Fall of Giants / Chapter 35

Chapter 35


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CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE  -  December 1918 to February 1919

The votes were counted three days after Christmas. Eth and Bernie Leckwith stood in Aldgate town hall to hear the results, Bernie on the platform in his best suit, Eth in the audience.

Bernie lost.

He was stoical, but Ethel cried. For him it was the end of a dream. Perhaps it had been a foolish dream, but all the same he was hurt, and her heart ached for him.

The Liberal candidate had supported the Lloyd George coalition, so there had been no Conservative candidate. Consequently the Conservatives had voted Liberal, and the combination had been too much for Labour to beat.

Bernie congratulated his winning opponent and came down off the platform. The other Labour Party members had a bottle of Scotch and wanted to hold a wake, but Bernie and Ethel went home.

"I'm not cut out for this, Eth," Bernie said as she boiled water for cocoa.

"You did a good job," she said. "We were outwitted by that bloody Lloyd George."

Bernie shook his head. "I'm not a leader," he said. "I'm a thinker and a planner. Time and again I tried to talk to people the way you do, and fire them with enthusiasm for our cause, but I never could do it. When you talk to them, they love you. That's the difference."

She knew he was right.

Next morning the newspapers showed that the Aldgate result had been mirrored all over the country. The coalition had won 525 of the 707 seats, one of the largest majorities in the history of Parliament. The people had voted for the man who won the war.

Ethel was bitterly disappointed. The old men were still running the country. The politicians who had caused millions of deaths were now celebrating, as if they had done something wonderful. But what had they achieved? Pain and hunger and destruction. Ten million men and boys had been killed to no purpose.

The only glimmer of hope was that the Labour Party had improved its position. They had won sixty seats, up from forty-two.

It was the anti-Lloyd George Liberals who had suffered. They had won only thirty constituencies, and Asquith himself had lost his seat. "This could be the end of the Liberal Party," said Bernie as he spread dripping on his bread for lunch. "They've failed the people, and Labour is the opposition now. That may be our only consolation."

Just before they left for work, the post arrived. Ethel looked at the letters while Bernie tied the laces of Lloyd's shoes. There was one from Billy, written in their code. She sat at the kitchen table to decode it.

She underlined the key words with a pencil and wrote them on a pad. As she deciphered the message she became more and more fascinated.

"You know Billy's in Russia," she said to Bernie.

"Yes."

"Well, he says our army is there to fight against the Bolsheviks. The American army is there too."

"I'm not surprised."

"Yes, but listen, Bern," she said. "We know the Whites can't beat the Bolsheviks-but what if foreign armies join in? Anything could happen!"

Bernie looked thoughtful. "They could bring back the monarchy."

"The people of this country won't stand for that."

"The people of this country don't know what's going on."

"Then we'd better tell them," said Ethel. "I'm going to write an article."

"Who will publish it?"

"We'll see. Maybe the Daily Herald." The Herald was left-wing. "Will you take Lloyd to the child minder?"

"Yes, of course."

Ethel thought for a minute, then, at the top of a sheet of paper, she wrote:

Hands Off Russia!

{II}

Walking around Paris made Maud cry. Along the broad boulevards there were piles of rubble where German shells had fallen. Broken windows in the grand buildings were repaired with boards, reminding her painfully of her handsome brother with his disfigured eye. The avenues of trees were marred by gaps where an ancient chestnut or noble plane had been sacrificed for its timber. Half the women wore black for mourning, and on street corners crippled soldiers begged for change.

She was crying for Walter, too. She had received no reply to her letter. She had inquired about going to Germany, but that was impossible. It had been difficult enough to get permission to come to Paris. She had hoped Walter might come here with the German delegation, but there was no German delegation: the defeated countries were not invited to the peace conference. The victorious Allies intended to thrash out an agreement among themselves, then present the losers with a treaty for signing.

Meanwhile there was a shortage of coal, and all the hotels were freezing cold. She had a suite at the Majestic, where the British delegation was headquartered. To guard against French spies, the British had replaced all the staff with their own people. Consequently the food was dire: porridge for breakfast, overcooked vegetables, and bad coffee.

Wrapped in a prewar fur coat, Maud went to meet Johnny Remarc at Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysees. "Thank you for arranging for me to travel to Paris," she said.

"Anything for you, Maud. But why were you so keen to come here?"

She was not going to tell the truth, least of all to someone who loved to gossip. "Shopping," she said. "I haven't bought a new dress for four years."

"Oh, spare me," he said. "There's almost nothing to buy, and what there is costs a fortune. Fifteen hundred francs for a gown! Even Fitz might draw the line there. I think you must have a French paramour."

"I wish I did." She changed the subject. "I've found Fitz's car. Do you know where I might get petrol?"

"I'll see what I can do."

They ordered lunch. Maud said: "Do you think we're really going to make the Germans pay billions in reparations?"

"They're not in a good position to object," said Johnny. "After the Franco-Prussian War they made France pay five billion francs-which the French did in three years. And last March, in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany made the Bolsheviks promise six billion marks, although of course it won't be paid now. All the same, the Germans' righteous indignation has the hollow ring of hypocrisy."

Maud hated it when people spoke harshly of the Germans. It was as if the fact that they had lost made them beasts. What if we had been the losers, Maud wanted to say-would we have had to say the war was our fault, and pay for it all? "But we're asking for so much more-twenty-four billion pounds, we say, and the French put it at almost double that."

"It's hard to argue with the French," Johnny said. "They owe us six hundred million pounds, and more to the Americans; but if we deny them German reparations they'll say they can't pay us."

"Can the Germans pay what we're asking?"

"No. My friend Pozzo Keynes says they could pay about a tenth-two billion pounds-though it may cripple their country."

"Do you mean John Maynard Keynes, the Cambridge economist?"

"Yes. We call him Pozzo."

"I didn't know he was one of... your friends."

Johnny smiled. "Oh, yes, my dear, very much so."

Maud suffered a moment of envy for Johnny's cheerful depravity. She had fiercely suppressed her own need for physical love. It was almost two years since a man had touched her lovingly. She felt like an old nun, wrinkled and dried up.

"What a sad look!" Johnny did not miss much. "I hope you're not in love with Pozzo."

She laughed, then turned the conversation back to politics. "If we know the Germans can't pay, why is Lloyd George insisting?"

"I asked him that question myself. I've known him quite well since he was minister for munitions. He says all the belligerents will end up paying their own debts, and no one will get any reparations to speak of."

"So why this pretense?"

"Because in the end the taxpayers of every country will pay for the war-but the politician who tells them that will never win another election."

{III}

Gus went to the daily meetings of the League of Nations Commission. This group had the job of drafting the covenant that would set up the league. Woodrow Wilson himself chaired the committee, and he was in a hurry.

Wilson had completely dominated the first month of the conference. He had swept aside a French agenda putting German reparations at the top and the league at the bottom, and insisted that the league must be part of any treaty signed by him.

The League Commission met at the luxurious Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. The hydraulic elevators were ancient and slow, and sometimes stopped between floors while the water pressure built up; Gus thought they were very like the European diplomats, who enjoyed nothing more than a leisurely argument, and never came to a decision until forced. He saw with secret amusement that both diplomats and lifts caused the American president to fidget and mutter in furious impatience.

The nineteen commissioners sat around a big table covered with a red cloth, their interpreters behind them whispering in their ears, their aides around the room with files and notebooks. Gus could tell that the Europeans were impressed by his boss's ability to drive the agenda forward. Some people had said the writing of the covenant would take months, if not years; and others said the nations would never reach agreement. However, to Gus's delight, after ten days they were close to completing a first draft.

Wilson had to return to the United States on February 14. He would be back soon, but he was determined to have a draft of the covenant to take home.

Unfortunately, the afternoon before he left the French produced a major obstacle. They proposed that the League of Nations should have its own army.

Wilson's eyes rolled up in despair. "Impossible," he groaned.

Gus knew why. Congress would not allow American troops to be under someone else's control.

The French delegate, former prime minister Leon Bourgeois, argued that the league would be ignored if it had no means of enforcing its decisions.

Gus shared Wilson's frustration. There were other ways for the league to put pressure on rogue nations: diplomacy, economic sanctions, and in the last resort an ad hoc army, to be used for a specific mission, then disbanded when the job was done.

But Bourgeois said none of that would have protected France from Germany. The French could not focus on anything else. Perhaps it was understandable, Gus thought, but it was not the way to create a new world order.

Lord Robert Cecil, who had done a lot of the drafting, raised a bony finger to speak. Wilson nodded: he liked Cecil, who was a strong supporter of the league. Not everyone agreed: Clemenceau, the French prime minister, said that when Cecil smiled he looked like a Chinese dragon. "Forgive me for being blunt," Cecil said. "The French delegation seems to be saying that because the league may not be as strong as they hoped, they will reject it altogether. May I point out very frankly that in that case there will almost certainly be a bilateral alliance between Great Britain and the United States that would offer nothing to France."

Gus suppressed a smile. That's telling 'em, he thought.

Bourgeois looked shocked and withdrew his amendment.

Wilson shot a grateful look across the table at Cecil.

The Japanese delegate, Baron Makino, wanted to speak. Wilson nodded and looked at his watch.

Makino referred to the clause in the covenant, already agreed, that guaranteed religious freedom. He wished to add an amendment to the effect that all members would treat each other's citizens equally, without racial discrimination.

Wilson's face froze.

Makino's speech was eloquent, even in translation. Different races had fought side by side in the war, he pointed out. "A common bond of sympathy and gratitude has been established." The league would be a great family of nations. Surely they should treat one another as equals?

Gus was worried but not surprised. The Japanese had been talking about this for a week or two. It had already caused consternation among the Australians and the Californians, who wanted to keep the Japanese out of their territories. It had disconcerted Wilson, who did not for one moment think that American Negroes were his equals. Most of all it had upset the British, who ruled undemocratically over hundreds of millions of people of different races and did not want them to think they were as good as their white overlords.

Again it was Cecil who spoke. "Alas, this is a highly controversial matter," he said, and Gus could almost have believed in his sadness. "The mere suggestion that it might be discussed has already created discord."

There was a murmur of agreement around the table.

Cecil went on: "Rather than delay the agreement of a draft covenant, perhaps we should postpone discussion of, ah, racial discrimination to a later date."

The Greek prime minister said: "The whole question of religious liberty is a tricky subject, too. Perhaps we should drop that for the present."

The Portuguese delegate said: "My government has never yet signed a treaty that did not call on God!"

Cecil, a deeply religious man, said: "Perhaps this time we will all have to take a chance."

There was a ripple of laughter, and Wilson said with evident relief: "If that's agreed, let us move on."

{IV}

Next day Wilson went to the French foreign ministry at the Quai d'Orsay and read the draft to a plenary session of the peace conference in the famous Clock Room under the enormous chandeliers that looked like stalactites in an Arctic cave. That evening he left for home. The following day was a Saturday, and in the evening Gus went dancing.

Paris after dark was a party town. Food was still scarce but there seemed to be plenty of booze. Young men left their hotel room doors open so that Red Cross nurses could wander in whenever they needed company. Conventional morality seemed to be put on hold. People did not try to hide their love affairs. Effeminate men cast off the pretense of masculinity. Larue's became the lesbian restaurant. It was said the coal shortage was a myth put about by the French so that everyone would keep warm at night by sleeping with their friends.

Everything was expensive, but Gus had money. He had other advantages, too: he knew Paris and could speak French. He went to the races at St. Cloud, saw La Boheme at the opera, and went to a risque musical called Phi Phi. Because he was close to the president, he was invited to every party.

He found himself spending more and more time with Rosa Hellman. He had to be careful, when talking to her, to tell her only things that he would be happy to see printed, but the habit of discretion was automatic with him now. She was one of the smartest people he had ever met. He liked her, but that was as far as it went. She was always ready to go out with him, but what reporter would refuse an invitation from a presidential aide? He could never hold hands with her, or try to kiss her good night, in case she might think he was taking advantage of his position as someone she could not afford to offend.

He met her at the Ritz for cocktails. "What are cocktails?" she said.

"Hard liquor dressed up to be more respectable. I promise you, they're fashionable."

Rosa was fashionable, too. Her hair was bobbed. Her cloche hat came down over her ears like a German soldier's steel helmet. Curves and corsets had gone out of style, and her draped dress fell straight from the shoulders to a startlingly low waistline. By concealing her shape, paradoxically, the dress made Gus think about the body beneath. She wore lipstick and face powder, something European women still considered daring.

They had a martini each, then moved on. They drew a lot of stares as they walked together through the long lobby of the Ritz: the lanky man with the big head and his tiny one-eyed companion, him in white-tie-and-tails and her in silver-blue silk. They got a cab to the Majestic, where the British held Saturday night dances that everyone went to.

The ballroom was packed. Young aides from the delegations, journalists from all over the world, and soldiers freed from the trenches were "jazzing" with nurses and typists. Rosa taught Gus the fox-trot, then she left him and danced with a handsome dark-eyed man from the Greek delegation.

Feeling jealous, Gus drifted around the room chatting to acquaintances until he ran into Lady Maud Fitzherbert in a purple dress and pointed shoes. "Hello!" he said in surprise.

She seemed pleased to see him. "You look well."

"I was lucky. I'm all in one piece."

She touched the scar on his cheek. "Almost."

"A scratch. Shall we dance?"

He took her in his arms. She was thin: he could feel her bones through the dress. They did the hesitation waltz. "How is Fitz?" Gus asked.

"Fine, I think. He's in Russia. I'm probably not supposed to say that, but it's an open secret."

"I notice the British newspapers saying 'Hands Off Russia.'"

"That campaign is being led by a woman you met at Tŷ Gwyn, Ethel Williams, now Eth Leckwith."

"I don't remember her."

"She was the housekeeper."

"Good lord!"

"She's becoming something of a force in British politics."

"How the world has changed."

Maud drew him closer and lowered her voice. "I don't suppose you have any news of Walter?"

Gus recalled the familiar-looking German officer he had seen fall at Chateau-Thierry, but he was far from certain that had been Walter, so he said: "Nothing, I'm sorry. It must be hard for you."

"No information is coming out of Germany and no one is allowed to go there!"

"I'm afraid you may have to wait until the peace treaty is signed."

"And when will that be?"

Gus did not know. "The league covenant is pretty much done, but they're a long way from agreement over how much Germany should pay in reparations."

"It's foolish," Maud said bitterly. "We need the Germans to be prosperous, so that British factories can sell them cars and stoves and carpet sweepers. If we cripple their economy, Germany will go Bolshevik."

"People want revenge."

"Do you remember 1914? Walter didn't want war. Nor did the majority of Germans. But the country wasn't a democracy. The kaiser was egged on by the generals. And once the Russians had mobilized, they had no choice."

"Of course I remember. But most people don't."

The dance ended. Rosa Hellman appeared, and Gus introduced the two women. They talked for a minute, but Rosa was uncharacteristically charmless, and Maud moved away.

"That dress cost a fortune," Rosa said grumpily. "It's by Jeanne Lanvin."

Gus was perplexed. "Didn't you like Maud?"

"You obviously do."

"What do you mean?"

"You were dancing very close."

Rosa did not know about Walter. All the same, Gus resented being falsely accused of flirting. "She wanted to talk about something rather confidential," he said with a touch of indignation.

"I bet she did."

"I don't know why you're taking this attitude," Gus said. "You went off with that oily Greek."

"He's very handsome, and not a bit oily. Why shouldn't I dance with other men? It's not as if you're in love with me."

Gus stared at her. "Oh," he said. "Oh, dear." He suddenly felt confused and uncertain.

"What's the matter now?"

"I've just realized something... I think."

"Are you going to tell me what it is?"

"I suppose I must," he said shakily. He paused.

She waited for him to speak. "Well?" she said impatiently.

"I am in love with you."

She looked back at him in silence. After a long pause she said: "Do you mean it?"

Although the thought had taken him by surprise, he had no doubt. "Yes. I love you, Rosa."

She smiled weakly. "Just fancy that."

"I think perhaps I've been in love with you for quite a long time without knowing it."

She nodded, as if having a suspicion confirmed. The band started a slow tune. She moved closer.

He took her in his arms automatically, but he was too wrought up to dance properly. "I'm not sure I can manage-"

"Don't worry." She knew what he was thinking. "Just pretend."

He shuffled a few steps. His mind was in turmoil. She had not said anything about her own feelings. On the other hand, she had not walked away. Was there any chance she might return his love? She obviously liked him, but that was not the same thing at all. Was she asking herself, at this very minute, how she felt? Or was she thinking up some gentle words of rejection?

She looked up at him, and he thought she was about to give him the answer; then she said: "Take me away from here, please, Gus."

"Of course."

She got her coat. The doorman summoned a red Renault taxi. "Maxim's," Gus said. It was a short drive, and they rode in silence. Gus longed to know what was in her mind, but he did not rush her. She would have to tell him soon.

The restaurant was packed, the few empty tables reserved for later customers. The headwaiter was desole. Gus took out his wallet, extracted a hundred-franc note, and said: "A quiet table in a corner." A card saying Reservee was whipped away and they sat down.

They chose a light supper and Gus ordered a bottle of champagne. "You've changed so much," Rosa said.

He was surprised. "I don't think so."

"You were a diffident young man, back in Buffalo. I think you were even shy of me. Now you walk around Paris as if you own it."

"Oh, dear-that sounds arrogant."

"No, just confident. After all, you've worked for a president and fought a war-those things make a difference."

The food came but neither of them ate much. Gus was too tense. What was she thinking? Did she love him or not? Surely she must know? He put down his knife and fork, but instead of asking her the question on his mind he said: "You've always seemed self-confident."

She laughed. "Isn't that amazing?"

"Why?"

"I suppose I was confident until about the age of seven. And then... well, you know what schoolgirls are like. Everyone wants to be friends with the prettiest. I had to play with the fat girls and the ugly ones and those dressed in hand-me-downs. That went on into my teenage years. Even working for the Buffalo Anarchist was kind of an outsider thing to do. But when I became editor I started to get my self-esteem back." She took a sip of champagne. "You helped."

"I did?" Gus was surprised.

"It was the way you talked to me, as if I was the smartest and most interesting person in Buffalo."

"You probably were."

"Except for Olga Vyalov."

"Ah." Gus blushed. Remembering his infatuation with Olga made him feel foolish, but he did not want to say so, for that would be running her down, which was ungentlemanly.

When they had finished their coffee and he called for the bill, he still did not know how Rosa felt about him.

In the taxi he took her hand and pressed it to his lips. She said: "Oh, Gus, you are very dear." He did not know what she meant by that. However, her face was turned up toward him in a way that almost seemed expectant. Did she want him to...? He screwed up his nerve and kissed her mouth.

There was a frozen moment when she did not respond, and he thought he had done the wrong thing. Then she sighed contentedly and parted her lips.

Oh, he thought happily; so that's all right, then.

He put his arms around her and they kissed all the way to her hotel. The journey was too short. Suddenly a commissionaire was opening the door of the cab. "Wipe your mouth," Rosa said as she got out. Gus pulled out a handkerchief and hastily rubbed at his face. The white linen came away red with her lipstick. He folded it carefully and put it back in his pocket.

He walked her to the door. "Can I see you tomorrow?" he said.

"When?"

"Early."

She laughed. "You never pretend, Gus, do you? I love that about you."

That was good. I love that about you was not the same as I love you but it was better than nothing. "Early it is," he said.

"What shall we do?"

"It's Sunday." He said the first thing that came into his head. "We could go to church."

"All right."

"Let me take you to Notre Dame."

"Are you Catholic?" she said in surprise.

"No, Episcopalian, if anything. You?"

"The same."

"It's all right, we can sit at the back. I'll find out what time mass is and phone your hotel."

She held out her hand and they shook like friends. "Thank you for a lovely evening," she said formally.

"It was such a pleasure. Good night."

"Good night," she said, and she turned away and disappeared into the hotel lobby.


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