Fall of Giants / Chapter 9

Chapter 9


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CHAPTER NINE  -  Late July 1914

Walter von Ulrich could not play ragtime.

He could play the tunes, which were simple. He could play the distinctive chords, which often used the interval of the flatted seventh. And he could play both together-but it did not sound like ragtime. The rhythm eluded him. His effort was more like something you might hear from a band in a Berlin park. For one who could play Beethoven sonatas effortlessly, this was frustrating.

Maud had tried to teach him, that Saturday morning at Tŷ Gwyn, at the upright Bechstein among the potted palms in the small drawing room, with the summer sun coming through the tall windows. They had sat hip to hip on the piano stool, their arms interlaced, and Maud had laughed at his efforts. It had been a moment of golden happiness.

His mood had darkened when she explained how his father had talked her into breaking with Walter. If he had seen his father on the evening when he returned to London, there would have been an explosion. But Otto had left for Vienna, and Walter had had to swallow his rage. He had not seen his father since.

He had agreed to Maud's proposal that they should keep their engagement secret until the Balkan crisis was over. It was still going on, though things had calmed down. Almost four weeks had passed since the assassination in Sarajevo, but the Austrian emperor still had not sent to the Serbians the note he had been mulling so long. The delay encouraged Walter to hope that tempers had cooled and moderate counsels had prevailed in Vienna.

Sitting at the baby grand piano in the compact drawing room of his bachelor flat in Piccadilly, he reflected that there was much the Austrians could do, short of war, to punish Serbia and soothe their wounded pride. For example, they could force the Serbian government to close anti-Austrian newspapers, and purge nationalists from the Serbian army and civil service. The Serbians could submit to that: it would be humiliating, but better than a war they could not win.

Then the leaders of the great European countries could relax and concentrate on their domestic problems. The Russians could crush their general strike, the English could pacify the mutinous Irish Protestants, and the French could enjoy the murder trial of Madame Caillaux, who had shot the editor of Le Figaro for printing her husband's love letters.

And Walter could marry Maud.

That was his focus now. The more he thought about the difficulties, the more determined he became to overcome them. Having looked, for a few days, at the joyless prospect of life without her, he was even more sure that he wanted to marry her, regardless of the price they might both have to pay. As he avidly followed the diplomatic game being played on the chessboard of Europe, he scrutinized every move to assess its effect first on him and Maud, and only second on Germany and the world.

He was going to see her tonight, at dinner and at the Duchess of Sussex's ball. He was already dressed in white tie and tails. It was time to leave. But as he closed the lid of the piano the doorbell rang, and his manservant announced Count Robert von Ulrich.

Robert looked surly. It was a familiar expression. Robert had been a troubled and unhappy young man when they were students together in Vienna. His feelings drew him irresistibly toward a group whom he had been brought up to regard as decadent. Then, when he came home after an evening with men like himself, he wore that look, guilty but defiant. In time he had discovered that homosexuality, like adultery, was officially condemned but-in sophisticated circles, at least-unofficially tolerated; and he had become reconciled to who he was. Today he wore that face for some other reason.

"I've just seen the text of the emperor's note," Robert said immediately.

Walter's heart leaped in hope. This might be the peaceful resolution he was waiting for. "What does it say?"

Robert handed him a sheet of paper. "I copied out the main part."

"Has it been delivered to the Serbian government?"

"Yes, at six o'clock Belgrade time."

There were ten demands. The first three followed the lines Walter had anticipated, he saw with relief: Serbia had to suppress liberal newspapers, break up the secret society called the Black Hand, and clamp down on nationalist propaganda. Perhaps the moderates in Vienna had won the argument after all, he thought gratefully.

Point four seemed reasonable at first-the Austrians demanded a purge of nationalists in the Serbian civil service-but there was a sting in the tail: the Austrians would supply the names. "That seems a bit strong," Walter said anxiously. "The Serbian government can't just sack everyone the Austrians tell them to."

Robert shrugged. "They will have to."

"I suppose so." For the sake of peace, Walter hoped they would.

But there was worse to come.

Point five demanded that Austria assist the Serbian government in crushing subversion, and point six, Walter read with dismay, insisted that Austrian officials take part in Serbia's judicial inquiry into the assassination. "But Serbia can't agree to this!" Walter protested. "It would amount to giving up their sovereignty."

Robert's face darkened further. "Hardly," he said peevishly.

"No country in the world could agree to it."

"Serbia will. It must, or be destroyed."

"In a war?"

"If necessary."

"Which could engulf all of Europe!"

Robert wagged his finger. "Not if other governments are sensible."

Unlike yours, Walter thought, but he bit back the retort and read on. The remaining points were arrogantly expressed, but the Serbs could probably live with them: arrest of conspirators, prevention of smuggling of weapons into Austrian territory, and a clampdown on anti-Austrian pronouncements by Serbian officials.

But there was a forty-eight-hour deadline for reply.

"My God, this is harsh," said Walter.

"People who defy the Austrian emperor must expect harshness."

"I know, I know, but he hasn't even given them room to save face."

"Why should he?"

Walter let his exasperation show. "For goodness' sake, does he want war?"

"The emperor's family, the Habsburg dynasty, has governed vast areas of Europe for hundreds of years. Emperor Franz Joseph knows that God intends him to rule over inferior Slavic peoples. This is his destiny."

"God spare us from men of destiny," Walter muttered. "Has my embassy seen this?"

"They will any minute now."

Walter wondered how others would react. Would they accept this, as Robert had, or be outraged like Walter? Would there be an international howl of protest or just a helpless diplomatic shrug? He would find out this evening. He looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. "I'm late for dinner. Are you going to the Duchess of Sussex's ball later?"

"Yes. I'll see you there."

They left the building and parted company in Piccadilly. Walter headed for Fitz's house, where he was to dine. He felt breathless, as if he had been knocked down. The war he dreaded had come dangerously closer.

He arrived with just enough time to bow to Princess Bea, in a lavender gown festooned with silk bows, and shake hands with Fitz, impossibly handsome in a wing collar and a white bow tie; then dinner was announced. He was glad to find himself assigned to escort Maud through to the dining room. She wore a dark red dress of some soft material that clung to her body the way Walter wanted to. As he held her chair he said: "What a very attractive gown."

"Paul Poiret," she said, naming a designer so famous that even Walter had heard of him. She lowered her voice a little. "I thought you might like it."

The remark was only mildly intimate, but all the same it gave him a thrill, rapidly followed by a shiver of fear at the thought that he could yet lose this enchanting woman.

Fitz's house was not quite a palace. Its long dining room, at the corner of the street, looked over two thoroughfares. Electric chandeliers burned despite the bright summer evening outside, and reflected lights glittered in the crystal glasses and silver cutlery marshaled at each place. Looking around the table at the other female guests, Walter marveled anew at the indecent amount of bosom revealed by upper-class Englishwomen at dinner.

Such observations were adolescent. It was time he got married.

As soon as he sat down, Maud slipped off a shoe and pushed her stockinged toe up the leg of his trousers. He smiled at her, but she saw immediately that he was distracted. "What's the matter?" she said.

"Start a conversation about the Austrian ultimatum," he murmured. "Say you've heard it has been delivered."

Maud addressed Fitz, at the head of the table. "I believe the Austrian emperor's note has at last been handed in at Belgrade," she said. "Have you heard anything, Fitz?"

Fitz put down his soup spoon. "The same as you. But no one knows what is in it."

Walter said: "I believe it is very harsh. The Austrians insist on taking a role in the Serbian judicial process."

"Taking a role!" said Fitz. "But if the Serbian prime minister agreed to that, he'd have to resign."

Walter nodded. Fitz foresaw the same consequences as he did. "It is almost as if the Austrians want war." He was perilously close to speaking disloyally about one of Germany's allies, but he felt anxious enough not to care. He caught Maud's eye. She was pale and silent. She, too, had immediately seen the threat.

"One has sympathy for Franz Joseph, of course," Fitz said. "Nationalist subversion can destabilize an empire if it is not firmly dealt with." Walter guessed he was thinking of Irish independence campaigners and South African Boers threatening the British empire. "But you don't need a sledgehammer to crack a nut," Fitz finished.

Footmen took away the soup bowls and poured a different wine. Walter drank nothing. It was going to be a long evening, and he needed a clear head.

Maud said quietly: "I happened to see Prime Minister Asquith today. He said there could be a real Armageddon." She looked scared. "I'm afraid I did not believe him-but now I see he might have been right."

Fitz said: "It's what we're all afraid of."

Walter was impressed as always by Maud's connections. She hobnobbed casually with the most powerful men in London. Walter recalled that as a girl of eleven or twelve, when her father was a minister in a Conservative government, she would solemnly question his cabinet colleagues when they visited Tŷ Gwyn; and even then such men would listen to her attentively and answer her patiently.

She went on: "On the bright side, if there is a war Asquith thinks Britain need not be involved."

Walter's heart lifted. If Britain stayed out, the war need not separate him from Maud.

But Fitz looked disapproving. "Really?" he said. "Even if... " He looked at Walter. "Forgive me, von Ulrich-even if France is overrun by Germany?"

Maud replied: "We will be spectators, Asquith says."

"As I have long feared," Fitz said pompously, "the government does not understand the balance of power in Europe." As a Conservative, he mistrusted the Liberal government, and personally he hated Asquith, who had enfeebled the House of Lords; but, most importantly, he was not totally horrified by the prospect of war. In some ways, Walter feared, he might relish the thought, just as Otto did. And he certainly thought war preferable to any weakening of British power.

Walter said: "Are you quite sure, my dear Fitz, that a German victory over France would upset the balance of power?" This line of discussion was rather sensitive for a dinner party, but the issue was too important to be brushed under Fitz's expensive carpet.

Fitz said: "With all due respect to your honored country, and to His Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm, I fear Britain could not permit German control of France."

That was the trouble, Walter thought, trying hard not to show the anger and frustration he felt at these glib words. A German attack on Russia's ally France would, in reality, be defensive-but the English talked as if Germany was trying to dominate Europe. Forcing a genial smile, he said: "We defeated France forty-three years ago, in the conflict you call the Franco-Prussian War. Great Britain was a spectator then. And you did not suffer by our victory."

Maud added: "That's what Asquith said."

"There's a difference," Fitz said. "In 1871, France was defeated by Prussia and a group of minor German kingdoms. After the war, that coalition became one country, the modern Germany-and I'm sure you will agree, von Ulrich, my old friend, that Germany today is a more formidable presence than old Prussia."

Men like Fitz were so dangerous, Walter thought. With faultless good manners they would lead the world to destruction. He struggled to keep the tone of his reply light. "You're right, of course-but perhaps formidable is not the same as hostile."

"That's the question, isn't it?"

At the other end of the table, Bea coughed reproachfully. No doubt she thought this topic too contentious for polite conversation. She said brightly: "Are you looking forward to the duchess's ball, Herr von Ulrich?"

Walter felt reproved. "I feel sure the ball will be absolutely splendid," he gushed, and was rewarded with a grateful nod from Bea.

Aunt Herm put in: "You're such a good dancer!"

Walter smiled warmly at the old woman. "Perhaps you will grant me the honor of the first dance, Lady Hermia?"

She was flattered. "Oh, my goodness, I'm too old for dancing. Besides, you youngsters have steps that didn't even exist when I was a debutante."

"The latest craze is the czardas. It's a Hungarian folk dance. Perhaps I should teach you it."

Fitz said: "Would that constitute a diplomatic incident, do you think?" It was not very funny, but everyone laughed, and the conversation turned to other trivial but safe subjects.

After dinner the party boarded carriages to drive the four hundred yards to Sussex House, the duke's palace in Park Lane.

Night had fallen, and light blazed from every window: the duchess had at last given in and installed electricity. Walter climbed the grand staircase and entered the first of three grand reception rooms. The orchestra was playing the most popular tune of recent years, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." His left hand twitched: the syncopation was the crucial element.

He kept his promise and danced with Aunt Herm. He hoped she would have lots of partners: he wanted her to get tired and doze off in a side room, so that Maud would be left unchaperoned. He kept remembering what he and Maud had done in the library of this house a few weeks ago. His hands itched to touch her through that clinging dress.

But first he had work to do. He bowed to Aunt Herm, took a glass of pink champagne from a footman, and began to circulate. He moved through the Small Ballroom, the Salon, and the Large Ballroom, talking to the political and diplomatic guests. Every ambassador in London had been invited, and many had come, including Walter's boss, Prince Lichnowsky. Numerous members of Parliament were there. Most were Conservative, like the duchess, but there were some Liberals, including several government ministers. Robert was deep in conversation with Lord Remarc, a junior minister in the War Office. No Labour M.P.s were to be seen: the duchess considered herself an open-minded woman, but there were limits.

Walter learned that the Austrians had sent copies of their ultimatum to all the major embassies in Vienna. It would be cabled to London and translated overnight, and by morning everyone would know its contents. Most people were shocked by its demands, but no one knew what to do about it.

By one o'clock in the morning he had learned all he could, and he went to find Maud. He walked down the stairs and into the garden, where supper was laid out in a striped marquee. So much food was served in English high society! He found Maud toying with some grapes. Aunt Herm was happily nowhere to be seen.

Walter put his worries aside. "How can you English eat so much?" he said to Maud playfully. "Most of these people have had a hearty breakfast, a lunch of five or six courses, tea with sandwiches and cakes, and a dinner of at least eight courses. Do they now really need soup, stuffed quails, lobster, peaches, and ice cream?"

She laughed. "You think we're vulgar, don't you?"

He did not, but he teased her by pretending to. "Well, what culture do the English have?" He took her arm and, as if moving aimlessly, walked her out of the tent into the garden. The trees were decked with fairy lights that gave little illumination. On the winding paths between shrubs, a few other couples walked and talked, some holding hands discreetly in the gloom. Walter saw Robert with Lord Remarc again, and wondered if they, too, had found romance. "English composers?" he said, still teasing Maud. "Gilbert and Sullivan. Painters? While the French Impressionists were changing the way the world sees itself, the English were painting rosy-cheeked children playing with puppies. Opera? All Italian, when it's not German. Ballet? Russian."

"And yet we rule half the world," she said with a mocking smile.

He took her in his arms. "And you can play ragtime."

"It's easy, once you get the rhythm."

"That's the part I find difficult."

"You need lessons."

He put his mouth to her ear and murmured: "Teach me, please?" The murmur turned to a groan as she kissed him, and after that they did not speak for some time.

{II}

That was in the small hours of Friday, July 24. On the following evening, when Walter attended another dinner and another ball, the rumor on everyone's lips was that the Serbians would concede every Austrian demand, except only for a request for clarification on points five and six. Surely, Walter thought elatedly, the Austrians could not reject such a cringing response? Unless, of course, they were determined to have a war regardless.

On his way home at daybreak on Saturday he stopped at the embassy to write a note about what he had learned during the evening. He was at his desk when the ambassador himself, Prince Lichnowsky, appeared in immaculate morning dress, carrying a gray top hat. Startled, Walter jumped to his feet, bowed, and said: "Good morning, Your Highness."

"You're here very early, von Ulrich," said the ambassador. Then, noting Walter's evening dress, he said: "Or rather, very late." He was handsome in a craggy way, with a big curved nose over his mustache.

"I was just writing you a short note on last night's gossip. Is there anything I can do for Your Highness?"

"I've been summoned by Sir Edward Grey. You can come with me and make notes, if you've got a different coat."

Walter was elated. The British foreign secretary was one of the most powerful men on earth. Walter had met him, of course, in the small world of London diplomacy, but had never exchanged more than a few words with him. Now, at Lichnowsky's characteristically casual invitation, Walter was to be present at an informal meeting of two men who were deciding the fate of Europe. Gottfried von Kessel would be sick with envy, he thought.

He reproved himself for being petty. This could be a critical meeting. Unlike the Austrian emperor, Grey might not want war. Would this be about preventing it? Grey was hard to predict. Which way would he jump? If he was against war, Walter would seize any chance to help him.

He kept a frock coat on a hook behind his door for just such emergencies as this. He pulled off his evening tailcoat and buttoned the daytime coat over his white waistcoat. He picked up a notebook and left the building with the ambassador.

The two men walked across St. James's Park in the cool of the early morning. Walter told his boss the rumor about the Serbian reply. The ambassador had a rumor of his own to report. "Albert Ballin dined with Winston Churchill last night," he said. Ballin, a German shipping magnate, was close to the kaiser, despite being Jewish. Churchill was in charge of the Royal Navy. "I'd love to know what was said," Lichnowsky finished.

He obviously feared the kaiser was bypassing him and sending messages to the British via Ballin. "I'll try to find out," said Walter, pleased at the opportunity.

They entered the Foreign Office, a neoclassical building that made Walter think of a wedding cake. They were shown to the foreign secretary's opulent room overlooking the park. The British are the richest people on earth, the building seemed to say, and we can do anything we like to the rest of you.

Sir Edward Grey was a thin man with a face like a skull. He disliked foreigners and almost never traveled abroad: in British eyes, that made him the perfect foreign secretary. "Thank you so much for coming," he said politely. He was alone but for an aide with a notebook. As soon as they were seated he got down to business. "We must do what we can to calm the situation in the Balkans."

Walter's hopes rose. That sounded pacific. Grey did not want war.

Lichnowsky nodded. The prince was part of the peace faction in the German government. He had sent a sharp telegram to Berlin urging that Austria be restrained. He disagreed with Walter's father and others who believed that war now was better, for Germany, than war later when Russia and France might be stronger.

Grey went on: "Whatever the Austrians do, it must not be so threatening to Russia as to provoke a military response from the tsar."

Exactly, Walter thought excitedly.

Lichnowsky obviously shared his view. "If I may say so, Foreign Secretary, you have hit the nail on the head."

Grey was oblivious to compliments. "My suggestion is that you and we, that is to say Germany and Britain, should together ask the Austrians to extend their deadline." He glanced reflexively at the clock on the wall: it was a little after six A.M. "They have demanded an answer by six tonight, Belgrade time. They could hardly refuse to give the Serbians another day."

Walter was disappointed. He had been hoping Grey had a plan to save the world. This postponement was such a small thing. It might make no difference. And in Walter's view the Austrians were so belligerent they easily could refuse the request, petty though it was. However, no one asked his opinion, and in this stratospherically elevated company he was not going to speak unless spoken to.

"A splendid idea," said Lichnowsky. "I will pass it to Berlin with my endorsement."

"Thank you," said Grey. "But, failing that, I have another proposal."

So, Walter thought, Grey was not really confident the Austrians would give Serbia more time.

Grey went on: "I propose that Britain, Germany, Italy, and France should together act as mediators, meeting at a four-power conference to produce a solution that would satisfy Austria without menacing Russia."

That was more like it, Walter thought excitedly.

"Austria would not agree in advance to be bound by the conference decision, of course," Grey continued. "But that's not necessary. We could ask the Austrian emperor at least to take no further action until he hears what the conference has to say."

Walter was delighted. It would be hard for Austria to refuse a plan that came from its allies as well as its rivals.

Lichnowsky looked pleased too. "I will recommend this to Berlin most strongly."

Grey said: "It's good of you to come to see me so early in the morning."

Lichnowsky took that as dismissal and stood up. "Not at all," he said. "Will you get down to Hampshire today?"

Grey's hobbies were fly-fishing and bird-watching, and he was happiest at his cottage on the river Itchen in Hampshire.

"Tonight, I hope," said Grey. "This is wonderful fishing weather."

"I trust you will have a restful Sunday," said Lichnowsky, and they left.

Walking back across the park, Lichnowsky said: "The English are amazing. Europe is on the brink of war, and the foreign secretary is going fishing."

Walter felt elated. Grey might seem to lack a sense of urgency, but he was the first person to come up with a workable solution. Walter was grateful. I'll invite him to my wedding, he thought, and thank him in my speech.

When they got back to the embassy he was startled to find his father there.

Otto beckoned Walter into his office. Gottfried von Kessel was standing by the desk. Walter was bursting to confront his father about Maud, but he was not going to speak of such things in front of von Kessel, so he said: "When did you get here?"

"A few minutes ago. I came overnight on the boat train from Paris. What were you doing with the ambassador?"

"We were summoned to see Sir Edward Grey." Walter was gratified to see a look of envy cross von Kessel's face.

Otto said: "And what did he have to say?"

"He proposed a four-power conference to mediate between Austria and Serbia."

Von Kessel said: "Waste of time."

Walter ignored him and asked his father: "What do you think?"

Otto narrowed his eyes. "Interesting," he said. "Grey is crafty."

Walter could not hide his enthusiasm. "Do you think the Austrian emperor might agree?"

"Absolutely not."

Von Kessel snickered.

Walter was crushed. "But why?"

Otto said: "Suppose the conference proposes a solution and Austria rejects it?"

"Grey mentioned that. He said Austria would not be obliged to accept the conference recommendation."

Otto shook his head. "Of course not-but what then? If Germany is part of a conference that makes a peace proposal, and Austria rejects our proposal, how could we then back the Austrians when they go to war?"

"We could not."

"So Grey's purpose in making this suggestion is to drive a wedge between Austria and Germany."

"Oh." Walter felt foolish. He had seen none of this. His optimism was punctured. Dismally, he said: "So we won't support Grey's peace plan?"

"Not a chance," said his father.

{III}

Sir Edward Grey's proposal came to nothing, and Walter and Maud watched, hour by hour, as the world lurched closer to disaster.

The next day was Sunday, and Walter met with Anton. Once again everyone was desperate to know what the Russians would do. The Serbians had given in to almost every Austrian demand, only asking for more time to discuss the two harshest clauses; but the Austrians had announced that this was unacceptable, and Serbia had begun to mobilize its little army. There would be fighting, but would Russia join in?

Walter went to the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which was not in the fields but in Trafalgar Square, the busiest traffic junction in London. The church was an eighteenth-century building in the Palladian style, and Walter reflected that his meetings with Anton were giving him an education in the history of English architecture as well as information about Russian intentions.

He mounted the steps and passed through the great pillars into the nave. He looked around anxiously: at the best of times he was afraid Anton might not show up, and this would be the worst possible moment for the man to get cold feet. The interior was brightly lit by a big Venetian window at the east end, and he spotted Anton immediately. Relieved, he sat next to the vengeful spy a few seconds before the service began.

As always, they talked during the hymns. "The Council of Ministers met on Friday," Anton said.

Walter knew that. "What did they decide?"

"Nothing. They only make recommendations. The tsar decides."

Walter knew that, too. He controlled his impatience. "Excuse me. What did they recommend?"

"To permit four Russian military districts to prepare for mobilization."

"No!" Walter's cry was involuntary, and the hymn singers nearby turned and stared at him. This was the first preliminary to war. Calming himself with an effort, Walter said: "Did the tsar agree?"

"He ratified the decision yesterday."

Despairingly, Walter said: "Which districts?"

"Moscow, Kazan, Odessa, and Kiev."

During the prayers, Walter pictured a map of Russia. Moscow and Kazan were in the middle of that vast country, a thousand miles and more from its European borders, but Odessa and Kiev were in the southwest, near the Balkans. In the next hymn he said: "They are mobilizing against Austria."

"It's not mobilization-it's preparation for mobilization."

"I understand that," said Walter patiently. "But yesterday we were talking about Austria attacking Serbia, a minor Balkan conflict. Today we're talking about Austria and Russia, and a major European war."

The hymn ended, and Walter waited impatiently for the next one. He had been brought up by a devout Protestant mother, and he always suffered a twinge of conscience about using church services as a cover for his clandestine work. He said a brief prayer for forgiveness.

When the congregation began to sing again, Walter said: "Why are they in such a hurry to make these warlike preparations?"

Anton shrugged. "The generals say to the tsar: 'Every day you delay gives the enemy an advantage.' It's always the same."

"Don't they see that the preparations make the war more likely?"

"Soldiers want to win wars, not avoid them."

The hymn ended and the service came to a close. As Anton stood up, Walter held his arm. "I have to see you more often," he said.

Anton looked panicky. "We've been through that-"

"I don't care. Europe is on the brink of war. You say the Russians are preparing to mobilize in some districts. What if they authorize other districts to prepare? What other steps will they take? When does preparation turn into the real thing? I have to have daily reports. Hourly would be better."

"I can't take the risk." Anton tried to withdraw his arm.

Walter tightened his grip. "Meet me at Westminster Abbey every morning before you go to your embassy. Poet's Corner, in the south transept. The church is so big that no one will notice us."

"Absolutely not."

Walter sighed. He would have to threaten, which he did not like doing, not least because it risked the complete withdrawal of the spy. But he had to take the chance. "If you aren't there tomorrow I'll come to your embassy and ask for you."

Anton went pale. "You can't do that! They will kill me!"

"I must have the information! I'm trying to prevent a war."

"I hope there is a war," the little clerk said savagely. His voice dropped to a hiss. "I hope my country is flattened and destroyed by the German army." Walter stared at him, astonished. "I hope the tsar is killed, brutally murdered, and all his family with him. And I hope they all go to hell, as they deserve."

He turned on his heel and scurried out of the church into the hubbub of Trafalgar Square.

{IV}

Princess Bea was "at home" on Tuesday afternoons at teatime. This was when her friends called to discuss the parties they had been to and show off their daytime clothes. Maud was obliged to attend, as was Aunt Herm, both being poor relations who lived on Fitz's generosity. Maud found the conversation particularly stultifying today, when all she wanted to talk about was whether there would be a war.

The morning room at the Mayfair house was modern. Bea was attentive to decorating trends. Matching bamboo chairs and sofas were arranged in small conversational groups, with plenty of space between for people to move around. The upholstery had a quiet mauve pattern and the carpet was light brown. The walls were not papered, but painted a restful beige. There was no Victorian clutter of framed photographs, ornaments, cushions, and vases. One did not need to show off one's prosperity, fashionable people said, by cramming one's rooms full of stuff. Maud agreed.

Bea was talking to the Duchess of Sussex, gossiping about the prime minister's mistress, Venetia Stanley. Bea ought to be worried, Maud thought; if Russia joins in the war, her brother, Prince Andrei, will have to fight. But Bea appeared carefree. In fact she looked particularly bonny today. Perhaps she had a lover. It was not uncommon in the highest social circles, where many marriages were arranged. Some people disapproved of adulterers-the duchess would cross such a woman off her invitation list for all eternity-but others turned a blind eye. However, Maud did not really think Bea was the type.

Fitz came in for tea, having escaped from the House of Lords for an hour, and Walter was right behind him. They both looked elegant in their gray suits and double-breasted waistcoats. Involuntarily, in her imagination Maud saw them in army uniforms. If the war spread, both might have to fight-almost certainly on opposite sides. They would be officers, but neither would slyly wangle a safe job at headquarters: they would want to lead their men from the front. The two men she loved might end up shooting at one another. She shuddered. It did not bear thinking about.

Maud avoided Walter's eye. She had a feeling that the more intuitive women in Bea's circle had noticed how much time she spent talking to him. She did not mind their suspicions-they would learn the truth soon enough-but she did not want rumors to reach Fitz before he had been officially told. He would be mightily offended. So she was trying not to let her feelings show.

Fitz sat beside her. Casting about for a topic of conversation that did not involve Walter, she thought of Tŷ Gwyn, and asked: "Whatever happened to your Welsh housekeeper, Williams? She disappeared, and when I asked the other servants, they went all vague."

"I had to get rid of her," Fitz said.

"Oh!" Maud was surprised. "Somehow I had the impression you liked her."

"Not especially." He seemed embarrassed.

"What did she do to displease you?"

"She suffered the consequences of unchastity."

"Fitz, don't be pompous!" Maud laughed. "Do you mean she got pregnant?"

"Keep your voice down, please. You know what the duchess is like."

"Poor Williams. Who's the father?"

"My dear, do you imagine I asked?"

"No, of course not. I hope he's going to 'stand by her,' as they say."

"I have no idea. She's a servant, for goodness' sake."

"You're not normally callous about your servants."

"One mustn't reward immorality."

"I liked Williams. She was more intelligent and interesting than most of these society women."

"Don't be absurd."

Maud gave up. For some reason, Fitz was pretending he did not care about Williams. But he never liked explaining himself, and it was useless to press him.

Walter came over, balancing a cup and saucer and a plate with cake in one hand. He smiled at Maud, but spoke to Fitz. "You know Churchill, don't you?"

"Little Winston?" said Fitz. "I certainly do. He started out in my party, but switched to the Liberals. I think his heart is still with us Conservatives."

"Last Friday he had dinner with Albert Ballin. I'd love to know what Ballin had to say."

"I can enlighten you-Winston has been telling everyone. If there is a war, Ballin said that if Britain will stay out of it, Germany will promise to leave France intact afterward, taking no extra territory-by contrast with last time, when they helped themselves to Alsace and Lorraine."

"Ah," said Walter with satisfaction. "Thank you. I've been trying to find that out for days."

"Your embassy doesn't know?"

"This message was intended to bypass normal diplomatic channels, obviously."

Maud was intrigued. It seemed like a hopeful formula for keeping Britain out of any European war. Perhaps Fitz and Walter would not have to shoot at one another, after all. She said: "How did Winston respond?"

"Noncommittally," said Fitz. "He reported the conversation to the cabinet, but it was not discussed."

Maud was about to ask indignantly why not when Robert von Ulrich appeared, looking aghast, as if he had just learned of the death of a loved one. "What on earth is the matter with Robert?" Maud said as he bowed to Bea.

He turned to speak to everyone in the room. "Austria has declared war on Serbia," he announced.

For a moment Maud felt as if the world had stopped. No one moved and no one spoke. She stared at Robert's mouth under that curled mustache and willed him to unsay the words. Then the clock on the mantelpiece struck, and a buzz of consternation rose from the men and women in the room.

Tears welled up in Maud's eyes. Walter offered her a neatly folded white linen handkerchief. She said to Robert: "You will have to fight."

"I certainly will," Robert said. He said it briskly, as if stating the obvious, but he looked scared.

Fitz stood up. "I'd better get back to the Lords and find out what's going on."

Several others took their leave. In the general hubbub, Walter spoke quietly to Maud. "Albert Ballin's proposal has suddenly become ten times more important."

Maud thought so too. "Is there anything we can do?"

"I need to know what the British government really thinks of it."

"I'll try to find out." She was glad of a chance to do something.

"I have to get back to the embassy."

Maud watched Walter go, wishing she could kiss him good-bye. Most of the guests went at the same time, and Maud slipped upstairs to her room.

She took off her dress and lay down. The thought of Walter going to war made her weep helplessly. After a while she cried herself to sleep.

When she woke up it was time to go out. She was invited to Lady Glenconner's musical soiree. She was tempted to stay home, then it struck her that there might be a government minister or two at the Glenconners' house. She might learn something useful to Walter. She got up and dressed.

She and Aunt Herm took Fitz's carriage through Hyde Park to Queen Anne's Gate, where the Glenconners lived. Among the guests was Maud's friend Johnny Remarc, a War Office minister; but, more importantly, Sir Edward Grey was there. She made up her mind to speak to him about Albert Ballin.

The music began before she had a chance, and she sat down to listen. Campbell McInnes was singing selections from Handel-a German composer who had lived most of his life in London, Maud thought wryly.

She watched Sir Edward covertly during the recital. She did not like him much: he belonged to a political group called the Liberal Imperialists, more traditional and conservative than most of the party. However, she felt a pang of sympathy for him. He was never very jolly, but tonight his cadaverous face looked ashen, as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders-which he did, of course.

McInnes sang well, and Maud thought with regret how much Walter would have enjoyed this, had he not been too busy to come.

As soon as the music finished, she buttonholed the foreign secretary. "Mr. Churchill tells me he gave you an interesting message from Albert Ballin," she said. She saw Grey's face stiffen, but she plowed on. "If we stay out of any European war, the Germans promise not to grab any French territory."

"Something like that," Grey said coldly.

Clearly she had raised a distasteful topic. Etiquette demanded that she abandon it instantly. But this was not just a diplomatic maneuver: it was about whether Fitz and Walter would have to go to war. She pressed on. "I understood that our main concern was that the balance of power in Europe should not be disturbed, and I imagined that Herr Ballin's proposal might satisfy us. Was I wrong?"

"You most certainly were," he said. "It is an infamous proposal." He was almost emotional.

Maud was downcast. How could he dismiss it? It offered a glimpse of hope! She said: "Will you explain, to a mere woman who does not grasp these matters as quickly as you, why you say that so definitely?"

"To do as Ballin suggested would be to pave the way for France to be invaded by Germany. We would be complicit. It would be a squalid betrayal of a friend."

"Ah," she said. "I think I see. It is as if someone said: 'I'm going to burgle your neighbor, but if you stand back and don't interfere, I promise not to burn his house down too.' Is that it?"

Grey warmed up a little. "A good analogy," he said with a skeletal smile. "I shall use it myself."

"Thank you," said Maud. She felt dreadfully disappointed, and she knew it was showing on her face, but she could not help it. She said gloomily: "Unfortunately, this leaves us perilously close to war."

"I'm afraid it does," said the foreign secretary.

{V}

Like most parliaments around the world, the British had two chambers. Fitz belonged to the House of Lords, which included the higher aristocracy, the bishops, and the senior judges. The House of Commons was made up of elected representatives known as members of Parliament, or M.P.s. Both chambers met in the Palace of Westminster, a purpose-built Victorian Gothic building with a clock tower. The clock was called Big Ben, although Fitz was fond of pointing out that that was actually the name of the great bell.

As Big Ben struck twelve noon on Wednesday, July 29, Fitz and Walter ordered a prelunch sherry on the terrace beside the smelly river Thames. Fitz looked at the palace with satisfaction, as always: it was extraordinarily large, rich, and solid, like the empire that was ruled from its corridors and chambers. The building looked as if it might last a thousand years-but would the empire survive? Fitz trembled when he thought of the threats to it: rabble-rousing trade unionists, striking coal miners, the kaiser, the Labour Party, the Irish, militant feminists-even his own sister.

However, he did not give utterance to such solemn thoughts, especially as his guest was a foreigner. "This place is like a club," he said lightheartedly. "It has bars, dining rooms, and a jolly good library; and only the right sort of people are allowed in." Just then a Labour M.P. walked past with a Liberal peer, and Fitz added: "Although sometimes the riffraff sneak past the doorman."

Walter was bursting with news. "Have you heard?" he said. "The kaiser has done a complete volte-face."

Fitz had not heard. "In what way?"

"He says the Serbian reply leaves no further reason for war, and the Austrians must halt at Belgrade."

Fitz was suspicious of peace plans. His main concern was that Britain should maintain its position as the most powerful nation in the world. He was afraid the Liberal government might let that position slip, out of some foolish belief that all nations were equally sovereign. Sir Edward Grey was fairly sound, but he could be ousted by the left wing of the party-led by Lloyd George, in all likelihood-and then anything could happen.

"Halt at Belgrade," he said musingly. The capital was on the border: to capture it, the Austrian army would have to venture only a mile inside Serbian territory. The Russians might be persuaded to regard that as a local police action that did not threaten them. "I wonder."

Fitz did not want war, but there was a part of him that secretly relished the prospect. It would be his chance to prove his courage. His father had won distinction in naval actions, but Fitz had never seen combat. There were certain things one had to do before one could really call oneself a man, and fighting for king and country was among them.

They were approached by a messenger wearing court dress-velvet knee breeches and white silk stockings. "Good afternoon, Earl Fitzherbert," he said. "Your guests have arrived and gone straight to the dining room, my lord."

When he had gone Walter said: "Why do you make them dress like that?"

"Tradition," said Fitz.

They drained their glasses and went inside. The corridor had a thick red carpet and walls with linenfold paneling. They walked to the Peers' Dining Room. Maud and Aunt Herm were already seated.

This lunch had been Maud's idea: Walter had never been inside the palace, she said. As Walter bowed, and Maud smiled warmly at him, a stray thought crossed Fitz's mind: could there be a little tendresse between them? No, it was ridiculous. Maud might do anything, of course, but Walter was much too sensible to contemplate an Anglo-German marriage at this time of tension. Besides, they were like brother and sister.

As they sat down, Maud said: "I was at your baby clinic this morning, Fitz."

He raised his eyebrows. "Is it my clinic?"

"You pay for it."

"My recollection is that you told me there ought to be a clinic in the East End for mothers and children who had no man to support them, and I said indeed there should, and the next thing I knew the bills were coming to me."

"You're so generous."

Fitz did not mind. A man in his position had to give to charity, and it was useful to have Maud do all the work. He did not broadcast the fact that most of the mothers were not married and never had been: he did not want his aunt the duchess to be offended.

"You'll never guess who came in this morning," Maud went on. "Williams, the housekeeper from Tŷ Gwyn." Fitz went cold. Maud added cheerfully: "We were talking about her only last night!"

Fitz tried to keep a look of stony indifference on his face. Maud, like most women, was quite good at reading him. He did not want her to suspect the true depth of his involvement with Ethel: it was too embarrassing.

He knew Ethel was in London. She had found a house in Aldgate, and Fitz had instructed Solman to buy it in her name. Fitz feared the embarrassment of meeting Ethel on the street, but it was Maud who had run into her.

Why had she gone to the clinic? He hoped she was all right. "I trust she's not ill," he said, trying to make it sound no more than a courteous inquiry.

"Nothing serious," Maud said.

Fitz knew that pregnant women suffered minor ailments. Bea had had a little bleeding and had been worried, but Professor Rathbone had said it often happened at about three months and usually meant nothing, though she should not overexert herself-not that there was much danger of Bea's doing that.

Walter said: "I remember Williams-curly hair and a cheeky smile. Who is her husband?"

Maud answered: "A valet who visited Tŷ Gwyn with his master some months ago. His name is Teddy Williams."

Fitz felt a slight flush. So she was calling her fictional husband Teddy! He wished Maud had not met her. He wanted to forget Ethel. But she would not go away. To conceal his embarrassment he made a show of looking around for a waiter.

He told himself not to be so sensitive. Ethel was a servant girl and he was an earl. Men of high rank had always taken their pleasures where they found them. This kind of thing had been going on for hundreds of years, probably thousands. It was foolish to get sentimental about it.

He changed the subject by repeating, for the benefit of the ladies, Walter's news about the kaiser.

"I heard that, too," said Maud. "Goodness, I hope the Austrians will listen," she added fervently.

Fitz raised an eyebrow at her. "Why so passionate?"

"I don't want you to be shot at!" she said. "And I don't want Walter to be our enemy." There was a catch in her voice. Women were so emotional.

Walter said: "Do you happen to know, Lady Maud, how the kaiser's suggestion has been received by Asquith and Grey?"

Maud pulled herself together. "Grey says that in combination with his proposal of a four-power conference, it could prevent war."

"Excellent!" said Walter. "That was what I was hoping for." He was boyishly eager, and the look on his face reminded Fitz of their school days. Walter had looked like that when he won the Music Prize at Speech Day.

Aunt Herm said: "Did you see that that dreadful Madame Caillaux was found not guilty?"

Fitz was astonished. "Not guilty? But she shot the man! She went to a shop, bought a gun, loaded it, drove to the offices of Le Figaro, asked to see the editor, and shot him dead-how could she not be guilty?"

Aunt Herm replied: "She said: 'These guns go off by themselves.' Honestly!"

Maud laughed.

"The jury must have liked her," said Fitz. He was annoyed with Maud for laughing. Capricious juries were a threat to orderly society. It did not do to take murder lightly. "How very French," he said with disgust.

"I admire Madame Caillaux," Maud said.

Fitz grunted disapprovingly. "How can you say that about a murderess?"

"I think more people should shoot newspaper editors," Maud said gaily. "It might improve the press."

{VI}

Walter was still full of hope the next day, Thursday, when he went to see Robert.

The kaiser was hesitating on the brink, despite pressure from men such as Otto. The war minister, Erich von Falkenhayn, had demanded a declaration Zustand drohender Kriegsgefahr, a preliminary that would light the fuse for war-but the kaiser had refused, believing that a general conflict might be avoided if the Austrians would halt at Belgrade. And when the Russian tsar had ordered his army to mobilize, Wilhelm had sent a personal telegram begging him to reconsider.

The two monarchs were cousins. The kaiser's mother and the tsar's mother-in-law had been sisters, both daughters of Queen Victoria. The kaiser and the tsar communicated in English, and called each other "Nicky" and "Willy." Tsar Nicholas had been touched by his cousin Willy's cable, and had countermanded his mobilization order.

If they could both just stand firm, then the future might be bright for Walter and Maud and millions of other people who just wanted to live in peace.

The Austrian embassy was one of the more imposing houses in prestigious Belgrave Square. Walter was shown to Robert's office. They always shared news. There was no reason not to: their two nations were close allies. "The kaiser seems determined to make his 'halt at Belgrade' plan work," Walter said as he sat down. "Then all remaining issues can be worked out."

Robert did not share his optimism. "It's not going to succeed," he said.

"But why should it not?"

"We're not willing to halt at Belgrade."

"For God's sake!" said Walter. "Are you sure?"

"It will be discussed by ministers in Vienna tomorrow morning, but I'm afraid the result is a foregone conclusion. We can't halt at Belgrade without reassurances from Russia."

"Reassurances?" Walter said indignantly. "You have to stop fighting and then talk about the problems. You can't demand assurances first!"

"I'm afraid we don't see it that way," Robert said stiffly.

"But we are your allies. How can you reject our peace plan?"

"Easily. Think about it. What can you do? If Russia mobilizes, you're threatened, so you have to mobilize too."

Walter was about to protest, but he saw that Robert was right. The Russian army, when mobilized, was too big a threat.

Robert went on remorselessly. "You have to fight on our side, whether you want to or not." He made an apologetic face. "Forgive me if I sound arrogant. I'm just stating the reality."

"Hell," said Walter. He felt like crying. He had been holding on to hope, but Robert's grim words had shattered him. "This is going the wrong way, isn't it?" he said. "Those who want peace are going to lose the contest."

Robert's voice changed, and suddenly he looked sad. "I've known that from the start," he said. "Austria must attack."

Until now Robert had been sounding eager, not sad. Why the change? Probing, Walter said: "You may have to leave London."

"You, too."

Walter nodded. If Britain joined in the war, all Austrian and German embassy staff would have to go home at short notice. He lowered his voice. "Is there... someone you will especially miss?"

Robert nodded, and there were tears in his eyes.

Walter hazarded a guess. "Lord Remarc?"

Robert laughed mirthlessly. "Is it so obvious?"

"Only to someone who knows you."

"Johnny and I thought we were being so discreet." Robert shook his head miserably. "At least you can marry Maud."

"I wish I could."

"Why not?"

"A marriage between a German and an Englishwoman, when the two nations are at war? She would be shunned by everyone she knows. So would I. For myself I would hardly care, but I could never impose such a fate on her."

"Do it secretly."

"In London?"

"Get married in Chelsea. No one would know you there."

"Don't you have to be a resident?"

"You have to produce an envelope with your name and a local address. I live in Chelsea-I can give you a letter addressed to Mr. von Ulrich." He rummaged in a drawer of his desk. "Here you are. A bill from my tailor, addressed to Von Ulrich, Esquire. They think Von is my first name."

"There may not be time."

"You can get a special license."

"Oh, my God," Walter said. He felt stunned. "You're right, of course. I can."

"You have to go to the town hall."

"Yes."

"Shall I show you the way?"

Walter thought for a long moment, then said: "Yes, please."

{VII}

"The generals won," said Anton, standing in front of the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey on Friday, July 31. "The tsar gave in yesterday afternoon. The Russians are mobilizing."

It was a death sentence. Walter felt a cold chill around his heart.

"It is the beginning of the end," Anton went on, and Walter saw in his eyes the glitter of revenge. "The Russians think they are strong, because their army is the largest in the world. But they have weak leadership. It will be Armageddon."

It was the second time this week that Walter had heard that word. But this time he knew it was justified. In a few weeks' time the Russian army of six million men-six million-would be massed on the borders of Germany and Hungary. No leader in Europe could ignore such a threat. Germany would have to mobilize: the kaiser no longer had any choice.

There was nothing more Walter could do. In Berlin the General Staff were pressing for German mobilization and the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, had promised a decision by noon today. This news meant there was only one decision he could possibly make.

Walter had to inform Berlin immediately. He took an abrupt leave of Anton and went out of the great church. He walked as fast as he could through the little street called Storey's Gate, jogged along the eastern edge of St. James's Park, and ran up the steps by the Duke of York's memorial and into the German embassy.

The ambassador's door was open. Prince Lichnowsky sat at his desk, and Otto stood beside him. Gottfried von Kessel was using the telephone. There were a dozen other people in the room, with clerks hurrying in and out.

Walter was breathing hard. Panting, he spoke to his father. "What's happening?"

"Berlin has received a cable from our embassy in St. Petersburg that just says: 'First day of mobilization 31 July.' Berlin is trying to confirm the report."

"What is von Kessel doing?"

"Keeping the phone line to Berlin open so that we hear instantly."

Walter took a deep breath and stepped forward. "Your Highness," he said to Prince Lichnowsky.

"Yes?"

"I can confirm the Russian mobilization. My source told me less than an hour ago."

"Right." Lichnowsky reached for the phone and von Kessel gave it to him.

Walter looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to eleven-in Berlin, just short of the noon deadline.

Lichnowsky said into the phone: "Russian mobilization has been confirmed by a reliable source here."

He listened for a few moments. The room went quiet. No one moved. "Yes," Lichnowsky said at last. "I understand. Very well."

He hung up with a click that sounded like a thunderclap. "The chancellor has decided," he said; and then he repeated the words Walter had been dreading. "Zustand drohender Kriegsgefahr. Prepare for imminent war."


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