No Naked Ads -> Here!
No Naked Ads -> Here! $urlZ
Fall of giants, p.26
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Fall of Giants, p.26

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
slower 1  faster
Chapter 26

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX - Mid-June 1917

  Ethel had never thought about women's rights until she stood in the library at Tŷ Gwyn, unmarried and pregnant, while the slimy lawyer Solman told her the facts of life. She was to spend her best years struggling to feed and care for Fitz's child, but there was no obligation upon the father to help in any way. The unfairness of it had made her want to murder Solman.

  Her rage had been further inflamed by looking for work in London. A job would be open to her only if no man wanted it, and then she would be offered half a man's wages or less.

  But her angry feminism had set as hard as concrete during years of living alongside the tough, hardworking, dirt-poor women of London's East End. Men often told a fairy tale in which there was a division of labor in families, the man going out to earn money, the woman looking after home and children. Reality was different. Most of the women Ethel knew worked twelve hours a day and looked after home and children as well. Underfed, overworked, living in hovels, and dressed in rags, they could still sing songs and laugh and love their children. In Ethel's view one of those women had more right to vote than any ten men.

  She had been arguing this for so long that she felt quite strange when votes for women became a real possibility in the middle of 1917. As a little girl she had asked: "What will it be like in heaven?" and had never got a satisfactory answer.

  Parliament agreed to a debate in mid-June. "It's the result of two compromises," Ethel said excitedly to Bernie when she read the report in The Times. "The Speaker's Conference, which Asquith called to sidestep the issue, was desperate to avoid a row. "

  Bernie was giving Lloyd his breakfast, feeding him toast dipped in sweet tea. "I assume the government is afraid that women will start chaining themselves to railings again. "

  Ethel nodded. "And if the politicians get caught up in that kind of fuss, people will say they're not concentrating on winning the war. So the committee recommended giving the vote only to women over thirty who are householders or the wives of householders. Which means I'm too young. "

  "That was the first compromise," said Bernie. "And the second?"

  "According to Maud, the cabinet was split. " The War Cabinet consisted of four men plus the prime minister, Lloyd George. "Curzon is against us, obviously. " Earl Curzon, the leader of the House of Lords, was proudly misogynist. He was president of the League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. "So is Milner. But Henderson supports us. " Arthur Henderson was the leader of the Labour Party, whose M. P. s supported the women, even though many Labour Party men did not. "Bonar Law is with us, though lukewarm. "

  "Two in favor, two against, and Lloyd George as usual wanting to keep everyone happy. "

  "The compromise is that there will be a free vote. " That meant the government would not order its supporters to vote one way or the other.

  "So that whatever happens it won't be the government's fault. "

  "No one ever said Lloyd George was ingenuous. "

  "But he's given you a chance. "

  "A chance is all it is. We've got some campaigning work to do. "

  "I think you'll find attitudes have changed," Bernie said optimistically. "The government is desperate to get women into industry to replace all the men sent to France, so they've put out a lot of propaganda about how great women are as bus drivers and munitions workers. That makes it more difficult for people to say that women are inferior. "

  "I hope you're right," Ethel said fervently.

  They had been married four months, and Ethel had no regrets. Bernie was clever, interesting, and kind. They believed in the same things and worked together to achieve them. Bernie would probably be the Labour candidate for Aldgate in the next general election-whenever that might be: like so much else, it had to wait for the end of the war. Bernie would make a good member of Parliament, hardworking and intelligent. However, Ethel did not know whether Labour could win Aldgate. The current M. P. was a Liberal, but much had changed since the last election in 1910. Even if the clause about votes for women did not pass, the other proposals of the Speaker's Conference would give the vote to many more working-class men.

  Bernie was a good man, but to her shame Ethel still occasionally thought longingly of Fitz, who was not clever, nor interesting, nor kind, and whose beliefs were opposite to hers. When she had these thoughts she felt she was no better than the type of man that hankered after girls who danced the can-can. Such men were inflamed by stockings and petticoats and frilly knickers; she was entranced by Fitz's soft hands and clipped accent and the clean, slightly scented smell of him.

  But she was Eth Leckwith now. Everyone spoke of Eth and Bernie the way they said horse-and-cart or bread-and-dripping.

  She put Lloyd's shoes on and took him to the child minder, then walked to the office of The Soldier's Wife. The weather was fine and she felt hopeful. We can change the world, she thought. It's not easy, but it can be done. Maud's newspaper would whip up support for the bill among working-class women, and make sure all eyes were on M. P. s when they voted.

  Maud was at their pokey office already, having come in early, no doubt because of the news. She sat at an old stained table, wearing a lilac summer gown and a hat like a fore-and-aft cap with one dramatically long feather stuck through its peak. Most of her clothes were prewar, but she still dressed elegantly. She looked too thoroughbred for this place, like a racehorse in a farmyard.

  "We must bring out a special edition," she said, scribbling on a pad. "I'm writing the front page. "

  Ethel felt a wave of excitement. This was what she liked: action. She sat on the other side of the table and said: "I'll make sure the other pages are ready. How about a column on how readers can help?"

  "Yes. Come to our meeting, lobby your member of Parliament, write a letter to a newspaper, that sort of thing. "

  "I'll draft something. " She picked up a pencil and took a pad from a drawer.

  Maud said: "We have to mobilize women against this bill. "

  Ethel froze, pencil in hand. "What?" she said. "Did you say against?"

  "Of course. The government is going to pretend to give women the vote-but still withhold it from most of us. "

  Ethel looked across the table and saw the headline Maud had written: VOTE AGAINST THIS TRICK! "Just a minute. " She did not see it as a trick. "This may not be all that we want, but it's better than nothing. "

  Maud looked at her angrily. "It's worse than nothing. This bill only pretends to make women equal. "

  Maud was being too theoretical. Of course it was wrong in principle to discriminate against younger women. But right now that was not important. This was about practical politics. Ethel said: "Look, sometimes reform has to go step by step. The vote has been extended to men very gradually. Even now only about half of men can vote-"

  Maud interrupted her imperiously. "Have you thought about who the left-out women are?"

  It was a fault of Maud's that she could occasionally seem high-handed. Ethel tried not to be offended. Mildly, she said: "Well, I'm one of them. "

  Maud did not soften her tone. "The majority of female munitions workers-such an essential part of the war effort-would be too young to vote. So would most of the nurses who have risked their lives caring for wounded soldiers in France. War widows could not vote, despite the terrible sacrifice they have made, if they happen to live in furnished lodgings. Can't you see that the purpose of this bill is to turn women into a minority?"

  "So you want to campaign against the bill?"

  "Of course!"

  "That's crazy. " Ethel was surprised and upset to find herself disagreeing violently with someone who had been a friend and colleague for so long. "I'm sorry, I just don't see how we can ask members of Parliament to vote against something we've been demanding for decades. "

  "That is not what we're doing!" Maud's anger mounted. "We've been campaigning for equality, and this is not it. If we fall for this ruse we'll be on the sidelin
es for another generation!"

  "It's not a question of falling for a ruse," Ethel said tetchily. "I'm not being fooled. I understand the point you're making-it's not even particularly subtle. But your judgment is wrong. "

  "Is it, indeed?" Maud said stiffly, and Ethel suddenly saw her resemblance to Fitz: brother and sister held opposing opinions with a similar obstinacy.

  Ethel said: "Just think of the propaganda the other side will put out! 'We always knew women couldn't make up their minds,' they'll say. 'That's why they can't vote. ' They will make fun of us, yet again. "

  "Our propaganda must be better than theirs," Maud said airily. "We just have to explain the situation very clearly to everyone. "

  Ethel shook her head. "You're wrong. These things are too emotional. For years we've been campaigning against the rule that women can't vote. That's the barrier. Once it's broken down, people will see further concessions as mere technicalities. It will be relatively easy to get the voting age lowered and other restrictions eased. You must see that. "

  "No, I do not," Maud said icily. She did not like being told that she must see something. "This bill is a step backward. Anyone who supports it is a traitor. "

  Ethel stared at Maud. She felt wounded. She said: "You can't mean that. "

  "Please don't instruct me as to what I can and cannot mean. "

  "We've worked and campaigned together for two years," Ethel said, and tears came to her eyes. "Do you really believe that if I disagree with you I must be disloyal to the cause of women's suffrage?"

  Maud was implacable. "I most certainly do. "

  "Very well," said Ethel; and, not knowing what else she could possibly do, she walked out.

  {II}

  Fitz caused his tailor to make him six new suits. All the old ones hung loosely on his thin frame and made him look old. He put on his new evening clothes: black tailcoat, white waistcoat, and wing collar with white bow tie. He looked in the cheval glass in his dressing room and thought: That's better.

  He went down to the drawing room. He could manage without a cane indoors. Maud poured him a glass of Madeira. Aunt Herm said: "How do you feel?"

  "The doctors say the leg's getting better, but it's slow. " Fitz had returned to the trenches earlier this year, but the cold and damp had proved too much for him, and he was back on the convalescent list, and working in intelligence.

  Maud said: "I know you'd rather be over there, but we're not sorry you missed the spring fighting. "

  Fitz nodded. The Nivelle Offensive had been a failure, and the French general Nivelle had been fired. French soldiers were mutinous, defending their trenches but refusing to advance when ordered. So far this had been another bad year for the Allies.

  But Maud was wrong to think Fitz would rather be on the front line. The work he was doing in Room 40 was probably even more important than the fighting in France. Many people had feared that German submarines would strangle Britain's supply lines. But Room 40 was able to find out where the U-boats were and forewarn ships. This information, combined with the tactic of sending ships in convoys escorted by destroyers, rendered the submarines much less effective. It was a triumph, albeit one that few people knew about.

  The danger now was Russia. The tsar had been deposed, and anything could happen. So far, the moderates had remained in control, but could that last? It was not just Bea's family and Boy's inheritance that were in danger. If extremists took over the Russian government they might make peace, and free hundreds of thousands of German troops to fight in France.

  Fitz said: "At least we haven't lost Russia. "

  "Yet," said Maud. "The Germans are hoping the Bolsheviks will triumph-everyone knows that. "

  As she spoke Princess Bea came in, wearing a low-cut dress in silver silk and a suite of diamond jewelry. Fitz and Bea were going to a dinner party, then a ball: it was the London season. Bea heard Maud's remark and said: "Don't underestimate the Russian royal family. There may yet be a counterrevolution. After all, what have the Russian people gained? The workers are still starving, the soldiers are still dying, and the Germans are still advancing. "

  Grout came in with a bottle of champagne. He opened it inaudibly and poured a glass for Bea. As always, she took one sip and set it down.

  Maud said: "Prince Lvov has announced that women will be able to vote in the election for the Constituent Assembly. "

  "If it ever happens," Fitz said. "The provisional government is making a lot of announcements, but is anyone listening? As far as I can make out, every village has set up a soviet and is running its own affairs. "

  "Imagine it!" said Bea. "Those superstitious, illiterate peasants, pretending to govern!"

  "It's very dangerous," Fitz said angrily. "People have no idea how easily they could slip into anarchy and barbarism. " The subject made him irate.

  Maud said: "How ironic it will be if Russia becomes more democratic than Great Britain. "

  "Parliament is about to debate votes for women," Fitz said.

  "Only for women over thirty who are householders, or the wives of householders. "

  "Still, you must be pleased to have made progress. I read an article about it by your comrade Ethel in one of the journals. " Fitz had been startled, sitting in the drawing room of his club looking at the New Statesman, to find he was reading the words of his former housekeeper. The uncomfortable thought had occurred to him that he might not be capable of writing such a clear and well-argued piece. "Her line is that women should accept this on the grounds that something is better than nothing. "

  "I'm afraid I disagree," Maud said frostily. "I will not wait until I am thirty to be considered a member of the human race. "

  "Have you two quarreled?"

  "We have agreed to go our separate ways. "

  Fitz could see Maud was furious. To cool the atmosphere he turned to Lady Hermia. "If the British Parliament gives the vote to women, Aunt, for whom will you cast your ballot?"

  "I'm not sure I shall vote at all," said Aunt Herm. "Isn't it a bit vulgar?"

  Maud looked annoyed, but Fitz grinned. "If ladies of good family think that way, the only voters will be the working class, and they will put the socialists in," he said.

  "Oh, dear," said Herm. "Perhaps I'd better vote, after all. "

  "Would you support Lloyd George?"

  "A Welsh solicitor? Certainly not. "

  "Perhaps Bonar Law, the Conservative leader. "

  "I expect so. "

  "But he's Canadian. "

  "Oh, my goodness. "

  "This is the problem of having an empire. Riffraff from all over the world think they're part of it. "

  The nurse came in with Boy. He was two and a half years old now, a plump toddler with his mother's thick fair hair. He ran to Bea, and she sat him on her lap. He said: "I had porridge and Nursie dropped the sugar!" and laughed. That had been the big event of the day in the nursery.

  Bea was at her best with the child, Fitz thought. Her face softened and she became affectionate, stroking and kissing him. After a minute he wriggled off her lap and waddled over to Fitz. "How's my little soldier?" said Fitz. "Going to grow up and shoot Germans?"

  "Bang! Bang!" said Boy.

  Fitz saw that his nose was running. "Has he got a cold, Jones?" he asked sharply.

  The nurse looked frightened. She was a young girl from Aberowen, but she had been professionally trained. "No, my lord, I'm sure-it's June!"

  "There's such a thing as a summer cold. "

  "He's been perfectly well all day. It's just a runny nose. "

  "It's certainly that. " Fitz took a linen handkerchief from the inside breast pocket of his evening coat and wiped Boy's nose. "Has he been playing with common children?"

  "No, sir, not at all. "

  "What about in the park?"

  "There's none but children from good families in the parts we visit. I'm most particular. "

  "I hope you are. This chi
ld is heir to the Fitzherbert title, and may be a Russian prince too. " Fitz put Boy down and he ran back to the nurse.

  Grout reappeared with an envelope on a silver tray. "A telegram, my lord," he said. "Addressed to the princess. "

  Fitz made a gesture indicating that Grout should give the cable to Bea. She frowned anxiously-telegrams made everyone nervous in wartime-and ripped it open. She scanned the sheet of paper and gave a cry of distress.

  Fitz jumped up. "What is it?"

  "My brother!"

  "Is he alive?"

  "Yes-wounded. " She began to cry. "They have amputated his arm, but he is recovering. Oh, poor Andrei. "

  Fitz took the cable and read it. The only additional information was that Prince Andrei had been taken home to Bulovnir, his country estate in Tambov province southeast of Moscow. He hoped Andrei really was recovering. Many men died of infected wounds, and amputation did not always halt the spread of the gangrene.

  "My dear, I'm most frightfully sorry," said Fitz. Maud and Herm stood either side of Bea, trying to comfort her. "It says a letter will follow, but God knows how long it will take to get here. "

  "I must know how he is!" Bea sobbed.

  Fitz said: "I will ask the British ambassador to make careful inquiries. " An earl still had privileges, even in this democratic age.

  Maud said: "Let us take you up to your room, Bea. "

  Bea nodded and stood up.

  Fitz said: "I'd better go to Lord Silverman's dinner-Bonar Law is going to be there. " Fitz wanted one day to be a minister in a Conservative government, and he was glad of any opportunity to chat with the party leader. "But I'll skip the ball and come straight home. "

  Bea nodded, and allowed herself to be taken upstairs.

  Grout came in and said: "The car is ready, my lord. "

  During the short drive to Belgrave Square, Fitz brooded over the news. Prince Andrei had never been good at managing the family lands. He would probably use his disability as an excuse to take even less care of business. The estate would decline further. But there was nothing Fitz could do, fifteen hundred miles away in London. He felt frustrated and worried. Anarchy was always just around the corner, and slackness by noblemen such as Andrei was what gave revolutionists their chance.

  When he reached the Silverman residence Bonar Law was already there-and so was Perceval Jones, the member of Parliament for Aberowen and chairman of Celtic Minerals. Jones was a turkey-cock at the best of times, and tonight he was bursting with pride at being in such distinguished company, talking to Lord Silverman with his hands in his pockets, a massive gold watch chain stretched across his wide waistcoat.

  Fitz should not have been so surprised. This was a political dinner, and Jones was rising in the Conservative party: no doubt he, too, hoped to be a minister when and if Bonar Law should become prime minister. All the same, it was a bit like meeting your head groom at the Hunt Ball, and Fitz had an unnerving feeling that Bolshevism might be coming to London, not by revolution but by stealth.

  At the table Jones shocked Fitz by saying he was in favor of votes for women. "For heaven's sake, why?" said Fitz.

  "We have conducted a survey of constituency chairmen and agents," Jones replied, and Fitz saw Bonar Law nodding. "They are two to one in favor of the proposal. "

  "Conservatives are?" Fitz said incredulously.

  "Yes, my lord. "

  "But why?"

  "The bill will give the vote only to women over thirty who are householders or the wives of householders. Most women factory workers are excluded, because they tend to be younger. And all those dreadful female intellectuals are single women who live in other people's homes. "

  Fitz was taken aback. He had always regarded this as an issue of principle. But principle did not matter to jumped-up businessmen such as Jones. Fitz had never thought about electoral consequences. "I still don't see. . . "

  "Most of the new voters will be mature middle-class mothers of families. " Jones tapped the side of his nose in a vulgar gesture. "Lord Fitzherbert, they are the most conservative group of people in the country. This bill will give our party six million new votes. "

  "So you're going to support woman suffrage?"

  "We must! We need those Conservative women. At the next election there will be three million new working-class male voters, a lot of them coming out of the army, most of them not on our side. But our new women will outnumber them. "

  "But the principle, man!" Fitz protested, though he sensed this was a losing battle.

  "Principle?" said Jones. "This is practical politics. " He gave a condescending smile that infuriated Fitz. "But then, if I may say so, you always were an idealist, my lord. "

  "We're all idealists," said Lord Silverman, smoothing over the conflict like a good host. "That's why we're in politics. People without ideals don't bother. But we have to confront the realities of elections and public opinion. "

  Fitz did not want to be labeled an impractical dreamer, so he quickly said: "Of course we do. Still, the question of a woman's place touches the heart of family life, something I should have thought dear to Conservatives. "

  Bonar Law said: "The issue is still open. Members of Parliament have a free vote. They will follow their consciences. "

  Fitz nodded submissively, and Silverman began speaking of the mutinous French army.

  Fitz remained quiet for the rest of the dinner. He found it ominous that this bill had the support of both Ethel Leckwith and Perceval Jones. There was a dangerous possibility that it might pass. He thought Conservatives should defend traditional values, and not be swayed by short-term vote-winning considerations; but he had seen clearly that Bonar Law did not feel the same, and Fitz had not wanted to show himself out of step. The result was that he was ashamed of himself for not being completely honest, a feeling he hated.

  He left Lord Silverman's house immediately after Bonar Law. He returned home and went upstairs immediately. He took off his dress coat, put on a silk dressing gown, and went to Bea's room.

  He found her sitting up in bed with a cup of tea. He could see that she had been crying, but she had put a little powder on her face and dressed in a flowered nightdress and a pink knitted bed jacket with puffed sleeves. He asked her how she was feeling.

  "I am devastated," she said. "Andrei is all that is left of my family. "

  "I know. " Both her parents were dead and she had no other close relatives. "It's worrying-but he will probably pull through. "

  She put down her cup and saucer. "I have been thinking very hard, Fitz. "

  That was an unusual thing for her to say.

  "Please hold my hand," she said.

  He took her left hand in both of his. She looked pretty, and despite the sad topic of conversation, he felt a stirring of desire. He could feel her rings, a diamond engagement ring and a gold wedding band. He had an urge to put her hand in his mouth and bite the fleshy part at the base of the thumb.

  She said: "I want you to take me to Russia. "

  He was so startled that he dropped her hand. "What?"

  "Don't refuse yet-think about it," she said. "You'll say it's dangerous-I know that. All the same there are hundreds of British people in Russia right now: diplomats at the embassy, businessmen, army officers and soldiers at our military missions there, journalists, and others. "

  "What about Boy?"

  "I hate to leave him, but Nurse Jones is excellent, Hermia is devoted to him, and Maud can be relied upon to make sensible decisions in a crisis. "

  "We would need visas. . . "

  "You could have a word in the right ear. My goodness, you've just dined with at least one member of the cabinet. "

  She was right. "The Foreign Office would probably ask me to write a report on the trip-especially as we'll be traveling through the countryside, where our diplomats rarely venture. "

  She took his hand again. "My only living relative is severely wounded and may di
e. I must see him. Please, Fitz. I'm begging you. "

  The truth was that Fitz was not as reluctant as she assumed. His perception of what was dangerous had been altered by the trenches. After all, most people survived an artillery barrage. A trip to Russia, though hazardous, was nothing by comparison. All the same he hesitated. "I understand your desire," he said. "Let me make some inquiries. "

  She took that for consent. "Oh, thank you!" she said.

  "Don't thank me yet. Let me find out how practicable this is. "

  "All right," she said, but he could see that she was already assuming the outcome.

  He stood up. "I must get ready for bed," he said, and went to the door.

  "When you've put on your nightclothes. . . please come back. I want you to hold me. "

  Fitz smiled. "Of course," he said.

  {III}

  On the day Parliament debated votes for women, Ethel organized a rally in a hall near the Palace of Westminster.

  She was now employed by the National Union of Garment Workers, which had been eager to hire such a well-known activist. Her main job was recruiting women members in the sweatshops of the East End, but the union believed in fighting for its members in national politics as well as in the workplace.

  She felt sad about the end of her relationship with Maud. Perhaps there had always been something artificial about a friendship between an earl's sister and his former housekeeper, but Ethel had hoped they could transcend the class divide. However, deep in her heart Maud had believed-without being conscious of it-that she was born to command and Ethel to obey.

  Ethel hoped the vote in Parliament would take place before the end of the rally, so that she could announce the result, but the debate went on late, and the meeting had to break up at ten. Ethel and Bernie went to a pub in Whitehall used by Labour M. P. s and waited for news.

  It was after eleven and the pub was closing when two M. P. s rushed in. One of them spotted Ethel. "We won!" he shouted. "I mean, you won. The women. "

  She could hardly believe it. "They passed the clause?"

  "By a huge majority-three eighty-seven to fifty-seven!"

  "We won!" Ethel kissed Bernie. "We won!"

  "Well done," he said. "Enjoy your victory. You deserve it. "

  They could not have a drink to celebrate. New wartime rules forced pubs to stop serving at set hours. This was supposed to improve the productivity of the working class. Ethel and Bernie went out into Whitehall to catch a bus home.

  Waiting at the bus stop, Ethel was euphoric. "I can't take it in. After all these years-votes for women!"

  A passerby heard her, a tall man in evening dress walking with a cane.

  She recognized Fitz.

  "Don't be so sure," he said. "We'll vote you down in the House of Lords. "

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
Add comment

Add comment