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Fall of giants, p.40
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       Fall of Giants, p.40

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 40

  CHAPTER FORTY - February to December 1920

  The Aldershot Military Detention Barracks was a grim place, Billy thought, but it was better than Siberia. Aldershot was an army town thirty-five miles southwest of London. The prison was a modern building with galleries of cells on three floors around an atrium. It was brightly lit by a glazed roof that gave the place its nickname of "the Glasshouse. " With heat pipes and gas lighting, it was more comfortable than most of the places where Billy had slept during the past four years.

  All the same, he was miserable. The war had been over for more than a year, yet he was still in the army. Most of his friends were out, earning good wages and taking girls to the pictures. He still wore the uniform and saluted, he slept in an army bed, and he ate army food. He worked all day at weaving mats, which was the prison industry. Worst of all, he never saw a woman. Somewhere out there, Mildred was waiting for him-probably. Everyone had a tale to tell of a soldier who had come home to find that his wife or girlfriend had gone off with another man.

  He had no communication with Mildred or anyone else outside. Prisoners-or "soldiers under sentence" as they were officially called-could normally send and receive letters, but Billy was a special case. Because he had been convicted of betraying army secrets in letters, his mail was confiscated by the authorities. This was part of the army's revenge. He no longer had any secrets to betray, of course. What was he going to tell his sister? "The boiled potatoes are always undercooked. "

  Did Mam and Da and Gramper even know about the court-martial? The soldier's next of kin had to be informed, he thought, but he was not sure and no one would answer his questions. Anyway, Tommy Griffiths would almost certainly have told them. He hoped Ethel had explained what he had really been doing.

  He received no visitors. He suspected his family did not even know that he was back from Russia. He would have liked to challenge the ban on his receiving mail, but he had no way of contacting a lawyer-and no money to pay one. His only consolation was a vague feeling that this could not go on indefinitely.

  His news of the outside world came from the papers. Fitz was back in London, making speeches urging more military aid for the Whites in Russia. Billy wondered if that meant the Aberowen Pals had come home.

  Fitz's speeches were doing no good. Ethel's "Hands Off Russia" campaign had won support and been endorsed by the Labour Party. Despite colorful anti-Bolshevik speeches by the minister for war, Winston Churchill, Britain had withdrawn its troops from Arctic Russia. In mid-November the Reds had driven Admiral Kolchak out of Omsk. Everything Billy had said about the Whites, and Ethel had repeated in her campaign, turned out to be correct; everything Fitz and Churchill said was wrong. Yet Billy was in jail and Fitz was in the House of Lords.

  He had little in common with his fellow inmates. They were not political prisoners. Most had committed real crimes, theft and assault and murder. They were hard men, but so was Billy and he was not afraid of them. They treated him with wary deference, apparently feeling that his offense was a cut above theirs. He talked to them amiably enough but none of them had any interest in politics. They saw nothing wrong with the society that had imprisoned them; they were just determined to beat the system next time.

  During the half-hour lunch break he read the newspaper. Most of the others could not read. One day he opened the Daily Herald to see a photograph of a familiar face. After a moment of bewilderment he realized the picture was of him.

  He recalled when it had been taken. Mildred had dragged him to a photographer in Aldgate and had him snapped in his uniform. "Every night I'll touch it to my lips," she had said. He had often thought of that ambiguous promise while he was away from her.

  The headline said: WHY IS SERGEANT WILLIAMS IN JAIL? Billy read on with mounting excitement.

  William Williams of the 8th Battalion the Welsh Rifles (the "Aberowen Pals") is serving ten years in a military prison, convicted of treason. Is this man a traitor? Did he betray his country, desert to the enemy, or run from battle? On the contrary. He fought bravely at the Somme and continued to serve in France for the next two years, winning promotion to sergeant.

  Billy was excited. That's me, he thought, in the papers, and they say I fought bravely!

  Then he was sent to Russia. We are not at war with Russia. The British people do not necessarily approve of the Bolshevik regime, but we do not attack every regime of which we disapprove. The Bolsheviks present no threat to our country or our allies. Parliament has never agreed to military action against the government in Moscow. There is a serious question as to whether our mission there is not a breach of international law.

  Indeed, for some months the British people were not told that their army was fighting in Russia. The government made misleading statements to the effect that troops there were only protecting our property, organising orderly withdrawal, or on standby. The clear implication was that they were not in action against Red forces.

  That this was exposed as a lie is in no small measure thanks to William Williams.

  "Hey," he said to no one in particular. "Look at that. Thanks to William Williams. "

  The men at his table crowded around to look over his shoulder. His cellmate, a brute called Cyril Parks, said: "That's a picture of you! What are you doing in the paper?"

  Billy read the rest of it aloud.

  His crime was to tell the truth, in letters to his sister that were written in a simple code to evade censorship. The British people owe him a debt of gratitude.

  But his action displeased those in the army and in government who were responsible for secretly using British soldiers for their own political ends. Williams was court-martialled and sentenced to ten years.

  He is not unique. A large number of servicemen who objected to being made part of the attempted counterrevolution were subjected to highly dubious trials in Russia and given scandalously long sentences.

  William Williams and others have been victimised by vengeful men in positions of power. This must be put right. Britain is a country of justice. That, after all, is what we fought for.

  "How about that?" said Billy. "They say I've been victimized by powerful men. "

  "So have I," said Cyril Parks, who had raped a fourteen-year-old Belgian girl in a barn.

  Suddenly the newspaper was snatched out of Billy's hands. He looked up to see the stupid face of Andrew Jenkins, one of the more unpleasant warders. "You may have friends in high fucking places, Williams," the man said. "But in here you're just another fucking con, so get back to fucking work. "

  "Right away, Mr. Jenkins," said Billy.

  {II}

  Fitz was outraged, that summer of 1920, when a Russian trade delegation came to London and was welcomed by the prime minister, David Lloyd George, at number 10 Downing Street. The Bolsheviks were still at war with the newly reconstituted country of Poland, and Fitz thought Britain should be siding with the Poles, but he found little support. London dockers went on strike rather than load ships with rifles for the Polish army, and the Trades Union Congress threatened a general strike if the British army intervened.

  Fitz reconciled himself to never taking possession of the late Prince Andrei's estates. His sons, Boy and Andrew, had lost their Russian birthright, and he had to accept that.

  However, he could not keep quiet when he learned what the Russians Kamenev and Krassin were up to as they went around Britain. Room 40 still existed, albeit in a different form, and British intelligence was intercepting and deciphering the telegrams the Russians were sending home. Lev Kamenev, the chairman of the Moscow soviet, was shamelessly putting out revolutionary propaganda.

  Fitz was so incensed that he berated Lloyd George, early in August, at one of the last dinner parties of the London season.

  It was at Lord Silverman's house in Belgrave Square. The dinner was not as lavish as those Silverman had thrown before the war. There were fewer courses, with less food sent untasted back to
the kitchen, and the table decoration was simpler. The food was served by maids instead of footmen: no one wanted to be a footman these days. Fitz guessed those extravagant Edwardian parties were gone for good. However, Silverman was still able to attract the most powerful men in the land to his house.

  Lloyd George asked Fitz about his sister, Maud.

  That was another topic that enraged Fitz. "I'm sorry to say that she has married a German and gone to live in Berlin," he said. He did not say that she had already given birth to her first child, a boy called Eric.

  "I heard that," said Lloyd George. "I just wondered how she was getting on. Delightful young woman. "

  The prime minister's liking for delightful young women was well-known, not to say notorious.

  "I'm afraid life in Germany is hard," said Fitz. Maud had written to him pleading for an allowance, but he had refused point-blank. She had not asked his permission for the marriage, so how could she expect his support?

  "Hard?" said Lloyd George. "So it should be, after what they've done. All the same, I'm sorry for her. "

  "On another subject, Prime Minister," said Fitz, "this fellow Kamenev is a Jew Bolshevik-you ought to deport him. "

  The prime minister was in a mellow mood, with a glass of champagne in his hand. "My dear Fitz," he said amiably, "the government is not very worried about Russian misinformation, which is crude and violent. Please don't underestimate the British working class: they know claptrap when they hear it. Believe me, Kamenev's speeches are doing more to discredit Bolshevism than anything you or I could say. "

  Fitz thought this was complacent rubbish. "He's even given money to the Daily Herald!"

  "It is discourteous, I agree, for a foreign government to subsidize one of our newspapers-but, really, are we frightened of the Daily Herald? It's not as if we Liberals and Conservatives don't have papers of our own. "

  "But he is contacting the most hard-line revolutionary groups in this country-maniacs dedicated to the overthrow of our entire way of life!"

  "The more the British get to know about Bolshevism, the less they will like it, you mark my words. It is formidable only when seen at a distance, through impenetrable mists. Bolshevism is almost a safeguard to British society, for it infects all classes with a horror of what may happen if the present organization of society is overturned. "

  "I just don't like it. "

  "Besides," Lloyd George went on, "if we throw them out we may have to explain how we know what they're up to; and the news that we're spying on them may inflame working-class opinion against us more effectively than all their turgid speeches. "

  Fitz did not like being lectured on political realities, even by the prime minister, but he persisted with his argument because he felt so angry. "But surely we don't have to trade with the Bolsheviks!"

  "If we refused to do business with all those who use their embassies here for propaganda, we wouldn't have many trading partners left. Come, come, Fitz, we trade with cannibals in the Solomon Islands!"

  Fitz was not sure that was true-the cannibals of the Solomon Islands did not have much to offer, after all-but he let it pass. "Are we so badly off that we have to sell to these murderers?"

  "I fear we are. I have talked to a good many businessmen, and they have rather frightened me about the next eighteen months. There are no orders coming in. Customers won't buy. We may be in for the worst period of unemployment that any of us have ever known. But the Russians want to buy-and they pay in gold. "

  "I would not take their gold!"

  "Ah, but Fitz," said Lloyd George, "you have so much of your own. "

  {III}

  There was a party in Wellington Row when Billy took his bride home to Aberowen.

  It was a summer Saturday, and for once there was no rain. At three o'clock in the afternoon Billy and Mildred arrived at the station with Mildred's children, Billy's new stepdaughters, Enid and Lillian, aged eight and seven. By then the miners had come up from the pit, taken their weekly baths, and put on their Sunday suits.

  Billy's parents were waiting at the station. They were older and seemed diminished, no longer dominating those around them. Da shook Billy's hand and said: "I'm proud of you, son. You stood up to them, just like I taught you to. " Billy was glad, although he did not see himself as just another of Da's achievements in life.

  They had met Mildred once before, at Ethel's wedding. Da shook Mildred's hand and Mam kissed her.

  Mildred said: "It's lovely to see you again, Mrs. Williams. Should I call you Mam now?"

  It was the best thing she could have said, and Mam was delighted. Billy felt sure Da would come to love her, provided she could keep from swearing.

  Persistent questions by M. P. s in the House of Commons-fed with information by Ethel-had forced the government to announce reduced sentences for a number of soldiers and sailors court-martialed in Russia for mutiny and other offenses. Billy's prison term had been reduced to a year and he had been released and demobilized. He had married Mildred as quickly as possible after that.

  Aberowen seemed strange to him. The place had not changed much, but his feelings were different. It was small and drab, and the mountains all around seemed like walls to keep the people in. He was no longer sure this was his home. As when he had put on his prewar suit, he found that, even though it still fit, he no longer felt right in it. Nothing that happened here would change the world, he thought.

  They walked up the hill to Wellington Row to find the houses decorated with bunting: the Union Jack, the Welsh dragon, and the red flag. A banner across the street said WELCOME HOME, BILLY TWICE. All the neighbors were out in the street. There were tables with jugs of beer and urns of tea, and plates loaded with pies, cakes, and sandwiches. When they saw Billy they sang "We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides. "

  It made Billy cry.

  He was handed a pint of beer. A crowd of admiring young men gathered around Mildred. To them she was an exotic creature, with her London clothes and her cockney accent and a hat with a huge brim that she had trimmed herself with silk flowers. Even when she was on her best behavior she could not help saying risque things like "I had to get it off my chest, if you'll pardon the expression. "

  Gramper looked older, and could hardly stand up straight, but mentally he was still all right. He took charge of Enid and Lillian, producing sweets out of his waistcoat pockets and showing them how he could make a penny disappear.

  Billy had to talk to all the bereaved families about his dead comrades: Joey Ponti, Prophet Jones, Spotty Llewellyn, and the others. He was reunited with Tommy Griffiths, whom he had last seen in Ufa, Russia. Tommy's father, Len, the atheist, was gaunt with cancer.

  Billy was going to start down the pit again on Monday, and the miners all wanted to explain to him the changes underground since he had left: new roads driven deeper into the workings, more electric lights, better safety precautions.

  Tommy stood on a chair and made a speech of welcome, then Billy had to respond. "The war has changed us all," he said. "I remember when people used to say the rich were put on this earth by God to rule over us lesser people. " That was greeted by scornful laughs. "Many men were cured of that delusion by fighting under the command of upper-class officers who should not have been put in charge of a Sunday school outing. " The other veterans nodded knowingly. "The war was won by men like us, ordinary men, uneducated but not stupid. " They agreed, saying "Aye" and "Hear, hear. "

  "We've got the vote now-and so have our women, though not all of them yet, as my sister, Eth, will tell you quick enough. " There was a little cheer from the women at that. "This is our country, and we must take control of it, just as the Bolsheviks have taken over in Russia and the Social Democrats in Germany. " The men cheered. "We've got a working-class party, the Labour Party, and we've got the numbers to put our party in government. Lloyd George pulled a fast one at the last election, but he won't get away with that again. "

  Someone shouted
: "No!"

  "So here's what I've come home for. Perceval Jones's days as M. P. for Aberowen are almost over. " There was a cheer. "I want to see a Labour man representing us in the House of Commons!" Billy caught his father's eye: Da's face was aglow. "Thank you for your wonderful welcome. " He got down from the chair, and they clapped enthusiastically.

  "Nice speech, Billy," said Tommy Griffiths. "But who's going to be that Labour M. P. ?"

  "I tell you what, Tommy boy," said Billy. "I'll give you three guesses. "

  {IV}

  The philosopher Bertrand Russell visited Russia that year and wrote a short book called The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. In the Leckwith family it almost caused a divorce.

  Russell came out strongly against the Bolsheviks. Worse, he did so from a left-wing perspective. Unlike Conservative critics, he did not argue that the Russian people had no right to depose the tsar, share out the lands of the nobility among the peasants, and run their own factories. On the contrary, he approved of all that. He attacked the Bolsheviks not for having the wrong ideals, but for having the right ideals and failing to live up to them. So his conclusions could not be dismissed out of hand as propaganda.

  Bernie read it first. He had a librarian's horror of marking books, but in this case he made an exception, defacing the pages with angry comments, underlining sentences and writing "Rubbish!" or "Invalid argument!" with a pencil in the margins.

  Ethel read it while nursing the baby, now just over a year old. She was named Mildred, but they always shortened it to Millie. The older Mildred had moved to Aberowen with Billy and was already pregnant with their first child. Ethel missed her, even though she was glad to have the use of the upstairs rooms in the house. Little Millie had curly hair and, already, a flirtatious twinkle in her eye that reminded everyone of Ethel.

  Ethel enjoyed the book. Russell was a witty writer. With aristocratic insouciance, he had asked for an interview with Lenin, and had spent an hour with the great man. They had spoken English. Lenin had said that Lord Northcliffe was his best propagandist: the Daily Mail's horror stories about Russians despoiling the aristocracy might terrify the bourgeoisie but they would have the opposite effect on the British working class, he thought.

  But Russell made it clear that the Bolsheviks were completely undemocratic. The dictatorship of the proletariat was a real dictatorship, he said, but the rulers were middle-class intellectuals such as Lenin and Trotsky, assisted by only such proletarians who agreed with their views. "I think this is very worrying," said Ethel when she put the book down.

  "Bertrand Russell is an aristocrat!" Bernie said angrily. "He's the third earl!"

  "That doesn't make him wrong. " Millie stopped sucking and went to sleep. Ethel stroked her soft cheek with a fingertip. "Russell is a socialist. His complaint is that the Bolsheviks are not implementing socialism. "

  "How can he say such a thing? The nobility has been crushed. "

  "But so has the opposition press. "

  "A temporary necessity-"

  "How temporary? The Russian revolution is three years old!"

  "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. "

  "He says there are arbitrary arrests and executions, and the secret police are more powerful now than they were under the tsar. "

  "But they act against counterrevolutionaries, not against socialists. "

  "Socialism means freedom, even for counterrevolutionaries. "

  "No it doesn't!"

  "It does to me. "

  Their raised voices woke Millie. Sensing the anger in the room, she started to cry.

  "There," said Ethel resentfully. "Now look what you've done. "

  {V}

  When Grigori returned home from the civil war he joined Katerina, Vladimir, and Anna in their comfortable apartment within the government enclave in the old fort of the Kremlin. For his taste, it was too comfortable. The entire country was suffering shortages of food and fuel, but in the shops of the Kremlin there was plenty. The compound had three restaurants with French-trained chefs and, to Grigori's dismay, the waiters clicked their heels to the Bolsheviks as they had to the old nobility. Katerina put the children in the nursery while she visited the hairdresser. In the evening, members of the Central Committee went to the opera in chauffeur-driven cars.

  "I hope we are not becoming the new nobility," he said to Katerina in bed one night.

  She laughed scornfully. "If we are, where are my diamonds?"

  "But, you know, we do have banquets, and travel first-class on the railway, and so on. "

  "The aristocrats never did anything useful. You all work twelve, fifteen, eighteen hours a day. You can't be expected to scavenge on rubbish tips for bits of wood to burn for warmth, as the poor do. "

  "But then, there's always an excuse for the elite to have their special privileges. "

  "Come here," she said. "I'll give you a special privilege. "

  After they had made love, Grigori lay awake. Despite his misgivings, he could not help feeling a secret satisfaction at seeing his family so well-off. Katerina had put on weight. When he first met her she had been a voluptuous twenty-year-old girl; now she was a plump mother of twenty-six. Vladimir was five and learning to read and write in school with the other children of Russia's new rulers; Anna, usually called Anya, was a mischievous curly-headed three-year-old. Their home had formerly belonged to one of the tsaritsa's ladies-in-waiting. It was warm, dry, and spacious, with a second bedroom for the children and a kitchen and living room too-enough accommodation for twenty people in Grigori's old lodgings in Petrograd. There were curtains at the windows, china cups for tea, a rug in front of the fire, and an oil painting of Lake Baikal over the fireplace.

  Grigori eventually fell asleep, to be wakened at six in the morning by a banging on the door. He opened it to a poorly dressed, skeletally thin woman who looked familiar. "I am sorry to bother you so early, Excellency," she said, using the old style of respectful address.

  He recognized her as the wife of Konstantin. "Magda!" he said in astonishment. "You look so different-come in! What's the matter? Are you living in Moscow now?"

  "Yes, we moved here, Excellency. "

  "Don't call me that, for God's sake. Where is Konstantin?"

  "In prison. "

  "What? Why?"

  "As a counterrevolutionary. "

  "Impossible!" said Grigori. "There must have been a terrible mistake. "

  "Yes, sir. "

  "Who arrested him?"

  "The Cheka. "

  "The secret police. Well, they work for us. I'll find out about this. I'll make inquiries immediately after breakfast. "

  "Please, Excellency, I beg you, do something now-they are going to shoot him in one hour. "

  "Hell," said Grigori. "Wait while I get dressed. "

  He put on his uniform. Although it had no badges of rank, it was of a much better quality than that of an ordinary soldier, and marked him clearly as a commander.

  A few minutes later he and Magda left the Kremlin compound. It was snowing. They walked the short distance to Lubyanka Square. The Cheka headquarters was a huge baroque building of yellow brick, formerly the office of an insurance company. The guard at the door saluted Grigori.

  He began shouting as soon as he entered the building. "Who is in charge here? Bring me the duty officer this instant! I am Comrade Grigori Peshkov, member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. I wish to see the prisoner Konstantin Vorotsyntsev immediately. What are you waiting for? Get on with it!" He had discovered that this was the quickest way to get things done, even though it reminded him horribly of the petulant behavior of a spoiled nobleman.

  The guards ran around in panic for a few minutes, then Grigori suffered a shock. The duty officer was brought to the entrance hall. Grigori knew him. It was Mikhail Pinsky.

  Grigori was horrified. Pinsky had been a bully and a brute in the tsarist police: was he now a bully and a brute
for the revolution?

  Pinsky gave an oily smile. "Comrade Peshkov," he said. "What an honor. "

  "You didn't say that when I knocked you down for pestering a poor peasant girl," Grigori said.

  "How things have changed, comrade-for all of us. "

  "Why have you arrested Konstantin Vorotsyntsev?"

  "Counterrevolutionary activities. "

  "That's ridiculous. He was chair of the Bolshevik discussion group at the Putilov works in 1914. He was one of the first deputies to the Petrograd soviet. He's more Bolshevik than I am!"

  "Is that so?" said Pinsky, and there was the hint of a threat in his voice.

  Grigori ignored it. "Bring him to me. "

  "Right away, comrade. "

  A few minutes later Konstantin appeared. He was dirty and unshaven, and he smelled like a pigsty. Magda burst into tears and threw her arms around him.

  "I need to talk to the prisoner privately," Grigori said to Pinsky. "Take us to your office. "

  Pinsky shook his head. "My humble room-"

  "Don't argue," Grigori said. "Your office. " It was a way of emphasizing his power. He needed to keep Pinsky under his thumb.

  Pinsky led them to an upstairs room overlooking the inner courtyard. He hastily swept a knuckle-duster off the desk into a drawer.

  Looking out of the window, Grigori saw that it was daybreak. "Wait outside," he said to Pinsky.

  They sat down and Grigori said to Konstantin: "What the hell is going on?"

  "We came to Moscow when the government moved," Konstantin explained. "I thought I would become a commissar. But it was a mistake. I have no political support here. "

  "So what have you been doing?"

  "I've gone back to ordinary work. I'm at the Tod factory, making engine parts, cogs and pistons and ball races. "

  "But why do the police imagine you're counterrevolutionary?"

  "The factory elects a deputy to the Moscow soviet. One of the engineers announced he would be a Menshevik candidate. He held a meeting, and I went to listen. There were only a dozen people there. I didn't speak, I left halfway through, and I didn't vote for him. The Bolshevik candidate won, of course. But, after the election, everyone who attended that Menshevik meeting was fired. Then, last week, we were all arrested. "

  "We can't do this," Grigori said in despair. "Not even in the name of the revolution. We can't arrest workers for listening to a different point of view. "

  Konstantin looked at him strangely. "Have you been away somewhere?"

  "Of course," said Grigori. "Fighting the counterrevolutionary armies. "

  "Then that's why you don't know what's going on. "

  "You mean this has happened before?"

  "Grishka, it happens every day. "

  "I can't believe it. "

  Magda said: "And last night I received a message-from a friend who is married to a policeman-saying Konstantin and the others were all to be shot at eight o'clock this morning. "

  Grigori looked at his army-issue wristwatch. It was almost eight. "Pinsky!" he shouted.

  The policeman came in.

  "Stop this execution. "

  "I fear it is too late, comrade. "

  "You mean these men have already been shot?"

  "Not quite. " Pinsky went to the window.

  Grigori did the same. Konstantin and Magda stood beside him.

  Down in the snow-covered courtyard, a firing squad had assembled in the clear early light. Opposite the soldiers, a dozen blindfolded men stood shivering in thin indoor clothes. A red flag flew above their heads.

  As Grigori looked, the soldiers raised their rifles.

  Grigori yelled: "Stop at once! Do not shoot!" But his voice was muffled by the window, and no one heard.

  A moment later there was a crash of gunfire.

  The condemned men fell to the ground. Grigori stared, aghast.

  Around the slumped bodies, bloodstains appeared on the snow, bright red to match the flag flying above.

 
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