Fall of Giants / Chapter 20

Chapter 20


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CHAPTER TWENTY  -  November to December 1916

Ethel Williams anxiously scanned the casualty list in the newspaper. There were several Williamses, but no Corporal William Williams of the Welsh Rifles. With a silent prayer of thanks she folded the paper, handed it to Bernie Leckwith, and put the kettle on for cocoa.

She could not be sure Billy was alive. He might have been killed in the last few days or hours. She was haunted by the memory of Telegram Day in Aberowen, and the women's faces twisted with fear and grief, faces that would carry forever the cruel marks of the news heard that day. She was ashamed of herself for feeling glad Billy was not among the dead.

The telegrams had kept coming to Aberowen. The battle of the Somme did not end on that first day. Throughout July, August, September, and October the British army threw its young soldiers across no-man's-land to be mown down by machine guns. Again and again the newspapers hailed a victory, but the telegrams told another story.

Bernie was in Ethel's kitchen, as he was most evenings. Little Lloyd was fond of "Uncle" Bernie. Usually he sat on Bernie's lap, and Bernie read aloud to him from the newspaper. The child had little idea what the words meant but he seemed to like it anyway. Tonight, however, Bernie was on edge, for some reason, and paid no attention to Lloyd.

Mildred from upstairs came in carrying a teapot. "Lend us a spoonful of tea, Eth," she said.

"Help yourself, you know where it is. Do you want a cup of cocoa instead?"

"No, thanks, cocoa makes me fart. Hello, Bernie, how's the revolution?"

Bernie looked up from the paper, smiling. He liked Mildred. Everyone did. "The revolution is slightly delayed," he said.

Mildred put tea leaves into her pot. "Any word from Billy?"

"Not lately," Ethel said. "You?"

"Not for a couple of weeks."

Ethel picked up the post from the hall floor in the morning, so she knew that Mildred received frequent letters from Billy. Ethel presumed they were love letters: why else would a boy write to his sister's lodger? Mildred apparently returned Billy's feelings: she asked regularly for news of him, assuming a casual air that failed to mask her anxiety.

Ethel liked Mildred, but she wondered whether Billy at eighteen was ready to take on a twenty-three-year-old woman and two stepchildren. True, Billy had always been extraordinarily mature and responsible for his age. And he might be a few years older before the war ended. Anyway, all Ethel wanted was for him to come home alive. After that, nothing mattered much.

Ethel said: "His name's not on the list of casualties in today's paper, thank God."

"I wonder when he'll get leave."

"He's only been gone five months."

Mildred put down the teapot. "Ethel, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"I'm thinking of going out on my own-as a seamstress, I mean."

Ethel was surprised. Mildred was the supervisor now at Mannie Litov's, so she was earning a better wage.

Mildred went on: "I've got a friend who can get me work trimming hats-putting on the veils, ribbons, feathers, and beads. It's skilled work and it pays a lot better than sewing uniforms."

"Sounds great."

"Only thing is, I'd have to work at home, at least at first. Long-term, I'd like to employ other girls and get a small place."

"You're really looking ahead!"

"Got to, haven't you? When the war's over they won't want no more uniforms."

"True."

"So you wouldn't mind me using upstairs as my workshop, for a while?"

"Of course not. Good luck to you!"

"Thanks." Impulsively she kissed Ethel's cheek, then she picked up the teapot and went out.

Lloyd yawned and rubbed his eyes. Ethel lifted him up and put him to bed in the front room. She watched him fondly for a minute or two as he drifted into sleep. As always, his helplessness tugged at her heart. It will be a better world when you grow up, Lloyd, she promised silently. We'll make sure of that.

When she returned to the kitchen, she tried to draw Bernie out of his mood. "There should be more books for children," she said.

He nodded. "I'd like every library to have a little section of children's books." He spoke without looking up from the paper.

"Perhaps if you librarians do that it will encourage the publishers to bring out more."

"That's what I'm hoping."

Ethel put more coal on the fire and poured cocoa for them both. It was unusual for Bernie to be withdrawn. Normally she enjoyed these cozy evenings. They were two outsiders, a Welsh girl and a Jew, not that there was any scarcity of Welsh people or Jews in London. Whatever the reason, in the two years she had been living in London he had become a close friend, along with Mildred and Maud.

She had an idea what was on his mind. Last night a bright young speaker from the Fabian Society had addressed the local Labour Party on the subject of "postwar socialism." Ethel had argued with him and he had obviously been rather taken with her. After the meeting he had flirted with her, even though everyone knew he was married, and she had enjoyed the attention, not taking it at all seriously. But perhaps Bernie was jealous.

She decided to leave him to be quiet if that was what he wanted. She sat at the kitchen table and opened a large envelope full of letters written by men on the front line. Readers of The Soldier's Wife sent their husbands' letters to the paper, which paid a shilling for each one published. They gave a truer picture of life at the front than anything in the mainstream press. Most of The Soldier's Wife was written by Maud, but the letters had been Ethel's idea and she edited that page, which had become the paper's most popular feature.

She had been offered a better-paid job, as a full-time organizer for the National Union of Garment Workers, but she had turned it down, wanting to stay with Maud and continue campaigning.

She read half a dozen letters, then sighed and looked at Bernie. "You would think people would turn against the war," she said.

"But they haven't," he replied. "Look at the results of that election."

Last month in Ayrshire there had been a by-election-a ballot in a single constituency, caused by the death of the sitting member of Parliament. The Conservative, Lieutenant-General Hunter-Weston, who had fought at the Somme, had been opposed by a Peace candidate, Reverend Chalmers. The army officer had won overwhelmingly, 7,149 votes to 1,300.

"It's the newspapers," Ethel said with frustration. "What can our little publication do to promote peace, against the propaganda put out by the bloody Northcliffe press?" Lord Northcliffe, a gung-ho militarist, owned The Times and the Daily Mail.

"It's not just the newspapers," Bernie said. "It's the money."

Bernie paid a lot of attention to government finance, which was odd in a man who had never had more than a few shillings. Ethel saw an opportunity to bring him out of his mood, and said: "What do you mean?"

"Before the war, our government used to spend about half a million pounds a day on everything-the army, courts and prisons, education, pensions, running the colonies, everything."

"So much!" She smiled at him affectionately. "That's the kind of statistic my father always knew."

He drank his cocoa, then said: "Guess how much we spend now."

"Double that? A million a day? It sounds impossible."

"You're nowhere near. The war costs five million pounds a day. That's ten times the normal cost of running the country."

Ethel was shocked. "Where does the money come from?"

"That's the problem. We borrow it."

"But the war has been going on for more than two years. We must have borrowed... nearly four thousand million pounds!"

"Something like that. Twenty-five years' normal expenditure."

"How will we ever pay it back?"

"We can never pay it back. A government that tried to bring in taxes sufficient to repay the loan would cause a revolution."

"So what will happen?"

"If we lose the war, our creditors-mainly Americans-will go bankrupt. And if we win, we'll make the Germans pay. 'Reparations' is the word they use."

"How will they manage it?"

"They will starve. But nobody cares what happens to the losers. Anyway, the Germans did the same to the French in 1871." He stood up and put his cup in the kitchen sink. "So you see why we can't make peace with Germany. Who then would pay the bill?"

Ethel was aghast. "And so we have to keep sending boys to die in the trenches. Because we can't pay the bill. Poor Billy. What a wicked world we live in."

"But we're going to change it."

I hope so, Ethel thought. Bernie believed it would take a revolution. She had read about the French Revolution and knew that such things did not always turn out the way people intended. All the same, she was determined that Lloyd would have a better life.

They sat in silence for a while, then Bernie stood up. He went to the door, as if to leave, then changed his mind. "That speaker last night was interesting."

"Aye," she said.

"Clever, too."

"Yes, he was clever."

Bernie sat down again. "Ethel... two years ago you told me you wanted friendship, not romance."

"I was very sorry to hurt your feelings."

"Don't be sorry. Our friendship is the best thing that ever happened to me."

"I like it too."

"You said I'd soon forget all that lovey-dovey stuff, and we would just be pals. But you were wrong." He leaned forward in his chair. "As I've got to know you better, I've just come to love you more than ever."

Ethel could see the yearning in his eyes, and she felt desperately sorry that she could not return his feelings. "I'm very fond of you, too," she said. "But not in that way."

"What's the point of being alone? We like each other. We're such a good team! We have the same ideals, the same aims in life, similar opinions-we belong together."

"There's more to marriage than that."

"I know. And I long to take you in my arms." He moved his arm, as if about to reach out and touch her, but she crossed her legs and turned aside in her chair. He withdrew his hand, and a bitter smile twisted his usually amiable expression. "I'm not the handsomest man you've ever met. But I believe no one has ever loved you as I do."

He was right about that, she reflected sadly. Many men had fancied her, and one had seduced her, but none had shown the patient devotion of Bernie. If she married him she could be sure it would be forever. And somewhere in her soul she longed for that.

Sensing her hesitation, Bernie said: "Marry me, Ethel. I love you. I'll spend my life making you happy. It's all I want."

Did she need a man at all? She was not unhappy. Lloyd was a constant joy, with his stumbling walk, his attempts at speech, and his boundless curiosity. He was enough for her.

Bernie said: "Little Lloyd needs a father."

That gave her a pang of guilt. Bernie was already playing that role part-time. Should she marry Bernie for Lloyd's sake? It was not too late for him to start calling Bernie "Daddy."

It would mean giving up what little hope she had left of finding again the overwhelming passion she had felt with Fitz. She still suffered a spasm of longing when she thought about it. But, she asked herself, trying to think objectively despite her feelings, what did I get out of that love affair? I was disappointed by Fitz, rejected by my family, and exiled to another country. Why would I want that again?

Hard as she struggled, she could not bring herself to accept Bernie's proposal. "Let me think," she said.

He beamed. Clearly that was a more positive answer than he had dared to hope for. "Think as long as you want," he said. "I'll wait."

She opened the front door. "Good night, Bernie."

"Good night, Ethel." He leaned forward and she gave him her cheek to kiss. His lips lingered a moment on her skin. She drew back immediately. He caught her wrist. "Ethel... "

"Sleep well, Bernie," she said.

He hesitated, then nodded. "You, too," he said, and he went out.

{II}

On election night in November 1916, Gus Dewar thought his career in politics had come to an end.

He was in the White House, fielding phone calls and passing messages to President Wilson, who was at Shadow Lawn, the new summer White House in New Jersey, with his second wife, Edith. Papers were sent from Washington to Shadow Lawn every day by the U.S. Postal Service, but sometimes the president needed to get the news faster.

By nine o'clock that evening it was clear that the Republican, a Supreme Court justice called Charles Evans Hughes, had won four swing states: New York, Indiana, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

But the reality did not hit Gus until a messenger brought him the early editions of the New York newspapers and he saw the headline:

PRESIDENT-ELECT HUGHES

He was shocked. He thought Woodrow Wilson was winning. Voters had not forgotten Wilson's deft handling of the Lusitania crisis: he had managed to get tough with the Germans while at the same time staying neutral. Wilson's campaign slogan was: "He kept us out of war."

Hughes had accused Wilson of failing to prepare America for war, but this had backfired. Americans were more determined than ever to remain nonaligned after Britain's brutal suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin. Britain's treatment of the Irish was no better than Germany's treatment of the Belgians, so why should America take sides?

When he had read the papers Gus loosened his tie and napped on the couch in the study next to the Oval Office. He was unnerved by the prospect of leaving the White House. Working for Wilson had become his bedrock. His love life was a train wreck, but at least he knew he was valuable to the president of the United States.

His concern was not just selfish. Wilson was determined to create an international order in which wars could be avoided. Just as next-door neighbors no longer settled boundary disputes with six-guns, so the time must come when countries, too, submitted their quarrels to independent judgment. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had used the words "a league of nations" in a letter to Wilson, and the president had liked the phrase. If Gus could help bring that about his life would mean something.

But now it looked as if that dream was not going to come true, he thought, and he drifted into a disappointed sleep.

He was woken early in the morning by a cable saying that Wilson had won Ohio-a blue-collar state that had liked the president's stand on the eight-hour day-and Kansas, too. Wilson was back in the running. A little later he won Minnesota by fewer than a thousand votes.

It was not over after all, and Gus's spirits lifted.

By Wednesday evening Wilson was ahead with 264 electoral votes against 254, a lead of 10. But one state, California, had not yet declared a result, and it carried 13 electoral votes. Whoever won California would be president.

Gus's phone went quiet. There was nothing much for him to do. The counting in Los Angeles was slow. Every unopened box was guarded by armed Democrats, who believed that tampering had robbed them of a presidential victory in 1876.

The result was still hanging in the balance when the lobby called to tell Gus he had a visitor. To his surprise it was Rosa Hellman, the former editor of the Buffalo Anarchist. Gus was pleased: Rosa was always interesting to talk to. He recalled that an anarchist had assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo in 1901. However, President Wilson was far away in New Jersey, so he brought Rosa up to the study and offered her a cup of coffee.

She was wearing a red coat. When he helped her off with it, he towered over her. He caught the aroma of a light flowery perfume.

"Last time we met you told me I was a goddamn fool to get engaged to Olga Vyalov," he said as he hung her coat on the hat stand.

She looked embarrassed. "I apologize."

"Ah, but you were right." He changed the subject. "So now you're working for a wire service?"

"That's right."

"As their Washington correspondent."

"No, I'm his one-eyed girl assistant."

She had never before mentioned her deformity. Gus hesitated, then said: "I used to wonder why you didn't wear a patch. But now I'm glad you don't. You're just a beautiful woman with one closed eye."

"Thank you. You're a kind man. What sort of thing do you do for the president?"

"Apart from pick up the phone when it rings... I read the State Department's mealymouthed reports, then tell Wilson the truth."

"For example...?"

"Our ambassadors in Europe say that the Somme offensive is achieving some but not all its objectives, with heavy casualties on both sides. It's almost impossible to prove that statement wrong-and it tells the president nothing. So I tell him the Somme is a disaster for the British." He shrugged. "Or I used to. My job may be over." He was concealing his real feelings. The prospect that Wilson could lose was dreadful to him.

She nodded. "They're counting again in California. Almost a million people voted, and the difference is about five thousand."

"So much hangs on the decisions of a small number of poorly educated people."

"That's democracy."

Gus smiled. "A terrible way to run a country, but every other system is worse."

"If Wilson wins, what will be his top priority?"

"Off the record?"

"Of course."

"Peace in Europe," Gus said without hesitation.

"Really?"

"He was never really comfortable with the slogan 'He kept us out of war.' The matter isn't entirely in his hands. We may be dragged in whether we like it or not."

"But what can he do?"

"He'll put pressure on both sides to find a compromise."

"Can he succeed?"

"I don't know."

"Surely they can't go on slaughtering one another as they have been at the Somme."

"God knows." He changed the subject again. "Tell me the news from Buffalo."

She gave him a candid look. "Do you want to know about Olga, or is it too embarrassing?"

Gus looked away. What could be more embarrassing? First he had received a note from Olga, calling the engagement off. She had been abjectly apologetic but had given no explanation. Gus had been unwilling to accept this and had written back demanding to see her in person. He could not understand it and speculated that someone was putting pressure on her. But later that same day his mother had discovered, through her network of gossiping friends, that Olga was going to marry her father's driver. "But why?" Gus had said in anguish, and Mother had replied: "My darling boy, there is only one reason a girl marries the chauffeur." He had stared uncomprehendingly, and Mother had at last said: "She must be pregnant." It was the most humiliating moment of Gus's life, and even a year later he winced with pain every time he recalled it.

Rosa read his face. "I shouldn't have mentioned her. I'm sorry."

Gus felt he might as well know what everyone else knew. He touched Rosa's hand lightly. "Thank you for being direct. I prefer it. And yes, I'm curious about Olga."

"Well, they got married at that Russian Orthodox church on Ideal Street, and the reception took place at the Statler Hotel. Six hundred people were invited, and Josef Vyalov hired the ballroom and the dining room, and served caviar to everyone. It was the most lavish wedding in the history of Buffalo."

"And what is her husband like?"

"Lev Peshkov is handsome, charming, and completely untrustworthy. You know as soon as you look at him that he's a rogue. And now he's the son-in-law of one of the richest men in Buffalo."

"And the child?"

"A girl, Darya, but they call her Daisy. She was born in March. And Lev is no longer the chauffeur, of course. I think he runs one of Vyalov's nightclubs."

They talked for an hour, then Gus walked her downstairs and hailed a cab to take her home.

Early next morning Gus got the California result by cable. Wilson had won by 3,777 votes. He had been reelected president.

Gus was elated. Four more years to try to achieve all they aimed for. They could change the world in four years.

While he was still staring at the telegram, his phone rang.

He picked it up and heard the switchboard operator say: "A call from Shadow Lawn. The president wants to speak to you, Mr. Dewar."

"Thank you."

A moment later he heard Wilson's familiar voice. "Good morning, Gus."

"Congratulations, Mr. President."

"Thank you. Pack a bag. I want you to go to Berlin."

{III}

When Walter von Ulrich came home on leave, his mother gave a party.

There were not many parties in Berlin. It was difficult to buy food, even for a wealthy woman with an influential husband. Suzanne von Ulrich was not well: she was thin, and had a permanent cough. However, she badly wanted to do something for Walter.

Otto had a cellar full of good wine he had bought before the war. Suzanne decided to have an afternoon reception, so that she would not have to provide a full dinner. She served little snacks of smoked fish and cheese on triangles of toast, and made up for the poor food with unlimited magnums of champagne.

Walter was grateful for the thought, but he did not really want a party. He had two weeks away from the battlefield, and he just wanted a soft bed, dry clothes, and the chance to lounge all day in the elegant salon of his parents' town house, looking out of the window and thinking about Maud, or sitting at the Steinway grand piano and playing Schubert's "Fruhlingsglaube": "Now everything, everything must change."

How glibly he and Maud had said, back in August 1914, that they would be reunited by Christmas! It was now more than two years since he had looked at her lovely face. And it was probably going to take Germany another two years to win the war. Walter's best hope was that Russia would collapse, allowing the Germans to concentrate their forces on a massive final westward sweep.

Meanwhile Walter sometimes had trouble visualizing Maud, and had to look at the worn and fading magazine photograph he carried: Lady Maud Fitzherbert is always dressed in the latest fashion. He did not relish a party without her. As he got ready he wished his mother had not troubled.

The house looked drab. There were not enough servants to keep the place spick-and-span. The men were in the army, the women had become streetcar conductors and mail deliverers, and the elderly staff who remained were struggling to maintain Mother's standards of cleanliness and polish. And the house was cold as well as grubby. The coal allowance was not enough to run the central heating, so mother had put freestanding stoves in the hall, the dining room, and the drawing room, but they were inadequate against the chill of November in Berlin.

However, Walter cheered up when the cold rooms filled with young people and a small band began to play in the hall. His younger sister, Greta, had invited all her friends. He realized how much he missed social life. He liked seeing girls in beautiful gowns and men in immaculate suits. He enjoyed the joking and flirting and gossip. He had loved being a diplomat-the life suited him. It was easy for him to be charming and make small talk.

The von Ulrich house had no ballroom, but people began to dance on the tiled floor of the hall. Walter danced several times with Greta's best friend, Monika von der Helbard, a tall, willowy redhead with long hair who reminded him of pictures by the English artists who called themselves pre-Raphaelites.

He got her a glass of champagne and sat down with her. She asked him what it was like in the trenches, as they all did. He usually said it was a hard life but the men were in good spirits and they would win in the end. For some reason he told Monika the truth. "The worst thing about it is that it's pointless," he said. "We've been in the same positions, give or take a few yards, for two years, and I can't see how that will be changed by anything the high command is doing-or even by anything they might do. We're cold, hungry, sick with coughs and trench foot and stomachache, and bored to tears-all for nothing."

"That's not what we read in the newspapers," she said. "How very sad." She squeezed his arm sympathetically. The touch affected him like a mild electric shock. No woman outside his family had touched him for two years. He suddenly thought how wonderful it would be to take Monika in his arms, press her warm body to his, and kiss her lips. Her amber eyes looked back at him with a candid gaze, and after a moment he realized she had read his mind. Women often did know what men were thinking, he had found. He felt embarrassed, but clearly she did not care, and that thought made him more aroused.

Someone approached them, and Walter looked up irritably, guessing the man wanted to ask Monika to dance. Then he recognized a familiar face. "My God!" he said. The name came back to him: he had an excellent memory for people, like all good diplomats. He said in English: "Is it Gus Dewar?"

Gus replied in German. "It is, but we can speak German. How are you?"

Walter stood up and shook hands. "May I present Freiin Monika von der Helbard? This is Gus Dewar, an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson."

"How delightful to meet you, Mr. Dewar," she said. "I shall leave you gentlemen to talk."

Walter watched her go with regret and mingled guilt. For a moment he had forgotten that he was a married man.

He looked at Gus. He had immediately liked the American when they met at Tŷ Gwyn. Gus was odd-looking, with a big head on a long thin body, but he was as sharp as a tack. Just out of Harvard then, Gus had had a charming shyness, but two years working in the White House had given him a degree of self-assurance. The shapeless style of lounge suit that Americans wore actually looked smart on him. Walter said: "I'm glad to see you. Not many people come here on holiday nowadays."

"It's not really a holiday," Gus said.

Walter waited for Gus to say more and, when he did not, prompted him. "What, then?"

"More like putting my toe in the water to see whether it's warm enough for the president to swim."

So this was official business. "I understand."

"To come to the point." Gus hesitated again, and Walter waited patiently. At last Gus spoke in a lowered voice. "President Wilson wants the Germans and the Allies to hold peace talks."

Walter's heart beat fast, but he raised a skeptical eyebrow. "He sent you to say this to me?"

"You know how it is. The president can't risk a public rebuff-it makes him look weak. Of course, he could tell our ambassador here in Berlin to speak to your foreign minister. But then the whole thing would become official, and sooner or later it would get out. So he asked his most junior adviser-me-to come to Berlin and use some of the contacts I made back in 1914."

Walter nodded. A lot was done in this fashion in the diplomatic world. "If we turn you down, no one needs to know."

"And even if the news gets out, it's just some low-ranking young men acting on their own initiative."

This made sense, and Walter began to feel excited. "What exactly does Mr. Wilson want?"

Gus took a deep breath. "If the kaiser were to write to the Allies suggesting a peace conference, then President Wilson would publicly support the proposal."

Walter suppressed a feeling of elation. This unexpected private conversation could have world-shaking consequences. Was it really possible that the nightmare of the trenches could be brought to an end? And that he might see Maud again in months rather than years? He told himself not to get carried away. Unofficial diplomatic feelers like this usually came to nothing. But he could not help being enthusiastic. "This is big, Gus," he said. "Are you sure Wilson means it?"

"Absolutely. It was the first thing he said to me after he won the election."

"What's his motivation?"

"He doesn't want to take America to war. But there's a danger we'll be dragged in anyway. He wants peace. And then he wants a new international system to make sure that a war like this never happens again."

"I'll vote for that," said Walter. "What do you want me to do?"

"Speak to your father."

"He may not like this proposal."

"Use your powers of persuasion."

"I'll do my best. Can I reach you at the American embassy?"

"No. This is a private visit. I'm staying at the Hotel Adlon."

"Of course you are, Gus," said Walter with a grin. The Adlon was the best hotel in the city and had once been called the most luxurious in the world. He felt nostalgic for those last years of peace. "Will we ever again be two young men with nothing on our minds except catching the waiter's eye to order another bottle of champagne?"

Gus took the question seriously. "No, I don't believe those days will ever come back, at least not in our lifetime."

Walter's sister, Greta, appeared. She had curly blond hair that shook fetchingly when she tossed her head. "What are you men looking so miserable about?" she said gaily. "Mr. Dewar, come and dance with me!"

Gus brightened. "Gladly!" he said.

She whisked him off.

Walter returned to the party but as he chatted to friends and relations, half his mind was on Gus's proposal and how best to promote it. When he spoke to his father, he would try not to seem too keen. Father could be contrary. Walter would play the role of neutral messenger.

When the guests had gone, his mother cornered him in the salon. The room was decorated in the Rococo style that was still the choice of old-fashioned Germans: ornate mirrors, tables with spindly curved legs, a big chandelier. "What a nice girl that Monika von der Helbard is," she said.

"Very charming," Walter agreed.

His mother wore no jewelry. She was chair of the gold-collection committee, and had given her baubles to be sold. All she had left was her wedding ring. "I must invite her again, with her parents next time. Her father is the Markgraf von der Helbard."

"Yes, I know."

"It's a very good family. They belong to the Uradel, the ancient nobility."

Walter moved to the door. "At what time do you expect Father to return home?"

"Soon. Walter, sit down and talk to me for a moment."

Walter had made it obvious he wanted to get away. The reason was that he needed to spend a quiet hour thinking about Gus Dewar's message. But he had been discourteous to his mother, whom he loved, and now he set about making amends. "With pleasure, Mother." He drew up a chair for her. "I imagined you might want to rest but, if not, I'd love to talk." He sat opposite her. "That was a super party. Thank you very much for organizing it."

She nodded acknowledgment, but changed the subject. "Your cousin Robert is missing," she said. "He was lost during the Brusilov Offensive."

"I know. He may have been taken prisoner by the Russians."

"And he may be dead. And your father is sixty years old. You could soon be the Graf von Ulrich."

Walter was not seduced by this possibility. Aristocratic titles mattered less and less nowadays. Perhaps he might be proud to be a count, but it might turn out to be a disadvantage in the postwar world.

Anyway, he did not have the title yet. "There has been no confirmation of Robert's death."

"Of course. But you must prepare yourself."

"In what way?"

"You should get married."

"Oh!" Walter was surprised. I should have seen that coming, he thought.

"You must have an heir, to assume the title when you die. And you may die soon, though I pray-" Her voice caught in her throat, and she stopped. She closed her eyes for a moment to regain her composure. "Though I pray to heaven every day to protect you. It would be best if you were to father a son as soon as possible."

She was afraid of losing him, but he was just as fearful of losing her. He looked fondly at her. She was blond and pretty like Greta, and perhaps she had once been equally vivacious. Indeed, right now her eyes were bright and her cheeks were flushed from the excitement of the party and the champagne. However, just climbing the stairs made her breathless these days. She needed a holiday, and plenty of good food, and freedom from worry. Because of the war, she could have none of those things. It was not only soldiers who died, Walter thought worriedly.

"Please consider Monika," his mother said.

He longed to tell her about Maud. "Monika is a delightful girl, Mother, but I don't love her. I hardly know her."

"There isn't time for that! In war the proprieties may be overlooked. See her again. You've got ten more days of leave. See her every day. You could propose on your last day."

"What about her feelings? She may not want to marry me."

"She likes you." Mother looked away. "And she will do as her parents tell her."

Walter did not know whether to be annoyed or amused. "You two mothers have fixed this up, haven't you?"

"These are desperate times. You could get married three months from now. Your father will make sure you get special leave for the wedding and the honeymoon."

"He said that?" Normally, Father was angrily hostile to special privileges for well-connected soldiers.

"He understands the need for an heir to the title."

Father had been talked around. How long had that taken? He did not give in easily.

Walter tried not to squirm in his seat. He was in an impossible position. Married to Maud, he could not even pretend to be interested in marrying Monika-but he was not able to explain why. "Mother, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I am not going to propose to Monika von der Helbard."

"But why not?" she cried.

He felt bad. "All I can say is that I wish I could make you happy."

She gave him a hard look. "Your cousin Robert never married. None of us were surprised, in his case. I hope there isn't a problem of that nature... "

Walter felt embarrassed by this reference to Robert's homosexuality. "Oh, Mother, please! I know exactly what you mean about Robert, and I'm not like him in that respect, so set your mind at rest."

She looked away. "I'm sorry to have mentioned it. But what is it? You're thirty years old!"

"It's hard to find the right girl."

"Not that hard."

"I'm looking for someone just like you."

"Now you're teasing me," she said crossly.

Walter heard a male voice outside the room. A moment later his father entered, in uniform, rubbing cold hands together. "It will snow," he said. He kissed his wife and nodded to Walter. "I trust the party was a success? I could not possibly attend-a whole afternoon of meetings."

"It was splendid," Walter said. "Mother conjured up tasty snacks out of nothing at all, and the Perrier-Jouet was superb."

"What vintage did you have?"

"The eighteen ninety-nine."

"You should have had the ninety-two."

"There's not much of it left."

"Ah."

"I had an intriguing conversation with Gus Dewar."

"I remember him-the American whose father is close to President Wilson."

"The son is even closer, now. Gus is working at the White House."

"What did he have to say?"

Mother stood up. "I'll leave you men to talk," she said.

They stood up.

"Please think about what I said, Walter darling," she said as she went out.

A moment later the butler came in with a tray bearing a goblet with a stiff measure of golden-brown brandy. Otto took the glass. "One for you?" he said to Walter.

"No, thank you. I'm full of champagne."

Otto drank the brandy and stretched his legs toward the fire. "So, young Dewar appeared-with some kind of message?"

"In strictest confidence."

"Of course."

Walter could not feel much affection for his father. Their disagreements were too passionate, and Father was too flintily intransigent. He was narrow-minded, outdated, and deaf to reason, and he persisted in these faults with a kind of gleeful obstinacy that Walter found repellent. The consequence of his foolishness, and the foolishness of his generation in all European countries, was the slaughter of the Somme. Walter could not forgive that.

All the same, he spoke to his father with a soft voice and a friendly manner. He wanted this conversation to be as amiable and reasonable as possible. "The American president doesn't want to be drawn into the war," he began.

"Good."

"In fact, he would like us to make peace."

"Ha!" It was a shout of derision. "The cheap way to defeat us! What a nerve the man has."

Walter was dismayed by such immediate scorn, but he persisted, choosing his words with care. "Our enemies claim that German militarism and aggression caused this war, but of course that is not so."

"Indeed not," said Otto. "We were threatened by Russian mobilization on our eastern border and French mobilization to the west. The Schlieffen Plan was the only possible solution." As usual, Otto was speaking as if Walter were still twelve years old.

Walter answered patiently. "Exactly. I recall you saying that for us this was a defensive war, a response to an intolerable threat. We had to protect ourselves."

If Otto was surprised to hear Walter repeating the cliches of war justification he did not show it. "Correct," he said.

"And we have done so," Walter said, playing his ace. "We have now achieved our aims."

His father was startled. "What do you mean?"

"The threat has been dealt with. The Russian army is destroyed, and the tsar's regime teeters on the brink of collapse. We have conquered Belgium, invaded France, and fought the French and their British allies to a standstill. We have done what we set out to do. We have protected Germany."

"A triumph."

"What more do we want, then?"

"Total victory!"

Walter leaned forward in his chair, looking intently at his father. "Why?"

"Our enemies must pay for their aggression! There must be reparations, perhaps border adjustments, colonial concessions."

"These were not our original war aims... were they?"

But Otto wanted to have it both ways. "No, but now that we have expended so much effort and money, and the lives of so many fine young Germans, we must have something in return."

It was a weak argument, but Walter knew better than to try to change his father's mind. Anyway, he had made the point that Germany's war aims had been achieved. Now he changed tack. "Are you quite sure that total victory is attainable?"

"Yes!"

"Back in February we launched an all-out assault on the French fortress of Verdun. We failed to take it. The Russians attacked us in the east, and the British threw everything into their offensive at the river Somme. These huge efforts by both sides have failed to end the stalemate." He waited for a response.

Grudgingly, Otto said: "So far, yes."

"Indeed, our own high command has acknowledged this. Since August, when von Falkenhayn was fired and Ludendorff became chief of staff, we have changed our tactics from attack to defense in depth. How do you imagine defense in depth will lead to total victory?"

"Unrestricted submarine warfare!" Otto said. "The Allies are being sustained by supplies from America, while our ports are blockaded by the British navy.We have to cut off their lifeline-then they'll give in."

Walter had not wanted to get into this, but now that he had begun he had to go on. Gritting his teeth, he said as mildly as he could: "That would certainly draw America into the war."

"Do you know how many men there are in the United States Army?"

"It's only about a hundred thousand, but-"

"Correct. They can't even pacify Mexico! They're no threat to us."

Otto had never been to America. Few men of his generation had. They just did not know what they were talking about. "The United States is a big country with great wealth," Walter said, seething with frustration but keeping his tone conversational, trying to maintain the pretense of an amiable discussion. "They can build up their army."

"But not quickly. It will take them at least a year. By that time, the British and French will have surrendered."

Walter nodded. "We've had this discussion before, Father," he said in a conciliatory tone. "So has everyone connected with war strategy. There are arguments on both sides."

Otto could hardly deny that, so he just grunted disapprovingly.

Walter said: "Anyway, I'm sure it's not for me to decide Germany's response to this informal approach from Washington."

Otto took the hint. "Nor for me, of course."

"Wilson says that if Germany will write formally to the Allies proposing peace talks, he will publicly support the proposal. I suppose it's our duty to pass this message on to our sovereign."

"Indeed," said Otto. "The kaiser must decide."

{IV}

Walter wrote a letter to Maud on a plain sheet of white paper with no letterhead.

My dearest darling,

It is winter in Germany and in my heart.

He wrote in English. He did not put his address at the top, nor did he use her name.

I cannot tell you how much I love you and how badly I miss you.

It was hard to know what to say. The letter might be read by inquisitive policemen, and he had to make sure neither Maud nor he could be identified.

I am one of a million men separated from the women we love, and the north wind blows through all our souls.

His idea was that this might be a letter from any soldier living away from his family because of the war.

It is a cold, bleak world for me, as it must be for you, but the hardest part to bear is our separation.

He wished he could tell her about his work in battlefield intelligence, about his mother trying to make him marry Monika, about the scarcity of food in Berlin, even about the book he was reading, a family saga called Buddenbrooks. But he was afraid that any specifics would put him or her in danger.

I cannot say much, but I want you to know that I am faithful to you-

He broke off, thinking guiltily of the urge he had felt to kiss Monika. But he had not yielded.

-  and to the sacred promises we made to each other the last time we were together.

It was as near as he could get to mentioning their marriage. He did not want to risk someone at her end reading it and learning the truth.

I think every day of the moment when we will meet again, and look into one another's eyes and say: "Hello, my beloved."

Until then, remember me.

He did not sign his name.

He put the letter in an envelope and slipped it into the inside breast pocket of his jacket.

There was no postal service between Germany and England.

He left his room, went downstairs, put on a hat and a heavy overcoat with a fur collar, and went out into the shivering streets of Berlin.

He met Gus Dewar in the bar of the Adlon. The hotel maintained a shadow of its prewar dignity, with waiters in evening dress and a string quartet, but there were no imported drinks-no Scotch, no brandy, no English gin-so they ordered schnapps.

"Well?" said Gus eagerly. "How was my message received?"

Walter was full of hope; but he knew that the grounds for optimism were slight, and he wanted to play down his excitement. The news he had for Gus was positive, but only just. "The kaiser is writing to the president," he said.

"Good! What is he going to say?"

"I have seen a draft. I'm afraid the tone is not very conciliatory."

"What do you mean?"

Walter closed his eyes, remembering, then quoted: " 'The most formidable war in history has been raging for two and a half years. In that conflict, Germany and her allies have given proof of our indestructible strength. Our unshakable lines resist ceaseless attacks. Recent events show that continuation of the war cannot break our resisting power...' There's a lot more like that."

"I see why you say it's not very conciliatory."

"Eventually it gets to the point." Walter brought the next part to mind. " 'Conscious of our military and economic strength and ready to carry on to the end, if we must, the struggle that is forced upon us, but animated at the same time by the desire to stem the flow of blood and bring the horrors of war to an end'-here comes the important part-'we propose even now to enter into peace negotiations.' "

Gus was elated. "That's great! He says yes!"

"Quietly, please!" Walter looked around nervously, but it seemed no one had noticed. The sound of the string quartet muffled their conversation.

"Sorry," Gus said.

"You're right, though." Walter smiled, allowing his feeling of sanguinity to show a little. "The tone is arrogant, combative, and scornful-but he proposes peace talks."

"I can't tell you how grateful I am."

Walter held up a warning hand. "Let me tell you something very frankly. Powerful men close to the kaiser who are against peace have supported this proposal cynically, merely to look good in the eyes of your president, feeling sure the Allies will reject it anyway."

"Let's hope they're wrong!"

"Amen to that."

"When will they send the letter?"

"They're still arguing about the wording. When that is agreed, the letter will be handed to the American ambassador here in Berlin, with a request that he pass it to the Allied governments." This diplomatic game of pass-the-parcel was necessary because enemy governments had no official means of communication.

"I'd better go to London," Gus said. "Perhaps I can do something to prepare for its reception."

"I thought you might say that. I have a request."

"After what you've done to help me? Anything!"

"It's strictly personal."

"No problem."

"It requires me to let you into a secret."

Gus smiled. "Intriguing!"

"I would like you to take a letter from me to Lady Maud Fitzherbert."

"Ah." Gus looked thoughtful. He knew there could be only one reason for Walter to be writing secretly to Maud. "I see the need for discretion. But that's okay."

"If your belongings are searched when you are leaving Germany or entering England, you will have to say that it is a love letter from an American man in Germany to his fiancee in London. The letter gives no names or addresses."

"All right."

"Thank you," Walter said fervently. "I can't tell you how much it means to me."

{V}

There was a shooting party at Tŷ Gwyn on Saturday, December 2. Earl Fitzherbert and Princess Bea were delayed in London, so Fitz's friend Bing Westhampton acted as host, and Lady Maud as hostess.

Before the war, Maud had loved such parties. Women did not shoot, of course, but she liked the house full of guests, the picnic lunch at which the ladies joined the men, and the blazing fires and hearty food they all came home to at night. But she found herself unable to enjoy such pleasure when soldiers were suffering in the trenches. She told herself that one couldn't spend one's whole life being miserable, even in wartime; but it did not work. She pasted on her brightest smile, and encouraged everyone to eat and drink heartily, but when she heard the shotguns she could only think of the battlefields. Lavish food was left untouched on her plate, and glasses of Fitz's priceless old wines were taken away untasted.

She hated to be at leisure, these days, because all she did was think about Walter. Was he alive or dead? The battle of the Somme was over, at last. Fitz said the Germans had lost half a million men. Was Walter one of them? Or was he lying in a hospital somewhere, maimed?

Perhaps he was celebrating victory. The newspapers could not quite conceal the fact that the British army's major effort for 1916 had gained a paltry seven miles of territory. The Germans might feel entitled to congratulate themselves. Even Fitz was saying, quietly and in private, that Britain's best hope now was that the Americans might join in. Was Walter lounging in a brothel in Berlin, with a bottle of schnapps in one hand and a pretty blond fraulein in the other? I'd rather he was wounded, she thought, then she felt ashamed of herself.

Gus Dewar was among the guests at Tŷ Gwyn, and at teatime he sought Maud out. All the men wore plus fours, tweed trousers buttoned just below the knee, and the tall American looked particularly foolish in them. He held a cup of tea precariously in one hand as he crossed the crowded morning room to where she sat.

She suppressed a sigh. When a single man approached her he usually had romance on his mind, and she had to fight him off without admitting she was married, which was sometimes difficult. Nowadays, so many eligible upper-class bachelors had been killed in the war that the most unprepossessing men fancied their chances with her: younger sons of bankrupt barons, weedy clergymen with bad breath, even homosexuals looking for a woman to give them respectability.

Not that Gus Dewar was such a poor prospect. He was not handsome, nor did he have the easy grace of such men as Walter and Fitz, but he had a sharp mind and high ideals, and he shared Maud's passionate interest in world affairs. And the combination of his slight awkwardness, physical and social, with a certain blunt honesty somehow amounted to a kind of charm. If she had been single he might even have had a chance.

He folded his long legs beside her on a yellow silk sofa. "Such a pleasure to be at Tŷ Gwyn again," he said.

"You were here shortly before the war," Maud recalled. She would never forget that weekend in January 1914, when the king had come to stay and there had been a terrible disaster at the Aberowen pit. What she remembered most vividly-she was ashamed to realize-was kissing Walter. She wished she could kiss him now. What fools they had been to do no more than kiss! She wished now that they had made love, and she had got pregnant, so that they were obliged to marry in undignified haste, and had been sent away to live in perpetual social disgrace somewhere frightful like Rhodesia or Bengal. All the considerations that had inhibited them-parents, society, career-seemed trivial by comparison with the awful possibility that Walter might be killed and she would never see him again. "How can men be so stupid as to go to war?" she said to Gus. "And to continue fighting when the dreadful cost in men's lives has long ago dwarfed any conceivable gain?"

He said: "President Wilson believes the two sides should consider peace without victory."

She was relieved that he did not want to tell her what fine eyes she had, or some such rubbish. "I agree with the president," she said. "The British army has already lost a million men. The Somme alone cost us four hundred thousand casualties."

"But what do the British people think?"

Maud considered. "Most of the newspapers are still pretending the Somme was a great victory. Any attempt at a realistic assessment is labeled unpatriotic. I'm sure Lord Northcliffe would really rather live under a military dictatorship. But most of our people know we're not making much progress."

"The Germans may be about to propose peace talks."

"Oh, I hope you're right."

"I believe a formal approach may be made soon."

Maud stared at him. "Pardon me," she said. "I assumed you were making polite conversation. But you're not." She felt excited. Peace talks? Could it happen?

"No, I'm not making conversation," Gus said. "I know you have friends in the Liberal government."

"It's not really a Liberal government anymore," she said. "It's a coalition, with several Conservative ministers in the cabinet."

"Excuse me, I misspoke. I did know about the coalition. All the same, Asquith is still prime minister, and he is a Liberal, and I know you are close to many leading Liberals."

"Yes."

"So I've come here to ask your opinion as to how the German proposal might be received."

She considered carefully. She knew who Gus represented. The president of the United States was asking her this question. She had better be exact. As it happened, she had a key item of information. "Ten days ago the cabinet discussed a paper by Lord Lansdowne, a former Conservative foreign secretary, arguing that we cannot win the war."

Gus lit up. "Really? I had no idea."

"Of course you didn't. It was secret. However, there have been rumors, and Northcliffe has been fulminating against what he calls defeatist talk of negotiated peace."

Gus said eagerly: "And how was Lansdowne's paper received?"

"I'd say there are four men inclined to sympathize with him: the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey; the chancellor, McKenna; the president of the Board of Trade, Runciman; and the prime minister himself."

Gus's face brightened with hope. "That's a powerful faction!"

"Especially now that the aggressive Winston Churchill has gone. He never recovered from the catastrophe of the Dardanelles expedition, which was his pet project."

"Who in the cabinet was against Lansdowne?"

"David Lloyd George, secretary for war, the most popular politician in the country. And Lord Robert Cecil, minister for blockade; Arthur Henderson, the paymaster general, who is also leader of the Labour Party; and Arthur Balfour, first lord of the Admiralty."

"I saw the interview Lloyd George gave to the papers. He said he wanted to see a fight to the knockout."

"Most people agree with him, unfortunately. Of course, they get little chance to hear any other point of view. People who argue against the war-such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell-are constantly harassed by the government."

"But what was the conclusion of the cabinet?"

"There was none. Asquith's meetings often end that way. People complain that he's indecisive."

"How frustrating. However, it seems a peace proposal won't fall on deaf ears."

It was so refreshing, Maud thought, to talk to a man who took her completely seriously. Even those who spoke intelligently to her tended to condescend a little. Walter was really the only other man who conversed with her as an equal.

At that moment Fitz came into the room. He was wearing black-and-gray London clothes, and had obviously just got off the train. He had an eye patch and walked with a stick. "I'm so sorry to have let you all down," he said, addressing everyone. "I had to stay last night in town. London is in a ferment over the latest political developments."

Gus spoke up. "What developments? We haven't seen today's newspapers yet."

"Yesterday Lloyd George wrote to Asquith demanding a change in the way we manage the war. He wants an all-powerful war council of three ministers to make all the decisions."

Gus said: "And will Asquith agree?"

"Of course not. He replied saying that if there were such a body the prime minister would have to be its chairman."

Fitz's impish friend Bing Westhampton was sitting on a window seat with his feet up. "That defeats the object," he said. "Any council of which Asquith is the chair will be just as feeble and indecisive as the cabinet." He looked around apologetically. "Begging the pardon of government ministers here present."

"You're right, though," said Fitz. "The letter is really a challenge to Asquith's leadership, especially as Lloyd George's friend Max Aitken has given the story to all the newspapers. There's no possibility of compromise now. It's a fight to the knockout, as Lloyd George would say. If he doesn't get his way, he'll have to resign from the cabinet. And if he does get his way, Asquith will go-and then we'll have to choose a new prime minister."

Maud caught Gus's eye. They shared the same unspoken thought, she knew. With Asquith in Downing Street, the peace initiative had a chance. If the belligerent Lloyd George won this contest, everything would be different.

The gong rang in the hall, telling guests it was time to change into evening dress. The tea party broke up. Maud went to her room.

Her clothes had been laid out ready. The dress was one she had got in Paris for the London season of 1914. She had bought few clothes since. She took off her tea gown and slipped on a silk wrap. She would not ring for her maid yet: she had a few minutes to herself. She sat at the dressing table and looked at her face in the mirror. She was twenty-six, and it showed. She had never been pretty, but people had called her handsome. With wartime austerity she had lost what little she had of girlish softness, and the angles of her face had become more pronounced. What would Walter think when he saw her-if they ever met again? She touched her breasts. They were still firm, at least. He would be pleased about that. Thinking about him made her nipples stiffen. She wondered if she had time to-

There was a tap at the door, and she guiltily dropped her hands. "Who is it?" she called.

The door opened, and Gus Dewar stepped in.

Maud stood up, pulling the wrap tightly around her, and said in her most forbidding voice: "Mr. Dewar, please leave at once!"

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I have to see you in private."

"I can't imagine what possible reason-"

"I saw Walter in Berlin."

Maud fell silent, shocked. She stared at Gus. How could he know about her and Walter?

Gus said: "He gave me a letter for you." He reached inside his tweed jacket and drew out an envelope.

Maud took it with a trembling hand.

Gus said: "He told me he had not used your name or his, for fear the letter might be read at the border, but in fact no one searched my baggage."

Maud held the letter uneasily. She had longed to hear from him, but now she feared bad news. Walter might have taken a lover, and the letter might beg her understanding. Perhaps he had married a German girl, and wrote to ask her to keep the earlier marriage secret forever. Worst of all, perhaps he had started divorce proceedings.

She tore open the envelope.

She read:

My dearest darling,

It is winter in Germany and in my heart. I cannot tell you how much I love you and how badly I miss you.

Her eyes filled with tears. "Oh!" she said. "Oh, Mr. Dewar, thank you for bringing this!"

He took a tentative step closer to her. "There, there," he said. He patted her arm.

She tried to read the rest of the letter but she could not see the words on the paper. "I'm so happy," she wept.

She dropped her head to Gus's shoulder, and he put his arms around her. "It's all right," he said.

Maud gave in to her feelings and began to sob.


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