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Fall of giants, p.21
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       Fall of Giants, p.21

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 21

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - December 1916

  Fitz was working at the Admiralty in Whitehall. It was not the job he wanted. He longed to return to the Welsh Rifles in France. Much as he hated the dirt and discomfort of the trenches, he could not feel good about being safe in London while others were risking their lives. He had a horror of being thought a coward. However, the doctors insisted that his leg was not yet strong enough, and the army would not let him return.

  Because Fitz spoke German, Smith-Cumming of the Secret Service Bureau-the man who called himself "C"-had recommended him to naval intelligence, and he had been temporarily posted to a department known as Room 40. The last thing he wanted was a desk job, but to his surprise, he found that the work was highly important to the war effort.

  On the first day of the war a post office ship called the CS Alert had gone out into the North Sea, dredged up the Germans' heavy-duty seabed telecommunications cables, and severed them all. With that sly stroke the British had forced the enemy to use wireless for most messages. Wireless signals could be intercepted. The Germans were not stupid, and they sent all their messages in code. Room 40 was where the British tried to break the codes.

  Fitz worked with an assortment of people-some of them quite odd, most not very military-who struggled to decipher the gibberish picked up by listening stations on the coast. Fitz was no good at the crossword-puzzle challenge of decoding-he could never even work out the murderer in a Sherlock Holmes mystery-but he was able to translate the decrypts into English and, more importantly, his battlefield experience enabled him to judge which were significant.

  Not that it made much difference. At the end of 1916 the western front had hardly moved from its position at the beginning of the year, despite huge efforts by both sides-the relentless German assault at Verdun and the even more costly British attack at the Somme. The Allies desperately needed a boost. If the United States joined in they could tip the balance-but so far there was no sign of that.

  Commanders in all armies issued their orders late at night or first thing in the morning, so Fitz started early and worked intensely until midday. On the Wednesday after the shooting party he left the admiralty at half past twelve and took a taxi home. The uphill walk from Whitehall to Mayfair, though short, was too much for him.

  The three women he lived with-Bea, Maud, and Aunt Herm-were just sitting down to lunch. He handed his walking stick and uniform cap to Grout and joined the ladies. After the utilitarian environment of his office, he took a warm pleasure in his home: the rich furnishings, the soft-footed servants, the French china on the snowy tablecloth.

  He asked Maud what the political news was. A battle was raging between Asquith and Lloyd George. Yesterday Asquith had dramatically resigned as prime minister. Fitz was worried: he was no admirer of the Liberal Asquith, but what if the new man was seduced by facile talk of peace?

  "The king has seen Bonar Law," Maud said. Andrew Bonar Law was the leader of the Conservatives. The last remnant of royal power in British politics was the monarch's right to appoint a prime minister- although his chosen candidate still had to win the support of Parliament.

  Fitz said: "What happened?"

  "Bonar Law declined to be prime minister. "

  Fitz bridled. "How could he refuse the king?" A man should obey his monarch, Fitz believed, especially a Conservative.

  "He thinks it has to be Lloyd George. But the king doesn't want Lloyd George. "

  Bea put in: "I should hope not. The man is not much better than a socialist. "

  "Indeed," said Fitz. "But he's got more aggression than the rest of them put together. At least he would inject some energy into the war effort. "

  Maud said: "I fear he won't make the most of any chance of peace. "

  "Peace?" said Fitz. "I don't think you need to worry too much about that. " He tried not to sound heated, but defeatist talk of peace made him think of all the lives that had been lost: poor young Lieutenant Carlton-Smith, so many Aberowen Pals, even the wretched Owen Bevin, shot by a firing squad. Was their sacrifice to have been for nothing? The thought seemed blasphemous to him. Forcing himself to speak in a conversational tone, he said: "There won't be peace until one side or the other has won. "

  Anger flashed in Maud's eyes but she, too, controlled herself. "We might get the best of both worlds: energetic leadership of the war by Lloyd George as chairman of the War Council, and a statesmanlike prime minister such as Arthur Balfour to negotiate peace if we decide that's what we want. "

  "Hm. " Fitz did not like that idea at all, but Maud had a way of putting things that made it hard to disagree. Fitz changed the subject. "What are you planning to do this afternoon?"

  "Aunt Herm and I are going to the East End. We host a soldiers' wives club. We give them tea and cake-paid for by you, Fitz, for which we thank you-and try to help them with their problems. "

  "Such as?"

  Aunt Herm answered. "Getting a clean place to live and finding a reliable child minder are the usual ones. "

  Fitz was amused. "You surprise me, Aunt. You used to disapprove of Maud's adventures in the East End. "

  "It's wartime," Lady Hermia said defiantly. "We must all do what we can. "

  On impulse Fitz said: "Perhaps I'll come with you. It's good for them to see that earls get shot just as easily as stevedores. "

  Maud looked taken aback, but she said: "Well, of course, yes, if you'd like to. "

  He could tell she was not keen. No doubt there was a certain amount of left-wing rubbish talked at her club-votes for women and suchlike tosh. However, she could not refuse him, as he paid for the whole thing.

  Lunch ended and they went off to get ready. Fitz went to his wife's dressing room. Bea's gray-haired maid, Nina, was helping her off with the dress she had worn at lunch. Bea murmured something in Russian, and Nina replied in the same language, which irritated Fitz as it seemed intended to exclude him. He spoke in Russian, hoping they would think he understood everything, and said to the maid: "Leave us alone, please. " She curtsied and went out.

  Fitz said: "I haven't seen Boy today. " He had left the house early this morning. "I must go to the nursery before he's taken out for his walk. "

  "He's not going out at the moment," Bea said anxiously. "He's got a little cough. "

  Fitz frowned. "He needs fresh air. "

  To his surprise, she suddenly looked tearful. "I'm afraid for him," she said. "With you and Andrei both risking your lives in the war, Boy may be all I have left. "

  Her brother, Andrei, was married but had no children. If Andrei and Fitz died, Boy would be all the family Bea had. It explained why she was overprotective of the child. "All the same, it won't do him good to be mollycoddled. "

  "I don't know this word," she said sulkily.

  "I think you know what I mean. "

  Bea stepped out of her petticoats. Her figure was more voluptuous than it used to be. Fitz watched her untie the ribbons that held up her stockings. He imagined biting the soft flesh of her inner thigh.

  She caught his eye. "I'm tired," she said. "I must sleep for an hour. "

  "I could join you. "

  "I thought you were going slumming with your sister. "

  "I don't have to. "

  "I really need to rest. "

  He stood up to go, then changed his mind. He felt angry and rejected. "It's been a long time since you welcomed me into your bed. "

  "I haven't been counting the days. "

  "I have, and it's weeks, not days. "

  "I'm sorry. I feel so worried about everything. " She was close to tears again.

  Fitz knew she was fearful for her brother, and he sympathized with her helpless anxiety, but millions of women were going through the same agonies, and the nobility had a duty to be stoical. "I hear you started attending services at the Russian embassy while I was away in France. " There was no Russian Orthodox church in London, but there was a chapel in the embass
y.

  "Who told you that?"

  "Never mind who told me. " It had been Aunt Herm. "Before we married, I asked you to convert to the Church of England, and you did. "

  She would not meet his eye. "I didn't think it would do any harm for me to go to one or two services," she said quietly. "I'm so sorry to have displeased you. "

  Fitz was suspicious of foreign clergymen. "Does the priest there tell you it's a sin to take pleasure in lying with your husband?"

  "Of course not! But when you're away, and I feel so alone, so far away from everything I grew up with. . . it's a comfort to me to hear familiar Russian hymns and prayers. "

  Fitz felt sorry for her. It must be difficult. He certainly could not contemplate going to live permanently in a foreign country. And he knew, from conversations with other married men, that it was not unusual for a wife to resist her husband's advances after she had borne a child.

  But he hardened his heart. Everyone had to make sacrifices. Bea should be grateful she did not have to run into machine-gun fire. "I think I have done my duty by you," he said. "When we married, I paid off your family's debts. I called in experts, Russian and English, to plan the reorganization of the estates. " They had told Andrei to drain swamps to produce more farmland, and prospect for coal and other minerals, but he had never done anything. "It's not my fault that Andrei wasted every opportunity. "

  "Yes, Fitz," she said. "You did everything you promised. "

  "And I ask that you do your duty. You and I must produce heirs. If Andrei dies without fathering children, our son will inherit two huge estates. He will be one of the greatest landowners in the world. We must have more sons in case-God forbid-something should happen to Boy. "

  She kept her eyes cast down. "I know my duty. "

  Fitz felt dishonest. He talked about an heir-and everything he had said was true-but he was not telling her that he hungered to see her soft body spread-eagled for him on the bedsheets, white on white, and her fair hair spilling over the pillow. He repressed the vision. "If you know your duty, please do it. Next time I come into your room I shall expect to be welcomed like the loving husband that I am. "

  "Yes, Fitz. "

  He left. He was glad he had put his foot down, but he also felt an uneasy sense that he had done something wrong. It was ridiculous: he had pointed out to Bea the error of her ways, and she had accepted his reproof. That was how things ought to be between man and wife. But he could not feel as satisfied as he should.

  He pushed Bea out of his mind when he met up with Maud and Aunt Herm in the hall. He put on his uniform cap and glanced in the mirror, then quickly looked away. He tried these days not to think much about his appearance. The bullet had damaged the muscles on the left side of his face, and his eyelid had a permanent droop. It was a minor disfigurement, but his vanity would never recover. He told himself to be grateful that his eyesight was unaffected.

  The blue Cadillac was still in France, but he had managed to get hold of another. His chauffeur knew the way: he had obviously driven Maud to the East End before. Half an hour later they pulled up outside the Calvary Gospel Hall, a mean little chapel with a tin roof. It might have been transplanted from Aberowen. Fitz wondered if the pastor was Welsh.

  The tea party was already under way and the place was packed with young women and their children. It smelled worse than a barracks, and Fitz had to resist the temptation to hold a handkerchief over his nose.

  Maud and Herm went to work immediately, Maud seeing women one by one in the back office and Herm marshaling them. Fitz limped from one table to the next, asking the women where their husbands were serving and what their experiences had been, while their children rolled on the floor. Young women often became giggly and tongue-tied when Fitz spoke to them, but this group was not so easily flustered. They asked him what regiment he served in and how he had got his wounds.

  It was not until he was halfway round the room that he saw Ethel.

  He had noticed that there were two offices at the back of the hall, one Maud's, and he had vaguely wondered who was in the second. He happened to look up when the door opened and Ethel stepped out.

  He had not seen her for two years, but she had not changed much. Her dark curls bounced as she walked, and her smile was a sunbeam. Her dress was drab and worn, like the clothes of all the women except Maud and Herm, but she had the same trim figure, and he could not help thinking about the petite body he had known so well. Without even looking at him she cast her spell. It was as if no time had passed since they had rolled around, giggling and kissing, on the bed in the Gardenia Suite.

  She spoke to the only other man in the room, a stooped figure in a dark gray lounge suit of some heavy cloth, sitting at a table making notes in a ledger. He wore thick glasses, but even so Fitz could see the adoration in the man's eyes when he looked up at Ethel. She spoke to him with easy amiability, and Fitz wondered if they were married.

  Ethel turned around and caught Fitz's eye. Her eyebrows went up and her mouth made an O of surprise. She took a step back, as if nervous, and bumped into a chair. The woman sitting in the chair looked up with an expression of irritation. Ethel mouthed: "Sorry!" without looking at her.

  Fitz rose from his seat, not an easy matter with his busted leg, all the time gazing steadily at Ethel. She dithered visibly, not sure whether to approach him or flee to the safety of her office. He said: "Hello, Ethel. " His words did not carry across the noisy room, but she could probably see his lips move and guess what he said.

  She made a decision and walked toward him.

  "Good afternoon, Lord Fitzherbert," she said, and her lilting Welsh accent made the routine phrase sound like a melody. She held out her hand and they shook. Her skin was rough.

  He followed her in reverting to formality. "How are you, Mrs. Williams?"

  She pulled up a chair and sat down. As he lowered himself into his seat he realized she had deftly put them on a footing of equality without intimacy.

  "I seen you at the service in the Aberowen Reck," she said. "I was very sorry-" Her voice caught in her throat. She looked down and started again. "I was very sorry to see you wounded. I hope you're getting better. "

  "Slowly. " He could tell that her concern was genuine. She did not hate him, it seemed, despite everything that had happened. His heart was touched.

  "How did you get your injuries?"

  He had told the story so often that it bored him. "It was the first day of the Somme. I hardly saw any fighting. We went over the top, got past our own barbed wire, and started across no-man's-land, and the next thing I remember is being carried on a stretcher, and hurting like hell. "

  "My brother saw you fall. "

  Fitz remembered the insubordinate Corporal William Williams. "Did he? What happened to him?"

  "His section captured a German trench, then had to abandon it when they ran out of ammunition. "

  Fitz had missed all the debriefing, being in hospital. "Did he get a medal?"

  "No. The colonel told him he should have defended his position to the death. Billy said: 'What, like you did?' and he was put on a charge. "

  Fitz was not surprised. Williams was trouble. "So what are you doing here?"

  "I work with your sister. "

  "She didn't tell me. "

  Ethel gave him a level look. "She wouldn't think you'd be interested in news of your former servants. "

  It was a jibe, but he ignored it. "What do you do?"

  "I'm managing editor of The Soldier's Wife. I arrange printing and distribution, and edit the letters page. And I take care of the money. "

  He was impressed. It was a big step up from housekeeper. But she had always been an extraordinarily capable organizer. "My money, I suppose?"

  "I don't think so. Maud is careful. She knows you don't mind paying for tea and cake, and doctoring for soldiers' children, but she wouldn't use your money for antiwar propaganda. "

  He kept the con
versation going just for the pleasure of watching her face as she talked. "Is that what is in the newspaper?" he asked. "Antiwar propaganda?"

  "We discuss publicly what you speak of only in secret: the possibility of peace. "

  She was right. Fitz knew that senior politicians in both major parties had been talking about peace, and it angered him. But he did not want to have a row with Ethel. "Your hero, Lloyd George, is in favor of fighting harder. "

  "Will he become prime minister, do you think?"

  "The king doesn't want him. But he may be the only candidate who can unite Parliament. "

  "I fear he may prolong the war. "

  Maud came out of her office. The tea party was breaking up, the women clearing up the cups and saucers and marshaling their children. Fitz marveled to see Aunt Herm carrying a stack of dirty plates. How the war had changed people!

  He looked again at Ethel. She was still the most attractive woman he had ever met. He yielded to an impulse. Speaking in a lowered voice he said: "Will you meet me tomorrow?"

  She looked shocked. "What for?" she said quietly.

  "Yes or no?"

  "Where?"

  "Victoria Station. One o'clock. At the entrance to platform three. "

  Before she could reply the man in thick glasses came over, and Ethel introduced him. "Earl Fitzherbert, may I present Mr. Bernie Leckwith, chairman of the Aldgate branch of the Independent Labour Party. "

  Fitz shook hands. Leckwith was in his twenties. Fitz guessed that poor eyesight had kept him out of the armed forces.

  "I'm sorry to see you wounded, Lord Fitzherbert," Leckwith said in a cockney accent.

  "I was one of thousands, and lucky to be alive. "

  "With hindsight, is there anything we could have done differently at the Somme, that would have greatly altered the outcome?"

  Fitz thought for a moment. It was a damned good question.

  While he considered, Leckwith said: "Did we need more men and ammunition, as the generals claim? Or more flexible tactics and better communications, as the politicians say?"

  Fitz said thoughtfully: "All those things would have helped but, frankly, I don't think they would have brought us victory. The assault was doomed from the start. But we could not possibly have known that in advance. We had to try. "

  Leckwith nodded, as if his own view had been confirmed. "I appreciate your candor," he said, almost as if Fitz had made a confession.

  They left the chapel. Fitz handed Aunt Herm and Maud into the waiting car, then got in himself, and the chauffeur drove away.

  Fitz found himself breathing hard. He had suffered a small shock. Three years ago Ethel had been counting pillowcases at Tŷ Gwyn. Today she was the managing editor of a newspaper that, although small, was considered by senior ministers to be a thorn in the flesh of the government.

  What was her relationship with the surprisingly intelligent Bernie Leckwith? "Who was that chap Leckwith?" he asked Maud.

  "An important local politician. "

  "Is he Williams's husband?"

  Maud laughed. "No, though everyone thinks he should be. He's a clever man who shares her ideals, and he's devoted to her son. I don't know why Ethel didn't marry him years ago. "

  "Perhaps he doesn't make her heart beat faster. "

  Maud raised her eyebrows, and Fitz realized he had been dangerously candid.

  He added hastily: "Girls of that type want romance, don't they? She'll marry a war hero, not a librarian. "

  "She's not a girl of that type or any other type," Maud said rather frostily. "She's nothing if not exceptional. You don't meet two like her in a lifetime. "

  Fitz looked away. He knew that was true.

  He wondered what the child was like. It must have been one of the dirty-faced toddlers playing on the floor of the chapel. He had probably seen his own son this afternoon. He was strangely moved by the thought. For some reason it made him want to cry.

  The car was passing through Trafalgar Square. He told the driver to stop. "I'd better drop in at the office," he explained to Maud.

  He limped into the Old Admiralty Building and up the stairs. His desk was in the diplomatic section, which inhabited Room 45. Sublieutenant Carver, a student of Latin and Greek who had come down from Cambridge to help decode German signals, told him that not many intercepts had come in during the afternoon, as usual, and there was nothing he needed to deal with. However, there was some political news. "Have you heard?" said Carver. "The king has summoned Lloyd George. "

  {II}

  All the next morning, Ethel told herself she was not going to meet Fitz. How dared he suggest such a thing? For more than two years she had heard nothing from him. Then when they met he had not even asked about Lloyd-his own child! He was the same selfish, thoughtless deceiver as always.

  All the same, she had been thrown into a whirl. Fitz had looked at her with his intense green eyes, and asked her questions about her life that made her feel she was important to him-contrary to all the evidence. He was no longer the perfect, godlike man he had once been: his beautiful face was marred by one half-closed eye, and he stooped over his walking stick. But his weakness only made her want to take care of him. She told herself she was a fool. He had all the care money could buy. She would not go to meet him.

  At twelve noon she left the premises of The Soldier's Wife-two small rooms over a print shop, shared with the Independent Labour Party-and caught a bus. Maud was not at the office that morning, which saved Ethel the trouble of inventing an excuse.

  It was a long journey by bus and underground train from Aldgate to Victoria, and Ethel arrived at the rendezvous a few minutes after one o'clock. She wondered if Fitz might have grown impatient and left, and the thought made her feel slightly ill; but he was there, wearing a tweed suit as if he were going into the country, and she immediately felt better.

  He smiled. "I was afraid you weren't coming," he said.

  "I don't know why I did," she replied. "Why did you ask me?"

  "I want to show you something. " He took her arm.

  They walked out of the station. Ethel felt foolishly pleased to be arm in arm with Fitz. She wondered at his boldness. He was an easily recognizable figure. What if they ran into one of his friends? She supposed they would pretend not to see one another. In Fitz's social class, a man who had been married a few years was not expected to be faithful.

  They rode a bus a few stops and got off in the raffish suburb of Chelsea, a low-rent neighborhood of artists and writers. Ethel wondered what he wanted her to see. They walked along a street of small villas. Fitz said: "Have you ever watched a debate in Parliament?"

  "No," she said. "But I'd love to. "

  "You have to be invited by an M. P. or a peer. Shall I arrange it?"

  "Yes, please!"

  He looked happy that she had accepted. "I'll check when there's going to be something interesting. You might like to see Lloyd George in action. "

  "Yes!"

  "He is putting his government together today. I should think he will kiss the king's hand as prime minister tonight. "

  Ethel gazed about her thoughtfully. In parts, Chelsea still looked like the country village it had been a hundred years ago. The older buildings were cottages and farmhouses, low-built with large gardens and orchards. There was not much greenery in December, but even so the neighborhood had a pleasant semirural feel. "Politics is a funny business," she said. "I've wanted Lloyd George for prime minister ever since I was old enough to read the newspaper, but now that it's happened I'm dismayed. "

  "Why?"

  "He's the most belligerent senior figure in the government. His appointment might kill off any chance of peace. On the other hand. . . "

  Fitz looked intrigued. "What?"

  "He's the only man who could agree to peace talks without being crucified by Northcliffe's bloodthirsty newspapers. "

  "That's a point," Fitz said, looking worried. "If an
yone else did it, the headlines would scream: 'Fire Asquith-or Balfour, or Bonar Law-and bring in Lloyd George!' But if they attack Lloyd George there's no one left. "

  "So maybe there is a hope of peace. "

  He allowed his tone of voice to become testy. "Why aren't you hoping for victory, rather than peace?"

  "Because that's how we got into this mess," she said equably. "What are you going to show me?"

  "This. " He unlatched a gate and held it open. They entered the grounds of a detached two-story house. The garden was overgrown and the place needed painting, but it was a charming medium-size home, the kind of place that might be owned by a successful musician, Ethel imagined, or perhaps a well-known actor. Fitz took a key from his pocket and opened the door. They stepped inside, and he closed the door and kissed her.

  She gave herself up to it. She had not been kissed for a long time, and she felt like a thirsty traveler in a desert. She stroked his long neck and pressed her breasts against his chest. She sensed that he was as desperate as she. Before she lost control she pushed him away. "Stop," she said breathlessly. "Stop. "

  "Why?"

  "Last time we did this I ended up talking to your bloody lawyer. " She moved away from him. "I'm not as innocent as I used to be. "

  "It will be different this time," he said, panting. "I was a fool to let you go. I see that now. I was young, too. "

  To help her calm down she looked into the rooms. They were full of dowdy old furniture. "Whose house is this?" she said.

  "Yours," he replied. "If you want it. "

  She stared at him. What did he mean?

  "You could live here with the baby," he explained. "It was occupied for years by an old lady who used to be my father's housekeeper. She died a few months ago. You could redecorate it and buy new furniture. "

  "Live here?" she said. "As what?"

  He could not quite bring himself to say it.

  "As your mistress?" she said.

  "You can have a nurse, and a couple of housemaids, and a gardener. Even a motorcar with a chauffeur, if that appeals to you. "

  The part of it that appealed to her was him.

  He misinterpreted her thoughtful look. "Is the house too small? Would you prefer Kensington? Do you want a butler and a housekeeper? I'll give you anything you want, don't you understand? My life is empty without you. "

  He meant it, she saw. At least, he meant it now, when he was aroused and unsatisfied. She knew from bitter experience how fast he could change.

  The trouble was, she wanted him just as badly.

  He must have seen that in her face, for he took her in his arms again. She turned up her face to be kissed. I want more of this, she thought.

  Once again she broke the embrace before she lost control.

  "Well?" he said.

  She could not make a sensible decision while he was kissing her. "I've got to be alone," she said. She forced herself to walk away from him before it was too late. "I'm going home," she said. She opened the door. "I need time to think. " She hesitated on the doorstep.

  "Think as long as you want," he said. "I'll wait. "

  She closed the door and ran away.

  {III}

  Gus Dewar was in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, standing in front of Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Age of Sixty-three, when a woman standing next to him said: "Extraordinarily ugly man. "

  Gus turned and was surprised to recognize Maud Fitzherbert. He said: "Me, or Rembrandt?" and she laughed.

  They strolled through the gallery together. "What a delightful coincidence," he said. "Meeting you here. "

  "As a matter of fact, I saw you and followed you in," she said. She lowered her voice. "I wanted to ask you why the Germans haven't yet made the peace offer you told me was coming. "

  He did not know the answer. "They may have changed their minds," he said gloomily. "There as here, there is a peace faction and a war faction. Perhaps the war faction has gained the upper hand, and succeeded in changing the kaiser's mind. "

  "Surely they must see that battles no longer make a difference!" she said with exasperation. "Did you read in this morning's papers that the Germans have taken Bucharest?"

  Gus nodded. Rumania had declared war in August, and for a while the British had hoped their new partner might strike a mighty blow, but Germany had invaded back in September and now the Rumanian capital had fallen. "In fact the upshot is good for Germany, which now has Rumania's oil. "

  "Exactly," said Maud. "It's the same old one step forward, one step back. When will we learn?"

  "The appointment of Lloyd George as prime minister isn't encouraging," Gus said.

  "Ah. There you might be wrong. "

  "Really? He has built his political reputation on being more aggressive than everyone else. It would be hard for him to make peace after that. "

  "Don't be so sure. Lloyd George is unpredictable. He could do a volteface. It would surprise only those naive enough to have thought him sincere. "

  "Well, that's hopeful. "

  "All the same, I wish we had a woman prime minister. "

  Gus did not think that was ever likely to happen, but he did not say so.

  "There's something else I want to ask you," she said, and she halted. Gus turned to face her. Perhaps because the paintings had sensitized him, he found himself admiring her face. He noticed the sharp lines of her nose and chin, the high cheekbones, the long neck. The angularity of her features was softened by her full lips and large green eyes. "Anything you like," he said.

  "What did Walter tell you?"

  Gus's mind went back to that surprising conversation in the bar of the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. "He said he was obliged to let me into a secret. But then he didn't tell me what the secret was. "

  "He thought you would be able to guess. "

  "I guessed he must be in love with you. And from your reaction when I gave you the letter at Tŷ Gwyn, I could see that his love is returned. " Gus smiled. "If I may say so, he's a lucky man. "

  She nodded, and Gus read something like relief on her face. There must be more to the secret, he realized; that was why she needed to find out how much he knew. He wondered what else they were hiding. Perhaps they were engaged.

  They walked on. I understand why he loves you, Gus thought. I could fall for you in a heartbeat.

  She surprised him again by suddenly saying: "Have you ever been in love, Mr. Dewar?"

  It was an intrusive question, but he answered anyway. "Yes, I have-twice. "

  "But no longer. "

  He felt an urge to confide in her. "The year the war broke out, I was wicked enough to fall in love with a woman who was already married. "

  "Did she love you?"

  "Yes. "

  "What happened?"

  "I asked her to leave her husband for me. That was very wrong of me, and you will be shocked, I know. But she was a better person than I, and she rejected my immoral offer. "

  "I'm not so easily shocked. When was the second time?"

  "Last year I became engaged to someone in my hometown, Buffalo; but she married someone else. "

  "Oh! I'm so sorry. Perhaps I should not have asked. I have revived a painful memory. "

  "Extremely painful. "

  "Forgive me if I say that makes me feel better. It's just that you know what sorrow love can bring. "

  "Yes, I do. "

  "But perhaps there will be peace after all, and my sorrow will soon be over. "

  "I very much hope so, Lady Maud," said Gus.

  {IV}

  Ethel agonized for days over Fitz's proposition. As she stood freezing in her backyard, turning the mangle to wring out the washing, she imagined herself in that pretty house in Chelsea, with Lloyd running around the garden watched over by an attentive nurse. "I'll give you anything you want," Fitz had said, and she knew it was true. He would put the house in her name. He would take her to Switzerland and th
e south of France. If she set her mind to it, she could make him give her an annuity so that she would have an income until she died, even if he got bored with her-although she also knew she could make sure he never got bored.

  It was shameful and disgusting, she told herself sternly. She would be a woman paid for sex, and what else did the word prostitute mean? She could never invite her parents to her Chelsea hideaway: they would know immediately what it meant.

  Did she care about that? Perhaps not, but there were other things. She wanted more from life than comfort. As a millionaire's mistress she could hardly continue to campaign on behalf of working-class women. Her political life would be over. She would lose touch with Bernie and Mildred, and it would be awkward even to see Maud.

  But who was she, to ask for so much from life? She was Ethel Williams, born in a coal miner's cottage! How could she turn up her nose at a lifetime of ease? You should be so lucky, she told herself, using one of Bernie's sayings.

  And then there was Lloyd. He would have a governess, and later Fitz would pay for him to go to a posh school. He would grow up among the elite and lead a life of privilege. Did Ethel have the right to deny him that?

  She was no nearer an answer when she opened the newspapers in the office she shared with Maud and learned of another dramatic offer. On December 12 the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, proposed peace talks with the Allies.

  Ethel was elated. Peace! Was it really possible? Might Billy come home?

  The French premier immediately described the note as a crafty move, and the Russian foreign minister denounced the Germans' "lying proposals," but Ethel believed it was the British reaction that would count.

  Lloyd George was not making public speeches of any kind, claiming he had a sore throat. In London in December half the population had coughs and colds, but all the same Ethel suspected Lloyd George just wanted time to think. She took that as a good sign. An immediate response would have been a rejection; anything else was hopeful. He was at least considering peace, she thought optimistically.

  Meanwhile President Wilson threw America's weight into the balance on the side of peace. He suggested that as a preliminary to talks all the warring powers state their aims-what they were trying to achieve by fighting.

  "That's embarrassed them," said Bernie Leckwith that evening. "They've forgotten why they started it. They're fighting now just because they want to win. "

  Ethel remembered what Mrs. Dai Ponies had said about the strike: These men-once they get into a fight, all they care about is winning. They won't give in, whatever the cost. She wondered how a woman prime minister might have reacted to a peace proposal.

  But Bernie was right, she realized over the next few days. President Wilson's suggestion met with a strange silence. No country answered immediately. That made Ethel more angry. How could they carry on if they did not even know what they were fighting for?

  At the end of the week Bernie organized a public meeting to debate the German note. On the day of the meeting, Ethel woke up to see her brother standing beside her bed in his khaki uniform. "Billy!" she cried. "You're alive!"

  "And on a week's leave," he said. "Get out of bed, you lazy cow. "

  She jumped up, put on a dressing gown over her nightdress, and hugged him. "Oh, Billy, I'm so happy to see you. " She noticed the stripes on his sleeve. "Sergeant, now, is it?"

  "Aye. "

  "How did you get into the house?"

  "Mildred opened the door. Actually, I been here since last night. "

  "Where did you sleep?"

  He looked bashful. "Upstairs. "

  Ethel grinned. "Lucky lad. "

  "I really like her, Eth. "

  "So do I," Ethel said. "Mildred is solid gold. Are you going to marry her?"

  "Aye, if I survive the war. "

  "You don't mind about the age difference?"

  "She's twenty-three. It's not like she's really old, thirty or something. "

  "And the children?"

  Billy shrugged. "They're nice kids, but even if they weren't I'd put up with them for her sake. "

  "You really do love her. "

  "It's not difficult. "

  "She's started a little business, you must have seen all the hats up there in her room. "

  "Aye. Going well, too, it is, she says. "

  "Very well. She's a hard worker. Is Tommy with you?"

  "He come over on the boat with me, but now he've gone to Aberowen on the train. "

  Lloyd woke up, saw a strange man in the room, and began to cry. Ethel picked him up and quieted him. "Come in the kitchen," she said to Billy. "I'll make us some breakfast. "

  Billy sat and read the paper while she made porridge. After a moment he said: "Bloody hell. "

  "What?"

  "Bloody Fitzherbert's been opening his big mouth, I see. " He glanced at Lloyd, almost as if the baby might be offended at this scornful reference to his father.

  Ethel looked over his shoulder. She read:

  PEACE: A SOLDIER'SPLEA

  "Don't Give Up on Us Now!" Wounded Earl Speaks Out

  A moving speech was made yesterday in the House of Lords against the current proposal of the German Chancellor for peace talks. The speaker was Earl Fitzherbert, a Major in the Welsh Rifles, who is in London recovering from wounds received at the Battle of the Somme.

  Lord Fitzherbert said that to talk peace with the Germans would be a betrayal of all the men who have given their lives in the war. "We believe we are winning and can achieve complete victory provided you don't give up on us now," he said.

  Wearing his uniform, with an eye patch, and leaning on a crutch, the earl made a striking figure in the debating chamber. He was listened to in absolute silence, and cheered when he sat down.

  There was a lot more of the same. Ethel was aghast. It was sentimental claptrap, but it would be effective. Fitz did not normally wear the eye patch-he must have put it on for effect. The speech would prejudice a lot of people against the peace plan.

  She ate breakfast with Billy, then dressed Lloyd and herself and went out. Billy was going to spend the day with Mildred, but he promised to come to the meeting that evening.

  When Ethel arrived at the office of The Soldier's Wife she saw that all the newspapers had reported Fitz's speech. Several made it the subject of a leading article. They took different views, but agreed he had struck a powerful blow.

  "How can anyone be against the mere discussion of peace?" she said to Maud.

  "You can ask him yourself," Maud said. "I invited him to tonight's meeting, and he accepted. "

  Ethel was startled. "He'll get a warm reception!"

  "I certainly hope so. "

  The two women spent the day working on a special edition of the newspaper with the front-page headline SMALL DANGER OF PEACE. Maud liked the irony but Ethel thought it was too subtle. Late in the afternoon Ethel collected Lloyd from the child minder, took him home, fed him, and put him to bed. She left him in the care of Mildred, who did not go to political meetings.

  The Calvary Gospel Hall was filling up when Ethel arrived, and soon there was standing room only. The audience included many soldiers and sailors in uniform. Bernie chaired the meeting. He opened with a speech of his own that managed to be dull even though short-he was no orator. Then he called on the first speaker, a philosopher from Oxford University.

  Ethel knew the arguments for peace better than the philosopher did, and as he spoke she studied the two men on the platform who were wooing her. Fitz was the product of hundreds of years of wealth and culture. As always, he was beautifully dressed, his hair well-cut, his hands white, and his fingernails clean. Bernie came from a tribe of persecuted nomads who survived by being cleverer than those who tormented them. He was wearing his only suit, the heavy dark gray serge. Ethel had never seen him in anything else: when the weather was warm he simply took off the jacket.

  The audience listened
quietly. The Labour movement was divided over peace. Ramsay MacDonald, who had spoken against the war in Parliament on August 3, 1914, had resigned as Labour Party leader when war was declared two days later, and since then the party's M. P. s had supported the war, as did most of their voters. But Labour supporters tended to be the most skeptical of working-class people, and there was a strong minority in favor of peace.

  Fitz began by speaking of Britain's proud traditions. For hundreds of years, he said, Britain had maintained the balance of power in Europe, generally by siding with weaker nations to make sure no one country dominated. "The German chancellor has not said anything about the terms of a peace settlement, but any discussion would have to start from the status quo," he said. "Peace now means that France is humiliated and robbed of territory and Belgium becomes a satellite. Germany would dominate the continent by sheer military force. We cannot allow that to happen. We must fight for victory. "

  When the discussion opened, Bernie said: "Earl Fitzherbert is here in a purely personal capacity, not as an army officer, and he has given me his word of honor that serving soldiers in the audience will not be disciplined for anything they say. Indeed, we would not have invited the earl to attend the meeting on any other basis. "

  Bernie himself asked the first question. As usual, it was a good one. "If France is humiliated and loses territory, then that will destabilize Europe, according to your analysis, Lord Fitzherbert. "

  Fitz nodded.

  "Whereas if Germany is humiliated and loses the territories of Alsace and Lorraine-as she undoubtedly would-then that will stabilize Europe. "

  Fitz was momentarily stumped, Ethel could see. He had not expected to have to deal with such sharp opposition here in the East End. Intellectually he was no match for Bernie. She felt a bit sorry for him.

  "Why the difference?" Bernie finished, and there was a murmur of approval from the peace faction in the audience.

  Fitz recovered rapidly. "The difference," he said, "is that Germany is the aggressor, brutal, militaristic, and cruel, and if we make peace now we will be rewarding that behavior-and encouraging it in the future!"

  That brought a cheer from the other section of the audience, and Fitz's face was saved, but it was a poor argument, Ethel thought, and Maud stood up to say so. "The outbreak of war was not the fault of any single nation!" she said. "It has become the conventional wisdom to blame Germany, and our militaristic newspapers encourage this fairy tale. We remember Germany's invasion of Belgium and talk as if it was completely unprovoked. We have forgotten the mobilization of six million Russian soldiers on Germany's border. We have forgotten the French refusal to declare neutrality. " A few men booed her. You never get cheered for telling people the situation is not as simple as they think, Ethel reflected wryly. "I don't say Germany is innocent!" Maud protested. "I say no country is innocent. I say we are not fighting for the stability of Europe, or for justice for the Belgians, or to punish German militarism. We are fighting because we are too proud to admit we made a mistake!"

  A soldier in uniform stood up to speak, and Ethel saw with pride that it was Billy. "I fought at the Somme," he began, and the audience went quiet. "I want to tell you why we lost so many men there. " Ethel heard their father's strong voice and quiet conviction, and she realized Billy would have made a great preacher. "We were told by our officers"-here he stretched out his arm and pointed an accusing finger at Fitz-"that the assault would be a walk in the park. "

  Ethel saw Fitz shift uncomfortably in his chair on the platform.

  Billy went on: "We were told that our artillery had destroyed the enemy positions, wrecked their trenches and demolished their dugouts, and when we got to the other side we would see nothing but dead Germans. "

  He was not addressing the people on the platform, Ethel observed, but looking all around him, sweeping the audience with an intense gaze, making sure all eyes were on him.

  "Why did they tell us those things?" Billy said, and now he looked straight at Fitz and spoke with deliberate emphasis. "Things that were not true. " There was a mutter of agreement from the audience.

  Ethel saw Fitz's face darken. She knew that for men of Fitz's class an accusation of lying was the worst of all insults. Billy knew it, too.

  Billy said: "The German positions had not been destroyed, as we discovered when we ran into machine-gun fire. "

  The audience reaction became less muted. Someone called out: "Shame!"

  Fitz stood up to speak, but Bernie said: "One moment, please, Lord Fitzherbert, let the present speaker finish. " Fitz sat down, shaking his head vigorously from side to side.

  Billy raised his voice. "Did our officers check, by aerial reconnaissance and by sending out patrols, how much damage the artillery had in fact done to the German lines? If not, why not?"

  Fitz stood up again, furious. Some of the audience cheered, others booed. He began to speak. "You don't understand!" he said.

  But Billy's voice prevailed. "If they knew the truth," he cried, "why did they tell us otherwise?"

  Fitz began to shout, and half the audience were calling out, but Billy's voice could be heard over everything else. "I ask one simple question!" he roared. "Are our officers fools-or liars?"

  {V}

  Ethel received a letter in Fitz's large, confident handwriting on his expensive crested notepaper. He did not mention the meeting in Aldgate, but invited her to the Palace of Westminster on the following day, Tuesday, December 19, to sit in the gallery of the House of Commons and hear Lloyd George's first speech as prime minister. She was excited. She had never thought she would see the inside of Westminster Palace, let alone hear her hero speak.

  "Why do you suppose he's invited you?" said Bernie that evening, asking the key question as usual.

  Ethel did not have a plausible answer. Sheer unadulterated kindness had never been part of Fitz's character. He could be generous when it suited him. Bernie was shrewdly wondering if he wanted something in return.

  Bernie was cerebral rather than intuitive, but he had sensed some connection between Fitz and Ethel, and he had responded by becoming a bit amorous. It was nothing dramatic, for Bernie was not a dramatic man, but he held her hand an instant longer than he should have, stood an inch closer to her than was comfortable, patted her shoulder when speaking to her, and held her elbow as she went down a step. Suddenly insecure, Bernie was instinctively making gestures that said she belonged to him. Unfortunately, she found it hard not to flinch when he did so. Fitz had reminded her cruelly of what she did not feel about Bernie.

  Maud came into the office at half past ten on Tuesday, and they worked side by side all morning. Maud could not write the front page of the next edition until Lloyd George had spoken, but there was a lot else in the paper: jobs, advertisements for child minders, advice on women's and children's health written by Dr. Greenward, recipes, and letters.

  "Fitz is beside himself with rage after that meeting," Maud said.

  "I told you they would give him a hard time. "

  "He doesn't mind that," she said. "But Billy called him a liar. "

  "You're sure it's not just that Billy got the better of the argument?"

  Maud smiled ruefully. "Perhaps. "

  "I just hope he doesn't make Billy suffer for it. "

  "He won't do that," Maud said firmly. "It would be breaking his word. "

  "Good. "

  They had lunch in a cafe in the Mile End Road-"A Good Pull-In for Car Men," according to its signboard, and it was indeed full of lorry drivers. Maud was greeted cheerfully by the counter staff. They had beef and oyster pie, the cheap oysters added to eke out the scarce beef.

  Afterward they took a bus across London to the West End. Ethel looked up at the giant dial of Big Ben and saw that it was half past three. Lloyd George was due to speak at four. He had it in his power to end the war and save millions of lives. Would he do it?

  Lloyd George had always fought for the workingman.
Before the war he had done battle with the House of Lords and the king to bring in old-age pensions. Ethel knew how much that meant to penniless old people. On the first day the pension was paid out she had seen retired miners-once-strong men now bent and trembling-come out of the Aberowen post office openly weeping for joy that they were no longer destitute. That was when Lloyd George had become a working-class hero. The Lords had wanted to spend the money on the Royal Navy.

  I could write his speech today, she thought. I would say: "There are moments in the life of a man, and of a nation, when it is right to say: I have done my utmost, and I can do no more, therefore I will cease my striving, and seek another road. Within the last hour I have ordered a cease-fire along the entire length of the British line in France. Gentlemen, the guns have fallen silent. "

  It could be done. The French would be furious, but they would have to join in the cease-fire, or take the risk that Britain might make a separate peace and leave them to certain defeat. The peace settlement would be hard on France and Belgium, but not as hard as the loss of millions more lives.

  It would be an act of great statesmanship. It would also be the end of Lloyd George's political career: voters would not elect the man who lost the war. But what a way to go out!

  Fitz was waiting in the Central Lobby. Gus Dewar was with him. No doubt he was as eager as everyone else to find out how Lloyd George would respond to the peace initiative.

  They climbed the long staircase to the gallery and took their seats overlooking the debating chamber. Ethel had Fitz on her right and Gus on her left. Below them, the rows of green leather benches on both sides were already full of M. P. s, except for the few places in the front row traditionally reserved for the cabinet.

  "Every M. P. a man," Maud said loudly.

  An usher, wearing full formal court dress complete with velvet knee breeches and white stockings, officiously hissed: "Quiet, please!"

  A backbencher was on his feet, but hardly anyone was listening to him. They were all waiting for the new prime minister. Fitz spoke quietly to Ethel. "Your brother insulted me. "

  "You poor thing," Ethel said sarcastically. "Are your feelings hurt?"

  "Men used to fight duels for less. "

  "Now there's a sensible idea for the twentieth century. "

  He was unmoved by her scorn. "Does he know who is the father of Lloyd?"

  Ethel hesitated, not wanting to tell him but reluctant to lie.

  Her hesitation told him what he wanted to know. "I see," he said. "That would explain his vituperation. "

  "I don't think you need to look for an ulterior motive," she said. "What happened at the Somme is enough to make soldiers angry, don't you think?"

  "He should be court-martialed for insolence. "

  "But you promised not to-"

  "Yes," he said crossly. "Unfortunately, I did. "

  Lloyd George entered the chamber.

  He was a small, slight figure in formal morning dress, the overlong hair a bit unkempt, the bushy mustache now entirely white. He was fifty-three, but there was a spring in his step, and as he sat down and said something to a backbencher, Ethel saw the grin familiar from newspaper photographs.

  He began speaking at ten past four. His voice was a little hoarse, and he said he had a sore throat. He paused, then said: "I appear before the House of Commons today with the most terrible responsibility that can fall on the shoulders of any living man. "

  That was a good start, Ethel thought. At least he was not going to dismiss the German note as an unimportant trick or diversion, in the way the French and Russians had.

  "Any man or set of men who wantonly, or without sufficient cause, prolonged a terrible conflict like this would have on his soul a crime that oceans could not cleanse. "

  That was a biblical touch, Ethel thought, a Baptist-chapel reference to sins being washed away.

  But then, like a preacher, he made the contrary statement. "Any man or set of men who, out of a sense of weariness or despair, abandoned the struggle without the high purpose for which we had entered into it being nearly fulfilled, would have been guilty of the costliest act of poltroonery ever perpetrated by any statesman. "

  Ethel fidgeted anxiously. Which way was he going to jump? She thought of Telegram Day in Aberowen, and saw again the faces of the bereaved. Surely Lloyd George-of all politicians-would not let heartbreak of that nature continue if he could help it? If he did, what was the point of his being in politics at all?

  He quoted Abraham Lincoln. "'We accepted this war for an object, and a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained. ' "

  That was ominous. Ethel wanted to ask him what the object was. Woodrow Wilson had asked that question and as yet had got no reply. No answer was given now. Lloyd George said: "Are we likely to achieve that object by accepting the invitation of the German chancellor? That is the only question we have to put to ourselves. "

  Ethel felt frustrated. How could this question be discussed if no one knew what the object of the war was?

  Lloyd George raised his voice, like a preacher about to speak of hell. "To enter at the invitation of Germany, proclaiming herself victorious, without any knowledge of the proposals she proposes to make, into a conference"-here he paused and looked around the chamber, first to the Liberals behind him and to his right, then across the floor to the Conservatives on the opposition side-"is to put our heads into a noose with the rope end in the hands of Germany!"

  There was a roar of approval from the M. P. s.

  He was rejecting the peace offer.

  Beside Ethel, Gus Dewar buried his face in his hands.

  Ethel said loudly: "What about Alun Pritchard, killed at the Somme?"

  The usher said: "Quiet, there!"

  Ethel stood up. "Sergeant Prophet Jones, dead!" she cried.

  Fitz said: "Be quiet and sit down, for God's sake!"

  Down in the chamber, Lloyd George continued speaking, though one or two M. P. s were looking up at the gallery.

  "Clive Pugh!" she shouted at the top of her voice.

  Two ushers came toward her, one from each side.

  "Spotty Llewellyn!"

  The ushers grabbed her arms and hustled her away.

  "Joey Ponti!" she screamed, and then they dragged her out through the door.

 
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