Fall of Giants / Chapter 34

Chapter 34


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PART THREE. THE WORLD MADE NEW

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR  -  November to December 1918

Ethel woke early on the morning after Armistice Day. Shivering in the stone-floored kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil on the old-fashioned range, she made a resolution to be happy. There was a lot to be happy about. The war was over and she was going to have a baby. She had a faithful husband who adored her. Things had not turned out exactly how she wanted, but she would not let that make her miserable. She would paint her kitchen a cheerful yellow, she decided. Bright colors in kitchens were a new fashion.

But first she had to try to mend her marriage. Bernie had been mollified by her surrender, but she had continued to feel bitter, and the atmosphere in the house had remained poisoned. She was angry, but she did not want the rift to be permanent. She wondered if she could make friends.

She took two cups of tea into the bedroom and got back into bed. Lloyd was still asleep in his cot in the corner. "How do you feel?" she said as Bernie sat up and put his glasses on.

"Better, I think."

"Stay in bed another day, make sure you've got rid of it completely."

"I might do that." His tone was neutral, neither warm nor hostile.

She sipped hot tea. "What would you like, a boy or a girl?"

He was silent, and at first she thought he was sulkily refusing to answer; but in fact he was just thinking for a few moments, as he often did before answering a question. At last he said: "Well, we've got a boy, so it would be nice to have one of each."

She felt a surge of affection for him. He always talked as if Lloyd was his own child. "We've got to make sure this is a good country for them to grow up in," she said. "Where they can get good schooling and a job and a decent house to bring up their own children in. And no more wars."

"Lloyd George will call a snap election."

"Do you think so?"

"He's the man who won the war. He'll want to get reelected before that wears off."

"I think Labour will still do well."

"We've got a chance in places like Aldgate, anyway."

Ethel hesitated. "Would you like me to manage your campaign?"

Bernie looked doubtful. "I've asked Jock Reid to be my agent."

"Jock can deal with legal documents and finance," Ethel said. "I'll organize meetings and so on. I can do it much better." Suddenly she felt this was about their marriage, not just the campaign.

"Are you sure you want to?"

"Yes. Jock would just send you to make speeches. You'll have to do that, of course, but it's not your strong point. You're better sitting down with a few people, talking over a cup of tea. I'll get you into factories and warehouses where you can chat to the men informally."

"I'm sure you're right," Bernie said.

She finished her tea and put the cup and saucer on the floor beside the bed. "So you're feeling better?"

"Yes."

She took his cup and saucer, put them down, then pulled her nightdress over her head. Her breasts were not as perky as they had been before she got pregnant with Lloyd, but they were still firm and round. "How much better?" she said.

He stared. "A lot."

They had not made love since the evening Jayne McCulley had proposed Ethel as candidate. Ethel was missing it badly. She held her breasts in her hands. The cold air in the room was making her nipples stand up. "Do you know what these are?"

"I believe they're your bosoms."

"Some people call them tits."

"I call them beautiful." His voice had become a little hoarse.

"Would you like to play with them?"

"All day long."

"I'm not sure about that," she said. "But make a start, and we'll see how we go."

"All right."

Ethel sighed happily. Men were so simple.

An hour later she went to work, leaving Lloyd with Bernie. There were not many people on the streets: London had a hangover this morning. She reached the office of the National Union of Garment Workers and sat at her desk. Peace would bring new industrial problems, she realized as she thought about the working day ahead of her. Millions of men leaving the army would be looking for employment, and they would want to elbow aside the women who had been doing their jobs for four years. But those women needed their wages. They did not all have a man coming home from France: a lot of their husbands were buried there. They needed their union, and they needed Ethel.

Whenever the election came, the union would naturally be campaigning for the Labour Party. Ethel spent most of the day in planning meetings.

The evening papers brought surprising news about the election. Lloyd George had decided to continue the coalition government into peacetime. He would not campaign as leader of the Liberals, but as head of the coalition. That morning he had addressed two hundred Liberal M.P.s at Downing Street and won their support. At the same time Bonar Law had persuaded Conservative M.P.s to back the idea.

Ethel was baffled. What were people supposed to vote for?

When she got home she found Bernie furious. "It's not an election, it's a bloody coronation," he said. "King David Lloyd George. What a traitor. He has a chance to bring in a radical left-wing government and what does he do? Sticks with his Conservative pals! He's a bloody turncoat."

"Let's not give up yet," said Ethel.

Two days later the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition and announced it would campaign against Lloyd George. Four Labour M.P.s who were government ministers refused to resign and were smartly expelled from the party. The date of the election was set for December 14. To give time for soldiers' ballots to be returned from France and counted, the results would not be announced until after Christmas.

Ethel started drawing up Bernie's campaigning schedule.

{II}

On the day after Armistice Day, Maud wrote to Walter on her brother's crested writing paper and put the letter in the red pillar-box on the street corner.

She had no idea how long it would take for normal post to be resumed, but when it happened she wanted her envelope to be on top of the pile. Her message was carefully worded, just in case censorship continued: it did not refer to their marriage, but just said she hoped to resume their old relationship now that their countries were at peace. Perhaps the letter was risky all the same. But she was desperate to find out whether Walter was alive and, if he was, to see him.

She feared that the victorious Allies would want to punish the German people, but Lloyd George's speech to Liberal M.P.s that day was reassuring. According to the evening papers, he said the peace treaty with Germany must be fair and just. "We must not allow any sense of revenge, any spirit of greed, or any grasping desire to overrule the fundamental principles of righteousness." The government would set its face against what he called "a base, sordid, squalid idea of vengeance and avarice." That cheered her up. Life for the Germans now would be hard enough anyway.

However, she was horrified the following morning when she opened the Daily Mail at breakfast. The leading article was headed THE HUNS MUST PAY. The paper argued that food aid should be sent to Germany-only because "if Germany were starved to death she could not pay what she owes." The kaiser must be put on trial for war crimes, it added. The paper fanned the flames of revenge by publishing at the top of its letters column a diatribe from Viscountess Templetown headed KEEP OUT THE HUNS. "How long are we all supposed to go on hating one another?" Maud said to Aunt Herm. "A year? Ten years? Forever?"

But Maud should not have been surprised. The Mail had conducted a hate campaign against the thirty thousand Germans who had been living in Britain at the outbreak of war-most of them long-term residents who thought of this country as their home. In consequence families had been broken up and thousands of harmless people had spent years in British concentration camps. It was stupid, but people needed someone to hate, and the newspapers were always ready to supply that need.

Maud knew the proprietor of the Mail, Lord Northcliffe. Like all great press men, he really believed the drivel he published. His talent was to express his readers' most stupid and ignorant prejudices as if they made sense, so that the shameful seemed respectable. That was why they bought the paper.

She also knew that Lloyd George had recently snubbed Northcliffe personally. The self-important press lord had proposed himself as a member of the British delegation at the upcoming peace conference, and had been offended when the prime minister turned him down.

Maud was worried. In politics, despicable people sometimes had to be pandered to, but Lloyd George seemed to have forgotten that. She wondered anxiously how much effect the Mail's malevolent propaganda would have on the election.

A few days later she found out.

She went to an election meeting in a municipal hall in the East End of London. Eth Leckwith was in the audience and her husband, Bernie, was on the platform. Maud had not made up her quarrel with Ethel, even though they had been friends and colleagues for years. In fact Maud still trembled with anger when she recalled how Ethel and others had encouraged Parliament to pass a law that kept women at a disadvantage to men in elections. All the same she missed Ethel's high spirits and ready smile.

The audience sat restlessly through the introductions. They were still mostly men, even though some women could now vote. Maud guessed that most women had not yet got used to the idea that they needed to take an interest in political discussions. But she also felt women would be put off by the tone of political meetings, in which men stood on a platform and ranted while the audience cheered or booed.

Bernie was the first speaker. He was no orator, Maud saw immediately. He spoke about the Labour Party's new constitution, in particular clause four, calling for public ownership of the means of production. Maud thought this was interesting, for it drew a clear line between Labour and the pro-business Liberals; but she soon realized she was in a minority. The man sitting next to her grew restless and eventually shouted: "Will you chuck the Germans out of this country?"

Bernie was thrown. He mumbled for a few moments, then said: "I would do whatever benefited the workingman." Maud wondered about the working woman, and guessed that Ethel must be thinking the same. Bernie went on: "But I don't see that action against Germans in Britain is a high priority."

That did not go down well; in fact it drew a few scattered boos.

Bernie said: "But to return to more important issues-"

From the other side of the hall, someone shouted: "What about the kaiser?"

Bernie made the mistake of replying to the heckler with a question. "What about the kaiser?" he rejoined. "He has abdicated."

"Should he be put on trial?"

Bernie said with exasperation: "Don't you understand that a trial means he will be entitled to defend himself? Do you really want to give the German emperor a platform to proclaim his innocence to the world?"

This was a compelling argument, Maud thought, but it was not what the audience wanted to hear. The booing grew louder, and there were shouts of "Hang the kaiser!"

British voters were ugly when riled, Maud thought; at least, the men were. Few women would ever want to come to meetings like this.

Bernie said: "If we hang our defeated enemies, we are barbarians."

The man next to Maud shouted again: "Will you make the Hun pay?"

That got the biggest reaction of all. Several people shouted out: "Make the Hun pay!"

"Within reason," Bernie began, but he got no further.

"Make the Hun pay!" The shout became common, and in a moment they were chanting in unison: "Make the Hun pay! Make the Hun pay!"

Maud got up from her seat and left.

{III}

Woodrow Wilson was the first American president ever to leave the country during his term of office.

He sailed from New York on December 4. Nine days later Gus was waiting for him at the quayside in Brest, on the western tip of the Brittany panhandle. At midday the mist cleared and the sun came out, for the first time in days. In the bay, battleships from the French, British, and American navies formed an honor guard through which the president steamed in a U.S. Navy transport ship, the George Washington. Guns thundered a salute, and a band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It was a solemn moment for Gus. Wilson had come here to make sure there would never be another war like the one just ended. Wilson's Fourteen Points, and his League of Nations, were intended to change forever the way nations resolved their conflicts. It was a stratospheric ambition. In the history of human civilization, no politician had ever aimed so high. If he succeeded, the world would be made new.

At three in the afternoon the first lady, Edith Wilson, walked down the gangplank on the arm of General Pershing, followed by the president in a top hat.

The town of Brest received Wilson as a conquering hero. Vive Wilson, said the banners, Defenseur du Droit des Peuples; Long Live Wilson, Defender of People's Rights. Every building flew the Stars and Stripes. Crowds jammed the sidewalks, many of the women wearing the traditional Breton tall lace headdress. The sound of Breton bagpipes was everywhere. Gus could have done without the bagpipes.

The French foreign minister made a speech of welcome. Gus stood with the American journalists. He noticed a small woman wearing a big fur hat. She turned her head, and he saw that her pretty face was marred by one permanently closed eye. He smiled with delight: it was Rosa Hellman. He looked forward to hearing her view of the peace conference.

After the speeches, the entire presidential party boarded the night train for the four-hundred-mile journey to Paris. The president shook Gus's hand and said: "Glad to have you back on the team, Gus."

Wilson wanted familiar associates around him for the Paris Peace Conference. His main adviser would be Colonel House, the pale Texan who had been unofficially counseling him on foreign policy for years. Gus would be the junior member of the crew.

Wilson looked weary, and he and Edith retired to their suite. Gus was concerned. He had heard rumors that the president's health was poor. Back in 1906 a blood vessel had burst behind Wilson's left eye, causing temporary blindness, and the doctors had diagnosed high blood pressure and advised him to retire. Wilson had cheerfully ignored their advice and gone on to become president, of course-but lately he had been suffering from headaches that might be a new symptom of the same blood pressure problem. The peace conference would be taxing: Gus hoped Wilson could stand it.

Rosa was on the train. Gus sat opposite her on the brocaded upholstery in the dining car. "I wondered whether I might see you," she said. She seemed pleased they had met.

"I'm on detachment from the army," said Gus, who was still wearing the uniform of a captain.

"Back home, Wilson has been walloped for his choice of colleagues. Not you, of course-"

"I'm a small fish."

"But some people say he should not have brought his wife."

Gus shrugged. It seemed trivial. After the battlefield it was going to be difficult to take seriously some of the stuff people worried about in peacetime.

Rosa said: "More importantly, he hasn't brought any Republicans."

"He wants allies on his team, not enemies," Gus said indignantly.

"He needs allies back home, too," Rosa said. "He's lost Congress."

She had a point, and Gus was reminded how smart she was. The midterm elections had been disastrous for Wilson. The Republicans had gained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. "How did that happen?" he said. "I've been out of touch."

"Ordinary people are fed up with rationing and high prices, and the end of the war came just a bit too late to help. And liberals hate the Espionage Act. It allowed Wilson to jail people who disagreed with the war. He used it, too-Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years." Debs had been a presidential candidate for the Socialists. Rosa sounded angry as she said: "You can't put your opponents in jail and still pretend to believe in freedom."

Gus remembered how much he enjoyed the cut and thrust of an argument with Rosa. "Freedom sometimes has to be compromised in war," he said.

"Obviously American voters don't think so. And there's another thing: Wilson segregated his Washington offices."

Gus did not know whether Negroes could ever be raised to the level of white people but, like most liberal Americans, he thought the way to find out was to give them better chances in life and see what happened. However, Wilson and his wife were Southerners, and felt differently. "Edith won't take her maid to London, for fear the girl will get spoiled," Gus said. "She says British people are too polite to Negroes."

"Woodrow Wilson is no longer the darling of the left in America," Rosa concluded. "Which means he's going to need Republican support for his League of Nations."

"I suppose Henry Cabot Lodge feels snubbed." Lodge was a right-wing Republican.

"You know politicians," Rosa said. "They're as sensitive as schoolgirls, and more vengeful. Lodge is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Wilson should have brought him to Paris."

Gus protested: "Lodge is against the whole idea of the League of Nations!"

"The ability to listen to smart people who disagree with you is a rare talent-but a president should have it. And bringing Lodge here would have neutralized him. As a member of the team, he couldn't go home and fight against whatever is agreed in Paris."

Gus guessed she was right. But Wilson was an idealist who believed that the force of righteousness would overcome all obstacles. He underestimated the need to flatter, cajole, and seduce.

The food was good, in honor of the president. They had fresh sole from the Atlantic in a buttery sauce. Gus had not eaten so well since before the war. He was amused to see Rosa tuck in heartily. She was a petite figure: where did she put it all?

At the end of the meal they were served strong coffee in small cups. Gus found he did not want to leave Rosa and retire to his sleeping compartment. He was much too interested in talking to her. "Wilson will be in a strong position in Paris, anyway," he said.

Rosa looked skeptical. "How so?"

"Well, first of all we won the war for them."

She nodded. "Wilson said: 'At Chateau-Thierry we saved the world.'"

"Chuck Dixon and I were in that battle."

"Was that where he died?"

"Direct hit from a shell. First casualty I saw. Not the last, sadly."

"I'm very sorry, especially for his wife. I've known Doris for years-we used to have the same piano teacher."

"I don't know if we saved the world, though," Gus went on. "There are many more French and British and Russians among the dead than Americans. But we tipped the balance. That ought to mean something."

She shook her head, tossing her dark curls. "I disagree. The war is over, and the Europeans no longer need us."

"Men such as Lloyd George seem to think that American military power cannot be ignored."

"Then he's wrong," said Rosa. Gus was surprised and intrigued to hear a woman speak so forcefully about such a subject. "Suppose the French and British simply refuse to go along with Wilson," she said. "Would he use the army to enforce his ideas? No. Even if he wanted to, a Republican Congress wouldn't let him."

"We have economic and financial power."

"It's certainly true that the Allies owe us huge debts, but I'm not sure how much leverage that gives us. There's a saying: 'If you owe a hundred dollars, the bank has you in its power; but if you owe a million dollars, you have the bank in your power.'"

Gus began to see that Wilson's task might be more difficult than he had imagined. "Well, what about public opinion? You saw the reception Wilson got in Brest. All over Europe, people are looking to him to create a peaceful world."

"That's his strongest card. People are sick of slaughter. 'Never again' is their cry. I just hope Wilson can deliver what they want."

They returned to their compartments and said good night. Gus lay awake a long time, thinking about Rosa and what she had said. She really was the smartest woman he had ever met. She was beautiful, too. Somehow you quickly forgot about her eye. At first it seemed a terrible deformity, but after a while Gus stopped noticing it.

She had been pessimistic about the conference, however. And everything she said was true. Wilson had a struggle ahead, Gus now realized. He was overjoyed to be part of the team, and determined to do what he could to turn the president's ideals into reality.

In the small hours of the morning he looked out of the window as the train steamed eastward across France. Passing through a town, he was startled to see crowds on the station platforms and on the road beside the railway line, watching. It was dark, but they were clearly visible by lamplight. There were thousands of them, men and women and children. There was no cheering: they were quite silent. The men and boys took off their hats, Gus saw, and that gesture of respect moved him almost to tears. They had waited half the night to see the passing of the train that held the hope of the world.


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