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Fall of giants, p.2
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       Fall of Giants, p.2

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 2

  PART ONE. THE DARKENING SKY

  CHAPTER TWO - January 1914

  Earl Fitzherbert, age twenty-eight, known to his family and friends as Fitz, was the ninth-richest man in Britain.

  He had done nothing to earn his huge income. He had simply inherited thousands of acres of land in Wales and Yorkshire. The farms made little money, but there was coal beneath them, and by licensing mineral rights Fitz's grandfather had become enormously wealthy.

  Clearly God intended the Fitzherberts to rule over their fellow men, and to live in appropriate style; but Fitz felt he had not done much to justify God's faith in him.

  His father, the previous earl, had been different. A naval officer, he had been made admiral after the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, had become the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, and finally had been a minister in the government of Lord Salisbury. The Conservatives lost the general election of 1906, and Fitz's father died a few weeks later-his end hastened, Fitz felt sure, by seeing irresponsible Liberals such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill take over His Majesty's government.

  Fitz had taken his seat in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, as a Conservative peer. He spoke good French and he could get by in Russian, and he would have liked one day to be his country's foreign secretary. Regrettably, the Liberals had continued to win elections, so he had had no chance yet of becoming a government minister.

  His military career had been equally undistinguished. He had attended the army's officer training academy at Sandhurst, and had spent three years with the Welsh Rifles, ending as a captain. On marriage he had given up full-time soldiering, but had become honorary colonel of the South Wales Territorials. Unfortunately an honorary colonel never won medals.

  However, he did have something to be proud of, he thought as the train steamed up through the South Wales valleys. In two weeks' time, the king was coming to stay at Fitz's country house. King George V and Fitz's father had been shipmates in their youth. Recently the king had expressed a wish to know what the younger men were thinking, and Fitz had organized a discreet house party for His Majesty to meet some of them. Now Fitz and his wife, Bea, were on their way to the house to get everything ready.

  Fitz cherished traditions. Nothing known to mankind was superior to the comfortable order of monarchy, aristocracy, merchant, and peasant. But now, looking out of the train window, he saw a threat to the British way of life greater than any the country had faced for a hundred years. Covering the once-green hillsides, like a gray-black leaf blight on a rhododendron bush, were the terraced houses of the coal miners. In those grimy hovels there was talk of republicanism, atheism, and revolt. It was only a century or so since the French nobility had been driven in carts to the guillotine, and the same would happen here if some of those muscular black-faced miners had their way.

  Fitz would gladly have given up his earnings from coal, he told himself, if Britain could go back to a simpler era. The royal family was a strong bulwark against insurrection. But Fitz felt nervous about the visit, as well as proud. So much could go wrong. With royalty, an oversight might be seen as a sign of carelessness, and therefore disrespectful. Every detail of the weekend would be reported, by the visitors' servants, to other servants and thence to those servants' employers, so that every woman in London society would quickly know if the king were given a hard pillow, a bad potato, or the wrong brand of champagne.

  Fitz's Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was waiting at Aberowen railway station. With Bea at his side he was driven a mile to Tŷ Gwyn, his country house. A light but persistent drizzle was falling, as it so often did in Wales.

  "Tŷ Gwyn" was Welsh for White House, but the name had become ironic. Like everything else in this part of the world, the building was covered with a layer of coal dust, and its once-white stone blocks were now a dark gray color that smeared the skirts of ladies who carelessly brushed against its walls.

  Nevertheless it was a magnificent building, and it filled Fitz with pride as the car purred up the drive. The largest private house in Wales, Tŷ Gwyn had two hundred rooms. Once when he was a boy he and his sister, Maud, had counted the windows and found 523. It had been built by his grandfather, and there was a pleasing order to the three-story design. The ground-floor windows were tall, letting plenty of light into the grand reception rooms. Upstairs were dozens of guest rooms, and in the attic countless small servants' bedrooms, revealed by long rows of dormer windows in the steep roofs.

  The fifty acres of gardens were Fitz's joy. He supervised the gardeners personally, making decisions about planting and pruning and potting. "A house fit for a king to visit," he said as the car stopped at the grand portico. Bea did not reply. Traveling made her bad-tempered.

  Getting out of the car, Fitz was greeted by Gelert, his Pyrenean mountain dog, a bear-sized creature who licked his hand, then raced joyously around the courtyard in celebration.

  In his dressing room Fitz took off his traveling clothes and changed into a suit of soft brown tweed. Then he went through the communicating door into Bea's rooms.

  The Russian maid, Nina, was unpinning the elaborate hat Bea had worn for the journey. Fitz caught sight of Bea's face in the dressing-table mirror, and his heart skipped a beat. He was taken back four years, to the St. Petersburg ballroom where he had first seen that impossibly pretty face framed by blond curls that could not quite be tamed. Then as now she had worn a sulky look that he found strangely alluring. In a heartbeat he had decided that she of all women was the one he wanted to marry.

  Nina was middle-aged and her hand was unsteady-Bea often made her servants nervous. As Fitz watched, a pin pricked Bea's scalp, and she cried out.

  Nina went pale. "I'm terribly sorry, Your Highness," she said in Russian.

  Bea snatched up a hatpin from the dressing table. "See how you like it!" she cried, and jabbed the maid's arm.

  Nina burst into tears and ran from the room.

  "Let me help you," Fitz said to his wife in a soothing tone.

  She was not to be mollified. "I'll do it myself. "

  Fitz went to the window. A dozen or so gardeners were at work trimming bushes, edging lawns, and raking gravel. Several shrubs were in flower: pink viburnum, yellow winter jasmine, witch hazel, and scented winter honeysuckle. Beyond the garden was the soft green curve of the mountainside.

  He had to be patient with Bea, and remind himself that she was a foreigner, isolated in a strange country, away from her family and all that was familiar. It had been easy in the early months of their marriage, when he was still intoxicated by how she looked and smelled and the touch of her soft skin. Now it took an effort. "Why don't you rest?" he said. "I'll see Peel and Mrs. Jevons and find out how their plans are progressing. " Peel was the butler and Mrs. Jevons the housekeeper. It was Bea's job to organize the staff, but Fitz was nervous enough about the king's visit to welcome an excuse to get involved. "I'll report back to you later, when you're refreshed. " He took out his cigar case.

  "Don't smoke in here," she said.

  He took that for assent and went to the door. Pausing on his way out, he said: "Look, you won't behave like that in front of the king and queen, will you? Striking the servants, I mean. "

  "I didn't strike her, I stuck a pin in her as a lesson. "

  Russians did that sort of thing. When Fitz's father had complained about the laziness of the servants at the British embassy in St. Petersburg, his Russian friends had told him he did not beat them enough.

  Fitz said to Bea: "It would embarrass the monarch to have to witness such a thing. As I've told you before, it's not done in England. "

  "When I was a girl, I was made to watch three peasants being hanged," she said. "My mother didn't like it, but my grandfather insisted. He said: 'This is to teach you to punish your servants. If you do not slap them or flog them for small offenses of carelessness and laziness, they will eventually commit larger sins and end up o
n the scaffold. ' He taught me that indulgence to the lower classes is cruel, in the long run. "

  Fitz began to lose patience. Bea looked back to a childhood of limitless wealth and self-indulgence, surrounded by troops of obedient servants and thousands of happy peasants. If her ruthless, capable grandfather had still been alive that life might have continued; but the family fortune had been frittered away by Bea's father, a drunk, and her weak brother, Andrei, who was always selling the timber without replanting the woods. "Times have changed," Fitz said. "I'm asking you-I'm ordering you-not to embarrass me in front of my king. I hope I have left no room for doubt in your mind. " He went out and closed the door.

  He walked along the wide corridor, feeling irritated and a bit sad. When they were first married, such spats had left him bewildered and regretful; now he was becoming inured to them. Were all marriages like that? He did not know.

  A tall footman polishing a doorknob straightened up and stood with his back to the wall and his eyes cast down, as Tŷ Gwyn servants were trained to do when the earl went by. In some great houses the staff had to face the wall, but Fitz thought that was too feudal. Fitz recognized this man, having seen him play cricket in a match between Tŷ Gwyn staff and Aberowen miners. He was a good left-handed batsman. "Morrison," said Fitz, remembering his name. "Tell Peel and Mrs. Jevons to come to the library. "

  "Very good, my lord. "

  Fitz walked down the grand staircase. He had married Bea because he had been enchanted by her, but he had had a rational motive, too. He dreamed of founding a great Anglo-Russian dynasty that would rule vast tracts of the earth, much as the Habsburg dynasty had ruled parts of Europe for centuries.

  But for that he needed an heir. Bea's mood meant she would not welcome him to her bed tonight. He could insist, but that was never very satisfactory. It was a couple of weeks since the last time. He did not wish for a wife who was vulgarly eager about that sort of thing but, on the other hand, two weeks was a long time.

  His sister, Maud, was still single at twenty-three. Besides, any child of hers would probably be brought up a rabid socialist who would fritter away the family fortune printing revolutionary tracts.

  He had been married three years, and he was beginning to worry. Bea had been pregnant just once, last year, but she had suffered a miscarriage at three months. It had happened just after a quarrel. Fitz had canceled a planned trip to St. Petersburg, and Bea had become terribly emotional, crying that she wanted to go home. Fitz had put his foot down-a man could not let his wife dictate to him, after all-but then, when she miscarried, he felt guiltily convinced it was his fault. If only she could get pregnant again he would make absolutely sure nothing was allowed to upset her until the baby was born.

  Putting that worry to the back of his mind, he went into the library and sat down at the leather-inlaid desk to make a list.

  A minute or two later, Peel came in with a housemaid. The butler was the younger son of a farmer, and there was an outdoor look about his freckled face and salt-and-pepper hair, but he had been a servant at Tŷ Gwyn all his working life. "Mrs. Jevons have been took poorly, my lord," he said. Fitz had long ago given up trying to correct the grammar of Welsh servants. "Stomach," Peel added lugubriously.

  "Spare me the details. " Fitz looked at the housemaid, a pretty girl of about twenty. Her face was vaguely familiar. "Who's this?"

  The girl spoke for herself. "Ethel Williams, my lord, I'm Mrs. Jevons's assistant. " She had the lilting accent of the South Wales valleys.

  "Well, Williams, you look too young to do a housekeeper's job. "

  "If your lordship pleases, Mrs. Jevons said you would probably bring down the housekeeper from Mayfair, but she hopes I might give satisfaction in the meantime. "

  Was there a twinkle in her eye when she talked of giving satisfaction? Although she spoke with appropriate deference, she had a cheeky look. "Very well," said Fitz.

  Williams had a thick notebook in one hand and two pencils in the other. "I visited Mrs. Jevons in her room, and she was well enough to go through everything with me. "

  "Why have you got two pencils?"

  "In case one breaks," she said, and she grinned.

  Housemaids were not supposed to grin at the earl, but Fitz could not help smiling back. "All right," he said. "Tell me what you've got written down in your book. "

  "Three subjects," she said. "Guests, staff, and supplies. "

  "Very good. "

  "From your lordship's letter, we understand there will be twenty guests. Most will bring one or two personal staff, say an average of two, therefore an extra forty in servants' accommodation. All arriving on the Saturday and leaving on the Monday. "

  "Correct. " Fitz felt a mixture of pleasure and apprehension very like his emotions before making his first speech in the House of Lords: he was thrilled to be doing this and, at the same time, worried about doing it well.

  Williams went on: "Obviously Their Majesties will be in the Egyptian Apartment. "

  Fitz nodded. This was the largest suite of rooms. Its wallpaper had decorative motifs from Egyptian temples.

  "Mrs. Jevons suggested which other rooms should be opened up, and I've wrote it down by here. "

  The phrase "by here" was a local expression, pronounced like the Bayeux Tapestry. It was a redundancy, meaning exactly the same as "here. " Fitz said: "Show me. "

  She came around the desk and placed her open book in front of him. House servants were obliged to bathe once a week, so she did not smell as bad as the working class generally did. In fact her warm body had a flowery fragrance. Perhaps she had been stealing Bea's scented soap. He read her list. "Fine," he said. "The princess can allocate guests to rooms-she may have strong opinions. "

  Williams turned the page. "This is a list of extra staff needed: six girls in the kitchen, for peeling vegetables and washing up; two men with clean hands to help serve at table; three extra chambermaids; and three boys for boots and candles. "

  "Do you know where we're going to get them?"

  "Oh, yes, my lord, I've got a list of local people who've worked here before, and if that's not sufficient we'll ask them to recommend others. "

  "No socialists, mind," Fitz said anxiously. "They might try to talk to the king about the evils of capitalism. " You never knew with the Welsh.

  "Of course, my lord. "

  "What about supplies?"

  She turned another page. "This is what we need, based on previous house parties. "

  Fitz looked at the list: a hundred loaves of bread, twenty dozen eggs, ten gallons of cream, a hundred pounds of bacon, fifty stone of potatoes. . . He began to feel bored. "Shouldn't we leave this until the princess has decided the menus?"

  "It's all got to come up from Cardiff," Williams replied. "The shops in Aberowen can't cope with orders of this size. And even the Cardiff suppliers need notice, to be sure they have sufficient quantities on the day. "

  She was right. He was glad she was in charge. She had the ability to plan ahead-a rare quality, he found. "I could do with someone like you in my regiment," he said.

  "I can't wear khaki, it doesn't suit my complexion," she replied saucily.

  The butler looked indignant. "Now, now, Williams, none of your cheek. "

  "I beg your pardon, Mr. Peel. "

  Fitz felt it was his own fault for speaking facetiously to her. Anyway, he did not mind her impudence. In fact he rather liked her.

  Peel said: "Cook have come up with some suggestions for the menus, my lord. " He handed Fitz a slightly grubby sheet of paper covered with the cook's careful, childish handwriting. "Unfortunately we're too early for spring lamb, but we can get plenty of fresh fish sent up from Cardiff on ice. "

  "This looks very like what we had at our shooting party in November," Fitz said. "On the other hand, we don't want to attempt anything new on this occasion-better to stick with tried and tested dishes. "

  "Exactly, my lord. "

&
nbsp; "Now, the wines. " He stood up. "Let's go down to the cellar. "

  Peel looked surprised. The earl did not often descend to the basement.

  There was a thought at the back of Fitz's mind that he did not want to acknowledge. He hesitated, then said: "Williams, you come as well, to take notes. "

  The butler held the door, and Fitz left the library and went down the back stairs. The kitchen and servants' hall were in a semibasement. Etiquette was different here, and the skivvies and boot boys curtsied or touched their forelocks as he passed.

  The wine cellar was in a subbasement. Peel opened the door and said: "With your permission, I'll lead the way. " Fitz nodded. Peel struck a match and lit a candle lamp on the wall, then went down the steps. At the bottom he lit another lamp.

  Fitz had a modest cellar, about twelve thousand bottles, much of it laid down by his father and grandfather. Champagne, port, and hock predominated, with lesser quantities of claret and white burgundy. Fitz was not an aficionado of wine, but he loved the cellar because it reminded him of his father. "A wine cellar requires order, forethought, and good taste," the old man used to say. "These are the virtues that made Britain great. "

  Fitz would serve the very best to the king, of course, but that required a judgment. The champagne would be Perrier-Jouet, the most expensive, but which vintage? Mature champagne, twenty or thirty years old, was less fizzy and had more flavor, but there was something cheerfully delicious about younger vintages. He took a bottle from a rack at random. It was filthy with dust and cobwebs. He used the white linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket to wipe the label. He still could not see the date in the dim candlelight. He showed the bottle to Peel, who had put on a pair of glasses.

  "Eighteen fifty-seven," said the butler.

  "My goodness, I remember this," Fitz said. "The first vintage I ever tasted, and probably the greatest. " He felt conscious of the maid's presence, leaning close to him and peering at the bottle that was many years older than she. To his consternation, her nearness made him slightly out of breath.

  "I'm afraid the fifty-seven may be past its best," said Peel. "May I suggest the eighteen ninety-two?"

  Fitz looked at another bottle, hesitated, and made a decision. "I can't read in this light," he said. "Fetch me a magnifying glass, Peel, would you?"

  Peel went up the stone steps.

  Fitz looked at Williams. He was about to do something foolish, but he could not stop. "What a pretty girl you are," he said.

  "Thank you, my lord. "

  She had dark curls escaping from under the maid's cap. He touched her hair. He knew he would regret this. "Have you ever heard of droit du seigneur?" He heard the throaty tone in his own voice.

  "I'm Welsh, not French," she said, with the impudent lift of her chin that he was already seeing as characteristic.

  He moved his hand from her hair to the back of her neck, and looked into her eyes. She returned his gaze with bold confidence. But did her expression mean that she wanted him to go farther-or that she was ready to make a humiliating scene?

  He heard heavy footsteps on the cellar stairs. Peel was back. Fitz stepped away from the maid.

  She surprised Fitz by giggling. "You look so guilty!" she said. "Like a schoolboy. "

  Peel appeared in the dim candlelight, proffering a silver tray on which there was an ivory-handled magnifying glass.

  Fitz tried to breathe normally. He took the glass and returned to his examination of the wine bottles. He was careful not to meet Williams's eye.

  My God, he thought, what an extraordinary girl.

  {II}

  Ethel Williams felt full of energy. Nothing bothered her; she could handle every problem, cope with any setback. When she looked in a mirror she could see that her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled. After chapel on Sunday her father had commented on it, with his usual sarcastic humor. "You're cheerful," he had said. "Have you come into money?"

  She found herself running, not walking, along the endless corridors of Tŷ Gwyn. Every day she filled more pages of her notebook with shopping lists, staff timetables, schedules for clearing tables and laying them again, and calculations: numbers of pillowcases, vases, napkins, candles, spoons. . .

  This was her big chance. Despite her youth, she was acting housekeeper, at the time of a royal visit. Mrs. Jevons showed no sign of rising from her sickbed, so Ethel bore the full responsibility of preparing Tŷ Gwyn for the king and queen. She had always felt she could excel, if only she were given the chance; but in the rigid hierarchy of the servants' hall there were few opportunities to show that you were better than the rest. Suddenly such an opening had appeared, and she was determined to use it. After this, perhaps the ailing Mrs. Jevons would be given a less demanding job, and Ethel would be made housekeeper, at double her present wages, with a bedroom to herself and her own sitting room in the servants' quarters.

  But she was not there yet. The earl was obviously happy with the job she was doing, and he had decided not to summon the housekeeper from London, which Ethel took as a great compliment; but, she thought apprehensively, there was yet time for that tiny slip, that fatal error, that would spoil everything: the dirty dinner plate, the overflowing sewer, the dead mouse in the bathtub. And then the earl would be angry.

  On the morning of the Saturday when the king and queen were due to arrive, she visited every guest room, making sure the fires were lit and the pillows were plumped. Each room had at least one vase of flowers, brought that morning from the hothouse. There was Tŷ Gwyn-headed writing paper at every desk. Towels, soap, and water were provided for washing. The old earl had not liked modern plumbing, and Fitz had not yet got around to installing running water in all rooms. There were only three water closets, in a house with a hundred bedrooms, so most rooms also needed chamber pots. Potpourri was provided, made by Mrs. Jevons to her own recipe, to take away the smell.

  The royal party was due at teatime. The earl would meet them at Aberowen railway station. There would undoubtedly be a crowd there, hoping for a glimpse of royalty, but at this point the king and queen would not meet the people. Fitz would bring them to the house in his Rolls-Royce, a large closed car. The king's equerry, Sir Alan Tite, and the rest of the royal traveling staff would follow, with the luggage, in an assortment of horse-drawn vehicles. In front of Tŷ Gwyn a battalion from the Welsh Rifles was already assembling either side of the drive to provide a guard of honor.

  The royal couple would show themselves to their subjects on Monday morning. They planned a progress around nearby villages in an open carriage, and a stop at Aberowen town hall to meet the mayor and councilors, before going to the railway station.

  The other guests began to arrive at midday. Peel stood in the hall and assigned maids to guide them to their rooms and footmen to carry their bags. The first were Fitz's uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The duke was a cousin of the king and had been invited to make the monarch feel more comfortable. The duchess was Fitz's aunt, and like most of the family she was deeply interested in politics. At their London house she held a salon that was frequented by cabinet ministers.

  The duchess informed Ethel that King George V was a bit obsessed with clocks and hated to see different clocks in the same house telling different times. Ethel cursed silently: Tŷ Gwyn had more than a hundred clocks. She borrowed Mrs. Jevons's pocket watch and began to go around the house setting them all.

  In the small dining room she came across the earl. He was standing at the window, looking distraught. Ethel studied him for a moment. He was the handsomest man she had ever seen. His pale face, lit by the soft winter sunlight, might have been carved in white marble. He had a square chin, high cheekbones, and a straight nose. His hair was dark but he had green eyes, an unusual combination. He had no beard or mustache or even side-whiskers. With a face like that, Ethel thought, why cover it with hair?

  He caught her eye. "I've just been told that the king likes a
bowl of oranges in his room!" he said. "There's not a single orange in the damn house. "

  Ethel frowned. None of the grocers in Aberowen would have oranges this early in the season-their customers could not afford such luxuries. The same would apply to every other town in the South Wales valleys. "If I might use the telephone, I could speak to one or two greengrocers in Cardiff," she said. "They might have oranges at this time of year. "

  "But how will we get them here?"

  "I'll ask the shop to put a basket on the train. " She looked at the clock she had been adjusting. "With luck the oranges will come at the same time as the king. "

  "That's it," he said. "That's what we'll do. " He gave her a direct look. "You're astonishing," he said. "I'm not sure I've ever met a girl quite like you. "

  She stared back at him. Several times in the last two weeks he had spoken like this, overly familiar and a bit intense, and it gave Ethel a strange feeling, a sort of uneasy exhilaration, as if something dangerously exciting were about to happen. It was like the moment in a fairy tale when the prince enters the enchanted castle.

  The spell was broken by the sound of wheels on the drive outside, then a familiar voice. "Peel! How delightful to see you. "

  Fitz looked out of the window. His expression was comical. "Oh, no," he said. "My sister!"

  "Welcome home, Lady Maud," said Peel's voice. "Though we were not expecting you. "

  "The earl forgot to invite me, but I came anyway. "

  Ethel smothered a smile. Fitz loved his feisty sister, but he found her difficult to deal with. Her political opinions were alarmingly liberal: she was a suffragette, a militant campaigner for votes for women. Ethel thought Maud was wonderful-just the kind of independent-minded woman she herself would have liked to be.

  Fitz strode out of the room, and Ethel followed him into the hall, an imposing room decorated in the Gothic style beloved of Victorians such as Fitz's father: dark paneling, heavily patterned wallpaper, and carved oak chairs like medieval thrones. Maud was coming through the door. "Fitz, darling, how are you?" she said.

  Maud was tall like her brother, and they looked similar, but the sculpted features that made the earl seem like the statue of a god were not so flattering on a woman, and Maud was striking rather than pretty. Contrary to the popular image of feminists as frumpy, she was fashionably dressed, wearing a hobble skirt over button boots, a navy-blue coat with an oversize belt and deep cuffs, and a hat with a tall feather pinned to its front like a regimental flag.

  She was accompanied by Aunt Herm. Lady Hermia was Fitz's other aunt. Unlike her sister, who had married a rich duke, Herm had wedded a thriftless baron who died young and broke. Ten years ago, after Fitz and Maud's parents had both died within a few months, Aunt Herm had moved in to mother the thirteen-year-old Maud. She continued to act as Maud's somewhat ineffectual chaperone.

  Fitz said to Maud: "What are you doing here?"

  Aunt Herm murmured: "I told you he wouldn't like it, dear. "

  "I couldn't be absent when the king came to stay," Maud said. "It would have been disrespectful. "

  Fitz's tone was fondly exasperated. "I don't want you talking to the king about women's rights. "

  Ethel did not think he needed to worry. Despite Maud's radical politics, she knew how to flatter and flirt with powerful men, and even Fitz's Conservative friends liked her.

  "Take my coat, please, Morrison," Maud said. She undid the buttons and turned to allow the footman to remove it. "Hello, Williams, how are you?" she said to Ethel.

  "Welcome home, my lady," Ethel said. "Would you like the Gardenia Suite?"

  "Thank you, I love that view. "

  "Will you have some lunch while I'm getting the room ready?"

  "Yes, please, I'm starving. "

  "We're serving it club style today, because guests are arriving at different times. " Club style meant that guests were served whenever they came into the dining room, as in a gentlemen's club or a restaurant, instead of all at the same time. It was a modest lunch today: hot mulligatawny soup, cold meats and smoked fish, stuffed trout, lamb cutlets, and a few desserts and cheeses.

  Ethel held the door and followed Maud and Herm into the large dining room. Already at lunch were the von Ulrich cousins. Walter von Ulrich, the younger one, was handsome and charming, and seemed delighted to be at Tŷ Gwyn. Robert was fussy: he had straightened the painting of Cardiff Castle on his wall, asked for more pillows, and discovered that the inkwell on his writing desk was dry-an oversight that made Ethel wonder fretfully what else she might have forgotten.

  They stood up when the ladies walked in. Maud went straight up to Walter and said: "You haven't changed since you were eighteen! Do you remember me?"

  His face lit up. "I do, although you have changed since you were thirteen. "

  They shook hands and then Maud kissed him on both cheeks, as if he were family. "I had the most agonizing schoolgirl passion for you at that age," she said with startling candor.

  Walter smiled. "I was rather taken with you, too. "

  "But you always acted as if I was a terrible young pest!"

  "I had to hide my feelings from Fitz, who protected you like a guard dog. "

  Aunt Herm coughed, indicating her disapproval of this instant intimacy. Maud said: "Aunt, this is Herr Walter von Ulrich, an old school friend of Fitz's who used to come here in the holidays. Now he's a diplomat at the German embassy in London. "

  Walter said: "May I present my cousin the graf Robert von Ulrich. " Graf was German for count, Ethel knew. "He is a military attache at the Austrian embassy. "

  They were actually second cousins, Peel had explained gravely to Ethel: their grandfathers had been brothers, the younger of whom had married a German heiress and left Vienna for Berlin, which was how come Walter was German whereas Robert was Austrian. Peel liked to get such things right.

  Everyone sat down. Ethel held a chair for Aunt Herm. "Would you like some mulligatawny soup, Lady Hermia?" she asked.

  "Yes, please, Williams. "

  Ethel nodded to a footman, who went to the sideboard where the soup was being kept hot in an urn. Seeing that the new arrivals were comfortable, Ethel quietly left to arrange their rooms. As the door was closing behind her, she heard Walter von Ulrich say: "I remember how fond you were of music, Lady Maud. We were just discussing the Russian ballet. What do you think of Diaghilev?"

  Not many men asked a woman for her opinion. Maud would like that. As Ethel hurried down the stairs to find a couple of maids to do the rooms, she thought: That German is quite a charmer.

  {III}

  The Sculpture Hall at Tŷ Gwyn was an anteroom to the dining room. The guests gathered there before dinner. Fitz was not much interested in art-it had all been collected by his grandfather-but the sculptures gave people something to talk about while they were waiting for their dinner.

  As he chatted to his aunt the duchess, Fitz looked around anxiously at the men in white tie and tails and the women in low-cut gowns and tiaras. Protocol demanded that every other guest had to be in the room before the king and queen entered. Where was Maud? Surely she would not cause an incident! No, there she was, in a purple silk dress, wearing their mother's diamonds, talking animatedly to Walter von Ulrich.

  Fitz and Maud had always been close. Their father had been a distant hero, their mother his unhappy acolyte; the two children had got the affection they needed from each other. After both parents died they had clung together, sharing their grief. Fitz had been eighteen then, and had tried to protect his little sister from the cruel world. She, in turn, had worshipped him. In adulthood, she had become independent-minded, whereas he continued to believe that as head of the family he had authority over her. However, their affection for one another had proved strong enough to survive their differences-so far.

  Now she was drawing Walter's attention to a bronze cupid. Unlike Fitz, she understood such things. Fitz prayed she would talk about art a
ll evening and keep off women's rights. George V hated liberals, everyone knew that. Monarchs were usually conservative, but events had sharpened this king's antipathy. He had come to the throne in the middle of a political crisis. Against his will he had been forced, by Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith-strongly backed by public opinion-to curb the power of the House of Lords. This humiliation still rankled. His Majesty knew that Fitz, as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, had fought to the last ditch against the so-called reform. All the same, if he were harangued by Maud tonight, he would never forgive Fitz.

  Walter was a junior diplomat, but his father was one of the kaiser's oldest friends. Robert, too, was well-connected: he was close to the archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another guest who moved in exalted circles was the tall young American now talking to the duchess. His name was Gus Dewar, and his father, a senator, was intimate adviser to U. S. president Woodrow Wilson. Fitz felt he had done well in assembling such a group of young men, the ruling elite of the future. He hoped the king was pleased.

  Gus Dewar was amiable but awkward. He stooped, as if he would have preferred to be shorter and less conspicuous. He seemed unsure of himself, but he was pleasantly courteous to everyone. "The American people are concerned with domestic issues more than foreign policy," he was saying to the duchess. "But President Wilson is a liberal, and as such he is bound to sympathize with democracies such as France and Britain more than with authoritarian monarchies such as Austria and Germany. "

  At that moment the double doors opened, the room fell silent, and the king and queen walked in. Princess Bea curtsied, Fitz bowed, and everyone else followed suit. There were a few moments of mildly embarrassed silence, for no one was allowed to speak until one of the royal couple had said something. At last the king said to Bea: "I stayed at this house twenty years ago, you know," and people began to relax.

  The king was a neat man, Fitz reflected as the four of them made small talk. His beard and mustache were carefully barbered. His hair was receding, but he had enough left on top to comb with a parting as straight as a ruler. Close-fitting evening clothes suited his slim figure: unlike his father, Edward VII, he was not a gourmet. He relaxed with hobbies that required precision: he liked to collect postage stamps, sticking them meticulously into albums, a pastime that drew mockery from disrespectful London intellectuals.

  The queen was a more formidable figure, with graying curls and a severe line to her mouth. She had a magnificent bosom, shown off to great advantage by the extremely low neckline that was currently de rigueur. She was the daughter of a German prince. Originally she had been engaged to George's older brother, Albert, but he had died of pneumonia before the wedding. When George became heir to the throne he also took over his brother's fiancee, an arrangement that was regarded by some people as a bit medieval.

  Bea was in her element. She was enticingly dressed in pink silk, and her fair curls were perfectly arranged to look slightly disordered, as if she had suddenly broken away from an illicit kiss. She talked animatedly to the king. Sensing that mindless chatter would not charm George V, she was telling him how Peter the Great had created the Russian navy, and he was nodding interestedly.

  Peel appeared in the dining room door, an expectant look on his freckled face. He caught Fitz's eye and gave an emphatic nod. Fitz said to the queen: "Would you care to go in to dinner, Your Majesty?"

  She gave him her arm. Behind them, the king stood arm in arm with Bea, and the rest of the party formed up in pairs according to precedence. When everyone was ready, they walked into the dining room in procession.

  "How pretty," the queen murmured when she saw the table.

  "Thank you," said Fitz, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. Bea had done a wonderful job. Three chandeliers hung low over the long table. Their reflections twinkled in the crystal glasses at each place. All the cutlery was gold, as were the salt and pepper containers and even the small boxes of matches for smokers. The white tablecloth was strewn with hothouse roses and, in a final dramatic touch, Bea had trailed delicate ferns from the chandeliers down to the pyramids of grapes on golden platters.

  Everyone sat down, the bishop said grace, and Fitz relaxed. A party that began well almost always continued successfully. Wine and food made people less disposed to find fault.

  The menu began with hors d'oeuvres Russes, a nod to Bea's home country: little blinis with caviar and cream, triangles of toast and smoked fish, crackers with soused herring, all washed down with the Perrier-Jouet 1892 champagne, which was as mellow and delicious as Peel had promised. Fitz kept an eye on Peel, and Peel watched the king. As soon as His Majesty put down his cutlery, Peel took away his plate, and that was the signal for the footmen to clear all the rest. Any guest who happened to be still tucking into the dish had to abandon it in deference.

  Soup followed, a pot-au-feu, served with a fine dry oloroso sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameda. The fish was sole, accompanied by a mature Meursault Charmes like a mouthful of gold. With the medallions of Welsh lamb Fitz had chosen the Chateau Lafite 1875-the 1870 was still not ready to drink. The red wine continued to be served with the parfait of goose liver that followed and with the final meat course, quails with grapes baked in pastry.

  No one ate all this. The men took what they fancied and ignored the rest. The women picked at one or two dishes. Many plates went back to the kitchen untouched.

  There was salad, a dessert, a savory, fruit, and petits fours. Finally, Princess Bea raised a discreet eyebrow to the queen, who replied with an almost imperceptible nod. They both got up, everyone else stood, and the ladies left the room.

  The men sat down again, the footmen brought boxes of cigars, and Peel placed a decanter of Ferreira 1847 port at the king's right hand. Fitz drew thankfully on a cigar. Things had gone well. The king was famously unsociable, feeling comfortable only with old shipmates from his happy navy days. But this evening he had been charming and nothing had gone wrong. Even the oranges had arrived.

  Fitz had spoken earlier with Sir Alan Tite, the king's equerry, a retired army officer with old-fashioned side-whiskers. They had agreed that tomorrow the king would have an hour or so alone with each of the men around the table, all of whom had inside knowledge of one government or another. This evening, Fitz was to break the ice with some general political conversation. He cleared his throat and addressed Walter von Ulrich. "Walter, you and I have been friends for fifteen years-we were together at Eton. " He turned to Robert. "And I've known your cousin since the three of us shared an apartment in Vienna when we were students. " Robert smiled and nodded. Fitz liked them both: Robert was a traditionalist, like Fitz; Walter, though not so conservative, was very clever. "Now we find the world talking about war between our countries," Fitz went on. "Is there really a chance of such a tragedy?"

  Walter answered: "If talking about war can make it happen, then yes, we will fight, for everyone is getting ready for it. But is there a real reason? I don't see it. "

  Gus Dewar raised a tentative hand. Fitz liked Dewar, despite his liberal politics. Americans were supposed to be brash, but this one was well-mannered and a bit shy. He was also startlingly well-informed. Now he said: "Britain and Germany have many reasons to quarrel. "

  Walter turned to him. "Would you give me an example?"

  Gus blew out cigar smoke. "Naval rivalry. "

  Walter nodded. "My kaiser does not believe there is a God-given law that the German navy should remain smaller than the British forever. "

  Fitz glanced nervously at the king. He loved the Royal Navy and might easily be offended. On the other hand, Kaiser Wilhelm was his cousin. George's father and Willy's mother had been brother and sister, both children of Queen Victoria. Fitz was relieved to see that His Majesty was smiling indulgently.

  Walter went on: "This has caused friction in the past, but for two years now we have been in agreement, informally, about the relative size of our navie
s. "

  Dewar said: "How about economic rivalry?"

  "It is true that Germany is daily growing more prosperous, and may soon catch up with Britain and the United States in economic production. But why should this be a problem? Germany is one of Britain's biggest customers. The more we have to spend, the more we buy. Our economic strength is good for British manufacturers!"

  Dewar tried again. "It's said that Germany wants more colonies. "

  Fitz glanced at the king again, wondering if he minded the conversation being dominated by these two; but His Majesty appeared fascinated.

  Walter said: "There have been wars over colonies, notably in your home country, Mr. Dewar. But nowadays we seem able to decide such squabbles without firing our guns. Three years ago Germany, Great Britain, and France quarreled about Morocco, but the argument was settled without war. More recently, Britain and Germany have reached agreement about the thorny issue of the Baghdad Railway. If we simply carry on as we are, we will not go to war. "

  Dewar said: "Would you forgive me if I used the term German militarism?"

  That was a bit strong, and Fitz winced. Walter colored, but he spoke smoothly. "I appreciate your frankness. The German Empire is dominated by Prussians, who play something of the role of the English in Your Majesty's United Kingdom. "

  It was daring to compare Britain with Germany, and England with Prussia. Walter was right on the edge of what was permissible in a polite conversation, Fitz thought uneasily.

  Walter went on: "The Prussians have a strong military tradition, but do not go to war for no reason. "

  Dewar said skeptically: "So Germany is not aggressive. "

  "On the contrary," said Walter. "I put it to you that Germany is the only major power on mainland Europe that is not aggressive. "

  There was a murmur of surprise around the table, and Fitz saw the king raise his eyebrows. Dewar sat back, startled, and said: "How do you figure that?"

  Walter's perfect manners and amiable tone took the edge off his provocative words. "First, consider Austria," he went on. "My Viennese cousin Robert will not deny that the Austro-Hungarian Empire would like to extend its borders to the southeast. "

  "Not without reason," Robert protested. "That part of the world, which the British call the Balkans, has been part of the Ottoman domain for hundreds of years; but Ottoman rule has crumbled, and now the Balkans are unstable. The Austrian emperor believes it is his holy duty to maintain order and the Christian religion there. "

  "Quite so," said Walter. "But Russia, too, wants territory in the Balkans. "

  Fitz felt it was his job to defend the Russian government, perhaps because of Bea. "They, too, have good reasons," he said. "Half their foreign trade crosses the Black Sea, and passes from there through the straits to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia cannot allow any other great power to dominate the straits by acquiring territory in the eastern Balkans. It would be like a noose around the neck of the Russian economy. "

  "Exactly so," said Walter. "Turning to the western end of Europe, France has ambitions to take from Germany the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. "

  At this point the French guest, Jean-Pierre Charlois, bridled. "Stolen from France forty-three years ago!"

  "I will not argue about that," Walter said smoothly. "Let us say that Alsace-Lorraine was joined to the German Empire in 1871, after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. Whether stolen or not, you allow, Monsieur le Comte, that France wants those lands back. "

  "Naturally. " The Frenchman sat back and sipped his port.

  Walter said: "Even Italy would like to take, from Austria, the territories of Trentino-"

  "Where most people speak Italian!" cried Signor Falli.

  "-plus much of the Dalmatian coast-"

  "Full of Venetian lions, Catholic churches, and Roman columns!"

  "-and Tyrol, a province with a long history of self-government, where most people speak German. "

  "Strategic necessity. "

  "Of course. "

  Fitz realized how clever Walter had been. Not rude, but discreetly provocative, he had stung the representatives of each nation into confirming, in more or less belligerent language, their territorial ambitions.

  Now Walter said: "But what new territory is Germany asking for?" He looked around the table, but no one spoke. "None," he said triumphantly. "And the only other major country in Europe that can say the same is Britain!"

  Gus Dewar passed the port and said in his American drawl: "I guess that's right. "

  Walter said: "So why, my old friend Fitz, should we ever go to war?"

  {IV}

  On Sunday morning before breakfast Lady Maud sent for Ethel.

  Ethel had to suppress an exasperated sigh. She was terribly busy. It was early, but the staff were already hard at work. Before the guests got up all the fireplaces had to be cleaned, the fires relit, and the scuttles filled with coal. The principal rooms-dining room, morning room, library, smoking room, and the smaller public rooms-had to be cleaned and tidied. Ethel was checking the flowers in the billiard room, replacing those that were fading, when she was summoned. Much as she liked Fitz's radical sister, she hoped Maud did not have some elaborate commission for her.

  When Ethel had come to work at Tŷ Gwyn, at the age of thirteen, the Fitzherbert family and their guests were hardly real to her: they seemed like people in a story, or strange tribes in the Bible, Hittites perhaps, and they terrified her. She was frightened that she would do something wrong and lose her job, but also deeply curious to see these strange creatures close up.

  One day a kitchen maid had told her to go upstairs to the billiard room and bring down the tantalus. She had been too nervous to ask what a tantalus was. She had gone to the room and looked around, hoping it would be something obvious like a tray of dirty dishes, but she could see nothing that belonged downstairs. She had been in tears when Maud walked in.

  Maud was then a gangly fifteen-year-old, a woman in girl's clothes, unhappy and rebellious. It was not until later that she made sense of her life by turning her discontent into a crusade. But even at fifteen she had had the quick compassion that made her sensitive to injustice and oppression.

  She had asked Ethel what was the matter. The tantalus turned out to be a silver container with decanters of brandy and whisky. It tantalized, because it had a locking mechanism to prevent servants stealing sips, she explained. Ethel thanked her emotionally. It was the first of many kindnesses and, over the years, Ethel had come to worship the older girl.

  Ethel went up to Maud's room, tapped on the door, and walked in. The Gardenia Suite had elaborate flowery wallpaper of a kind that had gone out of fashion at the turn of the century. However, its bay window overlooked the most charming part of Fitz's garden, the West Walk, a long straight path through flower beds to a summerhouse.

  Maud was pulling on boots, Ethel saw with displeasure. "I'm going for a walk-you must be my chaperone," she said. "Help me with my hat and tell me the gossip. "

  Ethel could hardly spare the time, but she was intrigued as well as bothered. Who was Maud going to walk with; where was her normal chaperone, Aunt Herm; and why was she putting on such a charming hat just to go into the garden? Could there be a man in the picture?

  As she pinned the hat to Maud's dark hair Ethel said: "There's a scandal below stairs this morning. " Maud collected gossip the way the king collected stamps. "Morrison didn't get to bed until four o'clock. He's one of the footmen-tall with a blond mustache. "

  "I know Morrison. And I know where he spent the night. " Maud hesitated.

  Ethel waited a moment, then said: "Aren't you going to tell me?"

  "You'll be shocked. "

  Ethel grinned. "All the better. "

  "He spent the night with Robert von Ulrich. " Maud glanced at Ethel in the dressing-table mirror. "Are you horrified?"

  Ethel was fascinated. "Well, I never! I knew Morrison wasn't much of a ladies' ma
n, but I didn't think he might be one of those, if you see what I mean. "

  "Well, Robert is certainly one of those, and I saw him catch Morrison's eye several times during dinner. "

  "In front of the king, too! How do you know about Robert?"

  "Walter told me. "

  "What a thing for a gentleman to say to a lady! People tell you everything. What's the gossip in London?"

  "They're all talking about Mr. Lloyd George. "

  David Lloyd George was the chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of the country's finances. A Welshman, he was a fiery left-wing orator. Ethel's da said Lloyd George should have been in the Labour Party. During the coal strike of 1912 he had even talked about nationalizing the mines. "What are they saying about him?" Ethel asked.

  "He has a mistress. "

  "No!" This time Ethel was really shocked. "But he was brought up a Baptist!"

  Maud laughed. "Would it be less outrageous if he were Anglican?"

  "Yes!" Ethel refrained from adding obviously. "Who is she?"

  "Frances Stevenson. She started as his daughter's governess, but she's a clever woman-she has a degree in classics-and now she's his private secretary. "

  "That's terrible. "

  "He calls her Pussy. "

  Ethel almost blushed. She did not know what to say to that. Maud stood up, and Ethel helped her with her coat. Ethel asked: "What about his wife, Margaret?"

  "She stays here in Wales with their four children. "

  "Five, it was, only one died. Poor woman. "

  Maud was ready. They went along the corridor and down the grand staircase. Walter von Ulrich was waiting in the hall, wrapped in a long dark coat. He had a small mustache and soft hazel eyes. He looked dashing in a buttoned-up, German sort of way, the kind of man who would bow, click his heels, and then give you a little wink, Ethel thought. So this was why Maud did not want Lady Hermia as her chaperone.

  Maud said to Walter: "Williams came to work here when I was a girl, and we've been friends ever since. "

  Ethel liked Maud, but it was going too far to say they were friends. Maud was kind, and Ethel admired her, but they were still mistress and servant. Maud was really saying that Ethel could be trusted.

  Walter addressed Ethel with the elaborate politeness such people employed when speaking to their inferiors. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Williams. How do you do?"

  "Thank you, sir. I'll get my coat. "

  She ran downstairs. She did not really want to be going for a walk while the king was there-she would have preferred to be on hand to supervise the housemaids-but she could not refuse.

  In the kitchen Princess Bea's maid, Nina, was making tea Russian style for her mistress. Ethel spoke to a chambermaid. "Herr Walter is up," she said. "You can do the Gray Room. " As soon as the guests appeared, the maids needed to go into the bedrooms to clean, make the beds, empty the chamber pots, and put out fresh water for washing. She saw Peel, the butler, counting plates. "Any movement upstairs?" she asked him.

  "Nineteen, twenty," he said. "Mr. Dewar have rung for hot water for shaving, and Signor Falli asked for coffee. "

  "Lady Maud wants me to go outside with her. "

  "That's inconvenient," Peel said crossly. "You're needed in the house. "

  Ethel knew that. She said sarcastically: "What shall I do, Mr. Peel, tell her to go and get knotted?"

  "None of your sauce. Be back as quick as you can. "

  When she went back upstairs the earl's dog, Gelert, was standing at the front door, panting eagerly, having divined that a walk was in prospect. They all went out and crossed the East Lawn to the woods.

  Walter said to Ethel: "I suppose Lady Maud has taught you to be a suffragette. "

  "It was the other way around," Maud told him. "Williams was the first person to introduce me to liberal ideas. "

  Ethel said: "I learned it all from my father. "

  Ethel knew they did not really want to talk to her. Etiquette did not permit them to be alone, but they wanted the next best thing. She called to Gelert, then ran ahead, playing with the dog, giving them the privacy they were probably longing for. Glancing back, she saw that they were holding hands.

  Maud was a fast worker, Ethel thought. From what she had said yesterday, she had not seen Walter for ten years. Even then there had been no acknowledged romance, just an unspoken attraction. Something must have happened last night. Perhaps they had sat up late talking. Maud flirted with everyone-it was how she got information out of them-but clearly this was more serious.

  A moment later, Ethel heard Walter sing a snatch of a tune. Maud joined in, then they stopped and laughed. Maud loved music, and could play the piano quite well, unlike Fitz, who was tone-deaf. It seemed Walter was also musical. His voice was a pleasant light baritone that would have been much appreciated, Ethel thought, in the Bethesda Chapel.

  Her mind wandered to her work. She had not seen polished pairs of shoes outside any of the bedroom doors. She needed to chase the boot boys and hurry them up. She wondered fretfully what the time was. If this went on much longer she might have to insist on returning to the house.

  She glanced back, but this time she could not see Walter or Maud. Had they stopped, or gone off in a different direction? She stood still for a minute or two, but she could not wait out there all morning, so she retraced her steps through the trees.

  A moment later she saw them. They were locked in an embrace, kissing passionately. Walter's hands were on Maud's behind and he was pressing her to him. Their mouths were open, and Ethel heard Maud groan.

  She stared at them. She wondered whether a man would ever kiss her that way. Spotty Llewellyn had kissed her on the beach during a chapel outing, but it had not been with mouths open and bodies pressed together, and it certainly had not made Ethel moan. Little Dai Chops, the son of the butcher, had put his hand up her skirt in the Palace Cinema in Cardiff, but she had pushed it away after a few seconds. She had really liked Llewellyn Davies, a schoolteacher's son, who had talked to her about the Liberal government, and told her she had breasts like warm baby birds in a nest; but he had gone away to college and never written. With them she had been intrigued, and curious to do more, but never passionate. She envied Maud.

  Then Maud opened her eyes, caught a glimpse of Ethel, and broke the embrace.

  Gelert whined suddenly and walked around in a circle with his tail between his legs. What was the matter with him?

  A moment later Ethel felt a tremor in the ground, as if an express train were passing, even though the railway line ended a mile away.

  Maud frowned and opened her mouth to speak, then there was a crack like a clap of thunder.

  "What on earth was that?" said Maud.

  Ethel knew.

  She screamed, and began to run.

  {V}

  Billy Williams and Tommy Griffiths were having a break.

  They were working a seam called the Four-Foot Coal, only six hundred yards deep, not as far down as the Main Level. The seam was divided into five districts, all named after British racecourses, and they were in Ascot, the one nearest to the upcast shaft. Both boys were working as butties, assistants to older miners. The collier used his mandrel, a straight-bladed pick, to hew the coal away from the coal face, and his butty shoveled it into a wheeled dram. They had started work at six o'clock in the morning, as always, and now after a couple of hours they were taking a rest, sitting on the damp ground with their backs to the side of the tunnel, letting the soft breath of the ventilation system cool their skin, drinking long drafts of lukewarm sweet tea from their flasks.

  They had been born on the same day in 1898, and were six months away from their sixteenth birthday. The difference in their physical development, so embarrassing to Billy when he was thirteen, had vanished. Now they were both young men, broad-shouldered and strong-armed, and they shaved once a week though they did not really need to. They were dressed only in their
shorts and boots, and their bodies were black with a mixture of perspiration and coal dust. In the dim lamplight they gleamed like ebony statues of pagan gods. The effect was spoiled only by their caps.

  The work was hard, but they were used to it. They did not complain of aching backs and stiff joints, as older men did. They had energy to spare, and on days off they found equally strenuous things to do, playing rugby or digging flower beds or even bare-knuckle boxing in the barn behind the Two Crowns pub.

  Billy had not forgotten his initiation three years ago-indeed, he still burned with indignation when he thought of it. He had vowed then that he would never mistreat new boys. Only today he had warned little Bert Morgan: "Don't be surprised if the men play a trick on you. They may leave you in the dark for an hour or something stupid like that. Little things please little minds. " The older men in the cage had glared at him, but he met their eyes: he knew he was in the right, and so did they.

  Mam had been even angrier than Billy. "Tell me," she had said to Da, standing in the middle of the living room with her hands on her hips and her dark eyes flashing righteousness, "how is the Lord's purpose served by torturing little boys?"

  "You wouldn't understand, you're a woman," Da had replied, an uncharacteristically weak response from him.

  Billy believed that the world in general, and the Aberowen pit in particular, would be better places if all men led God-fearing lives. Tommy, whose father was an atheist and a disciple of Karl Marx, believed that the capitalist system would soon destroy itself, with a little help from a revolutionary working class. The two boys argued fiercely but continued best friends.

  "It's not like you to work on a Sunday," Tommy said.

  That was true. The mine was doing extra shifts to cope with the demand for coal but, in deference to religion, Celtic Minerals made the Sunday shifts optional. However, Billy was working despite his devotion to the Sabbath. "I think the Lord wants me to have a bicycle," he said.

  Tommy laughed, but Billy was not joking. The Bethesda Chapel had opened a sister church in a small village ten miles away, and Billy was one of the Aberowen congregation who had volunteered to go across the mountain every other Sunday to encourage the new chapel. If he had a bicycle he could go there on weeknights as well, and help start a Bible class or a prayer meeting. He had discussed this plan with the elders, and they had agreed that the Lord would bless Billy's working on the Sabbath day for a few weeks.

  Billy was about to explain this when the ground beneath him shook, there was a bang like the crack of doom, and his flask was blown out of his hand by a terrific wind.

  His heart seemed to stop. Suddenly he remembered that he was half a mile underground, with millions of tons of earth and rock over his head, held up only by a few timber props.

  "What the bloody hell was that?" said Tommy in a scared voice.

  Billy jumped to his feet, shaking with fright. He lifted his lamp and looked both ways along the tunnel. He saw no flames, no fall of rock, and no more dust than was normal. When the reverberations died away, there was no noise.

  "It was an explosion," he said, his voice unsteady. This was what every miner dreaded every day. A sudden release of firedamp could be produced by a fall of rock, or just by a collier hacking through to a fault in the seam. If no one noticed the warning signs-or if the concentration simply built up too quickly-the inflammable gas could be ignited by a spark from a pony's hoof, or from the electric bell of a cage, or by a stupid miner lighting his pipe against all regulations.

  Tommy said: "But where?"

  "It must be down on the Main Level-that's why we escaped. "

  "Jesus Christ help us. "

  "He will," said Billy, and his terror began to ebb. "Especially if we help ourselves. " There was no sign of the two colliers for whom the boys had been working-they had gone to spend their break in the Goodwood district. Billy and Tommy had to make their own decisions. "We'd better go to the shaft. "

  They pulled on their clothes, hooked their lamps to their belts, and ran to the upcast shaft, called Pyramus. The landing onsetter, in charge of the elevator, was Dai Chops. "The cage isn't coming!" he said with panic in his voice. "I've been ringing and ringing!"

  The man's fear was infectious, and Billy had to fight down his own panic. After a moment he said: "What about the telephone?" The onsetter communicated with his counterpart on the surface by signals on an electric bell, but recently phones had been installed on both levels, connected with the office of the colliery manager, Maldwyn Morgan.

  "No answer," said Dai.

  "I'll try again. " The phone was fixed to the wall beside the cage. Billy picked it up and turned the handle. "Come on, come on!"

  A quavery voice answered. "Yes?" It was Arthur Llewellyn, the manager's clerk.

  "Spotty, this is Billy Williams," Billy shouted into the mouthpiece. "Where's Mr. Morgan?"

  "Not here. What was that bang?"

  "It was an explosion underground, you clot! Where's the boss?"

  "He have gone to Merthyr," Spotty said plaintively.

  "Why's he gone-never mind, forget that. Here's what you got to do. Spotty, are you listening to me?"

  "Aye. " The voice seemed stronger.

  "First of all, send someone to the Methodist chapel and tell Dai Crybaby to assemble his rescue team. "

  "Right. "

  "Then phone the hospital and get them to send the ambulance to the pithead. "

  "Is someone injured?"

  "Bound to be, after a bang like that! Third, get all the men in the coal-cleaning shed to run out fire hoses. "

  "Fire?"

  "The dust will be burning. Fourth, call the police station and tell Geraint there have been an explosion. He'll phone Cardiff. " Billy could not think of anything else. "All right?"

  "All right, Billy. "

  Billy put the earpiece back on the hook. He was not sure how effective his instructions would be, but speaking to Spotty had focused his mind. "There will be men injured on the Main Level," he said to Dai Chops and Tommy. "We must get down there. "

  Dai said: "We can't, the cage isn't here. "

  "There's a ladder in the shaft wall, isn't there?"

  "It's two hundred yards down!"

  "Well, if I was a sissy I wouldn't be a collier, now, would I?" His words were brave, but all the same he was scared. The shaft ladder was seldom used, and it might not have been well-maintained. One slip, or a broken rung, could cause him to fall to his death.

  Dai opened the gate with a clang. The shaft was lined with brick, damp and moldy. A narrow shelf ran horizontally around the lining, outside the wooden cage housing. An iron ladder was fixed by brackets cemented into the brickwork. There was nothing reassuring about its thin side rails and narrow treads. Billy hesitated, regretting his impulsive bravado. But to back out now would be too humiliating. He took a deep breath and said a silent prayer, then stepped onto the shelf.

  He edged around until he reached the ladder. He wiped his hands on his trousers, grasped the side rails, and put his feet on the treads.

  He went down. The iron was rough to his touch, and rust flaked off on his hands. In places the brackets were loose, and the ladder shifted unnervingly under his feet. The lamp hooked to his belt was bright enough to illuminate the treads below him, but not to show the bottom of the shaft. He did not know whether that was better or worse.

  Unfortunately, the descent gave him time to think. He remembered all the ways miners could die. To be killed by the explosion itself was a mercifully quick end for the luckiest. The burning of the methane produced suffocating carbon dioxide, which the miners called afterdamp. Many were trapped by falls of rock, and might bleed to death before rescue came. Some died of thirst, with their workmates just a few yards away trying desperately to tunnel through the debris.

  Suddenly he wanted to go back, to climb upward to safety instead of down into destruction and chaos-but he could not, with Tommy
immediately above him, following him down.

  "Are you with me, Tommy?" he called.

  Tommy's voice came from just above his head. "Aye!"

  That strengthened Billy's nerve. He went down faster, his confidence returning. Soon he saw light, and a moment later he heard voices. As he approached the Main Level he smelled smoke.

  Now he heard an eerie racket, screaming and banging, which he struggled to identify. It threatened to undermine his courage. He got a grip on himself: there had to be a rational explanation. A moment later he realized he was hearing the terrified whinnying of the ponies, and the sound of them kicking the wooden sides of their stalls, desperate to escape. Comprehension did not make the noise less disturbing: he felt the same way they did.

  He reached the Main Level, sidled around the brick ledge, opened the gate from inside, and stepped gratefully onto muddy ground. The dim underground light was further reduced by traces of smoke, but he could see the main tunnels.

  The pit bottom onsetter was Patrick O'Connor, a middle-aged man who had lost a hand in a roof collapse. A Catholic, he was inevitably known as Pat Pope. He stared with incredulity. "Billy-with-Jesus!" he said. "Where the bloody hell have you come from?"

  "From the Four-Foot Coal," Billy answered. "We heard the bang. "

  Tommy followed Billy out of the shaft and said: "What's happened, Pat?"

  "Far as I can make out, the explosion must have been at the other end of this level, near Thisbe," said Pat. "The deputy and everyone else have gone to see. " He spoke calmly, but there was desperation in his look.

  Billy went to the phone and turned the handle. A moment later he heard his father's voice. "Williams here, who's that?"

  Billy did not pause to wonder why a union official was answering the colliery manager's phone-anything could happen in an emergency. "Da, it's me, Billy. "

  "God in his mercy be thanked, you're all right," said his father, with a break in his voice; then he became his usual brisk self. "Tell me what you know, boy. "

  "Me and Tommy were in the Four-Foot Coal. We've climbed down Pyramus to the Main Level. The explosion was over towards Thisbe, we think. There's a bit of smoke, not much. But the cage isn't working. "

  "The winding mechanism have been damaged by the upward blast," Pa said in a calm voice. "But we're working on it and we'll have it fixed in a few minutes. Get as many men as you can to the pit bottom so we can start bringing them up as soon as the cage is fixed. "

  "I'll tell them. "

  "The Thisbe shaft is completely out of action, so make sure no one tries to escape that way-they could get trapped by the fire. "

  "Right. "

  "There's breathing apparatus outside the deputies' office. "

  Billy knew that. It was a recent innovation, demanded by the union and made compulsory by the Coal Mines Act of 1911. "The air's not bad at the moment," he said.

  "Where you are, perhaps, but it may be worse farther in. "

  "Right. " Billy put the earpiece back on the hook.

  He repeated to Tommy and Pat what his father had said. Pat pointed to a row of new lockers. "The key should be in the office. "

  Billy ran to the deputies' office, but he could see no keys. He guessed they were on someone's belt. He looked again at the row of lockers, each labeled: "Breathing Apparatus. " They were made of tin. "Got a crowbar, Pat?" he said.

  The onsetter had a tool kit for minor repairs. Pat handed him a stout screwdriver. Billy swiftly broke open the first locker.

  It was empty.

  Billy stared, unbelieving.

  Pat said: "They tricked us!"

  Tommy said: "Bastard capitalists. "

  Billy opened another locker. It, too, was empty. He broke open the others with angry savagery, wanting to expose the dishonesty of Celtic Minerals and Perceval Jones.

  Tommy said: "We'll manage without. "

  Tommy was impatient to get going, but Billy was trying to think clearly. His eye fell on the fire dram. It was the management's pathetic excuse for a fire engine: a coal dram filled with water, with a hand pump strapped to it. It was not completely useless: Billy had seen it operate after what the miners called a "flash," when a small quantity of firedamp close to the roof of the tunnel would ignite, briefly, and they would all throw themselves to the floor. The flash would sometimes light the coal dust on the tunnel walls, which then had to be sprayed.

  "We'll take the fire dram," he shouted to Tommy.

  It was already on rails, and the two of them were able to push it along. Billy thought briefly of harnessing a pony to it, then decided it would take too long, especially as the beasts were all in a panic.

  Pat Pope said: "My boy Micky is working in Marigold district, but I can't go and look for him, I've got to stay here. " There was desperation in his face, but in an emergency the onsetter had to stay by the shaft-it was an inflexible rule.

  "I'll keep an eye open for him," Billy promised.

  "Thank you, Billy boy. "

  The two lads pushed the dram along the main road. Drams had no brakes: their drivers slowed them by sticking a stout piece of wood into the spokes. Many deaths and countless injuries were caused by runaway drams. "Not too fast," Billy said.

  They were a quarter of a mile into the tunnel when the temperature rose and the smoke thickened. Soon they heard voices. Following the sound they turned into a branch tunnel. This part of the seam was currently being worked. On either side Billy could see, at regular intervals, the entrances to miners' workplaces, usually called gates, but sometimes just holes. As the noise grew, they stopped pushing the dram and looked ahead.

  The tunnel was on fire. Flames licked up from walls and floor. A handful of men stood at the edge of the conflagration, silhouetted against the glow like souls in hell. One held a blanket and was batting it ineffectually at a blazing stack of timber. Others were shouting; no one was listening. In the distance, dimly visible, was a train of drams. The smoke had a strange whiff of roast meat, and Billy realized with a sick feeling that it must come from the pony that had been pulling the drams.

  Billy spoke to one of the men. "What's happening?"

  "There's men trapped in their gates-but we can't get to them. "

  Billy saw that the man was Rhys Price. No wonder nothing was being done. "We've brought the fire dram," he said.

  Another man turned to him, and he was relieved to see John Jones the Shop, a more sensible character. "Good man!" said Jones. "Let's have the hose on this bloody lot. "

  Billy ran out the hose while Tommy connected the pump. Billy aimed the jet at the ceiling of the tunnel, so that the water would run down the walls. He soon realized that the mine's ventilation system, blowing down Thisbe and up Pyramus, was forcing the flames and smoke toward him. As soon as he got the chance he would tell the people on the surface to reverse the fans. Reversible fans were now mandatory-another requirement of the 1911 act.

  Despite the difficulty, the fire began to die back, and Billy was able to go forward slowly. After a few minutes the nearest gate was clear of flame. Immediately two miners ran out, gasping the relatively good air of the tunnel. Billy recognized the Ponti brothers, Giuseppe and Giovanni, known as Joey and Johnny.

  Some of the men ran into the gate. John Jones came out carrying the limp form of Dai Ponies, the horse wrangler. Billy could not tell whether he was dead or just unconscious. He said: "Take him to Pyramus, not Thisbe. "

  Price butted in: "Who are you to be giving orders, Billy-with-Jesus?"

  Billy was not going to waste time arguing with Price. He addressed Jones. "I spoke on the phone to the surface. Thisbe is badly damaged but the cage should soon be operating in Pyramus. I was told to tell everyone to head for Pyramus. "

  "Right, I'll spread the word," said Jones, and he went off.

  Billy and Tommy continued to fight the fire, clearing further gates, freeing more trapped men. Some were bleeding, many were scorched, and a few h
ad been hurt by falling rock. Those who could walk carried the dead and the seriously injured in a grim procession.

  Too soon, their water was gone. "We'll push the dram back and fill it from the pond at the bottom of the shaft," Billy said.

  Together they hurried back. The cage was still not working, and there were now a dozen or so rescued miners waiting, and several bodies on the ground, some groaning in agony, others ominously still. While Tommy filled the dram with muddy water, Billy picked up the phone. Once again his father answered. "The winding gear will be operating in five minutes," he said. "How is it down there?"

  "We've got some dead and injured out of the gates. Send down drams full of water as soon as you can. "

  "What about you?"

  "I'm all right. Listen, Da, you should reverse the ventilation. Blow down Pyramus and up Thisbe. That will drive the smoke and afterdamp away from the rescuers. "

  "Can't be done," said his father.

  "But it's the law-pit ventilation must be reversible!"

  "Perceval Jones told the inspectors a sob story, and they gave him another year to modify the blowers. "

  Billy would have cursed if anyone other than his father had been on the line. "How about turning on the sprinklers-can you do that?"

  "Aye, we can," said Da. "Why didn't I think of that?" He spoke to someone else.

  Billy replaced the earpiece. He helped Tommy refill the dram, taking turns with the hand pump. It took as long to fill as it had to empty. The flow of men from the afflicted district slowed while the fire raged unchecked. At last the tub was full and they started back.

  The sprinklers came on, but when Billy and Tommy reached the fire, they found that the flow of water from the narrow overhead pipe was too slight to put out the flames. However, Jones the Shop had now got the men organized. He was keeping the uninjured survivors with him, for rescue work, and sending the walking wounded to the shaft. As soon as Billy and Tommy had connected the hose, he seized it and ordered another man to pump. "You two go back and get another dram of water!" he said. "That way we can keep on hosing. "

  "Right," said Billy, but before he turned to go something caught his eye. A figure came running through the flames with his clothes on fire. "Good God!" Billy said, horrified. As he watched, the runner stumbled and fell.

  Billy shouted at Jones: "Hose me!" Without waiting for acknowledgment, he ran into the tunnel. He felt a jet of water strike his back. The heat was terrible. His face hurt and his clothes smoldered. He grabbed the prone miner under the shoulders and pulled, running backward. He could not see the face but he could tell it was a boy of his own age.

  Jones kept the hose on Billy, soaking his hair, his back, and his legs, but the front of him was dry, and he could smell his skin scorching. He screamed in pain but managed to keep hold of the unconscious body. A second later he was out of the fire. He turned and let Jones spray his front. The water on his face was blessed relief: though he still hurt, it was bearable.

  Jones sprayed the boy on the floor. Billy turned him over and saw that it was Michael O'Connor, known as Micky Pope, the son of Pat. Pat had asked Billy to look out for him. Billy said: "Dear Jesus, have mercy on Pat. "

  He bent down and picked Micky up. The body was limp and lifeless. "I'll take him to the shaft," Billy said.

  "Aye," said Jones. He was staring at Billy with an odd expression. "You do that, Billy boy. "

  Tommy went with Billy. Billy felt light-headed, but he was able to carry Micky. On the main road they encountered a rescue team with a pony pulling a small train of drams filled with water. They must have come from the surface, which meant the cage was operating and the rescue was now being properly managed, Billy reasoned wearily.

  He was right. As he reached the shaft, the cage arrived again and disgorged more rescuers in protective clothing and more drams of water. When the newcomers had dispersed, heading for the fire, the wounded began to board the cage, carrying the dead and unconscious.

  When Pat Pope had sent the cage up, Billy went to him, holding Micky in his arms.

  Pat stared at Billy with a terrified look, shaking his head in negation, as if he could deny the news.

  "I'm sorry, Pat," said Billy.

  Pat would not look at the body. "No," he said. "Not my Micky. "

  "I pulled him out of the fire, Pat," said Billy. "But I was too bloody late, that's all. " Then he began to cry.

  {VI}

  The dinner had been a great success in every way. Bea had been in a sparkling mood: she would have liked a royal party every week. Fitz had gone to her bed, and as he expected she had welcomed him. He stayed until morning, slipping away only just before Nina arrived with the tea.

  He was afraid the debate amongst the men might have been too controversial for a royal dinner, but he need not have worried. The king thanked him at breakfast, saying: "Fascinating discussion, very illuminating, just what I wanted. " Fitz had glowed with pride.

  Thinking it over as he smoked his after-breakfast cigar, Fitz realized that the thought of war did not horrify him. He had spoken of it as a tragedy, in an automatic way, but it would not be entirely a bad thing. War would unite the nation against a common enemy, and dampen the fires of unrest. There would be no more strikes, and talk of republicanism would be seen as unpatriotic. Women might even stop demanding the vote. And in a personal way he found himself strangely drawn to the prospect. War would be his chance to be useful, to prove his courage, to serve his country, to do something in return for the wealth and privilege that had been lavished on him all his life.

  The news from the pit, coming at midmorning, took the sparkle off the party. Only one of the guests actually went into Aberowen-Gus Dewar, the American. Nevertheless, they all had the feeling, unusual for them, of being far from the center of attention. Lunch was a subdued affair, and the afternoon's entertainments were canceled. Fitz feared the king would be displeased with him, even though he had nothing to do with the operation of the mine. He was not a director or shareholder of Celtic Minerals. He merely licensed the mining rights to the company, which paid him a royalty per ton. So he felt sure that no reasonable person could possibly blame him for what had happened. Still, the nobility could not be seen to indulge in frivolous pursuits while men were trapped underground, especially when the king and queen were visiting. That meant that reading and smoking were just about the only acceptable pursuits. The royal couple were sure to be bored.

  Fitz was angered. Men died all the time: soldiers were killed in battle, sailors went down with their ships, railway trains crashed, hotels full of sleeping guests burned to the ground. Why did a pit disaster have to happen just when he was entertaining the king?

  Shortly before dinner Perceval Jones, mayor of Aberowen and chairman of Celtic Minerals, came to the house to brief the earl, and Fitz asked Sir Alan Tite whether the king might like to hear the report. His Majesty would, came the reply, and Fitz was relieved: at least the monarch had something to do.

  The male guests gathered in the small drawing room, an informal space with soft chairs and potted palms and a piano. Jones was wearing the black tailcoat he had undoubtedly put on for church this morning. A short, pompous man, he looked like a strutting bird in a double-breasted gray waistcoat.

  The king was in evening dress. "Good of you to come," he said briskly.

  Jones said: "I had the honor of shaking Your Majesty's hand in 1911, when you came to Cardiff for the investiture of the Prince of Wales. "

  "I'm glad to renew our acquaintanceship, though sorry it should happen in such distressing circumstances," the king replied. "Tell me what happened in plain words, just as if you were explaining it to one of your fellow directors, over a drink at your club. "

  That was clever, Fitz thought; it set just the right tone-though no one offered Jones a drink, and the king did not invite him to sit down.

  "So kind of Your Majesty. " Jones spoke with a Cardiff accent, harsher than the
lilt of the valleys. "There were two hundred and twenty men down the pit when the explosion occurred, fewer than normal as this is a special Sunday shift. "

  "You know the exact figure?" the king asked.

  "Oh, yes, sir, we note the name of each man going down. "

  "Forgive the interruption. Please carry on. "

  "Both shafts were damaged, but firefighting teams brought the blaze under control, with the help of our sprinkler system, and evacuated the men. " He looked at his watch. "As of two hours ago, two hundred and fifteen had been brought up. "

  "It sounds as if you have dealt with the emergency very efficiently, Jones. "

  "Thank you very much, Your Majesty. "

  "Are all the two hundred and fifteen alive?"

  "No, sir. Eight are dead. Another fifty have injuries sufficiently serious to require a doctor. "

  "Dear me," said the king. "How very sad. "

  As Jones was explaining the steps being taken to locate and rescue the remaining five men, Peel slipped into the room and approached Fitz. The butler was in evening clothes, ready to serve dinner. Speaking very low, he said: "Just in case it's of interest, my lord. . . "

  Fitz whispered: "Well?"

  "The maid Williams just came back from the pithead. Her brother was something of a hero, apparently. Whether the king might like to hear the story from her own lips. . . ?"

  Fitz thought for a moment. Williams would be upset, and might say the wrong thing. On the other hand, the king would probably like to speak to someone directly affected. He decided to take a chance. "Your Majesty," he said. "One of my servants has just returned from the pithead, and may have more up-to-date news. Her brother was underground when the gas exploded. Would you care to question her?"

  "Yes, indeed," said the king. "Send her in, please. "

  A few moments later Ethel Williams entered. Her uniform was smudged with coal dust, but she had washed her face. She curtsied, and the king said: "What is the latest news?"

  "Please, Your Majesty, there are five men trapped in Carnation district by a fall of rock. The rescue team are digging through the debris but the fire is still burning. "

  Fitz noticed that the king's manners with Ethel were subtly different. He had hardly looked at Perceval Jones, and had tapped a finger restlessly on the arm of his chair while listening; but he gave Ethel a direct look, and seemed more interested in her. In a softer voice, he asked: "What does your brother say?"

  "The explosion of firedamp set light to the coal dust, and that's what's burning. The fire trapped many of the men in their workplaces, and some suffocated. My brother and the others couldn't rescue them because they had no breathing apparatus. "

  "That's not so," Jones said.

  "I think it is," Gus Dewar contradicted him. As always, the American was a bit diffident in his manner, but he made an effort to speak insistently. "I spoke to some of the men coming up. They said the lockers marked 'Breathing Apparatus' turned out to be empty. " He seemed to be suppressing anger.

  Ethel Williams said: "And they couldn't put out the flames because there was insufficient water kept underground. " Her eyes flashed with fury in a way that Fitz found alluring, and his heart skipped a beat.

  "There's a fire engine!" Jones protested.

  Gus Dewar spoke again. "A coal dram filled with water, and a hand pump. "

  Ethel Williams went on: "They should have been able to reverse the flow of ventilation, but Mr. Jones has not modified the machinery in accordance with the law. "

  Jones looked indignant. "It wasn't possible-"

  Fitz interrupted. "All right, Jones, this isn't a public inquiry, His Majesty just wants to get people's impressions. "

  "Quite so," said the king. "But there is one subject on which you might be able to advise me, Jones. "

  "I should be honored-"

  "I was planning to visit Aberowen and some of the surrounding villages tomorrow morning, and indeed to call upon your good self at the town hall. But in these circumstances a parade seems inappropriate. "

  Sir Alan, sitting behind the king's left shoulder, shook his head and murmured: "Quite impossible. "

  "On the other hand," the king went on, "it seems wrong to go away without any acknowledgment of the disaster. People might think us indifferent. "

  Fitz guessed there was a clash between the king and his staff. They probably wanted to cancel the visit, imagining that was the least risky course; whereas the king felt the need to make some gesture.

  There was a silence while Perceval considered the question. When he spoke, he said only: "It's a difficult choice. "

  Ethel Williams said: "May I make a suggestion?"

  Peel was aghast. "Williams!" he hissed. "Speak only when spoken to!"

  Fitz was startled by her impertinence in the presence of the king. He tried to keep his voice calm as he said: "Perhaps later, Williams. "

  But the king smiled. To Fitz's relief, he seemed quite taken with Ethel. "We might as well hear what this young person has to propose," he said.

  That was all Ethel needed. Without further ado she said: "You and the queen should visit the bereaved families. No parade, just one carriage with black horses. It would mean a lot to them. And everybody would think you were wonderful. " She bit her lip and subsided into silence.

  That last sentence was a breach of etiquette, Fitz thought anxiously; the king did not need to make people think he was wonderful.

  Sir Alan was horrified. "Never been done before," he said in alarm.

  But the king seemed intrigued by the idea. "Visit the bereaved. . . ," he said musingly. He turned to his equerry. "By Jove, I think that's capital, Alan. Commiserate with my people in their suffering. No cavalcade, just one carriage. " He turned back to the maid. "Very good, Williams," he said. "Thank you for speaking up. "

  Fitz breathed a sigh of relief.

  {VII}

  In the end there was more than one carriage, of course. The king and queen went in the first with Sir Alan and a lady-in-waiting; Fitz and Bea followed in a second with the bishop; and a pony-and-trap with assorted servants brought up the rear. Perceval Jones had wanted to be one of the party, but Fitz had squashed that idea. As Ethel had pointed out, the bereaved might have tried to take him by the throat.

  It was a windy day, and a cold rain lashed the horses as they trotted down the long drive of Tŷ Gwyn. Ethel was in the third vehicle. Because of her father's job she was familiar with every mining family in Aberowen. She was the only person at Tŷ Gwyn who knew the names of all the dead and injured. She had given directions to the drivers, and it would be her job to remind the equerry who was who. She had her fingers crossed. This was her idea, and if it went wrong she would be blamed.

  As they drove out of the grand iron gates she was struck, as always, by the sudden transition. Inside the grounds all was order, charm, and beauty; outside was the ugliness of the real world. A row of agricultural laborers' cottages stood beside the road, tiny houses of two rooms, with odd bits of lumber and junk in front and a couple of dirty children playing in the ditch. Soon afterward the miners' terraces began, superior to the farm cottages but still ungainly and monotonous to an eye such as Ethel's, spoiled by the perfect proportions of Tŷ Gwyn's windows and doorways and roofs. The people out here had cheap clothes that quickly became shapeless and worn, and were colored with dyes that faded, so that all the men were in grayish suits and all the women brownish dresses. Ethel's maid's outfit was envied for its warm wool skirt and crisp cotton blouse, for all that some of the girls liked to say they would never lower themselves to be servants. But the biggest difference was in the people themselves. Out here they had blemished skin, dirty hair, and black fingernails. The men coughed, the women sniffed, and the children all had runny noses. The poor shambled and limped along roads where the rich strode confidently.

  The carriages drove down the mountainside to Mafeking Terrace. Most of the inhabitants were lining the pav
ements, waiting, but there were no flags, and they did not cheer, just bowed and curtsied, as the cavalcade pulled up outside no. 19.

  Ethel jumped down and spoke quietly to Sir Alan. "Sian Evans, five children, lost her husband, David Evans, an underground horse wrangler. " David Evans, known as Dai Ponies, had been familiar to Ethel as an elder of the Bethesda Chapel.

  Sir Alan nodded, and Ethel stepped smartly back while he murmured in the ear of the king. Ethel caught Fitz's eye, and he gave her a nod of approval. She felt a glow. She was assisting the king-and the earl was pleased with her.

  The king and queen went to the front door. Its paint was peeling, but the step was polished. I never thought I'd see this, Ethel thought; the king knocking on the door of a collier's house. The king wore a tailcoat and a tall black hat: Ethel had strongly advised Sir Alan that the people of Aberowen would not wish to see their monarch in the kind of tweed suit that they themselves might wear.

  The door was opened by the widow in her Sunday best, complete with hat. Fitz had suggested that the king should surprise people, but Ethel had argued against that, and Sir Alan had agreed with her. On a surprise visit to a distraught family the royal couple might have been confronted with drunken men, half-naked women, and fighting children. Better to forewarn everyone.

  "Good morning, I'm the king," said the king, raising his hat politely. "Are you Mrs. David Evans?"

  She looked blank for a moment. She was more used to being called Mrs. Dai Ponies.

  "I have come to say how very sorry I am about your husband, David," said the king.

  Mrs. Dai Ponies seemed too nervous to feel any emotion. "Thank you very much," she said stiffly.

  It was too formal, Ethel saw. The king was as uncomfortable as the widow. Neither was able to say how they really felt.

  Then the queen touched Mrs. Dai's arm. "It must be very hard for you, my dear," she said.

  "Yes, ma'am, it is," said the widow in a whisper, and then she burst into tears.

  Ethel wiped a tear from her own cheek.

  The king was embarrassed, but to his credit, he stood his ground, murmuring: "Very sad, very sad. "

  Mrs. Evans sobbed uncontrollably, but she seemed rooted to the spot, and did not turn her face away. There was nothing gracious about grief, Ethel saw: Mrs. Dai's face was blotched red, her open mouth showed that she had lost half her teeth, and her sobs were hoarse with desperation.

  "There, there," said the queen. She pressed her handkerchief into Mrs. Dai's hand. "Take this. "

  Mrs. Dai was not yet thirty, but her big hands were knotted and lumpy with arthritis like an old woman's. She wiped her face with the queen's handkerchief. Her sobs subsided. "He was a good man, ma'am," she said. "Never raised a hand to me. "

  The queen did not know what to say about a man whose virtue was that he did not beat his wife.

  "He was even kind to his ponies," Mrs. Dai added.

  "I'm sure he was," said the queen, back on familiar ground.

  A toddler emerged from the depths of the house and clung to its mother's skirt. The king tried again. "I believe you have five children," he said.

  "Oh, sir, what are they going to do with no da?"

  "It's very sad," the king repeated.

  Sir Alan coughed, and the king said: "We're going on to see some other people in the same sad position as yourself. "

  "Oh, sir, it was kind of you to come. I can't tell you how much it means to me. Thank you, thank you. "

  The king turned away.

  The queen said: "I will pray for you tonight, Mrs. Evans. " Then she followed the king.

  As they were getting into their carriage, Fitz gave Mrs. Dai an envelope. Inside, Ethel knew, were five gold sovereigns and a note, handwritten on blue crested Tŷ Gwyn paper, saying: "Earl Fitzherbert wishes you to have this token of his deep sympathy. "

  That, too, had been Ethel's idea.

  {VIII}

  One week after the explosion Billy went to chapel with his da, mam, and gramper.

  The Bethesda Chapel was a square whitewashed room with no pictures on the walls. The chairs were arranged in neat rows on four sides of a plain table. On the table stood a loaf of white bread on a Woolworth's china plate and a jug of cheap sherry-the symbolic bread and wine. The service was not called Communion or mass, but simply the breaking of the bread.

  By eleven o'clock the congregation of a hundred or so worshippers were in their seats, the men in their best suits, the women in hats, the children scrubbed and fidgeting in the back rows. There was no set ritual: the men would do as the Holy Spirit moved them-extemporize a prayer, announce a hymn, read a passage from the Bible, or give a short sermon. The women would remain silent, of course.

  In practise there was a pattern. The first prayer was always spoken by one of the elders, who would then break the loaf and hand the plate to the nearest person. Each member of the congregation, excluding the children, would take a small piece and eat it. Next the wine was passed around, and everyone drank from the jug, the women taking tiny sips, some of the men enjoying a good mouthful. After that they all sat in silence until someone was moved to speak.

  When Billy had asked his father at what age he should begin taking a vocal part in the service, Da had said: "There's no rule. We follow where the Holy Spirit leads. " Billy had taken him at his word. If the first line of a hymn came into his mind, at some point during the hour, he took that as a nudge from the Holy Spirit, and he would stand up and announce the hymn. He was precocious in doing so at his age, he knew, but the congregation accepted that. The story of how Jesus had appeared to him during his underground initiation had been retold in half the chapels in the South Wales coalfield, and Billy was seen as special.

  This morning every prayer begged for consolation for the bereaved, especially Mrs. Dai Ponies, who was sitting there in a veil, her eldest son beside her looking scared. Da asked God for the greatness of heart to forgive the wickedness of the mine owners in flouting laws about breathing equipment and reversible ventilation. Billy felt something was missing. It was too simple just to ask for healing. He wanted help in understanding how the explosion fitted into God's plan.

  He had never yet extemporized a prayer. Many of the men prayed with fine-sounding phrases and quotations from the Scriptures, almost as if they were sermonizing. Billy himself suspected God was not so easily impressed. He always felt most moved by simple prayers that seemed heartfelt.

  Toward the end of the service, words and sentences began to take shape in his mind, and he felt a strong impulse to give voice to them. Taking that for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he eventually stood up.

  With his eyes shut tight he said: "Oh, God, we have asked Thee this morning to bring comfort to those who have lost a husband, a father, a son, especially our sister in the Lord Mrs. Evans, and we pray that the bereaved will open their hearts to receive Thy benison. "

  This had been said by others. Billy paused, then went on: "And now, Lord, we ask for one more gift: the blessing of understanding. We need to know, Lord, why this explosion have took place down the pit. All things are in Thy power, so why didst Thou allow firedamp to fill the Main Level, and why didst Thou permit it to catch alight? How come, Lord, that men are set over us, directors of Celtic Minerals, who in their greed for money become careless of the lives of Thy people? How can the deaths of good men, and the mangling of the bodies Thou didst create, serve Thy holy purpose?"

  He paused again. He knew it was wrong to make demands of God, as if negotiating with the management, so he added: "We know that the suffering of the people of Aberowen must play a part in Thy eternal plan. " He thought he should probably leave it there, but he could not refrain from adding: "But, Lord, we can't see how, so please explain it to us. "

  He finished: "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. "

  The congregation said: "Amen. "

  {IX}

  That afternoon the people of Aberowen
were invited to view the gardens at Tŷ Gwyn. It meant a lot of work for Ethel.

  A notice had gone up in the pubs on Saturday night, and the message was read in churches and chapels after services on Sunday morning. The gardens had been made especially lovely for the king, despite the winter season, and now Earl Fitzherbert wished to share their beauty with his neighbors, the invitation said. The earl would be wearing a black tie, and he would be glad to see his visitors wearing a similar token of respect for the dead. Although it would obviously be inappropriate to have a party, nevertheless refreshments would be offered.

  Ethel had ordered three marquees to be pitched on the East Lawn. In one were half a dozen 108-gallon butts of pale ale brought by train from the Crown Brewery in Pontyclun. For teetotallers, of whom there were many in Aberowen, the next tent had trestle tables bearing giant tea urns and hundreds of cups and saucers. In the third, smaller tent, sherry was offered to the town's diminutive middle class, including the Anglican vicar, both doctors, and the colliery manager, Maldwyn Morgan, who was already being referred to as Gone-to-Merthyr Morgan.

  By good luck it was a sunny day, cold but dry, with a few harmless-looking white clouds high in a blue sky. Four thousand people came-very nearly the entire population of the town-and almost everyone wore a black tie, ribbon, or armband. They strolled around the shrubbery, peered through the windows into the house, and churned up the lawns.

  Princess Bea stayed in her room: this was not her kind of social event. All upper-class people were selfish, in Ethel's experience, but Bea had made an art of it. All her energy was focused on pleasing herself and getting her own way. Even when giving a party-something she did well-her motive was mainly to provide a showcase for her own beauty and charm.

  Fitz held court in the Victorian-Gothic splendor of the Great Hall, with his huge dog lying on the floor beside him like a fur rug. He wore the brown tweed suit that made him seem more approachable, albeit with a stiff collar and black tie. He looked handsomer than ever, Ethel thought. She brought the relatives of the dead and injured to see him in groups of three or four, so that he was able to commiserate with every Aberowen resident who had suffered. He spoke to them with his usual charm, and sent each one away feeling special.

  Ethel was now the housekeeper. After the king's visit, Princess Bea had insisted that Mrs. Jevons retire permanently: she had no time for tired old servants. In Ethel she had seen someone who would work hard to fulfil her wishes, and had promoted her despite her youth. So Ethel had achieved her ambition. She had taken over the housekeeper's little room off the servants' hall, and had hung up a photograph of her parents, in their Sunday best, taken outside the Bethesda Chapel the day it had opened.

  When Fitz came to the end of the list, Ethel asked permission to spend a few minutes with her family.

  "Of course," said the earl. "Take as much time as you like. You've been absolutely marvelous. I don't know how I would have managed without you. The king was grateful for your help, too. How do you remember all those names?"

  She smiled. She was not sure why it gave her such a thrill to be praised by him. "Most of these people have been to our house, some time or other, to see my father about compensation for an injury, or a dispute with an overseer, or a worry about some safety measure down the pit. "

  "Well, I think you're remarkable," he said, and he gave the irresistible smile that occasionally came over his face and made him seem almost like the boy next door. "Give my respects to your father. "

  She went out and ran across the lawn, feeling on top of the world. She found Da, Mam, Billy, and Gramper in the tea tent. Da looked distinguished in his black Sunday suit and a white shirt with a stiff collar. Billy had a nasty burn on his cheek. Ethel said: "How are you feeling, Billy boy?"

  "Not bad. It looks horrible, but the doctor says it's better without a bandage. "

  "Everybody's talking about how brave you were. "

  "It wasn't enough to save Micky Pope, though. "

  There was nothing to say to that, but Ethel touched her brother's arm in sympathy.

  Mam said proudly: "Billy led us in prayer this morning at Bethesda. "

  "Well done, Billy! I'm sorry I missed it. " Ethel had not gone to chapel-there was too much to do in the house. "What did you pray about?"

  "I asked the Lord to help us understand why He allowed the explosion down the pit. " Billy cast a nervous glance at Da, who was not smiling.

  Da said severely: "Billy might have done better to ask God to strengthen his faith, so that he can believe without understanding. "

  Clearly they had already argued about this. Ethel did not have the patience for theological disputes that made no difference to anything in the end. She tried to brighten the mood. "Earl Fitzherbert asked me to give you his respects, Da," she said. "Wasn't that nice of him?"

  Da did not melt. "I was sorry to see you taking part in that farce on Monday," he said sternly.

  "Monday?" she said incredulously. "When the king visited the families?"

  "I saw you whispering the names to that flunky. "

  "That was Sir Alan Tite. "

  "I don't care what he calls himself, I know a lickspittle when I see one. "

  Ethel was shocked. How could Da be scornful of her great moment? She felt like crying. "I thought you'd be proud of me, helping the king!"

  "How dare the king offer sympathy to our folk? What does a king know of hardship and danger?"

  Ethel fought back tears. "But, Da, it meant so much to people that he went to see them!"

  "It distracted everyone's attention from the dangerous and illegal actions of Celtic Minerals. "

  "But they need comfort. " Why could he not see this?

  "The king softened them up. Last Sunday afternoon this town was ready to revolt. By Monday evening all they could talk about was the queen giving her handkerchief to Mrs. Dai Ponies. "

  Ethel went swiftly from heartbreak to anger. "I'm sorry you feel that way," she said coldly.

  "Nothing to be sorry for-"

  "I'm sorry because you are wrong," she said, firmly overriding him.

  Da was taken aback. It was rare for him to be told he was wrong by anyone, let alone a girl.

  Mam said: "Now, Eth-"

  "People have feelings, Da," she said recklessly. "That's what you always forget. "

  Da was speechless.

  Mam said: "That's enough, now!"

  Ethel looked at Billy. Through a mist of tears she saw his expression of awestruck admiration. That encouraged her. She sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and said: "You and your union, and your safety regulations and your Scriptures-I know they're important, Da, but you can't do away with people's feelings. I hope that one day socialism will make the world a better place for working people, but in the meantime they need consolation. "

  Da found his voice at last. "I think we've heard enough from you," he said. "Being with the king has gone to your head. You're a slip of a girl, and you've no business lecturing your elders. "

  She was crying too much to argue further. "I'm sorry, Da," she said. After a heavy silence she added: "I'd better get back to work. " The earl had told her to take all the time she liked, but she wanted to be alone. She turned away from her father's glare and walked back to the big house. She kept her eyes downcast, hoping the crowds would not notice her tears.

  She did not want to meet anyone so she slipped into the Gardenia Suite. Lady Maud had returned to London, so the room was empty and the bed was stripped. Ethel threw herself down on the mattress and cried.

  She had been feeling so proud. How could Da undermine everything she had done? Did he want her to do a bad job? She worked for the nobility. So did every coal miner in Aberowen. Even though Celtic Minerals employed them, it was the earl's coal they were digging, and he was paid the same per ton as the miner who dug it out of the earth-a fact her father never tired of pointing out. If it was all right to be a good colli
er, efficient and productive, what was wrong with being a good housekeeper?

  She heard the door open. Quickly she jumped to her feet. It was the earl. "What on earth is the matter?" he said kindly. "I heard you from outside the door. "

  "I'm very sorry, my lord, I shouldn't have come in here. "

  "That's all right. " There was genuine concern on his impossibly handsome face. "Why are you crying?"

  "I was so proud to have helped the king," she said woefully. "But my father says it was a farce, all done just to stop people feeling angry with Celtic Minerals. " She burst into fresh tears.

  "What nonsense," he said. "Anyone could tell that the king's concern was genuine. And the queen's. " He took the white linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket. She expected him to hand it to her, but instead he wiped the tears from her cheeks with a gentle touch. "I was proud of you last Monday, even if your father wasn't. "

  "You're so kind. "

  "There, there," he said, and he bent down and kissed her lips.

  She was dumbfounded. It was the last thing in the world she had expected. When he straightened up she stared at him uncomprehendingly.

  He gazed back at her. "You are absolutely enchanting," he said in a low voice; then he kissed her again.

  This time she pushed him away. "My lord, what are you doing?" she said in a shocked whisper.

  "I don't know. "

  "But what can you be thinking of?"

  "I'm not thinking at all. "

  She stared up at his chiseled face. The green eyes studied her intently, as if trying to read her mind. She realized that she adored him. Suddenly she was flooded with excitement and desire.

  "I can't help myself," he said.

  She sighed happily. "Kiss me again, then," she said.

 
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