s equerry, a retired army officer with old-fashioned side-whiskers. They had agreed that tomorrow the king would have an hour or so alone with each of the men around the table, all of whom had inside knowledge of one government or another. This evening, Fitz was to break the ice with some general political conversation. He cleared his throat and addressed Walter von Ulrich. “Walter, you and I have been friends for fifteen years-we were together at Eton.” He turned to Robert. “And I’ve known your cousin since the three of us shared an apartment in Vienna when we were students.” Robert smiled and nodded. Fitz liked them both: Robert was a traditionalist, like Fitz; Walter, though not so conservative, was very clever. “Now we find the world talking about war between our countries,” Fitz went on. “Is there really a chance of such a tragedy?”
Walter answered: “If talking about war can make it happen, then yes, we will fight, for everyone is getting ready for it. But is there a real reason? I don’t see it.”
Gus Dewar raised a tentative hand. Fitz liked Dewar, despite his liberal politics. Americans were supposed to be brash, but this one was well-mannered and a bit shy. He was also startlingly well-informed. Now he said: “Britain and Germany have many reasons to quarrel.”
Walter turned to him. “Would you give me an example?”
Gus blew out cigar smoke. “Naval rivalry.”
Walter nodded. “My kaiser does not believe there is a God-given law that the German navy should remain smaller than the British forever.”
Fitz glanced nervously at the king. He loved the Royal Navy and might easily be offended. On the other hand, Kaiser Wilhelm was his cousin. George’s father and Willy’s mother had been brother and sister, both children of Queen Victoria. Fitz was relieved to see that His Majesty was smiling indulgently.
Walter went on: “This has caused friction in the past, but for two years now we have been in agreement, informally, about the relative size of our navies.”
Dewar said: “How about economic rivalry?”
“It is true that Germany is daily growing more prosperous, and may soon catch up with Britain and the United States in economic production. But why should this be a problem? Germany is one of Britain’s biggest customers. The more we have to spend, the more we buy. Our economic strength is good for British manufacturers!”
Dewar tried again. “It’s said that Germany wants more colonies.”
Fitz glanced at the king again, wondering if he minded the conversation being dominated by these two; but His Majesty appeared fascinated.
Walter said: “There have been wars over colonies, notably in your home country, Mr. Dewar. But nowadays we seem able to decide such squabbles without firing our guns. Three years ago Germany, Great Britain, and France quarreled about Morocco, but the argument was settled without war. More recently, Britain and Germany have reached agreement about the thorny issue of the Baghdad Railway. If we simply carry on as we are, we will not go to war.”
Dewar said: “Would you forgive me if I used the term German militarism?”
That was a bit strong, and Fitz winced. Walter colored, but he spoke smoothly. “I appreciate your frankness. The German Empire is dominated by Prussians, who play something of the role of the English in Your Majesty’s United Kingdom.”
It was daring to compare Britain with Germany, and England with Prussia. Walter was right on the edge of what was permissible in a polite conversation, Fitz thought uneasily.
Walter went on: “The Prussians have a strong military tradition, but do not go to war for no reason.”
Dewar said skeptically: “So Germany is not aggressive.”
“On the contrary,” said Walter. “I put it to you that Germany is the only major power on mainland Europe that is not aggressive.”
There was a murmur of surprise around the table, and Fitz saw the king raise his eyebrows. Dewar sat back, startled, and said: “How do you figure that?”
Walter’s perfect manners and amiable tone took the edge off his provocative words. “First, consider Austria,” he went on. “My Viennese cousin Robert will not deny that the Austro-Hungarian Empire would like to extend its borders to the southeast.”
“Not without reason,” Robert protested. “That part of the world, which the British call the Balkans, has been part of the Ottoman domain for hundreds of years; but Ottoman rule has crumbled, and now the Balkans are unstable. The Austrian emperor believes it is his holy duty to maintain order and the Christian religion there.”
“Quite so,” said Walter. “But Russia, too, wants territory in the Balkans.”
Fitz felt it was his job to defend the Russian government, perhaps because of Bea. “They, too, have good reasons,” he said. “Half their foreign trade crosses the Black Sea, and passes from there through the straits to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia cannot allow any other great power to dominate the straits by acquiring territory in the eastern Balkans. It would be like a noose around the neck of the Russian economy.”
“Exactly so,” said Walter. “Turning to the western end of Europe, France has ambitions to take from Germany the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.”
At this point the French guest, Jean-Pierre Charlois, bridled. “Stolen from France forty-three years ago!”
“I will not argue about that,” Walter said smoothly. “Let us say that Alsace-Lorraine was joined to the German Empire in 1871, after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. Whether stolen or not, you allow, Monsieur le Comte, that France wants those lands back.”
“Naturally.” The Frenchman sat back and sipped his port.
Walter said: “Even Italy would like to take, from Austria, the territories of Trentino-”
“Where most people speak Italian!” cried Signor Falli.
“-plus much of the Dalmatian coast-”
“Full of Venetian lions, Catholic churches, and Roman columns!”
“-and Tyrol, a province with a long history of self-government, where most people speak German.”
Fitz realized how clever Walter had been. Not rude, but discreetly provocative, he had stung the representatives of each nation into confirming, in more or less belligerent language, their territorial ambitions.
Now Walter said: “But what new territory is Germany asking for?” He looked around the table, but no one spoke. “None,” he said triumphantly. “And the only other major country in Europe that can say the same is Britain!”
Gus Dewar passed the port and said in his American drawl: “I guess that’s right.”
Walter said: “So why, my old friend Fitz, should we ever go to war?”
On Sunday morning before breakfast Lady Maud sent for Ethel.
Ethel had to suppress an exasperated sigh. She was terribly busy. It was early, but the staff were already hard at work. Before the guests got up all the fireplaces had to be cleaned, the fires relit, and the scuttles filled with coal. The principal rooms-dining room, morning room, library, smoking room, and the smaller public rooms-had to be cleaned and tidied. Ethel was checking the flowers in the billiard room, replacing those that were fading, when she was summoned. Much as she liked Fitz’s radical sister, she hoped Maud did not have some elaborate commission for her.
When Ethel had come to work at Tŷ Gwyn, at the age of thirteen, the Fitzherbert family and their guests were hardly real to her: they seemed like people in a story, or strange tribes in the Bible, Hittites perhaps, and they terrified her. She was frightened that she would do something wrong and lose her job, but also deeply curious to see these strange creatures close up.
One day a kitchen maid had told her to go upstairs to the billiard room and bring down the tantalus. She had been too nervous to ask what a tantalus was. She had gone to the room and looked around, hoping it would be something obvious like a tray of dirty dishes, but she could see nothing that belonged downstairs. She had been in tears when Maud walked in.
Maud was then a gangly fifteen-year-old, a woman in girl’s clothes, unhappy and rebellious. It was not until later that she made sense of her life by turning her discontent into a crusade. But even at fifteen she had had the quick compassion that made her sensitive to injustice and oppression.
She had asked Ethel what was the matter. The tantalus turned out to be a silver container with decanters of brandy and whisky. It tantalized, because it had a locking mechanism to prevent servants stealing sips, she explained. Ethel thanked her emotionally. It was the first of many kindnesses and, over the years, Ethel had come to worship the older girl.
Ethel went up to Maud’s room, tapped on the door, and walked in. The Gardenia Suite had elaborate flowery wallpaper of a kind that had gone out of fashion at the turn of the century. However, its bay window overlooked the most charming part of Fitz’s garden, the West Walk, a long straight path through flower beds to a summerhouse.
Maud was pulling on boots, Ethel saw with displeasure. “I’m going for a walk-you must be my chaperone,” she said. “Help me with my hat and tell me the gossip.”
Ethel could hardly spare the time, but she was intrigued as well as bothered. Who was Maud going to walk with; where was her normal chaperone, Aunt Herm; and why was she putting on such a charming hat just to go into the garden? Could there be a man in the picture?
As she pinned the hat to Maud’s dark hair Ethel said: “There’s a scandal below stairs this morning.” Maud collected gossip the way the king collected stamps. “Morrison didn’t get to bed until four o’clock. He’s one of the footmen-tall with a blond mustache.”
“I know Morrison. And I know where he spent the night.” Maud hesitated.
Ethel waited a moment, then said: “Aren’t you going to tell me?”
“You’ll be shocked.”
Ethel grinned. “All the better.”
“He spent the night with Robert von Ulrich.” Maud glanced at Ethel in the dressing-table mirror. “Are you horrified?”
Ethel was fascinated. “Well, I never! I knew Morrison wasn’t much of a ladies’ man, but I didn’t think he might be one of those, if you see what I mean.”
“Well, Robert is certainly one of those, and I saw him catch Morrison’s eye several times during dinner.”
“In front of the king, too! How do you know about Robert?”
“Walter told me.”
“What a thing for a gentleman to say to a lady! People tell you everything. What’s the gossip in London?”
“They’re all talking about Mr. Lloyd George.”
David Lloyd George was the chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of the country’s finances. A Welshman, he was a fiery left-wing orator. Ethel’s da said Lloyd George should have been in the Labour Party. During the coal strike of 1912 he had even talked about nationalizing the mines. “What are they saying about him?” Ethel asked.
“He has a mistress.”
“No!” This time Ethel was really shocked. “But he was brought up a Baptist!”
Maud laughed. “Would it be less outrageous if he were Anglican?”
“Yes!” Ethel refrained from adding obviously. “Who is she?”
“Frances Stevenson. She started as his daughter’s governess, but she’s a clever woman-she has a degree in classics-and now she’s his private secretary.”
“He calls her Pussy.”
Ethel almost blushed. She did not know what to say to that. Maud stood up, and Ethel helped her with her coat. Ethel asked: “What about his wife, Margaret?”
“She stays here in Wales with their four children.”
“Five, it was, only one died. Poor woman.”
Maud was ready. They went along the corridor and down the grand staircase. Walter von Ulrich was waiting in the hall, wrapped in a long dark coat. He had a small mustache and soft hazel eyes. He looked dashing in a buttoned-up, German sort of way, the kind of man who would bow, click his heels, and then give you a little wink, Ethel thought. So this was why Maud did not want Lady Hermia as her chaperone.
Maud said to Walter: “Williams came to work here when I was a girl, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Ethel liked Maud, but it was going too far to say they were friends. Maud was kind, and Ethel admired her, but they were still mistress and servant. Maud was really saying that Ethel could be trusted.
Walter addressed Ethel with the elaborate politeness such people employed when speaking to their inferiors. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Williams. How do you do?”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll get my coat.”
She ran downstairs. She did not really want to be going for a walk while the king was there-she would have preferred to be on hand to supervise the housemaids-but she could not refuse.
In the kitchen Princess Bea’s maid, Nina, was making tea Russian style for her mistress. Ethel spoke to a chambermaid. “Herr Walter is up,” she said. “You can do the Gray Room.” As soon as the guests appeared, the maids needed to go into the bedrooms to clean, make the beds, empty the chamber pots, and put out fresh water for washing. She saw Peel, the butler, counting plates. “Any movement upstairs?” she asked him.
“Nineteen, twenty,” he said. “Mr. Dewar have rung for hot water for shaving, and Signor Falli asked for coffee.”
“Lady Maud wants me to go outside with her.”
“That’s inconvenient,” Peel said crossly. “You’re needed in the house.”
Ethel knew that. She said sarcastically: “What shall I do, Mr. Peel, tell her to go and get knotted?”
“None of your sauce. Be back as quick as you can.”
When she went back upstairs the earl’s dog, Gelert, was standing at the front door, panting eagerly, having divined that a walk was in prospect. They all went out and crossed the East Lawn to the woods.
Walter said to Ethel: “I suppose Lady Maud has taught you to be a suffragette.”
“It was the other way around,” Maud told him. “Williams was the first person to introduce me to liberal ideas.”
Ethel said: “I learned it all from my father.”
Ethel knew they did not really want to talk to her. Etiquette did not permit them to be alone, but they wanted the next best thing. She called to Gelert, then ran ahead, playing with the dog, giving them the privacy they were probably longing for. Glancing back, she saw that they were holding hands.
Maud was a fast worker, Ethel thought. From what she had said yesterday, she had not seen Walter for ten years. Even then there had been no acknowledged romance, just an unspoken attraction. Something must have happened last night. Perhaps they had sat up late talking. Maud flirted with everyone-it was how she got information out of them-but clearly this was more serious.
A moment later, Ethel heard Walter sing a snatch of a tune. Maud joined in, then they stopped and laughed. Maud loved music, and could play the piano quite well, unlike Fitz, who was tone-deaf. It seemed Walter was also musical. His voice was a pleasant light baritone that would have been much appreciated, Ethel thought, in the Bethesda Chapel.
Her mind wandered to her work. She had not seen polished pairs of shoes outside any of the bedroom doors. She needed to chase the boot boys and hurry them up. She wondered fretfully what the time was. If this went on much longer she might have to insist on returning to the house.
She glanced back, but this time she could not see Walter or Maud. Had they stopped, or gone off in a different direction? She stood still for a minute or two, but she could not wait out there all morning, so she retraced her steps through the trees.
A moment later she saw them. They were locked in an embrace, kissing passionately. Walter’s hands were on Maud’s behind and he was pressing her to him. Their mouths were open, and Ethel heard Maud groan.
She stared at them. She wondered whether a man would ever kiss her that way. Spotty Llewellyn had kissed her on the beach during a chapel outing, but it had not been with mouths open and bodies pressed together, and it certainly had not made Ethel moan. Little Dai Chops, the son of the butcher, had put his hand up her skirt in the Palace Cinema in Cardiff, but she had pushed it away after a few seconds. She had really liked Llewellyn Davies, a schoolteacher’s son, who had talked to her about the Liberal government, and told her she had breasts like warm baby birds in a nest; but he had gone away to college and never written. With them she had been intrigued, and curious to do more, but never passionate. She envied Maud.
Then Maud opened her eyes, caught a glimpse of Ethel, and broke the embrace.
Gelert whined suddenly and walked around in a circle with his tail between his legs. What was the matter with him?
A moment later Ethel felt a tremor in the ground, as if an express train were passing, even though the railway line ended a mile away.
Maud frowned and opened her mouth to speak, then there was a crack like a clap of thunder.
“What on earth was that?” said Maud.
She screamed, and began to run.
Billy Williams and Tommy Griffiths were having a break.
They were working a seam called the Four-Foot Coal, only six hundred yards deep, not as far down as the Main Level. The seam was divided into five districts, all named after British racecourses, and they were in Ascot, the one nearest to the upcast shaft. Both boys were working as butties, assistants to older miners. The collier used his mandrel, a straight-bladed pick, to hew the coal away from the coal face, and his butty shoveled it into a wheeled dram. They had started work at six o’clock in the morning, as always, and now after a couple of hours they were taking a rest, sitting on the damp ground with their backs to the side of the tunnel, letting the soft breath of the ventilation system cool their skin, drinking long drafts of lukewarm sweet tea from their flasks.
They had been born on the same day in 1898, and were six months away from their sixteenth birthday. The difference in their physical development, so embarrassing to Billy when he was thirteen, had vanished. Now they were both young men, broad-shouldered and strong-armed, and they shaved once a week though they did not really need to. They were dressed only in their shorts and boots, and their bodies were black with a mixture of perspiration and coal dust. In the dim lamplight they gleamed like ebony statues of pagan gods. The effect was spoiled only by their caps.
The work was hard, but they were used to it. They did not complain of aching backs and stiff joints, as older men did. They had energy to spare, and on days off they found equally strenuous things to do, playing rugby or digging flower beds or even bare-knuckle boxing in the barn behind the Two Crowns pub.
Billy had not forgotten his initiation three years ago-indeed, he still burned with indignation when he thought of it. He had vowed then that he would never mistreat new boys. Only today he had warned little Bert Morgan: “Don’t be surprised if the men play a trick on you. They may leave you in the dark for an hour or something stupid like that. Little things please little minds.” The older men in the cage had glared at him, but he met their eyes: he knew he was in the right, and so did they.
Mam had been even angrier than Billy. “Tell me,” she had said to Da, standing in the middle of the living room with her hands on her hips and her dark eyes flashing righteousness, “how is the Lord’s purpose served by torturing little boys?”
“You wouldn’t understand, you’re a woman,” Da had replied, an uncharacteristically weak response from him.
Billy believed that the world in general, and the Aberowen pit in particular, would be better places if all men led God-fearing lives. Tommy, whose father was an atheist and a disciple of Karl Marx, believed that the capitalist system would soon destroy itself, with a little help from a revolutionary working class. The two boys argued fiercely but continued best friends.
“It’s not like you to work on a Sunday,” Tommy said.
That was true. The mine was doing extra shifts to cope with the demand for coal but, in deference to religion, Celtic Minerals made the Sunday shifts optional. However, Billy was working despite his devotion to the Sabbath. “I think the Lord wants me to have a bicycle,” he said.
Tommy laughed, but Billy was not joking. The Bethesda Chapel had opened a sister church in a small village ten miles away, and Billy was one of the Aberowen congregation who had volunteered to go across the mountain every other Sunday to encourage the new chapel. If he had a bicycle he could go there on weeknights as well, and help start a Bible class or a prayer meeting. He had discussed this plan with the elders, and they had agreed that the Lord would bless Billy’s working on the Sabbath day for a few weeks.
Billy was about to explain this when the ground beneath him shook, there was a bang like the crack of doom, and his flask was blown out of his hand by a terrific wind.
His heart seemed to stop. Suddenly he remembered that he was half a mile underground, with millions of tons of earth and rock over his head, held up only by a few timber props.
“What the bloody hell was that?” said Tommy in a scared voice.
Billy jumped to his feet, shaking with fright. He lifted his lamp and looked both ways along the tunnel. He saw no flames, no fall of rock, and no more dust than was normal. When the reverberations died away, there was no noise.
“It was an explosion,” he said, his voice unsteady. This was what every miner dreaded every day. A sudden release of firedamp could be produced by a fall of rock, or just by a collier hacking through to a fault in the seam. If no one noticed the warning signs-or if the concentration simply built up too quickly-the inflammable gas could be ignited by a spark from a pony’s hoof, or from the electric bell of a cage, or by a stupid miner lighting his pipe against all regulations.
Tommy said: “But where?”
“It must be down on the Main Level-that’s why we escaped.”
“Jesus Christ help us.”
“He will,” said Billy, and his terror began to ebb. “Especially if we help ourselves.” There was no sign of the two colliers for whom the boys had been working-they had gone to spend their break in the Goodwood district. Billy and Tommy had to make their own decisions. “We’d better go to the shaft.”
They pulled on their clothes, hooked their lamps to their belts, and ran to the upcast shaft, called Pyramus. The landing onsetter, in charge of the elevator, was Dai Chops. “The cage isn’t coming!” he said with panic in his voice. “I’ve been ringing and ringing!”
The man’s fear was infectious, and Billy had to fight down his own panic. After a moment he said: “What about the telephone?” The onsetter communicated with his counterpart on the surface by signals on an electric bell, but recently phones had been installed on both levels, connected with the office of the colliery manager, Maldwyn Morgan.
“No answer,” said Dai.
“I’ll try again.” The phone was fixed to the wall beside the cage. Billy picked it up and turned the handle. “Come on, come on!”
A quavery voice answered. “Yes?” It was Arthur Llewellyn, the manager’s clerk.
“Spotty, this is Billy Williams,” Billy shouted into the mouthpiece. “Where’s Mr. Morgan?”
“Not here. What was that bang?”
“It was an explosion underground, you clot! Where’s the boss?”
“He have gone to Merthyr,” Spotty said plaintively.
“Why’s he gone-never mind, forget that. Here’s what you got to do. Spotty, are you listening to me?”
“Aye.” The voice seemed stronger.
“First of all, send someone to the Methodist chapel and tell Dai Crybaby to assemble his rescue team.”
“Then phone the hospital and get them to send the ambulance to the pithead.”
“Is someone injured?”
“Bound to be, after a bang like that! Third, get all the men in the coal-cleaning shed to run out fire hoses.”
“The dust will be burning. Fourth, call the police station and tell Geraint there have been an explosion. He’ll phone Cardiff.” Billy could not think of anything else. “All right?”
“All right, Billy.”
Billy put the earpiece back on the hook. He was not sure how effective his instructions would be, but speaking to Spotty had focused his mind. “There will be men injured on the Main Level,” he said to Dai Chops and Tommy. “We must get down there.”
Dai said: “We can’t, the cage isn’t here.”
“There’s a ladder in the shaft wall, isn’t there?”
“It’s two hundred yards down!”
“Well, if I was a sissy I wouldn’t be a collier, now, would I?” His words were brave, but all the same he was scared. The shaft ladder was seldom used, and it might not have been well-maintained. One slip, or a broken rung, could cause him to fall to his death.
Dai opened the gate with a clang. The shaft was lined with brick, damp and moldy. A narrow shelf ran horizontally around the lining, outside the wooden cage housing. An iron ladder was fixed by brackets cemented into the brickwork. There was nothing reassuring about its thin side rails and narrow treads. Billy hesitated, regretting his impulsive bravado. But to back out now would be too humiliating. He took a deep breath and said a silent prayer, then stepped onto the shelf.
He edged around until he reached the ladder. He wiped his hands on his trousers, grasped the side rails, and put his feet on the treads.
He went down. The iron was rough to his touch, and rust flaked off on his hands. In places the brackets were loose, and the ladder shifted unnervingly under his feet. The lamp hooked to his belt was bright enough to illuminate the treads below him, but not to show the bottom of the shaft. He did not know whether that was better or worse.
Unfortunately, the descent gave him time to think. He remembered all the ways miners could die. To be killed by the explosion itself was a mercifully quick end for the luckiest. The burning of the methane produced suffocating carbon dioxide, which the miners called afterdamp. Many were trapped by falls of rock, and might bleed to death before rescue came. Some died of thirst, with their workmates just a few yards away trying desperately to tunnel through the debris.
Suddenly he wanted to go back, to climb upward to safety instead of down into destruction and chaos-but he could not, with Tommy immediately above him, following him down.
“Are you with me, Tommy?” he called.
Tommy’s voice came from just above his head. “Aye!”
That strengthened Billy’s nerve. He went down faster, his confidence returning. Soon he saw light, and a moment later he heard voices. As he approached the Main Level he smelled smoke.
Now he heard an eerie racket, screaming and banging, which he struggled to identify. It threatened to undermine his courage. He got a grip on himself: there had to be a rational explanation. A moment later he realized he was hearing the terrified whinnying of the ponies, and the sound of them kicking the wooden sides of their stalls, desperate to escape. Comprehension did not make the noise less disturbing: he felt the same way they did.
He reached the Main Level, sidled around the brick ledge, opened the gate from inside, and stepped gratefully onto muddy ground. The dim underground light was further reduced by traces of smoke, but he could see the main tunnels.
The pit bottom onsetter was Patrick O’Connor, a middle-aged man who had lost a hand in a roof collapse. A Catholic, he was inevitably known as Pat Pope. He stared with incredulity. “Billy-with-Jesus!” he said. “Where the bloody hell have you come from?”
“From the Four-Foot Coal,” Billy answered. “We heard the bang.”
Tommy followed Billy out of the shaft and said: “What’s happened, Pat?”
“Far as I can make out, the explosion must have been at the other end of this level, near Thisbe,” said Pat. “The deputy and everyone else have gone to see.” He spoke calmly, but there was desperation in his look.
Billy went to the phone and turned the handle. A moment later he heard his father’s voice. “Williams here, who’s that?”
Billy did not pause to wonder why a union official was answering the colliery manager’s phone-anything could happen in an emergency. “Da, it’s me, Billy.”
“God in his mercy be thanked, you’re all right,” said his father, with a break in his voice; then he became his usual brisk self. “Tell me what you know, boy.”
“Me and Tommy were in the Four-Foot Coal. We’ve climbed down Pyramus to the Main Level. The explosion was over towards Thisbe, we think. There’s a bit of smoke, not much. But the cage isn’t working.”
“The winding mechanism have been damaged by the upward blast,” Pa said in a calm voice. “But we’re working on it and we’ll have it fixed in a few minutes. Get as many men as you can to the pit bottom so we can start bringing them up as soon as the cage is fixed.”
“I’ll tell them.”
“The Thisbe shaft is completely out of action, so make sure no one tries to escape that way-they could get trapped by the fire.”
“There’s breathing apparatus outside the deputies’ office.”
Billy knew that. It was a recent innovation, demanded by the union and made compulsory by the Coal Mines Act of 1911. “The air’s not bad at the moment,” he said.
“Where you are, perhaps, but it may be worse farther in.”
“Right.” Billy put the earpiece back on the hook.
He repeated to Tommy and Pat what his father had said. Pat pointed to a row of new lockers. “The key should be in the office.”
Billy ran to the deputies’ office, but he could see no keys. He guessed they were on someone’s belt. He looked again at the row of lockers, each labeled: “Breathing Apparatus.” They were made of tin. “Got a crowbar, Pat?” he said.
The onsetter had a tool kit for minor repairs. Pat handed him a stout screwdriver. Billy swiftly broke open the first locker.
It was empty.
Billy stared, unbelieving.
Pat said: “They tricked us!”
Tommy said: “Bastard capitalists.”
Billy opened another locker. It, too, was empty. He broke open the others with angry savagery, wanting to expose the dishonesty of Celtic Minerals and Perceval Jones.
Tommy said: “We’ll manage without.”
Tommy was impatient to get going, but Billy was trying to think clearly. His eye fell on the fire dram. It was the management’s pathetic excuse for a fire engine: a coal dram filled with water, with a hand pump strapped to it. It was not completely useless: Billy had seen it operate after what the miners called a “flash,” when a small quantity of firedamp close to the roof of the tunnel would ignite, briefly, and they would all throw themselves to the floor. The flash would sometimes light the coal dust on the tunnel walls, which then had to be sprayed.
“We’ll take the fire dram,” he shouted to Tommy.
It was already on rails, and the two of them were able to push it along. Billy thought briefly of harnessing a pony to it, then decided it would take too long, especially as the beasts were all in a panic.
Pat Pope said: “My boy Micky is working in Marigold district, but I can’t go and look for him, I’ve got to stay here.” There was desperation in his face, but in an emergency the onsetter had to stay by the shaft-it was an inflexible rule.
“I’ll keep an eye open for him,” Billy promised.
“Thank you, Billy boy.”
The two lads pushed the dram along the main road. Drams had no brakes: their drivers slowed them by sticking a stout piece of wood into the spokes. Many deaths and countless injuries were caused by runaway drams. “Not too fast,” Billy said.
They were a quarter of a mile into the tunnel when the temperature rose and the smoke thickened. Soon they heard voices. Following the sound they turned into a branch tunnel. This part of the seam was currently being worked. On either side Billy could see, at regular intervals, the entrances to miners’ workplaces, usually called gates, but sometimes just holes. As the noise grew, they stopped pushing the dram and looked ahead.
The tunnel was on fire. Flames licked up from walls and floor. A handful of men stood at the edge of the conflagration, silhouetted against the glow like souls in hell. One held a blanket and was batting it ineffectually at a blazing stack of timber. Others were shouting; no one was listening. In the distance, dimly visible, was a train of drams. The smoke had a strange whiff of roast meat, and Billy realized with a sick feeling that it must come from the pony that had been pulling the drams.
Billy spoke to one of the men. “What’s happening?”
“There’s men trapped in their gates-but we can’t get to them.”
Billy saw that the man was Rhys Price. No wonder nothing was being done. “We’ve brought the fire dram,” he said.
Another man turned to him, and he was relieved to see John Jones the Shop, a more sensible character. “Good man!” said Jones. “Let’s have the hose on this bloody lot.”
Billy ran out the hose while Tommy connected the pump. Billy aimed the jet at the ceiling of the tunnel, so that the water would run down the walls. He soon realized that the mine’s ventilation system, blowing down Thisbe and up Pyramus, was forcing the flames and smoke toward him. As soon as he got the chance he would tell the people on the surface to reverse the fans. Reversible fans were now mandatory-another requirement of the 1911 act.
Despite the difficulty, the fire began to die back, and Billy was able to go forward slowly. After a few minutes the nearest gate was clear of flame. Immediately two miners ran out, gasping the relatively good air of the tunnel. Billy recognized the Ponti brothers, Giuseppe and Giovanni, known as Joey and Johnny.
Some of the men ran into the gate. John Jones came out carrying the limp form of Dai Ponies, the horse wrangler. Billy could not tell whether he was dead or just unconscious. He said: “Take him to Pyramus, not Thisbe.”
Price butted in: “Who are you to be giving orders, Billy-with-Jesus?”
Billy was not going to waste time arguing with Price. He addressed Jones. “I spoke on the phone to the surface. Thisbe is badly damaged but the cage should soon be operating in Pyramus. I was told to tell everyone to head for Pyramus.”
“Right, I’ll spread the word,” said Jones, and he went off.
Billy and Tommy continued to fight the fire, clearing further gates, freeing more trapped men. Some were bleeding, many were scorched, and a few had been hurt by falling rock. Those who could walk carried the dead and the seriously injured in a grim procession.
Too soon, their water was gone. “We’ll push the dram back and fill it from the pond at the bottom of the shaft,” Billy said.
Together they hurried back. The cage was still not working, and there were now a dozen or so rescued miners waiting, and several bodies on the ground, some groaning in agony, others ominously still. While Tommy filled the dram with muddy water, Billy picked up the phone. Once again his father answered. “The winding gear will be operating in five minutes,” he said. “How is it down there?”
“We’ve got some dead and injured out of the gates. Send down drams full of water as soon as you can.”
“What about you?”
“I’m all right. Listen, Da, you should reverse the ventilation. Blow down Pyramus and up Thisbe. That will drive the smoke and afterdamp away from the rescuers.”
“Can’t be done,” said his father.
“But it’s the law-pit ventilation must be reversible!”
“Perceval Jones told the inspectors a sob story, and they gave him another year to modify the blowers.”
Billy would have cursed if anyone other than his father had been on the line. “How about turning on the sprinklers-can you do that?”
“Aye, we can,” said Da. “Why didn’t I think of that?” He spoke to someone else.
Billy replaced the earpiece. He helped Tommy refill the dram, taking turns with the hand pump. It took as long to fill as it had to empty. The flow of men from the afflicted district slowed while the fire raged unchecked. At last the tub was full and they started back.
The sprinklers came on, but when Billy and Tommy reached the fire, they found that the flow of water from the narrow overhead pipe was too slight to put out the flames. However, Jones the Shop had now got the men organized. He was keeping the uninjured survivors with him, for rescue work, and sending the walking wounded to the shaft. As soon as Billy and Tommy had connected the hose, he seized it and ordered another man to pump. “You two go back and get another dram of water!” he said. “That way we can keep on hosing.”
“Right,” said Billy, but before he turned to go something caught his eye. A figure came running through the flames with his clothes on fire. “Good God!” Billy said, horrified. As he watched, the runner stumbled and fell.
Billy shouted at Jones: “Hose me!” Without waiting for acknowledgment, he ran into the tunnel. He felt a jet of water strike his back. The heat was terrible. His face hurt and his clothes smoldered. He grabbed the prone miner under the shoulders and pulled, running backward. He could not see the face but he could tell it was a boy of his own age.
Jones kept the hose on Billy, soaking his hair, his back, and his legs, but the front of him was dry, and he could smell his skin scorching. He screamed in pain but managed to keep hold of the unconscious body. A second later he was out of the fire. He turned and let Jones spray his front. The water on his face was blessed relief: though he still hurt, it was bearable.
Jones sprayed the boy on the floor. Billy turned him over and saw that it was Michael O’Connor, known as Micky Pope, the son of Pat. Pat had asked Billy to look out for him. Billy said: “Dear Jesus, have mercy on Pat.”
He bent down and picked Micky up. The body was limp and lifeless. “I’ll take him to the shaft,” Billy said.
“Aye,” said Jones. He was staring at Billy with an odd expression. “You do that, Billy boy.”
Tommy went with Billy. Billy felt light-headed, but he was able to carry Micky. On the main road they encountered a rescue team with a pony pulling a small train of drams filled with water. They must have come from the surface, which meant the cage was operating and the rescue was now being properly managed, Billy reasoned wearily.
He was right. As he reached the shaft, the cage arrived again and disgorged more rescuers in protective clothing and more drams of water. When the newcomers had dispersed, heading for the fire, the wounded began to board the cage, carrying the dead and unconscious.
When Pat Pope had sent the cage up, Billy went to him, holding Micky in his arms.
Pat stared at Billy with a terrified look, shaking his head in negation, as if he could deny the news.
“I’m sorry, Pat,” said Billy.
Pat would not look at the body. “No,” he said. “Not my Micky.”
“I pulled him out of the fire, Pat,” said Billy. “But I was too bloody late, that’s all.” Then he began to cry.
The dinner had been a great success in every way. Bea had been in a sparkling mood: she would have liked a royal party every week. Fitz had gone to her bed, and as he expected she had welcomed him. He stayed until morning, slipping away only just before Nina arrived with the tea.
He was afraid the debate amongst the men might have been too controversial for a royal dinner, but he need not have worried. The king thanked him at breakfast, saying: “Fascinating discussion, very illuminating, just what I wanted.” Fitz had glowed with pride.
Thinking it over as he smoked his after-breakfast cigar, Fitz realized that the thought of war did not horrify him. He had spoken of it as a tragedy, in an automatic way, but it would not be entirely a bad thing. War would unite the nation against a common enemy, and dampen the fires of unrest. There would be no more strikes, and talk of republicanism would be seen as unpatriotic. Women might even stop demanding the vote. And in a personal way he found himself strangely drawn to the prospect. War would be his chance to be useful, to prove his courage, to serve his country, to do something in return for the wealth and privilege that had been lavished on him all his life.
The news from the pit, coming at midmorning, took the sparkle off the party. Only one of the guests actually went into Aberowen-Gus Dewar, the American. Nevertheless, they all had the feeling, unusual for them, of being far from the center of attention. Lunch was a subdued affair, and the afternoon’s entertainments were canceled. Fitz feared the king would be displeased with him, even though he had nothing to do with the operation of the mine. He was not a director or shareholder of Celtic Minerals. He merely licensed the mining rights to the company, which paid him a royalty per ton. So he felt sure that no reasonable person could possibly blame him for what had happened. Still, the nobility could not be seen to indulge in frivolous pursuits while men were trapped underground, especially when the king and queen were visiting. That meant that reading and smoking were just about the only acceptable pursuits. The royal couple were sure to be bored.
Fitz was angered. Men died all the time: soldiers were killed in battle, sailors went down with their ships, railway trains crashed, hotels full of sleeping guests burned to the ground. Why did a pit disaster have to happen just when he was entertaining the king?
Shortly before dinner Perceval Jones, mayor of Aberowen and chairman of Celtic Minerals, came to the house to brief the earl, and Fitz asked Sir Alan Tite whether the king might like to hear the report. His Majesty would, came the reply, and Fitz was relieved: at least the monarch had something to do.
The male guests gathered in the small drawing room, an informal space with soft chairs and potted palms and a piano. Jones was wearing the black tailcoat he had undoubtedly put on for church this morning. A short, pompous man, he looked like a strutting bird in a double-breasted gray waistcoat.
The king was in evening dress. “Good of you to come,” he said briskly.
Jones said: “I had the honor of shaking Your Majesty’s hand in 1911, when you came to Cardiff for the investiture of the Prince of Wales.”
“I’m glad to renew our acquaintanceship, though sorry it should happen in such distressing circumstances,” the king replied. “Tell me what happened in plain words, just as if you were explaining it to one of your fellow directors, over a drink at your club.”
That was clever, Fitz thought; it set just the right tone-though no one offered Jones a drink, and the king did not invite him to sit down.
“So kind of Your Majesty.” Jones spoke with a Cardiff accent, harsher than the lilt of the valleys. “There were two hundred and twenty men down the pit when the explosion occurred, fewer than normal as this is a special Sunday shift.”
“You know the exact figure?” the king asked.
“Oh, yes, sir, we note the name of each man going down.”
“Forgive the interruption. Please carry on.”
“Both shafts were damaged, but firefighting teams brought the blaze under control, with the help of our sprinkler system, and evacuated the men.” He looked at his watch. “As of two hours ago, two hundred and fifteen had been brought up.”
“It sounds as if you have dealt with the emergency very efficiently, Jones.”
“Thank you very much, Your Majesty.”
“Are all the two hundred and fifteen alive?”
“No, sir. Eight are dead. Another fifty have injuries sufficiently serious to require a doctor.”
“Dear me,” said the king. “How very sad.”
As Jones was explaining the steps being taken to locate and rescue the remaining five men, Peel slipped into the room and approached Fitz. The butler was in evening clothes, ready to serve dinner. Speaking very low, he said: “Just in case it’s of interest, my lord… ”
Fitz whispered: “Well?”
“The maid Williams just came back from the pithead. Her brother was something of a hero, apparently. Whether the king might like to hear the story from her own lips…?”
Fitz thought for a moment. Williams would be upset, and might say the wrong thing. On the other hand, the king would probably like to speak to someone directly affected. He decided to take a chance. “Your Majesty,” he said. “One of my servants has just returned from the pithead, and may have more up-to-date news. Her brother was underground when the gas exploded. Would you care to question her?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the king. “Send her in, please.”
A few moments later Ethel Williams entered. Her uniform was smudged with coal dust, but she had washed her face. She curtsied, and the king said: “What is the latest news?”
“Please, Your Majesty, there are five men trapped in Carnation district by a fall of rock. The rescue team are digging through the debris but the fire is still burning.”
Fitz noticed that the king’s manners with Ethel were subtly different. He had hardly looked at Perceval Jones, and had tapped a finger restlessly on the arm of his chair while listening; but he gave Ethel a direct look, and seemed more interested in her. In a softer voice, he asked: “What does your brother say?”
“The explosion of firedamp set light to the coal dust, and that’s what’s burning. The fire trapped many of the men in their workplaces, and some suffocated. My brother and the others couldn’t rescue them because they had no breathing apparatus.”
“That’s not so,” Jones said.
“I think it is,” Gus Dewar contradicted him. As always, the American was a bit diffident in his manner, but he made an effort to speak insistently. “I spoke to some of the men coming up. They said the lockers marked ‘Breathing Apparatus’ turned out to be empty.” He seemed to be suppressing anger.
Ethel Williams said: “And they couldn’t put out the flames because there was insufficient water kept underground.” Her eyes flashed with fury in a way that Fitz found alluring, and his heart skipped a beat.
“There’s a fire engine!” Jones protested.
Gus Dewar spoke again. “A coal dram filled with water, and a hand pump.”
Ethel Williams went on: “They should have been able to reverse the flow of ventilation, but Mr. Jones has not modified the machinery in accordance with the law.”
Jones looked indignant. “It wasn’t possible-”
Fitz interrupted. “All right, Jones, this isn’t a public inquiry, His Majesty just wants to get people’s impressions.”
“Quite so,” said the king. “But there is one subject on which you might be able to advise me, Jones.”
“I should be honored-”
“I was planning to visit Aberowen and some of the surrounding villages tomorrow morning, and indeed to call upon your good self at the town hall. But in these circumstances a parade seems inappropriate.”
Sir Alan, sitting behind the king’s left shoulder, shook his head and murmured: “Quite impossible.”
“On the other hand,” the king went on, “it seems wrong to go away without any acknowledgment of the disaster. People might think us indifferent.”
Fitz guessed there was a clash between the king and his staff. They probably wanted to cancel the visit, imagining that was the least risky course; whereas the king felt the need to make some gesture.
There was a silence while Perceval considered the question. When he spoke, he said only: “It’s a difficult choice.”
Ethel Williams said: “May I make a suggestion?”
Peel was aghast. “Williams!” he hissed. “Speak only when spoken to!”
Fitz was startled by her impertinence in the presence of the king. He tried to keep his voice calm as he said: “Perhaps later, Williams.”
But the king smiled. To Fitz’s relief, he seemed quite taken with Ethel. “We might as well hear what this young person has to propose,” he said.
That was all Ethel needed. Without further ado she said: “You and the queen should visit the bereaved families. No parade, just one carriage with black horses. It would mean a lot to them. And everybody would think you were wonderful.” She bit her lip and subsided into silence.
That last sentence was a breach of etiquette, Fitz thought anxiously; the king did not need to make people think he was wonderful.
Sir Alan was horrified. “Never been done before,” he said in alarm.
But the king seemed intrigued by the idea. “Visit the bereaved…,” he said musingly. He turned to his equerry. “By Jove, I think that’s capital, Alan. Commiserate with my people in their suffering. No cavalcade, just one carriage.” He turned back to the maid. “Very good, Williams,” he said. “Thank you for speaking up.”
Fitz breathed a sigh of relief.
In the end there was more than one carriage, of course. The king and queen went in the first with Sir Alan and a lady-in-waiting; Fitz and Bea followed in a second with the bishop; and a pony-and-trap with assorted servants brought up the rear. Perceval Jones had wanted to be one of the party, but Fitz had squashed that idea. As Ethel had pointed out, the bereaved might have tried to take him by the throat.
It was a windy day, and a cold rain lashed the horses as they trotted down the long drive of Tŷ Gwyn. Ethel was in the third vehicle. Because of her father’s job she was familiar with every mining family in Aberowen. She was the only person at Tŷ Gwyn who knew the names of all the dead and injured. She had given directions to the drivers, and it would be her job to remind the equerry who was who. She had her fingers crossed. This was her idea, and if it went wrong she would be blamed.
As they drove out of the grand iron gates she was struck, as always, by the sudden transition. Inside the grounds all was order, charm, and beauty; outside was the ugliness of the real world. A row of agricultural laborers’ cottages stood beside the road, tiny houses of two rooms, with odd bits of lumber and junk in front and a couple of dirty children playing in the ditch. Soon afterward the miners’ terraces began, superior to the farm cottages but still ungainly and monotonous to an eye such as Ethel’s, spoiled by the perfect proportions of Tŷ Gwyn’s windows and doorways and roofs. The people out here had cheap clothes that quickly became shapeless and worn, and were colored with dyes that faded, so that all the men were in grayish suits and all the women brownish dresses. Ethel’s maid’s outfit was envied for its warm wool skirt and crisp cotton blouse, for all that some of the girls liked to say they would never lower themselves to be servants. But the biggest difference was in the people themselves. Out here they had blemished skin, dirty hair, and black fingernails. The men coughed, the women sniffed, and the children all had runny noses. The poor shambled and limped along roads where the rich strode confidently.
The carriages drove down the mountainside to Mafeking Terrace. Most of the inhabitants were lining the pavements, waiting, but there were no flags, and they did not cheer, just bowed and curtsied, as the cavalcade pulled up outside no. 19.
Ethel jumped down and spoke quietly to Sir Alan. “Sian Evans, five children, lost her husband, David Evans, an underground horse wrangler.” David Evans, known as Dai Ponies, had been familiar to Ethel as an elder of the Bethesda Chapel.
Sir Alan nodded, and Ethel stepped smartly back while he murmured in the ear of the king. Ethel caught Fitz’s eye, and he gave her a nod of approval. She felt a glow. She was assisting the king-and the earl was pleased with her.
The king and queen went to the front door. Its paint was peeling, but the step was polished. I never thought I’d see this, Ethel thought; the king knocking on the door of a collier’s house. The king wore a tailcoat and a tall black hat: Ethel had strongly advised Sir Alan that the people of Aberowen would not wish to see their monarch in the kind of tweed suit that they themselves might wear.
The door was opened by the widow in her Sunday best, complete with hat. Fitz had suggested that the king should surprise people, but Ethel had argued against that, and Sir Alan had agreed with her. On a surprise visit to a distraught family the royal couple might have been confronted with drunken men, half-naked women, and fighting children. Better to forewarn everyone.
“Good morning, I’m the king,” said the king, raising his hat politely. “Are you Mrs. David Evans?”
She looked blank for a moment. She was more used to being called Mrs. Dai Ponies.
“I have come to say how very sorry I am about your husband, David,” said the king.
Mrs. Dai Ponies seemed too nervous to feel any emotion. “Thank you very much,” she said stiffly.
It was too formal, Ethel saw. The king was as uncomfortable as the widow. Neither was able to say how they really felt.
Then the queen touched Mrs. Dai’s arm. “It must be very hard for you, my dear,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, it is,” said the widow in a whisper, and then she burst into tears.
Ethel wiped a tear from her own cheek.
The king was embarrassed, but to his credit, he stood his ground, murmuring: “Very sad, very sad.”
Mrs. Evans sobbed uncontrollably, but she seemed rooted to the spot, and did not turn her face away. There was nothing gracious about grief, Ethel saw: Mrs. Dai’s face was blotched red, her open mouth showed that she had lost half her teeth, and her sobs were hoarse with desperation.
“There, there,” said the queen. She pressed her handkerchief into Mrs. Dai’s hand. “Take this.”
Mrs. Dai was not yet thirty, but her big hands were knotted and lumpy with arthritis like an old woman’s. She wiped her face with the queen’s handkerchief. Her sobs subsided. “He was a good man, ma’am,” she said. “Never raised a hand to me.”
The queen did not know what to say about a man whose virtue was that he did not beat his wife.
“He was even kind to his ponies,” Mrs. Dai added.
“I’m sure he was,” said the queen, back on familiar ground.
A toddler emerged from the depths of the house and clung to its mother’s skirt. The king tried again. “I believe you have five children,” he said.
“Oh, sir, what are they going to do with no da?”
“It’s very sad,” the king repeated.
Sir Alan coughed, and the king said: “We’re going on to see some other people in the same sad position as yourself.”
“Oh, sir, it was kind of you to come. I can’t tell you how much it means to me. Thank you, thank you.”
The king turned away.
The queen said: “I will pray for you tonight, Mrs. Evans.” Then she followed the king.
As they were getting into their carriage, Fitz gave Mrs. Dai an envelope. Inside, Ethel knew, were five gold sovereigns and a note, handwritten on blue crested Tŷ Gwyn paper, saying: “Earl Fitzherbert wishes you to have this token of his deep sympathy.”
That, too, had been Ethel’s idea.
One week after the explosion Billy went to chapel with his da, mam, and gramper.
The Bethesda Chapel was a square whitewashed room with no pictures on the walls. The chairs were arranged in neat rows on four sides of a plain table. On the table stood a loaf of white bread on a Woolworth’s china plate and a jug of cheap sherry-the symbolic bread and wine. The service was not called Communion or mass, but simply the breaking of the bread.
By eleven o’clock the congregation of a hundred or so worshippers were in their seats, the men in their best suits, the women in hats, the children scrubbed and fidgeting in the back rows. There was no set ritual: the men would do as the Holy Spirit moved them-extemporize a prayer, announce a hymn, read a passage from the Bible, or give a short sermon. The women would remain silent, of course.
In practise there was a pattern. The first prayer was always spoken by one of the elders, who would then break the loaf and hand the plate to the nearest person. Each member of the congregation, excluding the children, would take a small piece and eat it. Next the wine was passed around, and everyone drank from the jug, the women taking tiny sips, some of the men enjoying a good mouthful. After that they all sat in silence until someone was moved to speak.
When Billy had asked his father at what age he should begin taking a vocal part in the service, Da had said: “There’s no rule. We follow where the Holy Spirit leads.” Billy had taken him at his word. If the first line of a hymn came into his mind, at some point during the hour, he took that as a nudge from the Holy Spirit, and he would stand up and announce the hymn. He was precocious in doing so at his age, he knew, but the congregation accepted that. The story of how Jesus had appeared to him during his underground initiation had been retold in half the chapels in the South Wales coalfield, and Billy was seen as special.
This morning every prayer begged for consolation for the bereaved, especially Mrs. Dai Ponies, who was sitting there in a veil, her eldest son beside her looking scared. Da asked God for the greatness of heart to forgive the wickedness of the mine owners in flouting laws about breathing equipment and reversible ventilation. Billy felt something was missing. It was too simple just to ask for healing. He wanted help in understanding how the explosion fitted into God’s plan.
He had never yet extemporized a prayer. Many of the men prayed with fine-sounding phrases and quotations from the Scriptures, almost as if they were sermonizing. Billy himself suspected God was not so easily impressed. He always felt most moved by simple prayers that seemed heartfelt.
Toward the end of the service, words and sentences began to take shape in his mind, and he felt a strong impulse to give voice to them. Taking that for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he eventually stood up.
With his eyes shut tight he said: “Oh, God, we have asked Thee this morning to bring comfort to those who have lost a husband, a father, a son, especially our sister in the Lord Mrs. Evans, and we pray that the bereaved will open their hearts to receive Thy benison.”
This had been said by others. Billy paused, then went on: “And now, Lord, we ask for one more gift: the blessing of understanding. We need to know, Lord, why this explosion have took place down the pit. All things are in Thy power, so why didst Thou allow firedamp to fill the Main Level, and why didst Thou permit it to catch alight? How come, Lord, that men are set over us, directors of Celtic Minerals, who in their greed for money become careless of the lives of Thy people? How can the deaths of good men, and the mangling of the bodies Thou didst create, serve Thy holy purpose?”
He paused again. He knew it was wrong to make demands of God, as if negotiating with the management, so he added: “We know that the suffering of the people of Aberowen must play a part in Thy eternal plan.” He thought he should probably leave it there, but he could not refrain from adding: “But, Lord, we can’t see how, so please explain it to us.”
He finished: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The congregation said: “Amen.”
That afternoon the people of Aberowen were invited to view the gardens at Tŷ Gwyn. It meant a lot of work for Ethel.
A notice had gone up in the pubs on Saturday night, and the message was read in churches and chapels after services on Sunday morning. The gardens had been made especially lovely for the king, despite the winter season, and now Earl Fitzherbert wished to share their beauty with his neighbors, the invitation said. The earl would be wearing a black tie, and he would be glad to see his visitors wearing a similar token of respect for the dead. Although it would obviously be inappropriate to have a party, nevertheless refreshments would be offered.
Ethel had ordered three marquees to be pitched on the East Lawn. In one were half a dozen 108-gallon butts of pale ale brought by train from the Crown Brewery in Pontyclun. For teetotallers, of whom there were many in Aberowen, the next tent had trestle tables bearing giant tea urns and hundreds of cups and saucers. In the third, smaller tent, sherry was offered to the town’s diminutive middle class, including the Anglican vicar, both doctors, and the colliery manager, Maldwyn Morgan, who was already being referred to as Gone-to-Merthyr Morgan.
By good luck it was a sunny day, cold but dry, with a few harmless-looking white clouds high in a blue sky. Four thousand people came-very nearly the entire population of the town-and almost everyone wore a black tie, ribbon, or armband. They strolled around the shrubbery, peered through the windows into the house, and churned up the lawns.
Princess Bea stayed in her room: this was not her kind of social event. All upper-class people were selfish, in Ethel’s experience, but Bea had made an art of it. All her energy was focused on pleasing herself and getting her own way. Even when giving a party-something she did well-her motive was mainly to provide a showcase for her own beauty and charm.
Fitz held court in the Victorian-Gothic splendor of the Great Hall, with his huge dog lying on the floor beside him like a fur rug. He wore the brown tweed suit that made him seem more approachable, albeit with a stiff collar and black tie. He looked handsomer than ever, Ethel thought. She brought the relatives of the dead and injured to see him in groups of three or four, so that he was able to commiserate with every Aberowen resident who had suffered. He spoke to them with his usual charm, and sent each one away feeling special.
Ethel was now the housekeeper. After the king’s visit, Princess Bea had insisted that Mrs. Jevons retire permanently: she had no time for tired old servants. In Ethel she had seen someone who would work hard to fulfil her wishes, and had promoted her despite her youth. So Ethel had achieved her ambition. She had taken over the housekeeper’s little room off the servants’ hall, and had hung up a photograph of her parents, in their Sunday best, taken outside the Bethesda Chapel the day it had opened.
When Fitz came to the end of the list, Ethel asked permission to spend a few minutes with her family.
“Of course,” said the earl. “Take as much time as you like. You’ve been absolutely marvelous. I don’t know how I would have managed without you. The king was grateful for your help, too. How do you remember all those names?”
She smiled. She was not sure why it gave her such a thrill to be praised by him. “Most of these people have been to our house, some time or other, to see my father about compensation for an injury, or a dispute with an overseer, or a worry about some safety measure down the pit.”
“Well, I think you’re remarkable,” he said, and he gave the irresistible smile that occasionally came over his face and made him seem almost like the boy next door. “Give my respects to your father.”
She went out and ran across the lawn, feeling on top of the world. She found Da, Mam, Billy, and Gramper in the tea tent. Da looked distinguished in his black Sunday suit and a white shirt with a stiff collar. Billy had a nasty burn on his cheek. Ethel said: “How are you feeling, Billy boy?”
“Not bad. It looks horrible, but the doctor says it’s better without a bandage.”
“Everybody’s talking about how brave you were.”
“It wasn’t enough to save Micky Pope, though.”
There was nothing to say to that, but Ethel touched her brother’s arm in sympathy.
Mam said proudly: “Billy led us in prayer this morning at Bethesda.”
“Well done, Billy! I’m sorry I missed it.” Ethel had not gone to chapel-there was too much to do in the house. “What did you pray about?”
“I asked the Lord to help us understand why He allowed the explosion down the pit.” Billy cast a nervous glance at Da, who was not smiling.
Da said severely: “Billy might have done better to ask God to strengthen his faith, so that he can believe without understanding.”
Clearly they had already argued about this. Ethel did not have the patience for theological disputes that made no difference to anything in the end. She tried to brighten the mood. “Earl Fitzherbert asked me to give you his respects, Da,” she said. “Wasn’t that nice of him?”
Da did not melt. “I was sorry to see you taking part in that farce on Monday,” he said sternly.
“Monday?” she said incredulously. “When the king visited the families?”
“I saw you whispering the names to that flunky.”
“That was Sir Alan Tite.”
“I don’t care what he calls himself, I know a lickspittle when I see one.”
Ethel was shocked. How could Da be scornful of her great moment? She felt like crying. “I thought you’d be proud of me, helping the king!”
“How dare the king offer sympathy to our folk? What does a king know of hardship and danger?”
Ethel fought back tears. “But, Da, it meant so much to people that he went to see them!”
“It distracted everyone’s attention from the dangerous and illegal actions of Celtic Minerals.”
“But they need comfort.” Why could he not see this?
“The king softened them up. Last Sunday afternoon this town was ready to revolt. By Monday evening all they could talk about was the queen giving her handkerchief to Mrs. Dai Ponies.”
Ethel went swiftly from heartbreak to anger. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said coldly.
“Nothing to be sorry for-”
“I’m sorry because you are wrong,” she said, firmly overriding him.
Da was taken aback. It was rare for him to be told he was wrong by anyone, let alone a girl.
Mam said: “Now, Eth-”
“People have feelings, Da,” she said recklessly. “That’s what you always forget.”
Da was speechless.
Mam said: “That’s enough, now!”
Ethel looked at Billy. Through a mist of tears she saw his expression of awestruck admiration. That encouraged her. She sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and said: “You and your union, and your safety regulations and your Scriptures-I know they’re important, Da, but you can’t do away with people’s feelings. I hope that one day socialism will make the world a better place for working people, but in the meantime they need consolation.”
Da found his voice at last. “I think we’ve heard enough from you,” he said. “Being with the king has gone to your head. You’re a slip of a girl, and you’ve no business lecturing your elders.”
She was crying too much to argue further. “I’m sorry, Da,” she said. After a heavy silence she added: “I’d better get back to work.” The earl had told her to take all the time she liked, but she wanted to be alone. She turned away from her father’s glare and walked back to the big house. She kept her eyes downcast, hoping the crowds would not notice her tears.
She did not want to meet anyone so she slipped into the Gardenia Suite. Lady Maud had returned to London, so the room was empty and the bed was stripped. Ethel threw herself down on the mattress and cried.
She had been feeling so proud. How could Da undermine everything she had done? Did he want her to do a bad job? She worked for the nobility. So did every coal miner in Aberowen. Even though Celtic Minerals employed them, it was the earl’s coal they were digging, and he was paid the same per ton as the miner who dug it out of the earth-a fact her father never tired of pointing out. If it was all right to be a good collier, efficient and productive, what was wrong with being a good housekeeper?
She heard the door open. Quickly she jumped to her feet. It was the earl. “What on earth is the matter?” he said kindly. “I heard you from outside the door.”
“I’m very sorry, my lord, I shouldn’t have come in here.”
“That’s all right.” There was genuine concern on his impossibly handsome face. “Why are you crying?”
“I was so proud to have helped the king,” she said woefully. “But my father says it was a farce, all done just to stop people feeling angry with Celtic Minerals.” She burst into fresh tears.
“What nonsense,” he said. “Anyone could tell that the king’s concern was genuine. And the queen’s.” He took the white linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket. She expected him to hand it to her, but instead he wiped the tears from her cheeks with a gentle touch. “I was proud of you last Monday, even if your father wasn’t.”
“You’re so kind.”
“There, there,” he said, and he bent down and kissed her lips.
She was dumbfounded. It was the last thing in the world she had expected. When he straightened up she stared at him uncomprehendingly.
He gazed back at her. “You are absolutely enchanting,” he said in a low voice; then he kissed her again.
This time she pushed him away. “My lord, what are you doing?” she said in a shocked whisper.
“I don’t know.”
“But what can you be thinking of?”
“I’m not thinking at all.”
She stared up at his chiseled face. The green eyes studied her intently, as if trying to read her mind. She realized that she adored him. Suddenly she was flooded with excitement and desire.
“I can’t help myself,” he said.
She sighed happily. “Kiss me again, then,” she said.
CHAPTER THREE – February 1914
At half past ten the looking glass in the hall of Earl Fitzherbert’s Mayfair house showed a tall man immaculately dressed in the daytime clothing of an upper-class Englishman. He wore an upright collar, disliking the fashion for soft collars, and his silver tie was fastened with a pearl. Some of his friends thought it was undignified to dress well. “I say, Fitz, you look like a damn tailor, about to open his shop in the morning,” the young Marquis of Lowther had said to him once. But Lowthie was a scruff, with crumbs on his waistcoat and cigar ash on the cuffs of his shirt, and he wanted everyone else to look as bad. Fitz hated to be grubby; it suited him to be spruce.
He put on a gray top hat. With his walking stick in his right hand and a new pair of gray suede gloves in his left, he went out of the house and turned south. In Berkeley Square a blond girl of about fourteen winked at him and said: “Suck you for a shilling?”
He crossed Piccadilly and entered Green Park. A few snowdrops clustered around the roots of the trees. He passed Buckingham Palace and entered an unattractive neighborhood near Victoria Station. He had to ask a policeman for directions to Ashley Gardens. The street turned out to be behind the Roman Catholic cathedral. Really, Fitz thought, if one is going to ask members of the nobility to call one should have one’s office in a respectable quarter.
He had been summoned by an old friend of his father’s named Mansfield Smith-Cumming. A retired naval officer, Smith-Cumming was now doing something vague in the War Office. He had sent Fitz a rather short note. “I should be grateful for a word on a matter of national importance. Can you call on me tomorrow morning at, say, eleven o’clock?” The note was typewritten and signed, in green ink, with the single letter “C.”
In truth Fitz was pleased that someone in the government wanted to talk to him. He had a horror of being thought of as an ornament, a wealthy aristocrat with no function other than to decorate social events. He hoped he was going to be asked for his advice, perhaps about his old regiment, the Welsh Rifles. Or there might be some task he could perform in connection with the South Wales Territorials, of which he was honorary colonel. Anyway, just being summoned to the War Office made him feel he was not completely superfluous.
If this really was the War Office. The address turned out to be a modern block of apartments. A doorman directed Fitz to an elevator. Smith-Cumming’s flat seemed to be part home, part office, but a briskly efficient young man with a military air told Fitz that “C” would see him right away.
C did not have a military air. Podgy and balding, he had a nose like Mr. Punch and wore a monocle. His office was cluttered with miscellaneous objects: model aircraft, a telescope, a compass, and a painting of peasants facing a firing squad. Fitz’s father had always referred to Smith-Cumming as “the seasick sea captain” and his naval career had not been brilliant. What was he doing here? “What exactly is this department?” Fitz asked as he sat down.
“This is the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau,” said C.
“I didn’t know we had a Secret Service Bureau.”
“If people knew, it wouldn’t be secret.”
“I see.” Fitz felt a twinge of excitement. It was flattering to be given confidential information.
“Perhaps you’d be kind enough not to mention it to anyone.”
Fitz was being given an order, albeit politely phrased. “Of course,” he said. He was pleased to feel a member of an inner circle. Did this mean that C might ask him to work for the War Office?
“Congratulations on the success of your royal house party. I believe you put together an impressive group of well-connected young men for His Majesty to meet.”
“Thank you. It was a quiet social occasion, strictly speaking, but I’m afraid word gets around.”
“And now you’re taking your wife to Russia.”
“The princess is Russian. She wants to visit her brother. It’s a long-postponed trip.”
“And Gus Dewar is going with you.”
C seemed to know everything. “He’s on a world tour,” Fitz said. “Our plans coincided.”
C sat back in his chair and said conversationally: “Do you know why Admiral Alexeev was put in charge of the Russian army in the war against Japan, even though he knew nothing about fighting on land?”
Having spent time in Russia as a boy, Fitz had followed the progress of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, but he did not know this story. “Tell me.”
“Well, it seems the grand duke Alexis was involved in a punch-up in a brothel in Marseilles and got arrested by the French police. Alexeev came to the rescue and told the gendarmes that it was he, not the grand duke, who had misbehaved. The similarity of their names made the story plausible and the grand duke was let out of jail. Alexeev’s reward was command of the army.”
“No wonder they lost.”
“All the same, the Russians deploy the largest army the world has ever known-six million men, by some calculations, assuming they call up all their reserves. No matter how incompetent their leadership, it’s a formidable force. But how effective would they be in, say, a European war?”
“I haven’t been back since my marriage,” Fitz said. “I’m not sure.”
“Nor are we. That’s where you come in. I would like you to make some inquiries while you’re there.”
Fitz was surprised. “But surely, our embassy should do that.”
“Of course.” C shrugged. “But diplomats are always more interested in politics than military matters.”
“Still, there must be a military attaché.”
“An outsider such as yourself can offer a fresh perspective-in much the same way as your group at Tŷ Gwyn gave the king something he could not have got from the Foreign Office. But if you feel you can’t… ”
“I’m not refusing,” Fitz said hastily. On the contrary, he was pleased to be asked to do a job for his country. “I’m just surprised that things should be done this way.”
“We are a newish department with few resources. My best informants are intelligent travelers with enough military background to understand what they’re looking at.”
“I’d be interested to know whether you felt the Russian officer class has moved on since 1905. Have they modernized, or are they still attached to old ideas? You’ll meet all the top men in St. Petersburg-your wife is related to half of them.”
Fitz was thinking about the last time Russia went to war. “The main reason they lost against Japan was that the Russian railways were inadequate to supply their army.”
“But since then they have been trying to improve their rail network-using money borrowed from France, their ally.”
“Have they made much progress, I wonder?”
“That’s the key question. You’ll be traveling by rail. Do the trains run on time? Keep your eyes open. Are the lines still mostly single-track, or double? The German generals have a contingency plan for war that is based on a calculation of how long it will take to mobilize the Russian army. If there is a war, much will hang on the accuracy of that timetable.”
Fitz was as excited as a schoolboy, but he forced himself to speak with gravity. “I’ll find out all I can.”
“Thank you.” C looked at his watch.
Fitz stood up and they shook hands.
“When are you going, exactly?” C asked.
“We leave tomorrow,” said Fitz. “Good-bye.”
Grigori Peshkov watched his younger brother, Lev, taking money off the tall American. Lev’s attractive face wore an expression of boyish eagerness, as if his main aim was to show off his skill. Grigori suffered a familiar pang of anxiety. One day, he feared, Lev’s charm would not be enough to keep him out of trouble.
“This is a memory test,” Lev said in English. He had learned the words by rote. “Take any card.” He had to raise his voice over the racket of the factory: heavy machinery clanking, steam hissing, people yelling instructions and questions.
The visitor’s name was Gus Dewar. He wore a jacket, waistcoat, and trousers all in the same fine gray woollen cloth. Grigori was especially interested in him because he came from Buffalo.
Dewar was an amiable young man. With a shrug, he took a card from Lev’s pack and looked at it.
Lev said: “Put it on the bench, facedown.”
Dewar put the card on the rough wooden workbench.
Lev took a ruble note from his pocket and placed it on the card. “Now you put a dollar down.” This could be done only with rich visitors.
Grigori knew that Lev had already switched the playing card. In his hand, concealed by the ruble note, there had been a different card. The skill-which Lev had practised for hours-lay in picking up the first card, and concealing it in the palm of the hand, immediately after putting down the ruble note and the new card.
“Are you sure you can afford to lose a dollar, Mr. Dewar?” said Lev.
Dewar smiled, as the marks always did at that point. “I think so,” he said.
“Do you remember your card?” Lev did not really speak English. He could say these phrases in German, French, and Italian, too.
“Five of spades,” said Dewar.
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Turn it over.”
Dewar turned over the card. It was the queen of clubs.
Lev scooped up the dollar bill and his original ruble.
Grigori held his breath. This was the dangerous moment. Would the American complain that he had been robbed, and accuse Lev?
Dewar grinned ruefully and said: “You got me.”
“I know another game,” Lev said.
It was enough: Lev was about to push his luck. Although he was twenty years old, Grigori still had to protect him. “Don’t play against my brother,” Grigori said to Dewar in Russian. “He always wins.”
Dewar smiled and replied hesitantly in the same tongue. “That’s good advice.”
Dewar was the first of a small group of visitors touring the Putilov Machine Works. It was the largest factory in St. Petersburg, employing thirty thousand men, women, and children. Grigori’s job was to show them his own small but important section. The factory made locomotives and other large steel artifacts. Grigori was foreman of the shop that made train wheels.
Grigori was itching to speak to Dewar about Buffalo. But before he could ask a question the supervisor of the casting section, Kanin, appeared. A qualified engineer, he was tall and thin with receding hair.
With him was a second visitor. Grigori knew from his clothes that this must be the British lord. He was dressed like a Russian nobleman, in a tailcoat and a top hat. Perhaps this was the clothing worn by the ruling class all over the world.
The lord’s name, Grigori had been told, was Earl Fitzherbert. He was the handsomest man Grigori had ever seen, with black hair and intense green eyes. The women in the wheel shop stared as if at a god.
Kanin spoke to Fitzherbert in Russian. “We are now producing two new locomotives every week here,” he said proudly.
“Amazing,” said the English lord.
Grigori understood why these foreigners were so interested. He read the newspapers, and he went to lectures and discussion groups organized by the St. Petersburg Bolshevik Committee. The locomotives made here were essential to Russia’s ability to defend itself. The visitors might pretend to be idly curious, but they were collecting military intelligence.
Kanin introduced Grigori. “Peshkov here is the factory’s chess champion.” Kanin was management, but he was all right.
Fitzherbert was charming. He spoke to Varya, a woman of about fifty with her gray hair in a head scarf. “Very kind of you to show us your workplace,” he said, cheerfully speaking fluent Russian with a heavy accent.
Varya, a formidable figure, muscular and big-bosomed, giggled like a schoolgirl.
The demonstration was ready. Grigori had placed steel ingots in the hopper and fired up the furnace, and the metal was now molten. But there was one more visitor to come: the earl’s wife, who was said to be Russian-hence his knowledge of the language, which was unusual in a foreigner.
Grigori wanted to question Dewar about Buffalo, but before he had a chance, the earl’s wife came into the wheel shop. Her floor-length skirt was like a broom pushing a line of dirt and swarf in front of her. She wore a short coat over her dress, and she was followed by a manservant carrying a fur cloak, a maid with a bag, and one of the directors of the factory, Count Maklakov, a young man dressed like Fitzherbert. Maklakov was obviously very taken with his guest, smiling and talking in a low voice and taking her arm unnecessarily. She was extraordinarily pretty, with fair curls and a coquettish tilt to her head.
Grigori recognized her immediately. She was Princess Bea.
His heart lurched and he felt nauseated. He fiercely repressed the ugly memory that rose out of the distant past. Then, as in any emergency, he checked on his brother. Would Lev remember? He had been only six years old at the time. Lev was looking with curiosity at the princess, as if trying to place her. Then, as Grigori watched, Lev’s face changed and he remembered. He went pale and looked ill, then suddenly he reddened with anger.
By that time Grigori was at Lev’s side. “Stay calm,” he murmured. “Don’t say anything. Remember, we’re going to America-nothing must interfere with that!”
Lev made a disgusted noise.
“Go back to the stables,” Grigori said. Lev was a pony driver, working with the many horses used in the factory.
Lev glared a moment longer at the oblivious princess. Then he turned and walked away, and the moment of danger passed.
Grigori began the demonstration. He nodded to Isaak, a man of his own age, who was captain of the factory football team. Isaak opened up the mold. Then he and Varya picked up a polished wooden template of a flanged train wheel. This in itself was a work of great skill, with spokes that were elliptical in cross-section and tapered by one in twenty from hub to rim. The wheel was for a big 4-6-4 locomotive, and the template was almost as tall as the people lifting it.
They pressed it into a deep tray filled with damp sandy molding mixture. Isaak swung the cast-iron chill on top of that, to form the tread and the flange, and then finally the top of the mold.
They opened up the assemblage and Grigori inspected the hole made by the template. There were no visible irregularities. He sprayed the molding sand with a black oily liquid, then they closed the flask again. “Please stand well back now,” he said to the visitors. Isaak moved the spout of the hopper to the funnel on top of the mold. Then Grigori pulled the lever that tilted the hopper.
Molten steel poured slowly into the mold. Steam from the wet sand hissed out of vents. Grigori knew by experience when to raise the hopper and stop the flow. “The next step is to perfect the shape of the wheel,” he said. “Because the hot metal takes so long to cool, I have here a wheel that was cast earlier.”
It was already set up on a lathe, and Grigori nodded to Konstantin, the lathe operator, who was Varya’s son. A thin, gangling intellectual with wild black hair, Konstantin was chairman of the Bolshevik discussion group and Grigori’s closest friend. He started the electric motor, turning the wheel at high speed, and began to shape it with a file.
“Please keep well away from the lathe,” Grigori said to the visitors, raising his voice over the whine of the machine. “If you touch it, you may lose a finger.” He held up his left hand. “As I did, here in this factory, at the age of twelve.” His third finger, the ring finger, was an ugly stump. He caught a glance of irritation from Count Maklakov, who did not enjoy being reminded of the human cost of his profits. The look he got from Princess Bea mingled disgust with fascination, and he wondered whether she was weirdly interested in squalor and suffering. It was unusual for a lady to tour a factory.
He made a sign to Konstantin, who stopped the lathe. “Next, the dimensions of the wheel are checked with calipers.” He held up the tool used. “Train wheels must be exactly sized. If the diameter varies by more than one-sixteenth of an inch-which is about the width of the lead in a pencil-the wheel must be melted down and remade.”
Fitzherbert said in broken Russian: “How many wheels can you make per day?”
“Six or seven on average, allowing for rejects.”
The American, Dewar, asked: “What hours do you work?”
“Six in the morning until seven in the evening, Monday through Saturday. On Sunday we are allowed to go to church.”
A boy of about eight came racing into the wheel shop, pursued by a shouting woman-presumably his mother. Grigori made a grab for him, to keep him away from the furnace. The boy dodged and cannoned into Princess Bea, his close-cropped head striking her in the ribs with an audible thump. She gasped, hurt. The boy stopped, apparently dazed. Furious, the princess drew back her arm and slapped his face so hard that he rocked on his feet, and Grigori thought he was going to fall over. The American said something abrupt in English, sounding surprised and indignant. In the next instant the mother swept the boy up in her strong arms and turned away.
Kanin, the supervisor, looked scared, knowing he might be blamed. He said to the princess: “Most High Excellency, are you hurt?”
Princess Bea was visibly enraged, but she took a deep breath and said: “It’s nothing.”
Her husband and the count went to her, looking concerned. Only Dewar stood back, his face a mask of disapproval and revulsion. He had been shocked by the slap, Grigori guessed, and he wondered whether all Americans were equally softhearted. A slap was nothing: Grigori and his brother had been flogged with canes as children in this factory.
The visitors began to move away. Grigori was afraid he might lose his chance of questioning the tourist from Buffalo. Boldly, he touched Dewar’s sleeve. A Russian nobleman would have reacted with indignation, and shoved him away or struck him for insolence, but the American merely turned to him with a polite smile.
“You are from Buffalo, New York, sir?” said Grigori.
“My brother and I are saving to go to America. We will live in Buffalo.”
“Why that city?”
“Here in St. Petersburg is a family who get the necessary papers-for a fee, of course-and promise us jobs with their relatives in Buffalo.”
“Who are these people?”
“Vyalov is the name.” The Vyalovs were a criminal gang, though they had lawful businesses too. They were not the most trustworthy people in the world, so Grigori wanted their claims independently verified. “Sir, is the Vyalov family of Buffalo, New York, really an important rich family?”
“Yes,” said Dewar. “Josef Vyalov employs several hundred people in his hotels and bars.”
“Thank you.” Grigori was relieved. “That is very good to know.”
Grigori’s earliest memory was of the day the tsar came to Bulovnir. He was six.
The people of the village had talked of little else for days. Everyone got up at dawn, even though it was obvious the tsar would have his breakfast before setting out, so he could not possibly get there before midmorning. Grigori’s father carried the table out of their one-room dwelling and set it beside the road. On it he placed a loaf of bread, a bunch of flowers, and a small container of salt, explaining to his elder son that these were the traditional Russian symbols of welcome. Most of the other villagers did the same. Grigori’s grandmother had put on a new yellow head scarf.
It was a dry day in early autumn, before the onset of the hard winter cold. The peasants sat on their haunches to wait. The village elders walked up and down in their best clothes, looking important, but they were waiting just like everyone else. Grigori soon got bored and started to play in the dirt beside the house. His brother, Lev, was only a year old, and still being nursed by their mother.
Noon passed, but no one wanted to go indoors and make dinner for fear they might miss the tsar. Grigori tried to eat some of the loaf on the table and got his head smacked, but his mother brought him a bowl of cold porridge.
Grigori was not sure who or what the tsar was. He was frequently mentioned in church as loving all the peasants and watching over them while they slept, so he was clearly on a level with St. Peter and Jesus and the angel Gabriel. Grigori wondered if he would have wings or a crown of thorns, or just an embroidered coat like a village elder. Anyway, it was obvious that people were blessed just by seeing him, like the crowds that followed Jesus.
It was late afternoon when a cloud of dust appeared in the distance. Grigori could feel vibrations in the ground beneath his felt boots, and soon he heard the drumming of hooves. The villagers got down on their knees. Grigori knelt beside his grandmother. The elders lay facedown in the road with their foreheads in the dirt, as they did when Prince Andrei and Princess Bea came.
Outriders appeared, followed by a closed carriage drawn by four horses. The horses were huge, the biggest Grigori had ever seen, and they were being driven at speed, their flanks shining with sweat, their mouths foaming around their bits. The elders realized they were not going to stop and scrambled out of the way before they were trampled. Grigori screamed in fear, but his cry was inaudible. As the carriage passed, his father shouted: “Long live the tsar, father of his people!”
By the time he finished, the carriage was already leaving the village behind. Grigori had not been able to see the passengers because of the dust. He realized he had missed seeing the tsar, and therefore would receive no blessing, and he burst into tears.
His mother took the loaf from the table, broke off an end, and gave it to him to eat, and he felt better.
When the shift at the Putilov Machine Works finished at seven o’clock Lev usually went off to play cards with his pals or drink with his easygoing girlfriends. Grigori often went to a meeting of some kind: a lecture on atheism, a socialist discussion group, a magic-lantern show about foreign lands, a poetry reading. But tonight he had nothing to do. He would go home, make a stew for supper, leave some in the pot for Lev to eat later, and go to bed early.
The factory was on the southern outskirts of St. Petersburg, its sprawl of chimneys and sheds covering a large site on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Many of the workers lived at the factory, some in barracks and some lying down to sleep beside their machines. That was why there were so many children running around.
Grigori was among those who had a home outside the factory. In a socialist society, he knew, houses for workers would be planned at the same time as factories, but haphazard Russian capitalism left thousands of people with nowhere to live. Grigori was well-paid, but he lived in a single room half an hour’s walk from the factory. In Buffalo, he knew, factory hands had electricity and running water in their homes. He had been told that some had their own telephones, but that seemed ridiculous, like saying the streets were paved with gold.
Seeing Princess Bea had taken him back to his childhood. As he wound his way through the icy streets, he refused to allow himself to dwell on the unbearable memory she brought to mind. All the same he thought about the wooden hut where he had lived then, and he saw again the holy corner where the icons were hung, and opposite it the sleeping corner where he lay down at night, usually with a goat or calf beside him. What he remembered most distinctly was something he had hardly noticed at the time: the smell. It came from the stove, the animals, the black smoke of the kerosene lamp, and the homemade tobacco his father smoked rolled into newspaper cigarettes. The windows were shut tight with rags stuffed around the frames to keep the cold out, so the atmosphere was dense. He could smell it now in his imagination, and it made him nostalgic for the days before the nightmare, the last time in his life when he had felt secure.
Not far from the factory he came upon a sight that made him stop. In the pool of light thrown by a streetlamp two policemen, in black uniforms with green facings, were questioning a young woman. Her homespun coat, and the way she tied the head scarf with a knot at the back of the neck, suggested a peasant newly arrived in the city. At first glance he took her to be about sixteen-the age he had been when he and Lev were orphaned.
The stocky policeman said something and patted the girl’s face. She flinched, and the other cop laughed. Grigori remembered being ill-treated by everyone in authority as a sixteen-year-old orphan, and his heart went out to this vulnerable girl. Against his better judgment, he approached the little group. Just to have something to say, he said: “If you’re looking for the Putilov works, I can show you the way.”
The stocky policeman laughed and said: “Get rid of him, Ilya.”
His sidekick had a small head and a mean face. “Get lost, scum,” he said.
Grigori was not afraid. He was tall and strong, his muscles hardened by constant heavy work. He had been in street fights ever since he was a boy and he had not lost one for many years. Lev was the same. Nevertheless, it was better not to annoy the police. “I’m a foreman at the works,” he said to the girl. “If you’re looking for a job, I can help you.”
The girl shot him a grateful look.
“A foreman is nothing,” said the stocky cop. As he spoke he looked directly at Grigori for the first time. In the yellow light from the kerosene streetlamp Grigori now recognized the round face with the look of stupid belligerence. The man was Mikhail Pinsky, the local precinct captain. Grigori’s heart sank. It was madness to pick a fight with the precinct captain-but he had gone too far now to turn back.
The girl spoke, and her voice told Grigori that she was nearer to twenty than sixteen. “Thank you, I’ll go with you, sir,” she said to Grigori. She was pretty, he saw, with delicately molded features and a wide, sensual mouth.
Grigori looked around. Unfortunately, there was no one else about: he had left the factory a few minutes after the seven o’clock rush. He knew he should back down, but he could not abandon this girl. “I’ll take you to the factory office,” he said, though in fact it was now closed.
“She’s coming with me-aren’t you, Katerina?” Pinsky said, and he pawed her, squeezing her breasts through the thin coat and thrusting a hand between her legs.
She jumped back a pace and said: “Keep your filthy hands off.”
With surprising speed and accuracy Pinsky punched her in the mouth.
She cried out, and blood spurted from her lips.
Grigori was angered. Throwing caution to the wind he stepped forward, put a hand to Pinsky’s shoulder, and shoved hard. Pinsky staggered sideways and fell to one knee. Grigori turned to Katerina, who was crying. “Run like hell!” he said, then he felt an agonizing blow to the back of his head. The second policeman, Ilya, had deployed his nightstick faster than Grigori expected. The pain was excruciating, and he fell to his knees, but he did not black out.
Katerina turned and ran, but she did not get far. Pinsky reached out and grabbed her foot, and she fell full-length.
Grigori turned and saw the nightstick coming at him again. He dodged the blow and scrambled to his feet. Ilya swung and missed again. Grigori aimed a blow at the side of the man’s head and punched with all his force. Ilya fell to the ground.
Grigori turned to see Pinsky standing over Katerina, kicking her repeatedly with his heavy boots.
A motorcar approached from the direction of the factory. As it passed, its driver braked hard, and it squealed to a stop under the streetlamp.
Two long strides brought Grigori to a position just behind Pinsky. He put both arms around the police captain, gripped him in a bear hug, and lifted him off the ground. Pinsky kicked his legs and waved his arms to no avail.
The car door opened and, to Grigori’s surprise, the American from Buffalo got out. “What is happening?” he said. His youthful face, lit by the streetlight, showed outrage as he addressed the wriggling Pinsky. “Why do you kick a helpless woman?”
This was great good luck, Grigori thought. Only foreigners would object to a policeman kicking a peasant.
The long, thin figure of Kanin, the supervisor, unfolded out of the car behind Dewar. “Let the policeman go, Peshkov,” he said to Grigori.
Grigori set Pinsky on the ground and released him. He spun around, and Grigori got ready to dodge a blow, but Pinsky restrained himself. In a voice full of poison he said: “I’ll remember you, Peshkov.” Grigori groaned: the man knew his name.
Katerina got to her knees, moaning. Dewar gallantly helped her to her feet, saying: “Are you badly hurt, miss?”
Kanin looked embarrassed. No Russian would address a peasant so courteously.
Ilya got up, looking dazed.
From within the car came the voice of Princess Bea, speaking English, sounding annoyed and impatient.
Grigori addressed Dewar. “With your permission, Excellency, I will take this woman to a nearby doctor.”
Dewar looked at Katerina. “Is that your wish?”
“Yes, sir,” she said through bloody lips.
“Very well,” he said.
Grigori took her arm and led her away before anyone could suggest otherwise.
At the corner he glanced back. The two cops stood arguing with Dewar and Kanin under the streetlamp.
Still holding Katerina’s arm, he hurried her along, even though she was limping. They needed to put distance between themselves and Pinsky.
As soon as they had turned the corner she said: “I have no money for a doctor.”
“I could give you a loan,” he said, with a pang of guilt: his money was for passage to America, not to soothe the bruises of pretty girls.
She gave him a calculating look. “I don’t really want a doctor,” she said. “What I need is a job. Could you take me to the factory office?”
She had guts, he thought admiringly. She had just been beaten up by a policeman, and all she could think about was getting a job. “The office is closed. I just said that to confuse the cops. But I can take you there in the morning.”
“I have nowhere to sleep.” She gave him a guarded look that he did not quite understand. Was she offering herself? Many peasant girls who came to the city ended up doing that. But perhaps her look meant the opposite, that she wanted a bed but was not prepared to pay with sexual favors.
“In the house where I live there’s a room shared by a number of women,” he said. “They sleep three or more to a bed, and they can always find space for another one.”
“How far is it?”
He pointed ahead to a street that ran alongside a railway embankment. “Just here.”
She nodded assent, and a few moments later they entered the house.
He had a back room on the first floor. The narrow bed that he shared with Lev stood against one wall. There was a fireplace with a hob, and a table and two chairs next to the window that overlooked the railway. An upended packing case served as a nightstand, with a jug and bowl for washing.
Katerina inspected the place with a long look that took everything in, then she said: “You have all this to yourself?”
“No-I’m not rich! I share with my brother. He’ll be here later.”
She looked thoughtful. Perhaps she was afraid she might be expected to have sex with both of them. To reassure her, Grigori said: “Shall I introduce you to the women in the house?”
“Plenty of time for that.” She sat in one of the two chairs. “Let me rest a while.”
“Of course.” The fire was laid, ready to be lit: he always built it in the morning before going to work. He put a match to the kindling.
There was a thunderous noise, and Katerina looked frightened. “It’s just a train,” Grigori said. “We’re right next to the railway.”
He poured water from the jug into the bowl, then set the bowl on the hob to warm. He sat opposite Katerina and looked at her. She had straight fair hair and pale skin. At first he had judged her to be quite pretty, but now he saw that she was really beautiful, with an oriental cast to her bone structure that suggested Siberian ancestry. There was strength of character in her face, too: her wide mouth was sexy, but also determined, and there seemed to be iron purpose in her blue-green eyes.
Her lips were swelling up from Pinsky’s punch. “How do you feel?” Grigori asked.
She ran her hands over her shoulders, ribs, hips, and thighs. “Bruised all over,” she said. “But you pulled that animal off me before he could do any serious damage.”
She was not going to feel sorry for herself. He liked that. He said: “When the water’s warm, I’ll wash away the blood.”
He kept food in a tin box. He took out a knuckle of ham and dropped it in the saucepan, then added water from the jug. He rinsed a turnip and began to slice it into the pan. He caught Katerina’s eye and saw a look of surprise. She said: “Did your father cook?”
“No,” said Grigori, and in a blink he was transported back to the age of eleven. The nightmare memories of Princess Bea could no longer be resisted. He put the pan down heavily on the table, then sat on the edge of the bed and buried his head in his hands, overwhelmed by grief. “No,” he repeated, “my father didn’t cook.”
They came to the village at dawn: the local land captain and six cavalrymen. As soon as Ma heard the trotting hoofbeats she picked up Lev. He was a heavy burden at age six, but Ma was broad-shouldered and strong-armed. She grabbed Grigori’s hand and ran out of the house. The horsemen were being led by the village elders, who must have met them at the outskirts. Because there was only one door, Grigori’s family had no chance of concealment, and as soon as they appeared the soldiers spurred their mounts.
Ma pounded around the side of the house, scattering chickens and scaring the goat so that it broke its tether and bolted too. She ran across the waste ground at the back toward the trees. They might have escaped, but Grigori suddenly realized that his grandmother was not with them. He stopped and pulled his hand free. “We forgot Gran!” he squealed.
“She can’t run!” Ma yelled back.
Grigori knew that. Gran could hardly walk. But all the same he felt they must not leave her behind.
“Grishka, come on!” Ma shouted, and she ran ahead, still carrying Lev, who was now shrieking with fear. Grigori followed, but the delay had been fatal. The horsemen came closer, one approaching on either side. The path to the woods was cut off. In desperation Ma ran into the pond, but her feet sank into the mud, she slowed down, and at last she fell into the water.
The soldiers hooted with laughter.
They tied Ma’s hands and marched her back. “Make sure the boys come too,” said the land captain. “Prince’s orders.”
Grigori’s father had been taken away a week ago, along with two other men. Yesterday, Prince Andrei’s household carpenters had built a scaffold in the north meadow. Now, as Grigori followed his mother into the meadow, he saw three men standing on the scaffold, bound hand and foot, with ropes around their necks. Beside the scaffold stood a priest.
Ma screamed: “No!” She began to struggle with the rope that bound her hands. A cavalryman drew a rifle from the holster fixed to his saddle and, reversing it, hit her in the face with its wooden stock. She stopped struggling and began to sob.
Grigori knew what this meant: his father was going to die here. He had seen horse thieves hanged by the village elders, though that had seemed different because the victims were men he did not know. He was seized by a terror that turned his entire body numb and feeble.
Perhaps something would happen to prevent the execution. The tsar might intervene, if he truly watched over his people. Or perhaps an angel. Grigori’s face felt wet and he realized he was crying.
He and his mother were forced to stand right in front of the scaffold. The other villagers gathered around. Like Ma, the wives of the other two men had to be dragged there, screaming and crying, their hands bound, their children holding on to their skirts and howling in terror.
On the dirt track beyond the field gate stood a closed carriage, its matching chestnut horses cropping the roadside grass. When everyone was present, a black-bearded figure emerged from the carriage in a long dark coat: Prince Andrei. He turned and gave his hand to his little sister, Princess Bea, with furs around her shoulders against the morning cold. The princess was beautiful, Grigori could not help noticing, with pale skin and fair hair, just as he imagined angels to look, even though she was obviously a devil.
The prince addressed the villagers. “This meadow belongs to Princess Bea,” he said. “No one may graze cattle here without her permission. To do so is to steal the princess’s grass.”
There was a murmur of resentment from the crowd. They did not believe in this kind of ownership, despite what they were told every Sunday in church. They adhered to an older, peasant morality, according to which the land was for those who worked it.
The prince pointed to the three men on the scaffold. “These fools broke the law-not once, but repeatedly.” His voice was shrill with outrage, like a child whose toy has been snatched. “Worse, they told others that the princess had no right to stop them, and that fields the landowner is not using should be available to poor peasants.” Grigori had heard his father say such things often. “As a result, men from other villages have started grazing cattle on land that belongs to the nobility. Instead of repenting their sins, these three have turned their neighbors into sinners too! That is why they have been sentenced to death.” He nodded to the priest.
The priest climbed the makeshift steps and spoke quietly to each man in turn. The first nodded expressionlessly. The second wept and began to pray aloud. The third, Grigori’s father, spat in the priest’s face. No one was shocked: the villagers had a low opinion of the clergy, and Grigori had heard his father say that they told the police everything they heard in the confessional.
The priest descended the steps, and Prince Andrei nodded to one of his servants, who was standing by with a sledgehammer. Grigori noticed for the first time that the three condemned men were standing on a crudely hinged wooden platform supported only by a single prop, and he realized with terror that the sledgehammer was to knock away the prop.
Now, he thought, this is when an angel should appear.
The villagers moaned. The wives began to scream, and this time the soldiers did not stop them. Little Lev was hysterical. He probably did not understand what was about to happen, Grigori thought, but he was scared by their mother’s shrieks.
Pa showed no emotion. His face was stony. He looked into the distance and awaited his fate. Grigori wanted to be that strong. He struggled to maintain his self-control, even though he needed to howl like Lev. He could not hold back the tears, but he bit his lip and remained as silent as his father.
The servant hefted his sledgehammer, touched it to the prop to get his range, swung backward, and struck. The prop flew through the air. The hinged platform came down with a bang. The three men dropped, then jerked, their fall arrested by the ropes around their necks.
Grigori was unable to look away. He stared at his father. Pa did not die instantly. He opened his mouth, trying to breathe, or to shout, but could not do either. His face turned red and he struggled with the ropes that bound him. It seemed to go on for a long time. His face became redder.
Then his skin turned a bluish color and his movements became weaker. At last he was still.
Ma stopped screaming and began to sob.
The priest prayed aloud, but the villagers ignored him and, one by one, they turned away from the sight of the three dead men.
The prince and the princess got back into their carriage, and after a moment, the coachman cracked his whip and drove away.
Grigori was calm again by the time he finished telling the story. He dragged his sleeve across his face to dry his tears, then turned his attention back to Katerina. She had listened to him in compassionate silence, but she was not shocked. She must have seen similar sights herself: hanging, flogging, and mutilation were normal punishments in the villages.
Grigori put the bowl of warm water on the table and found a clean towel. Katerina tilted her head back, and Grigori hung the kerosene lamp from a hook on the wall so that he could see better.
There was a cut on her forehead and a bruise on her cheek, and her lips were puffy. Even so, staring at her close up took Grigori’s breath away. She looked back at him with a candid, fearless gaze that he found enchanting.
He dipped a corner of the towel in warm water.
“Be gentle,” she said.
“Of course.” He began by wiping her forehead. Her injury there was only a graze, he saw when he had dabbed away the blood.
“That feels better,” she said.
She watched his face while he worked. He washed her cheeks and her throat, then said: “I’ve left the painful part until last.”
“It will be all right,” she said. “You have such a light touch.” All the same, she winced when his towel touched her swollen lips.
“Sorry,” he said.
The abrasions were already healing, he saw as he cleaned them. She had the even white teeth of a young girl. He wiped the corners of her wide mouth. As he bent closer, he could feel her warm breath on his face.
When he had finished he felt a sense of disappointment, as if he had been waiting for something that had not happened.
He sat back and rinsed the towel in the water, which was now dark with her blood.
“Thank you,” she said. “You have very good hands.”
His heart was racing. He had bathed people’s wounds before, but he had never experienced this dizzy sensation. He felt he might be about to do something foolish.
He opened the window and emptied the bowl, making a pink splash on the snow in the yard.
The mad thought crossed his mind that Katerina might be a dream. He turned, half expecting her chair to be empty. But there she was, looking back at him with those blue-green eyes, and he realized he wanted her never to go away.
It occurred to him that he might be in love.
He had never thought that before. He was usually too busy looking after Lev to chase women. He was not a virgin: he had had sex with three different women. It had always been a joyless experience, perhaps because he had not much cared for any of them.
But now, he thought shakily, he wanted, more than anything else in the world, to lie down with Katerina on the narrow bed against the wall and kiss her hurt face and tell her-
And tell her that he loved her.
Don’t be stupid, he said to himself. You met her an hour ago. What she wants from you is not love, but a loan and a job and a place to sleep.
He closed the window with a slam.
She said: “So you cook for your brother, and you have gentle hands, and yet you can knock a policeman to the ground with one punch.”
He did not know what to say.
“You told me how your father died,” she went on. “But your mother died, too, when you were young-didn’t she?”
“How did you know?”
Katerina shrugged. “Because you had to become a mother.”
She died on January 9, 1905, by the old Russian calendar. It was a Sunday, and in the days and years that followed it came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
Grigori was sixteen and Lev eleven. Like Ma, both boys worked at the Putilov factory. Grigori was an apprentice foundryman, Lev a sweep. That January all three of them were on strike, along with more than a hundred thousand other St. Petersburg factory workers, for an eight-hour day and the right to form trade unions. On the morning of the ninth they put on their best clothes and went out, holding hands and tramping through a fresh fall of snow, to a church near the Putilov factory. After the service they joined the thousands of workers marching from all points of the city toward the Winter Palace.
“Why do we have to march?” young Lev whined. He would have preferred to play soccer in an alleyway.
“Because of your father,” said Ma. “Because princes and princesses are murdering brutes. Because we have to overthrow the tsar and all his kind. Because I will not rest until Russia is a republic.”
It was a perfect St. Petersburg day, cold but dry, and Grigori’s face was warmed by the sun just as his heart was warmed by the feeling of comradeship in a just cause.
Their leader, Father Gapon, was like an Old Testament prophet, with his long beard, his biblical language, and the light of glory in his eye. He was no revolutionary: his self-help clubs, approved by the government, started all meetings with the Lord’s Prayer and ended with the national anthem. “I can see now what the tsar intended Gapon to be,” Grigori said to Katerina nine years later, in his room overlooking the railway line. “A safety valve, designed to take the pressure for reform and release it harmlessly in tea drinking and country dancing. But it didn’t work.”
Wearing a long white robe and carrying a crucifix, Gapon led the procession along the Narva highway. Grigori, Lev, and Ma were right beside him: he encouraged families to march at the front, saying that the soldiers would never fire on infants. Behind them two neighbors carried a large portrait of the tsar. Gapon told them that the tsar was the father of his people. He would listen to their cries, overrule his hard-hearted ministers, and grant the workers’ reasonable demands. “The Lord Jesus said: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ and the tsar says the same,” Gapon cried, and Grigori believed him.
They had approached the Narva Gate, a massive triumphal arch, and Grigori remembered looking up at the statue of a chariot with six gigantic horses; then a squadron of cavalry charged the marchers, almost as if the copper horses atop the monument had come thunderously alive.
Some demonstrators fled, some fell to the hammer blows of the hooves. Grigori froze in place, terrified, as did Ma and Lev.
The soldiers did not draw weapons, and seemed intent simply on scaring people away; but there were too many workers, and a few minutes later the cavalry wheeled their horses and rode off.
The march resumed in a different spirit. Grigori sensed that the day might not end peacefully. He thought about the forces ranged against them: the nobility, the ministers, and the army. How far would they go to keep the people from speaking to their tsar?
His answer came almost immediately. Looking over the heads in front of him he saw a line of infantry and realized, with a shudder of dread, that they were in firing position.
The march slowed as people comprehended what they faced. Father Gapon, who was within touching distance of Grigori, turned and shouted to his followers: “The tsar will never allow his armies to shoot at his beloved people!”
There was a deafening rattle, like a hailstorm on a tin roof: the soldiers had fired a salvo. The acrid smell of gunpowder stung Grigori’s nostrils, and fear clutched at his heart.
The priest shouted: “Don’t worry-they’re firing into the air!”
Another volley rang out, but no bullets seemed to land. All the same, Grigori’s bowels clenched in terror.
Then there was a third salvo, and this time the bullets did not fly harmlessly up. Grigori heard screams and saw people fall. He stared around in confusion for a moment, then Ma shoved him violently, shouting: “Lie down!” He fell flat. At the same time Ma threw Lev to the ground and dropped on top of him.
We’re going to die, Grigori thought, and his heart thudded louder than the guns.
The shooting continued relentlessly, a nightmare noise that could not be shut out. As people fled in panic, Grigori was trodden on by heavy boots, but Ma protected his head and Lev’s. They lay there trembling while the shooting and screaming went on above them.
Then the firing stopped. Ma moved, and Grigori raised his head to look around. People were hurrying away in all directions, shouting to one another, but the screaming died down. “Get up, come on,” said Ma, and they scrambled to their feet and hurried away from the road, jumping over still bodies and running around the bleeding wounded. They reached a side street and slowed down. Lev whispered to Grigori: “I’ve wet myself! Don’t tell Ma!”
Ma’s blood was up. “We WILL speak to the tsar!” she cried, and people stopped to look at her broad peasant face and intense gaze. She was deep-chested, and her voice boomed out across the street. “They cannot prevent us-we must go to the Winter Palace!” Some people cheered, and others nodded agreement. Lev started to cry.
Listening to the story, nine years later, Katerina said: “Why did she do that? She should have taken her children home to safety!”
“She used to say she did not want her sons to live as she had,” Grigori replied. “I think she felt it would be better for us all to die than to give up the hope of a better life.”
Katerina looked thoughtful. “I suppose that’s brave.”
“It’s more than bravery,” Grigori said stoutly. “It’s heroism.”
“What happened next?”
They had walked into the city center, along with thousands of others. As the sun rose higher over the snowy city, Grigori unbuttoned his coat and unwound his scarf. It was a long walk for Lev’s short legs, but the boy was too shocked and scared to complain.
At last they reached Nevsky Prospekt, the broad boulevard that ran through the heart of the city. It was already thronged with people. Streetcars and omnibuses drove up and down, and horse cabs dashed dangerously in all directions-in those days, Grigori recalled, there had been no motor taxis.
They ran into Konstantin, a lathe operator from the Putilov works. He told Ma, ominously, that demonstrators had been killed in other parts of the city. But she did not break her pace, and the rest of the crowd seemed equally resolute. They moved steadily past shops selling German pianos, hats made in Paris, and special silver bowls to hold hothouse roses. In the jewelry stores there a nobleman could spend more on a bauble for his mistress than a factory worker would earn in a lifetime, Grigori had been told. They passed the Soleil Cinema, which Grigori longed to visit. Vendors were doing good business, selling tea from samovars and colored balloons for children.
At the end of the street they came to three great St. Petersburg landmarks standing side by side on the bank of the frozen Neva River: the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, always called The Bronze Horseman; the Admiralty building with its spire; and the Winter Palace. When he had first seen the palace, at the age of twelve, he had refused to believe that such a large building could be a place for people to actually live. It seemed inconceivable, like something in a story, a magic sword or a cloak of invisibility.
The square in front of the palace was white with snow. On the far side, ranged in front of the dark red building, were cavalry, riflemen in long coats, and cannon. The crowds massed around the edges of the square, keeping their distance, fearful of the military; but newcomers kept pouring in from the surrounding streets, like the waters of the tributaries emptying into the Neva, and Grigori was constantly pushed forward. Not all those present were workers, Grigori noted with surprise: many wore the warm coats of the middle classes on their way home from church, some looked like students, and a few even wore school uniforms.
Ma prudently moved them away from the guns and into the Alexandrovskii Garden, a park in front of the long yellow-and-white Admiralty building. Other people had the same idea, and the crowd there became animated. The man who normally gave deer sled rides to middle-class children had gone home. Everyone there was talking of massacres: all over the city, marchers had been mown down by gunfire and hacked to death by Cossack sabres. Grigori spoke to a boy his own age and told him what had happened at the Narva Gate. As the demonstrators learned what had happened to others, they grew angrier.
Grigori stared up at the long façade of the Winter Palace, with its hundreds of windows. Where was the tsar?
“He was not at the Winter Palace that morning, as we found out later,” Grigori told Katerina, and he could hear in his own voice the bitter resentment of a disappointed believer. “He was not even in town. The father of his people had gone to his palace at Tsarskoye Selo, to spend the weekend taking country walks and playing dominoes. But we did not know that then, and we called to him, begging him to show himself to his loyal subjects.”
The crowd grew; the calls for the tsar became more insistent; some of the demonstrators started to jeer at the soldiers. Everyone was becoming tense and angry. Suddenly a detachment of guards charged into the gardens, ordering everyone out. Grigori watched, fearful and incredulous, as they lashed out indiscriminately with whips, some using the flat sides of their sabres. He looked at Ma for guidance. She said: “We can’t give up now!” Grigori did not know what, exactly, they all expected the tsar to do: he just felt sure, as everyone did, that their monarch would somehow redress their grievances if only he knew about them.
The other demonstrators were as resolute as Ma and, although those who were attacked by guards cowered away, no one left the area.
Then the soldiers took up firing positions.
Near the front, several people fell to their knees, took off their caps, and crossed themselves. “Kneel down!” said Ma, and the three of them knelt, as did more of the people around them, until most of the crowd had assumed the position of prayer.
A silence descended that made Grigori scared. He stared at the rifles pointed at him, and the riflemen stared back expressionlessly, like statues.
Then Grigori heard a bugle call.
It was a signal. The soldiers fired their weapons. All around Grigori, people screamed and fell. A boy who had climbed a statue for a better view cried out and tumbled to the ground. A child fell out of a tree like a shot bird.
Grigori saw Ma go facedown. Thinking she was avoiding the gunfire, he did the same. Then, looking at her as they both lay on the ground, he saw the blood, bright red on the snow around her head.
“No!” he shouted. “No!”
Grigori grabbed Ma’s shoulders and pulled her up. Her body was limp. He stared at her face. At first he was bewildered by the sight that met his eyes. What was he seeing? Where her forehead and her eyes should have been there was just a mass of unrecognizable pulp.
It was Lev who grasped the truth. “She’s dead!” he screamed. “Ma’s dead, my mother is dead!”
The firing stopped. All around, people were running, limping, or crawling away. Grigori tried to think. What should he do? He must take Ma away from here, he decided. He put his arms under her and picked her up. She was not light, but he was strong.
He turned around, looking for the way home. His vision was strangely blurred, and he realized he was weeping. “Come on,” he said to Lev. “Stop screaming. We have to go.”
At the edge of the square they were stopped by an old man, the skin of his face creased around watery eyes. He wore the blue tunic of a factory worker. “You’re young,” he said to Grigori. There was anguish and rage in his voice. “Never forget this,” he said. “Never forget the murders committed here today by the tsar.”
Grigori nodded. “I won’t forget, sir,” he said.
“May you live long,” said the old man. “Long enough to take revenge on the bloodstained tsar for the evil he has done this day.”
“I carried her for about a mile, then I got tired, so I boarded a streetcar, still holding her,” Grigori told Katerina.
She stared at him. Her beautiful, bruised face was pale with horror. “You carried your dead mother home on a streetcar?”
He shrugged. “At the time I had no idea I was doing anything strange. Or, rather, everything that happened that day was so strange that nothing I did seemed odd.”
“What about the people riding the car?”
“The conductor said nothing. I suppose he was too shocked to throw me off, and he didn’t ask me for the fare-which I would not have been able to pay, of course.”
“So you just sat down?”
“I sat there, with her body in my arms, and Lev beside me, crying. The passengers just stared at us. I didn’t care what they thought. I was concentrating on what I had to do, which was to get her home.”
“And so you became the head of your family, at the age of sixteen.”
Grigori nodded. Although the memories were painful, he felt the most intense pleasure from her concentrated attention. Her eyes were fixed on him, and she listened with her mouth open and a look on her lovely face of mingled fascination and horror.
“What I remember most about that time is that no one helped us,” he said, and he was revisited by the panicky feeling that he was alone in a hostile world. The memory never failed to fill his soul with rage. It’s over now, he told himself; I’ve got a home and a job, and my brother has grown up strong and handsome. The bad times are over. But nevertheless he wanted to take someone by the neck-a soldier, a policeman, a government minister, or the tsar himself-and squeeze until there was no life left. He closed his eyes, shuddering, until the feeling passed.
“As soon as the funeral was over, the landlord threw us out, saying we would not be able to pay; and he took our furniture-for back rent, he said, although Ma was never behind with payments. I went to the church and told the priest we had nowhere to sleep.”
Katerina laughed harshly. “I can guess what happened there.”
He was surprised. “Can you?”
“The priest offered you a bed-his bed. That’s what happened to me.”
“Something like that,” Grigori said. “He gave me a few kopeks and sent me to buy hot potatoes. The shop wasn’t where he said, but instead of searching for it I hurried back to the church, because I didn’t like the look of him. Sure enough, when I went into the vestry he was taking Lev’s trousers down.”
She nodded. “Priests have been doing that sort of thing to me since I was twelve.”
Grigori was shocked. He had assumed that that particular priest was uniquely evil. Katerina obviously believed that depravity was the norm. “Are they all like that?” he said angrily.
“Most of them, in my experience.”
He shook his head in disgust. “And you know what amazed me the most? When I caught him, he wasn’t even ashamed! He just looked annoyed, as if I had interrupted him while he was meditating on the Bible.”
“What did you do?”
“I told Lev to do up his trousers, and we left. The priest asked for his kopeks back, but I told him they were alms for the poor. I used them to pay for a bed in a lodging house that night.”
“Eventually I got a good enough job, by lying about my age, and I found a room, and I learned, day by day, how to be independent.”
“And now you’re happy?”
“Certainly not. My mother intended us to have a better life, and I’m going to make sure of it. We’re leaving Russia. I’ve saved up almost enough money. I’m going to America, and when I get there I’ll send money back for a ticket for Lev. They have no tsar in America-no emperor or king of any kind. The army can’t just shoot anyone they like. The people rule the country!”
She was skeptical. “Do you really believe that?”
There was a tap at the window. Katerina was startled-they were on the second floor-but Grigori knew it was Lev. Late at night, when the door of the house was locked, Lev had to cross the railway line to the backyard, climb onto the washhouse roof, and come in through the window.
Grigori opened up and Lev climbed in. He was dressed smartly, in a jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons and a cap with a velvet band. His waistcoat sported a brass watch chain. His hair was cut in the fashionable “Polish” style with a parting at the side, instead of down the middle as the peasants wore it. Katerina looked surprised, and Grigori guessed she had not expected his brother to be so dashing.
Normally Grigori was pleased to see Lev, and relieved if he was sober and in one piece. Now he wished he could have had longer alone with Katerina.
He introduced them, and Lev’s eyes gleamed with interest as he shook her hand. She wiped tears from her cheeks. “Grigori was telling me about the death of your mother,” she explained.
“He has been mother and father to me for nine years,” Lev said. He tilted his head and sniffed the air. “And he makes good stew.”
Grigori got out bowls and spoons, and put a loaf of black bread on the table. Katerina explained to Lev about the fight with the policeman Pinsky. The way she told the story made Grigori seem braver than he felt, but he was happy to be a hero in her eyes.
Lev was enchanted by Katerina. He leaned forward, listening as if he had never heard anything so fascinating, smiling and nodding, looking amazed or disgusted, according to what she was saying.
Grigori spooned the stew into bowls and pulled the packing case up to the table for use as a third chair. The food was good: he had added an onion to the pot, and the ham bone gave a hint of meaty richness to the turnips. The atmosphere lightened as Lev talked of inconsequential matters, odd incidents at the factory and funny things people said. He kept Katerina laughing.
When they had finished, Lev asked Katerina how she came to be in the city.
“My father died and my mother remarried,” she said. “Unfortunately, my stepfather seemed to like me better than my mother.” She tossed her head, and Grigori could not tell whether she was ashamed or defiant. “At any rate, that’s what my mother believed, and she threw me out.”
Grigori said: “Half the population of St. Petersburg have come here from a village. Soon there will be no one left to till the soil.”
Lev said: “What was your journey like?”
It was a familiar tale of third-class railway tickets and lifts begged on carts, but Grigori was mesmerized by her face as she talked.
Once again Lev listened with rapt attention, making amusing comments, asking the occasional question.
Soon, Grigori noticed, Katerina had turned in her seat and was talking exclusively to Lev.
Almost, Grigori thought, as if I was not even here.
CHAPTER FOUR – March 1914
“So,” Billy said to his father, “all the books of the Bible were originally written in various languages and then translated into English.”
“Aye,” said Da. “And the Roman Catholic Church tried to ban translations-they didn’t want people like us reading the Bible for ourselves and arguing with the priests.”
Da was a bit un-Christian when he spoke of Catholics. He seemed to hate Catholicism more than atheism. But he loved an argument. “Well, then,” said Billy, “where are the originals?”
“The original books of the Bible, written in Hebrew and Greek. Where are they kept?”
They were sitting on opposite sides of the square table in the kitchen of the house in Wellington Row. It was midafternoon. Billy was home from the pit and had washed his hands and face, but still wore his work clothes. Da had hung up his suit jacket, and sat in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, with a collar and tie-he would be going out again after dinner, to a union meeting. Mam was heating the stew on the fire. Gramper sat with them, listening to the discussion with a faint smile, as if he had heard it all before.
“Well, we don’t have the actual originals,” Da said. “They wore out, centuries ago. We have copies.”
“Where are the copies, then?”
“All different places-monasteries, museums… ”
“They should be kept in one place.”
“But there’s more than one copy of each book-and some are better than others.”
“How can one copy be better than another? Surely they’re not different.”
“Yes. Over the years, human error crept in.”
This startled Billy. “Well, how do we know which is right?”
“That’s a study called textual scholarship-comparing the different versions and coming up with an agreed text.”
Billy was shocked. “You mean there isn’t an indisputable book that is the actual Word of God? Men argue about it and make a judgment?”
“Well, how do we know they’re right?”
Da smiled knowingly, a sure sign that his back was to the wall. “We believe that if they work in prayerful humility, God will guide their labors.”
“But what if they don’t?”
Mam put four bowls on the table. “Don’t argue with your father,” she said. She cut four thick slices off a loaf of bread.
Gramper said: “Leave him be, Cara my girl. Let the boy ask his questions.”
Da said: “We have faith in God’s power to ensure that his Word comes to us as he would wish.”
“You’re completely illogical!”
Mam interrupted again. “Don’t speak to your father like that! You’re still a boy, you don’t know anything.”
Billy ignored her. “Why didn’t God guide the labors of the copiers, and stop them making mistakes, if he really wanted us to know His Word?”
Da said: “Some things are not given to us to understand.”
That answer was the least convincing of all, and Billy ignored it. “If the copiers could make mistakes, obviously the textual scholars could too.”
“We must have faith, Billy.”
“Faith in the Word of God, yes-not faith in a lot of professors of Greek!”
Mam sat at the table and pushed her graying hair out of her eyes. “So you are right, and everyone else is wrong, as usual, I suppose?”
This frequently used ploy always stung him, because it seemed justified. It was not possible that he was wiser than everyone else. “It’s not me,” he protested. “It’s logic!”
“Oh, you and your old logic,” said his mother. “Eat your dinner.”
The door opened and Mrs. Dai Ponies walked in. This was normal in Wellington Row: only strangers knocked. Mrs. Dai wore a pinafore and a man’s boots on her feet: whatever she had to say was so urgent that she had not even put on a hat before leaving her house. Visibly agitated, she brandished a sheet of paper. “I’m being thrown out!” she said. “What am I supposed to do?”
Da stood up and gave her his chair. “Sit down by here and catch your breath, Mrs. Dai Ponies,” he said calmly. “Let me have a read of that letter, now.” He took it from her red, knotted hand and laid it flat on the table.
Billy could see that it was typed on the letterhead of Celtic Minerals.
“‘Dear Mrs. Evans,’” Da read aloud. “‘The house at the above address is now required for a working miner.’” Celtic Minerals had built most of the houses in Aberowen. Over the years, some had been sold to their occupiers, including the one the Williams family lived in; but most were still rented to miners. “‘In accordance with the terms of your lease, I-’” Da paused, and Billy could see he was shocked. “‘I hereby give you two weeks’ notice to quit!’” he finished.
Mam said: “Notice to quit-and her husband buried not six weeks ago!”
Mrs. Dai cried: “Where am I to go, with five children?”
Billy was shocked, too. How could the company do this to a woman whose husband had been killed in their pit?
“It’s signed ‘Perceval Jones, Chairman of the Board,’ at the bottom,” Da finished.
Billy said: “What lease? I didn’t know miners had leases.”
Da said to him: “There’s no written lease, but the law says there’s an implied contract. We’ve already fought that battle and lost.” He turned to Mrs. Dai. “The house goes with the job, in theory, but widows are usually allowed to stay on. Sometimes they leave anyway, and go to live elsewhere, perhaps with their parents. Often they remarry, to another miner, and he takes over the lease. Usually they have at least one boy who becomes a miner when he’s old enough. It’s not really in the company’s interest to throw widows out.”
“So why do they want to get rid of me and my children?” wailed Mrs. Dai.
Gramper said: “Perceval Jones is in a hurry. He must think the price of coal is going up. That’ll be why he started the Sunday shift.”
Da nodded. “They want higher production, that’s for sure, whatever the reason. But they’re not going to get it by evicting widows.” He stood up. “Not if I can help it.”
Eight women were being evicted, all widows of men who had died in the explosion. They had received identical letters from Perceval Jones, as Da established that afternoon when he visited each woman in turn, taking Billy with him. Their reactions varied from the hysterics of Mrs. Hywel Jones, who could not stop crying, to the grim fatalism of Mrs. Roley Hughes, who said this country needed a guillotine like they had in Paris for men like Perceval Jones.
Billy was boiling with outrage. Was it not enough that these women had lost their men to the pit? Must they be homeless as well as husbandless? “Can the company do this, Da?” he said as he and his father walked down the mean gray terraces to the pithead.
“Only if we let them, boy. The working class are more numerous than the ruling class, and stronger. They depend on us for everything. We provide their food and build their houses and make their clothes, and without us they die. They can’t do anything unless we let them. Always remember that.”
They went into the manager’s office, stuffing their caps into their pockets. “Good afternoon, Mr. Williams,” said Spotty Llewellyn nervously. “If you would just wait a minute, I’ll ask if Mr. Morgan can see you.”
“Don’t be daft, boy, of course he’ll see me,” said Da, and without waiting he walked into the inner office. Billy followed.
Maldwyn Morgan was looking at a ledger, but Billy had a feeling he was only pretending. He looked up, his pink cheeks closely shaved as always. “Come in, Williams,” he said unnecessarily. Unlike many men, he was not afraid of Da. Morgan was Aberowen-born, the son of a schoolmaster, and had studied engineering. He and Da were similar, Billy realized: intelligent, self-righteous, and stubborn.
“You know what I’ve come about, Mr. Morgan,” said Da.
“I can guess, but tell me anyway.”
“I want you to withdraw these eviction notices.”
“The company needs the houses for miners.”
“There will be trouble.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Don’t get on your high horse,” Da said mildly. “These women lost their husbands in your pit. Don’t you feel responsible for them?”
Morgan tilted up his chin defensively. “The public inquiry found that the explosion was not caused by the company’s negligence.”
Billy wanted to ask him how an intelligent man could say such a thing and not feel ashamed of himself.
Da said: “The inquiry found a list of violations as long as the train to Paddington-electrical equipment not shielded, no breathing apparatus, no proper fire engine-”
“But the violations did not cause the explosion, or the deaths of miners.”
“The violations could not be proved to have caused the explosion or the deaths.”
Morgan shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “You didn’t come here to argue about the inquiry.”
“I came here to get you to see reason. As we speak, the news of these letters is going around the town.” Da gestured at the window, and Billy saw that the winter sun was going down behind the mountain. “Men are rehearsing with choirs, drinking in pubs, going to prayer meetings, playing chess-and they’re all talking about the eviction of the widows. And you can bet your boots they’re angry.”
“I have to ask you again: are you trying to intimidate the company?”
Billy wanted to throttle the man, but Da sighed. “Look here, Maldwyn, we’ve known each other since school days. Be reasonable, now. You know there are men in the union who will be more aggressive than me.” Da was talking about Tommy Griffiths’s father. Len Griffiths believed in revolution, and he always hoped the next dispute would be the spark that lit the conflagration. He also wanted Da’s job. He could be relied upon to propose drastic measures.
Morgan said: “Are you telling me you’re calling a strike?”
“I’m telling you the men will be angry. What they will do I can’t predict. But I don’t want trouble and you don’t want trouble. We’re talking about eight houses out of what, eight hundred? I’ve come here to ask you, is it worth it?”
“The company has made its decision,” Morgan said, and Billy felt intuitively that Morgan did not agree with the company.
“Ask the board of directors to reconsider. What harm could that do?”
Billy was impatient with Da’s mild words. Surely he should raise his voice, and point his finger, and accuse Morgan of the ruthless cruelty of which the company was obviously guilty? That was what Len Griffiths would have done.
Morgan was unmoved. “I’m here to carry out the board’s decisions, not question them.”
“So the evictions have already been approved by the board,” Da said.
Morgan looked flustered. “I didn’t say that.”
But he had implied it, Billy thought, thanks to Da’s clever questioning. Maybe mildness was not such a bad idea.
Da changed tack. “What if I could find you eight houses where the occupiers are prepared to take in new miners as lodgers?”
“These men have families.”
Da said slowly and deliberately: “We could work out a compromise, if you were willing.”
“The company must have the power to manage its own affairs.”
“Regardless of the consequences to others?”
“This is our coal mine. The company surveyed the land, negotiated with the earl, dug the pit, and bought the machinery, and it built the houses for the miners to live in. We paid for all this and we own it, and we won’t be told what to do with it by anyone else.”
Da put his cap on. “You didn’t put the coal in the earth, though, did you, Maldwyn?” he said. “God did that.”
Da tried to book the assembly rooms of the town hall for a gathering at seven thirty the following night, but the space was already taken by the Aberowen Amateur Dramatic Club, who were rehearsing Henry IV, Part One, so Da decided the miners would meet at Bethesda Chapel. Billy and Da, with Len and Tommy Griffiths and a few other active union members, went around the town announcing the meeting orally and pinning up handwritten notices in pubs and chapels.
By a quarter past seven next evening the chapel was packed. The widows sat in a row at the front, and everyone else stood. Billy was at the side near the front, where he could see the men’s faces. Tommy Griffiths stood beside him.
Billy was proud of his da for his boldness, his cleverness, and the fact that he had put his cap back on before leaving Morgan’s office. All the same he wished Da had been more aggressive. He should have talked to Morgan the way he talked to the congregation of Bethesda, predicting hellfire and brimstone for those who refused to see the plain truth.
At exactly seven thirty, Da called for quiet. In his authoritative preaching voice he read out the letter from Perceval Jones to Mrs. Dai Ponies. “The identical letter have been sent to eight widows of men killed in the explosion down the pit six weeks ago.”
Several men called out: “Shame!”
“It is our rule that men speak when called upon by the chairman of the meeting, and not otherwise, so that each may be heard in his turn, and I will thank you for observing the rule, even on an occasion such as this when feelings run high.”
Someone called out: “It’s a bloody disgrace!”
“Now, now, Griff Pritchard, no swearing, please. This is a chapel and, besides, there are ladies present.”
Two or three of the men said: “Hear, hear.” They pronounced the word to rhyme with “fur.”
Griff Pritchard, who had been in the Two Crowns since the shift ended that afternoon, said: “Sorry, Mr. Williams.”
“I held a meeting yesterday with the colliery manager, and asked him formally to withdraw the eviction notices, but he refused. He implied that the board of directors had made the decision, and it was not in his power to change it, or even question it. I pressed him to discuss alternatives, but he said the company had the right to manage its affairs without interference. That is all the information I have for you.” That was a bit low-key, Billy thought. He wanted Da to call for revolution. But Da just pointed to a man who had his hand up. “John Jones the Shop.”
“I’ve lived in number twenty-three Gordon Terrace all my life,” said Jones. “I was born there and I’m still there. But my father died when I was eleven. Very hard it was, too, for my mam, but she was allowed to stay. When I was thirteen I went down the pit, and now I pay the rent. That’s how it’s always been. No one said anything about throwing us out.”
“Thank you, John Jones. Have you got a motion to propose?”
“No, I’m just saying.”
“I have a motion,” said a new voice. “Strike!”
There was a chorus of agreement.
Billy’s father said: “Dai Crybaby.”
“Here’s how I see it,” said the captain of the town’s rugby team. “We can’t let the company get away with this. If they’re allowed to evict widows, none of us can feel that our families have any security. A man could work all his life for Celtic Minerals and die on the job, and two weeks later his family could be out on the street. Dai Union have been to the office and tried to talk sense to Gone-to-Merthyr Morgan, but it haven’t done no good, so we got no alternative but to strike.”
“Thank you, Dai,” said Da. “Should I take that as a formal motion for strike action?”
Billy was surprised that Da had accepted that so quickly. He knew his father wanted to avoid a strike.
“Vote!” someone shouted.
Da said: “Before I put the proposal to a vote, we need to decide when the strike should take place.”
Ah, Billy thought, he’s not accepting it.
Da went on: “We might consider starting on Monday. Between now and then, while we work on, the threat of a strike might make the directors see sense-and we could get what we want without any loss of earnings.”
Da was arguing for postponement as the next best thing, Billy realized.
But Len Griffiths had come to the same conclusion. “May I speak, Mr. Chairman?” he said. Tommy’s father had a bald dome with a fringe of black hair, and a black mustache. He stepped forward and stood next to Da, facing the crowd, so that it looked as if the two of them had equal authority. The men went quiet. Len, like Da and Dai Crybaby, was among a handful of people they always heard in respectful silence. “I ask, is it wise to give the company four days’ grace? Suppose they don’t change their minds-which seems a strong possibility, given how stubborn they have been so far. Then we’ll get to Monday with nothing achieved, and the widows will have that much less time left.” He raised his voice slightly for rhetorical effect. “I say, comrades: don’t give an inch!”
There was a cheer, and Billy joined in.
“Thank you, Len,” said Da. “I have two motions on the table, then: Strike tomorrow, or strike Monday. Who else would like to speak?”
Billy watched his father manage the meeting. The next man called was Giuseppe “Joey” Ponti, top soloist with the Aberowen Male Voice Choir, older brother of Billy’s schoolmate Johnny. Despite his Italian name, he had been born in Aberowen and spoke with the same accent as every other man in the room. He, too, argued for an immediate strike.
Da then said: “In fairness, may I have a speaker in favor of striking on Monday?”
Billy wondered why Da did not throw his personal authority into the balance. If he argued for Monday he might change their minds. But then, if he failed, he would be in an awkward position, leading a strike that he had argued against. Da was not completely free to say what he felt, Billy realized.
The discussion ranged widely. Coal stocks were high, so the management could hold out; but demand was high too, and they would want to sell while they could. Spring was coming, so miners’ families would soon be able to manage without their ration of free coal. The miners’ case was well grounded in long-established practise, but the letter of the law was on the management’s side.
Da let the discussion run on, and some of the speeches became tedious. Billy wondered what his father’s motivation was, and guessed he was hoping that heads would cool. But in the end he had to put it to the vote.
“First, all those in favor of no strike at all.”
A few men raised their hands.
“Next, those in favor of a strike starting Monday.”
There was a strong vote for this, but Billy was not sure if it was enough to win. It would depend upon how many men abstained.
“Finally, those in favor of a strike starting tomorrow.”
There was a cheer, and a forest of arms waved in the air. There could be no doubt about the result.
“The motion to strike tomorrow is passed,” Da said. No one proposed a count.
The meeting broke up. As they went out, Tommy said brightly: “Day off, tomorrow, then.”
“Aye,” said Billy. “And no money to spend.”
The first time Fitz went with a prostitute, he had tried to kiss her-not because he wanted to, but he assumed it was the done thing. “I don’t kiss,” she had said abruptly in her cockney accent, and after that he had never tried it again. Bing Westhampton said a lot of prostitutes refused to kiss, which was odd, considering what other intimacies they permitted. Perhaps that trivial prohibition preserved a remnant of their dignity.
Girls of Fitz’s social class were not supposed to kiss anyone before marriage. They did, of course, but only in rare moments of brief privacy, in a suddenly deserted side room at a ball, or behind a rhododendron bush in a country garden. There was never time for passion to develop.
The only woman Fitz had kissed properly was his wife, Bea. She gave him her body as a cook might present a special cake, fragrant and sugared and beautifully decorated for his enjoyment. She let him do anything, but made no demands. She offered her lips for him to kiss, and opened her mouth to his tongue, but he never felt she was hungry for his touch.
Ethel kissed as if she had one minute left to live.
They stood in the Gardenia Suite, beside the bed covered with its dust sheet, wrapped in each other’s arms. She sucked his tongue and bit his lips and licked his throat, and at the same time she stroked his hair, clutched the back of his neck, and thrust her hands under his waistcoat so that she could rub her palms against his chest. When at last they broke apart, out of breath, she put her hands either side of his face, holding his head still, staring at him, and said: “You are so beautiful.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, holding her hands, and she stood in front of him. He knew that some men regularly seduced their servants, but he did not. When he was fifteen he had fallen in love with a parlor maid at the London house: his mother had guessed it within a few days and sacked the girl immediately. His father had smiled and said: “Good choice, though.” Since then he had not touched an employee. But he could not resist Ethel.
She said: “Why have you come back? You were expected to stay in London all of May.”
“I wanted to see you.” He could tell that she found it hard to believe him. “I kept thinking about you, all day, every day, and I just had to come back.”
She bent down and kissed him again. Holding the kiss, he slowly fell back on the bed, pulling her with him until she was lying on top of him. She was so slim that she weighed no more than a child. Her hair escaped from its pins and he buried his fingers in her glossy curls.
After a while she rolled off and lay beside him, panting. He leaned on his elbow and looked at her. She had said he was beautiful, but right now she was the prettiest thing he had ever seen. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair was mussed, and her red lips were moist and parted. Her dark eyes gazed at him with adoration.
He put his hand on her hip, then stroked her thigh. She covered his hand with her own, holding it still, as if afraid he was going too far. She said: “Why do they call you Fitz? Your name is Edward, isn’t it?”
She was talking in an attempt to let their passion cool, he felt sure. “It started at school,” he said. “All the boys had nicknames. Then Walter von Ulrich came home with me one vacation, and Maud picked it up from him.”
“Before that, what did your parents call you?”
“Teddy,” she said, trying it on her tongue. “I like it better than Fitz.”
He started to stroke her thigh again, and this time she let him. Kissing her, he slowly pulled up the long skirt of her black housekeeper’s dress. She wore calf-length stockings, and he stroked her bare knees. Above the knee she had long cotton underdrawers. He touched her legs through the cotton, then moved his hand to the fork of her thighs. When he touched her there, she groaned and thrust upward against his hand.
“Take them off,” he whispered.
He found the drawstring at the waist. It was tied in a bow. He undid the knot with a tug.
She put her hand over his again. “Stop.”
“I just want to touch you there.”
“I want it more than you do,” she said. “But no.”
He knelt up on the bed. “We won’t do anything you don’t want,” he said. “I promise.” Then he took the waist of her drawers in both hands and ripped the material apart. She gasped with shock, but she did not protest. He lay down again and explored her with his hand. She parted her legs immediately. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing hard, as if she had been running. He guessed that no one had done this to her before, and a faint voice told him he should not take advantage of her innocence, but he was too far gone in desire to listen.
He unbuttoned his trousers and lay on top of her.
“No,” she said.
“What if I fall for a baby?”
“I’ll withdraw before the end.”
“I promise,” he said, and he slid inside her.
He felt an obstruction. She was a virgin. His conscience spoke again, and this time its voice was not so faint. He stopped. But now it was she who was too far gone. She grasped his hips and pulled him into her, raising herself slightly at the same time. He felt something break, and she gave a sharp cry of pain, then the obstruction was gone. As he moved in and out, she matched his rhythm eagerly. She opened her eyes and looked at his face. “Oh, Teddy, Teddy,” she said, and he saw that she loved him. The thought moved him almost to tears, and at the same time excited him beyond control, and his climax came unexpectedly soon. In desperate haste he withdrew, and spilled his seed on her thigh with a groan of passion mingled with disappointment. She put her hand behind his head and pulled his face to hers, kissing him wildly, then she closed her eyes and gave a small cry that sounded like surprise and pleasure; and then it was over.
I hope I pulled out in time, he thought.
Ethel went about her work as usual, but all the time she felt as if she had a secret diamond in her pocket that she could touch from time to time, feeling its slick surfaces and its sharp edges when no one was looking.
In her more sober moments she worried about what this love meant and where it was going, and now and again she was horrified by the thought of what her God-fearing socialist father would think if he found out. But most of the time she just felt as if she was dropping through the air with no way to arrest her fall. She loved the way he walked, the way he smelled, his clothes, his careful good manners, his air of authority. She also loved the way he occasionally looked bewildered. And when he came out of his wife’s room with that hurt look on his face, she could cry. She was in love and out of control.
Most days she spoke to him at least once, and they usually managed a few moments alone and a long, yearning kiss. Just kissing him made her wet, and she sometimes had to wash her drawers in the middle of the day. He took other liberties, too, whenever there was a chance, touching her body all over, which made her more excited. Twice more they had been able to meet in the Gardenia Suite and lie on the bed.
One thing puzzled Ethel: both times they had lain together, Fitz had bitten her, quite hard, once on her inner thigh and once on her breast. It had caused her to give a cry of pain, hastily muffled. The cry seemed to inflame him more. And, although it hurt, at the same time she, too, was aroused by the bite, or at least by the thought that his desire for her was so overwhelming that he was driven to express it that way. She had no idea whether this was normal, and no one she could ask.
But her main worry was that one day Fitz would fail to withdraw at the crucial moment. The tension was so high that it was almost a relief when he and Princess Bea had to go back to London.
Before he went she persuaded him to feed the children of the striking miners. “Not the parents, because you can’t be seen to take sides,” she said. “Just the little boys and girls. The strike has been on for two weeks now, and they’re on starvation rations. It wouldn’t cost you much. There would be about five hundred of them, I’d guess. They’d love you for it, Teddy.”
“We could put up a marquee on the lawn,” he said, lying on the bed in the Gardenia Suite with his trousers unbuttoned and his head in her lap.
“And we can make the food here in the kitchens,” Ethel said enthusiastically. “A stew with meat and potatoes in it, and all the bread they can eat.”
“And a suet pudding with currants in it, eh?”
Did he love her? she wondered. At that moment, she felt he would have done anything she asked: given her jewels, taken her to Paris, bought her parents a nice house. She did not want any of those things-but what did she want? She did not know, and she refused to let her happiness be blighted by unanswerable questions about the future.
A few days later she stood on the East Lawn at midday on a Saturday, watching the children of Aberowen tuck into their first free dinner. Fitz did not know that this was better food than they got when their fathers were working. Suet pudding with currants, indeed! The parents were not allowed in, but most of the mothers stood outside the gates, watching their lucky offspring. Glancing that way, she saw someone waving at her, and she walked down the drive.
The group at the gate was mostly women: men did not look after children, even during a strike. They gathered around Ethel, looking agitated.
“What’s happened?” she said.
Mrs. Dai Ponies answered her. “Everyone have been evicted!”
“Everyone?” Ethel said, not understanding. “Who?”
“All the miners who rent their houses from Celtic Minerals.”
“Good grief!” Ethel was horrified. “God save us all.” Shock was followed by puzzlement. “But why? How does that help the company? They’ll have no miners left.”
“These men,” said Mrs. Dai. “Once they get into a fight, all they care about is winning. They won’t give in, whatever the cost. They’re all the same. Not that I wouldn’t have my Dai back, if I could.”
“This is awful.” How could the company find enough blacklegs to keep the pit going? she wondered. If they closed the mine, the town would die. There would be no customers left for the shops, no children to go to the schools, no patients for the doctors… Her father, too, would have no work. No one had expected Perceval Jones to be so obstinate.
Mrs. Dai said: “I wonder what the king would say, if he knew.”
Ethel wondered, too. The king had seemed to show real compassion. But he probably did not know the widows had been evicted.
And then she was struck by a thought. “Perhaps you should tell him,” she said.
Mrs. Dai laughed. “I will, next time I sees him.”
“You could write him a letter.”
“Don’t talk daft, now, Eth.”
“I mean it. You should do it.” She looked around the group. “A letter signed by widows the king visited, telling him you are being thrown out of your homes and the town is on strike. He’d have to take notice, surely?”
Mrs. Dai looked scared. “I wouldn’t like to get into trouble.”
Mrs. Minnie Ponti, a thin blond woman of strong opinions, said to her: “You have no husband and no home and nowhere to go-how much more trouble could you be in?”
“That’s true enough. But I wouldn’t know what to say. Do you put ‘Dear King,’ or ‘Dear George the Fifth,’ or what?”
Ethel said: “You put: ‘Sir, with my humble duty.’ I know all that rubbish, from working here. Let’s do it now. Come into the servants’ hall.”
“Will it be all right?”
“I’m the housekeeper now, Mrs. Dai. I’m the one who says what’s all right.”
The women followed her up the drive and around the back of the house to the kitchen. They sat around the servants’ dining table, and the cook made a pot of tea. Ethel had a stock of plain writing paper that she used for correspondence with tradesmen.
“‘Sir, with our humble duty,’” she said, writing. “What next?”
Mrs. Dai Ponies said: “‘Forgive our cheek in writing to Your Majesty.’”
“No,” Ethel said decisively. “Don’t apologize. He’s our king, we’re entitled to petition him. Let’s say: ‘We are the widows Your Majesty visited in Aberowen after the pit explosion.’”
“Very good,” said Mrs. Ponti.
Ethel went on: “‘We were honored by your visit and comforted by your kind condolences, and the gracious sympathy of Her Majesty the queen.’”
Mrs. Dai said: “You’ve got the gift for this, like your father.”
Mrs. Ponti said: “That’s enough soft soap, though.”
“All right. Now then. ‘We are asking for your help as our king. Because our husbands are dead, we are being evicted from our homes.’”
“By Celtic Minerals,” put in Mrs. Ponti.
“‘By Celtic Minerals. The whole pit have gone on strike for us but now they are being evicted too.’”
“Don’t make it too long,” said Mrs. Dai. “He might be too busy to read it.”
“All right, then. Let’s finish with: ‘Is this the kind of thing that should be allowed in your kingdom?’”
Mrs. Ponti said: “It’s a bit tame.”
“No, it’s good,” said Mrs. Dai. “It appeals to his sense of right and wrong.”
Ethel said: “‘We have the honor to be, sir, Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient servants.’”
“Do we have to have that?” said Mrs. Ponti. “I’m not a servant. No offense, Ethel.”
“It’s the normal thing. The earl puts it when he writes a letter to The Times.”
“All right, then.”
Ethel passed the letter around the table. “Put your addresses next to your signatures.”
Mrs. Ponti said: “My writing’s awful, you sign my name.”
Ethel was about to protest, then it occurred to her that Mrs. Ponti might be illiterate, so she did not argue, but simply wrote: “Mrs. Minnie Ponti, 19 Wellington Row.”
She addressed the envelope:
His Majesty the King
She sealed the letter and stuck on a stamp. “There we are, then,” she said. The women gave her a round of applause.
She posted the letter the same day.
No reply was ever received.
The last Saturday in March was a gray day in South Wales. Low clouds hid the mountaintops and a tireless drizzle fell on Aberowen. Ethel and most of the servants at Tŷ Gwyn left their posts-the earl and princess were away in London-and walked into town.
Policemen had been sent from London to enforce the evictions, and they stood on every street, their heavy raincoats dripping. The Widows’ Strike was national news, and reporters from Cardiff and London had come up on the first morning train, smoking cigarettes and writing in notebooks. There was even a big camera on a tripod.
Ethel stood with her family outside their house and watched. Da was employed by the union, not by Celtic Minerals, and he owned their house; but most of their neighbors were being thrown out. During the course of the morning, they brought their possessions out onto the streets: beds, tables and chairs, cooking pots and chamber pots, a framed picture, a clock, an orange box of crockery and cutlery, a few clothes wrapped in newspaper and tied with string. A small pile of near-worthless goods stood like a sacrificial offering outside each door.
Da’s face was a mask of suppressed rage. Billy looked as if he wanted to have a fight with someone. Gramper kept shaking his head and saying: “I never seen the like, not in all my seventy years.” Mam just looked grim.
Ethel cried and could not stop.
Some of the miners had got other jobs, but it was not easy: a miner could not adapt readily to the work of a shop assistant or a bus conductor, and employers knew this and turned them away when they saw the coal dust under their fingernails. Half a dozen had become merchant sailors, signing on as stokers and getting a pay advance to give to their wives before they left. A few were going to Cardiff or Swansea, hoping for jobs in the steelworks. Many were moving in with relatives in neighboring towns. The rest were simply crowding into another Aberowen house with a non-mining family until the strike was settled.
“The king never replied to the widows’ letter,” Ethel said to Da.
“You handled it wrong,” he said bluntly. “Look at your Mrs. Pankhurst. I don’t believe in votes for women, but she knows how to get noticed.”
“What should I have done, got myself arrested?”
“You don’t need to go that far. If I’d known what you were doing, I’d have told you to send a copy of the letter to the Western Mail.”
“I never thought of that.” Ethel was disheartened to think that she could have done something to prevent these evictions, and had failed.
“The newspaper would have asked the palace whether they had received the letter, and it would have been hard for the king to say he was just going to ignore it.”
“Oh, dammo, I wish I’d asked your advice.”
“Don’t swear,” her mother said.
The London policemen looked on in bewilderment, not understanding the foolish pride and stubbornness that had led to this. Perceval Jones was nowhere to be seen. A reporter from the Daily Mail asked Da for an interview, but the newspaper was hostile to workers, and Da refused.
There were not enough handcarts in town, so people took it in turns to move their goods. The process took hours, but by midafternoon the last pile of possessions had gone, and the keys had been left sticking out of the locks on the front doors. The policemen went back to London.
Ethel stayed in the street for a while. The windows of the empty houses looked blankly back at her, and the rainwater ran down the street pointlessly. She looked across the wet gray slates of the roofs, downhill to the scattered pithead buildings in the valley bottom. She could see a cat walking along a railway line, but otherwise there was no movement. No smoke came from the engine room, and the great twin wheels of the winding gear stood on top of their tower, motionless and redundant in the soft relentless rain.
CHAPTER FIVE – April 1914
The German embassy was a grand mansion in Carlton House Terrace, one of London’s most elegant streets. It looked across a leafy garden to the pillared portico of the Athenaeum, the club for gentleman intellectuals. At the back, its stables opened on the Mall, the broad avenue that ran from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace.
Walter von Ulrich did not live there-yet. Only the ambassador himself, Prince Lichnowsky, had that privilege. Walter, a mere military attaché, lived in a bachelor apartment ten minutes’ walk away in Piccadilly. However, he hoped that one day he might inhabit the ambassador’s grand private apartment within the embassy. Walter was not a prince, but his father was a close friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Walter spoke English like an Old Etonian, which he was. He had spent two years in the army and three years at the war academy before joining the Foreign Service. He was twenty-eight years old, and a rising star.
He was not attracted only by the prestige and glory of being an ambassador. He felt passionately that there was no higher calling than to serve his country. His father felt the same.
They disagreed about everything else.
They stood in the hall of the embassy and looked at one another. They were the same height, but Otto was heavier, and bald, and his mustache was the old-fashioned soup-strainer type, whereas Walter had a modern toothbrush. Today they were identically dressed in black velvet suits with knee breeches, silk stockings, and buckled shoes. Both wore swords and cocked hats. Amazingly, this was the normal costume for presentation at Britain’s royal court. “We look as if we should be on the stage,” Walter said. “Ridiculous outfits.”
“Not at all,” said his father. “It’s a splendid old custom.”
Otto von Ulrich had spent much of his life in the German army. A young officer in the Franco-Prussian War, he had led his company across a pontoon bridge at the Battle of Sedan. Later, Otto had been one of the friends the young Kaiser Wilhelm had turned to after he broke with Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor. Now Otto had a roving brief, visiting European capitals like a bee landing on flowers, sipping the nectar of diplomatic intelligence and taking it all back to the hive. He believed in the monarchy and the Prussian military tradition.
Walter was just as patriotic, but he thought Germany had to become modern and egalitarian. Like his father, he was proud of his country’s achievements in science and technology, and of the hardworking and efficient German people; but he thought they had a lot to learn-democracy from the liberal Americans, diplomacy from the sly British, and the art of gracious living from the stylish French.
Father and son left the embassy and went down a broad flight of steps to the Mall. Walter was to be presented to King George V, a ritual that was considered a privilege even though it brought with it no particular benefits. Junior diplomats such as he were not normally so honored, but his father had no compunction about pulling strings to advance Walter’s career.
“Machine guns make all handheld weapons obsolete,” Walter said, continuing an argument they had begun earlier. Weapons were his specialty, and he felt strongly that the German army should have the latest in firepower.
Otto thought differently. “They jam, they overheat, and they miss. A man with a rifle takes careful aim. But give him a machine gun and he’ll wield it like a garden hose.”
“When your house is on fire, you don’t throw water on it in cupfuls, no matter how accurate. You want a hose.”
Otto wagged his finger. “You’ve never been in battle-you have no idea what it’s like. Listen to me, I know.”
This was how their arguments often ended.
Walter felt his father’s generation was arrogant. He understood how they had got that way. They had won a war, they had created the German Empire out of Prussia and a group of smaller independent monarchies, and then they had made Germany one of the world’s most prosperous countries. Of course they thought they were wonderful. But it made them incautious.
A few hundred yards along the Mall, Walter and Otto turned into St. James’s Palace. This sixteenth-century brick pile was older and less impressive than neighboring Buckingham Palace. They gave their names to a doorman who was dressed as they were.
Walter was mildly anxious. It was so easy to make a mistake of etiquette-and there were no minor errors when you were dealing with royalty.
Otto spoke to the doorman in English. “Is Señor Diaz here?”
“Yes, sir, he arrived a few moments ago.”
Walter frowned. Juan Carlos Diego Diaz was a representative of the Mexican government. “Why are you interested in Diaz?” he said in German as they walked on through a series of rooms decorated with wall displays of swords and guns.
“The British Royal Navy is converting its ships from coal power to oil.”
Walter nodded. Most advanced nations were doing the same. Oil was cheaper, cleaner, and easier to deal with-you just pumped it in, instead of employing armies of black-faced stokers. “And the British get oil from Mexico.”
“They have bought the Mexican oil wells in order to secure supplies for their navy.”
“But if we interfere in Mexico, what would the Americans think?”
Otto tapped the side of his nose. “Listen and learn. And, whatever you do, don’t say anything.”
The men about to be presented were waiting in an anteroom. Most had on the same velvet court dress, though one or two were in the comic-opera costumes of nineteenth-century generals, and one-presumably a Scot-wore full-dress uniform with a kilt. Walter and Otto strolled around the room, nodding to familiar faces on the diplomatic circuit, until they came to Diaz, a thickset man with a mustache that curled up at the tips.
After the usual pleasantries Otto said: “You must be glad that President Wilson has lifted the ban on arms sales to Mexico.”
“Arms sales to the rebels,” said Diaz, as if correcting him.
The American president, always inclined to take a moral stand, had refused to recognize General Huerta, who had come to power after the assassination of his predecessor. Calling Huerta a murderer, Wilson was backing a rebel group, the Constitutionalists.
Otto said: “If arms may be sold to the rebels, surely they may be sold to the government?”
Diaz looked startled. “Are you telling me that Germany would be willing to do that?”
“What do you need?”
“You must already know that we are desperate for rifles and ammunition.”
“We could talk further about it.”
Walter was as startled as Diaz. This would cause trouble. He said: “But, Father, the United States-”
“One moment!” His father held up a hand to silence him.
Diaz said: “By all means let us talk further. But tell me: what other subjects might come up?” He had guessed that Germany would want something in return.
The door to the throne room opened, and a footman came out carrying a list. The presentation was about to start. But Otto continued unhurriedly: “In time of war, a sovereign country is entitled to withhold strategic supplies.”
Diaz said: “You’re talking about oil.” It was the only strategic supply Mexico had.
Diaz said: “So you would give us guns-”
“Sell, not give,” Otto murmured.
“You would sell us guns now, in exchange for a promise that we would withhold oil from the British in the event of war.” Diaz was clearly not used to the elaborate waltz of normal diplomatic conversation.
“It might be worth discussing.” In the language of diplomacy that was a yes.
The footman called out: “Monsieur Honoré de Picard de la Fontaine!” and the presentations began.
Otto gave Diaz a direct look. “What I’d like to know from you is how such a proposal might be received in Mexico City.”
“I believe President Huerta would be interested.”
“So, if the German minister to Mexico, Admiral Paul von Hintze, were to make a formal approach to your president, he would not receive a rebuff.”
Walter could tell that his father was determined to get an unequivocal answer to this. He did not want the German government to risk the embarrassment of having such an offer flung back in their faces.
In Walter’s anxious view, embarrassment was not the greatest danger to Germany in this diplomatic ploy. It risked making an enemy of the United States. But it was frustratingly difficult to point this out in the presence of Diaz.
Answering the question, Diaz said: “He would not be rebuffed.”
“You’re sure?” Otto insisted.
“I guarantee it.”
Walter said: “Father, may I have a word-”
But the footman cried: “Herr Walter von Ulrich!”
Walter hesitated, and his father said: “Your turn. Go on!”
Walter turned away and stepped into the Throne Room.
The British liked to overawe their guests. The high coffered ceiling had diamond-patterned coving, the red plush walls were hung with enormous portraits, and at the far end the throne was overhung by a high canopy with dark velvet drapes. In front of the throne stood the king in a naval uniform. Walter was pleased to see the familiar face of Sir Alan Tite at the king’s side-no doubt whispering names in the royal ear.
Walter approached and bowed. The king said: “Good to see you again, von Ulrich.”
Walter had rehearsed what he would say. “I hope Your Majesty found the discussions at Tŷ Gwyn interesting.”
“Very! Although the party was dreadfully overshadowed, of course.”
“By the pit disaster. Indeed, so tragic.”
“I look forward to our next meeting.”
Walter understood this was his dismissal. He walked backward, bowing repeatedly in the required manner, until he reached the doorway.
His father was waiting for him in the next room.
“That was quick!” Walter said.
“On the contrary, it took longer than normal,” said Otto. “Usually the king says: ‘I’m glad to see you in London,’ and that’s the end of the conversation.”
They left the palace together. “Admirable people, the British, in many ways, but soft,” said Otto as they walked up St. James’s Street to Piccadilly. “The king is ruled by his ministers, the ministers are subject to Parliament, and members of Parliament are chosen by the ordinary men. What sort of way is that to run a country?”
Walter did not rise to that provocation. He believed that Germany’s political system was out of date, with its weak parliament that could not stand up to the kaiser or the generals; but he had had that argument with his father many times, and besides, he was still worried by the conversation with the Mexican envoy. “What you said to Diaz was risky,” he said. “President Wilson won’t like us selling rifles to Huerta.”
“What does it matter what Wilson thinks?”
“The danger is that we will make a friend of a weak nation, Mexico, by making an enemy of a strong nation, the United States.”
“There’s not going to be a war in America.”
Walter supposed that was true, but all the same he was uneasy. He did not like the idea of his country being at odds with the United States.
In his apartment they took off their antiquated costumes and dressed in tweed suits with soft-collared shirts and brown trilby hats. Back in Piccadilly they boarded a motorized omnibus heading east.
Otto had been impressed by Walter’s invitation to meet the king at Tŷ Gwyn in January. “Earl Fitzherbert is a good connection,” he had said. “If the Conservative Party comes to power he may be a minister, perhaps foreign secretary one day. You must keep up the friendship.”
Walter had been inspired. “I should visit his charity clinic, and make a small donation.”
“Perhaps you would like to come with me?”
His father had taken the bait. “Even better.”
Walter had an ulterior motive, but his father was all unsuspecting.
The bus took them past the theaters of the Strand, the newspaper offices of Fleet Street, and the banks of the financial district. Then the streets became narrower and dirtier. Top hats and bowlers were replaced by cloth caps. Horse-drawn vehicles predominated, and motorcars were few. This was the East End.
They got off at Aldgate. Otto looked around disdainfully. “I didn’t know you were taking me to the slums,” he said.
“We’re going to a clinic for the poor,” Walter replied. “Where would you expect it to be?”
“Does Earl Fitzherbert himself come here?”
“I suspect he just pays for it.” Walter knew perfectly well that Fitz had never been there in his life. “But he will of course hear about our visit.”
They zigzagged through backstreets to a nonconformist chapel. A hand-painted wooden sign read: “Calvary Gospel Hall.” Pinned to the board was a sheet of paper with the words:
Free of Charge
Walter opened the door and they went in.
Otto made a disgusted noise, then took out a handkerchief and held it to his nose. Walter had been there before, so he had been expecting the smell, but even so it was startlingly unpleasant. The hall was full of ragged women and half-naked children, all filthy dirty. The women sat on benches and the children played on the floor. At the far end of the room were two doors, each with a temporary label, one saying “Doctor” and the other “Patroness.”
Near the door sat Fitz’s aunt Herm, listing names in a book. Walter introduced his father. “Lady Hermia Fitzherbert, my father, Herr Otto von Ulrich.”
At the other end of the room, the door marked “Doctor” opened and a ragged woman came out carrying a tiny baby and a medicine bottle. A nurse looked out and said: “Next, please.”
Lady Hermia consulted her list and called: “Mrs. Blatsky and Rosie!”
An older woman and a girl went into the doctor’s surgery.
Walter said: “Wait here a moment, please, Father, and I’ll fetch the boss.”
He hurried to the far end, stepping around the toddlers on the floor. He tapped on the door marked “Patroness,” and walked in.
The room was little more than a cupboard, and indeed there was a mop and bucket in a corner. Lady Maud Fitzherbert sat at a small table writing in a ledger. She wore a simple dove-gray dress and a broad-brimmed hat. She looked up, and the smile that lit up her face when she saw Walter was bright enough to bring tears to his eyes. She leaped out of her chair and threw her arms around him.
He had been looking forward to this all day. He kissed her mouth, which opened to him immediately. He had kissed several women, but she was the only one he had ever known to press her body against him this way. He felt embarrassed, fearing that she would feel his erection, and he arched his body away; but she only pressed more closely, as if she really wanted to feel it, so he gave in to the pleasure.
Maud was passionate about everything: poverty, women’s rights, music-and Walter. He felt amazed and privileged that she had fallen in love with him.
She broke the kiss, panting. “Aunt Herm will become suspicious,” she said.
Walter nodded. “My father is outside.”
Maud patted her hair and smoothed her dress. “All right.”
Walter opened the door and they went back into the hall. Otto was chatting amiably to Hermia: he liked respectable old ladies.
“Lady Maud Fitzherbert, may I present my father, Herr Otto von Ulrich.”
Otto bowed over her hand. He had learned not to click his heels: the English thought it comical.
Walter watched them size one another up. Maud smiled as if amused, and Walter guessed she was wondering if this was what he would look like in years to come. Otto took in Maud’s expensive cashmere dress and the fashionable hat with approval. So far, so good.
Otto did not know that they were in love. Walter’s plan was that his father would get to know Maud first. Otto approved of wealthy women doing charitable work, and insisted that Walter’s mother and his sister visit poor families at Zumwald, their country estate in East Prussia. He would find out what a wonderful and exceptional woman Maud was, then his defenses would be down by the time he learned that Walter wanted to marry her.
It was a little foolish, Walter knew, to be so nervous. He was twenty-eight years old: he had a right to choose the woman he loved. But eight years ago he had fallen in love with another woman. Tilde had been passionate and intelligent, like Maud, but she was seventeen and a Catholic. The von Ulrichs were Protestants. Both sets of parents had been angrily hostile to the romance, and Tilde had been unable to defy her father. Now Walter had fallen in love with an unsuitable woman for the second time. It was going to be difficult for his father to accept a feminist and a foreigner. But Walter was older and craftier now, and Maud was stronger and more independent than Tilde had been.
All the same, he was terrified. He had never felt like this about a woman, not even Tilde. He wanted to marry Maud and spend his life with her; in fact he could not imagine being without her. And he did not want his father to make trouble about it.
Maud was on her best behavior. “It is very kind of you to visit us, Herr von Ulrich,” she said. “You must be tremendously busy. For a trusted confidant of a monarch, as you are to your kaiser, I imagine work has no end.”
Otto was flattered, as she had intended. “I’m afraid this is true,” he said. “However your brother, the earl, is such a long-standing friend of Walter’s that I was very keen to come.”
“Let me introduce you to our doctor.” Maud led the way across the room and knocked at the surgery door. Walter was curious: he had never met the doctor. “May we come in?” she called.
They stepped into what must normally have been the pastor’s office, furnished with a small desk and a shelf of ledgers and hymnbooks. The doctor, a handsome young man with black eyebrows and a sensual mouth, was examining Rosie Blatsky’s hand. Walter felt a twinge of jealousy: Maud spent whole days with this attractive fellow.
Maud said: “Dr. Greenward, we have a most distinguished visitor. May I present Herr von Ulrich?”
Otto said stiffly: “How do you do?”
“The doctor works here for no fee,” Maud said. “We’re most grateful to him.”
Greenward nodded curtly. Walter wondered what was causing the evident tension between his father and the doctor.
The doctor returned his attention to his patient. There was an angry-looking cut across her palm, and the hand and wrist were swollen. He looked at the mother and said: “How did she do this?”
The child answered. “My mother doesn’t speak English,” she said. “I cut my hand at work.”
“And your father?”
“My father’s dead.”
Maud said quietly: “The clinic is for fatherless families, though in practise we never turn anyone away.”
Greenward said to Rosie: “How old are you?”
Walter murmured: “I thought children were not allowed to work under thirteen.”
“There are loopholes in the law,” Maud replied.
Greenward said: “What work do you do?”
“I clean up at Mannie Litov’s garment factory. There was a blade in the sweepings.”
“Whenever you cut yourself, you must wash the wound and put on a clean bandage. Then you have to change the bandage every day so that it doesn’t get too dirty.” Greenward’s manner was brisk, but not unkind.
The mother barked a question at the daughter in heavily accented Russian. Walter could not understand her, but he got the gist of the child’s reply, which was a translation of what the doctor had said.
The doctor turned to his nurse. “Clean the hand and bandage it, please.” To Rosie he said: “I’m going to give you some ointment. If your arm swells more you must come back and see me next week. Do you understand?”
“If you let the infection get worse, you may lose your hand.”
Tears came to Rosie’s eyes.
Greenward said: “I’m sorry to frighten you, but I want you to understand how important it is to keep your hand clean.”
The nurse prepared a bowl of what was presumably antiseptic fluid. Walter said: “May I express my admiration and respect for your work here, Doctor.”
“Thank you. I’m happy to give my time, but we need to buy medical supplies. Any help you can offer will be much appreciated.”
Maud said: “We must leave the doctor to get on-there are at least twenty patients waiting.”
The visitors left the surgery. Walter was bursting with pride. Maud had more than compassion. When told of young children working in sweatshops, many aristocratic ladies could wipe away a tear with an embroidered handkerchief; but Maud had the determination and the nerve to give real help.
And, he thought, she loves me!
Maud said: “May I offer you some refreshment, Herr von Ulrich? My office is cramped, but I do have a bottle of my brother’s best sherry.”
“Most kind, but we must be going.”
That was a bit quick, Walter thought. Maud’s charm had stopped working on Otto. He had a nasty feeling that something had gone wrong.
Otto took out his pocketbook and extracted a banknote. “Please accept a modest contribution to your excellent work here, Lady Maud.”
“How generous!” she said.
Walter gave her a similar note. “Perhaps I may be allowed to donate something too.”
“I appreciate anything you can offer me,” she said. Walter hoped he was the only one to notice the sly look she gave him as she said it.
Otto said: “Please be sure to give my respects to Earl Fitzherbert.”
They took their leave. Walter felt worried about his father’s reaction. “Isn’t Lady Maud wonderful?” he said breezily as they walked back toward Aldgate. “Fitz pays for everything, of course, but Maud does all the work.”
“Disgraceful,” Otto said. “Absolutely disgraceful.”
Walter had sensed he was grumpy, but this astonished him. “What on earth do you mean? You approve of well-born ladies doing something to help the poor!”
“Visiting sick peasants with a few groceries in a basket is one thing,” Otto said. “But I am appalled to see the sister of an earl in a place like that with a Jew doctor!”
“Oh, God,” Walter groaned. Of course; Dr. Greenward was Jewish. His parents had probably been Germans called Grunwald. Walter had not met the doctor before today, and anyway might not have noticed or cared about his race. But Otto, like most men of his generation, thought such things important. Walter said: “Father, the man is working for nothing-Lady Maud cannot afford to refuse the help of a perfectly good doctor just because he’s Jewish.”
Otto was not listening. “Fatherless families-where did she get that phrase?” he said with disgust. “The spawn of prostitutes is what she means.”
Walter felt heartsick. His plan had gone horribly wrong. “Don’t you see how brave she is?” he said miserably.
“Certainly not,” said Otto. “If she were my sister, I’d give her a good thrashing.”
There was a crisis in the White House.
In the small hours of the morning of April 21, Gus Dewar was in the West Wing. This new building provided badly needed office space, leaving the original White House free to be used as a residence. Gus was sitting in the president’s study near the Oval Office, a small, drab room lit by a dim bulb. On the desk was the battered Underwood portable typewriter used by Woodrow Wilson to write his speeches and press releases.
Gus was more interested in the phone. If it rang, he had to decide whether to wake the president.
A telephone operator could not make such a decision. On the other hand, the president’s senior advisers needed their sleep. Gus was the lowliest of Wilson’s advisers, or the highest of his clerks, depending on point of view. Either way, it had fallen to him to sit all night by the phone to decide whether to disturb the president’s slumbers-or those of the first lady, Ellen Wilson, who was suffering from a mysterious illness. Gus was nervous that he might say or do the wrong thing. Suddenly all his expensive education seemed superfluous: even at Harvard there had never been a class in when to wake the president. He was hoping the phone would never ring.
Gus was there because of a letter he had written. He had described to his father the royal party at Tŷ Gwyn, and the after-dinner discussion about the danger of war in Europe. Senator Dewar had found the letter so interesting and amusing that he had shown it to his friend Woodrow Wilson, who had said: “I’d like to have that boy in my office.” Gus had been taking a year off between Harvard, where he had studied international law, and his first job at a Washington law firm. He had been halfway through a world tour, but he had eagerly cut short his travels and rushed home to serve his president.
Nothing fascinated Gus so much as the relationships between nations-the friendships and hatreds, the alliances and the wars. As a teenager he had attended sessions of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations-his father was a member-and he had found it more fascinating than a play at the theater. “This is how countries create peace and prosperity-or war, devastation, and famine,” his father had said. “If you want to change the world, then foreign relations is the field in which you can do the most good-or evil.”
And now Gus was in the middle of his first international crisis.
An overzealous Mexican government official had arrested eight American sailors in the port of Tampico. The men had already been released, the official had apologized, and the trivial incident might have ended there. But the squadron commander, Admiral Mayo, had demanded a twenty-one-gun salute. President Huerta had refused. Piling on the pressure, Wilson had threatened to occupy Veracruz, Mexico’s biggest port.
And so America was on the brink of war. Gus greatly admired the high-principled Woodrow Wilson. The president was not content with the cynical view that one Mexican bandit was pretty much like another. Huerta was a reactionary who had killed his predecessor, and Wilson was looking for a pretext to unseat him. Gus was thrilled that a world leader would say it was not acceptable for men to achieve power through murder. Would there come a day when that principle was accepted by all nations?
The crisis had been cranked up a notch by the Germans. A German ship called the Ypiranga was approaching Veracruz with a cargo of rifles and ammunition for Huerta’s government.
Tension had been high all day, but now Gus was struggling to stay awake. On the desk in front of him, illuminated by a green-shaded lamp, was a typewritten report from army intelligence on the strength of the rebels in Mexico. Intelligence was one of the army’s smaller departments, with only two officers and two clerks, and the report was scrappy. Gus’s mind kept wandering to Caroline Wigmore.
When he arrived in Washington he had called to see Professor Wigmore, one of his Harvard teachers who had moved to Georgetown University. Wigmore had not been at home, but his young second wife was there. Gus had met Caroline several times at campus events, and had been strongly drawn to her quietly thoughtful demeanor and her quick intelligence. “He said he needed to order new shirts,” she said, but Gus could see the strain on her face, and then she added: “But I know he’s gone to his mistress.” Gus had wiped her tears with his handkerchief and she had kissed his lips and said: “I wish I were married to someone trustworthy.”
Caroline had turned out to be surprisingly passionate. Although she would not allow sexual intercourse, they did everything else. She had shuddering orgasms when he did no more than stroke her.
Their affair had been going on for only a month, but already Gus knew that he wanted her to divorce Wigmore and marry him. But she would not hear of it, even though she had no children. She said it would ruin Gus’s career, and she was probably right. It could not be done discreetly, for the scandal would be too juicy-the attractive wife leaving a well-known professor and rapidly marrying a wealthy younger man. Gus knew exactly what his mother would say about such a marriage: “It’s understandable, if the professor was unfaithful, but one can’t meet the woman socially, of course.” The president would be embarrassed, and so would the kind of people a lawyer wanted for clients. It would certainly put paid to any hopes Gus might have had of following his father into the Senate.
Gus told himself he did not care. He loved Caroline and he would rescue her from her husband. He had plenty of money, and when his father died he would be a millionaire. He would find some other career. Perhaps he might become a journalist, reporting from foreign capitals.
All the same he felt a stabbing pain of regret. He had just got a job in the White House, something young men dreamed of. It would be agonizingly hard to give that up, along with all it might lead to.
The phone rang, and Gus was startled by its sudden jangling in the quiet of the West Wing at night. “Oh, my God,” he said, staring at it. “Oh, my God, this is it.” He hesitated several seconds, then at last picked up the handset. He heard the fruity voice of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. “I have Joseph Daniels on the line with me, Gus.” Daniels was secretary of the navy. “And the president’s secretary is listening on an extension.”
“Yes, Mr. Secretary, sir,” said Gus. He made his voice calm, but his heart was racing.
“Wake the president, please,” said Secretary Bryan.
Gus went through the Oval Office and out into the Rose Garden in the cool night air. He ran across to the old building. A guard let him in. He hurried up the main staircase and across the hall to the bedroom door. He took a deep breath and knocked hard, hurting his knuckles.
After a moment he heard Wilson’s voice. “Who is it?”
“Gus Dewar here, Mr. President,” he called. “Secretary Bryan and Secretary Daniels are on the telephone.”
“Just a minute.”
President Wilson came out of the bedroom putting on his rimless glasses, looking vulnerable in pajamas and a dressing gown. He was tall, though not as tall as Gus. At fifty-seven he had dark gray hair. He thought he was ugly, and he was not far wrong. He had a beak of a nose and sticking-out ears, but the thrust of his big chin gave his face a determined look that accurately reflected the strength of character that Gus respected. When he spoke, he showed bad teeth.
“Good morning, Gus,” he said amiably. “What’s the excitement?”
“They didn’t tell me.”
“Well, you’d better listen in on the extension next door.”
Gus hurried into the next room and picked up the phone.
He heard Bryan’s sonorous tones. “The Ypiranga is due to dock at ten this morning.”
Gus felt a thrill of apprehension. Surely the Mexican president would cave in now? Otherwise there would be bloodshed.
Bryan read a cable from the American consul in Veracruz. “‘Steamer Ypiranga, owned by Hamburg-Amerika line, will arrive tomorrow from Germany with two hundred machine guns and fifteen million cartridges; will go to pier four and start discharging at ten thirty.’”
“Do you realize what this means, Mr. Bryan?” said Wilson, and Gus thought his voice sounded querulous. “Daniels, are you there, Daniels? What do you think?”
Daniels replied: “The munitions should not be permitted to reach Huerta.” Gus was surprised at this tough line from the peace-loving navy secretary. “I can wire Admiral Fletcher to prevent it and take the customs house.”
There was a long pause. Gus was gripping the phone so hard that his hand hurt. At last the president spoke. “Daniels, send this order to Admiral Fletcher: Take Veracruz at once.”
“Yes, Mr. President,” said the navy secretary.
And America was at war.
Gus did not go to bed that night or the following day.
Shortly after eight thirty, Secretary Daniels brought the news that an American warship had blocked the path of the Ypiranga. The German ship, an unarmed freighter, switched its engines to reverse and left the scene. American marines would go ashore at Veracruz later that morning, Daniels said.
Gus was dismayed by the rapidly developing crisis but thrilled to be at the heart of things.
Woodrow Wilson did not shrink from war. His favorite play was Shakespeare’s Henry V, and he liked to quote the line “If it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.”
News came in by wireless and cable, and it was Gus’s job to take the messages in to the president. At midday the marines took control of the Veracruz customs house.
Shortly afterward, he was told that there was someone to see him-a Mrs. Wigmore.
Gus frowned worriedly. This was indiscreet. Something must be wrong.
He hurried to the lobby. Caroline looked distraught. Although she wore a neat tweed coat and a plain hat, her hair was untidy and her eyes red with crying. Gus was shocked and distressed to see her in this state. “My darling!” he said in a low voice. “What on earth has happened?”
“This is the end,” she said. “I can never see you again. I’m so sorry.” She began to cry.
Gus wanted to hug her, but he could not do so there. He had no office of his own. He looked around. The guard at the door was staring at them. There was nowhere they could be private. It was maddening. “Come outside,” he said, taking her arm. “We’ll walk.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ll be all right. Stay here.”
“What has upset you?”
She would not meet his eye, and looked at the floor. “I must be faithful to my husband. I have obligations.”
“Let me be your husband.”
She raised her face, and her yearning look broke his heart. “Oh, how I wish I could.”
“But you can!”
“I have a husband already.”
“He is not faithful to you-why should you be to him?”
She ignored that. “He’s accepted a chair at Berkeley. We’re moving to California.”
“I’ve made up my mind.”
“Obviously,” Gus said flatly. He felt as if he had been knocked down. His chest hurt and he found it hard to breathe. “California,” he said. “Hell.”
She saw his acceptance of the inevitable, and she began to recover her composure. “This is our last meeting,” she said.
“Please listen to me. There’s something I want to tell you, and this is my only chance.”
“A month ago I was ready to kill myself. Don’t look at me like that, it’s true. I thought I was so worthless that no one would care if I died. Then you appeared on my doorstep. You were so affectionate, so courteous, so thoughtful, that you made me think it was worth staying alive. You cherished me.” The tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she kept on. “And you were so happy when I kissed you. If I could give someone that much joy, I couldn’t be completely useless, I realized; and that thought kept me going. You saved my life, Gus. May God bless you.”
He almost felt angry. “What does that leave me with?”
“Memories,” she said. “I hope you will treasure them as I will treasure mine.”
She turned away. Gus followed her to the door, but she did not look back. She went out, and he let her go.
When she was out of sight he headed automatically for the Oval Office, then changed direction: his mind was in too much of a turmoil for him to be with the president. He went into the men’s room for a moment’s peace. Fortunately there was no one else there. He washed his face, then looked in the mirror. He saw a thin man with a big head: he was shaped like a lollipop. He had light brown hair and brown eyes, and was not very handsome, but women usually liked him, and Caroline loved him.
Or she had, at least, for a little while.
He should not have let her go. How could he have watched her walk away like that? He should have persuaded her to postpone her decision, think about it, talk to him some more. Perhaps they could have thought of alternatives. But in his heart he knew there were no alternatives. She had already been through all that in her mind, he guessed. She must have lain awake nights, with her husband sleeping beside her, going over and over the situation. She had made up her mind before coming here.
He needed to return to his post. America was at war. But how could he put this out of his mind? When he could not see her, he spent all day looking forward to the next time he could. Now he could not stop thinking about life without her. It already seemed a strange prospect. What would he do?
A clerk came into the men’s room, and Gus dried his hands on a towel and returned to his station in the study next to the Oval Office.
A few moments later, a messenger brought him a cable from the American consul in Veracruz. Gus looked at it and said: “Oh, no!” It read: FOUR OF OUR MEN KILLED COMMA TWENTY WOUNDED COMMA FIRING ALL AROUND THE CONSULATE STOP.
Four men killed, Gus thought with horror; four good American men with mothers and fathers, and wives or girlfriends. The news seemed to put his sadness in perspective. At least, he thought, Caroline and I are alive.
He tapped on the door of the Oval Office and handed the cable to Wilson. The president read it and went pale.
Gus looked keenly at him. How did he feel, knowing they were dead because of the decision he had made in the middle of the night?
This was not supposed to happen. The Mexicans wanted freedom from tyrannical governments, didn’t they? They should have welcomed the Americans as liberators. What had gone wrong?
Bryan and Daniels showed up a few minutes later, followed by the secretary of war, Lindley Garrison, a man normally more belligerent than Wilson, and Robert Lansing, the State Department counselor. They gathered in the Oval Office to wait for more news.
The president was wired tighter than a violin string. Pale, restless, and twitchy, he paced the floor. It was a pity, Gus thought, that Wilson did not smoke-it might have calmed him.
We all knew there might be violence, Gus thought, but somehow the reality is more shocking than we anticipated.
More details came in sporadically, and Gus handed the messages to Wilson. The news was all bad. Mexican troops had resisted, firing on the marines from their fort. The troops were supported by citizens, who took potshots at Americans from their upstairs windows. In retaliation the USS Prairie, anchored offshore, turned its three-inch guns on the city and shelled it.
Casualties mounted: six Americans killed, eight, twelve-and more wounded. But it was a hopelessly unequal contest, and over a hundred Mexicans died.
The president seemed baffled. “We don’t want to fight the Mexicans,” he said. “We want to serve them, if we can. We want to serve mankind.”
For the second time in a day, Gus felt knocked off his feet. The president and his advisers had had nothing but good intentions. How had things gone so wrong? Was it really so difficult to do good in international affairs?
A message came from the State Department. The German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, had been instructed by the kaiser to call on the secretary of state, and wished to know whether nine o’clock tomorrow morning would be convenient. Unofficially, his staff indicated that the ambassador would be lodging a formal protest against the halting of the Ypiranga.
“A protest?” said Wilson. “What the dickens are they talking about?”
Gus saw immediately that the Germans had international law on their side. “Sir, there had been no declaration of war, nor of a blockade, so, strictly speaking, the Germans are correct.”
“What?” Wilson turned to Lansing. “Is that right?”
“We’ll double-check, of course,” said the State Department counselor. “But I’m pretty sure Gus is right. What we did was contrary to international law.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means we’ll have to apologize.”
“Never!” said Wilson angrily.
But they did.
Maud Fitzherbert was surprised to find herself in love with Walter von Ulrich. On the other hand, she would have been surprised to find herself in love with any man. She rarely met one she even liked. Plenty had been attracted to her, especially during her first season as a debutante, but most had quickly been repelled by her feminism. Others had planned to take her in hand-like the scruffy Marquis of Lowther, who had told Fitz that she would see the error of her ways when she met a truly masterful man. Poor Lowthie, he had been shown the error of his.
Walter thought she was wonderful the way she was. Whatever she did, he marveled. If she espoused extreme points of view, he was impressed by her arguments; when she shocked society by helping unmarried mothers and their children, he admired her courage; and he loved the way she looked in daring fashions.
Maud was bored by wealthy upper-class Englishmen who thought the way society was currently arranged was pretty satisfactory. Walter was different. Coming as he did from a conservative German family, he was surprisingly radical. From where she sat, in the back row of seats in her brother’s box at the opera, she could see Walter in the stalls, with a small group from the German embassy. He did not look like a rebel, with his carefully brushed hair, his trim mustache, and his perfectly fitting evening clothes. Even sitting down, he was upright and straight-shouldered. He looked at the stage with intense concentration as Don Giovanni, accused of trying to rape a simple country girl, brazenly pretended to have caught his servant, Leporello, committing the crime.
In fact, she mused, rebel was not the right word for Walter. Although unusually open-minded, Walter was sometimes conventional. He was proud of the great musical tradition of German-speaking people, and got cross with blasé London audiences for arriving late, chatting to their friends during the performance, and leaving early. He would be irritated at Fitz, now, for making comments about the soprano’s figure to his pal Bing Westhampton, and at Bea for talking to the Duchess of Sussex about Madame Lucille’s shop in Hanover Square, where they bought their gowns. She even knew what Walter would say: “They listen to the music only when they have run out of gossip!”
Maud felt the same, but they were in a minority. For most of London’s high society, the opera was just one more opportunity to show off clothes and jewels. However, even they fell silent toward the end of Act 1, as Don Giovanni threatened to kill Leporello, and the orchestra played a thunderstorm on drums and double basses. Then, with characteristic insouciance, Don Giovanni released Leporello and walked jauntily away, defying them all to stop him; and the curtain came down.
Walter stood up immediately, looking toward the box, and waved. Fitz waved back. “That’s von Ulrich,” he said to Bing. “All those Germans are pleased with themselves because they embarrassed the Americans in Mexico.”
Bing was an impish, curly-haired Lothario distantly related to the royal family. He knew little of world affairs, being mainly interested in gambling and drinking in the capital cities of Europe. He frowned and said in puzzlement: “What do the Germans care about Mexico?”
“Good question,” Fitz said. “If they think they can win colonies in South America, they’re deceiving themselves-the United States will never allow it.”
Maud left the box and went down the grand staircase, nodding and smiling to acquaintances. She knew something like half the people there: London society was a surprisingly small set. On the red-carpeted landing she encountered a group surrounding the slight, dapper figure of David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the Exchequer. “Good evening, Lady Maud,” he said with the twinkle that appeared in his bright blue eyes whenever he spoke to an attractive woman. “I hear your royal house party went well.” He had the nasal accent of North Wales, less musical than the South Wales lilt. “But what a tragedy in the Aberowen pit.”
“The bereaved families were much comforted by the king’s condolences,” Maud said. Among the group was an attractive woman in her twenties. Maud said: “Good evening, Miss Stevenson, how nice to see you again.” Lloyd George’s political secretary and mistress was a rebel, and Maud felt drawn to her. In addition, a man was always grateful to people who were polite to his mistress.
Lloyd George spoke to the group. “That German ship delivered the guns to Mexico after all. It simply went to another port and quietly unloaded. So nineteen American troops died for nothing. It’s a terrible humiliation for Woodrow Wilson.”
Maud smiled and touched Lloyd George’s arm. “Would you explain something to me, Chancellor?”
“If I can, my dear,” he said indulgently. Most men were pleased to be asked to explain things, especially to attractive young women, Maud found.
She said: “Why does anyone care what happens in Mexico?”
“Oil, dear lady,” Lloyd George replied. “Oil.”
Someone else spoke to him, and he turned away.
Maud spotted Walter. They met at the foot of the staircase. He bowed over her gloved hand, and she had to resist the temptation to touch his fair hair. Her love for Walter had awakened within her a sleeping lion of physical desire, a beast that was both stimulated and tormented by their stolen kisses and furtive fumbles.
“How are you enjoying the opera, Lady Maud?” he said formally, but his hazel eyes said I wish we were alone.
“Very much-the Don has a wonderful voice.”
“For me the conductor goes a little too fast.”
He was the only person she had ever met who took music as seriously as she did. “I disagree,” she said. “It’s a comedy, so the melodies need to bounce along.”
“But not just a comedy.”
“Perhaps he will slow down when things turn nasty in act two.”
“You seem to have won some kind of diplomatic coup in Mexico,” she said, changing the subject.
“My father is… ” He searched for words, something that was unusual for him. “Cock-a-hoop,” he said after a pause.
“And you are not?”
He frowned. “I worry that the American president may want to get his own back one day.”
At that moment Fitz walked past and said: “Hello, von Ulrich, come and join us in our box, we’ve got a spare seat.”
“With pleasure!” said Walter.
Maud was delighted. Fitz was just being hospitable: he did not know his sister was in love with Walter. She would have to bring him up to date soon. She was not sure how he would take the news. Their countries were at odds, and although Fitz regarded Walter as a friend, that was a long step from welcoming him as a brother-in-law.
She and Walter walked up the stairs and along the corridor. The back row in Fitz’s box had only two seats with a poor view. Without discussion, Maud and Walter took those seats.
A few minutes later the house lights went down. In the half dark, Maud could almost imagine herself alone with Walter. The second act began with the duet between the Don and Leporello. Maud liked the way Mozart made masters and servants sing together, showing the complex and intimate relationships between upper and lower orders. Many dramas dealt only with the upper classes, and portrayed servants as part of the furniture-as many people wished they were.
Bea and the duchess returned to the box during the trio “Ah! Taci, ingiusto core.” Everyone seemed to have exhausted the available topics of conversation, for they talked less and listened more. No one spoke to Maud or Walter, or even turned to look at them, and Maud wondered excitedly whether she might take advantage of the situation. Feeling daring, she reached out and furtively took Walter’s hand. He smiled, and stroked her fingers with the ball of his thumb. She wished she could kiss him, but that would be foolhardy.
When Zelina sang her aria “Vedrai, carino” in sentimental three-eight time, an irresistible impulse tempted Maud, and as Zerlina pressed Masetto’s hand to her heart, Maud laid Walter’s hand on her breast. He gave an involuntary gasp, but no one noticed because Masetto was making similar noises, having just been beaten up by the Don.
She turned his hand so that he could feel her nipple with his palm. He loved her breasts, and touched them whenever he could, which was seldom. She wished it were oftener: she loved it. This was another discovery. Other people had stroked them-a doctor, an Anglican priest, an older girl at dancing class, a man in a crowd-and she had been disturbed and at the same time flattered at the thought that she could arouse people’s lust, but she had never enjoyed it until now. She glanced at Walter’s face and saw that he was staring at the stage, but there was a glint of perspiration on his forehead. She wondered if she was wrong to excite him in this way, when she could not give him satisfaction; but he made no move to withdraw his hand, so she concluded that he liked what she was doing. So did she. But, as always, she wanted more.
What had changed her? She had never been like this. It was him, of course, and the connection she felt with him, an intimacy so intense that she felt she could say anything, do whatever she liked, suppress nothing. What made him so different from every other man who had ever taken a fancy to her? A man such as Lowthie, or even Bing, expected a woman to act like a well-behaved child: to listen respectfully when he was being ponderous, to laugh appreciatively at his wit, to obey when he was masterful, and to give him a kiss whenever he asked. Walter treated her as a grown-up. He did not flirt, or condescend, or show off, and he listened at least as much as he talked.
The music turned sinister as the statue came to life, and the Commendatore stalked into the Don’s dining room to a discord that Maud recognized as a diminished seventh. This was the dramatic high point of the opera, and Maud was almost certain no one would look around. Perhaps she could give Walter satisfaction after all, she thought; and the idea made her breathless.
As the trombones blared over the deep bass voice of the Commendatore, she placed her hand on Walter’s thigh. She could feel the warmth of his skin through the fine wool of his dress trousers. Still he did not look at her, but she could see that his mouth was open and he was breathing heavily. She slid her hand up his thigh and, as the Don bravely took the Commendatore’s hand, she found Walter’s stiff penis and grasped it.
She was excited and, at the same time, curious. She had never done this before. She explored it through the fabric of his trousers. It was bigger than she expected and harder, too, more like a piece of wood than a part of the body. How strange, she thought, that such a remarkable physical change should occur just because of a woman’s touch. When she was aroused it showed in tiny changes: that almost imperceptible feeling of puffiness, and the dampness inside. For men it was like raising a flag.
She knew what boys did, for she had spied on Fitz when he was fifteen; and now she imitated the action she had seen him perform, the up-and-down movement of the hand, while the Commendatore called upon the Don to repent, and the Don repeatedly refused. Walter was panting, now, but no one could hear because the orchestra was so loud. She was overjoyed that she could please him so much. She watched the backs of the heads of the others in the box, terrified that one of them might look around, but she was too caught up in what she was doing to stop. Walter covered her hand with his own, teaching her how to do it, gripping harder on the downstroke and releasing the pressure on the up, and she imitated what he did. As the Don was dragged into the flames, Walter jerked in his seat. She felt a kind of spasm in his penis-once, twice, and a third time-and then, as the Don died of fright, Walter seemed to slump, exhausted.
Maud suddenly knew that what she had done was completely mad. She quickly withdrew her hand. She flushed with shame. She found she was panting, and tried to breathe normally.
The final ensemble began onstage, and Maud relaxed. She did not know what had possessed her, but she had got away with it. The release of tension made her want to laugh. She suppressed a giggle.
She caught Walter’s eye. He was looking at her with adoration. She felt a glow of pleasure. He leaned over and put his lips to her ear. “Thank you,” he murmured.
She sighed and said: “It was a pleasure.”
CHAPTER SIX – June 1914
At the beginning of June Grigori Peshkov at last had enough money for a ticket to New York. The Vyalov family in St. Petersburg sold him both the ticket and the papers necessary for immigration into the United States, including a letter from Mr. Josef Vyalov in Buffalo promising to give Grigori a job.
Grigori kissed the ticket. He could hardly wait to leave. It was like a dream, and he was afraid he might wake up before the boat sailed. Now that departure was so close, he longed even more for the moment when he would stand on deck and look back to watch Russia disappear over the horizon and out of his life forever.
On the evening before his departure, his friends organized a party.
It was held at Mishka’s, a bar near the Putilov Machine Works. There were a dozen workmates, most of the members of the Bolshevik Discussion Group on Socialism and Atheism, and the girls from the house where Grigori and Lev lived. They were all on strike-half the factories in St. Petersburg were on strike-so no one had much money, but they clubbed together and bought a barrel of beer and some herrings. It was a warm summer evening, and they sat on benches in a patch of waste ground next to the bar.
Grigori was not a great party lover. He would have preferred to spend the evening playing chess. Alcohol made people stupid, and flirting with other men’s wives and girlfriends just seemed pointless. His wild-haired friend Konstantin, the chairman of the discussion group, had a row about the strike with aggressive Isaak, the footballer, and they ended up in a shouting match. Big Varya, Konstantin’s mother, drank most of a bottle of vodka, punched her husband, and passed out. Lev brought a crowd of friends-men Grigori had never met, and girls he did not want to meet-and they drank all the beer without paying for anything.
Grigori spent the evening staring mournfully at Katerina. She was in a good mood-she loved parties. Her long skirt whirled and her blue-green eyes flashed as she moved around, teasing the men and charming the women, that wide, generous mouth always smiling. Her clothes were old and patched, but she had a wonderful body, the kind of figure Russian men loved, with a full bust and broad hips. Grigori had fallen in love with her on the day he had met her, and he was still in love four months later. But she preferred his brother.
Why? It had nothing to do with looks. The two brothers were so alike that people sometimes mistook one for the other. They were the same height and weight, and could wear each other’s clothes. But Lev had charm by the ton. He was unreliable and selfish, and he lived on the edge of the law, but women adored him. Grigori was honest and dependable, a hard worker and a serious thinker, and he was single.
It would be different in the United States. Everything would be different there. American landowners were not allowed to hang their peasants. American police had to put people on trial before punishing them. The government could not even jail socialists. There were no noblemen: everyone was equal, even Jews.
Could it be real? Sometimes America seemed too much of a fantasy, like the stories people told of South Seas islands where beautiful maidens gave their bodies to anyone who asked. But it must be true: thousands of immigrants had written letters home. At the factory a group of revolutionary socialists had started a series of lectures on American democracy, but the police had closed them down.
He felt guilty about leaving his brother behind, but it was the best way. “Look after yourself,” he said to Lev toward the end of the evening. “I won’t be here to get you out of trouble anymore.”
“I’ll be fine,” Lev said carelessly. “You look after yourself.”
“I’ll send you the money for your ticket. It won’t take long on American wages.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
“Don’t move house-we could lose touch.”
“I’m not going anywhere, big brother.”
They had not discussed whether Katerina, too, would eventually come to America. Grigori had left it to Lev to raise the subject, but he had not. Grigori did not know whether to hope or dread that Lev would want to bring her.
Lev took Katerina’s arm and said: “We have to go now.”
Grigori was surprised. “Where are you off to at this time of night?”
“I’m meeting Trofim.”
Trofim was a minor member of the Vyalov family. “Why do you have to see him tonight?”
Lev winked. “Never mind. We’ll be back before morning-in plenty of time to take you to Gutuyevsky Island.” This was where the transatlantic steamers docked.
“All right,” said Grigori. “Don’t do anything dangerous,” he added, knowing it was pointless.
Lev waved gaily and disappeared.
It was almost midnight. Grigori said his good-byes. Several of his friends wept, but he did not know whether it was from sorrow or just booze. He walked back to the house with some of the girls, and they all kissed him in the hall. Then he went to his room.
His secondhand cardboard suitcase stood on the table. Though small, it was half-empty. He was taking shirts, underwear, and his chess set. He had only one pair of boots. He had not accumulated much in the nine years since his mother died.
Before going to bed, he looked in the cupboard where Lev kept his revolver, a Belgian-made Nagant M1895. He saw, with a sinking feeling, that the gun was not in its usual place.
He unlatched the window so that he would not have to get out of bed to open it when Lev came in.
Lying awake, listening to the familiar thunder of passing trains, he wondered what it would be like, four thousand miles from here. He had lived with Lev all his life, and he had been a substitute mother and father. From tomorrow, he would not know when Lev was out all night and carrying a gun. Would it be a relief, or would he worry more?
As always, Grigori woke at five. His ship sailed at eight, and the dock was an hour’s walk. He had plenty of time.
Lev had not come home.
Grigori washed his hands and face. Looking in a broken shard of mirror, he trimmed his mustache and beard with a pair of kitchen scissors. Then he put his best suit on. He would leave his other suit behind for Lev.
He was heating a pan of porridge on the fire when he heard a loud knocking at the door of the house.
It was sure to be bad news. Friends stood outside and shouted; only the authorities knocked. Grigori put on his cap, then stepped into the hall and looked down the staircase. The landlady was admitting two men in the black-and-green uniforms of the police. Looking more carefully, Grigori recognized the podgy moon-shaped face of Mikhail Pinsky and the small ratlike head of his sidekick, Ilya Kozlov.
He thought fast. Obviously someone in the house was suspected of a crime. The likeliest culprit was Lev. Whether it was Lev or another boarder, everyone in the building would be interrogated. The two cops would remember the incident back in February when Grigori had rescued Katerina from them, and they would seize the opportunity of arresting Grigori.
And Grigori would miss his ship.
The dreadful thought paralyzed him. To miss the ship! After all the saving and waiting and longing for this day. No, he thought; no, I won’t let it happen.
He ducked back into his room as the two policemen started up the stairs. It would be no use to plead with them-quite the reverse: if Pinsky discovered that Grigori was about to emigrate he would take even more pleasure in keeping him incarcerated. Grigori would not even have a chance to cash his ticket and get the money back. All those years of saving would be wasted.
He had to flee.
He scanned the tiny room frantically. It had one door and one window. He would have to go out the way Lev came in at night. He looked out: the backyard was empty. The St. Petersburg police were brutal, but no one had ever accused them of being smart, and it had not occurred to Pinsky and Kozlov to cover the rear of the house. Perhaps they knew there was no exit from the yard except across the railway-but a railway line was not much of a barrier to a desperate man.
Grigori heard shouts and cries from the girls’ room next door: the police had gone there first.
He patted the breast of his jacket. His ticket, papers, and money were in his pocket. All the rest of his worldly possessions were already packed in the cardboard suitcase.
Picking up his suitcase, he leaned as far as he could out of the window. He held the case out and threw it. It landed flat and seemed undamaged.
The door of his room burst open.
Grigori put his legs through the window, sat on the sill for a split second, then jumped to the roof of the washhouse. His feet slipped on the tiles and he sat down hard. He slid down the sloping roof to the gutter. He heard a shout behind him but he did not look back. He jumped from the washhouse roof to the ground and landed unhurt.
He picked up his suitcase and ran.
A shot rang out, scaring him into running faster. Most policemen could not hit the Winter Palace from three yards, but accidents sometimes happened. He scrambled up the railway embankment, conscious that as he climbed to the level of the window he was becoming an easier target. He heard the distinctive thud-and-gasp of a railway engine and looked to his right to see a goods train approaching fast. There was another shot, and he sensed a thump somewhere, but he felt no pain, and guessed the slug had hit his suitcase. He reached the top of the embankment, knowing his body was now outlined against the clear morning sky. The train was a few yards away. The driver sounded his klaxon loud and long. A third shot rang out. Grigori threw himself across the line just ahead of the train.
The locomotive howled past him, steel wheels clashing with steel rails, steam trailing as the klaxon faded. Grigori scrambled to his feet. Now he was shielded from gunfire by a train of open trucks loaded with coal. He ran across the remaining tracks. As the last of the coal wagons passed, he descended the far embankment and walked through the yard of a small factory into the street.
He looked at his suitcase. There was a bullet hole in one edge. It had been a near miss.
He walked briskly, catching his breath, and asked himself what he should do next. Now that he was safe-at least for the moment-he began to worry about his brother. He needed to know whether Lev was in trouble, and if so what kind.
He decided to start in the last place he had seen Lev, which was Mishka’s Bar.
As he headed for the bar, he felt nervous about being spotted. It would be bad luck, but it was not impossible: Pinsky might be roaming the streets. He pulled his cap down over his forehead, not really believing it would disguise his identity. He came across some workers heading for the docks and attached himself to the group, but with his suitcase he did not look as if he belonged.
However, he reached Mishka’s without incident. The bar was furnished with homemade wooden benches and tables. It smelled of last night’s beer and tobacco smoke. In the morning Mishka served bread and tea to people who had nowhere at home to make breakfast, but business was slow because of the strike, and the place was almost empty.
Grigori intended to ask Mishka if he knew where Lev had been headed when he left, but before he could do so he saw Katerina. She looked as if she had been up all night. Her blue-green eyes were bloodshot, her fair hair was awry, and her skirt was crumpled and stained. She was visibly distressed, with shaking hands and tear streaks on her grimy cheeks. Yet that made her more beautiful to Grigori, and he longed to take her in his arms and comfort her. Since he could not, he would do the next best thing, and come to her aid. “What’s happened?” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“Thank God you’re here,” she said. “The police are after Lev.”
Grigori groaned. So his brother was in trouble-today of all days. “What has he done?” Grigori did not bother to consider the possibility that Lev was innocent.
“There was a mess-up last night. We were supposed to unload some cigarettes from a barge.” They would be stolen cigarettes, Grigori assumed. Katerina went on: “Lev paid for them, then the bargeman said it wasn’t enough money, and there was an argument. Someone started shooting. Lev fired back, then we ran away.”
“Thank heaven neither of you got hurt!”
“Now we don’t have the cigarettes or the money.”
“What a mess.” Grigori looked at the clock over the bar. It was a quarter past six. He still had plenty of time. “Let’s sit down. Do you want some tea?” He beckoned to Mishka and asked for two glasses of tea.
“Thank you,” said Katerina. “Lev thinks one of the wounded must have talked to the police. Now they’re after him.”
“I’m all right, no one knows my name.”
Grigori nodded. “So what we have to do is keep Lev out of the hands of the police. He’ll have to lie low for a week or so, then slip out of St. Petersburg.”
“He hasn’t got any money.”
“Of course not.” Lev never had any money for essentials, though he could always buy drinks, place a bet, and entertain girls. “I can give him something.” Grigori would have to dip into the money he had saved for the journey. “Where is he?”
“He said he would meet you at the ship.”
Mishka brought their tea. Grigori was hungry-he had left his porridge on the fire-and he asked for some soup.
Katerina said: “How much can you give Lev?”
She was looking earnestly at him, and that always made him feel he would do anything she asked. He looked away. “Whatever he needs,” he said.
“You’re so good.”
Grigori shrugged. “He’s my brother.”
It pleased Grigori when Katerina was grateful, but it embarrassed him too. The soup came and he began to eat, glad of the diversion. The food made him feel more optimistic. Lev was always in and out of trouble. He would slip out of this difficulty as he had many times before. It did not mean Grigori had to miss his sailing.
Katerina watched him, sipping her tea. She had lost the frantic look. Lev puts you in danger, Grigori thought, and I come to the rescue, yet you prefer him.
Lev was probably at the dock now, skulking in the shadow of a derrick, nervously looking out for policemen as he waited. Grigori needed to get going. But he might never see Katerina again, and he could hardly bear the thought of saying good-bye to her forever.
He finished his soup and looked at the clock. It was almost seven. He was cutting things too fine. “I have to go,” he said reluctantly.
Katerina walked with him to the door. “Don’t be too hard on Lev,” she said.
“Was I ever?”
She put her hands on his shoulders, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him briefly on the lips. “Good luck,” she said.
Grigori walked away.
He went quickly through the streets of southwest St. Petersburg, an industrial quarter of warehouses, factories, storage yards, and overcrowded slums. The shameful impulse to weep left him after a few minutes. He walked on the shady side, kept his cap low and his head down, and avoided wide open areas. If Pinsky had circulated a description of Lev, an alert policeman might easily arrest Grigori.
But he reached the docks without being spotted. His ship, the Angel Gabriel, was a small, rusty vessel that took both cargo and passengers. Right now it was being loaded with stoutly nailed wooden packing cases marked with the name of the city’s largest fur trader. As he watched, the last box went into the hold and the crew fastened the hatch.
A family of Jews were showing their tickets at the head of the gangplank. All Jews wanted to go to America, in Grigori’s experience. They had even more reason than he did. In Russia there were laws forbidding them to own land, to enter the civil service, to be army officers, and countless other prohibitions. They could not live where they liked, and there were quotas limiting the number who could go to universities. It was a miracle any of them made a living. And if they did prosper, against the odds, it would not be long before they were set upon by a crowd-usually egged on by policemen such as Pinsky-and beaten up, their families terrified, their windows smashed, their property set on fire. The surprise was that any of them stayed.
The ship’s hooter sounded for “All aboard.”
He could not see his brother. What had gone wrong? Had Lev changed plans again? Or had he been arrested already?
A small boy tugged at Grigori’s sleeve. “A man wants to talk to you,” the boy said.
“He looks like you.”
Thank God, thought Grigori. “Where is he?”
“Behind the planks.”
There was a stack of timber on the dock. Grigori hurried around it and found Lev hiding behind it, nervously smoking a cigarette. He was fidgety and pale-a rare sight, for he usually remained cheerful even in adversity.
“I’m in trouble,” Lev said.
“Those bargemen are liars!”
“And thieves, probably.”
“Don’t get sarcastic with me. There isn’t time.”
“No, you’re right. We need to get you out of town until the fuss dies down.”
Lev shook his head in negation, blowing out smoke at the same time. “One of the bargemen died. I’m wanted for murder.”
“Oh, hell.” Grigori sat down on a shelf of timber and buried his head in his hands. “Murder,” he said.
“Trofim was badly wounded and the police got him to talk. He fingered me.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I saw Fyodor half an hour ago.” Fyodor was a corrupt policeman of Lev’s acquaintance.
“This is bad news.”
“There’s worse. Pinsky has vowed to get me-as revenge on you.”
Grigori nodded. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“What am I going to do?”
“You’ll have to go to Moscow. St. Petersburg won’t be safe for you for a long time, maybe forever.”
“I don’t know that Moscow is far enough, now that the police have telegraph machines.”
He was right, Grigori realized.
The ship’s hooter sounded again. Soon the gangplanks would be withdrawn. “We only have a minute left,” said Grigori. “What are you going to do?”
Lev said: “I could go to America.”
Grigori stared at him.
Lev said: “You could give me your ticket.”
Grigori did not want even to think about it.
But Lev went on with remorseless logic. “I could use your passport and papers for entering the United States-no one would know the difference.”
Grigori saw his dream fading, like the ending of a motion picture at the Soleil Cinema in Nevsky Prospekt, when the house lights came up to show the drab colors and dirty floors of the real world. “Give you my ticket,” he repeated, desperately postponing the moment of decision.
“You’d be saving my life,” Lev said.
Grigori knew he had to do it, and the realization was like a pain in his heart.
He took the papers from the pocket of his best suit and gave them to Lev. He handed over all the money he had saved for the journey. Then he gave his brother the cardboard suitcase with the bullet hole.
“I’ll send you the money for another ticket,” Lev said fervently. Grigori made no reply, but his skepticism must have shown on his face, for Lev protested: “I really will, I swear it. I’ll save up.”
“All right,” Grigori said.
They embraced. Lev said: “You always took care of me.”
“Yes, I did.”
Lev turned and ran for the ship.
The sailors were untying the ropes. They were about to pull up the gangplank, but Lev shouted and they waited a few seconds more for him.
He ran up onto the deck.
He turned, leaned on the rail, and waved to Grigori.
Grigori could not bring himself to wave back. He turned and walked away.
The ship hooted, but he did not look back.
His right arm felt strangely light without the burden of the suitcase. He walked through the docks, looking down at the deep black water, and the odd thought occurred to him that he could throw himself in. He shook himself: he was not prey to such foolish ideas. All the same he was depressed and bitter. Life never dealt him a winning hand.
He was unable to cheer himself up as he retraced his steps through the industrial district. He walked along with his eyes cast down, not even bothering to keep an eye open for the police: it hardly mattered if they arrested him now.
What was he going to do? He felt he could not summon the energy for anything. They would give him back his job at the factory, when the strike was over: he was a good worker and they knew it. He should probably go there now, and find out whether there had been any progress in the dispute-but he could not be bothered.
After an hour he found himself approaching Mishka’s. He intended to go straight past but, glancing inside, he saw Katerina, sitting where he had left her two hours ago, with a cold glass of tea in front of her. He had to tell her what had happened.
He went inside. The place was empty except for Mishka, who was sweeping the floor.
Katerina stood up, looking scared. “Why are you here?” she said. “Did you miss your boat?”
“Not exactly.” He could not think how to break the news.
“What, then?” she said. “Is Lev dead?”
“No, he’s all right. But he’s wanted for murder.”
She stared at him. “Where is he?”
“He had to go away.”
There was no gentle way to put it. “He asked me to give him my ticket.”
“And passport. He’s gone to America.”
“No!” she screamed.
Grigori just nodded.
“No!” she yelled again. “He wouldn’t leave me! Don’t you say that, never say it!”
“Try to stay calm.”
She slapped Grigori’s face. She was only a girl, and he hardly flinched. “Swine!” she screeched. “You’ve sent him away!”
“I did it to save his life.”
“Bastard! Dog! I hate you! I hate your stupid face!”
“Nothing you say could make me feel any worse,” Grigori said, but she was not listening. Ignoring her curses, he walked away, her voice fading as he went out through the door.
The screaming stopped, and he heard footsteps running along the street after him. “Stop!” she cried. “Stop, please, Grigori, don’t turn your back on me, I’m so sorry.”
“Grigori, you have to look after me now that Lev’s gone.”
He shook his head. “You don’t need me. The men of this city will form a queue to look after you.”
“No, they won’t,” she said. “There’s something you don’t know.”
Grigori thought: What now?
She said: “Lev didn’t want me to tell you.”
“I’m expecting a baby,” she said, and she began to weep.
Grigori stood still, taking it in. Lev’s baby, of course. And Lev knew. Yet he had gone to America. “A baby,” Grigori said.
She nodded, crying.
His brother’s child. His nephew or niece. His family.
He put his arms around her and drew her to him. She was shaking with sobs. She buried her face in his jacket. He stroked her hair. “All right,” he said. “Don’t worry. You’ll be okay. So will your baby.” He sighed. “I will take care of you both.”
Traveling on the Angel Gabriel was grim, even for a boy from the slums of St. Petersburg. There was only one class, steerage, and the passengers were treated as so much more cargo. The ship was dirty and unsanitary, especially when there were huge waves and people were seasick. It was impossible to complain because none of the crew spoke Russian. Lev was not sure what nationality they were, but he failed to get through to them with either his smattering of English or his even fewer words of German. Someone said they were Dutch. Lev had never heard of Dutch people.
Nevertheless the mood among the passengers was high optimism. Lev felt he had burst the walls of the tsar’s prison and escaped, and now he was free. He was on his way to America, where there were no noblemen. When the sea was calm, passengers sat on the deck and told the stories they had heard about America: the hot water coming out of taps, the good-quality leather boots worn even by workers, and most of all the freedom to practise any religion, join any political group, state your opinion in public, and not be afraid of the police.
On the evening of the tenth day Lev was playing cards. He was dealer, but he was losing. Everyone was losing except Spirya, an innocent-looking boy of Lev’s age who was also traveling alone. “Spirya wins every night,” said another player, Yakov. The truth was that Spirya won when Lev was dealing.
They were steaming slowly through a fog. The sea was calm, and there was no sound but the low bass of the engines. Lev had not been able to find out when they would arrive. People gave different answers. The most knowledgeable said it depended on the weather. The crew were inscrutable as always.
As night fell, Lev threw in his hand. “I’m cleaned out,” he said. In fact he had plenty more money inside his shirt, but he could see that the others were running low, all except Spirya. “That’s it,” he said. “When we get to America, I’m just going to have to catch the eye of a rich old woman and live like a pet dog in her marble palace.”
The others laughed. “But why would anyone want you for a pet?” said Yakov.
“Old ladies get cold at night,” he said. “She would need my heating appliance.”
The game ended in good humor, and the players drifted away.
Spirya went aft and leaned on the rail, watching the wake disappear into the fog. Lev joined him. “My half comes to seven rubles even,” Lev said.
Spirya took paper currency from his pocket and gave it to Lev, shielding the transaction with his body so that no one else could see money changing hands.
Lev pocketed the notes and filled his pipe.
Spirya said: “Tell me something, Grigori.” Lev was using his brother’s papers, so he had to tell people his name was Grigori. “What would you do if I refused to give you your share?”
This kind of talk was dangerous. Lev slowly put his tobacco away and put the unlit pipe back into his jacket pocket. Then he grabbed Spirya by the lapels and pushed him up against the rail so that he was bent backward and leaning out to sea. Spirya was taller than Lev but not as tough, by a long way. “I would break your stupid neck,” Lev said. “Then I would take back all the money you’ve made with me.” He pushed Spirya farther over. “Then I would throw you in the damn sea.”
Spirya was terrified. “All right!” he said. “Let me go!”
Lev released his grip.
“Jesus!” Spirya gasped. “I only asked a question.”
Lev lit his pipe. “And I gave you the answer,” he said. “Don’t forget it.”
Spirya walked away.
When the fog lifted they were in sight of land. It was night, but Lev could see the lights of a city. Where were they? Some said Canada, some said Ireland, but no one knew.
The lights came nearer, and the ship slowed. They were going to make landfall. Lev heard someone say they had arrived in America already! Ten days seemed quick. But what did he know? He stood at the rail with his brother’s cardboard suitcase. His heart beat faster.
The suitcase reminded him that Grigori should have been the one arriving in America now. Lev had not forgotten his vow to Grigori, to send him the price of a ticket. That was one promise he ought to keep. Grigori had probably saved his life-again. I’m lucky, Lev thought, to have such a brother.
He was making money on the ship, but not fast enough. Seven rubles went nowhere. He needed a big score. But America was the land of opportunity. He would make his fortune there.
Lev had been intrigued to find a bullet hole in the suitcase, and a slug embedded in a box containing a chess set. He had sold the chess set to one of the Jews for five kopeks. He wondered how Grigori had come to be shot at that day.
He was missing Katerina. He loved to walk around with a girl like that on his arm, knowing that every man envied him. But there would be plenty of girls here in America.
He wondered if Grigori knew about Katerina’s baby yet. Lev suffered a pang of regret: would he ever see his son or daughter? He told himself not to worry about leaving Katerina to raise the child alone. She would find someone else to look after her. She was a survivor.
It was after midnight when at last the ship docked. The quay was dimly lit and there was no one in sight. The passengers disembarked with their bags and boxes and trunks. An officer from the Angel Gabriel directed them into a shed where there were a few benches. “You must wait here until the immigration people come for you in the morning,” he said, demonstrating that he did, after all, speak a little Russian.
It was a bit of an anticlimax for people who had saved up for years to come here. The women sat on the benches and the children went to sleep while the men smoked and waited for morning. After a while they heard the ship’s engines, and Lev went outside and saw it moving slowly away from its mooring. Perhaps the crates of furs had to be unloaded elsewhere.
He tried to recall what Grigori had told him, in casual conversation, about the first steps in the new country. Immigrants had to pass a medical inspection-a tense moment, for unfit people were sent back, their money wasted and their hopes dashed. Sometimes the immigration officers changed people’s names, to make them easier for Americans to pronounce. Outside the docks, a representative of the Vyalov family would be waiting to take them by train to Buffalo. There they would get jobs in hotels and factories owned by Josef Vyalov. Lev wondered how far Buffalo was from New York. Would it take an hour to get there, or a week? He wished he had listened more carefully to Grigori.
The sun rose over miles of crowded docks, and Lev’s excitement returned. Old-fashioned masts and rigging clustered side by side with steam funnels. There were grand dockside buildings and tumbledown sheds, tall derricks and squat capstans, ladders and ropes and carts. To landward, Lev could see serried ranks of railway trucks full of coal, hundreds of them-no, thousands-fading into the distance beyond the limit of his vision. He was disappointed that he could not see the famous Liberty statue with its torch: it must be out of sight around a headland, he guessed.
Dockworkers arrived, first in small groups, then in crowds. Ships departed and others arrived. A dozen women began to unload sacks of potatoes from a small vessel in front of the shed. Lev wondered when the immigration police would come.
Spirya came up to him. He seemed to have forgiven the way Lev had threatened him. “They’ve forgotten about us,” he said.
“Looks that way,” Lev said, puzzled.
“Shall we take a walk around-see if we can find someone who speaks Russian?”
Spirya spoke to one of the older men. “We’re going to see if we can find out what’s happening.”
The man looked nervous. “Maybe we should stay here as we were told.”
They ignored him and walked over to the potato women. Lev gave them his best grin and said: “Does anyone speak Russian?” One of the younger women smiled back, but no one answered the question. Lev felt frustrated: his winning ways were useless with people who could not understand what he was saying.
Lev and Spirya walked in the direction from which most of the workers had come. No one took any notice of them. They came to a big set of gates, walked through, and found themselves in a busy street of shops and offices. The road was crowded with motorcars, electric trams, horses, and handcarts. Every few yards Lev spoke to someone, but no one responded.
Lev was mystified. What kind of place allowed anyone to walk off a ship and into the city without permission?
Then he spotted a building that intrigued him. It was a bit like a hotel, except that two poorly dressed men in sailors’ caps were sitting on the steps, smoking. “Look at that place,” he said.
“What about it?”
“I think it’s a seamen’s mission, like the one in St. Petersburg.”
“We’re not sailors.”
“But there might be people there who speak foreign languages.”
They went inside. A gray-haired woman behind a counter spoke to them.
Lev said in his own tongue: “We don’t speak American.”
She replied with a single word in the same language: “Russian?”
She made a beckoning sign with her finger, and Lev’s hopes rose.
They followed her along a corridor to a small office with a window overlooking the water. Behind the desk was a man who looked, to Lev, like a Russian Jew, although he could not have said why he thought that. Lev said to him: “Do you speak Russian?”
“I am Russian,” the man said. “Can I help you?”
Lev could have hugged him. Instead he looked the man in the eye and gave him a warm smile. “Someone was supposed to meet us off the ship and take us to Buffalo, but he didn’t show up,” he said, making his voice friendly but concerned. “There are about three hundred of us…” To gain sympathy he added: “Including women and children. Do you think you could help us find our contact?”
“Buffalo?” the man said. “Where do you think you are?”
“New York, of course.”
“This is Cardiff.”
Lev had never heard of Cardiff, but at least now he understood the problem. “That stupid captain set us down in the wrong port,” he said. “How do we get to Buffalo from here?”
The man pointed out of the window, across the sea, and Lev had a sick feeling that he knew what was coming.
“It’s that way,” the man said. “About three thousand miles.”
Lev inquired the price of a ticket from Cardiff to New York. When converted to rubles it was ten times the amount of money he had inside his shirt.
He suppressed his rage. They had all been cheated by the Vyalov family, or the ship’s captain-or both, most probably, since it would be easier to work the scam between them. All Grigori’s hard-earned money had been stolen by those lying pigs. If he could have got the captain of the Angel Gabriel by the throat, he would have squeezed the life out of the man, and laughed when he died.
But there was no point in dreams of vengeance. The thing was not to give in. He would find a job, learn to speak English, and get into a high-stakes card game. It would take time. He would have to be patient. He must learn to be a bit more like Grigori.
That first night they all slept on the floor of the synagogue. Lev tagged along with the rest. The Cardiff Jews did not know, or perhaps did not care, that some of the passengers were Christian.
For the first time in his life he saw the advantage of being Jewish. In Russia Jews were so persecuted that Lev had always wondered why more of them did not abandon their religion, change their clothes, and mix in with everyone else. It would have saved a lot of lives. But now he realized that, as a Jew, you could go anywhere in the world and always find someone to treat you like family.
It turned out that this was not the first group of Russian immigrants to buy tickets to New York and end up somewhere else. It had happened before, in Cardiff and other British ports; and, as so many Russian migrants were Jewish, the elders of the synagogue had a routine. Next day the stranded travelers were given a hot breakfast and got their money changed to British pounds, shillings, and pence, then they were taken to boardinghouses where they were able to rent cheap rooms.
Like every city in the world, Cardiff had thousands of stables. Lev studied enough words to say he was an experienced worker with horses, then went around the city asking for a job. It did not take people long to see that he was good with the animals, but even well-disposed employers wanted to ask a few questions, and he could not understand or answer.
In desperation he learned more rapidly, and after a few days he could understand prices and ask for bread or beer. However, employers were asking complicated questions, presumably about where he had worked before and whether he had ever been in trouble with the police.
He returned to the seamen’s mission and explained his problem to the Russian in the little office. He was given an address in Butetown, the neighborhood nearest the docks, and told to ask for Filip Kowal, pronounced “cole,” known as Kowal the Pole. Kowal turned out to be a ganger who hired out foreign labor cheap and spoke a smattering of most European languages. He told Lev to be on the forecourt of the city’s main railway station, with his suitcase, on the following Monday morning at ten o’clock.
Lev was so glad that he did not even ask what the job was.
He showed up along with a couple of hundred men, mostly Russian, but including Germans, Poles, Slavs, and one dark-skinned African. He was pleased to see Spirya and Yakov there too.
They were herded onto a train, their tickets paid for by Kowal, and they steamed north through pretty mountain country. Between the green hillsides, the industrial towns lay pooled like dark water in the valleys. A feature of every town was at least one tower with a pair of giant wheels on top, and Lev learned that the main business of the region was coal mining. Several of the men with him were miners; some had other crafts such as metalworking; and many were unskilled laborers.
After an hour they got off the train. As they filed out of the station Lev realized this was no ordinary job. A crowd of several hundred men, all dressed in the caps and rough clothes of workers, stood waiting for them in the square. At first the men were ominously silent, then one of them shouted something, and the others quickly joined in. Lev had no idea what they were saying but there was no doubt it was hostile. There were also twenty or thirty policemen present, standing at the front of the crowd, keeping the men behind an imaginary line.
Spirya said in a frightened voice: “Who are these people?”
Lev said: “Short, muscular men with hard faces and clean hands-I’d say they are coal miners on strike.”
“They look as if they want to kill us. What the hell is going on?”
“We’re strikebreakers,” Lev said grimly.
“God save us.”
Kowal the Pole shouted: “Follow me!” in several languages, and they all marched up the main street. The crowd continued to shout, and men shook their fists, but no one broke the line. Lev had never before felt grateful to policemen. “This is awful,” he said.
Yakov said: “Now you know what it’s like to be a Jew.”
They left the shouting miners behind and walked uphill through streets of row houses. Lev noticed that many of the houses appeared empty. People still stared as they went by, but the insults stopped. Kowal started to allocate houses to the men. Lev and Spirya were astonished to be given a house to themselves. Before leaving, Kowal pointed out the pithead-the tower with twin wheels-and told them to be there tomorrow morning at six. Those who were miners would be digging coal, the others would be maintaining tunnels and equipment or, in Lev’s case, looking after ponies.
Lev looked around his new home. It was no palace, but it was clean and dry. It had one big room downstairs and two up-a bedroom for each of them! Lev had never had a room to himself. There was no furniture, but they were used to sleeping on the floor, and in June they did not even need blankets.
Lev had no wish to leave, but eventually they became hungry. There was no food in the house so, reluctantly, they went out to get their dinner. With trepidation they entered the first pub they came to, but the dozen or so customers glared angrily at them, and when Lev said in English: “Two pints of half-and-half, please,” the bartender ignored him.
They walked downhill into the town center and found a café. Here at least the clientele did not appear to be spoiling for a fight. But they sat at a table for half an hour and watched the waitress serve everyone who came in after them. Then they left.
It was going to be difficult living here, Lev suspected. But it would not be for long. As soon as he had enough money he would go to America. Nevertheless, while he was here he had to eat.
They went into a bakery. This time Lev was determined to get what he wanted. He pointed to a rack of loaves and said in English: “One bread, please.”
The baker pretended not to understand.
Lev reached across the counter and grabbed the loaf he wanted. Now, he thought, let him try to take it back.
“Hey!” cried the baker, but he stayed his side of the counter.
Lev smiled and said: “How much, please?”
“Penny farthing,” the baker said sulkily.
Lev put the coins on the counter. “Thank you very much,” he said.
He broke the loaf and gave half to Spirya, then they walked down the street eating. They came to the railway station, but the crowd had dispersed. On the forecourt, a news vendor was calling his wares. His papers were selling fast, and Lev wondered if something important had happened.
A large car came along the road, going fast, and they had to jump out of the way. Looking at the passenger in the back, Lev was astonished to recognize Princess Bea.
“Good God!” he said. In a flash, he was transported back to Bulovnir, and the nightmare sight of his father dying on the gallows while this woman looked on. The terror he had felt then was unlike anything he had ever known. Nothing would ever scare him like that, not street fights nor policemen’s nightsticks nor guns pointed at him.
The car pulled up at the station entrance. Hatred, disgust, and nausea overwhelmed Lev as Princess Bea got out. The bread in his mouth seemed like gravel and he spat it out.
Spirya said: “What’s the matter?”
Lev pulled himself together. “That woman is a Russian princess,” he said. “She had my father hanged fourteen years ago.”
“Bitch. What on earth is she doing here?”
“She married an English lord. They must live nearby. Perhaps it’s his coal mine.”
The chauffeur and a maid busied themselves with luggage. Lev heard Bea speak to the maid in Russian, and the maid replied in the same tongue. They all went into the station, then the maid came back out and bought a newspaper.
Lev approached her. Taking off his cap, he gave a deep bow and said in Russian: “You must be the princess Bea.”
She laughed merrily. “Don’t be a fool. I’m her maid, Nina. Who are you?”
Lev introduced himself and Spirya and explained how they came to be there, and why they could not buy dinner.
“I’ll be back tonight,” Nina said. “We’re only going to Cardiff. Come to the kitchen door of Tŷ Gwyn, and I’ll give you some cold meat. Just follow the road north out of town until you come to a palace.”
“Thank you, beautiful lady.”
“I’m old enough to be your mother,” she said, but she simpered just the same. “I’d better take the princess her paper.”
“What’s the big story?”
“Oh, foreign news,” she said dismissively. “There’s been an assassination. The princess is terribly upset. The archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed at a place called Sarajevo.”
“That’s frightening, to a princess.”
“Yes,” Nina said. “Still, I don’t suppose it will make any difference to the likes of you and me.”
“No,” said Lev. “I don’t suppose it will.”
CHAPTER SEVEN – Early July 1914
The Church of St. James in Piccadilly had the most expensively dressed congregation in the world. It was the favorite place of worship for London’s elite. In theory, ostentation was frowned upon; but a woman had to wear a hat, and these days it was almost impossible to buy one that did not have ostrich feathers, ribbons, bows, and silk flowers. From the back of the nave Walter von Ulrich looked at a jungle of extravagant shapes and colors. The men, by contrast, all looked the same, with their black coats and white stand-up collars, holding their top hats in their laps.
Most of these people did not understand what had happened in Sarajevo seven days ago, he thought sourly; some of them did not even know where Bosnia was. They were shocked by the murder of the archduke, but they could not work out what it meant for the rest of the world. They were vaguely bewildered.
Walter was not bewildered. He knew exactly what the assassination portended. It created a serious threat to the security of Germany, and it was up to people such as Walter to protect and defend their country in this moment of danger.
Today his first task was to find out what the Russian tsar was thinking. This was what everyone wanted to know: the German ambassador, Walter’s father, the foreign minister in Berlin, and the kaiser himself. And Walter, like the good intelligence officer he was, had a source of information.
He scanned the congregation, trying to identify his man among the backs of heads, fearing he might not be there. Anton was a clerk at the Russian embassy. They met in Anglican churches because Anton could be sure there would be no one from his embassy there: most Russians belonged to the Orthodox Church, and those who did not were never employed in the diplomatic service.
Anton was in charge of the cable office at the Russian embassy, so he saw every incoming and outgoing telegram. His information was priceless. But he was difficult to manage, and caused Walter much anxiety. Espionage frightened Anton, and when he got scared he would fail to show up-often at moments of international tension, like this one, when Walter needed him most.
Walter was distracted by spotting Maud. He recognized the long, graceful neck rising out of a fashionable man-style wing collar, and his heart missed a beat. He kissed that neck whenever he got the chance.
When he thought about the danger of war, his mind went first to Maud, then to his country. He felt ashamed of this selfishness, but he could not do anything about it. His greatest fear was that she would be taken from him; the threat to the fatherland came second. For Germany’s sake he was willing to die-but not to live without the woman he loved.
A head in the third row from the back turned, and Walter met the eye of Anton. The man had thinning brown hair and a patchy beard. Relieved, Walter walked to the south aisle, as if looking for a place, and after a moment’s hesitation sat down.
Anton’s soul was full of bitterness. Five years ago, a nephew whom he had loved had been accused, by the tsar’s secret police, of revolutionary activities, and had been imprisoned in the Fortress of Peter and Paul, across the river from the Winter Palace in the heart of St. Petersburg. The boy had been a theology student, and quite innocent of subversion; but before he could be released he had contracted pneumonia and died. Anton had been wreaking his quiet, deadly revenge against the tsar’s government ever since.
It was a pity the church was so well-lit. The architect, Christopher Wren, had put in long rows of huge round-arched windows. For this kind of work, a gloomy Gothic twilight would have been better. Still, Anton had chosen his position well, at the end of a row, with a child next to him and a massive wooden pillar behind.
“Good place to sit,” Walter murmured.
“We can still be observed from the gallery,” Anton fretted.
Walter shook his head. “They will all be looking towards the front.”
Anton was a middle-aged bachelor. A small man, he was neat to the point of fussiness: the tie knotted tightly, every button done up on the jacket, the shoes gleaming. His well-worn suit was shiny from years of brushing and pressing. Walter thought this was a reaction against the grubbiness of espionage. After all, the man was there to betray his country. And I’m here to encourage him, Walter thought grimly.
Walter said nothing more during the hush before the service, but as soon as the first hymn started he said in a low voice: “What’s the mood in St. Petersburg?”
“Russia does not want war,” Anton said.
“The tsar fears that war will lead to revolution.” When Anton mentioned the tsar he looked as if he was going to spit. “Half St. Petersburg is on strike already. Of course, it does not occur to him that his own stupid brutality is what makes people want a revolution.”
“Indeed.” Walter always had to adjust for the fact that Anton’s opinions were distorted by hate, but in this case the spy was not entirely wrong. Walter did not hate the tsar, but feared him. He had at his disposal the largest army in the world. Every discussion of Germany’s security had to take that army into account. Germany was like a man whose next-door neighbor keeps a giant bear on a chain in the front garden. “What will the tsar do?”
“It depends on Austria.”
Walter suppressed an impatient retort. Everyone was waiting to see what the Austrian emperor would do. He had to do something, because the assassinated archduke had been heir to his throne. Walter was hoping to learn about Austrian intentions from his cousin Robert later that day. That branch of the family was Catholic, like all the Austrian elite, and Robert would be at mass in Westminster Cathedral right now, but Walter would see him for lunch. Meanwhile Walter needed to know more about the Russians.
He had to wait for another hymn. He tried to be patient. He looked up and studied the extravagant gilding of Wren’s barrel vaults.
The congregation broke into “Rock of Ages.” “Suppose there is fighting in the Balkans,” Walter murmured to Anton. “Will the Russians stay out of it?”
“No. The tsar cannot stand aside if Serbia is attacked.”
Walter felt a chill. This was exactly the kind of escalation he was afraid of. “It would be madness to go to war over this!”
“True. But the Russians can’t let Austria control the Balkan region-they have to protect the Black Sea route.”
There was no arguing with that. Most of Russia’s exports-grain from the southern cornfields and oil from the wells around Baku-were shipped to the world from Black Sea ports.
Anton went on: “On the other hand, the tsar is also urging everyone to tread carefully.”
“In short, he can’t make up his mind.”
“If you call it a mind.”
Walter nodded. The tsar was not an intelligent man. His dream was to return Russia to the golden age of the seventeenth century, and he was stupid enough to think that was possible. It was as if King George V were to try to re-create the Merrie England of Robin Hood. Since the tsar was barely rational, it was maddeningly difficult to predict what he would do.
During the last hymn Walter’s gaze wandered to Maud, sitting two rows in front on the other side. He watched her profile fondly as she sang with gusto.
Anton’s ambivalent report was unnerving. Walter felt more worried than he had been an hour ago. He said: “From now on, I need to see you every day.”
Anton looked panicky. “Not possible!” he said. “Too risky.”
“But the picture is changing hour by hour.”
“Next Sunday morning, Smith Square.”
That was the trouble with idealistic spies, Walter thought with frustration: you had no leverage. On the other hand, men who spied for money were never trustworthy. They would tell you what you wanted to hear in the hope of getting a bonus. With Anton, if he said the tsar was dithering, Walter could be confident that the tsar had not made a decision.
“Meet me once in the middle of the week, then,” Walter pleaded as the hymn came to an end.
Anton did not reply. Instead of sitting down, he slipped away and left the church. “Damn,” Walter said quietly, and the child in the next seat stared at him with disapproval.
When the service was over he stood in the paved churchyard greeting acquaintances until Maud emerged with Fitz and Bea. Maud looked supernaturally graceful in a stylish gray figured velvet dress with a darker gray crepe overdress. It was not a very feminine color, perhaps, but it heightened her sculptured beauty and seemed to make her skin glow. Walter shook hands all round, wishing desperately for a few minutes alone with her. He exchanged pleasantries with Bea, a confection in candy-pink and cream lace, and agreed with a solemn Fitz that the assassination was a “bad business.” Then the Fitzherberts moved away, and Walter feared he had missed his chance; but, at the last moment, Maud murmured: “I’ll be at the duchess’s house for tea.”
Walter smiled at her elegant back. He had seen Maud yesterday and he would see her tomorrow, yet he had been terrified that he might not get another chance to see her today. Was he really incapable of passing twenty-four hours without her? He did not think of himself as a weak man, but she had cast a spell over him. However, he had no wish to escape.
It was her independent spirit that he found so attractive. Most women of his generation seemed content to play the passive role that society gave them, dressing beautifully and organizing parties and obeying their husbands. Walter was bored by the doormat type. Maud was more like some of the women he had met in the United States, during a stint at the German embassy in Washington. They were elegant and charming but not subservient. To be loved by a woman like that was unbearably exciting.
He walked with a jaunty step along Piccadilly and stopped at a newsstand. Reading British papers was never pleasant: most were viciously anti-German, especially the rabid Daily Mail. They had the British believing they were surrounded by German spies. How Walter wished it were true! He had a dozen or so agents in coast towns, making notes of comings and goings at the docks, as the British had in German ports, but nothing like the thousands reported by hysterical newspaper editors.
He bought a copy of the People. The trouble in the Balkans was not big news here: the British were more worried about Ireland. A minority of Protestants had ruled the roost there for hundreds of years, with scant regard for the Catholic majority. If Ireland won independence the boot would be on the other foot. Both sides were heavily armed, and civil war threatened.
A single paragraph at the bottom of the front page referred to the “Austro-Servian Crisis.” As usual, the newspapers had no idea what was really going on.
As Walter turned into the Ritz Hotel, Robert jumped out of a motor taxi. He was wearing a black waistcoat and a black tie in mourning for the archduke. Robert had been one of Franz Ferdinand’s set-progressive thinkers by the standards of the Viennese court, albeit conservative by any other measure. He had liked and respected the murdered man and his family, Walter knew.
They left their top hats in the cloakroom and went into the dining room together. Walter felt protective toward Robert. Since they were boys he had known that his cousin was different. People called such men effeminate, but that was too crude: Robert was not a woman in a man’s body. However, he had a lot of feminine traits, and this led Walter to treat him with a kind of understated chivalry.
He looked like Walter, with the same regular features and hazel eyes, but his hair was longer and his mustache waxed and curled. “How are things with Lady M?” he said as they sat down. Walter had confided in him: Robert knew all about forbidden love.
“She’s wonderful, but my father can’t get over her working in a slum clinic with a Jewish doctor.”
“Oh, dear-that’s harsh,” Robert said. “His objection might be understandable if she herself were a Jew.”
“I’ve been hoping he would warm to her gradually, meeting her socially now and again, and realizing that she is friendly with the most powerful men in the land; but it’s not working.”
“Unfortunately, the crisis in the Balkans is only going to increase tension in”-Robert smiled-“forgive me, international relations.”
Walter forced a laugh. “We will work it out, whatever happens.”
Robert said nothing, but looked as if he was not so confident.
Over Welsh lamb and potatoes with parsley sauce, Walter gave Robert the inconclusive information he had gleaned from Anton.
Robert had news of his own. “We have established that the assassins got their guns and bombs from Serbia.”
“Oh, hell,” said Walter.
Robert let his anger show. “The arms were supplied by the head of Serbian military intelligence. The murderers were given target practise in a park in Belgrade.”
Walter said: “Intelligence officers sometimes act unilaterally.”
“Often. And the secrecy of their work means they may get away with it.”
“So this does not prove that the Serbian government organized the assassination. And, when you think logically about it, a small nation such as Serbia, trying desperately to preserve its independence, would be mad to provoke its powerful neighbor.”
“It is even possible that Serbian intelligence acted in direct opposition to the wishes of the government,” Robert conceded. But then he said firmly: “That makes absolutely no difference at all. Austria must take action against Serbia.”
This was what Walter feared. The affair could no longer be regarded merely as a crime, to be dealt with by the police and the courts. It had escalated, and now an empire had to punish a small nation. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria had been a great man in his time, conservative and devoutly religious but a strong leader. However, he was now eighty-four, and age had not made him any less authoritarian and narrow-minded. Such men thought they knew everything just because they were old. Walter’s father was the same.
My fate is in the hands of two monarchs, Walter thought, the tsar and the emperor. One is foolish, the other geriatric; yet they control the destiny of Maud and me and countless millions more Europeans. What an argument against monarchy!
He thought hard while they ate dessert. When the coffee came he said optimistically: “I assume your aim will be to teach Serbia a sharp lesson without involving any other country.”
Robert swiftly dashed his hopes. “On the contrary,” he said. “My emperor has written a personal letter to your kaiser.”
Walter was startled. He had heard nothing of this. “When?”
“It was delivered yesterday.”
Like all diplomats, Walter hated it when monarchs talked directly to one another, instead of through their ministers. Anything could happen then. “What did he say?”
“That Serbia must be eliminated as a political power.”
“No!” This was worse than Walter had feared. Shocked, he said: “Does he mean it?”
“Everything depends on the reply.”
Walter frowned. Emperor Franz Joseph was asking for backing from Kaiser Wilhelm-that was the real point of the letter. The two countries were allies, so the kaiser was obliged to sound supportive, but his emphasis might be enthusiastic or reluctant, encouraging or cautious.
“I trust Germany will back Austria, whatever my emperor decides to do,” Robert said severely.
“You can’t possibly want Germany to attack Serbia!” Walter protested.
Robert was offended. “We want a reassurance that Germany will fulfill her obligations as our ally.”
Walter controlled his impatience. “The problem with that way of thinking is that it raises the stakes. Like Russia making supportive noises about Serbia, it encourages aggression. What we ought to do is calm everyone down.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” Robert said stiffly. “Austria has suffered a terrible blow. The emperor cannot be seen to take it lightly. He who defies the giant must be crushed.”
“Let’s try to keep this in proportion.”
Robert raised his voice. “The heir to the throne has been murdered!” A diner at the next table glanced up and frowned to hear German spoken in angry tones. Robert softened his speech but not his expression. “Don’t talk to me about proportion.”
Walter tried to suppress his own feelings. It would be stupid and dangerous for Germany to get involved in this squabble, but telling Robert that would serve no purpose. It was Walter’s job to glean information, not have an argument. “I quite understand,” he said. “Is your view shared by everyone in Vienna?”
“In Vienna, yes,” said Robert. “Tisza is opposed.” István Tisza was the prime minister of Hungary, but subordinate to the Austrian emperor. “His alternative proposal is diplomatic encirclement of Serbia.”
“Less dramatic, perhaps, but also less risky,” Walter observed carefully.
Walter called for the bill. He was deeply unsettled by what he had heard. However, he did not want any ill feeling between himself and Robert. They trusted and helped one another, and he did not want that to change. On the pavement outside, he shook Robert’s hand and clasped his elbow in a gesture of firm comradeship. “Whatever happens, we must stick together, cousin,” he said. “We are allies, and always will be.” He left it to Robert to decide whether he was talking about the two of them or their countries. They parted friends.
He walked briskly across Green Park. Londoners were enjoying the sunshine, but there was a cloud of gloom over Walter’s head. He had hoped that Germany and Russia would stay out of the Balkan crisis, but what he had learned so far today ominously suggested the opposite. Reaching Buckingham Palace, he turned left and walked along the Mall to the back entrance of the German embassy.
His father had an office in the embassy: he spent about one week in three there. There was a painting of Kaiser Wilhelm on the wall and a framed photograph of Walter in lieutenant’s uniform on the desk. Otto held in his hand a piece of pottery. He collected English ceramics, and loved to go hunting for unusual items. Looking more closely, Walter saw that this was a creamware fruit bowl, the edges delicately pierced and molded to mimic basketwork. Knowing his father’s taste, he guessed it was eighteenth century.
With Otto was Gottfried von Kessel, a cultural attaché whom Walter disliked. Gottfried had thick dark hair combed with a side parting, and wore spectacles with thick lenses. He was the same age as Walter and also had a father in the diplomatic service, but despite having that much in common, they were not friends. Walter thought Gottfried was a toady.
He nodded to Gottfried and sat down. “The Austrian emperor has written to our kaiser.”
“We know that,” Gottfried said quickly.
Walter ignored him. Gottfried was always trying to start a pissing contest. “No doubt the kaiser’s reply will be amicable,” he said to his father. “But a lot may depend upon nuance.”
“His Majesty has not yet confided in me.”
“But he will.”
Otto nodded. “It is the kind of thing he sometimes asks me about.”
“And if he urges caution, he might persuade the Austrians to be less belligerent.”
Gottfried said: “Why should he do that?”
“To avoid Germany’s being dragged into a war over such a worthless piece of territory as Serbia!”
“What are you afraid of?” Gottfried said scornfully. “The Serbian army?”
“I am afraid of the Russian army, and so should you be,” Walter replied. “It is the largest in history-”
“I know that,” said Gottfried.
Walter ignored the interruption. “In theory, the tsar can put six million men into the field within a few weeks-”
“-and that is more than the total population of Serbia.”
Walter sighed. “You seem to know everything, von Kessel. Do you know where the assassins got their guns and bombs?”
“From Slav nationalists, I presume.”
“Any particular Slav nationalists, do you presume?”
“The Austrians know, I gather. They believe the arms came from the head of Serbian intelligence.”
Otto grunted in surprise. “That would make the Austrians vengeful.”
Gottfried said: “Austria is still ruled by its emperor. In the end, the decision for war can be made only by him.”
Walter nodded. “Not that a Habsburg emperor has ever needed much of an excuse to be ruthless and brutal.”
“What other way is there to rule an empire?”
Walter did not rise to the bait. “Other than the Hungarian prime minister, who does not carry much weight, there seems to be no one urging caution. That role must fall to us.” Walter stood up. He had reported his findings, and he did not want to stay any longer in the same room as the irritating Gottfried. “If you will excuse me, Father, I’ll go to tea at the Duchess of Sussex’s house and see what else is being said around town.”
Gottfried said: “The English don’t pay calls on Sundays.”
“I have an invitation,” Walter replied, and went out before he lost his temper.
He threaded his way through Mayfair to Park Lane, where the Duke of Sussex had his palace. The duke played no role in the British government, but the duchess held a political salon. When Walter had arrived in London in December Fitz had introduced him to the duchess, who had made sure he was invited everywhere.
He entered her drawing room, bowed, shook her plump hand, and said: “Everyone in London wants to know what will happen in Serbia, so, even though it is Sunday, I have come here to ask you, Your Grace.”
“There will be no war,” she said, showing no awareness that he was joking. “Sit down and have a cup of tea. Of course it is tragic about the poor archduke and his wife, and no doubt the culprits will be punished, but how silly to think that great nations such as Germany and Britain would go to war over Serbia.”
Walter wished he could feel so confident. He took a chair near Maud, who smiled happily, and Lady Hermia, who nodded. There were a dozen people in the room, including the first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill. The decor was grandly out of date: too much heavy carved furniture, rich fabrics of a dozen different patterns, and every surface covered with ornaments, framed photographs, and vases of dried grasses. A footman handed Walter a cup of tea and offered milk and sugar.
Walter was happy to be near Maud but, as always, he wanted more, and he immediately began to wonder whether there was any way they could contrive to be alone, even if only for a minute or two.
The duchess said: “The problem, of course, is the weakness of the Turk.”
The pompous old bat was right, Walter thought. The Ottoman Empire was in decline, held back from modernization by a conservative Muslim priesthood. For centuries the Turkish sultan had kept order in the Balkan peninsula, from the Mediterranean coast of Greece as far north as Hungary, but now, decade by decade, it was pulling back. The nearest Great Powers, Austria and Russia, were trying to fill the vacuum. Between Austria and the Black Sea were Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria in a line. Five years ago Austria had taken control of Bosnia. Now Austria was in a quarrel with Serbia, the middle one. The Russians looked at the map and saw that Bulgaria was the next domino, and that the Austrians could end up controlling the west coast of the Black Sea, threatening Russia’s international trade.
Meanwhile the subject peoples of the Austrian empire were starting to think they might rule themselves-which was why the Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip had shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
Walter said: “It’s a tragedy for Serbia. I should think their prime minister is ready to throw himself into the Danube.”
Maud said: “You mean the Volga.”
Walter looked at her, glad of the excuse to drink in her appearance. She had changed her clothes, and was wearing a royal blue tea gown over a pale pink lace blouse and a pink felt hat with a blue pompom. “I most certainly do not, Lady Maud,” he said.
She said: “The Volga runs through Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia.”
Walter was about to protest again, then he hesitated. She knew perfectly well that the Volga hardly came within a thousand miles of Belgrade. What was she up to? “I am reluctant to contradict someone as well-informed as you, Lady Maud,” he said. “All the same-”
“We will look it up,” she said. “My uncle, the duke, has one of the greatest libraries in London.” She stood. “Come with me, and I shall prove you wrong.”
This was bold behavior for a well-bred young woman, and the duchess pursed her lips.
Walter mimed a helpless shrug and followed Maud to the door.
For a moment, Lady Hermia looked as if she might go too, but she was comfortably sunk in deep velvet upholstery, with a cup and saucer in her hand and a plate in her lap, and it was too much effort to move. “Don’t be long,” she said quietly, and ate some more cake. Then they were out of the room.
Maud preceded Walter across the hall, where a couple of footmen stood like sentries. She stopped in front of a door and waited for Walter to open it. They went inside.
The big room was silent. They were alone. Maud threw herself into Walter’s arms. He hugged her hard, pressing her body against his. She turned her face up. “I love you,” she said, and kissed him hungrily.
After a minute she broke away, breathless. Walter looked at her adoringly. “You’re outrageous,” he said. “Saying the Volga runs through Belgrade!”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
He shook his head in admiration. “I would never have thought of it. You’re so clever.”
“We need an atlas,” she said. “In case anyone comes in.”
Walter scanned the shelves. This was the library of a collector rather than a reader. All the books were in fine bindings, most looking as if they had never been opened. A few reference books lurked in a corner, and he pulled out an atlas and found a map of the Balkans.
“This crisis,” Maud said anxiously. “In the long run… it’s not going to split us up, is it?”
“Not if I can help it,” Walter said.
He drew her behind a bookcase, so that they could not be seen immediately by someone coming in, and kissed her again. She was deliciously needy today, rubbing her hands over his shoulders and arms and back as she kissed him. She broke the kiss to whisper: “Lift my skirt.”
He swallowed. He had daydreamed of this. He grasped the material and drew it up.
“And the petticoats,” she said. He took a bunch of fabric in each hand. “Don’t crease it,” she said. He tried to raise the garments without crushing the silk, but everything slipped through his hands. Impatient, she bent down, grasped skirt and petticoats by the hems, and lifted everything to her waist. “Feel me,” she said, looking him in the eye.
He was nervous that someone would come in, but too overwhelmed with love and desire to restrain himself. He put his right hand on the fork of her thighs-and gasped with shock: she was naked there. The realization that she must have planned to give him this pleasure inflamed him further. He stroked her gently, but she thrust her hips forward against his hand, and he pressed harder. “That’s right,” she said. He closed his eyes, but she said: “Look at me, my darling, please, look at me while you’re doing it,” and he opened them again. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard through open lips. She gripped his hand and guided him, as he had guided her in the opera box. She whispered: “Put your finger in.” She leaned against his shoulder. He could feel the heat of her breath through his clothes. She thrust against him again and again. Then she made a small sound in the back of her throat, like the muted cry of someone dreaming; and at last she slumped against him.
He heard the door open, and then Lady Hermia’s voice. “Come along, Maud, dear, we must take our leave.”
Walter withdrew his hand and Maud hastily smoothed her skirt. In a shaky voice she said: “I’m afraid I was wrong, Aunt Herm, and Herr von Ulrich was right-it’s the Danube, not the Volga, that runs through Belgrade. We’ve just found it in the atlas.”
They bent over the book as Lady Hermia came around the end of the bookcase. “I never doubted it,” she said. “Men are generally right about these things, and Herr von Ulrich is a diplomat, who has to know a great many facts with which women do not need to trouble themselves. You shouldn’t argue, Maud.”
“I expect you’re right,” said Maud with breathtaking insincerity.
They all left the library and crossed the hall. Walter opened the door to the drawing room. Lady Hermia went in first. As Maud followed, she met his eye. He raised his right hand, put the tip of his finger into his mouth, and sucked it.
This could not go on, Walter thought as he made his way back to the embassy. It was like being a schoolboy. Maud was twenty-three years old and he was twenty-eight, yet they had to resort to absurd subterfuges in order to spend five minutes alone together. It was time they got married.
He would have to ask Fitz’s permission. Maud’s father was dead, so her brother was the head of the family. Fitz would undoubtedly have preferred her to marry an Englishman. However, he would probably come around: he must be worrying that he might never get his feisty sister married off.
No, the major problem was Otto. He wanted Walter to marry a well-behaved Prussian maiden who would be happy to spend the rest of her life breeding heirs. And when Otto wanted something he did all he could to get it, crushing opposition remorselessly-which was what had made him a good army officer. It would never occur to him that his son had a right to choose his own bride, without interference or pressure. Walter would have preferred to have his father’s encouragement and support: he certainly did not look forward to the inevitable stand-up confrontation. However, his love was a force more powerful by far than filial deference.
It was Sunday evening, but London was not quiet. Although Parliament was not sitting, and the mandarins of Whitehall had gone to their suburban homes, politics continued in the palaces of Mayfair, the gentlemen’s clubs of St. James’s, and the embassies. On the streets Walter recognized several members of Parliament, a couple of junior ministers from Britain’s Foreign Office, and some European diplomats. He wondered whether Britain’s bird-watching foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had stayed in town this weekend instead of going to his beloved country cottage in Hampshire.
Walter found his father at his desk, reading decoded telegrams. “This may not be the best time to tell you my news,” Walter began.
Otto grunted and carried on reading.
Walter plunged on. “I’m in love with Lady Maud.”
Otto looked up. “Fitzherbert’s sister? I suspected as much. You have my profound sympathy.”
“Be serious, please, Father.”
“No, you be serious.” Otto threw down the papers he was reading. “Maud Fitzherbert is a feminist, a suffragette, and a social maverick. She’s not a fit wife for anyone, let alone a German diplomat from a good family. So let’s hear no more of it.”
Hot words came to Walter’s lips, but he clenched his teeth and kept his temper. “She’s a wonderful woman, and I love her, so you’d better speak politely of her, whatever your opinions.”
“I’ll say what I think,” Otto said carelessly. “She’s dreadful.” He looked down at his telegrams.
Walter’s eye fell on the creamware fruit bowl his father had bought. “No,” he said. He picked up the bowl. “You will not say what you think.”
“Be careful with that.”
Walter had his father’s full attention now. “I feel protective of Lady Maud, the way you feel protective of this trinket.”
“Trinket? Let me tell you, it’s worth-”
“Except, of course, that love is stronger than the collector’s greed.” Walter tossed the delicate object into the air and caught it one-handed. His father let out an anguished cry of inarticulate protest. Walter went on heedlessly: “So when you speak insultingly of her, I feel as you do when you think I’m going to drop this-only more so.”
Walter raised his voice over his father’s. “And if you continue to trample all over my sensibilities, I will crush this stupid piece of pottery beneath my heel.”
“All right, you’ve made your point, put it down, for God’s sake.”
Walter took that for acquiescence, and replaced the ornament on a side table.
Otto said maliciously: “But there is something else you need to take into account… if I may mention it without treading on your sensibilities.”
“She is English.”
“For God’s sake!” Walter cried. “Well-born Germans have been marrying English aristocrats for years. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married Queen Victoria-his grandson is now king of England. And the queen of England was born a Württemberg princess!”
Ottoraised his voice. “Things have changed! The English are determined to keep us a second-rate power. They befriend our adversaries, Russia and France. You would be marrying an enemy of your fatherland.”
Walter knew this was how the old guard thought, but it was irrational. “We should not be enemies,” he said in exasperation. “There’s no reason for it.”
“They will never allow us to compete on equal terms.”
“That’s just not true!” Walter heard himself shouting, and tried to be calmer. “The English believe in free trade-they allow us to sell our manufactures throughout the British Empire.”
“Read that, then.” Otto threw across the desk the telegram he had been reading. “His Majesty the kaiser has asked for my comments.”
Walter picked it up. It was a draft reply to the Austrian emperor’s personal letter. Walter read it with mounting alarm. It ended: “The Emperor Franz Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.”
Walter was horrified. “But this gives Austria carte blanche!” he said. “They can do anything they like and we will support them!”
“There are some qualifications.”
“Not many. Has this been sent?”
“No, but it has been agreed. It will be sent tomorrow.”
“Can we stop it?”
“No, and I would not want to.”
“But it commits us to support Austria in a war against Serbia.”
“No bad thing.”
“We don’t want war!” Walter protested. “We need science, and manufacturing, and commerce. Germany must modernize and become liberal and grow. We want peace and prosperity.” And, he added silently, we want a world in which a man can marry the woman he loves without being accused of treason.
“Listen to me,” Otto said. “We have powerful enemies on both sides, France to the west and Russia to the east-and they are hand in glove. We can’t fight a war on two fronts.”
Walter knew this. “That’s why we have the Schlieffen Plan,” he said. “If we are forced to go to war, we first invade France with an overwhelming force, achieve victory within a few weeks, and then, with the west secure, we turn east to face Russia.”
“Our only hope,” Otto said. “But when that plan was adopted by the German army nine years ago, our intelligence told us it would take the Russian army forty days to mobilize. That gave us almost six weeks in which to conquer France. Ever since then, the Russians have been improving their railways-with money loaned by France!” Otto banged the desk, as if he could squash France under his fist. “As the Russians’ mobilization time gets shorter, so the Schlieffen Plan becomes more risky. Which means”-he pointed his finger dramatically at Walter-“the sooner we have this war, the better for Germany!”
“No!” Why could the old man not see how dangerous this thinking was? “It means we should be seeking peaceful solutions to petty disputes.”
“Peaceful solutions?” Otto shook his head knowingly. “You’re a young idealist. You think there is an answer to every question.”
“You actually want war,” Walter said incredulously. “You really do.”
“No one wants war,” said Otto. “But sometimes it’s better than the alternative.”
Maud had inherited a pittance from her father-three hundred pounds a year, barely enough to buy gowns for the season. Fitz got the title, the lands, the houses, and nearly all the money. That was the English system. But it was not what angered Maud. Money meant little to her: she did not really need her three hundred. Fitz paid for anything she wanted without question: he thought it ungentlemanly to be careful with money.
Her great resentment was that she had had no education. When she was seventeen, she had announced that she was going to university-whereupon everyone had laughed at her. It turned out that you had to come from a good school, and pass examinations, before they would let you in. Maud had never been to school, and even though she could discuss politics with the great men of the land, a succession of governesses and tutors had completely failed to equip her to pass any sort of exam. She had cried and raged for days, and even now thinking about it could still put her in a foul mood. This was what made her a suffragette: she knew girls would never get a decent education until women had the vote.
She had often wondered why women married. They contracted themselves to a lifetime of slavery and, she had asked, what did they get in return? Now, however, she knew the answer. She had never felt anything as intensely as her love for Walter. And the things they did to express that love gave her the most exquisite pleasure. To be able to touch one another that way any time you liked would be heaven. She would have enslaved herself three times over, if that were the price.
But slavery was not the price, at least not with Walter. She had asked him whether he thought a wife should obey her husband in all things, and he had answered: “Certainly not. I don’t see that obedience comes into it. Two adults who love one another should be able to make decisions together, without one having to obey the other.”
She spent a lot of time thinking about their life together. For a few years he would probably be posted from one embassy to another, and they would travel the world: Paris, Rome, Budapest, perhaps even farther afield to Addis Ababa, Tokyo, Buenos Aires. She thought of the story of Ruth in the Bible: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” Their sons would be taught to treat women as equals, and their daughters would grow up independent and strong-willed. Perhaps they would eventually settle in a town house in Berlin, so that their children could go to good German schools. At some point, no doubt, Walter would inherit Zumwald, his father’s country house in East Prussia. When they were old, and their children were adults, they would spend more time in the country, walking hand in hand around the estate, reading side by side in the evenings, and reflecting on how the world had changed since they were young.
Maud had trouble thinking about anything else. She sat in her office at the Calvary Gospel Hall, staring at a price list of medical supplies, and remembered how Walter had sucked his fingertip at the door to the duchess’s drawing room. People were beginning to notice her absentmindedness: Dr. Greenward had asked if she was feeling all right, and Aunt Herm had told her to wake up.
She tried again to concentrate on the order form, and this time she was interrupted by a tap at the door. Aunt Herm looked in and said: “Someone to see you.” She seemed a bit awestruck, and handed Maud a card.
General Otto von Wrich
EMBASSY OF THE EMPIRE OF GERMANY
CARLTON HOUSE TERRACE, LONDON
“Walter’s father!” said Maud. “What on earth…?”
“What shall I say?” whispered Aunt Herm.
“Ask him if he would like tea or sherry, and show him in.”
Von Ulrich was formally dressed in a black frock coat with satin lapels, a white piqué waistcoat, and striped trousers. His red face was perspiring in the summer heat. He was rounder than Walter, and not as handsome, but they had the same straight-backed, chin-up military stance.
Maud summoned her habitual insouciance. “My dear Herr von Ulrich, is this a formal visit?”
“I want to talk to you about my son,” he said. His English was almost as good as Walter’s, though he had an accent where Walter did not.
“It’s kind of you to come to the point so quickly,” Maud replied with a touch of sarcasm that went right over his head. “Please sit down. Lady Hermia will order some refreshment.”
“Walter comes from an old aristocratic family.”
“As do I,” said Maud.
“We are traditional, conservative, devoutly religious… perhaps a little old-fashioned.”
“Just like my family,” Maud said.
This was not going the way Otto had planned. “We are Prussians,” he said with a touch of exasperation.
“Ah,” said Maud as if trumped. “Whereas we, of course, are Anglo-Saxons.”
She was fencing with him, as if this were nothing more than a battle of wits, but underneath she was frightened. Why was he here? What was his aim? She felt it could not be benign. He was against her. He would try to come between her and Walter, she felt bleakly certain.
Anyway, he was not to be put off by facetiousness. “Germany and Great Britain are at odds. Britain makes friends with our enemies, Russia and France. This makes Britain our adversary.”
“I’m sorry to hear that you think that way. Many do not.”
“The truth is not arrived at by majority vote.” Again she heard a note of asperity in his voice. He was used to being heard uncritically, especially by women.
Dr. Greenward’s nurse brought in tea on a tray and poured. Otto remained silent until she left. Then he said: “We may go to war in the next few weeks. If we do not fight over Serbia, there will be some other casus belli. Sooner or later, Britain and Germany must do battle for mastery of Europe.”
“I’m sorry you feel so pessimistic.”
“Many others think the same.”
“But the truth is not arrived at by majority vote.”
Otto looked annoyed. He evidently expected her to sit and listen to his pomposity in silence. He did not like to be mocked. He said angrily: “You should pay attention to me. I’m telling you something that affects you. Most Germans regard Britain as their enemy. If Walter were to marry an Englishwoman, think of the consequences.”
“I have, of course. Walter and I have talked at length about this.”
“First, he would suffer my disapproval. I could not welcome an English daughter-in-law into my family.”
“Walter feels that your love for your son would help you get over your revulsion for me, in the end. Is there really no chance of that?”
“Second,” he said, ignoring her question, “he would be regarded as disloyal to the kaiser. Men of his own class would no longer be his friends. He and his wife would not be received in the best houses.”
Maud was becoming angry. “I find that hard to credit. Surely not all Germans are so narrow-minded?”
He appeared not to notice her rudeness. “Third, and finally, Walter’s career is with the foreign ministry. He will distinguish himself. I sent him to schools and universities in different countries. He speaks perfect English and passable Russian. Despite his immature idealistic views, he is well thought of by his superiors, and the kaiser has spoken kindly to him more than once. He could be foreign minister one day.”
“He’s brilliant,” Maud said.
“But if he marries you, his career is over.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, shocked.
“My dear young lady, is it not obvious? A man who is married to one of the enemy cannot be trusted.”
“We have talked about this. His loyalty would naturally lie with Germany. I love him enough to accept that.”
“He might be too concerned about his wife’s family to give total loyalty to his own country. Even if he ruthlessly ignored the connection, men would still ask the question.”
“You’re exaggerating,” she said, but she was beginning to lose confidence.
“He certainly could not work in any area that required secrecy. Men would not speak of confidential matters in his presence. He would be finished.”
“He doesn’t have to be in military intelligence. He can switch to other areas of diplomacy.”
“All diplomacy requires secrecy. And then there is my own position.”
Maud was surprised by this. She and Walter had not considered Otto’s career.
“I am a close confidant of the kaiser’s. Would he continue to place absolute trust in me if my son were married to an enemy alien?”
“He ought to.”
“He would, perhaps, if I took firm, positive action, and disowned my son.”
Maud gasped. “You would not do that.”
Otto raised his voice. “I would be obliged to!”
She shook her head. “You would have a choice,” she said desperately. “A man always has a choice.”
“I will not sacrifice everything I have earned-my position, my career, the respect of my countrymen-for a girl,” he said contemptuously.
Maud felt as if she had been slapped.
Otto went on: “But Walter will, of course.”
“What are you saying?”
“If Walter were to marry you he would lose his family, his country, and his career. But he will do it. He has declared his love for you without fully thinking through the consequences, and sooner or later he will understand what a catastrophic mistake he has made. But he undoubtedly considers himself unofficially engaged to you, and he will not back out of a commitment. He is too much of a gentleman. ‘Go ahead, disown me,’ he will say to me. He would consider himself a coward otherwise.”
“That’s true,” Maud said. She felt bewildered. This horrible old man saw the truth more clearly than she did.
Otto went on: “So you must break off the engagement.”
She felt stabbed. “No!”
“It is the only way to save him. You must give him up.”
Maud opened her mouth to object again, but Otto was right, and she could not think of anything to say.
Otto leaned forward and spoke with pressing intensity. “Will you break with him?”
Tears ran down Maud’s face. She knew what she had to do. She could not ruin Walter’s life, even out of love. “Yes,” she sobbed. Her dignity was gone, and she did not care; the pain was too much. “Yes, I will break with him.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, I promise.”
Otto stood up. “Thank you for your courtesy in listening to me.” He bowed. “I bid you good afternoon.” He went out.
Maud buried her face in her hands.
CHAPTER EIGHT – Mid-July 1914
There was a cheval glass in Ethel’s new bedroom at Tŷ Gwyn. It was old, the woodwork cracked and the glass misted, but she could see herself full-length. She considered it a great luxury.
She looked at herself in her underwear. She seemed to have become more voluptuous since falling in love. She had put on a little weight around her waist and hips, and her breasts seemed fuller, perhaps because Fitz stroked and squeezed them so much. When she thought about him her nipples hurt.
Fitz had arrived that morning, with Princess Bea and Lady Maud, and had whispered that he would meet her in the Gardenia Suite after lunch. Ethel had put Maud in the Pink Room, making up an excuse about repairs to the floorboards in Maud’s usual apartment.
Now Ethel had come to her room to wash and put on clean underwear. She loved preparing herself for him like this, anticipating how he would touch her body and kiss her mouth, hearing in advance the way he would groan with desire and pleasure, thinking of the smell of his skin and the voluptuous texture of his clothes.
She opened a drawer to take out fresh stockings, and her eye fell on a pile of clean strips of white cotton, the rags she used when menstruating. It occurred to her that she had not washed them since she had moved into this room. Suddenly there was a tiny seed of pure dread in her mind. She sat down heavily on the narrow bed. It was now the middle of July. Mrs. Jevons had left at the beginning of May. That was ten weeks ago. In that time Ethel should have used the rags not once but twice. “Oh, no,” she said aloud. “Oh, please, no!”
She forced herself to think calmly and worked it out again. The king’s visit had taken place in January. Ethel had been made housekeeper immediately afterward, but Mrs. Jevons had been too ill to move then. Fitz had gone to Russia in February, and had come back in March, which was when they had first made love properly. In April Mrs. Jevons had rallied, and Fitz’s man of business, Albert Solman, had come down from London to explain her pension to her. She had left at the beginning of May, and that was when Ethel had moved into this room and put that frightening little pile of white cotton strips into the drawer. It was ten weeks ago. Ethel could not make the arithmetic come out any differently.
How many times had they met in the Gardenia Suite? At least eight. Each time, Fitz withdrew before the end, but sometimes he left it a bit late, and she felt the first of his spasms while he was still inside her. She had been deliriously happy to be with him that way, and in her ecstasy she had closed her eyes to the risk. Now she had been caught.
“Oh, God forgive me,” she said aloud.
Her friend Dilys Pugh had fallen for a baby. Dilys was the same age as Ethel. She had been working as a housemaid for Perceval Jones’s wife and walking out with Johnny Bevan. Ethel recalled how Dilys’s breasts had got larger around the time she realized that you could, in fact, get pregnant from doing it standing up. They were married now.
What was going to happen to Ethel? She could not marry the father of her child. Apart from anything else, he was already married.
It was time to go and meet him. There would be no rolling on the bed today. They would have to talk about the future. She put on her housekeeper’s black silk dress.
What would he say? He had no children: would he be pleased, or horrified? Would he cherish his love child, or be embarrassed by it? Would he love Ethel more for conceiving, or would he hate her?
She left her attic room and went along the narrow corridor and down the back stairs to the west wing. The familiar wallpaper with its pattern of gardenias quickened her desire, in the same way that the sight of her knickers aroused Fitz.
He was already there, standing by the window, looking over the sunlit garden, smoking a cigar; and when she saw him she was struck again by how beautiful he was. She threw her arms around his neck. His brown tweed suit was soft to the touch because, she had discovered, it was made of cashmere. “Oh, Teddy, my lovely, I’m so happy to see you,” she said. She liked being the only person who called him Teddy.
“And I to see you,” he said, but he did not immediately stroke her breasts.
She kissed his ear. “I got something to say to you,” she said solemnly.
“And I have something to tell you! May I go first?”
She was about to say no, but he detached himself from her embrace and took a step back, and suddenly her heart filled with foreboding. “What?” she said. “What is it?”
“Bea is expecting a baby.” He drew on his cigar and blew out smoke like a sigh.
At first she could make no sense of his words. “What?” she said in a bewildered tone.
“The princess Bea, my wife, is pregnant. She is going to have a baby.”
“You mean you’ve been at it with her at the same time as with me?” Ethel said angrily.
He looked startled. It seemed he had not expected her to resent that. “I must!” he protested. “I need an heir.”
“But you said you loved me!”
“I do, and in a way I always will.”
“No, Teddy!” she cried. “Don’t say it like that-please don’t!”
“Keep your voice down!”
“Keep my voice down? You’re throwing me over! What is it to me now if people know?”
“It’s everything to me.”
Ethel was distraught. “Teddy, please, I love you.”
“But it’s over now. I have to be a good husband and a father to my child. You must understand.”
“Understand, hell!” she raged. “How can you say it so easily? I’ve seen you show more emotion over a dog that had to be shot!”
“It’s not true,” he said, and there was a catch in his voice.
“I gave myself to you, in this room, on that bed by there.”
“And I shan’t-” He stopped. His face, frozen until now in an expression of rigid self-control, suddenly showed anguish. He turned away, hiding from her gaze. “I shan’t ever forget that,” he whispered.
She moved closer to him, and saw tears on his cheeks, and her anger evaporated. “Oh, Teddy, I’m so sorry,” she said.
He tried to pull himself together. “I care for you very much, but I must do my duty,” he said. The words were cold, but his voice was tormented.
“Oh, God.” She tried to stop crying. She had not told him her news yet. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, sniffed, and swallowed. “Duty?” she said. “You don’t know the half.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m pregnant, too.”
“Oh, my good God.” He put his cigar to his lips, mechanically, then lowered it again without puffing on it. “But I always withdrew!”
“Not soon enough, then.”
“How long have you known?”
“I just realized. I looked in my drawer and saw my clean rags.” He winced. Evidently he did not like talk of menstruation. Well, he would have to put up with it. “I worked out that I haven’t had the curse since I moved into Mrs. Jevons’s old room, and that’s ten weeks ago.”
“Two cycles. That makes it definite. That’s what Bea said. Oh, hell.” He touched the cigar to his lips, found that it had gone out, and dropped it on the floor with a grunt of irritation.
A wry thought occurred to her. “You might have two heirs.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said sharply. “A bastard doesn’t inherit.”
“Oh,” she said. She had not seriously intended to make a claim for her child. On the other hand, she had not until now thought of it as a bastard. “Poor little thing,” she said. “My baby, the bastard.”
He looked guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. Forgive me.”
She could see that his better nature was at war with his selfish instincts. She touched his arm. “Poor Fitz.”
“God forbid that Bea should find out about this,” he said.
She felt mortally wounded. Why should his main concern be the other woman? Bea would be all right: she was rich and married, and carrying the loved and honored child of the Fitzherbert clan.
Fitz went on: “The shock might be too much for her.”
Ethel recalled a rumor that Bea had suffered a miscarriage last year. All the female servants had discussed it. According to Nina, the Russian maid, the princess blamed the miscarriage on Fitz, who had upset her by canceling a planned trip to Russia.
Ethel felt terribly rejected. “So your main concern is that the news of our baby might upset your wife.”
He stared at her. “I don’t want her to miscarry-it’s important!”
He had no idea how callous he was being. “Damn you,” Ethel said.
“What do you expect? The child Bea is carrying is one I have been hoping and praying for. Yours is not wanted by you, me, or anyone else.”
“That’s not how I see it,” she said in a small voice, and she began to cry again.
“I’ve got to think about this,” he said. “I need to be alone.” He took her by the shoulders. “We’ll talk again tomorrow. In the meantime, tell no one. Do you understand?”
“Good girl,” he said, and he left the room.
Ethel bent down and picked up the dead cigar.
She told no one, but she was unable to pretend that everything was all right, so she feigned illness and went to bed. As she lay alone, hour after hour, grief slowly gave way to anxiety. How would she and her baby live?
She would lose her job here at Tŷ Gwyn-that was automatic, even if her baby had not been the earl’s. That alone hurt. She had been so proud of herself when she was made housekeeper. Gramper was fond of saying that pride comes before a fall. He was right in this case.
She was not sure she could return to her parents’ house: the disgrace would kill her father. She was almost as upset about that as she was about her own shame. It would wound him more than her, in a way; he was so rigid about this sort of thing.
Anyway, she did not want to live as an unmarried mother in Aberowen. There were two already: Maisie Owen and Gladys Pritchard. They were sad figures with no proper place in the town’s social order. They were single, but no man was interested in them; they were mothers, but they lived with their parents as if they were still children; they were not welcome in any church, pub, shop, or club. How could she, Ethel Williams, who had always considered herself a cut above the rest, sink to the lowest level of all?
She had to leave Aberowen, then. She was not sorry. She would be glad to turn her back on the rows of grim houses, the prim little chapels, and the endless quarrels between miners and management. But where would she go? And would she be able to see Fitz?
As darkness fell she lay awake looking through the window at the stars, and at last she made a plan. She would start a new life in a new place. She would wear a wedding ring and tell a story about a dead husband. She would find someone to mind the baby, get a job of some kind, and earn money. She would send her child to school. It would be a girl, she felt, and she would be clever, a writer or a doctor, or perhaps a campaigner like Mrs. Pankhurst, championing women’s rights and getting arrested outside Buckingham Palace.
She had thought she would not sleep, but emotion had drained her, and she drifted off around midnight and fell into a heavy, dreamless slumber.
The rising sun woke her. She sat upright, looking forward to the new day as always; then she remembered that her old life was over, ruined, and she was in the middle of a tragedy. She almost succumbed to grief again, but fought against it. She could not afford the luxury of tears. She had to start a new life.
She got dressed and went down to the servants’ hall, where she announced that she was fully recovered from yesterday’s malady and fit to do her normal work.
Lady Maud sent for her before breakfast. Ethel made up a coffee tray and took it to the Pink Room. Maud was at her dressing table in a purple silk negligee. She had been crying. Ethel had troubles of her own, but all the same her sympathy quickened. “What’s the matter, my lady?”
“Oh, Williams, I’ve had to give him up.”
Ethel assumed she meant Walter von Ulrich. “But why?”
“His father came to see me. I hadn’t really faced the fact that Britain and Germany are enemies, and marriage to me would ruin Walter’s career-and possibly his father’s, too.”
“But everyone says there’s not going to be a war, Serbia’s not important enough.”
“If not now, it will be later; and even if it never happens, the threat is enough.” There was a frill of pink lace around the dressing table, and Maud was picking at it nervously, tearing the expensive lace. It was going to take hours to mend, Ethel thought. Maud went on: “No one in the German foreign ministry would trust Walter with secrets if he were married to an Englishwoman.”
Ethel poured the coffee and handed Maud a cup. “Herr von Ulrich will give up his job if he really loves you.”
“But I don’t want him to!” Maud stopped tearing the lace and drank some coffee. “I can’t be the person that ended his career. What kind of basis is that for marriage?”
He could have another career, Ethel thought; and if he really loved you, he would. Then she thought of the man she loved, and how quickly his passion had cooled when it became inconvenient. I’ll keep my opinions to myself, she thought; I don’t know a bloody thing. She asked: “What did Walter say?”
“I haven’t seen him. I wrote him a letter. I stopped going to all the places where I usually meet him. Then he started to call at the house, and it became embarrassing to keep telling the servants I was not at home, so I came down here with Fitz.”
“Why won’t you talk to him?”
“Because I know what will happen. He will take me in his arms and kiss me, and I’ll give in.”
I know that feeling, Ethel thought.
Maud sighed. “You’re quiet this morning, Williams. You’ve probably got worries of your own. Are things very hard with this strike?”
“Yes, my lady. The whole town is on short rations.”
“Are you still feeding the miners’ children?”
“Good. My brother is very generous.”
“Yes, my lady.” When it suits him, she thought.
“Well, you’d better get on with your work. Thank you for the coffee. I expect I’m boring you with my problems.”
Impulsively, Ethel seized Maud’s hand. “Please don’t say that. You’ve always been good to me. I’m very sorry about Walter, and I hope you will always tell me your troubles.”
“What a kind thing to say.” Fresh tears came to Maud’s eyes. “Thank you very much, Williams.” She squeezed Ethel’s hand, then released it.
Ethel picked up the tray and left. When she reached the kitchen Peel, the butler, said: “Have you done something wrong?”
Little do you know, she thought. “Why do you ask?”
“His lordship wants to see you in the library at half past ten.”
So it was to be a formal talk, Ethel thought. Perhaps that was better. They would be separated by a desk, and she would not be tempted to throw herself into his arms. That would help her keep back the tears. She would need to be cool and unemotional. The entire course of the rest of her life would be set by this discussion.
She went about her household duties. She was going to miss Tŷ Gwyn. In the years she had worked there she had come to love the gracious old furniture. She had picked up the names of the pieces, and learned to recognize a torchère, a buffet, an armoire, or a canterbury. As she dusted and polished she noticed the marquetry, the swags and scrolls, the feet shaped like lions’ paws clasping balls. Occasionally, someone like Peel would say: “That’s French-Louis Quinze,” and she had realized that every room was decorated and furnished consistently in a style, baroque or neoclassical or Gothic. She would never live with such furniture again.
After an hour she made her way to the library. The books had been collected by Fitz’s ancestors. Nowadays the room was not much used: Bea read only French novels, and Fitz did not read at all. Houseguests sometimes came here for peace and quiet, or to use the ivory chess set on the center table. This morning the blinds were pulled halfway down, on Ethel’s instructions, to shade the room from the July sun and keep it cool. Consequently the room was gloomy.
Fitz sat in a green leather armchair. To Ethel’s surprise, Albert Solman was there too, in a black suit and a stiff-collared shirt. A lawyer by training, Solman was what Edwardian gentlemen called a man of business. He managed Fitz’s money, checking his income from coal royalties and rents, paying the bills, and issuing cash for staff wages. He also dealt with leases and other contracts, and occasionally brought lawsuits against people who tried to cheat Fitz. Ethel had met him before and did not like him. She thought he was a know-all. Perhaps all lawyers were, she did not know: he was the only one she had ever met.
Fitz stood up, looking embarrassed. “I have taken Mr. Solman into my confidence,” he said.
“Why?” said Ethel. She had had to promise to tell no one. Fitz’s telling this lawyer seemed like a betrayal.
Fitz looked ashamed of himself-a rare sight. “Solman will tell you what I propose,” he said.
“Why?” Ethel said again.
Fitz gave her a pleading look, as if to beg her not to make this any worse for him.
But she felt unsympathetic. It was not easy for her-why should it be easy for him? “What is it that you’re frightened to tell me yourself?” she said, challenging him.
He had lost all his arrogant confidence. “I will leave him to explain,” he said; and to her astonishment he left the room.
When the door closed behind him she stared at Solman, thinking: How can I talk about my baby’s future with this stranger?
Solman smiled at her. “So, you’ve been naughty, have you?”
That stung her. “Did you say that to the earl?”
“Of course not!”
“Because he did the same thing, you know. It takes two people to make a baby.”
“All right, there’s no need to go into all that.”
“Just don’t speak as if I did this all on my own.”
Ethel took a seat, then looked at him again. “You may sit down, if you wish,” she said, just as if she were the lady of the house condescending to the butler.
He reddened. He did not know whether to sit, and look as if he had been waiting for permission, or remain standing, like a servant. In the end he paced up and down. “His lordship has instructed me to make you an offer,” he said. Pacing did not really work, so he stopped and stood in front of her. “It is a generous offer, and I advise you to accept it.”
Ethel said nothing. Fitz’s callousness had one useful effect: it made her realize she was in a negotiation. This was familiar territory to her. Her father was always in negotiations, arguing and dealing with the mine management, always trying to get higher wages, shorter hours, and better safety precautions. One of his maxims was “Never speak unless you have to.” So she remained silent.
Solman looked at her expectantly. When he gathered that she was not going to respond he looked put out. He resumed: “His lordship is willing to give you a pension of twenty-four pounds a year, paid monthly in advance. I think that’s very good of him, don’t you?”
The lousy rotten miser, Ethel thought. How could he be so mean to me? Twenty-four pounds was a housemaid’s wage. It was half what Ethel was getting as housekeeper, and she would be losing her room and board.
Why did men think they could get away with this? Probably because they usually could. A woman had no rights. It took two people to make a baby, but only one was obliged to look after it. How had women let themselves get into such a weak position? It made her angry.
Still she did not speak.
Solman pulled up a chair and sat close to her. “Now, you must look on the bright side. You’ll have ten shillings a week-”
“Not quite,” she said quickly.
“Well, say we make it twenty-six pounds a year-that’s ten shillings a week. What do you say?”
Ethel said nothing.
“You can find a nice little room in Cardiff for two or three shillings, and you can spend the rest on yourself.” He patted her knee. “And, who knows, you may find another generous man to make life a little easier for you… eh? You’re a very attractive girl, you know.”
She pretended not to take his meaning. The idea of being the lover of a creepy lawyer such as Solman disgusted her. Did he really think he could take the place of Fitz? She did not respond to his innuendo. “Are there conditions?” she said coldly.
“Attached to the earl’s offer.”
Solman coughed. “The usual ones, of course.”
“The usual? So you’ve done this before.”
“Not for Earl Fitzherbert,” he said quickly.
“But for someone else.”
“Let us stick to the business at hand, please.”
“You may go on.”
“You must not put the earl’s name on the child’s birth certificate, or in any other way reveal to anyone that he is the father.”
“And in your experience, Mr. Solman, do women usually accept these conditions of yours?”
Of course they do, she thought bitterly. What choice have they got? They are not entitled to anything, so they take what they can get. Of course they accept the conditions. “Are there any more?”
“After you leave Tŷ Gwyn, you must not attempt in any way to get in touch with his lordship.”
So, Ethel thought, he doesn’t want to see me or his child. Disappointment surged up inside her like a wave of weakness: if she had not been sitting down she might have fallen. She clenched her jaw to stop the tears. When she had herself under control she said: “Anything else?”
“I believe that’s all.”
Ethel stood up.
Solman said: “You must contact me about where the monthly payments should be made.” He took out a small silver box and extracted a card.
“No,” she said when he offered it to her.
“But you will need to get in touch with me-”
“No, I won’t,” she said again.
“What do you mean?”
“The offer is not acceptable.”
“Now, don’t be foolish, Miss Williams-”
“I’ll say it again, Mr. Solman, so there can be no doubt in your mind. The offer is not acceptable. My answer is no. I got nothing more to say to you. Good day.” She went out and banged the door.
She returned to her room, locked her door, and cried her heart out.
How could Fitz be so cruel? Did he really never want to see her again? Or his baby? Did he think that everything that had happened between them could be wiped out by twenty-four pounds a year?
Did he really not love her any longer? Had he ever loved her? Was she a fool?
She had thought he loved her. She had felt sure that meant something. Perhaps he had been playacting all the time, and had deceived her-but she did not think so. A woman could tell when a man was faking.
So what was he doing now? He must be suppressing his feelings. Perhaps he was a man of shallow emotions. That was possible. He might have loved her, genuinely, but with a love that was easily forgotten when it became inconvenient. Such weakness of character might have escaped her notice in the throes of passion.
At least his hard-heartedness made it easier for her to bargain. She had no need to think of his feelings. She could concentrate on trying to get the best for herself and the baby. She must always think how Da would have handled things. A woman was not quite powerless, despite the law.
Fitz would be worried now, she guessed. He must have expected her to take the offer, or at worst hold out for a higher price; then he would have felt his secret was safe. Now he would be baffled as well as anxious.
She had not given Solman a chance to ask what she did want. Let them flounder around in the dark for a while. Fitz would begin to fear that Ethel intended to get revenge by telling Princess Bea about the baby.
She looked out of the window at the clock on the roof of the stable. It was a few minutes before twelve. On the front lawn, the staff would be getting ready to serve dinner to the miners’ children. Princess Bea usually liked to see the housekeeper at about twelve. She often had complaints: she did not like the flowers in the hall, the footmen’s uniforms were not pressed, the paintwork on the landing was flaking. In her turn the housekeeper had questions to ask about allocating rooms to guests, renewing china and glassware, hiring and firing maids and kitchen girls. Fitz usually came into the morning room at about half past twelve for a glass of sherry before lunch.
Then Ethel would turn the thumbscrews.
Fitz watched the miners’ children queuing up for their lunch-or “dinner,” as they called it. Their faces were dirty, their hair was unkempt, and their clothes were ragged, but they looked happy. Children were amazing. These were among the poorest in the land, and their fathers were locked in a bitter dispute, but the children showed no sign of it.
Every since marrying Bea he had longed for a child. She had miscarried once, and he was terrified she might do so again. Last time she had thrown a tantrum simply because he had canceled their trip to Russia. If she found out that he had made their housekeeper pregnant, her rage would be uncontrollable.
And the dreadful secret was in the hands of a servant girl.
He was tortured by worry. It was a terrible punishment for his sin. In other circumstances he might have taken some joy in having a child with Ethel. He could have put mother and baby into a little house in Chelsea and visited them once a week. He felt another stab of regret and longing at the poignancy of that daydream. He did not want to treat Ethel harshly. Her love had been sweet to him: her yearning kisses, her eager touch, the heat of her young passion. Even while he was telling her the bad news, he had wished he could run his hands over her lithe body and feel her kissing his neck in that hungry way that he found so exhilarating. But he had to harden his heart.
As well as being the most exciting woman he had ever kissed, she was intelligent and well-informed and funny. Her father always talked about current affairs, she had told him. And the housekeeper at Tŷ Gwyn was entitled to read the earl’s newspapers after the butler had finished with them-a below-stairs rule that he had not known about. Ethel asked him unexpected questions that he could not always answer, such as “Who ruled Hungary before the Austrians?” He was going to miss that, he thought sadly.
But she would not behave the way a discarded mistress was supposed to. Solman had been shaken by his conversation with her. Fitz had asked him: “What does she want?” but Solman did not know. Fitz harbored a dreadful suspicion that Ethel might tell Bea the whole story, just out of some twisted moral desire to let the truth come out. God help me keep her away from my wife, he prayed.
He was surprised to see the small round form of Perceval Jones, strutting across the lawn in green plus fours and walking boots. “Good morning, my lord,” said the mayor, doffing his brown felt hat.
“Morning, Jones.” As chairman of Celtic Minerals Jones was the source of a great deal of Fitz’s wealth, but all the same he did not like the man.
“The news is not good,” Jones said.
“You mean from Vienna? I understand the Austrian emperor is still working on the wording of his ultimatum to Serbia.”
“No, I mean from Ireland. The Ulstermen won’t accept home rule, you know. It will make them a minority under a Roman Catholic government. The army is already mutinous.”
Fitz frowned. He did not like to hear talk of mutiny in the British army. He said stiffly: “No matter what the newspapers may say, I don’t believe that British officers will disobey the orders of their sovereign government.”
“They already have!” said Jones. “What about the Curragh Mutiny?”
“No one disobeyed orders.”
“Fifty-seven officers resigned when ordered to march on the Ulster Volunteers. You may not call that mutiny, my lord, but everyone else does.”
Fitz grunted. Jones was unfortunately right. The truth was that English officers would not attack their fellow men in the defense of a mob of Irish Catholics. “Ireland should never have been promised independence,” he said.
“I agree with you there,” said Jones. “But I really came to talk to you about this.” He indicated the children, seated on benches at trestle tables, eating boiled cod with cabbage. “I wish you’d put an end to it.”
Fitz did not like to be told what to do by his social inferiors. “I don’t care to let the children of Aberowen starve, even if it’s the fault of their fathers.”
“You’re just prolonging the strike.”
The fact that Fitz received a royalty on every ton of coal did not mean, in his view, that he was obliged to take the side of the mine owners against the men. Offended, he said: “The strike is your concern, not mine.”
“You take the money quick enough.”
Fitz was outraged. “I have no more to say to you.” He turned away.
Jones was instantly contrite. “I beg your pardon, my lord, do forgive me-an overhasty remark, most ill-judged, but the matter is extremely tiresome.”
It was hard for Fitz to refuse an apology. He was not mollified, but all the same he turned back and spoke to Jones courteously. “All right, but I shall continue to give the children dinner.”
“You see, my lord, a coal miner may be stubborn on his own account, and suffer a good deal of hardship through foolish pride; but what breaks him, in the end, is to see his children go hungry.”
“You’re working the pit anyway.”
“With third-rate foreign labor. Most of the men are not trained miners, and their output is small. Mainly we’re using them to maintain the tunnels and keep the horses alive. We’re not bringing up much coal.”
“For the life of me I can’t think why you evicted those wretched widows from their homes. There were only eight of them, and after all they had lost their husbands in the damn pit.”
“It’s a dangerous principle. The house goes with the collier. Once we depart from that, we’ll end up as nothing better than slum landlords.”
Perhaps you should not have built slums, then, Fitz thought, but he held his tongue. He did not want to prolong the conversation with this pompous little tyrant. He looked at his watch. It was half past twelve: time for a glass of sherry. “It’s no good, Jones,” he said. “I shan’t fight your battles for you. Good day.” He walked briskly to the house.
Jones was the least of his worries. What was he going to do about Ethel? He had to make sure Bea was not upset. Apart from the danger to the unborn baby, he felt the pregnancy might be a new start for their marriage. The child might bring them together and re-create the warmth and intimacy they had had when they were first together. But that hope would be dashed if Bea learned he had been dallying with the housekeeper. She would be incandescent.
He was grateful for the cool of the hall, with its flagstones underfoot and hammer-beam ceiling. His father had chosen this feudal decor. The only book Papa had ever read, apart from the Bible, was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He believed that the even greater British Empire would go the same way unless noblemen fought to preserve its institutions, especially the Royal Navy, the Church of England, and the Conservative Party.
He was right, Fitz had no doubt.
A glass of dry sherry was just the thing before lunch. It perked him up and sharpened his appetite. With a pleasant feeling of anticipation, he entered the morning room. There he was horrified to see Ethel talking to Bea. He stopped in the doorway and stared in consternation. What was she saying? Was he too late? “What’s going on here?” he said sharply.
Bea looked at him in surprise and said coolly: “I am discussing pillowcases with my housekeeper. Did you expect something more dramatic?” Her Russian accent rolled the letter r in “dramatic.”
For a moment he did not know what to say. He realized he was staring at his wife and his mistress. The thought of how intimate he had been with both these women was unsettling. “I don’t know, I’m sure,” he muttered, and he sat down at a writing desk with his back to them.
The two women carried on with their conversation. It was indeed about pillowcases: how long they lasted, how worn ones could be patched and used by servants, and whether it was best to buy them embroidered or get plain ones and have the housemaids do the embroidery. But Fitz was still shaken. The little tableau, mistress and servant in quiet conversation, reminded him of how terrifyingly easy it would be for Ethel to tell Bea the truth. This could not go on. He had to take action.
He took a sheet of blue crested writing paper from the drawer, dipped a pen in the inkwell, and wrote: “Meet me after lunch.” He blotted the note and slipped it into a matching envelope.
After a couple of minutes, Bea dismissed Ethel. As she was leaving, Fitz spoke without turning his head. “Come here, please, Williams.”
She came to his side. He noticed the light fragrance of scented soap-she had admitted stealing it from Bea. Despite his anger, he was uncomfortably aware of the closeness of her slim, strong thighs under the black silk of the housekeeper’s dress. Without looking at her he handed her the envelope. “Send someone to the veterinary surgery in town to get a bottle of these dog pills. They’re for kennel cough.”
“Very good, my lord.” She went out.
He would resolve the situation in a couple of hours’ time.
He poured his sherry. He offered a glass to Bea but she declined. The wine warmed his stomach and eased his tension. He sat next to his wife, and she gave him a friendly smile. “How do you feel?” he said.
“Revolting, in the mornings,” she said. “But that passes. I’m fine now.”
His thoughts quickly returned to Ethel. She had him over a barrel. She had said nothing, but implicitly she was threatening to tell Bea everything. It was surprisingly crafty of her. He fretted impotently. He would have liked to settle the matter even sooner than this afternoon.
They had lunch in the small dining room, sitting at a square-legged oak table that might have come from a medieval monastery. Bea told him she had discovered there were some Russians in Aberowen. “More than a hundred, Nina tells me.”
With an effort, Fitz put Ethel from his mind. “They will be among the strikebreakers brought in by Perceval Jones.”
“Apparently they are being ostracized. They can’t get service in the shops and cafés.”
“I must get Reverend Jenkins to preach a sermon on loving your neighbor, even if he is a strikebreaker.”
“Can’t you just order the shopkeepers to serve them?”
Fitz smiled. “No, my dear, not in this country.”
“Well, I feel sorry for them and I would like to do something for them.”
He was pleased. “That’s a kindly impulse. What do you have in mind?”
“I believe there is a Russian Orthodox church in Cardiff. I will get a priest up here to perform a service for them one Sunday.”
Fitz frowned. Bea had converted to the Church of England when they married, but he knew that she hankered for the church of her childhood, and he saw it as a sign that she was unhappy in her adopted country. But he did not want to cross her. “Very well,” he said.
“Then we could give them dinner in the servants’ hall.”
“It’s a nice thought, my dear, but they might be a rough crowd.”
“We’ll feed only those who come to the service. That way we will exclude the Jews and the worst of the troublemakers.”
“Shrewd. Of course, the townspeople may not like you for it.”
“But that is of no concern to me or you.”
He nodded. “Very well. Jones has been complaining that I am supporting the strike by feeding the children. If you entertain the strikebreakers, at least no one can say that we’re taking sides.”
“Thank you,” she said.
The pregnancy had already improved their relationship, Fitz thought.
He had two glasses of hock with his lunch, but his anxiety came back when he left the dining room and made his way to the Gardenia Suite. Ethel held his fate in her hands. She had all of a woman’s soft, emotional nature, but nevertheless she would not be told what to do. He could not control her, and that scared him.
But she was not there. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past two. He had said “after lunch.” Ethel would have known when coffee had been served and she should have been waiting for him. He had not specified the location, but surely she could work that out.
He began to feel apprehensive.
After five minutes he was tempted to leave. No one kept him waiting like this. But he did not want to leave the issue unresolved for another day, or even another hour, so he stayed.
She came in at half past two.
He said angrily: “What are you trying to do to me?”
She ignored the question. “What the hell were you thinking of, to make me talk to a lawyer from London?”
“I thought it would be less emotional.”
“Don’t be bloody daft.” Fitz was shocked. No one had talked to him like this since he was a schoolboy. She went on: “I’m having your baby. How can it be unemotional?”
She was right, he had been foolish, and her words stung, but at the same time he could not help loving the music of her accent-the word “unemotional” having a different note for each of its five syllables, so that it sounded like a melody. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll pay you double-”
“Don’t make it worse, Teddy,” she said, but her tone was softer. “Don’t bargain with me, as if this was a matter of the right price.”
He pointed an accusing finger. “You are not to speak to my wife, do you hear me? I won’t have it!”
“Don’t give me orders, Teddy. I’ve got no reason to obey you.”
“How dare you speak to me like that?”
“Shut up and listen, and I’ll tell you.”
He was infuriated by her tone, but he remembered that he could not afford to antagonize her. “Go on, then,” he said.
“You’ve behaved to me in a very unloving way.”
He knew that was true, and he felt a stab of guilt. He was wretchedly sorry to have hurt her. But he tried not to show it.
She went on: “I still love you too much to want to spoil your happiness.”
He felt even worse.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said. She swallowed and turned away, and he saw tears in her eyes. He began to speak, but she held up her hand to silence him. “You are asking me to leave my job and my home, so you must help me start a new life.”
“Of course,” he said. “If that’s what you wish.” Talking in more practical terms helped them both suppress their feelings.
“I’m going to London.”
“Good idea.” He could not help being pleased: no one in Aberowen would know she had a baby, let alone whose it was.
“You’re going to buy me a little house. Nothing fancy-a working-class neighborhood will suit me very well. But I want six rooms, so that I can live on the ground floor and take in a lodger. The rent will pay for repairs and maintenance. I will still have to work.”
“You’ve thought about this carefully.”
“You’re wondering how much it will cost, I expect, but you don’t want to ask me, because a gentleman doesn’t like to ask the price of things.”
It was true.
“I looked in the newspaper,” she said. “A house like that is about three hundred pounds. Probably cheaper than paying me two pounds a month for the rest of my life.”
Three hundred pounds was nothing to Fitz. Bea could spend that much on clothes in one afternoon at the Maison Paquin in Paris. He said: “But you would promise to keep the secret?”
“And I promise to love and care for your child, and raise her-or him-to be happy and healthy and well-educated, even though you don’t show any sign of being concerned about that.”
He felt indignant, but she was right. He had hardly given a thought to the child. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m too worried about Bea.”
“I know,” she said, her tone softening as it always did when he allowed his anxiety to show.
“When will you leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. I’m in just as much of a hurry as you. I’ll get the train to London, and start looking for a house right away. When I’ve found the right place, I’ll write to Solman.”
“You’ll have to stay in lodgings while you look for a house.” He took his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed her two white five-pound notes.
She smiled. “You have no idea how much things cost, do you, Teddy?” She gave back one of the notes. “Five pounds is plenty.”
He looked offended. “I don’t want you to feel that I’m short-changing you.”
Her manner changed, and he caught a glimpse of underlying rage. “Oh, you are, Teddy, you are,” she said sourly. “But not in money.”
“We both did it,” he said defensively, glancing at the bed.
“But only one of us is going to have a baby.”
“Well, let’s not argue. I’ll tell Solman to do what you have suggested.”
She held out her hand. “Good-bye, Teddy. I know you’ll keep your word.” Her voice was even, but he could tell that she was struggling to maintain her composure.
He shook hands, even though it seemed odd for two people who had made passionate love. “I will,” he said.
“Please leave now, quickly,” she said, and she turned aside.
He hesitated a moment longer, then left the room.
As he walked away, he was surprised and ashamed to feel unmanly tears come to his eyes. “Good-bye, Ethel,” he whispered to the empty corridor. “May God bless and keep you.”
She went to the luggage store in the attic and stole a small suitcase, old and battered. No one would ever miss it. It had belonged to Fitz’s father, and had his crest stamped in the leather: the gilding had worn off long ago, but the impression could still be made out. She packed stockings and underwear and some of the princess’s scented soap.
Lying in bed that night, she decided she did not want to go to London after all. She was too frightened to go through this alone. She wanted to be with her family. She needed to ask her mother questions about pregnancy. She should be in a familiar place when the baby came. Her child would need its grandparents and its uncle Billy.
In the morning she put on her own clothing, left her housekeeper’s dress hanging from its nail, and crept out of Tŷ Gwyn early. At the end of the drive she looked back at the house, its stones black with coal dust, its long rows of windows reflecting the rising sun, and she thought how much she had learned since she first came here to work as a thirteen-year-old fresh from school. Now she knew how the elite lived. They had strange food, prepared in complicated ways, and they wasted more than they ate. They all spoke with the same strangled accent, even some of the foreigners. She had handled rich women’s beautiful underwear, fine cotton and slippery silk, hand-sewn and embroidered and trimmed with lace, twelve of everything piled in their chests of drawers. She could look at a sideboard and tell at a glance in what century it had been made. Most of all, she thought bitterly, she had learned that love is not to be trusted.
She walked down the mountainside into Aberowen and made her way to Wellington Row. The door of her parents’ house was unlocked, as always. She went inside. The main room, the kitchen, was smaller than the Vase Room at Tŷ Gwyn, used only for arranging flowers.
Mam was kneading dough for bread, but when she saw the suitcase she stopped and said: “What’s gone wrong?”
“I’ve come home,” Ethel said. She put down the case and sat at the square kitchen table. She felt too ashamed to say what had happened.
However, Mam guessed. “You’ve been sacked!”
Ethel could not look at her mother. “Aye. I’m sorry, Mam.”
Mam wiped her hands on a rag. “What have you done?” she said angrily. “Out with it, now!”
Ethel sighed. Why was she holding back? “I fell for a baby,” she said.
“Oh, no-you wicked girl!”
Ethel fought back tears. She had hoped for sympathy, not condemnation. “I am a wicked girl,” she said. She took off her hat, trying to keep her composure.
“It have all gone to your head-working at the big house, and meeting the king and queen. It have made you forget how you were raised.”
“I expect you’re right.”
“It will kill your father.”
“He doesn’t have to give birth,” Ethel said sarcastically. “I expect he’ll be all right.”
“Don’t be cheeky. It’s going to break his heart.”
“Where is he?”
“Gone to another strike meeting. Think of his position in the town: elder of the chapel, miners’ agent, secretary of the Independent Labour Party-how will he hold up his head at meetings, with everyone thinking his daughter’s a slut?”
Ethel’s control failed. “I’m very sorry to cause him shame,” she said, and she began to cry.
Mam’s expression changed. “Oh, well,” she said. “It’s the oldest story in the world.” She came around the table and pressed Ethel’s head to her breast. “Never mind, never mind,” she said, just as she had when Ethel was a child and grazed her knees.
After a while, Ethel’s sobs eased.
Mam released her and said: “We’d better have a cup of tea.” There was a kettle kept permanently on the hob. She put tea leaves into a pot and poured boiling water in, then stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon. “When’s the baby due?”
“Oh, my goodness.” Mam turned from the fire to look at Ethel. “I’m going to be a grandmother!”
They both laughed. Mam set out cups and poured the tea. Ethel drank some and felt better. “Did you have easy births, or difficult?” she asked.
“There are no easy births, but mine were better than most, my mother said. I’ve had a bad back ever since Billy, all the same.”
Billy came downstairs, saying: “Who’s talking about me?” He could sleep late, Ethel realized, because he was on strike. Every time she saw him he seemed taller and broader. “Hello, Eth,” he said, and kissed her with a bristly mustache. “Why the suitcase?” He sat down, and Mam poured him tea.
“I’ve done something stupid, Billy,” said Ethel. “I’m having a baby.”
He stared at her, too shocked to speak. Then he blushed, no doubt thinking of what she had done to get pregnant. He looked down, embarrassed. Then he drank some tea. At last he said: “Who’s the father?”
“No one you know.” She had thought about this and worked out a story of sorts. “He was a valet who came to Tŷ Gwyn with one of the guests, but he’s gone in the army now.”
“But he’ll stand by you.”
“I don’t even know where he is.”
“I’ll find the beggar.”
Ethel put a hand on his arm. “Don’t get angry, my lovely. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it.”
Billy evidently did not know what to say. Threatening revenge was clearly no good, but he had no other response. He looked bewildered. He was still only sixteen.
Ethel remembered him as a baby. She had been only five years old when he arrived, but she had been completely fascinated by him, his perfection and his vulnerability. Soon I’ll have a beautiful, helpless infant, she thought; and she did not know whether to feel happy or terrified.
Billy said: “Da’s going to have something to say about it, I expect.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” said Ethel. “I wish there was something I could do to make it right for him.”
Gramper came down. “Sacked, is it?” he said when he saw the suitcase. “Too cheeky, were you?”
Mam said: “Don’t be cruel, now, Papa. She’s expecting a baby.”
“Oh, jowch,” he said. “One of the toffs up there at the big house, was it? The earl himself, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Don’t talk daft, Gramper,” said Ethel, dismayed that he had guessed the truth so quickly.
Billy said: “It was a valet who came with a houseguest. Gone in the army now, he is. She doesn’t want us to go after him.”
“Oh, aye?” said Gramper. Ethel could tell he was not convinced, but he did not persist. Instead he said: “It’s the Italian in you, my girl. Your grandmother was hot-blooded. She would have got into trouble if I hadn’t married her. As it was she didn’t want to wait for the wedding. In fact-”
Mam interrupted: “Papa! Not in front of the children.”
“What’s going to shock them, after this?” he said. “I’m too old for fairy tales. Young women want to lie with young men, and they want it so badly they’ll do it, married or not. Anyone who pretends otherwise is a fool-and that includes your husband, Cara my girl.”
“You be careful what you say,” Mam said.
“Aye, all right,” said Gramper, and he subsided into silence and drank his tea.
A minute later Da came in. Mam looked at him in surprise. “You’re back early!” she said.
He heard the displeasure in her voice. “You make it sound as if I’m not welcome.”
She got up from the table, making a space for him. “I’ll brew a fresh pot of tea.”
Da did not sit down. “The meeting was canceled.” His eye fell on Ethel’s suitcase. “What’s this?”
They all looked at Ethel. She saw fear on Mam’s face, defiance on Billy’s, and a kind of resignation on Gramper’s. It was up to her to answer the question. “I’ve got something to tell you, Da,” she said. “You’re going to be cross about it, and all I can say is that I’m sorry.”
His face darkened. “What have you done?”
“I’ve left my job at Tŷ Gwyn.”
“That’s nothing to be sorry for. I never liked you bowing and scraping to those parasites.”
“I left for a reason.”
He moved closer and stood over her. “Good or bad?”
“I’m in trouble.”
He looked thunderous. “I hope you don’t mean what girls sometimes mean when they say that.”
She stared down at the table and nodded.
“Have you-” He paused, searching for appropriate words. “Have you been overtaken in moral transgression?”
“You wicked girl!”
It was what Mam had said. Ethel cringed away from him, although she did not really expect him to strike her.
“Look at me!” he said.
She looked up at him through a blur of tears.
“So you are telling me you have committed the sin of fornication.”
“I’m sorry, Da.”
“Who with?” he shouted.
“What’s his name?”
“Teddy.” It came out before she could think.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? What on earth do you mean?”
“He came to the house on a visit with his master. By the time I found out my condition, he’d gone in the army. I’ve lost touch with him.”
“On a visit? Lost touch?” Da’s voice rose to an enraged roar. “You mean you’re not even engaged to him? You committed this sin… ” He spluttered, hardly able to get the disgusting words out. “You committed this foul sin casually?”
Mam said: “Don’t get angry, now, Da.”
“Don’t get angry? When else should a man get angry?”
Gramper tried to calm him. “Take it easy, now, Dai boy. It does no good to shout.”
“I’m sorry to have to remind you, Gramper, that this is my house, and I will be the judge of what does no good.”
“Aye, all right,” said Gramper pacifically. “Have it your way.”
Mam was not ready to give in. “Don’t say anything you might regret, now, Da.”
These attempts to calm Da’s wrath were only making him angrier. “I will not be ruled by women or old men!” he shouted. He pointed his finger at Ethel. “And I will not have a fornicator in my house! Get out!”
Mam began to cry. “No, please don’t say that!”
“Out!” he shouted. “And never come back!”
Mam said: “But your grandchild!”
Billy spoke. “Will you be ruled by the Word of God, Da? Jesus said: ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Gospel of Luke, chapter five, verse thirty-two.”
Da rounded on him. “Let me tell you something, you ignorant boy. My grandparents were never married. No one knows who my grandfather was. My grandmother sank as low as a woman can go.”
Mam gasped. Ethel was shocked, and she could see that Billy was flabbergasted. Gramper seemed as if he already knew.
“Oh, yes,” Da said, lowering his voice. “My father was brought up in a house of ill fame, if you know what that is; a place where sailors went, down the docks in Cardiff. Then one day, when his mother was in a drunken stupor, God led his childish footsteps into a chapel Sunday school, where he met Jesus. In the same place he learned to read and write and, eventually, to bring up his own children in the paths of righteousness.”
Mam said softly: “You never told me this, David.” She seldom called him by his Christian name.
“I hoped never to think of it again.” Da’s face was twisted into a mask of shame and rage. He leaned on the table and stared Ethel in the eye, and his voice sank to a whisper. “When I courted your mother, we held hands, and I kissed her cheek every evening until the wedding day.” He banged his fist on the table, making the cups shake. “By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, my family dragged itself up out of the stinking gutter.” His voice rose again to a shout. “We are not going back there! Never! Never! Never!”
There was a long moment of stunned silence.
Da looked at Mam. “Get Ethel out of here,” he said.
Ethel stood up. “My case is packed and I’ve got some money. I’ll get the train to London.” She looked hard at her father. “I won’t drag the family into the gutter.”
Billy picked up her suitcase.
Da said: “Where are you going to, boy?”
“I’ll walk her to the station,” Billy said, looking frightened.
“Let her carry her own case.”
Billy stooped to put it down, then changed his mind. An obstinate look came over his face. “I’ll walk her to the station,” he repeated.
“You’ll do what you’re told!” Da shouted.
Billy still looked scared, but now he was defiant too. “What are you going to do, Da-throw me out of the house and all?”
“I’ll put you across my knee and thrash you,” Da said. “You’re not too old.”
Billy was white-faced, but he looked Da in the eye. “Yes, I am,” he said. “I am too old.” He shifted the case to his left hand and clenched his right fist.
Da took a step forward. “I’ll teach you to make a fist at me, boy.”
“No!” Mam screamed. She stood between them and pushed at Da’s chest. “That’s enough! I will not have a fight in my kitchen.” She pointed her finger at Da’s face. “David Williams, you keep your hands to yourself. Remember that you’re an elder of Bethesda Chapel. What would people think?”
That calmed him.
Mam turned to Ethel. “You’d better go. Billy will go with you. Quick, now.”
Da sat down at the table.
Ethel kissed her mother. “Good-bye, Mam.”
“Write me a letter,” Mam said.
Da said: “Don’t you dare write to anyone in this house! The letters will be burned unopened!”
Mam turned away, weeping. Ethel went out and Billy followed.
They walked down the steep streets to the town center. Ethel kept her eyes on the ground, not wanting to speak to people she knew and be asked where she was off to.
At the station she bought a ticket to Paddington.
“Well,” said Billy, as they stood on the platform, “two shocks in one day. First you, then Da.”
“He have kept that bottled up inside him all these years,” Ethel said. “No wonder he’s so strict. I can almost forgive him for throwing me out.”
“I can’t,” said Billy. “Our faith is about redemption and mercy, not about bottling things up and punishing people.”
A train from Cardiff came in, and Ethel saw Walter von Ulrich get off. He touched his hat to her, which was nice of him: gentlemen did not do that to servants, normally. Lady Maud had said she had thrown him over. Perhaps he had come to win her back. She silently wished him luck.
“Do you want me to buy you a newspaper?” Billy said.
“No, thank you, my lovely,” she said. “I don’t think I could concentrate on it.”
Waiting for her train she said: “Do you remember our code?” In childhood they had devised a simple way to write notes that their parents could not understand.
For a moment Billy looked puzzled, then his face cleared. “Oh, aye.”
“I’ll write to you in code, so Da can’t read it.”
“Right,” he said. “And send the letter via Tommy Griffiths.”
The train puffed into the station in clouds of steam. Billy hugged Ethel. She could see he was trying not to cry.
“Look after yourself,” she said. “And take care of our mam.”
“Aye,” he said, and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “We’ll be all right. You be careful up there in London, now.”
Ethel boarded the train and sat by the window. A minute later it pulled out. As it picked up speed, she watched the pithead winding gear recede into the distance, and wondered if she would ever see Aberowen again.
Maud had breakfast late with Princess Bea in the small dining room at Tŷ Gwyn. The princess was in high spirits. Normally she complained a lot about living in Britain-although Maud recalled, from her time as a child in the British embassy, that life in Russia was much more uncomfortable: the houses cold, the people surly, services unreliable, and government disorganized. But Bea had no complaints today. She was happy that she had at last conceived.
She even spoke generously of Fitz. “He saved my family, you know,” she said to Maud. “He paid off the mortgages on our estate. But until now there has been no one to inherit it-my brother has no children. It would seem such a tragedy if all Andrei’s land and Fitz’s went to some distant cousin.”
Maud could not see this as a tragedy. The distant cousin in question might well be a son of hers. But she had never expected to inherit a fortune and she gave little thought to such things.
Maud was not good company this morning, she realized as she drank coffee and toyed with toast. In fact she was miserable. She felt oppressed by the wallpaper, a Victorian riot of foliage that covered the ceiling as well as the walls, even though she had lived with it all her life.
She had not told her family about her romance with Walter, so now she could not tell them that it was over, and that meant she had no one to sympathize with her. Only the sparky little housekeeper, Williams, knew the story, and she seemed to have disappeared.
Maud read The Times’s report of Lloyd George’s speech last night at the Mansion House dinner. He had been optimistic about the Balkan crisis, saying it could be resolved peacefully. She hoped he was right. Even though she had given Walter up, she was still horrified by the thought that he might have to put on a uniform and be killed or maimed in a war.
She read a short report in The Times datelined Vienna and headed THE SERVIAN SCARE. She asked Bea if Russia would defend Serbia against the Austrians. “I hope not!” Bea said, alarmed. “I don’t want my brother to go to war.”
They were in the small dining room. Maud could remember having breakfast here with Fitz and Walter in the school holidays, when she was twelve and they were seventeen. The boys had had enormous appetites, she recalled, consuming eggs and sausages and great piles of buttered toast every morning before going off to ride horses or swim in the lake. Walter had been such a glamorous figure, handsome and foreign. He had treated her as courteously as if she were his age, which was flattering to a young girl-and, she could now see, a subtle way of flirting.
While she was reminiscing the butler, Peel, came in and shocked her by saying to Bea: “Herr von Ulrich is here, Your Highness.”
Walter could not possibly be here, Maud thought bewilderedly. Could it be Robert? Equally unlikely.
A moment later, Walter walked in.
Maud was too stupefied to speak. Bea said: “What a pleasant surprise, Herr von Ulrich.”
Walter was wearing a lightweight summer suit of pale blue-gray tweed. His blue satin tie was the same color as his eyes. Maud wished she had put on something other than the plain cream-colored peg-top dress that had seemed perfectly adequate for breakfast with her sister-in-law.
“Forgive this intrusion, Princess,” Walter said to Bea. “I had to visit our consulate in Cardiff-a tiresome business about German sailors who got into trouble with the local police.”
That was rubbish. Walter was a military attaché: his job did not involve getting sailors out of jail.
“Good morning, Lady Maud,” he said, shaking her hand. “What a delightful surprise to find you here.”
More rubbish, she thought. He was here to see her. She had left London so that he could not badger her, but deep in her heart she could not help being pleased by his persistence in following her all this way. Flustered, she just said: “Hello, how are you?”
Bea said: “Do have some coffee, Herr von Ulrich. The earl is out riding, but he’ll be back soon.” She naturally assumed Walter was there to see Fitz.
“How kind you are.” Walter sat down.
“Will you stay for lunch?”
“I would love to. Then I must catch a train back to London.”
Bea stood up. “I should speak to the cook.”
Walter jumped to his feet and pulled out her chair.
“Talk to Lady Maud,” Bea said as she left the room. “Cheer her up. She’s worried about the international situation.”
Walter raised his eyebrows at the note of mockery in Bea’s voice. “All sensible people are worried about the international situation,” he said.
Maud felt awkward. Desperate for something to say, she pointed to The Times. “Do you think it’s true that Serbia has called up seventy thousand reservists?”
“I doubt if they have seventy thousand reservists,” Walter said gravely. “But they are trying to raise the stakes. They hope that the danger of a wider war will make Austria cautious.”
“Why is it taking the Austrians so long to send their demands to the Serbian government?”
“Officially, they want to get the harvest in before doing anything which might require them to call men to the army. Unofficially, they know that the president of France and his foreign minister happen to be in Russia, which makes it dangerously easy for the two allies to agree on a concerted response. There will be no Austrian note until President Poincaré leaves St. Petersburg.”
He was such a clear thinker, Maud reflected. She loved that about him.
His reserve failed him suddenly. His mask of formal courtesy fell away, and his face looked anguished. Abruptly, he said: “Please come back to me.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat seemed choked with emotion, and no words came out.
He said miserably: “I know you threw me over for my own sake, but it won’t work. I love you too much.”
Maud found words. “But your father… ”
“He must work out his own destiny. I cannot obey him, not in this.” His voice sank to a whisper. “I cannot bear to lose you.”
“He might be right: perhaps a German diplomat can’t have an English wife, at least not now.”
“Then I’ll follow another career. But I could never find another you.”
Her resolve melted and her eyes flooded.
He reached across the table and took her hand. “May I speak to your brother?”
She bunched up her white linen napkin and blotted her tears. “Don’t talk to Fitz yet,” she said. “Wait a few days, until the Serbian crisis blows over.”
“That may take more than a few days.”
“In that case, we’ll think again.”
“I shall do as you wish, of course.”
“I love you, Walter. Whatever happens, I want to be your wife.”
He kissed her hand. “Thank you,” he said solemnly. “You have made me very happy.”
A strained silence descended on the house in Wellington Row. Mam made dinner, and Da and Billy and Gramper ate it, but no one said much. Billy was eaten up with a rage he could not express. In the afternoon he climbed the mountainside and walked for miles on his own.
Next morning he found his mind returning again and again to the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. Sitting in the kitchen in his Sunday clothes, waiting to go with his parents and Gramper to the Bethesda Chapel for the service of the breaking of bread, he opened his Bible at the Gospel According to John and found chapter 8. He read the story over and over. It seemed to be about exactly the kind of crisis that had struck his family.
He continued to think of it in chapel. He looked around the room at his friends and neighbors: Mrs. Dai Ponies, John Jones the Shop, Mrs. Ponti and her two big sons, Suet Hewitt… They all knew that Ethel had left Tŷ Gwyn yesterday and bought a train ticket to Paddington; and although they did not know why, they could guess. In their minds, they were already judging her. But Jesus was not.
During the hymns and extempore prayers, he decided that the Holy Spirit was leading him to read those verses out. Toward the end of the hour he stood up and opened his Bible.
There was a little murmur of surprise. He was a bit young to be leading the congregation. Still, there was no age limit: the Holy Spirit could move anyone.
“A few verses from John’s Gospel,” he said. There was a slight shake in his voice, and he tried to steady it.
“‘They say unto him: Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.’”
Bethesda Chapel went suddenly quiet: no one fidgeted, whispered, or coughed.
Billy read on: “‘Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned, but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as if he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, and said unto them-’”
Here Billy paused and looked up.
With careful emphasis he said: “‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’”
Every face in the room stared back at him. No one moved.
Billy resumed: “‘And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her: Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said: No man, Lord.’”
Billy looked up from the book. He did not need to read the last verse: he knew it by heart. He looked at his father’s stony face and spoke very slowly. “‘And Jesus said unto her: Neither do I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more.’”
After a long moment he closed the Bible with a clap that sounded like thunder in the silence. “This is the Word of God,” he said.
He did not sit down. Instead he walked to the exit. The congregation stared, rapt. He opened the big wooden door and walked out.
He never went back.
CHAPTER NINE – Late July 1914
Walter von Ulrich could not play ragtime.
He could play the tunes, which were simple. He could play the distinctive chords, which often used the interval of the flatted seventh. And he could play both together-but it did not sound like ragtime. The rhythm eluded him. His effort was more like something you might hear from a band in a Berlin park. For one who could play Beethoven sonatas effortlessly, this was frustrating.
Maud had tried to teach him, that Saturday morning at Tŷ Gwyn, at the upright Bechstein among the potted palms in the small drawing room, with the summer sun coming through the tall windows. They had sat hip to hip on the piano stool, their arms interlaced, and Maud had laughed at his efforts. It had been a moment of golden happiness.
His mood had darkened when she explained how his father had talked her into breaking with Walter. If he had seen his father on the evening when he returned to London, there would have been an explosion. But Otto had left for Vienna, and Walter had had to swallow his rage. He had not seen his father since.
He had agreed to Maud’s proposal that they should keep their engagement secret until the Balkan crisis was over. It was still going on, though things had calmed down. Almost four weeks had passed since the assassination in Sarajevo, but the Austrian emperor still had not sent to the Serbians the note he had been mulling so long. The delay encouraged Walter to hope that tempers had cooled and moderate counsels had prevailed in Vienna.
Sitting at the baby grand piano in the compact drawing room of his bachelor flat in Piccadilly, he reflected that there was much the Austrians could do, short of war, to punish Serbia and soothe their wounded pride. For example, they could force the Serbian government to close anti-Austrian newspapers, and purge nationalists from the Serbian army and civil service. The Serbians could submit to that: it would be humiliating, but better than a war they could not win.
Then the leaders of the great European countries could relax and concentrate on their domestic problems. The Russians could crush their general strike, the English could pacify the mutinous Irish Protestants, and the French could enjoy the murder trial of Madame Caillaux, who had shot the editor of Le Figaro for printing her husband’s love letters.
And Walter could marry Maud.
That was his focus now. The more he thought about the difficulties, the more determined he became to overcome them. Having looked, for a few days, at the joyless prospect of life without her, he was even more sure that he wanted to marry her, regardless of the price they might both have to pay. As he avidly followed the diplomatic game being played on the chessboard of Europe, he scrutinized every move to assess its effect first on him and Maud, and only second on Germany and the world.
He was going to see her tonight, at dinner and at the Duchess of Sussex’s ball. He was already dressed in white tie and tails. It was time to leave. But as he closed the lid of the piano the doorbell rang, and his manservant announced Count Robert von Ulrich.
Robert looked surly. It was a familiar expression. Robert had been a troubled and unhappy young man when they were students together in Vienna. His feelings drew him irresistibly toward a group whom he had been brought up to regard as decadent. Then, when he came home after an evening with men like himself, he wore that look, guilty but defiant. In time he had discovered that homosexuality, like adultery, was officially condemned but-in sophisticated circles, at least-unofficially tolerated; and he had become reconciled to who he was. Today he wore that face for some other reason.
“I’ve just seen the text of the emperor’s note,” Robert said immediately.
Walter’s heart leaped in hope. This might be the peaceful resolution he was waiting for. “What does it say?”
Robert handed him a sheet of paper. “I copied out the main part.”
“Has it been delivered to the Serbian government?”
“Yes, at six o’clock Belgrade time.”
There were ten demands. The first three followed the lines Walter had anticipated, he saw with relief: Serbia had to suppress liberal newspapers, break up the secret society called the Black Hand, and clamp down on nationalist propaganda. Perhaps the moderates in Vienna had won the argument after all, he thought gratefully.
Point four seemed reasonable at first-the Austrians demanded a purge of nationalists in the Serbian civil service-but there was a sting in the tail: the Austrians would supply the names. “That seems a bit strong,” Walter said anxiously. “The Serbian government can’t just sack everyone the Austrians tell them to.”
Robert shrugged. “They will have to.”
“I suppose so.” For the sake of peace, Walter hoped they would.
But there was worse to come.
Point five demanded that Austria assist the Serbian government in crushing subversion, and point six, Walter read with dismay, insisted that Austrian officials take part in Serbia’s judicial inquiry into the assassination. “But Serbia can’t agree to this!” Walter protested. “It would amount to giving up their sovereignty.”
Robert’s face darkened further. “Hardly,” he said peevishly.
“No country in the world could agree to it.”
“Serbia will. It must, or be destroyed.”
“In a war?”
“Which could engulf all of Europe!”
Robert wagged his finger. “Not if other governments are sensible.”
Unlike yours, Walter thought, but he bit back the retort and read on. The remaining points were arrogantly expressed, but the Serbs could probably live with them: arrest of conspirators, prevention of smuggling of weapons into Austrian territory, and a clampdown on anti-Austrian pronouncements by Serbian officials.
But there was a forty-eight-hour deadline for reply.
“My God, this is harsh,” said Walter.
“People who defy the Austrian emperor must expect harshness.”
“I know, I know, but he hasn’t even given them room to save face.”
“Why should he?”
Walter let his exasperation show. “For goodness’ sake, does he want war?”
“The emperor’s family, the Habsburg dynasty, has governed vast areas of Europe for hundreds of years. Emperor Franz Joseph knows that God intends him to rule over inferior Slavic peoples. This is his destiny.”
“God spare us from men of destiny,” Walter muttered. “Has my embassy seen this?”
“They will any minute now.”
Walter wondered how others would react. Would they accept this, as Robert had, or be outraged like Walter? Would there be an international howl of protest or just a helpless diplomatic shrug? He would find out this evening. He looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. “I’m late for dinner. Are you going to the Duchess of Sussex’s ball later?”
“Yes. I’ll see you there.”
They left the building and parted company in Piccadilly. Walter headed for Fitz’s house, where he was to dine. He felt breathless, as if he had been knocked down. The war he dreaded had come dangerously closer.
He arrived with just enough time to bow to Princess Bea, in a lavender gown festooned with silk bows, and shake hands with Fitz, impossibly handsome in a wing collar and a white bow tie; then dinner was announced. He was glad to find himself assigned to escort Maud through to the dining room. She wore a dark red dress of some soft material that clung to her body the way Walter wanted to. As he held her chair he said: “What a very attractive gown.”
“Paul Poiret,” she said, naming a designer so famous that even Walter had heard of him. She lowered her voice a little. “I thought you might like it.”
The remark was only mildly intimate, but all the same it gave him a thrill, rapidly followed by a shiver of fear at the thought that he could yet lose this enchanting woman.
Fitz’s house was not quite a palace. Its long dining room, at the corner of the street, looked over two thoroughfares. Electric chandeliers burned despite the bright summer evening outside, and reflected lights glittered in the crystal glasses and silver cutlery marshaled at each place. Looking around the table at the other female guests, Walter marveled anew at the indecent amount of bosom revealed by upper-class Englishwomen at dinner.
Such observations were adolescent. It was time he got married.
As soon as he sat down, Maud slipped off a shoe and pushed her stockinged toe up the leg of his trousers. He smiled at her, but she saw immediately that he was distracted. “What’s the matter?” she said.
“Start a conversation about the Austrian ultimatum,” he murmured. “Say you’ve heard it has been delivered.”
Maud addressed Fitz, at the head of the table. “I believe the Austrian emperor’s note has at last been handed in at Belgrade,” she said. “Have you heard anything, Fitz?”
Fitz put down his soup spoon. “The same as you. But no one knows what is in it.”
Walter said: “I believe it is very harsh. The Austrians insist on taking a role in the Serbian judicial process.”
“Taking a role!” said Fitz. “But if the Serbian prime minister agreed to that, he’d have to resign.”
Walter nodded. Fitz foresaw the same consequences as he did. “It is almost as if the Austrians want war.” He was perilously close to speaking disloyally about one of Germany’s allies, but he felt anxious enough not to care. He caught Maud’s eye. She was pale and silent. She, too, had immediately seen the threat.
“One has sympathy for Franz Joseph, of course,” Fitz said. “Nationalist subversion can destabilize an empire if it is not firmly dealt with.” Walter guessed he was thinking of Irish independence campaigners and South African Boers threatening the British empire. “But you don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” Fitz finished.
Footmen took away the soup bowls and poured a different wine. Walter drank nothing. It was going to be a long evening, and he needed a clear head.
Maud said quietly: “I happened to see Prime Minister Asquith today. He said there could be a real Armageddon.” She looked scared. “I’m afraid I did not believe him-but now I see he might have been right.”
Fitz said: “It’s what we’re all afraid of.”
Walter was impressed as always by Maud’s connections. She hobnobbed casually with the most powerful men in London. Walter recalled that as a girl of eleven or twelve, when her father was a minister in a Conservative government, she would solemnly question his cabinet colleagues when they visited Tŷ Gwyn; and even then such men would listen to her attentively and answer her patiently.
She went on: “On the bright side, if there is a war Asquith thinks Britain need not be involved.”
Walter’s heart lifted. If Britain stayed out, the war need not separate him from Maud.
But Fitz looked disapproving. “Really?” he said. “Even if… ” He looked at Walter. “Forgive me, von Ulrich-even if France is overrun by Germany?”
Maud replied: “We will be spectators, Asquith says.”
“As I have long feared,” Fitz said pompously, “the government does not understand the balance of power in Europe.” As a Conservative, he mistrusted the Liberal government, and personally he hated Asquith, who had enfeebled the House of Lords; but, most importantly, he was not totally horrified by the prospect of war. In some ways, Walter feared, he might relish the thought, just as Otto did. And he certainly thought war preferable to any weakening of British power.
Walter said: “Are you quite sure, my dear Fitz, that a German victory over France would upset the balance of power?” This line of discussion was rather sensitive for a dinner party, but the issue was too important to be brushed under Fitz’s expensive carpet.
Fitz said: “With all due respect to your honored country, and to His Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm, I fear Britain could not permit German control of France.”
That was the trouble, Walter thought, trying hard not to show the anger and frustration he felt at these glib words. A German attack on Russia’s ally France would, in reality, be defensive-but the English talked as if Germany was trying to dominate Europe. Forcing a genial smile, he said: “We defeated France forty-three years ago, in the conflict you call the Franco-Prussian War. Great Britain was a spectator then. And you did not suffer by our victory.”
Maud added: “That’s what Asquith said.”
“There’s a difference,” Fitz said. “In 1871, France was defeated by Prussia and a group of minor German kingdoms. After the war, that coalition became one country, the modern Germany-and I’m sure you will agree, von Ulrich, my old friend, that Germany today is a more formidable presence than old Prussia.”
Men like Fitz were so dangerous, Walter thought. With faultless good manners they would lead the world to destruction. He struggled to keep the tone of his reply light. “You’re right, of course-but perhaps formidable is not the same as hostile.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
At the other end of the table, Bea coughed reproachfully. No doubt she thought this topic too contentious for polite conversation. She said brightly: “Are you looking forward to the duchess’s ball, Herr von Ulrich?”
Walter felt reproved. “I feel sure the ball will be absolutely splendid,” he gushed, and was rewarded with a grateful nod from Bea.
Aunt Herm put in: “You’re such a good dancer!”
Walter smiled warmly at the old woman. “Perhaps you will grant me the honor of the first dance, Lady Hermia?”
She was flattered. “Oh, my goodness, I’m too old for dancing. Besides, you youngsters have steps that didn’t even exist when I was a debutante.”
“The latest craze is the czardas. It’s a Hungarian folk dance. Perhaps I should teach you it.”
Fitz said: “Would that constitute a diplomatic incident, do you think?” It was not very funny, but everyone laughed, and the conversation turned to other trivial but safe subjects.
After dinner the party boarded carriages to drive the four hundred yards to Sussex House, the duke’s palace in Park Lane.
Night had fallen, and light blazed from every window: the duchess had at last given in and installed electricity. Walter climbed the grand staircase and entered the first of three grand reception rooms. The orchestra was playing the most popular tune of recent years, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” His left hand twitched: the syncopation was the crucial element.
He kept his promise and danced with Aunt Herm. He hoped she would have lots of partners: he wanted her to get tired and doze off in a side room, so that Maud would be left unchaperoned. He kept remembering what he and Maud had done in the library of this house a few weeks ago. His hands itched to touch her through that clinging dress.
But first he had work to do. He bowed to Aunt Herm, took a glass of pink champagne from a footman, and began to circulate. He moved through the Small Ballroom, the Salon, and the Large Ballroom, talking to the political and diplomatic guests. Every ambassador in London had been invited, and many had come, including Walter’s boss, Prince Lichnowsky. Numerous members of Parliament were there. Most were Conservative, like the duchess, but there were some Liberals, including several government ministers. Robert was deep in conversation with Lord Remarc, a junior minister in the War Office. No Labour M.P.s were to be seen: the duchess considered herself an open-minded woman, but there were limits.
Walter learned that the Austrians had sent copies of their ultimatum to all the major embassies in Vienna. It would be cabled to London and translated overnight, and by morning everyone would know its contents. Most people were shocked by its demands, but no one knew what to do about it.
By one o’clock in the morning he had learned all he could, and he went to find Maud. He walked down the stairs and into the garden, where supper was laid out in a striped marquee. So much food was served in English high society! He found Maud toying with some grapes. Aunt Herm was happily nowhere to be seen.
Walter put his worries aside. “How can you English eat so much?” he said to Maud playfully. “Most of these people have had a hearty breakfast, a lunch of five or six courses, tea with sandwiches and cakes, and a dinner of at least eight courses. Do they now really need soup, stuffed quails, lobster, peaches, and ice cream?”
She laughed. “You think we’re vulgar, don’t you?”
He did not, but he teased her by pretending to. “Well, what culture do the English have?” He took her arm and, as if moving aimlessly, walked her out of the tent into the garden. The trees were decked with fairy lights that gave little illumination. On the winding paths between shrubs, a few other couples walked and talked, some holding hands discreetly in the gloom. Walter saw Robert with Lord Remarc again, and wondered if they, too, had found romance. “English composers?” he said, still teasing Maud. “Gilbert and Sullivan. Painters? While the French Impressionists were changing the way the world sees itself, the English were painting rosy-cheeked children playing with puppies. Opera? All Italian, when it’s not German. Ballet? Russian.”
“And yet we rule half the world,” she said with a mocking smile.
He took her in his arms. “And you can play ragtime.”
“It’s easy, once you get the rhythm.”
“That’s the part I find difficult.”
“You need lessons.”
He put his mouth to her ear and murmured: “Teach me, please?” The murmur turned to a groan as she kissed him, and after that they did not speak for some time.
That was in the small hours of Friday, July 24. On the following evening, when Walter attended another dinner and another ball, the rumor on everyone’s lips was that the Serbians would concede every Austrian demand, except only for a request for clarification on points five and six. Surely, Walter thought elatedly, the Austrians could not reject such a cringing response? Unless, of course, they were determined to have a war regardless.
On his way home at daybreak on Saturday he stopped at the embassy to write a note about what he had learned during the evening. He was at his desk when the ambassador himself, Prince Lichnowsky, appeared in immaculate morning dress, carrying a gray top hat. Startled, Walter jumped to his feet, bowed, and said: “Good morning, Your Highness.”
“You’re here very early, von Ulrich,” said the ambassador. Then, noting Walter’s evening dress, he said: “Or rather, very late.” He was handsome in a craggy way, with a big curved nose over his mustache.