Fall of Giants / Chapter 41

Chapter 41


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CHAPTER FORTY-ONE  -  November 11-12, 1923

Maud slept in the day and got up in the middle of the afternoon, when Walter brought the children home from Sunday school. Eric was three and Heike was two, and they looked so sweet in their best clothes that Maud thought her heart would burst with love.

She had never known an emotion like this. Even her mad passion for Walter had not been so overwhelming. The children also made her feel desperately anxious. Would she be able to feed them and keep them warm, and protect them from riot and revolution?

She gave them hot bread-and-milk to warm them, then she began to prepare for the evening. She and Walter were throwing a small family party to celebrate the thirty-eighth birthday of Walter's cousin Robert von Ulrich.

Robert had not been killed in the war, contrary to Walter's parents' fears-or were they hopes? Either way, Walter had not become the Graf von Ulrich. Robert had been held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia. When the Bolsheviks had made peace with Austria, Robert and his wartime comrade, Jorg, had set out to walk, hitchhike, and ride freight trains home. It had taken them a year, but they had made it, and when they returned Walter had found them an apartment in Berlin.

Maud put on her apron. In the tiny kitchen of her little house she made a soup out of cabbage, stale bread, and turnips. She also baked a small cake, although she had to eke out her ingredients with more turnips.

She had learned to cook and much else besides. A kindly neighbor, an older woman, had taken pity on the bewildered aristocrat and taught her how to make a bed, iron a shirt, and clean a bathtub. It had all come as something of a shock.

They lived in a middle-class town house. They had not been able to spend any money on it, nor could they afford the servants Maud had always been used to, and they had a lot of secondhand furniture that Maud secretly thought was dreadfully suburban.

They had looked forward to better times, but in fact things had got worse: Walter's career in the foreign ministry had been dead-ended by his marriage to an Englishwoman, and he would have moved on to something else, but in the economic chaos he was lucky to have any job at all. And Maud's early dissatisfactions seemed petty now, four years of poverty later. There was patched upholstery where the children had torn it, broken windows covered with cardboard, and paintwork peeling everywhere.

But Maud had no regrets. Any time she liked she could kiss Walter, slide her tongue into his mouth, unbutton his trousers, and lie with him on the bed or the couch or even the floor, and that made up for everything else.

Walter's parents came to the party bringing half a ham and two bottles of wine. Otto had lost his family estate, Zumwald, which was now in Poland. His savings had been reduced to nothing by inflation. However, the large garden of his Berlin house produced potatoes, and he still had a lot of prewar wine.

"How did you manage to find ham?" Walter said incredulously. Such things could normally be bought only with American dollars.

"I traded it for a bottle of vintage champagne," said Otto.

The grandparents put the children to bed. Otto told them a folktale. From what Maud could hear, it was about a queen who had her brother beheaded. She shuddered, but did not interfere. Afterward Susanne sang lullabies in a reedy voice and the children went to sleep, apparently none the worse for their grandfather's bloodthirsty story.

Robert and Jorg arrived, wearing identical red ties. Otto greeted them warmly. He seemed to have no idea of their relationship, apparently accepting that Jorg was simply Robert's flatmate. Indeed, that was how the men behaved when they were with older folk. Maud thought that Susanne probably guessed the truth. Women were harder to fool. Fortunately they were more accepting.

Robert and Jorg could be very different in liberal company. At parties in their own home they made no secret of their romantic love. Many of their friends were the same. Maud had been startled at first: she had never seen men kissing, admiring one another's outfits, and flirting like schoolgirls. But such behavior was no longer taboo, at least in Berlin. And Maud had read Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, which seemed to suggest that this kind of thing had always gone on.

Tonight, however, Robert and Jorg were on their best behavior. Over dinner everyone talked about what was happening in Bavaria. On Thursday an association of paramilitary groups called the Kampf bund had declared a national revolution in a beer hall in Munich.

Maud could hardly bear to read the news these days. Workers went on strike, so right-wing bullyboys beat up the strikers. Housewives marched to protest against the shortage of provisions, and their protests turned into food riots. Everyone in Germany was angry about the Versailles Treaty, yet the Social Democratic government had accepted it in full. People believed reparations were crippling the economy, even though Germany had paid only a fraction of the amount and obviously had no intention of trying to clear the total.

The Munich beer hall putsch had everyone worked up. The war hero Erich Ludendorff was its most prominent supporter. So-called storm troopers in their brown shirts and students from the Officers Infantry School had seized control of key buildings. City councilors had been taken hostage and prominent Jews arrested.

On Friday the legitimate government had counterattacked. Four policemen and sixteen paramilitaries had been killed. Maud was not able to judge, from the news that had reached Berlin so far, whether the insurrection was over or not. If the extremists took control of Bavaria, would the whole country fall to them?

It made Walter angry. "We have a democratically elected government," he said. "Why can't people let them get on with the job?"

"Our government has betrayed us," said his father.

"In your opinion. So what? In America, when the Republicans won the last election, the Democrats didn't riot!"

"The United States is not being subverted by Bolsheviks and Jews."

"If you're worried about the Bolsheviks, tell people not to vote for them. And what is this obsession with Jews?"

"They are a pernicious influence."

"There are Jews in Britain. Father, don't you remember how Lord Rothschild in London tried his best to prevent the war? There are Jews in France, in Russia, in America. They're not conspiring to betray their governments. What makes you think ours are peculiarly evil? Most of them only want to earn enough to feed their families and send their children to school-just the same as everyone else."

Robert surprised Maud by speaking up. "I agree with Uncle Otto," he said. "Democracy is enfeebling. Germany needs strong leadership. Jorg and I have joined the National Socialists."

"Oh, Robert, for God's sake!" said Walter disgustedly. "How could you?"

Maud stood up. "Would anyone like a piece of birthday cake?" she said brightly.

{II}

Maud left the party at nine to go to work. "Where's your uniform?" said her mother-in-law as she said good-bye. Susanne thought Maud was a night nurse for a wealthy old gentleman.

"I keep it there and change when I arrive," Maud said. In fact she played the piano in a nightclub called Nachtleben. However, it was true that she kept her uniform at work.

She had to earn money, and she had never been taught to do much except dress up and go to parties. She had had a small inheritance from her father, but she had converted it to marks when she moved to Germany, and now it was worthless. Fitz refused to give her money because he was still angry with her for marrying without his permission. Walter's salary at the Foreign Office was raised every month, but it never kept pace with inflation. In partial compensation, the rent they paid for their house was now negligible, and the landlord no longer bothered to collect it. But they had to buy food.

Maud got to the club at nine thirty. The place was newly furnished and decorated, and looked good even with the lights up. Waiters were polishing glasses, the barman was chipping ice, and a blind man was tuning the piano. Maud changed into a low-cut evening dress and fake jewelry, and made up her face heavily with powder, eyeliner, and lipstick. She was at the piano when the place opened at ten.

It rapidly filled up with men and women in evening clothes, dancing and smoking. They bought champagne cocktails and discreetly sniffed cocaine. Despite poverty and inflation, Berlin's nightlife was hot. Money was no problem to these people. Either they had income from abroad, or they had something better than money: stocks of coal, a slaughterhouse, a tobacco warehouse, or, best of all, gold.

Maud was part of an all-female band playing the new music called jazz. Fitz would have been horrified to see it, but she liked the job. She had always rebelled against the restrictions of her upbringing. Doing the same tunes every night could be tedious, but despite that it released something repressed within her. She wiggled on her piano stool and batted her eyelashes at the customers.

At midnight she had a spot of her own, singing and playing songs made popular by Negro singers such as Alberta Hunter, which she learned from American discs played on a gramophone that belonged to Nachtleben's owner. She was billed as Mississippi Maud.

Between numbers a customer staggered up to the piano and said: "Play 'Downhearted Blues,' will you?"

She knew the song, a big hit for Bessie Smith. She started to play blues chords in E flat. "I might," she said. "What's it worth?"

He held out a billion-mark note.

Maud laughed. "That won't buy you the first bar," she said. "Haven't you got any foreign currency?"

He handed her a dollar bill.

She took the money, stuffed it into her sleeve, and played "Downhearted Blues."

Maud was overjoyed to have a dollar, which was worth about a trillion marks. Nevertheless she felt a little down, and her heart was really in the blues. It was quite an achievement for a woman of her background to have learned to hustle tips, but the process was demeaning.

After her spot, the same customer accosted her on her way back to her dressing room. He put his hand on her hip and said: "Would you like to have breakfast with me, sweetheart?"

Most nights she was pawed, although at thirty-three she was one of the oldest women there: many were girls of nineteen and twenty. When this happened the girls were not allowed to make a fuss. They were supposed to smile sweetly, remove the man's hand gently, and say: "Not tonight, sir." But this was not always sufficiently discouraging, and the other girls had taught Maud a more effective line. "I've got these tiny insects in my cunt hair," she said. "Do you think it's anything to worry about?" The man disappeared.

Maud spoke German effortlessly after four years there, and working at the club she had learned all the vulgar words too.

The club closed at four in the morning. Maud took off her makeup and changed back into her street clothes. She went to the kitchen and begged some coffee beans. A cook who liked her gave her a few in a twist of paper.

The musicians were paid in cash every night. All the girls brought large bags in which to carry the bundles of banknotes.

On the way out, Maud picked up a newspaper left behind by a customer. Walter would read it. They could not afford to buy papers.

She left the club and went straight to the bakery. It was dangerous to hold on to money: by evening your wages might not buy a loaf. Several women were already waiting outside the shop in the cold. At half past five the baker opened the door and chalked up his prices on a board. Today a loaf of black bread was 127 billion marks.

Maud bought four loaves. They would not eat it all today, but that did not matter. Stale bread could be used to thicken soup: banknotes could not.

She got home at six. Later she would dress the children and take them to their grandparents' house for the day, so that she could sleep. Right now she had an hour or so with Walter. It was the best part of the day.

She prepared breakfast and took a tray into the bedroom. "Look," she said. "New bread, coffee... and a dollar!"

"Clever girl!" He kissed her. "What shall we buy?" He shivered in his pajamas. "We need coal."

"No rush. We can keep it, if you want. It will be worth just as much next week. If you're cold, I'll warm you."

He grinned. "Come on, then."

She took off her clothes and got into bed.

They ate the bread, drank the coffee, and made love. Sex was still exciting, even though it did not take as long as it had when first they were together.

Afterward, Walter read the newspaper she had brought home. "The revolution in Munich is over," he said.

"For good?"

Walter shrugged. "They've caught the leader. It's Adolf Hitler."

"The head of the party Robert joined?"

"Yes. He's been charged with high treason. He's in jail."

"Good," said Maud with relief. "Thank God that's over."


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