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Fall of giants, p.38
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       Fall of Giants, p.38

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 38

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT - August to October 1919

  Gus and Rosa returned to Washington at the same time as the president. In August they contrived to get simultaneous leave and went home to Buffalo. The day after they arrived, Gus brought Rosa to meet his parents.

  He was nervous. He desperately wanted his mother to like Rosa. But Mother had an inflated opinion of how attractive her son was to women. She had found fault with every girl he had ever mentioned. No one was good enough, especially socially. If he wanted to marry the daughter of the king of England, she would probably say: "Can't you find a nice well-bred American girl?"

  "The first thing you'll notice about her, Mother, is that she's very pretty," Gus said at breakfast that morning. "Second, you'll see that she has only one eye. After a few minutes, you'll realize that she's very smart. And when you get to know her well, you'll understand that she's the most wonderful young woman in the world. "

  "I'm sure I shall," said his mother with her accustomed breathtaking insincerity. "Who are her parents?"

  Rosa arrived at midafternoon, when Mother was taking her nap and Father was still downtown. Gus showed her around the house and grounds. She said nervously: "You do know that I come from a more modest background?"

  "You'll get used to it soon enough," he said. "Anyway, you and I won't be living in this kind of splendor. But we might buy an elegant small house in Washington. "

  They played tennis. It was an uneven match: Gus with his long arms and legs was too good for her, and her judgment of distance was erratic. But she fought back determinedly, going for every ball, and won a few games. And in a white tennis dress with the fashionable midcalf hemline she looked so sexy that Gus had to make a major effort of will to concentrate on his shots.

  They went in for tea in a glow of perspiration. "Summon up your reserves of tolerance and goodwill," Gus said outside the drawing room. "Mother can be an awful snob. "

  But Mother was on her best behavior. She kissed Rosa on both cheeks and said: "How wonderfully healthy you both look, all flushed with exercise. Miss Hellman, I'm so glad to meet you, and I hope we're going to become friends. "

  "You're very kind," said Rosa. "It would be a privilege to be your friend. "

  Mother was pleased by the compliment. She knew she was a grand dame of Buffalo society, and she felt it was appropriate that young women should show her deference. Rosa had divined that in an instant. Clever girl, Gus thought. And generous, too, given that in her heart she hated all authority.

  "I know Fritz Hellman, your brother," Mother said. Fritz played violin in the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. Mother was on the board. "He has a wonderful talent. "

  "Thank you. We are very proud of him. "

  Mother made small talk, and Rosa let her take the lead. Gus could not help remembering that once before he had brought home a girl he planned to marry: Olga Vyalov. Mother's reaction then had been different: she had been courteous and welcoming, but Gus had known her heart was not in it. Today she seemed genuine.

  He had asked his mother about the Vyalov family yesterday. Lev Peshkov had been sent to Siberia as an army interpreter. Olga did not go to many social events, and seemed taken up with raising their child. Josef had lobbied Gus's father, the senator, for more military aid to the Whites. "He seems to think the Bolsheviks will be bad for the Vyalov family business in Petrograd," Mother had said.

  "That's the best thing I've heard about the Bolsheviks," Gus had replied.

  After tea they went off to change. Gus was disturbed by the thought of Rosa showering in the next room. He had never seen her naked. They had spent passionate hours together in her Paris hotel room, but they had not gone as far as sexual intercourse. "I hate to be old-fashioned," she had said apologetically, "but somehow I feel we should wait. " She was not much of an anarchist really.

  Her parents were coming for dinner. Gus put on a short tuxedo jacket and went downstairs. He mixed a Scotch for his father but did not have one himself. He felt he might need his wits about him.

  Rosa came down in a black dress and looked stunning. Her parents appeared on the dot of six o'clock. Norman Hellman was wearing white tie and tails, not quite right for family dinner, but perhaps he did not own a tuxedo. He was an elf of a man with a charming grin, and Gus saw immediately that Rosa took after him. He drank two martinis rather quickly, the only sign that he might be tense, but then he refused any more alcohol. Rosa's mother, Hilda, was a slender beauty with lovely long-fingered hands. It was hard to imagine her as a housemaid. Gus's father took to her immediately.

  As they sat down to eat, Dr. Hellman said: "What are your career plans, Gus?"

  He was entitled to ask this, as the father of the woman Gus loved, but Gus did not have much of an answer. "I'll work for the president as long as he needs me," he said.

  "He's got a tough job on his hands right now. "

  "That's true. The Senate is making trouble about approving the Versailles peace treaty. " Gus tried not to sound too bitter. "After all Wilson did to persuade the Europeans to set up the League of Nations, I can hardly believe that Americans are turning up their noses at the whole idea. "

  "Senator Lodge is a formidable troublemaker. "

  Gus thought Senator Lodge was an egocentric son of a bitch. "The president decided not to take Lodge with him to Paris, and now Lodge is getting his revenge. "

  Gus's father, who was an old friend of the president as well as a senator, said: "Woodrow made the League of Nations part of the peace treaty, thinking we could not possibly reject the treaty, therefore we would have to accept the league. " He shrugged. "Lodge told him to go to blazes. "

  Dr. Hellman said: "In fairness to Lodge, I think the American people are right to be concerned about article ten. If we join a league that guarantees to protect its members from aggression, we're committing American forces to unknown conflicts in the future. "

  Gus's reply was quick. "If the league is strong, no one will dare to defy it. "

  "I'm not as confident as you about that. "

  Gus did not want to have an argument with Rosa's father, but he felt passionately about the League of Nations. "I don't say there would never be another war," he said in a conciliatory tone. "I do think that wars would be fewer and shorter, and aggressors would gain little reward. "

  "And I believe you may be right. But many voters say: 'Never mind the world-I'm interested only in America. Are we in danger of becoming the world's policeman?' It's a reasonable question. "

  Gus struggled to hide his anger. The league was the greatest hope for peace that had ever been offered to humankind, and it was in danger of being stillborn because of this kind of narrow-minded quibble. He said: "The council of the league has to make unanimous decisions, so the United States would never find itself fighting a war against its will. "

  "Nevertheless, there's no point in having the league unless it is prepared to fight. "

  The enemies of the league were like this: first they complained that it would fight, then they complained it would not. Gus said: "These problems are minor by comparison with the deaths of millions!"

  Dr. Hellman shrugged, too polite to press his point against such a passionate opponent. "In any case," he said, "I believe a foreign treaty requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate. "

  "And right now we don't even have half," said Gus gloomily.

  Rosa, who was reporting on this issue, said: "I count forty in favor, including you, Senator Dewar. Forty-three have reservations, eight are implacably against, and five undecided. "

  Her father said to Gus: "So what will the president do?"

  "He's going to reach out to the people over the heads of the politicians. He's planning a ten-thousand-mile tour of the entire country. He'll make more than fifty speeches in four weeks. "

  "A punishing schedule. He's sixty-two and has high blood pressure. "

  There was a touch of mischief in Dr. Hellman. Everything
he said was challenging. Obviously he felt the need to test the mettle of a suitor for his daughter. Gus replied: "But at the end of it, the president will have explained to the people of America that the world needs the League of Nations to make sure we never fight another war like the one just ended. "

  "I pray you're right. "

  "If political complexities need to be explained to ordinary people, Wilson is the best. "

  Champagne was served with dessert. "Before we begin, I'd like to say something," Gus said. His parents looked startled: he never made speeches. "Dr. and Mrs. Hellman, you know that I love your daughter, who is the most wonderful girl in the world. It's old-fashioned, but I want to ask your permission"-he took from his pocket a small red leather box-"your permission to offer her this engagement ring. " He opened the box. It contained a gold ring with a single one-carat diamond. It was not ostentatious, but the diamond was pure white, the most desirable color, in a round brilliant cut, and it looked fabulous.

  Rosa gasped.

  Dr. Hellman looked at his wife, and they both smiled. "You most certainly have our permission," he said.

  Gus walked around the table and knelt beside Rosa's chair. "Will you marry me, dear Rosa?" he said.

  "Oh, yes, my beloved Gus-tomorrow, if you like!"

  He took the ring from the box and slid it onto her finger. "Thank you," he said.

  His mother began to cry.

  {II}

  Gus was aboard the president's train as it steamed out of Union Station in Washington, D. C. , at seven o'clock in the evening on Wednesday, September 3. Wilson was dressed in a blue blazer, white pants, and a straw boater. His wife, Edith, went with him, as did Cary Travers Grayson, his personal physician. Also aboard were twenty-one newspaper reporters including Rosa Hellman.

  Gus was confident Wilson could win this battle. He had always enjoyed the direct connection with voters. And he had won the war, hadn't he?

  The train traveled overnight to Columbus, Ohio, where the president made his first speech of the tour. From there he went on-making whistle-stop appearances along the way-to Indianapolis, where he spoke to a crowd of twenty thousand people that evening.

  But Gus was disheartened at the end of the first day. Wilson had spoken poorly. His voice was husky. He used notes-he was always better when he managed without them-and, as he got into the technicalities of the treaty that had so absorbed everyone in Paris, he seemed to ramble and lose the audience's attention. He had a bad headache, Gus knew, so bad that sometimes his vision blurred.

  Gus was sick with worry. It was not just that his friend and mentor was ill. There was more at stake. America's future and the world's hung on what happened in the next few weeks. Only Wilson's personal commitment could save the League of Nations from its small-minded opponents.

  After dinner Gus went to Rosa's sleeping compartment. She was the only female reporter on the trip, so she had a room to herself. She was almost as keen on the league as Gus, but she said: "It's hard to find much positive to say about today. " They lay on her bunk, kissing and cuddling, then they said good night and parted. Their wedding was set for October, after the president's trip. Gus would have liked it to be even sooner, but the parents wanted time to prepare, and Gus's mother had muttered darkly about indecent haste, so he had given in.

  Wilson worked on improvements to his speech, tapping on his old Underwood typewriter as the endless open plains of the Midwest sped by the windows. His performances got better over the next few days. Gus suggested he try to make the treaty relevant to each city. Wilson told business leaders in St. Louis that the treaty was needed to build up world trade. In Omaha he said the world without the treaty would be like a community with unsettled land titles, all the farmers sitting on fences with shotguns. Instead of long explanations, he rammed home the main points in short statements.

  Gus also suggested that Wilson appeal to people's emotions. This was not just about policy, he said; it touched on their feelings about their country. At Columbus, Wilson spoke of the boys in khaki. In Sioux Falls, he said he wanted to redeem the sacrifices of mothers who had lost their sons on the battlefield. He rarely descended to scurrility, but in Kansas City, home of the vitriolic Senator Reed, he compared his opponents to the Bolsheviks. And he thundered out the message, again and again, that if the League of Nations failed there would be another war.

  Gus smoothed relations with the reporters on board and the local men wherever the train stopped. When Wilson spoke without a prepared speech, his stenographer would produce an immediate transcript, which Gus distributed. He also persuaded Wilson to come forward to the club car now and again to chat informally with the press.

  It worked. Audiences responded better and better. The press coverage continued mixed, but Wilson's message was repeated constantly even in papers that opposed him. And reports from Washington suggested that opposition was weakening.

  But Gus could see how much the campaign was costing the president. His headaches became almost continuous. He slept badly. He could not digest normal food, and Dr. Grayson fed him liquids. He got a throat infection that developed into something like asthma, and he began to have trouble breathing. He tried to sleep sitting upright.

  All of this was kept from the press, even Rosa. Wilson continued to give speeches, although his voice was weak. Thousands cheered him in Salt Lake City, but he looked drawn, and he clenched his hands repeatedly, in an odd gesture that made Gus think of a dying man.

  Then, on the night of September 25, there was a commotion. Gus heard Edith calling for Dr. Grayson. He put on a dressing gown and went to the president's car.

  What he saw there horrified and saddened him. Wilson looked dreadful. He could hardly breathe and had developed a facial twitch. Even so, he wanted to carry on; but Grayson was adamant that he call off the remainder of the tour, and in the end Wilson gave in.

  Next morning Gus, with a heavy heart, told the press that the president had suffered a severe nervous attack, and the tracks were cleared to speed the 1,700-mile journey back to Washington. All presidential engagements were canceled for two weeks, notably a meeting with pro-treaty senators to plan the fight for confirmation.

  That evening, Gus and Rosa sat in her compartment, disconsolately looking out of the window. People gathered at every station to watch the president go by. The sun went down, but still the crowds stood and stared in the twilight. Gus was reminded of the train from Brest to Paris, and the silent multitude that had stood beside the tracks in the middle of the night. It was less than a year ago, but already their hopes had been dashed. "We did our best," Gus said. "But we failed. "

  "Are you sure?"

  "When the president was campaigning full-time, it was touch and go. With Wilson sick, the chance of the treaty being ratified by the Senate is zero. "

  Rosa took his hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "For you, for me, for the world. " She paused, then said: "What will you do?"

  "I'd like to join a Washington law firm specializing in international law. I've got some relevant experience, after all. "

  "I should think they'll be lining up to offer you a job. And perhaps some future president will want your help. "

  He smiled. Sometimes she had an unrealistically high opinion of him. "And what about you?"

  "I love what I'm doing. I hope I can carry on covering the White House. "

  "Would you like to have children?"

  "Yes!"

  "So would I. " Gus stared meditatively out of the window. "I just hope Wilson is wrong about them. "

  "About our children?" She heard the note of solemnity in his tone, and she asked in a frightened voice: "What do you mean?"

  "He says they will have to fight another world war. "

  "God forbid," Rosa said fervently.

  Outside, night was falling.

 
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