World War 2 Thriller Collection: Winter, The Eagle Has Flown, South by Java Head
World War 2 Thriller Collection: Winter, The Eagle Has Flown, South by Java Head
World War Two Thriller Collection Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Alistair Maclean
These novels are entirely works of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in them are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Winter first published in Great Britain by Hutchinson Ltd 1987
The Eagle Has Flown first published in Great Britain by Chapmans Publishers Ltd 1991
South by Java Head first published in Great Britain by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd 1958
Winter copyright © Pluriform Publishing Company BV 1987
Introduction copyright © Pluriform Publishing Company BV 2010
Cover designer’s note © Arnold Schwartzman 2010
The Eagle Has Flown © Jack Higgins 1991
South by Java Head © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1958
Winter cover design and photography © Arnold Schwartzman 2009
The Eagle Has Flown cover illustration © Nik Keevil 2013; cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2013
South by Java Head cover illustration © headdesign 2008
E-bundle cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2013
Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Alistair MacLean assert the moral right to be identified as the authors of their works
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks
HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contracual and technological constraints in operatin at the time of publication
Source ISBNs: 9780586068953, 9780007304653, 9780006172482
Ebook Edition © December 2013 ISBN: 9780007563401
Table of Contents
Cover designer’s note
In attempting to come up with a concept for the cover design for Winter, Len Deighton’s saga of a Berlin family set in the first half of the twentieth century, I sought a striking image that would express the outcome of the Winter family’s story. I recalled a photograph in my wife Isolde’s family album of her father as a child dressed in a sailor suit standing beside his father. This image seemed to fit the time and place precisely. By tearing the photograph apart it implied the outcome of their relationship; and in a metaphorical sense it would also suggest what lay ahead for the city, and indeed the entire country. Sometimes the simplest of images are the most effective.
Arnold Schwartzman OBE RDI
Len Deighton Winter
The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899–1945
Cover designer’s note
In attempting to come up with a concept for the…
This is how it started. It was Friday afternoon –…
Winter entered the prison cell unprepared for the change that…
‘A whole new century’
A plot of land on the Obersalzberg
‘The sort of thing they’re told at school’
‘Conqueror of the air – hurrah!’
The end of Valhalla
War with Russia
‘What kind of dopes are they to keep coming that way?’
‘Not so loud, voices carry in the night’
‘The war is won, isn’t it?’
‘Berlin is so far away and I miss you so much’
‘Who are those dreadful men?’
‘You don’t have to be a mathematician’
‘That’s all they ask in return’
‘There is nothing safer than a zeppelin’
A family Christmas
‘Was that more shouting in the street?’
‘We think something is definitely brewing over there’
‘Rinse and spit out’
‘You know what these old cops are like’
‘Being innocent is no defence’
‘Moscow?’ said Pauli
The sound stage
‘It was on the radio’
‘I knew you’d wait’
‘Happy and victorious’
‘We’re all serious’
‘It’s a labour of love’
This is how it started. It was Friday afternoon – exactly 2.20 pm – and the snow was falling. The flakes that hit the car’s windscreen were not the soft, watery sort that slide downwards and fade away like old soldiers. These were solid bullets of ice, perfectly formed and determined to stay put. These were German snowflakes. Our elderly Volvo was on the road heading west from Munich, with the cold waters of the Ammersee close at hand and my sons on the back seat politely starving to death. My wife was at the wheel. ‘The next place we see; we stop,’ I said. ‘It’s getting late. I don’t care if it’s just a currywurst van parked on the roadside.’
The ‘next place’ was the Gasthof Kramerhof. It was a typical Bavarian inn, with a large restaurant that attracted locals and a few well-kept rooms for travellers. It was sited well back from the road and had an extensive parking area, which is often a measure of an inn’s popularity. Now lunchtime had ended and there were no cars there. The loops of tyre tracks that marked their departure were now disappearing under the continuing snowfall. But in such a Gasthof all travellers are welcome and mealtime lasts all day. Soon we were relishing a Bavarian meal: kraftbrühe – clear soup – followed by pork cutlets in a sour cream sauce with spätzle on the same plate. Had I been better informed about German food I might have guessed that the owners were Schwabs, for these were the long square-sided ‘pasta’ that is a delight of Schwabian cooking.
Outside, the snow was conquering the world. The sky was steely grey and descending upon the treetops. Stacked on the Volvo’s oversized roof rack, our bags and boxes now looked like a scale model of the Alps. What else was there to do? We stayed there for the weekend. That’s all it took for the Kramerhof to become our home and we remained there for many months. From the hotel room we moved one floor higher where I set up my portable typewriter in the attic rooms originally furnished for a mother-in-law. It was cramped under the steeply sloping roof and I banged my head a lot but this was the sort of Germany I wanted to write about. All the events of the neighborhood were celebrated there under our noses, from weddings – complete with amateur brass band – to hunting-dinners from which the smell of wine-rich venison drifted upwards to reach us in the early hours of morning.
My wife’s fluent German impressed the lady in the village post office and we soon knew everything about everyone. There was enough social life to furnish a dozen lurid novels. Retired military men abounded. I met a relative of General Gehlen, one of the very few spies who influenced history. The Kramerhof food was wonderful, the customers were entertaining and the owners became friends. They allowed us into the well-ordered kitchen where we learned how to make Schwabian spätzle and much more.
Winter was a biography of the Germany I had come to know over the years. We had lived in Vienna and in an Austrian village near Salzburg, which was now not all that far away, and my sons spoke a strongly accented German. For many Germans, and many historians too, Germany and Austria do not have a separate existence. AJP Taylor, who taught me so much about German history, persuaded me to consider both in unison and for that reason the story of Winter begins in Vienna. One of our neighbours in Riederau village had a son writing for a newspaper in Vienna. At my request, he rummaged through the archives to find out what the weather was like in Vienna on ‘the final evening of the 1800s’. Now I had no excuse for delay.
I knew what I wanted to say; I had been planning it for years. My hesitation had come from the problems of continuity. In the beneficial absence of formal instruction in the skills of writing fiction, I found it natural to write sequences in ‘real time’. In my book conversations and physical actions as depicted were apt to take about the same time as the reader took in reading about them. Of course there were expansions and compressions so that only the highlights of dinner party chit-chat were necessary; split-second reactions were expanded to encompass thought and reactions. But now I was going to relate the events of fifty years; I faced many problems I never even guessed about. Somerset Maugham, a writer I much admired, would often write in the first person of a man who observed the events of which he wrote. Maugham’s voice was apt to bridge his narrative with ‘…it was three years before I was to see either of them again, and it was in very different circumstances’. As a reader I rather delighted in this voyeur writer but I didn’t feel confident enough to use such leaps in time. And the frantic pace of German history would not survive a leisurely survey.
I sought advice from my literary agents Jonathan and Ann Clowes – the most widely read friends I have – and examined several family saga novels, old; and new. There was a lot to learn. More than once I decided to abandon my project but while I was sorting and sifting my research notes the solution became evident. I would eliminate connective material. My chapters would be brief human interactions, like flashes of lightning illuminating long nights of darkness. This format would require careful selection of material so that each chapter provided a vital link in the story. And yet Winter must not be a history book; it had to be an interesting and emotive story of a family living through Europe’s nightmare past.
I returned to Vienna. Vienna is a town different to any other that I know. The small central area is defined by the Ringstrasse around which, according to his son, the amazing Sigmund Freud ‘marched at a terrific speed almost every day’. Vienna is not so much a town as a spectacle: if you don’t want to visit Sankt Marxer Friedhof – where Mozart’s corpse was tossed into a common grave – you can chew on the famous chocolates that bear his name. If you don’t like the music of Mahler, what about Franz Lehar? If Klimt is too opulent, what about Schiele? If you don’t like the Hotel Sacher; savour your Sachertorte in Demels. If you don’t fancy Graham Greene’s sewers; seek Harry Lime on the big wheel in the Prater. Vienna has something for everyone; from the Wiener Werkstätte to the Wienerwald. Within the Ringstrasse there are more churches, historic buildings, restaurants and shops than anyone needs. But the greatest wonders of the city are its magnificent old cafes. So you can see why, for anyone inflicted with nsatiable curiosity, or easily diverted, Vienna is no place to write books.
I chose Munich because that city uniquely links Vienna with Berlin. The inhabitants of these three great German cities view each other with dispassionate superiority. While the mighty Austria-Hungary Empire dominated Europe, Vienna ruled. It was Bismarck, and the Prussian armies that in 1870 marched into Paris, that displaced Vienna and established Berlin’s ascendancy. At the turn of the century, Berlin’s music hall comics got guaranteed laughs from jokes that depicted Bavarians and the Viennese as hopeless country bumpkins. But Hitler changed all that. Hitler was an Austrian and his Nazi Party was born in Munich and when Hitler named that town as the Hauptstadt der Bewegung – ‘capital of the movement’ – all jokes about its citizens were hushed.
I visited all three cities frequently while working on this book but Munich was the place where it all began. My sons attended a local boarding school at Schondorf, and put their Austrian accents on the shelf. With the aid of my wife, I interrogated anyone old enough to provide me with memories of the old days. I was listening to the recollections of a fellow customer in a stationery shop when I spotted a small grey ‘typewriter’ that turned out to be Hewlett Packard’s radical new product. It was the world’s first laptop: a unique, strange and awkward beast by today’s standards – and started writing.
Len Deighton, 2010
Winter entered the prison cell unprepared for the change that the short period of imprisonment had brought to his friend. The prisoner was fifty-two years old and looked at least sixty. His hair had been thinning for years, but suddenly he’d become a bald-headed old man. He was sitting on the iron frame bed, sallow and shrunken. His elbows were resting on his knees and one hand was propped under his unshaven chin. The prison authorities had taken from him his belt, his braces, and his necktie, and the expensive custom-made suit from Berlin’s most famous tailor was now stained and baggy. And yet the dark-underlined eyes were the same, and the pointed cleft chin made him immediately recognizable as a celebrity of the Third Reich, one of Hitler’s most reliable associates.
‘You sent for me, Herr Reichsminister?’
The prisoner looked up. ‘The Reich is kaputt, Germany is kaputt, and I’m not a minister: I’m just a number.’ Winter could think of no way to respond to the bitter old man. He’d become used to seeing him sitting behind the magnificent hand-carved desk in the tapestry-hung room in the ministry, surrounded by aides, secretaries, and assistants. ‘Yes, I sent for you, Winter. Sit down.’
He sat down. So it was all to be formal.
‘I sent for you, Herr Doktor Winter, and I’ll tell you why. They told me you were in prison in London awaiting interrogation. They said that any of us on trial here could choose any German national we wanted for our defence counsel, and that if the one we chose was being held in prison they’d release him to do it. It seemed to me that a man in prison might know what it’s like for me in here.’
Winter wondered if he should offer the ex-Reichsminister a cigarette, but when – still undecided – he produced his precious cigarettes, the military policeman in the corridor shouted through the open door, ‘No smoking, buddy!’
The ex-Reichsminister gave no sign of having heard the prison guard’s voice. He carried on with his explanation. ‘Two, you speak American …speak it fluently. Three, you’re a damned good lawyer, as I know from working with you for many years. Four, and this is the most important, you are an Obersturmbannführer in the SS…’ He saw Winter’s face change and said, ‘Is there something wrong, Winter?’
Winter leaned forward; it was a gesture of confidentiality and commitment. ‘At this very moment, just a few hundred yards from here, there are a hundred or more American lawyers drafting the prosecution’s case for declaring the SS an illegal organization. Such a verdict would mean prison, and perhaps death sentences, for everyone who was ever a member.’
‘Very well,’ said the prisoner testily. He’d always hated what he called ‘unimportant pettifogging details’. ‘But you’re not going to suddenly claim you weren’t a member of the SS, are you?’
For the first time since the message had come that the minister wanted him as junior defence counsel, Winter felt alarmed. He looked round the cell to see if there were microphones. There were bound to be. He remembered this building from the time when he’d been working with the Nuremberg Gestapo. Half the material used in the trial of the disgruntled brownshirts had come from shorthand clerks who had listened to the prisoners over hidden microphones. ‘I can’t answer that,’ said Winter softly.
‘Don’t give me that yes-sir, no-sir, I-don’t-know-sir. I don’t want some woolly-minded, fainthearted, Jew-loving liberal trying to get my case thrown out of court on some obscure technicality. I sent for you because you got me into all this. I remembered your hard work for the party. I remembered the good times we had long before we dreamed of coming to power. I remembered the way your father lent me money back when no one else would even let me into their office. Pull yourself together, Winter. Either put your guts into the effort for my defence or get out of here!’
Winter admired his old friend’s courage. Appearances could be deceptive: he wasn’t the broken-spirited shell that Winter had thought; he was still the same ruthless old bastard that he had worked for. He remembered that first political meeting in the Potsdamer Platz in the 1920s and the speech he’d given: ‘Beneath the ashes fires still rage.’ It had been a recurring theme in his speeches right up until 1945.
‘We’ll fight them,’ said Winter. ‘We’ll grab those judges by the ankles and shake them until their loose change falls to the floor.’
‘That’s right,’ he said. It was another one of his pet expressions. ‘That’s right.’ He almost smiled.
‘Time’s up, buddy!’
Winter looked at his watch. There was another two minutes to go. The Americans were like that. They talked about justice and freedom, democracy and liberty, but they never gave an inch. There was no point in arguing: they were the victors. The whole damned Nuremberg trial was just a show trial, just an opportunity for the Americans and the British and the French and the Russians to make an elaborate pretence of legal rectitude before executing the vanquished. But it was better that the ex-Reichsminister didn’t fully realize the inevitable verdict and sentence. Better to fight them all the way and go down fighting. At least that would keep his spirits alive. With this resolved, Winter felt better, too. It would be a chance to relive the old days, if only in memories.
When Winter got to the door, the old man called out to him, ‘One last thing, Winter.’ Winter turned to face him. ‘I hear stories about some aggressive American colonel on the prosecution staff, a tall, thin one with a beautifully tailored uniform and manicured fingernails …A man who speaks perfect German with a Berlin accent. He seems to hate all Germans and makes no allowances for anything; he treats everyone to a tongue-lashing every time he sends for them. Now they tell me he’s been sent from Washington just to frame the prosecution’s case against me…’ He paused and stared. He was working himself up into the sort of rage that had sent fear into every corner of his ministry and far beyond. ‘Not for Göring, Speer, Hess, or any of the others, just for me. What do you know about that shit-face Schweinehund?’
‘Yes, I know him. It’s my brother.’
One of the Americans lawyers, Bill Callaghan – a white-haired Bostonian who specialized in maritime law – said, after reading through Winter’s file, that the story of the brothers read like fiction. But that was only because Callaghan was unacquainted with any fiction except the evidence that his shipowning clients provided for him to argue in court.
Fiction had unity and style, fiction had a beginning and a proper end, fiction showed evidence of planning and research and usually attempted to impose an orderly pattern upon the chaos of reality.
But the lives of the Winter brothers were not orderly and had no discernible pattern. Their lives had been a response to parental expectations, historical circumstances, and fleeting opportunities. Ambitions remained unfulfilled and prejudices had been disproved. Diversions, digressions, and disappointments had punctuated their lives. In fact, their lives had been fashioned in the same way as had the lives of so many of those born at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Callaghan, in that swift and effortless way that trial lawyers can so often command, gave an instant verdict on the lives of the Winter brothers. ‘One of them is a success story,’ said Callaghan, ‘and the other is a goddamned horror story.’ Actually, neither was a story at all. Like most people, they had lived through a series of episodes, most of which were frustrating and unsatisfactory.
‘A whole new century’
Everyone saw the imperious man standing under the lamppost in Vienna’s Ringstrasse, and yet no one looked directly at him. He was very slim, about thirty years old, pale-faced, with quick, angry eyes and a neatly trimmed black moustache. His eyes were shadowed by the brim of his shiny silk top hat, and the gaslight picked out the diamond pin in his cravat. He wore a long black chesterfield overcoat with a fur collar. It was an especially fine-looking coat, the sort of overcoat that came from the exclusive tailors of Berlin. ‘I can’t wait a moment longer,’ he said. And his German was spoken with the accent of Berlin. No one – except perhaps some of the immigrants from the Sudetenland who now made up such a large proportion of the city’s population – could have mistaken Harald Winter for a native of Vienna.
The crowd that had gathered around the amazing horseless carriage – a Benz Viktoria – now studied the chauffeur who, having inspected its engine, stood up and wiped his hands. ‘It’s the fuel,’ said the chauffeur, ‘dirt in the pipe.’
‘I’ll walk to the club,’ said the man. ‘Stay here with the car. I’ll send someone to help you.’ Without waiting for a reply, the man pushed his way past a couple of onlookers who were in his way and marched off along the boulevard, jabbing at the pavement with his cane and scowling with anger.
Vienna was cold on that final evening of the 1800s; the temperature sank steadily through the day, until by evening it went below freezing point. Harald Winter felt cold but he also felt a fool. He was mortified when one of his automobiles broke down. He enjoyed being the centre of attention when he was being driven past his friends and enemies in their carriages, or simply being pointed out as the owner of one of the first of the new, expensive mechanical vehicles. But when the thing gave trouble like this, he felt humiliated.
In Berlin it was different. In Berlin they knew about these things. In Berlin there was always someone available to attend to its fits and starts, its farts and coughs, its wheezes and relapses. He should never have brought the machine to Vienna. The Austrians knew nothing about such modern machinery. The only horseless carriage he’d seen here was electric-powered – and he hated electric vehicles. He should never have let his wife persuade him to come here for Christmas: he hated Vienna’s rainy winters, hated the political strife that so often ended in riots, hated the food, and hated these lazy, good-for-nothing Viennese with their shrill accent, to say nothing of the wretched, ragged foreigners who were everywhere jabbering away in their incomprehensible languages. None of them could be bothered to learn a word of proper German.
He was chilled by the time he turned through big gates and into an entranceway. Like so many of the buildings in this preposterous town, the club looked like a palace, a heavy Baroque building writhing with nymphs and naiads, its portals supported by a quartet of herculean pillars. The doorman signalled to the door porters so that he was admitted immediately to the brightly lit lobby. It was normally crowded at this time of evening, but tonight it was strangely quiet.
‘Good evening, Herr Baron.’
Winter grunted. That was another thing he hated about Vienna: everyone had to have a title, and if, like Winter, a man had no title, the servants would invent one for him. While one servant took his cane and his silk hat, another slipped his overcoat from his shoulders.
Without hat and overcoat, it was revealed that Harald Winter had not yet changed for dinner. He wore a dark frock coat with light-grey trousers, a high stiff collar and a slim bow-tie. His pale face was wide with a pointed chin, so that he looked rather satanic, an effect emphasized by his shiny black hair and centre parting.
‘Winter! What a coincidence! I’m just off to see your wife now.’ The speaker was Professor Doktor Franz Schneider, fifty years old, the best, or at least the richest and most successful, gynaecologist in Vienna. He was a small, white-faced man, plump in the way that babies are plump, his skin flawless and his eyes bright blue. Nervously he touched his white goatee beard before straightening his pince-nez. ‘You heard, of course…. Your wife: the first signs started an hour ago. I’m going to the hospital now. You’ll come with me? My carriage is here, waiting.’ He spoke hurriedly, his voice pitched higher than normal. He was always a little nervous with Harald Winter; there was no sign now of the much-feared professor who met his students’ questions with dry and savage wit.
Winter’s eyes went briefly to the door from which Professor Schneider had come. The bar. Professor Schneider flushed. Damn this arrogant swine Winter, he thought. He could make a man feel guilty without even saying a word. What business of Winter’s was it that he’d had a mere half-bottle of champagne with his cold pheasant supper? It was Winter’s wife whose pangs of labour had come on New Year’s Eve, and so spoiled his chance of getting to the ball at anything like a decent time.
‘I have a meeting,’ said Winter.
‘A meeting?’ said Professor Schneider. Was it some sort of joke? On New Year’s Eve, what man would be attending a meeting in a club emptied of almost everyone but servants? And how could a man concentrate his mind on business when his wife was about to give birth? He met Winter’s eyes: there was no warmth there, no curiosity, no passion. Winter was said to be one of the shrewdest businessmen in Germany, but what use were his wealth and reputation when his soul was dead? ‘Then I shall go along. I will send a message. Will you be here?’
Winter nodded almost imperceptibly. Only when Professor Schneider had departed did Winter go up the wide staircase to the mezzanine floor. Another member was there. Winter brightened. At last, a face he knew and liked.
‘Foxy! I heard you were in this dreadful town.’
Erwin Fischer’s red hair had long since gone grey – a great helmet of burnished steel – but his nickname remained. He was a short, slight, jovial man with dark eyes and sanguine complexion. His great-grandparents had been Jews from the Baltic city of Riga. His grandfather had changed the family name, and his father had converted to Roman Catholicism long before Erwin was born. Fischer was heir to a steel fortune, but at seventy-five his father was fit and well and – now forty-eight years old – Fuchs Fischer had expectations that remained no more than expectations. Erwin was a widower. He wasn’t kept short of money, but he was easily bored, and money did not always assuage his boredom. His life had lately become a long, tedious round of social duties, big parties, and introductions to ‘suitable marriage partners’ who never proved quite suitable enough.
‘You give Bubi Schneider a bad time, Harald. Is it wise? He has a lot of friends in this town.’
‘He’s a snivelling little parasite. I can’t think why my wife consulted such a man.’
‘He delivers the children of the most powerful men in the city. The wives confide in him, the children are taught to think of him as one of the family. Such a man wields influence.’
Winter smiled. ‘Am I to beware of him?’ he said icily.
‘No, of course not. But he could cause you inconvenience. Is it worth it, when a smile and a handshake are all he really wants from you?’
‘The wretch insisted that Veronica could not travel back to Berlin. My son will be born here. I don’t want an Austrian son. You are a German, Foxy; you understand.’
‘So it’s to be a son. You’ve already decided that, have you?’
Winter smiled. ‘Shall we crack a bottle of Burgundy?’
‘You used to like Vienna, Harald. When you first bought the house here you were telling us all how much better it was than Berlin.’
‘That was a long time ago. I was a different man then.’
‘You’d discovered your wonderful wife in Berlin and Veronica here in Vienna. That’s what you mean, isn’t it.’
‘Don’t go too far, Foxy.’
The older man ignored the caution. He was close enough to Winter to risk such comments, and go even further. ‘Surely you’ve taken into account the possibility that it was Veronica’s idea to have the baby here.’
‘Consider the facts, Harald. Veronica met you here when she was a student at the university. This is where she first learned about love and life and all the things she’d dreamed about when she was a little girl in America. She adores Vienna. No matter that you see it as a second-rate capital for a fifth-rate empire; for Veronica it’s still the home of Strauss waltzes and parties where she meets dukes, duchesses, and princes of royal blood. No matter what you say, Harald, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Berlin cannot match Vienna in the party season. Would you really be surprised to find that she had contrived to have the second child here?’
‘I hope you haven’t…’
‘No, I haven’t spoken with her, of course I haven’t. I’m simply telling you to ease the reins on Bubi Schneider until you’re quite sure it’s all his fault.’
Winter stepped away and leaned over the gilt balcony. Resting his hand upon a cherub, he signalled to a club servant on the floor below. ‘Send a bottle of the best Burgundy up to us. And three glasses.’
They went to a long, mirrored room, the chandeliers blazing from a thousand reflections. A fire was burning at the far end of the room. The open fireplace was a daring innovation for Vienna, a city warmed by stoves, but the committee had copied the room from a gentlemen’s club in London.
Over the fireplace there was a huge painting of the monarch who combined the roles of emperor of Austria and king of Hungary and insisted upon being addressed as ‘His Apostolic Majesty, our most gracious Emperor and Lord, Franz Joseph I.’ The room was otherwise empty. Winter chose a table near the fire and sat down. Fischer stood with his hands in his pockets and stared out the window. Winter followed his gaze. Across the dark street a wooden stand had been erected for a political meeting held that morning. Now no one was there except two uniformed policemen, who stood amongst the torn slogans and broken chairs as if such impedimenta did not exist for them.
‘I’ve never understood women,’ said Winter finally.
‘You’ve always understood women only too well,’ said Fischer, still looking out the window. ‘It’s Americans you don’t understand. It’s because Veronica is an American that your marriage is sometimes difficult.’
‘You told me at the time, Foxy. I should have listened.’
‘No European man in his right senses marries an American girl. You’ve been lucky with Veronica: she doesn’t fuss too much about your other women or try to stop you drinking or going to those parties at Madame Reiner’s mansion. For an American woman she’s very understanding.’ There was a note of humour in Fischer’s voice, and now he turned his head to see how Winter was taking it. Noticing this, Winter permitted himself the ghost of a smile.
A waiter entered and took his time showing Winter the label and then pouring two glasses of wine with fastidious care.
Fischer sipped his wine, still looking down at the street. The plain speaking had divided the two men, so that now they were isolated in their thoughts. ‘The wine steward found you something good, Harald,’ said Fischer appreciatively, pursing his lips and then tasting a little more.
‘I have my own bin,’ said Winter. ‘I no longer drink from the club’s cellar.’
Winter made no reply. He drank the wine in silence. That was the difference between them. Fischer, the rich man’s son, took everything for granted and left everything to chance. Harald Winter, self-made tycoon, trusted no one and left nothing to chance.
‘I was here this morning,’ said Fischer. He motioned down towards the street where the political demonstration had been held. ‘Karl Lueger spoke. After he’d stepped down there was fighting. The police couldn’t handle it; they brought in the cavalry to clear the street.’
‘Lueger is a rogue,’ said Winter quietly and without anger.
‘He’s the mayor.’
‘The Emperor should never have ratified the appointment.’
‘He blocked it over and over again. Finally he had to do as the voters wanted.’
‘Voters? Riffraff. Look at the slogans down there – “Save the small businessman”; “Bring the family back into church”; “Down with Jewish big business” – the Christian Socials just pander to the worst prejudice, fears, and bitter jealousy. “Handsome Karl” is all things to all men. For those who want socialism he’s a socialist; for churchgoers he’s a man of piety; for anyone who wants to hang the Jews, or hound Hungarians back across the border, his party is the one to vote for. What a rascal.’
‘You’re a man of the world; you must realize that hating foreigners is a part of the Austrian psyche. How many votes would you get for telling those people down there that the Jew is brainier than they are, or that these immigrant Czechs and Hungarians are more hard working?’
‘I don’t like it, Foxy. Lueger is becoming as popular as the Emperor. Sometimes I have the feeling that Lueger could become the Emperor. Suppose all this hatred, all this Judenhass, was organized on a national scale. Suppose someone came along who had Lueger’s cunning with the crowd, the Emperor’s sway with the army, and a touch of Bismarck’s instinct for Geopolitik. What then, Foxy? What would you say to that?’
‘I’d say you need a holiday, Harald.’ He tried to make a joke of it, but Winter did not join in his forced laugh. ‘Who is the third glass for, Harald? Am I allowed to know that?’ He knew it wasn’t a woman: no women were ever permitted on the club premises.
‘The mysterious Count Kupka sent a messenger to my home today.’
‘Kupka? Is he a personal friend?’ There was a strained note in Fischer’s normally very relaxed voice.
‘Personal friend? Not at all. I have met him, of course, at parties and even at Madame Reiner’s mansion, but I know nothing about him except that he is said to have the ear of the Emperor and to be some sort of consultant to the Foreign Ministry.’
‘You have a lot to learn about this city, Harald. Count Kupka is the head of the Emperor’s secret police. He is responsible to the Foreign Ministry, and the minister answers only to His Majesty. Kupka’s signature on a piece of paper is all that’s needed to make a man disappear forever.’
‘You make him sound interesting, Foxy. He always seemed such a desiccated and boring little man.’
Fischer looked at his friend. Harald Winter was clearly undaunted by Kupka. It was Winter’s bravery that Fischer had always found attractive. He admired Winter’s audacious, if not to say reckless, business ventures, and his brazen love affairs, and his indifference to the prospect of making enemies like Professor Schneider. Sometimes Fischer was tempted to think that Harald Winter’s courage was the only attractive aspect of this ruthless, selfish man. ‘We’ve known each other a long time, Harald. If you’re in trouble, perhaps I can help.’
‘Trouble? With Kupka? I can’t think how I could be.’
‘It’s New Year’s Eve, Harald. At midnight a whole new century begins: the twentieth century. Everyone we know will be celebrating. There is a State Ball where half the crowned heads of Europe will be seen. Why would Count Kupka have to see you tonight of all nights?’
‘It is something that perhaps you should stay and ask him yourself, Foxy. He is already twenty minutes late.’
Fischer finished his glass of wine in one gulp. ‘I won’t stay. The man gives me the shudders.’ He put the glass on the table alongside the polished one that was waiting for Count Kupka. ‘But let me remind you that tonight the streets will be empty except for some drunken revellers. For someone who was going to bundle a man into a carriage, or throw someone into the Danube, tonight would provide a fine opportunity.’
Winter smiled broadly. ‘How disappointed you will be tomorrow, Foxy, when it is revealed that Count Kupka wanted no more than a chance to ride in my horseless carriage.’
In fact, Kupka didn’t want a ride in Winter’s horseless carriage; or if he did, he made no mention of this desire. Nor was Count Kupka the desiccated and boring little man that Winter remembered. Kupka was a broad-shouldered man with large, awkward hands that did not seem to go with his pale, lined face and delicate eyebrows, that had been plucked so that they didn’t meet across the top of his thin, pointed nose. Kupka’s head was large: like a balloon upon which a child had scrawled his simple, expressionless features. And, like paint upon a balloon, his hair – shiny with Macassar oil – was brushed flat against his head.
Kupka was still wearing his overcoat when he strode into the lounge. His silk hat was tilted slightly to the back of his head. He put his cane down and removed his gloves, holding his cigar between his teeth. Winter didn’t move. Kupka tossed the gloves down. Winter continued to sip his Burgundy, watching Kupka with the amused and indulgent interest that he would give to an entertainer coming onto the stage of a variety theatre. Winter could recall only two other men who smoked large cigars while walking about in hat and overcoat, and both of those were menials in his country house. It amused him that Kupka should behave in such a way.
‘I am greatly indebted to you, Winter. It is most kind of you to consent to seeing me at such short notice.’ Kupka flicked ash from his cigar. ‘Especially tonight of all nights.’
‘I knew it would be something that couldn’t wait,’ said Winter with an edge in his voice that he did nothing to modify.
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Kupka in a voice that suggested that his mind had already passed on to the next thought. ‘Was that Erwin Fischer I passed on the stairs?’
‘He was taking a glass of Burgundy with me. Perhaps you’d do the same, Count Kupka?’
‘There is nothing that would give me greater pleasure, Herr Winter….’ Before Winter could reach for the bottle and pour, Kupka held up his hand so that gold rings, some inset with diamonds, sparkled in the light of the chandeliers. ‘But, alas, I have an evening of work before me.’ Winter poured wine for himself and Kupka said, ‘And I will be as brief as I can.’
‘I would appreciate that,’ said Winter. ‘Won’t you sit down?’
‘Sometimes I need to stand. They say that, at the Opera, Mahler stands up to conduct his orchestra. Stands up! Most extraordinary, and yet I sympathize with the fellow. Sometimes I can think better on my feet. Yes … your wife. I saw Professor Doktor Schneider earlier this evening. Women are such frail creatures, aren’t they? The problem concerning which I must consult you comes about only because of my dear wife’s maternal affection for a distant cousin.’ Kupka paused a moment to study the burning end of his cigar. ‘He is rather a foolish young man. But no more foolish than I was when young, and no more foolish than you were, Winter.’
‘Was I foolish, Count Kupka?’
Kupka looked at him and raised his eyebrows to feign surprise. ‘More than most, Herr Winter. Have you already forgotten those hotheads you mixed with when you were a student? The Silver Eagle Society you called yourselves, as I remember. And you a student of law, too!’
Despite doing everything he could to remain composed, Winter was visibly shaken. When he spoke his voice croaked: ‘That was no more than a childish game.’ He drank some wine to clear his throat.
‘For you perhaps, but not for everyone who joined it. Suppose I told you that the anarchist who killed our Empress last year could also be connected to an organization calling itself the Silver Eagle?’ Kupka glanced up at the portrait of the Emperor and then warmed his hands at the fire.
‘If you told me that, then I would know that you are playing a childish game.’
‘And if I persisted?’ Kupka smiled. There was no perceptible cruelty in his face. He was enjoying this little exchange and seemed to expect Winter to enjoy it also. But for Winter the stakes were too high. No matter how unfounded such accusations might be, it would need only a few well distributed rumours to damage Winter and his family forever.
‘Then I would call you out,’ said Winter with all the self-assurance he could muster.
Kupka laughed. ‘A duel? Save that sort of nonsense for the Officer Corps. I am no more than an Einjährig-Freiwilliger, and one-year volunteers don’t learn how to duel.’ Kupka sat down opposite Winter and carelessly tapped ash into the fireplace. ‘Now that I see the label on that bottle of wine, perhaps I could change my mind about a glass of it.’
Winter poured a glass. The work of the picador was done, the temper and the weaknesses of the bull discovered: now Kupka the matador would enter the ring.
‘About this lad,’ said Kupka after sipping the wine. ‘He borrowed money from your bank.’
‘Hardly my bank,’ said Winter. He’d come prepared. Kupka’s message had mentioned this client of the bank.
‘The one in which some unnamed discreet person holds eighteen thousand nominee shares. The one in which you have an office and a secretary. The one in which the manager refers all transactions above a prescribed amount to you for approval. My wife’s distant cousin borrowed money from that bank.’
‘You want details?’
‘I have all the necessary details, thank you. I simply want to give you the money.’
‘Buy the debt?’ said Winter.
‘Plus an appropriate fee to the bank.’
‘The name was Petzval; he said his family was from Budapest. The manager was doubtful, but he seemed a sensible lad.’
‘Petzval, yes. My wife worries about him.’
‘A distant cousin, you say?’
‘My wife’s family is a labyrinth of distant cousins and so on. A fine wine, Winter. I have not seen it on the wine list,’ said Kupka, and poured himself some more. ‘She worries about the debt.’
‘What does she think I will do to him?’ Winter asked.
‘Not you, my dear friend. My goodness, no. She worries that he will get behind in his payments to you and go to a money-lender. You know what that can lead to. I see so many lives ruined,’ said Kupka without any sign of being downcast. ‘He wants to write a book. His family have nothing. Believe me, Winter, it’s a debt you will be better without.’
‘I will inquire into the facts,’ said Winter.
‘The payment can be made in any way that you wish it – paper money, gold, a certified cheque – and anywhere – New York, London, Paris, or Berlin.’
‘Your concern about this young man touches me,’ said Winter.
‘I am a sentimental fool, Winter, and now you have discovered the truth of it.’ Ash went down Kupka’s overcoat, but he didn’t notice.
A club servant entered the lounge looking for Winter. ‘There is a telephone call for you, Herr Baron.’
‘It will be the hospital,’ explained Winter.
‘I have detained you far too long,’ said Kupka. He stood up to say goodbye. ‘Please give my compliments and sincere apologies to your beautiful wife.’ He didn’t press for an answer; men such as Kupka know that their requests are never refused.
‘Auf Wiedersehen, Count Kupka.’
‘Auf Wiedersehen, my dear Winter.’ He clicked his heels and bowed.
Winter followed the servant downstairs. The club had only recently been connected to the telephone. Even now it was not possible for a caller to speak to the staff at the entrance desk; the facility whereby wives could inquire about their husbands’ presence in the club would not be a welcome innovation. The instrument was enshrined upon a large mahogany table in a room on the first floor. A servant was permanently assigned to answer it.
‘Winter here.’ He wanted to show both the caller and the servant that telephones were not such rarities in Berlin.
‘Winter? Professor Schneider speaking. A false alarm. These things happen. It could be two or three days.’
‘How is my wife?’
‘Fit and well. I have given her a mild sedative, and she will be asleep by now. I suggest you get a good night’s sleep and see her tomorrow morning.’
‘I think I will do that.’
‘Your baby will be born in 1900: a child of the new century.’
‘The new century will not begin until 1901. I would have thought an educated man like you would know that,’ said Winter, and replaced the earpiece on the hook. Already the bells were ringing. Every church in the city was showing the skills of its bellringers to welcome the new year. But in the kitchen a dog was whining loudly: the bells were hurting its ears. Dogs hate bells. So did Harald Winter.
‘What good jokes you make, Liebchen’
Martha Somló was beautiful. This petite, dark-haired, large-eyed daughter of a Jewish tailor was one of twelve children. The family had originally come from a small town in Rumania. Martha grew up in Hungary, but she arrived in Vienna alone, a sixteen-year-old orphan. She was working in a cigar shop when she first met Harald Winter. Within three weeks of that meeting he had installed her in an apartment near the Votivkirche. Now she was eighteen. She had a much grander place to live. She also had a lady’s maid, a hairdresser who came in every day, an account with a court dressmaker, some fine jewellery, and a small dog. But Harald Winter’s visits to Vienna were not frequent enough for her, and when he wasn’t with her she was dispirited and lonely.
Harald Winter’s mistress was no more than a small part of his curious and complex relationship with Vienna. He’d spent a lot of time in finding this wonderful apartment with its view of the Opera House and the Wiener Boulevard. From here she could watch ‘Sirk-Ecke’, a sacred meeting place for Vienna’s high society, who paraded up and down in their finest clothes every day except Sunday.
Once found, the apartment had been transformed into a showplace for Vienna’s newly formed ‘Secession’ art movement. A Klimt frieze went completely round the otherwise shiny black dining room, where the table and chairs were by Josef Hoffmann. The study, from writing desk to notepaper, was completely the work of Koloman Moser. Everywhere in the apartment there were examples of Art Nouveau. Martha Somló felt, with reason, that she was little more than a curator for an art museum. She hated everything about the apartment that Harald Winter had so painstakingly put together, but she was too astute to say so. Winter’s American wife, Veronica, had made no secret of her dislike for modern art, and the end result of that was the apartment in Kärntnerstrasse and Martha. If Martha made her true feelings known, there was little chance that Winter would get rid of his treasures; he’d get rid of her. It would be easier, quicker, and cheaper.
‘I love you, Harry,’ she said suddenly and without premeditation.
‘What was that?’ said Winter. He was in his red silk dressing gown, the one she’d chosen for him for his thirtieth birthday. It had been a wonderful day of shopping, followed by an extravagant party at Sachers. That was six months ago: now they hardly ever went anywhere together. Since his wife had become pregnant with this second child, he’d become more distant, and she worried that he was trying to find some way to tell her he didn’t want her any more. ‘I think I must be getting deaf; my father went deaf when very young.’
She went to him and threw her arms round his neck and kissed him. ‘Harry, you fool. You’re not going deaf; you’re the strongest, fittest man I ever met. I say I love you, Harry. Smile, Harry. Say you love me.’
‘Of course I love you, Martha.’ He kissed her.
‘A proper kiss, Harry. A kiss like the one you gave me when you arrived this afternoon hungering for me.’
‘Dear Martha, you’re a sweet girl.’
‘What’s wrong, Harry? You’re not yourself today. Is it something to do with the bank?’
He shook his head. Things were not too good at the bank, but he never discussed his business troubles with Martha and he never would. Women and business didn’t mix. Winter wasn’t entirely sure about women being admitted to universities. On that account he sometimes felt more at ease with women like Martha than with his own wife. Martha understood him so well.
‘Do you know who Count Kupka is?’
‘My God, Harry. You’re not in trouble with the secret police? Oh, dear God, no.’
‘He wants a favour from me, that’s all.’
She sat down and pulled him so that he sat with her on the sofa. He told her something about the conversation he’d had with Kupka.
‘And you found out what he wanted to know?’ She stroked his face tenderly. Then she looked at the leather document case that Winter had brought with him to the apartment. He rarely carried anything. Many times he’d told her that carrying cases, boxes, parcels, or packages was a task only for servants.
‘It’s not so easy,’ said Winter. She could see he wanted to talk about it. ‘My manager asked for collateral. This fellow owns land on the Obersalzberg. All the paperwork has been done to make the land the property of the bank if he defaults on the loan. I have now changed matters so that the loan has come from my personal account. Luckily the land deed is already made over to a nominee, so I get it in case of a default.’
‘Salzburg, Harry? Austria?’
‘Not Salzburg; the Obersalzberg. It’s a mountain a thousand metres high. It’s not in Austria: it’s just across the border, in Bavaria.’
‘And that’s going to be another problem. I’m not sure it’s possible to turn everything over to Kupka.’
‘He’ll say you’re not cooperating,’ she said. She had heard of Kupka. What Jew in the whole of the empire had not heard of him. She was sick with fear at the mention of his name.
‘Kupka is a lawyer,’ said Winter confidently.
‘That’s like saying Attila the Hun was a cavalry officer,’ she said.
Winter laughed loudly and embraced her. ‘What good jokes you make, Liebchen. I’m tempted to tell Kupka that one.’
‘You mustn’t be frightened, my darling. I am simply a means to an end in this matter.’
‘Just do what he says, Harry.’
‘But not yet, I think. Tonight I’m meeting this mysterious fellow Petzval at the Café Stoessl in Gumpendorfer Strasse. Damn him – I’ll get from him everything that Kupka won’t tell me.’
‘Remember he’s a relative of Kupka’s, and close to his wife.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Winter. ‘That was just a smokescreen to hide the true facts of the matter.’
‘Send someone,’ she suggested.
He smiled and went to the leather case he’d brought with him. From it he brought a small revolver and a soft leather holster with a strap that would fit under his coat.
‘If Kupka has his men there, a pistol won’t save you.’
‘Little worrier,’ he said affectionately and kissed her.
She held him very tight. How desperately she envied his wife; the children would always bind Harry to her in a way that nothing else could. If only Martha could give him a wonderful son.
A plot of land on the Obersalzberg
It was dark by the time that Winter pushed through the revolving door of the Café Stoessl in the Gumpendorfer Strasse and looked around. The café was long and gloomy, lit by gaslights that hissed and popped. There were tables with pink marble tops and bentwood chairs and plants everywhere. He recognized some of the customers but gave no sign of it. They were not people that Winter would acknowledge: the usual crowd of would-be intellectuals, has-been politicians, and self-styled writers.
Petzval was waiting. ‘A small Jew with a black beard,’ the bank manager had told Winter. Well, that was easy. Petzval sat at the very end table facing towards the door. He was a white-faced man in his late twenties, with bushy black hair and a full beard so that his small eyes and pointed nose were all you noticed of his face.
Winter put his hat on a seat and then sat down opposite the man and ordered a coffee, and brandy to go with it. Then he apologized vaguely for being late.
‘I said you’d go back on your word,’ said Petzval.
It wasn’t a good beginning, and Winter was about to deny any such intention, but then he realized that such an opening would leave him little or no room for discussion. ‘Why did you think that?’ asked Winter.
‘Count Kupka, is it?’ Petzval leaned forward and rested an elbow on the table.
Winter hesitated but, after looking at Petzval, decided to admit it. Kupka had claimed Petzval as a relative and had not asked Winter to keep his name out of it. ‘Yes, Count Kupka.’
‘He wants to buy my debt?’
‘Something along those lines.’
Petzval pushed his empty coffee cup aside so that he could lean both arms on the table. His face was close to Winter, closer than Winter welcomed, but he didn’t shrink away. ‘Secret police,’ said Petzval. ‘His spies are everywhere.’
‘Are you related to Kupka?’ said Winter.
‘Related? To Kupka?’ Petzval made a short throaty noise that might have been a laugh. ‘I’m a Jew, Herr Winter. Didn’t you know that when you made the loan to me?’
‘It would have made no difference one way or the other,’ said Winter. The coffee came, and Winter was glad of the chance to sit back away from the man’s glaring eyes. This was a man at the end of his tether, a desperate man. He studied the angry Jew as he sipped his coffee. Petzval was a ridiculous fellow with his frayed shirt and gravy-spattered suit, but Winter found him rather frightening. How could that be, when everyone knew that Winter wasn’t frightened of any living soul?
‘I’m a good risk, am I?’
‘The manager obviously thought so. What do you do, Herr Petzval?’
‘For a living, you mean? I’m a scientist. Ever heard of Ernst Mach?’
He waited. It was not a rhetorical question; he wanted to know whether Winter was intelligent enough to understand.
‘Of course: Professor Mach is a physicist at the university.’
‘Mach is the greatest scientific genius of modern times.’ He paused to let that judgement sink in before adding, ‘A couple of years ago he suffered a stroke, and I’ve been privileged to work for him while pursuing my own special subject.’
‘And what is your subject?’ said Winter, realizing that this inquiry, or something like it, was expected of him.
‘Airflow. Mach did the most important early work in Prague before I was born. He pioneered techniques of photographing bullets in flight. It was Mach who discovered that a bullet exceeding the speed of sound creates two shock waves: a headwave of compressed gas at the front and a tailwave created by a vacuum at the back. My work has merit, but it’s only a continuation of what poor old Professor Mach has abandoned.’
‘Poor old Professor Mach?’
‘He’s too sick. He’ll have to resign from the university; his right side is paralysed. It’s terrible to see him trying to carry on.’
‘And what will you do when he resigns?’ He sipped some of the bitter black coffee flavoured with fig in the Viennese style. Then he tasted the brandy: it was rough but he needed it.
Petzval stared at Winter pityingly. ‘You don’t understand any of it, do you?’
‘I’m not sure I do,’ admitted Winter. He dabbed brandy from his lips with the silk handkerchief he kept in his top pocket, and looked round. There was a noisy group playing cards in the corner, and two or three strange-looking fellows bent over their work. Perhaps they were poets or novelists, but perhaps they were Kupka’s men keeping an eye on things.
‘Don’t you realize the difference between a high-velocity artillery piece and a low-muzzle-velocity gun?’
Winter almost laughed. He’d met evangelists in his time, but this man was the very limit. He talked about the airflow over missiles as other men spoke of the second coming of our Lord. ‘I don’t think I do,’ admitted Winter good-naturedly.
‘Well, Krupp know the difference,’ said Petzval. ‘They have offered me a job at nearly three times the salary that Mach gets from his professorship.’
‘Have they?’ said Winter. He was impressed, and his voice revealed it.
Petzval smiled. ‘Now you’re beginning to see what it’s all about, are you? Krupp are determined to build the finest guns in the world. And they’ll do it.’
Winter nodded soberly and remembered how the Austrian army had been defeated not so long ago by Prussians using better guns. It was natural that the Austrians would want to know what the German armament companies were doing. ‘Count Kupka is interested in your job at Krupp? Is that it?’
‘He wants me to report everything that’s happening in their research department. By taking over the debt he can put pressure on me. That’s why I want the bank to fulfil its obligations.’ Petzval kept his voice to a whisper, but his eyes and his flailing hands demonstrated his passion.
‘It’s not so easy as that.’
‘You have the land on the Obersalzberg. It’s valuable.’
‘Even so, it might be better to do things the way Count Kupka wants them done.’
‘You, a German, tell me that?’
Warning bells rang in Winter’s head. Was Petzval an agent provocateur, sent to test Winter’s attitude towards Austria? It seemed possible. Wouldn’t such military espionage against Krupp be arranged by Colonel Redl, the chief of Austria’s army intelligence? Or was Count Kupka just trying to steal a march on his military rival? ‘It might be best for everyone,’ said Winter.
‘Not best for me,’ said Petzval. ‘I’m not suited to spying. I leave that sort of dirty work to the people who like it. Can you imagine what it would be like to spend every minute of the day and night worrying that you’d be discovered?’
‘You could make sure you’re not discovered,’ said Winter.
‘How could I?’ said Petzval, dismissing the idea immediately. ‘They’d want me to photograph the prototypes and steal blueprints and sketch breech mechanisms and so on.’ He’d obviously thought about it a lot, or was this all part of Count Kupka’s schooling?
‘It would be for your country,’ said Winter, now convinced that it was an attempt to subvert him.
‘Have you ever been in an armaments factory?’ said Petzval. ‘Or, more to the point, have you ever gone out through the gate? At some of those places they search every third worker. Now and again they search everyone. Police raid the homes of employees. I’d be working in the research laboratory and I am a Jew. What chance would I have of remaining undetected?’
Winter glanced round the café. Despite their lowered voices, this fellow’s emotional speeches would soon be attracting attention to them. ‘I’m sorry, Herr Petzval,’ Winter said, ‘but I can’t help you further.’
‘You’ll pass it to him?’ Was it fear or contempt that Winter saw in those dark, deep-set eyes?
‘You read the agreement and signed it. There was nothing to say it couldn’t be passed on to a third party.’
‘A third party? The secret police?’
‘Raise money from another source,’ said Winter. It seemed such a lot of fuss about nothing.
‘I’m deeply in debt, Herr Winter. I beg you to take the land in full payment for the debt.’
‘I couldn’t agree to that. Your prospects…’
‘What prospects do I have if Kupka prevents me from leaving the country?’
‘If Kupka prevents you from leaving Austria…’ For a moment Winter was puzzled. Then he realized what the proposal really was. ‘Do you mean that you came here hoping that I would refuse to do as Kupka demands but not tell him so until you were across the border?’
‘You’re a German.’
‘So you keep reminding me,’ said Winter. He gulped the rest of his brandy. ‘But I have business interests here, and a house. How can you expect me to defy the authorities for a stranger?’
‘For a client,’ said Petzval. ‘I’m not a stranger; I’m a client of the bank.’
‘But you ask too much,’ said Winter. He got up, reached for his hat, and tossed some coins onto the table. It was more than enough to pay for his coffee and the brandy, as well as any coffees and brandies that Petzval might have consumed while waiting for him. ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Petzval.’ As Winter walked down the café he heard some sort of commotion, but he didn’t turn until he heard Petzval shouting.
Petzval was standing and shaking his fist. Then he grabbed the coins and with all his might threw them at Winter. At least two of the coins hit the glass of the revolving doors. Winter flinched. There was a demon in this fellow Petzval. Two waiters grabbed him, but still he struggled to free himself, so that a third waiter had to clamp his arms round Petzval’s neck.
‘Damn you, Winter! And damn your money! I curse you, do you hear me?’
Winter was trembling as he pushed his way through the revolving doors and out into the darkness of Gumpendorfer Strasse. Of course the fellow was quite mad, but his curses were still ringing in Winter’s head as he climbed into his horseless carriage. He couldn’t help thinking it was a bad omen: especially with his second child about to be born at almost any moment.
Winter woke up and wondered where he was for a moment before remembering that he was in his Vienna residence. It seemed so different without his wife. Usually a good night’s sleep was all that Harald Winter needed to recuperate from the stresses and anxieties of his business. But next morning, sitting in his dressing room with a hot towel wrapped across his face, he had still not forgotten his encounter with the violent young man.
Winter removed the hot towel and tossed it onto the marble washstand. ‘Will there be a war, Hauser?’ Winter asked while his valet poured hot water from the big floral-patterned jug and made a lather in the shaving cup.
The valet lathered Winter’s chin. He was an intelligent young man from a village near Rostock. He treasured his job as Winter’s valet; he was the only member of Winter’s domestic household who unfailingly travelled with his master. ‘Between these Austrians and the Serbs, sir? Yes, people say it’s sure to come.’ The razors, combs and scissors were sterilized, polished bright, and laid out precisely on a starched white cloth. Everything was always arranged in this same pattern.
The valet stopped the razor. He was too bright to imagine that his master was consulting him about the likelihood of war. Such predictions were better left to the generals and the politicians, the sort of men whom Winter rubbed shoulders with every day. Hauser was being asked what people said in the streets. The sort of people who lived in the huge tenement blocks near the factories; workers who lived ten to a room, with all of them paying a quarter of their wages to the landlords. Men who worked twelve-and even fourteen-hour days, with only Sunday afternoons for themselves. What were these men saying? What were they saying in Berlin, in Vienna, Budapest and London? Winter always wanted to know such things and Hauser made it his job to have answers. ‘These Austrians like no one, sir. They are jealous of us Germans, hate the Czechs and despise the Hungarians. But the Serbs are the ones they want to fight. Sooner or later everyone says they’ll finish them off. And Serbia is not much; even the Austrians should be able to beat them.’ He spoke of them all with condescension, as a German has always spoken of the Balkan people and the Austrians, who seemed little different.
Winter smiled to himself. Hauser had all the pride – arrogance was perhaps the better word – of the Prussian. That’s why he liked him. Hauser steadied his master’s chin with finger and thumb as he drew the sharpened razor through the lather and left pink, shiny skin. As Hauser wiped the long razor on a cloth draped over his arm, Winter said, ‘The terrorists and the anarchists with their guns and bombs …murdering innocent people here in the streets. They are all from Serbia. Trained and encouraged by the Serbs. Wouldn’t you be angry, Hauser?’
‘But I wouldn’t join the army and march off to war, Herr Winter.’ He lifted Winter’s chin so that he could bring the razor up the throat. ‘There are lots of people I don’t like, but I can see no point in marching off to fight a war about it.’
‘You’re a sensible fellow, Hauser.’
‘Yes, Herr Winter,’ said Hauser, twisting Winter’s head as he continued his task.
‘We are fortunate to live in an age when wars are a thing of the past, Hauser. No need for you to have fears of riding off to war.’
‘I hope not,’ said Hauser, who had no fears about riding off to war: only gentlemen like Herr Winter went off to war on chargers; Hauser’s class marched.
‘Battles, yes,’ said Winter. ‘The Kaiser will have to teach the Chinese a lesson, the English send men into the Sudan or to fight the Boers – but these are just police actions, Hauser. For us Europeans, war is a thing of the past.’
Hauser turned his master’s head a little more and started to trim the sideburns. He cut them a fraction shorter each time. Side whiskers were fast going out of fashion and, like most domestic servants, Hauser was an unrepentant snob about fashions. He always left Winter’s moustache to the end. Trimming the blunt-ended moustache was the most difficult part. He kept another razor solely for that job. ‘So the Austrians won’t fight the Serbs?’ said Hauser as if Winter’s decision would be final.
‘The Balkans are not Europe,’ said Winter, turning to face the wardrobe so that Hauser could trim the other sideburn. ‘Those fellows down in that part of the world are quite mad. They’ll never stop fighting each other. But I’m talking about real Europeans, who have finally learned how to live together, and settle differences by negotiation: Germans, Austrians, Englishmen … even the French have at last reconciled themselves to the fact that Alsace and Lorraine are German. That’s why I say you’ll never ride off to war, Hauser.’
‘No, Herr Winter, I’m sure I won’t.’
There was a light tap at the door. Hauser lifted his razor away in case his master should make a sudden move. ‘Come in,’ said Winter.
It was one of the chambermaids; little more than fourteen years old, she had a Carinthian accent so strong that Winter had her repeat her message three times before he was sure he had it right. It was the senior manager from the Vienna branch of the bank. What could have got into the man, that he should come disturbing Winter at nine-thirty in the morning at his residence? And yet he was usually a sensible and restrained old man. ‘Very urgent,’ said the little chambermaid. Her face was bright red with excitement at such unusual goings-on. She’d seen the master being shaved; that would be something to brag about to the parlourmaid. ‘Very, very urgent.’
‘That’s quite enough, girl,’ said Hauser. ‘Your master understands.’
‘Show him up,’ said Winter.
Hauser coughed. Show him up to see Winter when he was not even shaved? And this was the tricky part: shaving round the master’s moustache. Hauser didn’t want to be doing that with an audience, and there was the chance that Winter would start talking; then anything could happen. Suppose his hand slipped and he made a cut? Then what would happen to his good job?
‘I’m deeply sorry to disturb you, Herr Winter,’ said the senior manager as he was shown into the room. This time the butler was with the visitor, instead of that scatterbrained little chambermaid. Hauser noticed that the butler’s fingers were marked with silver polish. That job should have been completed last night. These damned Austrians, thought Hauser, are all slackers. He wondered if Winter would notice.
‘It’s this business with Petzval,’ said the senior manager. He had big old-fashioned muttonchop whiskers in the style of the Emperor.
Winter nodded and tried not to show any particular concern.
‘I wouldn’t have disturbed you, but the messenger from Count Kupka said you should be told immediately…. I felt I should come myself.’
‘Yes, but what is it?’ said Winter testily.
‘He died by his own hand,’ said the senior manager. ‘The messenger emphasized that there is no question of foul play. He made that point most strongly.’
‘Suicide. Well, I’m damned,’ said Winter. ‘Did he leave a note?’ He held his breath.
‘A note, Herr Direktor?’ said the old man anxiously, wondering if Winter was referring to a promissory note or some other such valuable or negotiable certificate. And then, understanding what Winter meant, he said brightly, ‘Oh, a suicide note. No, Herr Direktor, nothing of that sort.’
Winter tried not to show his relief. ‘You did right,’ he said. He felt sick, and his face was flushed. He knew only too well what could happen when things like this went wrong.
‘Thank you, Herr Direktor. Of course I went immediately to the records to make sure the bank’s funds were not in jeopardy.’
‘And what is the position?’ asked Winter, wiping the last traces of soap from his face while looking in the mirror. He was relieved to notice that he looked as cool and calm as he always contrived when with his employees.
‘It is my understanding, Herr Winter, that, while the death of the debtor irrevocably puts the surety wholly into the possession of the nominated beneficiary, the bank’s obligation ends on the death of the other party.’
‘And how much of the loan has been paid to Petzval so far?’
‘He had a twenty-crown gold piece on signature, Herr Direktor. As is the usual custom at the bank.’
‘So this small tract of land on the Obersalzberg has cost us no more than twenty crowns?’
‘The money was to be paid in ten instalments….’
‘Never mind that,’ said Winter. ‘There was no message from Count Kupka?’
‘He said I was to give you his congratulations, Herr Winter. I imagine that…’
‘The baby,’ supplied Winter, although he knew that Count Kupka did not send congratulations about the birth of babies. Count Kupka obviously knew everything that happened in Vienna. Sometimes perhaps he knew before it happened.
‘My darling!’ said Winter. ‘Forgive me for not being here earlier.’ He kissed her and glanced round the room. He hated hospitals, with their pungent smells of ether and disinfectant. Insisting that his wife go into a hospital instead of having the baby at home was another grudge he had against Professor Schneider. ‘It’s been the most difficult of days for me,’ said Winter.
‘Harry! You poor darling!’ his wife cooed mockingly. She looked lovely when she laughed. Even in hospital, with her long fair hair on her shoulders instead of arranged high upon her head the way her personal maid did it, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her determined jaw and high cheekbones and her tall elegance seemed so American to him that he never got used to the idea that this energetic creature was his wife.
Winter flushed. ‘I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean that. Obviously you’ve had a terrible time, too.’
She smiled at his discomfort. It was not easy to disconcert him. ‘I have not had a terrible time, Harry. I’ve had a son.’
Winter glanced at the baby in the cot. ‘I wanted to be here sooner, but there was a complication at the bank this morning. The senior manager came to talk to me while I was shaving. At home, while I was shaving! One of our clients died…. It was suicide.’
‘Oh, how terrible, Harry. Is it someone I know?’
‘A Jew named Petzval. To tell you the truth, I think the fellow was up to no good. The secret police have been interested in him for some time. He might have been a member of one of these terrorist groups.’
‘How do you come to have dealings with such people, darling?’ She lolled her head back and was glazy-eyed. It was, of course, the after effects of the anaesthetic. The nurse had said she was still weak.
‘It was one of the junior managers who dealt with him. Some of them have no judgement at all.’
‘Suicide. Poor tormented soul,’ said Veronica.
Winter watched her cross herself and then glance at the carved crucifix above her bed. He hoped that she was not about to become a Roman Catholic or some sort of religious fanatic. Winter had quite enough to contend with already without a wife going to Mass at the crack of dawn each day. He dismissed the idea. Veronica was not the type; if Veronica became a convert, she was more likely to be a convert to Freud and his absurd psychology. She’d already been to some of Freud’s lectures and refused to laugh at Winter’s jokes about the man’s ideas. ‘It’s a good thing you’re not running the bank, my dearest Veronica. You’d be giving the cash away to any bare-arsed beggar who arrived with a hard-luck story.’ He moved a basket of flowers from a chair – the room was filled with flowers – and noticed from the card that the employees of the Berlin bank had sent them. He sat down.
‘I want to call him Paul,’ said his wife. ‘Do you hate the name Paul?’
‘No, it’s a fine name. But I thought you’d want to name him after your father.’
‘Peter and Paul, darling. Don’t you see how lovely it will be to have two sons named Peter and Paul?’
‘Have you been saving up this idea ever since our son Peter Harald was born, more than three years ago?’
She smiled and stretched her long legs down in the bedclothes. She’d chosen two names her American parents would find equally acceptable. She wondered if Harry realized that. He probably did; Harry Winter was very sharp when it came to people and their motives.
‘All that time?’ said Winter. He laughed. ‘What a mad Yankee wife I have.’
‘You are pleased, Harry? Say you’re pleased.’
‘Of course I am.’
‘Then go and look at him, Harry. Pick him up and bring him to me.’
Winter looked over his shoulder hoping that the nun would return, but there was no sign of her. She was obviously giving them a chance for privacy. Awkwardly he picked up his newly born son. ‘Hello, Paul,’ he said. ‘I have a present for you, child of the new century.’ He was a pudgy little fellow with a screwed-up face that seemed to scowl. But the baby’s eyes were Veronica’s: smoky-grey eyes that never did reveal her innermost thoughts. Winter put the baby back into the cot.
‘Do you really, Harry? How wonderful you are. What is it, darling? Let me see what it is.’
‘It’s a plot of land,’ said Winter. ‘A small piece of hillside on the Obersalzberg.’
‘A plot of land? Where’s Obersalzberg?’
‘Bavaria, Germany, the very south. It’s the sort of place where a man could build himself a comfortable shooting lodge. A place a man could go when he wants to get away from the world.’
‘A plot of land on the Obersalzberg. Harry! You still surprise me, after all this time we’ve been married.’ Through the haze of the ether that was still making her mind reel, she wondered if that represented some deep-felt desire of her husband. Did he yearn to go somewhere and get away from the world? He already had that beastly girl Martha to go to. What else did he want?
‘What’s wrong?’ said Winter.
‘Nothing, darling. But it’s a strange present to give a newborn baby, isn’t it?’
‘It’s good land: a fine place with a view of the mountains. A place for a man to think his own thoughts and be his own master.’ He looked at the baby. It was happier now and managed a smile.
‘The sort of thing they’re told at school’
‘You have two delightful little boys, Veronica,’ said her father. He watched through the window of the morning room as the solemn ten-year-old Peter pushed his radiantly joyful little blond brother across the lawn on a toy horse. The children were in the private gardens of a big house in London’s Belgravia. It was a glorious summer’s day, and London was at its shining best. An old gardener scythed the bright-green grass to make scallop patterns across the lawn. The scent of newly cut grass hung heavily in the still air and made little Pauli’s eyes red and weepy. Cyrus sniffed contentedly. Their English friends urged them to come to London in ‘the season’, but the Rensselaers preferred to cross the Atlantic at this time of year, when the seas were calmer. ‘No matter what I’m inclined to say about that rascally husband of yours, at least he’s given you two fine boys.’
‘Now, now, Papa,’ said Veronica mildly, ‘let’s not go through all that again.’ She was wearing a long ‘tea gown’ of blue chiffon with net over darker-blue satin. Such afternoon gowns gave her a few hours’ escape from the tight corsets that fashion forced her into for most of the day. It was a lovely, loose, flouncy creation that made her feel young and beautiful and able even to take on her parents. She pulled the trailing hem of it close and admired it.
‘She’s given Harry two fine boys,’ Mrs Rensselaer scoffed. ‘Isn’t it just like a man to put it the wrong way around? Who endured that dreadful hospital in Vienna, when there was a bedroom and our own doctor waiting for her in New York City?’ They were getting at her again, but she was used to it by now. She noticed how much stronger her mother’s high-pitched Yankee twang sounded compared with her father’s softly accented low voice. She noticed all the accents much more now that her life was spent amongst Germans. She wondered if her spoken English had now acquired some sort of German edge to it. Her parents had never mentioned it, and she knew better than to ask them.
‘I couldn’t have come home to have the baby, Mother. You know I couldn’t.’ She suppressed a sigh. For six years they’d nursed this resentment, and still it persisted.
Her father watched the children cross the road hand in hand with their nanny and heard the front door as they came in time to have a wash before tea. He said, ‘I travel across the Atlantic regularly, Veronica, and your mother usually accompanies me. It’s ridiculous for you to go on pretending that you can’t come home for a visit when we come here to London every year without fail.’ He thrust his hands into his pockets. ‘By golly, when I first came to Europe, I sailed on a four-masted barque, now your mother and I sleep in state rooms with running water, and eat dinners that wouldn’t disgrace the Ritz.’
Cyrus G. Rensselaer was a distinguished-looking man in his mid-fifties. He had a shock of black hair combed straight back, pale-blue eyes, and a large moustache. He made no concessions to the warm weather: he wore a black barathea morning suit with a fancy brocaded waistcoat, and a loose tie with a silver pin through the knot. Yet there was a certain unconventional look to him – his hair was longer than was fashionable – so that sometimes, on the steamship coming over, fellow passengers thought he might be a famous musician or a successful painter. This always pleased Cyrus Rensselaer because he often said that he would have become a painter had his father not thrashed him every time he wanted to stop studying engineering.
‘I know, Father. You’ve told me all that in your letters. But Harry is a German; the boys are German. I think of Germany as my home now.’ The difficulty was that her parents spoke no foreign languages, and their one visit to Berlin for the wedding in 1892 seemed to have deterred both of them from ever going to the continent of Europe again.
‘You were able to go to Vienna and have the baby, darling,’ explained her mother. ‘Papa feels that coming back to New York wouldn’t have been all that much more of a strain.’
‘The baby was early, Mother. We were in Vienna and the doctor said I shouldn’t travel.’ She looked at her parents; they were unconvinced. ‘Harry was furious about it. He’d made all the arrangements in Berlin. Poor little Paul – Harry used to call him “the little Austrian dumpling” until I made him stop saying it.’
Her father pulled a gold hunter from his waistcoat pocket and looked at it. ‘Didn’t your Harry say he’d be back for tea?’
‘He’s lunching at the club.’
‘He likes clubs,’ said her father.
‘It’s some mining deal…’ explained Veronica. ‘Someone has discovered a cure for malaria. They think it’s something to do with mosquitoes. Harry says that if it works it will really open up the darkest part of Central Africa.’
‘It’s not a woman, is it?’ whispered her mother.
‘No, it’s not a woman, Mother.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ her mother asked.
‘I’m sure, Mother. Harry’s not so smart about women as he is about money.’
Mr Rensselaer did not like hearing Harald Winter praised, and he certainly didn’t like to hear him praised about his investing and banking skills, at which he considered himself pre-eminent. ‘I’m surprised your Harry isn’t investing in flying machines,’ he said sardonically.
Veronica looked up at him sharply. ‘You underestimate Harry, Papa. You think he’ll invest money into any crazy scheme put up to him. But Harry is clever with money; he would never put it into the hands of people like that.’
‘I’m darned if I ever know what to make of your Harry,’ said her father. ‘He spends money on such toys as this Daimler Mercedes and then takes you down to a cabin on the Obersalzberg and makes you manage with only a couple of local servants. I didn’t pay for your education so that you could wash dishes and sweep the house.’
‘It’s not a cabin, Papa, more like a hunting lodge. The land passed to Harry because of a bad debt. He gave it to Pauli as a christening present. Now he’s built the house there. I love going there. It’s the only time I have Harry all to myself. And we take two maids from the Berlin house, as well as the cook, Harry’s valet and the chauffeur.’
‘It sounds like a lot of work for you, darling,’ said her mother. ‘And walking for five miles! We could hardly believe it when we read your letter. We couldn’t picture you walking so far. Don’t you get lonely?’
Veronica smiled. ‘I have Harry and the children; how could I ever be lonely? And, anyway, we have plenty of neighbours.’
‘What sort of neighbours? Peasants? Woodcutters?’
‘No, Papa. Some fine families have houses there. It’s become very fashionable; musicians and writers …some of them live there all year round.’
‘It sounds like an odd kind of christening present. Harry should have sold it and put the money into some investments for your Pauli.’
‘I want Pauli to have it, Papa. Last year the woodcarver in the village carved a big sign – “Haus Pauli” – that will be fixed over the gate. It’s the most beautiful place in the whole world: meadows, pine trees, and mountains. Behind us there is the Hohe Göll and the Kehlstein mountain. From the window of the breakfast room we can see for miles, right across Berchtesgaden or into Austria.’
‘It’s southernmost Bavaria. I looked on the atlas. That’s too far for us to travel,’ said Rensselaer in a voice that precluded any further discussion.
The Scots nanny brought the boys in promptly at four. Their hands and faces were polished bright pink, and a brown circle of iodine had been painted on Paul’s newly grazed arm. It was always blond Pauli who fell: he was the unlucky one. Or was he careless or clumsy, either way he was always cheery and smiling. Peter was quite different; he was dark, sober, and composed, a thoughtful little boy who’d never been babyish like his young brother. They kissed their mother and Granny and Grandpa dutifully and then, in response to the bellpull, the maids brought high tea, with the best china teacups and silver pots. And there was Cook’s homemade strawberry jam, which went onto the freshly cooked scones together with a spoonful of pale-yellow Cornish cream.
Tea was poured, plates distributed, cakes cut, and sugar spooned out. Throughout the hubbub of the afternoon tea, Rensselaer remained standing by the window; his teacup and saucer and a plate with scones and cream were on the table untouched. He had started his engineering career out west, working in places where a man soon learned how to handle hard liquor, his two fists, and sometimes a gun. The way in which he’d gained admittance to New York’s toughest business circles, and then to its snobby society families, was as much due to Rensselaer’s clumsy honesty, disarming directness, and awkward charm as to his luck and mining skills. But he’d never acquired the social grace that his wife expected of him, and this sort of fancy English tea was a ceremony he didn’t enjoy.
‘Are you keeping up the Latin?’ Rensselaer asked Peter. He was a thin, wiry child, dressed, like his little brother, in cotton knicker-bocker trousers with a sailor-suit top. He had the same dark hair that his grandfather had, and the same pale-blue eyes. There was no other noticeable resemblance, but it was enough to make them recognizably kin.
‘Yes, sir.’ Peter was a graceful little boy, slim and upright, standing face to face with his grandpa and answering in clear and excellent English.
‘Good boy. You must keep up the Latin and the mathematics. Your mother always got top grades in mathematics when she was at school in Springtown. Did she tell you that?’
‘No, sir. She didn’t tell me that.’ There was an awkward relationship between Veronica’s parents and her sons. The Rensselaers were unbending, not understanding that children were no longer treated in the formal and distant way that they had treated their daughter.
‘And what are you going to be when you grow up, young Peter?’ Rensselaer asked him. How he wished the children hadn’t had these very short Prussian haircuts. He was used to children having longer hair. These ‘bullet heads’ were unbecoming for his grandchildren, and he resented Veronica’s allowing it.
‘I’m going to fly in the airship with Count Zeppelin,’ said Peter.
His little brother looked at him with respect bordering on awe, but Mr Rensselaer laughed. ‘Airship! That’s rich!’ he said and laughed again.
Pauli laughed, too, but Peter went red. To help cover his embarrassment, Mary Rensselaer said, ‘Would you like to come and see us in America, Peter? We’d love to have you visit with us.’
‘Next year I go to my new school,’ said Peter.
‘You’re boarding them, Veronica?’ she asked her daughter.
‘No, Mother. It’s a day school. Harry doesn’t like boarding schools except well-supervised military schools. He says there are always bullies. Harry says it makes the English the way they are.’
‘No harm those Germans of yours becoming more like the English,’ said Mr Rensselaer. ‘A little bullying at boarding school might have done that bellicose little Kaiser Wilhelm a power of good.’ He marked this observation with a sound that might have been a chuckle or a snort, then wiped his nose on a very big red cotton handkerchief.
Veronica glanced nervously at the boys, then said, ‘Harry says the Kaiser has done wonders for Germany. He’s brought us closer to Austria, and that’s a good thing.’
‘It’s a good thing for Harry, because of his business interests in Austria, but the Dual Alliance, as they call it, has frightened Russia and France into closer ties, and whatever France does, Britain does too. The Kaiser’s heading himself into a lot of trouble, Veronica. I want you to remember that when you are reading your newspapers.’
‘Harry says all that war talk is just nonsense the newspaper writers invent to sell their papers.’
Mr Rensselaer leaned down to talk to Peter. ‘You remember that your mother is an American, young man. And that makes you half American, too. Never mind about flying in airships with Count Zeppelin; you come to New York City and you’ll see things that will make your eyes pop. America is the only country for a young man like you: farmlands that stretch to the horizon and beyond, and railroads crisscrossing the whole continent. You come to America and discover what it’s like to breathe the air of free men.’ He reached out to put his hand on the child’s shoulder.
Peter pushed his grandfather’s hand away and turned on him. ‘I don’t want to go with you. I hate you. You’re a bad man to say nasty things about His Majesty. He’s my Emperor. Germany has to be strong, to fight the French and the English and the Russians. Then the world will respect the Kaiser. I’ll never go to America – never, never.’
The smile froze on Pauli’s face. For a moment the four grownups were too embarrassed to react. They watched this ten-year-old’s outburst without knowing what to do about it. Cyrus Rensselaer felt a sudden sense of isolation. He’d spent a lot of time looking forward to this meeting with his daughter and his grandsons. They were his only heirs. But instead of the two amiable, tousled, freckle-faced kids he was expecting to see, he was suddenly faced with two militant Teutons. Rensselaer was shocked and speechless. No one moved until six-year-old Paul – sensing that something awful had happened – let out a howl and began to cry more loudly than he’d ever cried before. Then the nanny grabbed the hand of little Paul and tried to grasp Peter’s hand, too, but he ran from the room and slammed the door behind him with all his might.
Veronica said, ‘Take them both up to their room, Nanny. You can tell Peter that his father will hear about this when he gets home.’
‘Yes, madam,’ said the nurse. ‘I really don’t know…It’s not like Peter….’
‘That will be all, Nanny,’ said Grandpa Rensselaer. When the children and nanny had gone, he went to the sidetable and poured himself a whiskey. He downed it in one gulp.
‘It’s the journey …and the excitement,’ said Veronica when her father turned back to face her. ‘Peter is usually the quiet one. Peter is polite and thoughtful. It’s Pauli who gets over excited.’ She spoiled the little one, and she knew it. Did this sudden outburst mean that Peter felt neglected and was demonstrating his discontent?
‘It’s that husband of yours,’ said Rensselaer. ‘You can see what sort of ideas he puts into the children’s heads …Count Zeppelin … airships, and all this nonsense about Kaiser Wilhelm, “my Emperor”. It’s time I had a word with your Harald.’
‘Please don’t, Father. It’s none of Harald’s doing. He spends little enough time with the children.’ She smoothed her satin dress nervously.
‘Someone’s been filling the boy’s head with mischievous twaddle,’ said Rensselaer.
‘It’s the school, Father. It’s the sort of thing they’re told at school.’
Cyrus Rensselaer’s influence and popularity were evident that evening. His twenty-two dinner guests provided a cross section of Britain at the height of its power. On Mary Rensselaer’s right sat an Indian prince, a delicate old man with an Eton accent so pronounced that sometimes even the other English guests had trouble understanding him. Facing her there was a weatherbeaten infantry colonel who’d soldiered through the empire. In Transvaal he’d won his Queen’s newly founded Victoria Cross, and in Afghanistan he’d left an arm.
Dominating the table with his anecdotes there was a plain-speaking Yorkshireman, sole owner of a steel works from which had come enough metal to build a complete Royal Naval Battle Squadron. And listening with delight there was a Peer of the Realm: a handsome, bearded youth who’d inherited half a million acres of northern England. He was rich on coal from a couple of mines he’d never seen, and on rents from a dozen villages that he couldn’t, when asked, name.
The women were as formidable as the men, and just as surprising. The Indian princess could speak a dozen languages, and her German was faultless. The wife of the steelmaster had been painted by Degas, and the bank official’s wife had been a lady-in-waiting to the late Queen. A buxom woman with a glittering diamond collar had run a hospital in the Sudan before marrying a man who owned several thousand miles of Latin American railways.
The dining room was designed to complement such eminent company: fine paintings, carpets, linen, crystal and silver. And the food and wines were memorable.
Harald Winter was overwhelmed. Even his Berlin-tailored evening dress felt wrong, especially when he found all the other men wearing white waistcoats instead of the black ones that were still fashionable in Berlin. In Berlin he was treated as a wealthy and influential – not to say powerful – man. But he felt diffident in the presence of these people. They were relaxed and courteous, but Winter was not such a fool that he didn’t see their arrogant self-confidence. Though they complimented him on his excellent English, he knew the way they ridiculed any sort of foreign accent. Their exaggerated politeness and modest disclaimers were the veneer that overlaid their rough contempt for foreigners such as Winter, and for his banking house, of which they all told him they’d never heard.
‘I’m completely out of touch nowadays,’ one of the guests – a financial expert – told him apologetically. ‘The only bankers I remember are the really big ones…. Getting old, you see.’ He tapped his head and turned away to speak with someone else. Winter felt humiliated.
Rensselaer was just as bad. He’d spent most of the meal talking to the Indian princess. Winter wondered if his father-in-law guessed that he urgently wanted to put a financial proposition to him. He’d been trying to have a private word with his host since arriving back from a disappointing business lunch. Was he avoiding him? Surely not. Rensselaer was as keen on a profit-able deal as any other man in the financial world. It was just as well they were house guests. Perhaps he could have a word with Rensselaer after these dinner guests had gone.
‘You look pensive, darling,’ Veronica told her husband when the men joined the ladies in the drawing room. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Everything is fine,’ said Winter. It was no good telling his wife how much he disliked these people. Veronica and her family were the same as the rest of them, so he simply told her she was looking wonderful in her long pale-green silk dress. She’d never perceive the way in which these rich and powerful guests of her father’s despised the little German banker and the nation from which he came.
‘I’m not a pork butcher,’ he peevishly responded when the woman with the diamond collar asked him what he did for a living in Berlin. It was a silly remark and simply revealed his nervous exasperation.
‘My grandfather was a butcher in Leeds,’ she cheerfully told him. ‘Even now I can remember the wonderful roast beef we always had at his house.’
Winter was embarrassed at her response. He desperately tried to make amends for his gratuitous rudeness. ‘I have a bank,’ he said and, in keeping with this English obsession for modesty, added, ‘a very small bank.’ She laughed. No matter what one did, somehow the English always knew how to make a foreigner feel a fool.
The two boys, in the nursery bedroom at the very top of the house, heard the clatter of carriages and the sounds of the guests leaving soon after midnight. Peter, lost in a dream about airships, went back to sleep almost immediately, but little Pauli was still worried about his brother’s outburst that afternoon. Paul had none of the cleverness that distinguished his elder brother but, perhaps in compensation for this, the little blond child had an instinct about what went on in other people’s minds. He knew that his grandfather was deeply hurt by what his brother had said. Peter was like that: he had the capacity for cruelty that comes so easily to the self-righteous.
Now Pauli stayed awake worrying about what would happen to Peter. Perhaps he’d be sent away. He’d heard of children being sent away. They were sent away to jobs, and to schools, and sometimes sent away to the army or the navy. Pauli had no idea of what happened to those who were ‘sent away’ but now it was dark, and the flickering nightlight made strange shadows on the ceiling and on the wall, and all sorts of frightening ideas about being sent away occurred to him.
He called to his brother, but Pauli’s voice was faint and Peter’s sleep was not interrupted. Pauli got out of bed and decided to wake up Nanny; she’d be angry, of course, but he knew she’d pick him up and cuddle him and put him back to bed with reassuring words that sometimes little boys like Pauli want to hear in the middle of the dark night.
Pauli was halfway down the top flight of the back stairs by the time he fully realized that he wasn’t in his home in Berlin. He walked up and down the line of closed bedroom doors trying to decide which one to try. It was then that he heard voices from somewhere below. He continued down the servant’s stairs until he got to the ground floor. The voices were coming from a room at the back of the house. It was Grandpa’s study – a small back room where Cyrus Rensselaer went to smoke. Here he kept a comfortable old leather chair, a desk where he could write, and a locked cabinet that contained his very finest French brandy and his favourite sourmash bourbon, which he brought with him because the London wine merchants had never heard of it.
From his position on the landing, Pauli could squeeze into a space where empty steamer trunks were stored, and from there he could look through an open fanlight and see into the room.
Grandpa was sitting in the big leather chair, alongside the coal fire that was now only red embers and grey ash. Pauli’s father was perched on the edge of the writing desk. His father looked uncomfortable. Both men had cut-glass tumblers in their hands. Grandpa was smoking a big cigar and Daddy was lighting one too. Pauli could smell the smoke as it curled up into his hiding place. Grandpa took the cigar from his mouth and said, ‘Never mind all the stories about a cure for malaria, Harry. If you are trying to raise capital for your bank, it means your bank is in trouble.’
‘It’s not in trouble,’ said Winter. He tugged at the hem of his black waistcoat and silently cursed his Berlin tailor for not knowing that in England it was passé.
‘When people start saying a bank is in trouble, it’s in trouble.’
Harald Winter said, ‘It’s a chance to expand.’
Rensselaer interrupted him. ‘Never mind the bullshit, Harry; save that for the suckers. My friends in the City tell me you’re not sound.’
Winter stiffened. ‘Of course it’s sound. Half the money still remains in German government bonds.’
‘Damnit, Harry, don’t be so naive. It’s not sound because your aluminium factory may not be a success. Suppose the aluminium market doesn’t come up to your expectations? How are you going to pay back the money? Your investors think all their money is in government bonds. It’s bordering on the dishonest, Harry.’
Winter sipped his drink. ‘The electrolytic process has changed aluminium production. The metal is light and very strong; they’re experimenting with all kinds of mixtures, and these alloys will revolutionize building and automobiles, and they’ll find other industrial uses for it.’
‘Sure, sure, sure,’ said Rensselaer. ‘I’ve heard all these snake-oil stories…. There’s always a claim where some guy will strikegold or oil…and it’s always next week. I grew up on all that stuff.’
‘I’m not talking about something that might never happen,’ said Winter. ‘I’m talking about using aluminium alloys.’
‘Aluminium: okay. I made a few inquiries. In 1855 it cost a thousand Reichsmarks per kilo; in 1880, twenty Reichsmarks; now I can buy it for two Reichsmarks a kilo. What price will it be by the time your factory comes into full-scale production?’
‘I’m not selling aluminium, Mr Rensselaer.’ He always addressed his father-in-law as ‘Mr Rensselaer’, always expecting him to suggest he called him Cyrus or Cy as his friends did; but Cyrus Rensselaer never did suggest it, even though he called his son-in-law Harry. It was another example of the way Harald Winter was deliberately humbled. Or that was how it seemed to him. ‘I’ll be selling manufactured components that bolt together to make the rigid framework for airships.’
‘Then why the aluminium factory? Buy your materials on the open market.’
‘I have to have an assured supply. Otherwise I could sign a contract and then be held to ransom by the aluminium manufacturers.’
‘It’s my daughter I’m thinking of, Harry. You haven’t told her that you are going to put every penny you can raise into producing metal components for flying machines. I sounded her out this afternoon: she thinks you’re cautious with money. She trusts you to look after the family.’
Winter drew on his cigar. ‘These zeppelins are going to change the world, Mr Rensselaer. A year ago I would have shared your scepticism. But I’ve seen Zeppelin’s first airship flying – as big as a city block and as smooth as silk.’
‘And as dangerous as hell. Don’t you know those ships are full of hydrogen, Harry? Have you ever seen hydrogen burn?’
‘I know all the problems and the dangers,’ said Winter, ‘but, just as you have your contacts here in London, I have friends in the Berlin War Office. At present the General Staff is showing strong opposition to all forms of airship; the soldiers don’t like new ideas. But the Kaiser has personally ordered the setting up of a Motorluftschiff-Studien-Gesellschaft: a technical society for the study of airships. It’s still very secret, but it’s just a matter of time until the army orders some big rigids from Count Zeppelin.’
‘That’s all moonshine, Harry. I hear that Zeppelin’s second ship, which flew in January, turned out to be a big flop. They say its first flight is going to be its one and only flight.’
‘But Count Zeppelin is already building LZ3, and it will fly in about twelve weeks from now. Make no mistake: he’ll go on building them.’
‘Maybe that just shows he doesn’t know when he’s licked. And who can say how the airships will shape up when the army tests them?’
‘Do you realize how much aluminium goes into one of those airships? They weigh almost three tons. Thousands of girders and formers go into each ring. I’ve done some sums. Using Count Zeppelin’s first airship as a yardstick, I’d need only six-point-seven-three per cent of an airship’s aluminium requirement to break even and pay back the interest.’
Even Rensselaer was visibly impressed. ‘But we’re talking about every red cent you possess, Harry. Why not a smaller investment?’
‘I could have a smaller investment; I could do without the aluminium factory and be at the mercy of my suppliers. I could have half an interest and have only nonvoting shares, but that would mean someone else was making the decisions about who, what, why and where we sell. That’s not my way, Mr Rensselaer: and it’s not your way, either.’
Rensselaer scratched his chin. ‘I’ve spent half my working life trying to talk people out of these kinds of blue-sky investments. But I can see I’d be wasting my time trying to talk you out of it.’ Rensselaer got up from his chair for enough time to flick ash into the fire. ‘J. P. Morgan bought up steel companies to make U.S. Steel, and he’s made himself one of the most powerful men in the U.S., maybe one of the most powerful men in the whole damned world. It looks easy, but don’t think that you can corner the market in aluminium and become the J. P. Morgan of Germany. The European market just doesn’t work that way.’
‘I know that, Mr Rensselaer.’
‘Do you?’ He slumped back into his chair. ‘That’s good, because I meet a whole lot of people who try to get me involved in financing crackpot schemes like that.’
‘It’s just bridging.’
‘It’s not bridging, Harry!’ Suddenly Rensselaer’s voice was louder. Then, as if determined to control his temper, he lowered it again to say, ‘We’re talking about guarantees that will go on until 1916. Ten years! A hell of a lot of things could happen between now and then.’
‘I have most of it, Mr Rensselaer.’
‘You need nearly a million pounds sterling, Harry, and that’s a hell of a lot of dough when you’ve got no collateral that I’d want to try and realize on.’
Winter knew that his father-in-law had decided to let him have the money. He smiled. ‘It’s a great opportunity, Mr Rensselaer. You’ll never regret it.’
‘I’m regretting it already,’ said Rensselaer. ‘I’ve always tried to stay clear of government agencies in all shapes and forms. Especially I’ve avoided armies and navies. Now I’m going to find myself with a million pounds sterling invested in the army of the Kaiser: a man I wouldn’t trust to look after my horses. What’s worse, I’m going to have the security of my investment depending upon his bellicose ambitions.’
Rensselaer knew his words would offend his son-in-law but he was angry and frustrated at the trap he found himself in. When Winter wisely made no reply, Rensselaer said, ‘It’s for Veronica’s sake – you know that, of course – and I’ll want proper safeguards built into the paperwork. I’ll want your life insured with a U.S. company for the full amount of the loan.’
‘It’s the Kaiser’s life you should insure,’ said Winter. ‘My death would make no difference to the investment.’
‘Here’s to the Kaiser’s health,’ said Rensselaer sardonically. He raised his glass and drank the rest of his whiskey.
Winter smiled and decided not to drink to the Kaiser’s health. In the circumstances it would seem like lese-majesty.
Little Pauli crawled out of his hiding place and went slowly upstairs, trying to figure out what the two grownups had been talking about. By the time he found his bedroom again, only one part of the scene he’d witnessed was clear to him. He shook Peter awake and said, ‘I saw Daddy and Grandpa. They were smoking cigars and talking. Daddy made Grandpa drink to the health of His Majesty the Emperor. He made him do it, Peter.’
Peter came awake slowly, and when he heard Pauli’s story he was sceptical. Little Pauli hero-worshipped his father in a way that Peter would never do. ‘Go to sleep, Pauli, you’ve been dreaming again.’ He turned over and snuggled deep into the soft down pillow.
‘I haven’t been dreaming,’ said Pauli. He wanted Peter to believe him; he wanted his big brother to treat him as an equal. ‘I saw them.’ But by the time morning came, he was no longer quite certain.
‘Conqueror of the air – hurrah!’
In Friedrichshafen it was cold, damned cold. There was very little wind – the zeppelins could not take off in a wind – but November is not a time of year when anyone goes to the shores of the grim, grey Bodensee unless he has business there. Across the calm water of the lake, the Swiss side was clearly visible and the Alps were shining in the watery winter sunlight.
Harald Winter had persuaded his wife to stay in the car. It was Winter’s pride and joy. A huge seven-and-a-half litre Italian car, just like the one that won the Peking-to-Paris Road Race with twenty days’ lead! And yet, with its four-speed gearbox, so reliable and easy to use that Winter sometimes took the wheel himself. He’d had it parked down by the waterfront under the trees near the Schlosskirche, so that Veronica would have a good view of the airship and the shed that floated on the lake. She was well wrapped up, and under her feet was a copper foot-warmer that could be refilled with boiling water. And if she got too cold, the chauffeur would drive her back to the Kurgarten Hotel in Friedrichshafen, where the zeppelin people had provided for the Winter family a comfortable suite of rooms.
But Harald Winter was at the lakeside, nearer to the activity. He was excited; he would not have missed this occasion for all the world. Together with his two boys – Peter twelve and Pauli eight – he’d been given a place from which he could see everything. He would have been flying in the zeppelin but for the stringent terms of the life insurance that his father-in-law had made a condition of the loan.
They’d seen the floating shed being revolved to eliminate any chance of a crosswind damaging the airship as it came from out of its tight-fitting hangar. Now they watched as the white motorboat took its distinguished guests out to LZ3; the new modifications made her the finest of the airships. The crowd cheered spontaneously. After the tragic destruction of LZ4 last year – in a gesture that no foreigner would ever understand – the spontaneous generosity of the whole nation brought Count Zeppelin six million marks in donations. Much of the money had been sent within hours of the disaster. So these cheers were not just for the airship. There was something exhilarating in the atmosphere here today. The zeppelin was fast becoming a symbol of a new, exciting Germany, whose scientific inventions, paintings, music, and, more importantly, growing naval strength had made a real nation from a collection of small states. And not just a nation, but an international power of the first rank.
‘That’s the Kaiser,’ whispered Winter to his sons. ‘He’s wearing that long cloak or you’d see all his medals. Next to him is Prince Fürstenberg and then Admiral Müller and General von Plessen. The thin one is the Crown Prince.’
‘Why isn’t Count Zeppelin with them?’ Peter asked. The boys were wearing grey flannel suits, specially tailored for the occasion, and large cloth caps that their mother thought were ‘too grown-up-looking’ for them.
‘He is,’ said Winter. He was wearing a tight-fitting chesterfield and top hat, a formal outfit suited to someone who would be presented to the Kaiser. ‘He’s facing His Majesty, but he’s not wearing his old white cap today; he’s dressed up for the occasion.’
They watched the airship come out on the surface of the lake, and then there was an interminable delay while the royal party inspected the airship, and another while it was given the final adjustments for the flight. After the Prince and Princess of Fürstenberg were safely aboard, the ballast was offloaded piece by piece, until the moment came when the great silver machine shuddered and floated free.
The roar of the engines echoed across the cold still water of the Bodensee, and then the nose tilted up and the airship climbed slowly into the grey sky and, rolling slightly as it went, headed down the lake. The airship’s silver fabric was shining in the pale sunlight as it came steadily back to where the shore was black with onlookers. There were more loud, uncoordinated cheers as it passed over the boat from which the Kaiser and his entourage watched.
But it was after the landing of LZ3 that the boys were proudest of their father. For Harald Winter was invited to take his two sons out to the floating shed to watch Kaiser Wilhelm making his speech.
Every available inch of space was used. Illustrious generals, spiked helmets on their heads and chests crammed with medals, and admirals with high, stiff collars and arms garlanded with gold, were all crowded shoulder to shoulder. Standing behind von Zeppelin – the seventy-one-year-old ex-cavalry officer whose single-minded endeavour was today celebrated – they saw Dr Hugo Eckener, whose conversion to the zeppelin cause had made him even more zealous than his master. Next came Dürr, the engineer, Winter with the two children, and then senior design staff and an official from the engine factory.
‘In my name,’ began the Kaiser suddenly, his voice unexpectedly shrill, ‘and in the name of our entire German people, I heartily congratulate Your Excellency on this magnificent work which you have so wonderfully displayed before me today. Our Fatherland can be proud to possess such a son – the greatest German of the twentieth century – who through his invention has brought us to a new point in the development of the human race.’ At this, one or two of the generals and admirals nodded. One of the design staff edged aside to give little Pauli a better view.
The Kaiser looked round his audience, drew himself up into an even more erect posture, and continued: ‘It is not too much to say that we have today lived through one of the greatest moments in the evolution of human culture. I thank God, with all Germans, that He has considered our people worthy to name you as one of us. Might it be permitted to us all, as it has been to you, to be able to say with pride in the evening of our life, that we had been successful in serving our dear Fatherland so fruitfully. As a token of my admiring recognition, which certainly all your guests gathered here share with the entire German people, I bestow upon you herewith my high Order of the Black Eagle.’
Count Zeppelin stepped one pace forward. Over his head the Kaiser put the sash, and then embraced him three times and called, ‘His Excellency Count Zeppelin, the conqueror of the air – hurrah!’
From the crowd in the distance, cheers could be heard. For Winter and his two sons it was a day they would never forget.
It was already getting dark by the time Winter and the boys got back to the hotel in Friedrichshafen. Nanny was sent to have dinner alone in the restaurant so that the boys could have theirs served in the sitting room of their suite. Harald Winter was excited by the events of the day, and at times like this he liked to have a few extra moments with his sons.
A solicitous waiter in a white jacket brought the meal and served it to the children course by course. There was turtle soup and breaded schnitzels with rösti potatoes, which the Swiss, across the lake, did so perfectly. When no one was looking, Peter took forkfuls of Pauli’s cabbage – Pauli hated cabbage – so that he wouldn’t get into trouble for leaving it on his plate. And after that the waiter flamed crêpes for them. It was the first time that their father had permitted them to have a dish containing alcohol and, despite the strong flavour, the boys devoured their pancakes with great joy, slowing their eating to prolong this happy day forever.
After Nanny had taken the boys off to bed, Harald had a chance to express his happiness to his wife. They were in the bedroom; Veronica’s maid had gone. Harry was fully dressed in his evening clothes and his wife was making a final selection of jewellery. She had already put three different diamond brooches on her low-cut ballgown and rejected each. She was wearing a wonderful new Poiret dress from Paris, a simple tubular design with a high waist. She knew the new Paris look would create a sensation at the ball tonight. But on such a neoclassical design the jewellery would be all-important. She didn’t want to get it wrong. ‘What do you think, Harry?’ She turned away from the mirror enough for him to see her hold the diamond-studded gold rose against her.
‘You’re very beautiful, my darling,’ he told her.
‘I’m thirty-four, Harry, and I feel every year of it. My shoes hurt already, and the evening has not even started.’
‘Change them,’ said Harry.
‘The pink silk shoes would look absurd,’ she said.
He smiled. That was the way women were: the pink shoes looked absurd, the white ones hurt; there was really no answer. Perhaps women liked always to have some problem or other: perhaps it was the way they accounted for their disappointments. ‘Did you see His Majesty?’
‘I got so cold, Harry. I just waited until the airship lifted away. Then I came back for a hot bath.’
‘The boys saw him. He looked magnificent. He’s a great man.’
‘I’ll just have to slip them off at dinner.’
‘The LZ3 is to be delivered to the army right away. And as soon as the LZ5 is completed – and has done a twenty-four-hour endurance flight – they want that, too.’
‘I know. You told me. It’s wonderful.’
‘You realize what it means, don’t you?’
‘No,’ she said vaguely. She’d heard it all before. She wasn’t listening to him; she was looking at her shoes.
‘It means we’ll be rich, darling.’
‘We’re already rich, Harry.’
‘I mean really rich: tens of millions …perhaps a hundred million before I’m finished.’ He sat down, reaching behind him to flip his coat tails high in the air like a blackbird alighting. You could tell a lot about a man by the way he sat down, she decided. Her father always lifted his coat tails aside carefully, making sure they’d not be creased.
‘We’re happy, Harry. That’s the important thing.’
‘Dollars, I’m talking about, not Reichsmarks.’
‘What does it matter, Harry? We’re happy, aren’t we?’ She looked up at him. Somewhere deep inside her there arose a desperate hope that he would embrace her and tell her that he would give up his other women. But she knew he would not do that. He needed the women, the way he needed the money. He had to be reassured, just as little Pauli needed so much reassurance all the time.
‘It doesn’t matter to you,’ he said, and she was surprised at the bitterness in his voice. He was like that; his mood could change suddenly for no accountable reason. ‘You were born into wealth. You have your own bank account and your father’s allowance every year. But now I’ll have as much money as he’s got. I won’t have to kowtow to him all the time.’
‘I haven’t noticed you displaying servile deference to Papa,’ she said. She gave him all her attention.
He ignored her remark. ‘The army will buy more and more airships, and the navy will buy them, too. I had a word with the admiral today. They’re already planning where the bases should be. Nordholz in Schleswig-Holstein will be the biggest one; then others nearby. Revolving sheds built on turntables – the North Sea is too rough for floating the hangars.’
‘Schleswig-Holstein? Why would they want them so far north? The weather there is not suited to airships. You said they’d need calm weather today.’
‘Use your brains, Veronica. Germany has the only practical flying machine in the world. The experimental little contraptions that the Wright brothers have made can scarcely lift the weight of a man. What use would those things be for bombing?’
‘Bombing? Bombing England?’
‘This has been Count Zeppelin’s idea right from the start. I thought everyone knew that. He conceived these huge rigid airships as a war-winning weapon.’
‘It’s how progress comes. Leonardo da Vinci developed his great ideas only to help his masters fight wars.’
‘But bombing England, Harry? For God’s sake. What are you saying?’
‘Don’t get excited, Veronica. I wish I hadn’t started talking about it.’
‘War? War with England? But, Harry it is no time at all since the King of England went to Berlin. The children saw them both going through Pariser Platz in the state coach. The Kaiser is King Edward’s nephew. It’s unthinkable. It’s madness!’ This came in a gabble. It was as if she thought that she had only her husband to persuade and everything would be all right.
It was not an appropriate time to remind her that Kaiser Wilhelm made no secret of his hatred for his uncle the English King. Only the previous year, Winter had been one of three hundred dinner guests to whom the Kaiser had confided that King Edward was ‘a Satan’. But his wife needed assurance, so he went to her and put his arms tightly round her. By God, she was beautiful. Even at thirty-four she outshone some of the younger ones he bedded. He hated to see her distressed. ‘There will be no war, my darling. I guarantee that. England will see sense. When the time comes, England will see sense. The English are a nation of compromisers.’
‘I pray to God you’re right.’
‘They say the mustard manufacturers get rich from the dabs of mustard people leave on their plates. And we’ll get rich in the same way, darling. From selling the soldiers weapons they’ll never use.’
The end of Valhalla
Both boys liked to visit Omi. Harald Winter’s widowed mother, Effi, lived in a comfortable little house on the coast, near Travemünde. They went each summer, with Nanny, Mama and Mama’s personal maid. From Berlin they always got a sleeping compartment in the train that left from Lehrter Bahnhof late at night and arrived at Lübeck next morning. They alighted from the train and watched the porters pile the luggage onto carts. The children were taken to see the locomotive, a huge hissing brute that smelled of steam and oil and of the burned specks of coal that floated in the sunlit air. Omi always met them at the station in Lübeck. But this time she wasn’t there – only the taxi. It was a big one – a Benz sixty-horsepower Phaeton, more like a delivery van than a car – and it could seat sixteen people if they all crammed together. The driver was a white-haired old fellow named Hugo who would laboriously clamber up onto the roof. There, on its huge rack, he’d strap a dozen suitcases, Mama’s ten hat boxes, a travelling rug inside which were rolled a selection of umbrellas and walking sticks and four black tin trunks so heavy that he’d almost overbalance with the weight of them.
The house itself was a gloomy old place with lace curtains through which the northern sunlight struggled to make pale-grey shadows on the carpet. Even in the dusty conservatory that ran the length of the house, the warmth of the summer sun was hardly enough to stir the wasps from their winter torpor.
Omi always wore black, the same sort of clothes she’d worn back in 1891, when Grandfather died. She spent most of the day in the room on the first floor: she read, she sewed, and for a lot of the time she just remembered. The room was furnished with her treasures and mementoes. There were two large jade dragons and a whole elephant tusk engraved with hunting scenes. There was a big photo of her with Opa on their wedding day, and portraits of other members of the family, and there were stuffed birds in glass cases and green plants that never bore flowers. She called the little room her salon and she received her visitors there – although visitors were few – and looked out the window across the Lübeck Bight to the coast and the water that became the Baltic Sea.
Peter and Paul wouldn’t have looked forward so much to their visits had it not been for the Valhalla. The Valhalla was a small sailing boat that had once belonged to Opa. In his will Opa had bequeathed the little boat to a neighbour. But whenever the two Winter boys arrived, the Valhalla was theirs. The neighbour didn’t know his sailing boat was called the Valhalla. On its bow was painted the same name that had been there when Winter bought it from a boat builder in Travemünde: Domino. But for the boys it was always called Valhalla: the hall in which slain warriors were received by Odin.
The Valhalla gave the boys a unique chance to be away from any kind of supervision. They took little advantage of this cherished freedom except to laze and, more important, to talk and argue in that spirited and curiously intimate way that children only do when no adults are within earshot.
‘You’ll change your mind again before you are fourteen,’ Peter told his ten-year-old brother with all the mature authority of a fourteen-year-old. ‘I wouldn’t go to cadet school; I’d hate it. I’m going to be an explorer.’ He trailed his hand in the water. The wind had been swinging round for the last hour or more, so that Peter had had to adjust the sail constantly. Now the boat was moving fast through the choppy water of the bight. The sun was a white disc seen fitfully behind hazy clouds. There was little heat in the sun. Visitors did not come to this northern coastline to bask in the sunshine; it was a brisk climate, for active holidaymakers.
The boys were dressed in yellow oilskins and floppy hats, just like the real sailors who sailed the big ships out of Kiel, along the coast from here. The younger boy, Paul, was crouched in the stern, hugging his knees. His hair was long and had become even more blond as he got older. People had said that his hair would darken, but adults had been wrong about that as about most other vital things he’d wanted to know. He said, ‘You’re good at mathematics. You’d have to be good at mathematics for exploring, wouldn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Peter, who’d recently come top in mathematics.
‘I’m no good at anything except sport: hockey, I’m good at hockey. Papa says the cadet school will be best for me. I’ll never be any good at mathematics.’
‘No, you won’t,’ said Peter.
Paul looked at his elder brother. It was a simple statement of fact: Paul was no good at mathematics and never would be. Adults all said that he was young and that soon he’d understand such scholastic subjects. The adults perhaps believed it, but it wasn’t true, and Paul preferred to hear his brother’s more brutal answer. ‘And then after cadet school I’ll be a soldier and wear a uniform like Georg.’ Georg was a young soldier who was walking out with one of the housemaids in Berlin.
‘Not like Georg,’ said Peter. ‘You’ll be an officer and ride a horse and parade down Unter den Linden and salute the Kaiser on his birthday.’
‘Will I?’ said Pauli. It didn’t sound at all bad.
‘And go off and fight the Russians,’ said Peter.
‘I wouldn’t like that so much,’ said Paul. ‘It would mean leaving Mama and Papa.’ He loved his parents as only a ten-year-old can. His father was the person he envied, respected and admired more than anyone in the whole world; and Mama was the one he ran to when Papa scolded him.
‘There’s more wind now,’ said Peter. The sail was drumming and there were white crests on the waves. ‘Take the helm while I fix the sail.’
Big storm clouds moved across the hazy sun. It went dark quite suddenly, so that the sky was almost black, with only a shining golden rim on the most distant of the clouds, and a bright shimmer of water along the horizon. ‘Is it a storm?’ said Paul. Two years ago they’d sailed through one of the sudden summer squalls for which this coast was noted. But that was in a bigger boat and with a skilful yachtsman in charge.
‘It’s nothing,’ said Peter. But as he said it, bigger waves struck the hull with enough force to make loud thumping noises and toss the small boat from side to side.
‘Pull the rudder round,’ said Peter.
The little blond boy responded manfully, heaving on the tiller to bring the boat head on to the waves. ‘But we’re heading in the wrong direction now. We’re heading out to sea,’ said Paul. The waves were getting bigger and bigger, and when he looked back towards Omi’s house the coast was so far away that it was lost in the haze of rain. Paul was frightened. He watched his brother struggling with the sail. ‘Do you want me to help?’
‘Stay at the tiller,’ called Peter loudly. He’d heard the note of fear in his young brother’s voice. He let go a rope for long enough to wave to encourage him. It was then that one of those freak waves that the sea keeps for such moments of carelessness hit the boat. The deck was slippery and Peter’s wet shoes provided no grip upon the varnished woodwork. There was a yell and then Pauli saw the sea swaddle his brother into a dirty-green blanket of water and bundle him away into the fast-moving currents.
Peter had never been a strong swimmer and hit by half a ton of icy-cold sea water, the breath knocked out of his lungs, he opened his mouth. Instead of the air he needed, he swallowed cold salty water, and felt his stomach retch at the taste of it. Sucked down into the cold water, he somersaulted through a dim green world until he no longer knew which way was up.
‘Peter! Peter!’ There was nothing but milky-looking waves and mist, and the boat raced on before the gusting wind. Pauli jumped to his feet to pull the sail down, and before he could move aside the tiller was torn from his hands strongly enough to whack him across the leg, so that he cried out with the pain of it. He couldn’t reef in the sail, he knew he couldn’t: it was something his brother always attended to. ‘Peter! Please, God, help Peter.’
Some distance away from the boat, Peter came to the surface, spluttering and desperately flailing his arms so that he got no support from the water. Still encumbered in his yellow oilskin jacket, he slid down again into the hateful green, chilly realm from which he’d just fought his way. He closed his mouth only just in time to avoid a second lungful of sea water, and let the water close over him, twisting his arms in a futile attempt to claw his way back to the surface. The green water darkened and went black.
When Peter saw daylight again, the waves were still high enough to smash across his head. Like leaden pillows, they beat him senseless and scattered a million grey spumy feathers across the heaving sea. He could see no farther than the next wave and hear nothing but the roar of the wind and the crash of water. It seemed like hours since he’d been washed overboard, and – although it was no more than three minutes – he was physically unable to save himself. His small body had already lost heat, till his feet were numb and his fingers stiffening. Besides the temperature drop, his body was bruised and battered by the waves, and his stomach was retching and revolting at the intake of cold salty water.
There was no sign of the Valhalla, but even had it been close there would have been little chance of Peter’s catching sight of it through the grey-green waves and the white, rainy mist that swirled above them.
No one ever discovered why little Pauli jumped off the stern of the Valhalla and into the raging water that frightened him so much. Many years later explanations were offered: his wife said it was a desperate wish to destroy himself; a prison psychologist interpreted it as some sort of baptismal desire; and Peter – who heard Pauli talk about it in his sleep – said it was straightforward heroism and in keeping with Pauli’s desire to be a soldier. Pauli himself said it was fear that drove him from the safety of the boat into the water; he felt safer with his brother in the sea than alone on the boat. But that was typical of Pauli, who tried to make a joke out of everything.
Little Pauli was a strong swimmer and unlike his brother, he was able to divest himself of the oilskin and prepare himself for both the coldness and the strength of the currents into which he plunged. But, like his brother, he was soon disoriented, and couldn’t see past the big waves that washed over him constantly. He swam – or, rather, flailed the heaving ocean top – hoping he was heading back towards the coast. Above him the clouds raced overhead at a speed that made him dizzy.
The squall kept moving. It passed over them as quickly as it had come, moving out towards Bornholm and Sweden’s southern coast. The racing clouds parted enough to let sunlight flicker across the waves, and then Pauli caught sight of the yellow bundle that was Peter.
Had Peter been completely conscious, it’s unlikely that the smaller child would have been able to support his brother. All drowning animals panic; they fight and thrash and often kill anything that comes to save them. But Peter was long past that stage. He’d given up trying to survive, and now the cold water had produced in him that drowsiness that is the merciful prelude to exposure and death.
Peter’s yellow oilskin had kept him afloat. Air was trapped in the back of it, and this had pulled him to the surface when all his will to float had gone. They floated together, Pauli’s arm hooked round his brother’s neck, the pose of an attacker rather than a saviour, and the other arm trying to move them along. The coast was a long way away. Pauli glimpsed it now and again between the waves. There was no chance of swimming that far, even without a comatose brother to support.
They were floating there for a long time before anything came into sight. It was a boy at the oars of a brightly painted rowboat, trying to get to the Valhalla, who saw first a yellow floppy hat in the water, and then the children, too. The oarsman was little more than a child himself, but he pulled the two children out of the water and into his boat with the easy skill that had come from doing the same thing with his big black mongrel dog, which now sat in the front of the boat, watching the rescue.
The youth who’d rescued them was a typical village child: hair cut close to the scalp to avoid lice and nits; teeth uneven, broken and missing; strong arms and heavy shoulders, his skin darkened by the outdoors. Only his height and broad chest distinguished him from the other village youths, that and the ability to read well. To what extent it was his height, and to what extent his literacy, that gave him his air of superiority was debated. But there was a strength within him that was apparent to all, a drive that the priest – in a moment of weakness – had once described as ‘demoniacal’.
The seventeen-year-old Fritz Esser looked at the two half-drowned children huddled together in the bottom of his boat and – despite the pitiful retching of Peter and the shivers that convulsed Pauli’s whole body – decided they were not close to death. He rowed out to where the poor old Valhalla had settled low into the water, its torn sail trailing overboard and its rudder carried away. ‘It will not last long,’ he said, ‘it’s holed.’ Pauli managed to peer over the edge of the rowboat to see what was left of their lovely Valhalla, but Peter was past caring. Esser, aided by the black mongrel, which ran up and down the boat and barked, tried to get the Valhalla in tow, but his line was not long enough, and finally he decided to get the two survivors back to dry land.
He put them in an old boat shed on the beach. It was a dark, smelly place; the only daylight came through the chinks in its ill-fitting boards. Inside there was space enough for three rowboats, but it was evident that only one boat was ever stored here, for most of the interior was littered with rubbish. There were furry pieces of animal hide stretched on racks to dry. There was flotsam, too: a life preserver lettered ‘Germania – Kiel’, torn pieces of sails and old sacks, broken oars and broken crates and barrels of various sizes arranged like seats around a small pot-bellied iron stove.
Esser wrapped sacking round the boys and poked inside the stove until the sparks began to fly, then tossed some small pieces of driftwood into it and slammed it shut with a loud clang. The necessity of closing the stove became apparent as smoke from the damp wood issued out of the broken chimney. It was only after the fire was going that the boy spoke to them. ‘You’re the Berlin kids, aren’t you? You’re from the big house where old Schuster does the garden. Old Frau Winter. Are you her grandchildren?’ He didn’t wait to hear their reply; he seldom asked real questions, they found out soon enough. ‘You come here with your mother, and the flunkeys, and your father comes sometimes, always in some big new automobile.’
Peter and Pauli were huddled together under some sacking that smelled of salt and decaying fish. As the stove flickered into life, and the air warmed, the hut became more and more foul. But the children didn’t notice the odour of old fish or the stink of the tanned hides. They clung together, cold, wet and exhausted; Pauli was looking at the flames in the tiny grate, but Peter’s eyes were tightly closed as he listened to Fritz Esser’s hard and roughly accented voice.
‘I hate the rich,’ Esser said. ‘But soon we’ll break the bonds of slavery.’
‘How will you do that?’ asked Pauli, who, typically, was recovering quickly from his ordeal. It sounded interesting, like something from his 101 Magic Tricks a Bright Boy Can Do.
Esser wracked his brains to remember what the speaker from the German Social Democratic Party had actually said. ‘Capitalism will perish just as the dinosaurs perished, collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Then the working masses will usher in the golden age of socialism.’
Half drowned he might be, but Pauli could perceive the majesty of that pronouncement. ‘Is that how the dinosaurs perished?’ he asked.
‘You can scoff,’ said Esser. ‘We’re used to the sneers of the ruling classes. But when blood is flowing in the gutters, the laughing will stop.’
Pauli had not intended to scoff but decided against saying so while the role of scoffer commanded such a measure of Esser’s respect.
‘We have a million members,’ Esser continued. He spat at the stove and the spittle exploded in steam. ‘We’re the largest political party in the world. Soon they’ll start to arm the workers and we’ll fight to get a proper Marxist government.’
‘Where did you find out all this?’ Pauli asked. It sounded frightening but the strange boy was not unfriendly: just superior. His chin was dimpled and his brown eyes deep and intense.
‘I go to meetings with my father. He’s been a member of the SPD for nearly ten years. Last year Karl Liebknecht came here to give a speech. Liebknecht understands that blood must flow. My father says Liebknecht is a dangerous man, but my uncle says Liebknecht will lead the workers to victory.’
‘Did your father tell you about the dinosaurs and the blood in the streets and all that?’ asked Pauli.
‘No. He’s soft,’ said Esser. He stoked the fire to make it flare. ‘My father still believes in historical evolution. He believes that soon we’ll have enough deputies in the Reichstag to challenge the Kaiser’s power. If Germany had a proper parliamentary democracy, we’d already be running the country.’
Pauli looked at his saviour with new respect. It would be just as well to remain friends with a boy who was so near to running the country. Peter had opened his eyes. He had not so far joined the conversation, but it was Peter who, having studied Fritz Esser, now identified him. ‘You’re the son of the pig man, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, what of it?’ said Fritz Esser defensively.
‘Nothing,’ said Peter. ‘I just recognized you, that’s all.’ Peter coughed and was almost sick. The salt water was still nauseating him, and his skin was green and clammy to the touch, as Pauli found when he hugged his brother protectively.
For Pauli and Peter – and for many other local children – the pig man was a figure of rumour and awful speculation. A small thickset figure with muscular limbs and scarred hands, he was not unlike some of the more fearful illustrations in their books of so-called fairy stories. The ‘pig man’ wore long sharp knives on his belt and went from village to village slaughtering pigs for owners too squeamish, or too inexperienced with a knife, to kill their pigs for themselves. He was to be seen sometimes down by the pond engaged on the lengthy and laborious task of washing the entrails and salting them for sausage making. So this was the son of the pig man. This was a boy who called the pig man ‘soft’.
In an unexpected spontaneous gesture of appreciation, Pauli said goodbye to Fritz Esser with a hug. Forever after, Pauli regarded Fritz Esser as the one who’d saved his life. But Peter’s goodbye was more restrained, his thanks less effusive. For Peter had already decided that little Pauli was his one and only saviour. These varying attitudes that the two boys had to the traumatic events of that terrible day were to affect their entire lives. And the life of Fritz Esser, too.
It was the pig man himself who took the boys home. Still wrapped in the fusty, stinking old sacks that gave so little protection from the remorseless Baltic wind, they rode on the back of his home-made cart drawn by his weary horse. It was more than seven kilometres along the coast road, which was in fact only a deeply rutted cart track. The smell of rancid fish and pork turned their stomachs and they were jolted over every rut, bump, and pothole all the way. When they got to Omi’s, the pig man and his son were given a bright new twenty-mark gold coin and sent away with muted thanks.
It was only after the Essers had gone that the two children were scolded. Who would pay for the boat? How did they come to fall overboard? Didn’t they see that a storm was coming up? How could they not come directly home after being rescued? All three women asked them more or less the same questions; only the manner of asking was different. First came the regimental coldness of Omi’s interrogation, then the operatic hysteria of Mama’s, and finally that of their Scots nanny, who, after their hot bath with carbolic soap, put them under the cold shower and towelled them until their skin was pink and sore.
The children took their chastisings meekly. They knew that such anger was just one of many curious ways in which grownups manifested their love. And they’d long ago learned how to wear a look of contrition while thinking of other things.
Now that they no longer had the Valhalla, the children spent their days on the beach. They walked back along the coast road to Fritz Esser’s boathouse. Very early each morning, Esser went out in his boat to fish. He caught little: he had neither tempting bait, good nets, nor the skills and patience of the successful fisherman.
The boys always arrived in time to welcome him back. But Fritz never showed any disappointment when his long hours of work had provided nothing in return. He was always able to manage the crooked smile that revealed a wide mouth crowded with teeth. Every day, of course, the children hoped to see him towing the Valhalla back to them. And each day their hopes diminished, until finally they went to Fritz just for something to do.
Despite the disparity in age, Fritz Esser enjoyed the company of the two children. He let them help him with painting and repairing the boats he was paid to look after. He showed them how to sew up torn sails and caulk the seams of boats that belonged to holidaymakers who’d left them too long out of the water. And all the time he lectured them with the political ideas that came from the booklets he read and the conversations he liked to listen to in the bar of the Golden Pheasant on the Travemünde road, and to the words of his hero Karl Liebknecht.
At the back of the Golden Pheasant there was a big room that was used for weddings and christenings and meetings of the SPD. That was where, last year, Fritz had listened enraptured to the fiery little Karl Liebknecht. In his pince-nez, neatly shaped black moustache, well-brushed black suit and high, stiff collar, this thirty-nine-year-old member of the Prussian Diet looked more like a clerk than a revolutionary, but from his very first words his speech revealed his passions. He denounced the international armaments industry, ‘the clique who mint gold from discord’. He denounced the Kaiser and Bendlerstrasse, where the generals ‘at this very moment are planning the next war’. He denounced the Russian Tsar and all the ‘parasites’ that made up Europe’s royal families. He denounced the capitalists who owned the factories and the police who were their lackeys. He denounced the rich for exploiting their riches and the poor for enduring their poverty.
A big crowd filled the Golden Pheasant that Friday evening. Most of them had come because he was the son of the great Wilhelm Liebknecht (close friend of Karl Marx and a leader of the short-lived revolutionary republic of Baden), not because they wanted to hear this arrogant and unattractive man, whose only notable achievement so far was to have served an eighteen-month prison sentence for treason.
Karl Liebknecht had none of the qualities that a successful orator must have. His clothes made him look more like one of the cold-eyed bureaucrats they all feared and detested than like a man who would lead them to the golden land they were looking for. His educated Hochdeutsch and his manner – urban if not urbane – set him apart from this audience of fishermen and agricultural workers. Liebknecht’s message didn’t appeal to men who were looking for immediate improvement in their working conditions rather than an ultimate world revolution.
Only the very young have time enough for the sort of promises that Karl Liebknecht gave his audience that night. And only a few local youngsters like Fritz Esser were moved by this strange man.
Although the Winter boys had only a hazy idea of what it was all about, something of the excitement that Fritz Esser showed was communicated to them. And Fritz liked striding up and down declaiming the principles of Marxism to this enraptured audience of two. Pauli loved the sounds of Esser’s words, though the fiery rhetoric of hatred held no meaning for him. Peter sensed the underlying belligerence, but Fritz Esser’s flashes of easy humour and his simple charm won him over. And when Esser told them that as fellow conspirators they mustn’t repeat a word of what he said to the policeman, to their family, to any of their household, or even to anyone else in the village in case Fritz was sent to prison, the two boys were totally devoted to him. What a wonderful thing it was to share a secret with a boy who was almost a man. And what a secret it was!
During the final week of their summer vacation, ‘Uncle Glenn’ arrived. Veronica’s younger brother, Glenn Rensselaer, had a habit of turning up unexpectedly all over the world. The first Veronica heard about his visit to Europe was a telegram from the post office of a liner due to arrive at Hamburg next day: ‘Arriving Thursday with friend. Love, Glenn.’ There was a flurry of domestic preparations and for Veronica, speculation, too. Who was the friend and was this just Glenn’s jocular way of announcing that he had come to Europe on his honeymoon?
The speculation ended when Glenn arrived Friday noon, together with an Englishman named Alan Piper. They’d met on the ship coming over from New York: ‘The Kaiserin Auguste Victoria: twenty-five thousand tons. The biggest liner in the world and she’s German.’ It was typical of Glenn that he delighted in the achievements of the Old World almost as much as those of his own countrymen. Glenn had insisted that, since Piper had a month or two to spare before reporting back to the Colonial Office in London, he should accompany him on his tour of Germany, beginning at the house in Travemünde.
Alan ‘Boy’ Piper spent much of his time apologizing for all the extra work and trouble he was causing to the household. He apologized to Veronica so many times that Glenn finally said, ‘Don’t be so goddamned British. They have slaves to do all the work in this country. And Veronica loves a chance to speak a civilized language.’
He was right about his sister. Her mother-in-law had not been well for a few days and was allowed only bread and beef broth, having it served in her upstairs room. So Veronica played hostess to the unexpected house guests, and there was no need to speak anything but English.
Veronica adored her young brother but she was also enchanted by the shy Englishman. He was a little older than Veronica, an unconventionally handsome man with short brown – almost gingerish – hair, a lean bony face, and curiously youthful features that had long ago earned him his nickname ‘Boy’. He insisted that his life had been uneventful compared with her brother’s. From Merton College, Oxford, he’d gone to South Africa, and stayed there working as a colonial government official, although, as Glenn pointed out, he’d been there right through some of the bloodiest encounters of the Boer War.
‘He’s a soldier of fortune, like me,’ said Glenn Rensselaer.
‘Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid,’ said Piper modestly. ‘My father was a government official in Africa, and so far I have simply followed in his footsteps.’ He smiled. He had the face of a youngster – fresh and optimistic, and unwrinkled despite the African sun.
‘So what are you doing in Germany, Mr Piper?’ said Veronica. She took care to address him as ‘Mr Piper’, and yet there was a mocking note in her voice that some might have said was flirtatious. ‘Is it another excursion among the natives?’
‘Indeed not, Mrs Winter. I’m on leave. This visit to Germany, as delightful as it is already proving to be, was quite unplanned. When I returned to London to start this year’s leave of absence, I was very disappointed to learn that I would not be returning to Africa. The two Boer Republics we fought, and the Cape and Natal, become what is to be called the Union of South Africa. I would like to have been there to see it.’
‘South Africa’s loss is our gain,’ said Glenn.
‘I will drink to that,’ said Veronica.
The Englishman picked up his glass, looked at her and saw those wonderful smoky-grey eyes, and, after a fleeting moment, smiled.
Veronica looked down as she drank her wine, and yet she could feel the Englishman’s eyes upon her and despite herself, she shivered.
‘My life has not been nearly so colourful as your brother’s, Mrs Winter. I believe him to be one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met.’
‘Really?’ She was pleased to look at her brother and smile. ‘What have you been up to, Glenn?’
Piper answered for him. ‘He’s been everywhere and done everything. He’s even panned for gold on the Klondike.’
‘And a lot of good it did me: I finally sold out my claims for three hundred dollars and some supplies.’
‘He’s worked for Henry Ford and turned down a job with the U.S. Army team that surveyed the Panama Canal. He’s broken horses, repaired automobiles, and even flown an aeroplane.’
‘An airplane?’ said Veronica; even she could still be surprised by Glenn’s doings.
‘Just the once,’ said Glenn. He bent forward and forked some more cold pork, without waiting for the table maid to offer it, trying to cover his embarrassment at Piper’s laudatory remarks. Having swallowed it, he took a sip of wine and wiped his lips. ‘There was a guy on the ship coming over, a rancher. I’d worked for him a couple of times. He spent half the voyage filling Boy’s head with tales about me. You know how Texans like to spin a yarn to a Limey.’
‘And why exactly are you in Germany, Glenn?’ she asked her brother.
‘Dad told me that your husband knows Count Zeppelin. I was hoping he’d arrange an introduction for me.’
‘Count Zeppelin? Is he so famous that they’ve heard of him back home?’
‘They’ve sure heard of his airships,’ said Glenn. ‘Last September there was some kind of air show in Berlin….’
‘Yes,’ said Veronica. ‘Berliner Flugwoche at Johannisthal. There was a prize of one hundred and fifty thousand marks. Harald took the boys. They were there when an airplane flew from Tempelhof to Johannisthal: ten kilometres!’
‘Orville Wright was in Berlin at that time. And down in Frankfurt they had an airship meet: the Internationale Luftschiffahrt Ausstellung.’ He pronounced the German words with difficulty. ‘And suddenly a lot of people are taking a new interest in airships: especially big rigid airships. I want to see one of them, fly in one and find out what they’re like to handle.’
‘But surely you heard – the latest one, Deutschland, only lasted a couple of weeks. It’s a complete wreck. There were amazing pictures in the newspapers.’
‘Oh, sure LZ7: I know about that. But he still has the LZ6 flying, and a trip in that will suit me fine.’
Veronica turned to the Englishman. ‘And you, Mr Piper, do you share this obsession with flying machines that seems to be sweeping the world?’
‘Up to a point, Mrs Winter.’
‘He’s just being polite,’ said her brother. ‘I talked him into coming with me to see the zeps, because he can speak the lingo. I can’t speak German, and I don’t suppose Count von Zeppelin is going to be able to speak English.’
‘You’d better learn not to call him Count von Zeppelin: von Zeppelin or Count Zeppelin, but not both together.’
‘Is that so?’ said Glenn thoughtfully. ‘I know these Europeans get darn mad if you get their titles wrong. There was an Italian countess I once met in Mexico City. She wanted me to…’ He stopped, having suddenly decided not to go into detail.
Veronica laughed. She realized that the account of Glenn’s colourful experiences with horses, motorcars and canals had been carefully edited in order not to offend her.
‘And so you speak German, Mr Piper?’ she asked as the servants cleared the plates.
‘For my work I had to learn some Cape Dutch, Mrs Winter. It seemed foolish not to persevere with my German.’
‘He reads the kind of intellectual stuff you like, Veronica. I offered him my brand-new copy of Lord Jim when he was sitting alongside me on the promenade deck. And darn me if he didn’t wave it away. He said he doesn’t read Conrad because he doesn’t stretch the mind. I felt like punching him in the ear. That’s how we first got talking.’
Piper – even after his three months’ stay in America – had still not got used to this direct style of speaking. ‘I didn’t exactly say that, Glenn…’
‘He’s reading Das Stunden-Buch in German!’ added Glenn Rensselaer. ‘It took me half an hour to learn how to pronounce the title.’ Veronica noticed the mutual regard of the two men; somehow friendships between women didn’t flourish so easily and quickly.
‘I’m afraid that Rilke is too much for me,’ Piper admitted. ‘All that symbolic imagery requires a better knowledge of Germany and Germans.’
‘Oh, but it’s a wonderful book,’ said Veronica. ‘Don’t give up.’
‘I’ve tried so hard. The chapter I’m reading now: I’ve reread it, dictionary in hand, at least four times.’
‘Perhaps if we read a few pages together…’ Veronica stopped and hurriedly poured cream over the sliced peach. She hadn’t meant to say that…. She made her racing mind stop. She’d never looked at, not even thought of, another man in all the years she’d been married. When she first discovered that Harry had installed that very young girl Martha in an apartment in Vienna, she’d gone to pray in the Votivkirche, and so steal a glimpse at the street where his mistress was living. Yet, even in that hour of anguish, she had never thought of betraying him. But then she’d never met a man who might be able to tempt her to betrayal. Now, suddenly, she realized that.
‘That would be most civil of you, Mrs Winter,’ said the Englishman. ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of understanding the heart of the author. Just a few pages properly understood might open a new world to me.’
‘I’m not a scholar,’ said Veronica. ‘I’m a thirty-five-year-old Hausfrau.’ It was her clumsy attempt to change direction.
‘I can’t let that go unchallenged,’ said Piper. ‘I cannot think of anyone in the world more likely to change my life.’
On the day that Father arrived, it rained without stopping. Not just the cold, thin drizzle through which the boys would walk, bathe in the ocean, or, in the happier days of the Valhalla, sail. It fell in great vertical sheets of water from slow-moving grey clouds that came from the North Sea to rain upon the bight.
While everyone prepared for Harald Winter’s arrival, the boys wandered through the house, getting in everyone’s way and feeling low. On previous days, Uncle Glenn or his English friend Mr Piper had kept them entertained with stories, tricks and card games. Pauli particularly liked Mr Piper’s magic and even learned to do some of the conjuring tricks himself. But today the two house-guests had gone to look at the wonderful old city of Lübeck and were not expected back until evening. By that time Father would have arrived.
Peter finally found something to do. Cook let him help prepare the vegetables. She needed the extra hand because the scullery maid was sick and the kitchen maid had been ordered away to ready the rooms on the second floor that Harald Winter and his wife used when both were there together.
After a brusque rejection by his grandmother, who wanted to sleep, Paul went in search of his mother. He found her in the turret room at the top of the house. It was a tiny circular room with a wonderful view of the countryside. This was where she liked to sleep when Father wasn’t with them. She was looking through her clothes in the wardrobe, taking her dresses out one by one and examining them before putting them on the bed for her maid to take to the other bedroom.
Paul stared at his mother. She did not look well. Her face was white but her eyes were reddened as if she’d been crying. ‘What is it?’ she said. She sounded angry.
‘Nothing,’ said little Pauli. ‘Can I help you, Mama?’
‘Not really, darling,’ she replied. Then, seeing Pauli’s disappointment, she said, ‘You can take my jewellery case downstairs. It will save Hanna a journey.’
Pauli always coveted his mother’s jewellery case. It was made of beautiful blue leather and lined with soft blue velvet. Inside, it was fitted with little drawers and soft pockets and velvet fingers upon which Mama’s rings were fitted. Pauli couldn’t resist playing with all the fittings of the box. It was such fun to pull out each drawer and see the sparkling diamond brooches or strings of pearls lying within. He looked at Mama, but she was completely occupied with her dresses – choosing one for Papa’s return, Pauli decided. He continued to play with the jewel box. Suppose it was a pirate ship and each drawer concealed a cannon, and as some unsuspecting boat came along … Oh dear: the contents of a drawer fell onto the carpet. How clumsy he was. He felt sure he would be scolded, but today it seemed as if nothing could divert her attention from her dresses.
Pauli picked up the tiny gold earrings, the large gold earrings, the pearl earrings, the diamond earrings that Mama wore only with her long dresses and pendant earrings. Two of each. He counted them again and then saw a silver earring on the carpet. Then there must be another …rolled under the bed, no doubt. He went flat on the floor to find it. Yes, there it was. And … there was something else there too. He pulled it out. A wristwatch. A large gold wristwatch with a seconds hand.
‘What are you doing, Pauli?’
‘I found a watch, Mama.’
‘What do you mean, Pauli?’
‘I found it under the bed, Mama.’ He showed her the wristwatch proudly. It was a fine Swiss model with a leather strap and roman numerals like the church clock.
‘Oh my God!’ said his mother.
‘It belongs to Mr Piper, Mama. I noticed him wearing it.’ He looked at his mother. He’d never seen her so horror-struck.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I borrowed it from him. Mine stopped last night at dinner.’
‘Shall I give it to him?’ said Pauli.
‘No, give it to me, Pauli. I’ll tell the chambermaid to put it in his room.’
‘I know which is his room, Mama.’
‘Give it to me, Pauli. He might be angry if he hears I’ve dropped it on the floor.’
‘I won’t tell him, Mama.’
‘That’s best, Pauli.’ His mother clutched the watch very tight and closed her eyes, the way children do when making a wish.
Three days after Papa arrived, everyone went to Kiel and stayed in a hotel. It was a momentous trip. Mama wore her new ankle-length motoring coat and gauntlet gloves. Papa drove the car. Its technology was no longer new, but he loved the big yellow Itala and clung to it, even though some people thought he should drive a German car. It was the first time he’d taken the wheel for such a long journey, but he knew that Glenn Rensselaer was able to make running repairs and the chauffeur was ordered to stay near the telephone at Omi’s house just in case something went very badly wrong. Glenn sat beside Harald Winter, the Englishman and Mama at the back, the two children in the folding seats. There were no servants with them. The servants had gone by train. As Harald Winter said, ‘It will be an adventure.’
It was not just an excursion. Harald Winter didn’t make excursions: he had an appointment in the Imperial Dockyard. The next day, while a sea mist cloaked the waterfront and muffled the sounds of the dockyards, he met with a young Korvettenkapitän and two civilian officials of the purchasing board of the Imperial German Navy. Harald Winter had not been forthcoming about the subject of his discussion. It concerned the prospect of a naval airship programme, and that was categorized as secret. The department was already named; it was to be the Imperial Naval Airship Division – but so far it consisted of little beyond a name on the door of one small room on the wrong side of the office block. Last year the appearance of the German army’s airship Z II at the ILA show in Frankfurt am Main had made the future seem rosy. But this year everything had gone wrong. The destruction of that same airship – one of the army’s two zeppelins – in a storm near Weilburg an der Lahn in April was followed by the loss of Count Zeppelin’s newly built Deutschland in June. To make matters worse, a competitor of Zeppelin had built a semi-rigid airship that not only beat Zeppelin’s endurance record by over an hour but arrived at the autumn army manoeuvres complete with its own mobile canvas shed. Now all the admirals and bureaucrats who’d delayed the decisions about purchasing zeppelins were congratulating themselves upon their farsightedness.
But while Harald Winter was sitting across the table from the earnest young naval officer and two blank-faced officials, his wife, children and guests were on the waterfront admiring the assembled might of the new Germany navy.
‘Look at them,’ said Glenn Rensselaer, indicating a dozen great grey phantoms just visible through the mist. ‘German shipyards have never been so busy. The one anchored on the right is a dreadnought.’ He used his field glasses but failed to read any name on the warship.
‘Three dreadnoughts last year, and four built the year before that,’ said Piper. Today the Englishman was looking like a typical holidaymaker, in his striped blazer and straw hat. ‘That makes the German navy exactly equal to the strength of the Royal Navy.’ He took the glasses Glenn Rensselaer handed him but didn’t use them to look at the ships.
‘No,’ said Glenn. ‘You British have eight dreadnoughts and at least three more on the slipways.’ He wore a cream pin-striped flannel suit with his straw boater at an angle on his head. The incoming sea-mist had made it too cold for such summer attire on this promenade. He had a long yellow scarf and now he wound it twice round his neck. Veronica noticed and wished she’d chosen something warmer. The cotton dress with its broderic anglaise trimmings was made specially for this holiday, but the dressmaker had not calculated on the spell of cold weather.
The Englishman nodded. ‘Perhaps you’re right.’
‘And what exactly is a dreadnought?’ said Veronica.
‘Oh, Mama!’ said young Peter, looking back from where he was climbing on the railing to get a better view. ‘Everyone knows what a dreadnought is.’ Little Pauli climbed up beside his brother.
‘It’s a new type of battleship,’ said the ever-attentive Piper.
‘They all look the same to me,’ said Veronica.
‘Maybe they do,’ said Rensselaer, ‘but when the British built HMS Dreadnought in 1906 it made every other capital ship obsolete. Steam-turbine engines, bigger guns and all to a common calibre: faster and more deadly than anything previously built. Now the strength of any navy is measured by the number of dreadnoughts they have. It took that Kaiser of yours a couple of years to get started, but now he’ll bust a gut rather than let the Royal Navy outgun him.’
‘Get down, Peter,’ Veronica called to her son. ‘You’ll make your trousers dirty and we haven’t brought any more with us.’ The Englishman smiled at her. ‘It’s so difficult without the servants,’ said Veronica.
Glenn Rensselaer took back his field glasses again and studied the big dreadnought. ‘Do you think they brought her through the canal, or is she too big?’ Now that the Nord-Ostaee-Kanal directly connected Germany’s North Sea Fleet with the Baltic Fleet, it had vastly increased Germany’s naval potential. Still using the field glasses, Glenn Rensselaer eventually answered his own question: ‘Too big, I think. That’s probably why they are working so hard to make it wider and deeper.’ Even without the glasses one could see the sailors moving about the deck in their white summer uniforms. From the size of the sailors it was easy to judge the dimensions of the huge battleship. ‘She’s big,’ said Glenn Rensselaer, ‘very big.’
Veronica, hampered by the fashionable hobble skirt, had walked on and now Piper followed her. The crisp cotton dress with its high tight lace collar and the lovely new hat with silk bow and artificial flowers made her look wonderful, and she knew it. The others were out of earshot by the time he caught up with her. It was the first chance for Veronica to speak privately with the Englishman since her husband had arrived, but she said only, ‘I wish my brother wouldn’t speak so disrespectfully of His Majesty. It has such a bad effect on the children.’
‘I know, Mrs Winter, but your brother means no harm, I’m sure of that.’ He smiled at her and she smiled back.
She felt very happy. It really didn’t matter what was said. She loved the Englishman and he loved her. There was no need to say it. There was no need to say anything at all, really.
They’d hoped that the mist would lift, but it was one of those days when the Kiel Bight remains shrouded in fog until nightfall. When they got back to the hotel, Harry had still not returned from his meeting. Alan Piper ordered tea. Glenn chaffed him about this curious English ritual, but they all sat together in the glass-sided lounge, exchanging small talk, until the Englishman took the restless boys outside to the promenade for another look at the warships.
Left without them in the lounge, Veronica turned to her brother and said, ‘There won’t be a war, will there, Glenn?’
He looked at her and took his time before replying. ‘Dad is convinced that there will be. The folks would like you to come back home; I guess they tell you that in their letters.’
‘Yes, they do.’ She poured more tea for herself. She didn’t want it, but she was nervous.
‘This year you didn’t get to see them in London.’ He sat back in the armchair and crossed his legs. Big bony skull, wide cheekbones, and easy smile – sometimes he looked so like Father, and so like little Paul. She’d not noticed before how much of a Rensselaer her son looked.
‘It would be so easy for them to come here.’ She didn’t want to talk about her parents. It would make her feel guilty, and she didn’t want to feel guilty.
‘Dad’s not too fond of the Germans; you know that. And since the sudden death of the King of England, the Kaiser is determined to prove himself the master of Europe. Dad says he’s dangerous, and I agree.’
‘It’s just not fair,’ said Veronica. ‘Everyone blames the Kaiser, but all he wants to do is make Germany as strong as the other powers. What’s so bad about that?’
‘It’s the way he goes about it: he struts and rants and always wears that damned army outfit with the spiked helmet. That military posturing doesn’t go down well in Paris and London and New York. They like statesmen to wear dark suits and carnations and make speeches about peace and prosperity.’
‘Harry says that European armies are only suited for colonial wars.’
‘Suited, maybe. But they are fast becoming equipped for something far more destructive. What about these airships that can float right over big towns and toss explosives down on the city hall? Look out the window and see the guns on that dreadnought: one of those ships could shell a coastal city and remain out of sight while doing it. And what about these huge conscript armies that Prussia has had for over a hundred years? You don’t need conscript armies for colonial scraps. Right? Back home I’ve been down through the South…I walked through the ruined streets of Richmond, Virginia, and it’s enough to make you weep. The same goes for cities in the Carolinas and Georgia. What is it – fifty years back? And they still haven’t rebuilt everything that the fighting destroyed. And the bitterness remains…. It’s terrible, and that’s the kind of war that these damned Europeans are going to have, unless I miss my guess.’
‘You frighten me with such talk, Glenn.’
‘I promised Dad that I would have a serious word with you. Don’t you ever miss your friends and your folks and your family? How can you be happy with all these foreigners all the time?’
‘I don’t want to say anything hurtful, Glenn, but these “foreigners” are my friends and my family now.’ Glenn would never understand how much Berlin meant to her. She loved the city: the opera, the ballet, the orchestras, the social life, and the intellectual climate. She loved the crazy, uncomplaining, shameless Berliners, with their irrepressible sense of humour. She loved the friends she’d made and her husband, and her incomparable sons. How could Glenn expect her to abandon everything that made life worth living and start all over again in a cultural wasteland like New York City?
‘Do you mind if I smoke my pipe? I can’t think properly without a taste of Virginia.’ From the pocket of his double-breasted flannel jacket he took a tobacco pouch, safety matches, and a curly meerschaum pipe.
‘I don’t mind, but maybe it’s not permitted here. There’s a smoking room at the back of the restaurant.’
‘Baloney! People smoke everywhere nowadays. People smoke on the street in New York, even women.’
‘That sounds horrible.’
He lit the pipe, which was already charged with tobacco. ‘It was the flies that got me started,’ he said between puffs at the pipe. ‘I was working on a ranch in Texas, and the smoke was the only way you could keep them out of your eyes and mouth. I saw guys go crazy.’
‘I’d love to see New York again,’ she admitted with what was almost reluctance. ‘Just for a visit.’
‘You’d never recognize New York City these days, sis. I know your husband is reckoned a big shot in that automobile of his. But I stood in Herald Square and saw it jammed so tight with automobiles that none of them could get going.’ He laughed and puffed his pipe. He’d affected a pipe when he first came to see her in Germany, the year after Peter was born; Glenn was seventeen then. He’d tried to look grown-up but he’d choked on the tobacco smoke, and she’d brought him fruit when he went to bed feeling sick. She felt a sudden pang of regret that she’d left her family so young. They’d grown up without her, and she’d grown up without them.
‘And Dad and Mama like it in New York?’ she asked.
‘They don’t spend much time downtown any more. But, sure, Dad likes it. While your Harry was betting on airships, Dad was betting on the automobile. He invested in steel, oil and rubber and is getting richer by the minute.’ He puffed on his pipe again. ‘You didn’t mind my bringing Boy with me?’
‘Of course not, but if I’d known earlier, I could have had things better prepared. Those little rooms you have…’
‘The rooms are fine, sis, and I’m sorry we just descended on you. I didn’t realize how sick your mother-in-law is. It must make a lot of work for you.’
‘It’s good to see you, Glenn. Really good.’
‘Boy is stuck on you; you know that, don’t you?’ he blurted out. She had the feeling that he’d been trying to find a way of saying it ever since they’d first begun to talk.
‘Yes, I know he is.’
‘You get to know what a man’s like when you drink with him. And I’ve knocked around a bit, sis. I’ve met a lot of people since I last saw you. He’s a regular guy.’
She said nothing for a long time. He was her brother, and she felt she should respond. ‘He wants me to go away with him.’
‘Boy does?’ He was discomposed. He thought she’d just be flattered, and laugh. He wished he’d not mentioned it.
‘I don’t know what to do, Glenn. The children would never understand. Peter would feel I’d betrayed them, and Pauli just dotes on his father.’
‘Buck up, sis. It’s nothing to cry about.’
Glenn could not advise her; she’d known that before confiding in him. Glenn was her younger brother: their relationship precluded any chance that he could talk to her about such things and keep a sense of proportion. ‘Please don’t say anything to anyone, Glenn. I’m still trying to make up my mind. Boy wants me to bring the children, too.’
Glenn Rensselaer shook his head in amazement. ‘You’re a dark horse.’
‘I love him, Glenn. I don’t know how it happened in such a short time. I thought it was something that only happened in books and plays. But I love Harry, too.’ She turned her head away as the tears welled up in her eyes.
‘Divorced women are not received in our sort of society.’ He had to warn her. Glenn was a good man. He’d only wanted to make her happy, and now he found himself involved in her moral dilemma, the sort of thing he couldn’t handle.
‘I couldn’t go without the children, Glenn….’
‘It’s a big step.’ That bastard Harry, despite his philandering, would probably deny her a divorce: he detested the Englishman, Glenn could see that. So his sister would be living in sin in a society where such sinners were punished here on earth. The idea of that happening to his sister pained him. And yet Harry was a swine….
‘I couldn’t take Harry’s sons from him and give them to another man. That would be a sin, wouldn’t it?’ She wiped her tears away.
‘We only have one life. I’m not a priest.’
‘Hush! They’re coming in,’ said Veronica, catching sight of Piper and the two children coming up the path. As the doorman swung open the doors, the sound of a ship’s band playing on the sea front came to their ears. They were playing Sousa; such bold Yankee music sounded strange in these German surroundings.
Harald Winter’s final meeting with the representatives of the Imperial German Navy’s purchasing board had not left him in the best of moods. The meeting had ended with a gesture that Winter regarded as provocative. One of the civilians produced photographs of the army’s latest airship, the Parseval III, flying over Leipzig. Manufactured by Zeppelin’s brilliant rival, August von Parseval, it was a most efficient flying machine. It was big: its envelope contained five thousand cubic metres of gas. It had two hundred-horsepower engines and carried eight passengers. And yet the whole contraption could be deflated and taken away by horse-drawn wagon. This miracle was achieved by having no rigid metal framework. But the prospect of airships without a rigid metal framework had little or no attraction for Harald Winter. He left the meeting in a rage.
He snapped at the hotel staff and at his personal servants. When he was unlocking his decanters for a drink before dressing for dinner, he even found fault with the children.
‘They are getting out of control,’ he said.
‘How can you say that, Harry? Everyone remarks on how well behaved they are.’
‘They’re allowed to roam all through the hotel. And Pauli even pesters me when I’m working.’
‘And you snap at him. I wish you’d be more patient with little Pauli. He adores you so much, and yet you always reject him. Why?’
‘Pauli must grow up. He’s like a little puppy that comes licking your hand all the time. He wants constant attention.’
‘He wants affection.’ Harald Winter had never shown much affection to her or to the boys. He’d always said that earning money should be sufficient evidence of a man’s love for his family.
‘Then let him go to Nanny. What do I pay her for?’
‘Harry, how can you be so blind? Little Pauli loves you more than anyone in the whole world. You are his life. You hurt him deeply when you send him away with angry words.’ She didn’t want to pursue the subject. She tried to decide whether she could endure her corset as tight as this for the entire evening. Some women were abandoning corsets altogether – it was the new fashion – but Veronica still kept to the old styles.
Harald Winter poured brandy for himself and added a generous amount of Apollinaris soda water. He drank some and then turned his attention to the faults of their guests.
‘They act like a couple of spies,’ he complained. ‘Do you think no one notices them out on the promenade using their field glasses and making sketches of the warships?’
‘Spies?’ said Veronica. ‘You’re speaking of our guests; and one of them is my kith and kin.’
Harald Winter realized that he’d gone too far. He retracted a little. ‘I didn’t mean your brother, I meant the Engländer.’
‘No one was making sketches, Harry, and the field glasses belonged to Glenn.’
‘Piper is obviously a spy,’ said Winter. He had never really liked the English, and this fellow Piper, with his absurdly exaggerated good manners and the attention he gave to Veronica, was a prime example of the effete English upper class.
‘You sound like a character in those silly books the children read. If the ships are secret, why are they anchored here for everyone to see? And if you are convinced that Mr Piper is a spy, why bring him here?’
‘It’s better that he be someplace where the authorities can keep an eye on him,’ said Winter.
‘You didn’t repeat these suspicions to the people at Fleet Headquarters?’
‘I felt it was my duty.’ He put his glass down with more force than was necessary.
‘Harry, how could you! Mr Piper is our guest. To report him as a spy is…’
‘Ungentlemanly?’ asked Harry sarcastically. Nervously he smoothed his already well-brushed hair. A German wife would know better than to argue about such things.
‘No gentleman would do it, Harry,’ she told him. ‘No English gentleman would do it, and neither would a member of the Prussian Officer Corps. The officers to whom you reported your suspicions of Mr Piper will not see it as something to your credit, Harry.’ It was the first time she’d confronted him with such direct imputations. Harry’s already pale face became white with anger.
‘Damnit, Veronica. The fellow is sent to South Africa without any army rank. He learns to speak Afrikaans and wanders around anywhere that trouble arises. Then the fighting ends and, when you’d think Piper’s expertise is most needed, the British give him a year’s leave and he decides to go and look at zeppelins. But before that he turns up in Kiel, studying the most modern units of the Kaiser’s battle fleet through powerful field glasses.’
‘Must you Germans always be so suspicious?’ she said bitterly. ‘It was you who suggested bringing him to Kiel. You knew the Fleet would be here for the summer exercises – you told me that yourself. Then you report him for spying. Have you taken leave of your senses, Harry? Or are you just trying to find some perverse way to show these naval people how patriotic you can be?’
Her accusation hit him and took effect. His voice was icy cold, like his eyes. ‘If that’s the way you feel about us Germans, perhaps you’d be happier among your own people.’
‘Perhaps I would, Harry. Perhaps I would.’ She rang the bell for her bath to be run. She would be pleased to get back to her mother-in-law’s house. She didn’t like hotels.
Those final summer days at Travemünde marked a change in the children’s lives. They became both closer together and further apart. They were closer because both children knew that Pauli’s desperate leap overboard had saved his brother’s life. Both carried that certain knowledge with them always, and although it was seldom, if ever, referred to even obliquely, it influenced both of their lives.
They became further apart, too, for that summer marked the time when their carefree childhood really ended and they both, in different ways, faced the prospect of becoming men. Pauli, genial and anxious to please, did not relish the prospect of going to cadet school and becoming a member of the Prussian Officer Corps, and yet he accepted it, as he accepted everything his parents proposed, as the best possible course for someone of his rather limited abilities.
Peter’s ambition to be an explorer was, like so many of Peter’s ambitions, a way of describing his desire for freedom and independence. Peter was strong and respected strength, and his narrow escape from drowning made him see that strength came not only from intellect or muscles: strength could come from being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes strength could come from loving someone enough to jump into the sea. Peter had always considered his little brother weak, but now he wasn’t so sure.
The last two days at the house near Travemünde were filled with promises and farewells: false promises but sincere farewells. Glenn and his English friend were the first to go. When would the boys come and see Glenn in New York? Soon, very soon.
Then Peter and Paul went off to find Fritz Esser. He was in his boat shed, chopping wood and bundling it for kindling. He said he was sorry that the Valhalla had never been found again. Perhaps it would turn up. Wrecks along this coast reappeared as flotsam on the beaches after the autumn storms. ‘See you next year,’ the boys told him.
‘I won’t be here next year. My papers will come for the army, but I won’t go. I’ll be on the run.’
‘Where will you hide?’ asked Pauli. They had both come to admire the surprising Fritz Esser, but little Pauli hero-worshipped him.
‘People will shelter me,’ said Esser confidently. ‘Liebknecht says the Party will help.’
In the corner of the old hut Peter spied splinters of beautifully finished white hull, just like that of the Valhalla, but he didn’t inspect them closely. Sometimes it is better not to know.
Along the beach they saw the pig man. He grinned and waved a knife at them: they waved back to him and fled.
The boys said goodbye to Omi, too. They heard their father whisper to Mama that by next year Omi might no longer be here. They kissed Omi goodbye and promised to see her next year.
Veronica went up to the little turret room and spent a few minutes alone there. She would never see the Englishman again: she knew that now. She could never go away without the children, and yet she could not bring herself to take them away from her husband.
War with Russia
Despite all his previous misgivings, Paul was not unhappy at his military school. In fact he rather enjoyed it. He enjoyed the unvarying routine, and he appreciated the way everyone accepted his scholastic limitations. It was all very strange, of course. Most of the other boys had come from Kadettenvoranstalten – the military preparatory schools – and they were used to the army routines and the shouting and marching and the uniforms that had to be so clean and perfect. Cleanliness had never been one of Paul’s priorities, but luckily a boy named Alex Horner, who’d come from the military prep school at Potsdam, helped the fourteen-year-old through those difficult early days of April when they first arrived.
Nothing at Gross-Lichterfelde was quite as he’d imagined it. He’d expected to be trained as a soldier, but his daily routine was not so different from that of any other German high school except that the teachers wore uniforms and he was expected to march and drill each afternoon. He’d hoped to be taught to shoot, but so far he’d not even seen a gun.
His father had told him that the Emperor had to approve each and every entrant to this, the Prussian army’s only cadet school, and that only the sons of aristocrats, army officers and heroic lower ranks could be admitted. The truth was somewhat different: most of the cadets were, like Paul, the sons of successful businessmen or of doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats and even wealthy farmers. Only a few of the boys had aristocratic families and most of these were the second or third sons of landowners whose estates would go to their elder brothers.
Alex Horner was typical of these disappointed younger sons. His father owned four big farms in East Prussia and had served only a couple of years in the army. Alex owed his place at Lichterfelde to the efforts of an uncle who was a colonel in the War Office.
It was Alex who always pulled Paul out of bed when reveille was sounded at six o’clock and got him off to the washroom before the cadet NCO came round to check the beds. A quick wash and then buttons. It was Alex who showed him how to use a button stick so that no metal polish marked his dark-blue tunic: a sleepy boy at the other end of the room who once tried polishing his buttons last thing at night instead of before breakfast discovered how quickly brass dulled, and served a day under arrest. Thanks to Alex, Paul was usually one of the first outside ready to be marched off to the standard Lichterfelde breakfast of soup and bread and butter. But the most important reason that Pauli had for liking Alex Horner was that Alex had seen Pauli crying his heart out on the night he first arrived, and Alex had never told a living soul.
Marching back from breakfast along the edge of the parade ground that morning in July, Paul remembered April 1, the day he’d arrived. That was over three months ago; it seemed like years. His father had insisted that Mama shouldn’t come, and Paul appreciated his father’s wisdom. He was quite conspicuous enough in the big yellow Italian motorcar with Hauser at the wheel. The Winters had lost two chauffeurs, who went to drive Berlin motor buses, so Hauser, the valet, had now learned to drive the car, and he’d promised to teach the boys, too, as soon as they were tall enough to reach the foot pedals.
Paul could look back now and smile, but that very first day at the Königlich Preussische Corps des Cadets at Lichterfelde – or what he’d now learned to call Zentralanstalt – had come as a shock. Although the band was playing, it didn’t offset the fuss the parents were making with their tearful mothers and odd-looking fathers. The poor boys knew they would be teased mercilessly about every aspect of their parents, and everything they did and said within the hearing of their fellow recruits.
Now it was summer, almost eight o’clock, and the sun was very low and blood red in an orange sky. Soon it would be hot, but the morning was cool, and a march to breakfast and back again was almost a pleasure. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Paul had learned to take pride in the precision of their marching. For the boys with years of cadet training already behind them it was all easy, but Paul had had to learn, and he’d learned well enough to be commended and allowed to shout orders to the cadets on one momentous occasion. Halt! There was much stamping of boots while the cadet NCO saluted the lieutenants, and the lieutenants saluted the Studiendirektor. Then, file by file, all two hundred cadets marched into the chapel for morning service.
‘Something has happened,’ whispered Alex. The chapel was gloomy; the only light came through the small stained-glass windows.
‘War?’ said Paul. The darkness and the low, vibrant chords of the organ provided a chance for furtive conversations. There was a clatter of hobnailed boots when one of the seniors stumbled as the back row was filled. Then the doors were closed with a resonant thump.
The boy next to him was a senior – one of the Obertertia, the boys permitted to go to rifle shooting in the afternoons. ‘The Serbs have replied to the Austrian ultimatum.’
‘Everyone knows that,’ whispered a boy behind them, ‘but will the wretched Austrians fight?’
‘Quiet!’ called a cadet NCO. ‘Horner and Winter, report to me after Latin class.’
Paul stiffened and looked down at his hymnbook. It was always like that: the junior year got punished and the senior boys escaped. Was it because their sins were overlooked, or had they become more skilled at talking without moving their lips? Alex kicked Paul in the ankle; Paul glanced at him and grinned. He hoped it would mean nothing worse than being put on half lunch ration – the other boys always helped out and the last time he’d eaten even better on punishment than he normally did – but if he got a three-hour arrest this afternoon he’d be late home, and then he’d have Father to answer to. Paul hated to be in disfavour with his father. His brother, Peter, had always been able to shrug off those fierce paternal admonitions but Paul wanted his father to admire him. He wanted that more than anything in the whole world. And it was Friday: this weekend he’d arranged for Alex Horner to come home with him, and a detention now would mess everything up.
‘Hymn number 103,’ said the chaplain mournfully, but no more mournfully than usual.
Paul and Alex escaped with no more than a fierce reprimand. Luckily their persecutor wasn’t one of their own NCOs but a senior boy who didn’t want to miss his riding lesson. Normally at 4:30 p.m. – after doing two hours of prep – there was drill on the barracks square, but at noon this day the boys were told that they were free until dinner, and that those with weekend passes could go home. It was another sign that something strange was in the air.
And as Alex and Paul went to their train at the Lichterfelde railway station they noticed that civilians deferred to them in a way that was unusual. ‘After you young officers,’ said a well-dressed businessman at the door of the first-class compartment. There was an element of mockery in this politeness, and yet it was not entirely mockery. The ticket inspector touched his hat in salute to them. He’d never done that before.
The boys did not read. They sat erect, conscious of their uniforms, styled like those of the post-1843 Prussian army, rather than the new field-grey ones. Military cap, white gloves, blue tunic, poppy-red cuffs and collar with the double gold braid that marked Lichterfelde cadets, and on the black leather belt a real bayonet.
In the other corner of the compartment, the man who’d ushered them inside sat reading a copy of the daily paper. The big black headline in Gothic type said ‘Russia mobilizes.’
From the Potsdamer railway station they walked through the centre of Berlin: past the big expensive shops of Leipziger Strasse, and then along Friedrichstrasse. Everywhere they saw groups of people standing around as if waiting for something to happen. There were more women on the streets nowadays – shopping, strolling, exercising dogs; the shorter skirts enabled women to be out and about in a way they never had before. The narrow Friedrichstrasse was always busy, of course; here were offices, shops, cafés and clubs, so that it never stopped, night or day. But today it seemed different, and even the wide Unter den Linden was filled with aimless people. At the intersection of the two streets – one of the most popular spots in all Berlin – was the boys’ destination: the Victoria Café and the best ice cream in town.
They got a table outside on the pavement and watched the traffic and the restless crowds. A No. 4 motor bus went past; on its open top deck were half a dozen soldiers. They were flushed of face and singing boisterously. The bus was heading towards the Friedrichstrasse railway station, where there were always military policemen. Alex predicted that they would be in cells within half an hour, and there was little chance that he would be wrong.
Everything was bright green, the lime trees were in full leaf, and the birds were not frightened of the noise, not even of the big new motor buses. Only when the band marched past did the birds fly away. Alex said the band was that of the 3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuss marching back to its barracks at Skalitzer Strasse. They wore white parade trousers and blue tunics and gleaming helmets, and the music sounded fine. Behind them was a company of infantry in field grey. They looked tired and dusty, as if they’d been on a long route march, but when they got to the corner of Friedrichstrasse there were some cheers from civilians standing there, and the soldiers seemed to stiffen up and smile.
The waiter brought the boys the big platter of ice cream they’d so looked forward to on this hot day and they started eating greedily. At the next table two men were arguing about whether Russia had really mobilized or whether it was just another rumour or another way of selling newspapers. New editions of the daily papers were appearing on the streets every hour, and the vendors came calling the new headlines with a desperate urgency.
‘Will they send us to the front?’ Paul asked his friend between mouthfuls of ice cream. Alex’s time at the military prep school and the skills he’d already shown made him an authority on all things military, and Paul always deferred to him.
‘Not right away,’ said Alex, finishing the last of his chocolate ice cream and starting on the raspberry one. ‘But they’ll need officers once the war starts. Perhaps they’ll graduate us quickly.’
‘No one could be commissioned before they were seventeen at least, could they, Alex?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Alex. ‘But if we fight the Russians they’ll need everyone they can get. The Russians have a very big army. My father will have to go: he has a reserve commission in the cavalry. He wants me to go into the cavalry, but I’m going to fly in the army airships.’
‘My father has a factory that builds airship parts,’ said Paul. He wiped a dribble of ice cream from his chin. ‘My brother likes airships, but I wouldn’t much like to fly. I prefer horses.’ In fact, Pauli found the prospect of flying in an airship quite terrifying, but that wasn’t something he’d confide to anyone: not even Alex.
After finishing their ice cream they walked up Unter den Linden, just to see what was happening. From the Victoria Café they went past the cathedral, over the ‘museum island’, and then returned to the enormous block of the Royal Palace. The sentries had been doubled outside the palace, and a crowd was staring up at the empty stone balcony, hoping the Kaiser would appear, but the Kaiser was at sea with his Fleet. Some of the crowd began to sing ‘Deutschland über alles’, until a dozen policemen appeared and after a lot of shouted orders and pushing, moved them along.
When the boys eventually got back to the Winter house it was four o’clock. Hauser opened the door. Hauser was growing a beard; progress was slow and each weekend Paul noted its development. ‘The master is in the study with Herr Fischer,’ said Hauser, ‘and your mama has a headache and is sleeping. Your father said you are to see Nanny right away.’
Paul took his friend up to the top floor. It was a big house, as Alex, on his first visit here, noticed. It had the smell of newness. There had been many such fine new homes built in Ku-damm over the last twenty years or so. There was wood panelling, rich carpets and wonderful furniture. And although Alex’s own home in far off Königsberg had fine furniture and just as many servants, if not more, the Winter house was in such faultless condition that he was frightened of leaving a footprint on the perfectly brushed carpet or a fingermark on the polished handrails. But Alex was enough of a snob to know that these big houses near the Ku-damm were the mansions of the nouveaux riches. The established tycoons had villas in Grunewald, and the aristocracy their palaces on the Tiergarten.
Paul found his nanny in her room, packing her case. ‘I’m off, back to Scotland, young Paul,’ she said. She looked at him as if expecting a reaction but, not knowing what he was supposed to say, Pauli stared back at her without expression. ‘Be good to your mother, Pauli,’ she said. Her eyes were red. She leaned over and gave him a peck on his forehead. Then she reached for the cup of tea she always liked to drink at four o’clock in the afternoon. She put condensed milk in it. Afterwards, for all his life, Paul never smelled condensed milk without remembering her. ‘It will seem strange after nearly sixteen years with you all.’ She gulped some tea and said, ‘Your father thinks it’s best, and he knows.’ Her voice was rough. She was on the verge of tears, but Paul didn’t realize that. He watched her folding her aprons and packing them carefully into the big scarred suitcase. He’d never seen inside the case before: outside it was stained and scuffed and covered with torn hotel labels, but inside its leather was like new. Dutifully the boys stayed with her watching her pack, until Paul glanced at Alex and made a face. Then, unable, to think of anything more appropriate, he said, ‘Goodbye, Nanny,’ and with no more than a perfunctory kiss on her cheek he took Alex off to his ‘playroom’, which had been called the nursery when Nanny first arrived so long ago, before Paul was born.
While the two boys were setting out the train set, downstairs in his study Winter was drinking brandy with his guest, Erwin ‘Fuchs’ Fischer. The lunch had been a protracted one, as lunches tended to be when Winter wanted to discuss business, for Winter was not a man who rushed his hurdles.
‘The loss of both naval airships last year – how did the Count take that?’ asked Fischer. Asking how von Zeppelin had reacted to the crashes was just a roundabout way of asking how Winter had reacted.
Winter smiled. He was a dapper man and his hair, now parted on the left side of his head and allowed to grow longer, had greyed at his temples. But he was handsome – undeniably so – even if he was somewhat demonlike with his pointed chin and dark, quick eyes. And always he was optimistic. It seemed as if nothing could get him down. ‘Zeppelins have flown thousands and thousands of kilometres since 1900. Those sailors in L1 were the very first deaths in any Zeppelin airship. And that was due to a squall; there was no structural failure.’
‘You always were a good salesman, Harry.’ Fischer grinned. He had now inherited the big complex of metal companies that his father had built up in over thirty years of trading. Harry Winter was trying to persuade him that a big cash investment in his aluminium business would be to their mutual benefit, but Fischer wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know much about the light-alloys business and he was frightened of bringing ruin to his father’s work. The added responsibilities had aged him suddenly. The great helmet of hair had now thinned so that his pink scalp was visible, and his eyes were dark and deep-set.
Winter said, ‘A light cruiser – the Köln – radioed a storm warning, but…Well, we don’t know what happened after that.’
‘Except that L1 crashed into the sea and fourteen sailors died.’ Fischer scratched his nose. He didn’t want to do business with Harald Winter. He enjoyed his friendship, but he didn’t trust his judgement. Winter was too impulsive.
‘Airships are safe, Foxy. But freak weather conditions are something no one can provide against.’
Fischer sipped his brandy. The food and drink were always first class at Winter’s place, he had to admit that. And he lived in grand style. Fischer looked round at the magnificent inlaid desk, the leather-bound editions of Goethe, Schiller and Shakespeare that he actually read, and the exquisite Oriental carpets that he wasn’t afraid to walk upon. Winter was not known for giving big parties or having a box at the opera, but in his own quiet way he lived very, very well. ‘Then, just five weeks later, the navy lost the L2. It burned and fell from the sky. How does the Count explain that one, Harry?’
‘They took her up to “pressure height” too fast, and hydrogen was valved from the gas cells.’
‘I read all that, Harry. But damnit, why did the hydrogen ignite?’
‘The navy fitted big windscreens to the gondolas to provide a bit of protection from the air stream. The leaking gas went along the underside of the envelope – combining with enough air to make a very explosive mixture. From the keel those damned windscreens took it down to the gondola and the red-hot parts of the engines.’
Fischer stroked his lips nervously. ‘The navy say that von Zeppelin approved their modifications,’ persisted Fischer. If Harald Winter wanted him to invest in his aluminium company, Fischer might let him have some small token payment for the sake of their friendship, but it would be no more than the company could afford to write off. And even for that Fischer was determined to drive a hard bargain.
‘No,’ said Winter. ‘He simply sent his congratulations on the way the finished airship looked.’
‘Having a stand-up row with Grossadmiral von Tirpitz at the funeral didn’t improve matters for him.’
‘Count Zeppelin’s an old man,’ said Winter.
‘We’re all getting older, Harry, even you. What were you last birthday, forty-four?’
‘Yes,’ said Harry.
‘And I’m sixty-two. We’ve known each other a long time, Harry. I should be getting ready for retirement, not learning how to run this damned company of mine.’
Pleased with the opening thus provided, Winter said, ‘It makes sense: an investment with me would make good sense, Foxy.’
‘Aluminium? My instinct is to diversify out of metals.’
‘Exactly what I’m offering. The five million Reichsmarks you invest will be for an aero-engine company and an air-frame assembly plant.’
‘You said it was for aluminium.’
‘No, no, no. That’s just the collateral I’m offering to you. The extra money is for airplane manufacture.’
‘Haven’t you got enough troubles in aviation, Harry? Two naval rigids crashed. Who’s going to buy your aluminium now?’
‘The navy are committed to the airship programme. They have built airship bases along the northern coast and are building more. The money is allotted and the personnel are being trained. They can’t stop now. They’ll buy more and more. And so will the army.’
‘I suppose you are right. And now it’s to be airplanes too?’
‘Airplanes will be needed to protect the airships and to attack enemy airships too.’
‘So the war is certain, is it Harry? Not just newspaper talk?’ To some extent this was provocation, but it was also a question. Harry Winter mixed with the military people; he’d know what the current thinking was. ‘Is war a part of the company’s prospectus?’
‘You sell the navy a battle cruiser and they use it for twenty-five years. Sell the army artillery pieces and they last ten or fifteen years.’ He sipped his drink. ‘But aircraft are fragile.’
‘And are expendable in war in a way that battleships are not expendable?’
‘War or no war, airships and airplanes get damaged easily. Men have to be trained to fly, so there are many crashes. Everyone knows that, including the men who fly them. A constant supply of new machines is going to be required by the military.’
‘You’re a cold-blooded devil, Harry.’
‘I don’t make the decisions, Foxy, I simply react to events.’
‘I can’t give you an exact answer, Harry. My son Richard will have to agree. But we’ll participate.’
Harald Winter relaxed. He’d got what he wanted. He knew Foxy would try to whittle the five million down to one million or less. But what Foxy didn’t realize was that Harry only wanted his name. He had several investors who’d readily put their money in when they heard that Fischer was convinced. ‘Is Richard a director now?’
‘I’m not going to keep my son out of the business the way my father excluded me right up to the day he died. He’s thirty-three years old. Richard is a junior partner and gets a chance to decide on everything important. What about your two boys?’
‘Little Paul seems happy enough at Lichterfelde. He’s a genial chap, always laughing. The army will be good for him; he has no head for business.’
‘He’ll go to university next year and then he’ll get a position with me. I’m arranging for him to be excused his military service and simply be replacement reserve. There are plenty of men for the army: the population has grown by leaps and bounds. And my factories are now vital to the army and navy. If he works hard I’ll make Peter a junior partner.’
‘Lucky boy. Is that what he wants to do?’
‘You know what young people are like, Foxy. He has this mad idea of becoming a musician. He doesn’t understand what a musician’s life is like.’
‘Is he talented?’
‘They tell me so, but talent is no guarantee that a man will earn a living. On the contrary, the more talent a man has the less likely he is to do well.’
‘The scientists in my factory, the engineers who design the engines and the structures: what talents they have, and yet they will never get more than a simple living wage. Most of them could make far more money in the sales department, but they are too interested in their work to change. Talent is an impediment to them. Look at all the penniless artists desperate to sell their work, and the musicians who beg in the street.’
‘And so you’ve forbidden Peter to study music?’ asked Fischer provocatively.
Winter knew that Fischer was baiting him in his usual amiable way but he responded vibrantly. ‘If he wants to study music, that’s entirely up to him. But he can’t expect to enjoy himself playing music while others work to supply him with money.’
‘You’d cut him off without a penny?’ said Fischer with a smile. ‘That’s hard on the boy, Harry.’
‘If he wants to inherit the business, he must work. I have no patience with people like Frau Wisliceny, who gives the boy these crazy notions.’
‘Frau Wisliceny – Professor Wisliceny’s wife? But her “salon” is the most famous in Berlin. The world’s finest musicians take tea there.’
‘Yes, Frau Professor Doktor Wisliceny, I should have said…. And so do all sorts of other riffraff: psychologists, painters, novelists, poets and even socialists.’
Fischer decided not to reveal the fact that he had tea there regularly, too, and spent happy hours talking to the ‘riffraff’. ‘But if Frau Wisliceny thinks your son Peter has talent …What does he play?’
‘Piano. I won’t have one in the house, so he goes there to practise. My wife encourages him, I’m afraid. At first they thought that they’d force me to buy one for him but I wouldn’t yield. Professor Wisliceny must be a strange fellow to put up with it. How did he make his money?’
Fischer smiled. ‘Ah, that rather goes against your theory. The professor is a very clever chemist…synthetic dyestuffs.’
‘He made money from that?’
‘These aniline dyes save all the time, trouble and expense of getting dyes from plants, minerals, or animals. He makes a lot of money selling his expertise. You should bear him in mind, Harry, when you are making Peter toe the line.’
Winter was not amused. ‘I’m not talking about scientists. I don’t want a musician in the family.’
‘I’m not fond of the Wislicenys. People like that should not encourage the troublemakers.’
‘They are good people, Harry.’ He wanted to calm Winter’s anger. ‘And the three Wisliceny girls are the prettiest in all Berlin. The youngest one, Lisl, would be a match for your youngest boy.’ Fischer couldn’t resist teasing Harry Winter. ‘She’s a gifted little girl: plays the piano at the conservatoire.’
‘A little more brandy?’ said Harry Winter.
The question was never answered, for at that moment they heard one of the maids screaming. She screamed twice and then came racing – falling almost – down the front stairs, the ones the servants were not permitted to use. ‘She’s dead. The mistress is dead!’
Harry Winter rushed to the door and stepped out of his study fast enough to catch the hysterical girl in his arms. ‘Stop it!’ he shouted so fiercely that for a moment she was silent. ‘Sit down and stop that stupid noise.’
‘She’s dead,’ said the girl, more quietly this time but with great insistence. She was shaking uncontrollably.
Winter ran up the stairs two at a time. He was no longer as fit as he’d once been and the exertion left him breathless as he raced into his wife’s room.
Veronica, fully dressed in a long green tea gown but with her golden hair disarranged, was sprawled across the bed. Winter rolled her over and then gently lifted an eyelid to see her eye.
‘My God!’ said Fischer, who’d followed him into the room. ‘It smells like a hospital in here. What’s wrong?’
‘She’s all right.’ Winter looked at his friend and hesitated before saying more. ‘It’s chloroform. My wife takes it in order to sleep.’
‘Shall I send for a doctor?’
‘No, I know what to do.’ Winter went to the door and said to the chambermaid, ‘Send Frau Winter’s personal maid to help her to bed. And tell Hauser that Frau Winter is unwell. He’s to keep the children and the servants from disturbing her.’
Fischer looked round the room. This was Veronica’s sanctum: floral wallpaper and bows and canopied bed. Harry’s bedroom – more severely ordered, with mahogany and brass – was next door.
‘It’s happened before?’ said Fischer as Winter closed the door on the maid and turned back to him.
‘Yes,’ said Winter. He went to the bed and looked at his wife. Why had she done this to him? Winter was too self-centred to see Veronica’s actions as anything but inconveniences.
Fischer looked at him with sympathy. So this was why Veronica was not much seen lately in Berlin society. Chloroform wasn’t taken to combat insomnia; it was a drug taken for excitement by foolish young people or by people who could no longer face the bleak reality of their world. Veronica was American, of course; all this talk of war must have put a strain on her. ‘How long has this been going on, Harry?’
There was no point in telling lies. ‘We went to Travemünde in the summer of 1910. Her brother, Glenn, was with us. It started about that time.’ He picked up the empty bottle and the gauze pad, sniffed at it, and grimaced. ‘I’m damned if I know where she gets the stuff.’
‘It’s easy enough to get, if you want it badly enough,’ said Fischer who knew about such things. ‘Any pharmacist stocks it and hospitals use it by the bucketful.’ He looked at Harry, who was now sitting on the bed embracing his unconscious wife. ‘Is everything all right between you?’ Fischer was one of the few men who could be so candid with him.
‘I love her. I love her very much.’ Winter fingered the things on his wife’s bedside table: a Bible, a German-English dictionary and some opened letters. Winter put the letters into his pocket. He wanted to see who was writing to his wife. Like most womanizers, he was eternally suspicious.
‘With respect, Harry, that’s not what I asked.’
‘There are no other men. Of that I’m sure.’
‘So what now?’ Fischer was embarrassed to find himself suddenly at the centre of this domestic tragedy. But Harald Winter and his wife were old friends.
‘I’ll have to send for the Wisliceny woman. She’s become Veronica’s closest friend. She looked after her when this happened before.’ He looked up at Fischer. ‘It’s not life and death, Foxy. She’ll come out of it.’
‘Perhaps she will, but it’s damned serious. You must talk to your wife, Harry. You must find out what’s troubling her. Maybe she should see one of these psychologist fellows.’
‘Certainly not!’ said Winter. ‘I won’t have some damned witch doctor asking her questions that don’t concern him. She must pull herself together.’ Winter hated to think of some such fellow – Austrian Jews, most of them were – prising from his wife things that were family matters. Or business secrets.
‘It’s not so easy, Harry. Veronica is sick.’
Winter still felt affronted by his wife’s behaviour. How could she make this scene while Fischer was their guest? ‘She has servants, money, children, a husband. What more can she want?’
Love, thought Fischer, but he didn’t say it. Was Harry still making those frequent trips to Vienna to see his Hungarian mistress? And how much did this distress Veronica? From what he knew of American women, they did not readily adapt to such situations. But Fischer did not say any of this either; he just nodded sympathetically.
Winter looked at his pocket watch. ‘It’s so late! What times she chooses for these antics. Little Paul has brought a friend home from his military school, and my elder son, Peter, will be arriving soon.’
But, however much Winter tried to put on a bold face, it was obvious to Fischer that Veronica’s overdosing had shaken him. Winter had even forgotten about his investment programme and Fischer’s contribution to it. You’re a damned hard man, thought Fischer, but he didn’t say it.
At that time, Peter was at Frau Wisliceny’s house off Kant Strasse. He’d spent two happy hours practising the piano under the critical but encouraging supervision of Frau Wisliceny. But now he was drinking coffee in the drawing room accompanied by the eldest of the three Wisliceny daughters. Her name was Inge. She was tall, with a full mouth that smiled easily, and dark hair that fell in ringlets around her pale oval face.
‘You will have to tell them, Peter,’ she said. ‘Your parents will be even more angry if you delay telling them.’
‘My father has made up his mind that I go to university this year.’
‘To study what?’
‘Law and mathematics.’
‘Surely he’ll be proud that you’ve joined the navy?’
‘It will spoil his plans: that’s what he will be concerned with. I think he’s already decided the exact date on which I will become a junior partner. He has my life all planned. You don’t understand how trapped I feel. Your mother is so understanding.’
‘But joining the navy is such a drastic way to escape him.’
‘There will be a war,’ said Peter.
‘There may not be a war. My father says the General Staff encourage these stories when they want more money.’
‘It’s too late now,’ said Peter. He grinned. He captivated her with his wavy hair and his smiles; he was so handsome and in a naval officer’s uniform he would look wonderful. She was very young – only three and a half months younger than Peter – but already she had set her heart upon capturing him. He didn’t know that, of course: she let him think that it was no more than a pleasant and casual friendship. And yet, when he was not with her, she ached for him, and when he was expected, she spent hours in front of the mirror getting ready for him. Her youngest sister, Lisl, was the only one who suspected her secret. Sometimes she teased her about this serious-minded pianist and made Inge blush.
‘Are you accepted?’
‘Yes. I am accepted for officer training and then for the Imperial Naval Airship Division.’
‘That’s dangerous,’ said Inge, not without a note of pride. She was a catlike creature. She shook her head enough to make her lovely hair shine, and when she looked at him, those wonderful deep-green eyes were for him alone.
‘It’s what I want to do. I wouldn’t like it on ships. I nearly drowned once and I’ve never really liked the water since.’
Inge smiled. She never got used to the way in which he confided such secrets to her. What other eighteen-year-old boy would have admitted to being frightened of the sea? ‘I wouldn’t tell the navy that, Peter,’ she said. ‘I don’t think they would relish appointing a naval lieutenant who didn’t like the water.’
Frau Professor Wisliceny, a large, imposing woman, sailed majestically into the room. ‘Your mama is not well,’ she announced without preamble. She went to the mirror and glanced at her reflection before turning back to Peter. ‘You’d better come with me, Peter.’
‘What kind of dopes are they to keep coming that way?’
The elderly American and his son were sitting in the library of the Travellers Club in London, drinking whiskey. They had the whole room to themselves. The club was quiet, as it always was at this time of the evening. Those members who had dined in were taking coffee downstairs, and the few theatregoers who dropped in for a nightcap had not arrived. Nowadays the risk of zeppelin raids persuaded most people to go home early. London – despite the presence of hordes of noisy, free-spending young officers – was not the town it had been before the war.
‘It sounds damned dangerous,’ said Cyrus G. Rensselaer. He was sixty-five years old but he looked younger. His hair was a little thinner and grey at the side, but the pale-blue eyes were clear and his waistline was trim. He felt as fit as ever. It was only looking at his thirty-six-year-old son that made him feel his age.
Glenn Rensselaer looked tired. ‘Sometimes it is dangerous,’ he agreed. ‘Most of them are only kids straight from school.’ For a year he’d been working as a civilian flying instructor for the Royal Flying Corps and lately he had been training pilots for night flying. It was a new skill and the casualty rate was alarming. ‘But the zeps come at night, so that’s when the British have to fly.’
‘Haven’t they got anti-aircraft guns?’
‘Not enough of them, and the Huns seem to know where the guns are. But the zeps are slow and planes can chase them. They are damned big and sometimes you can spot them better from up there.’ He looked at his father and saw that behind the sprightliness the old man was tired. ‘When did you get back from Switzerland, Dad?’
‘Yesterday afternoon. The train from Paris was packed with British officers, wounded mostly. Poor devils. Not many of them will fight again. I went to bed right away and slept the clock around.’
‘You’re in a hotel?’
‘The Savoy. It wasn’t worth opening the house for just a few nights. To tell you the truth, I’m thinking of selling it. If the war hadn’t brought property prices so low, I would have let it go last year, when you said you didn’t want to use it.’
‘The war must end soon, Dad. You’ll need a place in London.’ He wasn’t sure whether his father would still be young enough for the rigours of transatlantic crossing by the time these remorseless Europeans had fought themselves to a standstill, but he felt it was his duty always to encourage his hopes and plans. Cy Rensselaer’s wife, Mary, had died unexpectedly the previous year, and he didn’t want his father to go into what people called a decline.
But Glenn needn’t have worried about that. ‘Well, as a matter of fact I was going to have a word with you about family matters, son.’
‘Sure, Dad. What is it?’
‘Would you think I’m crazy if I told you I’m going to get hitched again?’
‘Hitched?’ For a moment he didn’t understand. ‘Hitched’ was not the sort of word that his father used. That he used it now was a measure of Cy Rensselaer’s embarrassment. ‘Married, you mean?’
‘Yes. Remarried. Is it too soon? I know you loved Mom.’
‘Whatever is best for you, Dad. You know that.’
‘Do you remember Dot Turner? Bob Turner’s widow.’
‘Turner Loans, Savings and Realty?’
‘She’s got three boys. A nice woman. I met her at a dinner party last Christmas and we get along just fine. Do I sound like an old fool, Glenn?’
‘No, Dad, of course not.’
‘I get lonely sometimes. I miss your mother. She did everything for me …It’s just the companionship.’
‘I know, Dad. I know.’
‘She wouldn’t take the place of your mother. No one could do that….’
‘It’s a great idea, Dad,’ said Glenn, still trying to get used to the prospect of having a new mother.
‘She’s too old to have a family or anything. It’s just companionship. She’s got all the money she needs, and her boys wouldn’t take the Rensselaer name. It wouldn’t make a jot of difference to you or Veronica.’
‘Sure, Dad, sure.’ He looked at his father and smiled. The old man leaned out and touched his son’s arm. He was happier now he’d got it off his chest.
‘And if you want the house here in London, I’ll turn it over to you.’
‘I live on the airfield. It’s comfortable enough out there. The Royal Flying Corps have even given me a servant – “batmen”, they call them. And I enjoy being with the youngsters. They are full of life and they talk nothing but flying. But tell me about Switzerland.’
‘I wanted to take the train and go right through to Berlin, and see dear Veronica,’ said the old man, ‘but the ambassador was so strongly against it.’
‘You must be careful, Dad. A lot of people would misunderstand a trip to meet a German partner.’
‘What do you mean, Glenn?’
‘Harald Winter is your partner, and he’s making aeroplanes and airships for the Germans. The British are in the middle of a desperate war. Your trip to meet Winter could be construed as a betrayal by your British friends.’
‘I wish to God I’d never loaned the money to him.’
‘But it’s been a good investment for you?’
His father’s voice was hoarse and hesitant. ‘He’s doing okay. He got into aviation at the very beginning, and he’s been very shrewd. He builds only under licence from other manufacturers so he doesn’t have all the worries about designing new ships and selling new ideas to the military.’
‘And Winter had no difficulties about meeting you in Switzerland? The British say that Germany is virtually under martial law.’
‘The Zeppelin company is in Friedrichshafen on the Bodensee. From there he had only a short trip on the ferryboat to Romanshorn. And Winter has become an important factor to the wartime economy; he’s a big shot now.’
‘I can imagine how he struts around.’
‘You never liked him, did you?’ said the old man. ‘I was always against him, too, but this time…’ He shrugged. ‘He looks really. worn out. I might have passed him on the street without recognizing him. And he’s really concerned about Veronica. I never realized how much she meant to him.’
‘Is he still running around with other women?’
‘How can I know that?’ said his father.
‘I wish she’d come home.’
‘We all wish she’d come home, Glenn. But it’s her life. We can’t live her life for her. And now that she’s ill, I have to say that Harald has done everything for her. She’s seen specialists in Berlin and Vienna, and she has a nurse night and day.’
‘I’ve never understood exactly what’s wrong with her.’
‘No one seems to know. The war came as a shock to her and now that Peter is serving with the Airship Division, she’s obviously worried about him. But it’s more complicated than that. Harald says she seems to have lost the will to live. It happens to some women, of course. Their children grow up and they find themselves beyond the age of childbearing. Somehow they feel useless.’
‘Especially if their husband spends all his spare time with his mistresses.’
‘We can’t be sure about that, Glenn.’
‘Men like him don’t change.’
‘We all change, Glenn. Some more than others, but we all change. Women have to feel needed, but maybe men have to feel needed, too. Maybe that’s why we all have this compulsion to go on working even when we have enough money to live in style.’
‘It’s pointless for her to worry about Peter. But that boy has a mind of his own. I remember how he went for me because I let slip a few home truths about Kaiser Bill. Even though he was just a child, he let fly at me. I was mad at him at the time, but when I thought about it I had to admire the little demon. It takes guts to challenge your grandfather in such circumstances. He’s a plucky kid. No surprise to me that he upped and joined the navy airships.’
‘The boy has a better chance than he’d have with an infantry regiment on the Western Front. Did you see the casualties the British have suffered on the Somme in July? Column after column after column of names in the newspapers. Neither side can keep on like this. Two years ago, right here on the streets of London, I saw crowds cheering the prospect of fighting the Germans, but there are not many cheers left anywhere now. Even the fliers I teach make grim jokes about how long they expect to last.’
‘Winter gave me photos of his two boys. I should have brought them. Peter is big. In his naval officer’s uniform he is a handsome young man. He’s tall and dark, with eyes just like Veronica. Peter is the solemn one – dedicated and scholarly. He’s a German through and through, but he’s like the best sort of Germans I knew before the war: solid, honest and reliable. Harry is so proud of them.’
‘I saw Peter in Berlin the summer the war started. Veronica took me to see a friend of hers, Frau Wisliceny. Did you ever meet the Wislicenys?’
‘I met the professor here in London one time.’
‘Frau Wisliceny got Peter to study music. He played the piano for us. It sounded kind of good to me, but I don’t understand any of that classical music. It seemed to me that Peter was more interested in the three daughters. The youngest one – Lisl, I think her name was – was obviously crazy about him. Yeah, he’s a nice kid.’
‘Mathematics and music. Harry said that Peter was interested in nothing else.’
‘Fathers don’t always know what sons are interested in,’ said Glenn.
‘I wish like hell you’d get interested in some lovely daughters,’ said his father.
‘I’m interested in all kinds of daughters, Dad. But I don’t want to marry any of them right now.’
‘Those two boys of Harry Winter’s are the only grandchildren I’ve got, Glenn. You tell me that maybe I shouldn’t cosy up to him on account of the war, and maybe you’re right. But I’m getting old, Glenn, and there’s no sign of you providing me with heirs. Those two boys are all I’ve got.’
‘I didn’t realize how much that kind of thing meant to you, Dad.’
‘At one time it didn’t mean a thing. But you get to being sixty-five and you look at the work you’ve done and you look at the money you’ve stacked away and you start wondering what it’s all for.’
‘I just don’t know enough about business….’
‘It wasn’t intended as any kind of reproach, my boy. You’ve lived your own kind of life and I respect it. You seldom ask me for anything…. To tell you the truth, I wish you asked for more, and asked more often. A man wants to feel his son needs him now and again….’
‘Let me finish. I’m just trying to explain to you why I didn’t go over there and sell out my holding in Winter’s factories and tell him to go to hell.’
‘I didn’t criticize you.’
‘I know you didn’t, but over the recent months you’ve made it clear that you would have handled Harry differently. I wanted you to understand why I go along with the bastard.’
‘I understand, Dad.’ Glenn wondered whether marrying Dot Turner was his father’s excuse for taking over the Turner kids. This sudden interest in young people was something to do with growing old.
For a few moments Cyrus was silent. When he spoke again it was in a quieter voice. ‘The younger boy, Pauli, is an unmistakable Rensselaer with that big Rensselaer jawline and wide flat head. He’s never done well at school – he just scrapes by each term, Harald tells me – but he’s such a character. A regular Yankee Doodle; I’ve always said he was a real little Yankee. And what a charmer. Always laughing, takes nothing seriously, not the Kaiser, not military school, not the war, not Harry. He adores Veronica, of course, and she dotes on little Pauli. He’s coming up to his final year at military school. Soon he’ll be at the front. Harry worries about both boys. He hated it when Peter went into the Airship Division, but Pauli has always been the baby of the family. You should hear Harry’s stories about little Pauli. He adores him. The thought of him leading a platoon of infantry in a bayonet charge is not easy to face. And, like you say, everyone knows what kind of casualties there are among young infantry lieutenants. The thought of it – plus his worries about Veronica – is wearing Harry down.’
At that moment a servant entered the library. After unhurriedly adjusting the edges of the curtains, he said to the older man, ‘The secretary’s compliments, Mr Rensselaer, and I am to inform you that there is an air-raid warning.’
‘Thank you,’ said Rensselaer calmly. He drank a little whiskey before asking his son, ‘What exactly does that mean, Glenn? Aren’t you supposed to be the expert on zeppelin raids?’
‘The German zeppelins take off from their bases after lunch. One, two, anything up to a dozen airships fly out over the North Sea and then they hover there, just over the horizon, where the British can’t see them, and well out of range of any aeroplane. They sit out there for hour after hour waiting for the light to fade. When it gets dark, they sail in and bomb their chosen targets.’
‘Sounds kind of spooky.’
‘Maybe. Hurry and wait: that’s the way the military always do things. But the Royal Navy has learned to take advantage of that ritual. They have listening posts along the eastern coast, and they pick up the radio messages that the zeppelins send to each other while they are waiting out there. Sometimes they are even able to discover what the target is going to be.’
‘And tonight London is the target.’
‘Nowadays London is always a target, and usually the main one.’
‘And what are we supposed to do now?’
‘There are probably shelters down in the cellar. Some clubs even have sleeping arrangements. But I usually go up to the roof and watch the fireworks.’
‘Then what are we waiting for?’
‘The nights are beginning to get chilly now, Dad. I think we’ll need our overcoats, and maybe a bottle of Scotch.’
Sitting on the chimney parapet that night in 1916, with his son beside him and a bottle of whiskey to hand, was something Cyrus Rensselaer remembered vividly for the rest of his days. The strange life the old man had led, the travelling and the hard work, had prevented him from seeing his son grow up in the way that other, luckier men did, watching their sons and helping them as they faltered into adulthood. But to some extent this night compensated for that lost relationship. Tonight the two men drew together, not as proud father and dutiful son, but as two friends with common interests and values who enjoyed each other’s company.
Glenn, too, remembered this night for as long as he lived not just for the events they witnessed but because it was the high point of his relationship with his father.
‘My boys will be excited,’ said Glenn.
‘Will they be in the air?’
‘Not yet. They’ll probably be sitting on their butts waiting for a sighting.’
‘Then they have to take off in the dark and climb like hell. The zeps can get damned high nowadays. An aeroplane pilot has to be darned nifty to get in among them before they bomb and climb away. But they’ll try. They’ll chase after those zeps until their gas tanks run dry. Then comes the bit they all dread, landing in the dark – it’s a bitch. We’ve lost too many good boys in accidents; sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ said the elder man, although he could not repress a shudder. If landing in the dark was the most dangerous part of the mission, what were the chances that Glenn would survive the job of teaching these boys how to do it?
‘Maybe we should let them come in and bomb. Now that Londoners have learned how to darken the town, central London has become more difficult to find on a dark night, and that’s the only kind of night the zeps come. And even when they bomb, they seldom hit anything of military value or kill more than half a dozen people.’
‘Sounds mighty callous, Glenn.’
‘The British lost fifty thousand infantry before lunch on the Somme a few weeks back.’
The old man sighed. ‘Well, maybe you are right. But it would rile me to think of those Germans cruising overhead unchallenged.’
‘It’s politics, Dad. The politicians wouldn’t dare leave London undefended, even if it was the right thing to do. The voters would never stand for it. My boys wouldn’t stand for it, either….’ He drank. ‘Especially now that we have rich civilians offering rewards for anyone who downs a zep.’
‘I was reading about that.’
‘Three thousand five hundred pounds sterling for any pilot who gets himself an airship, and any time at all someone is likely to chip in another bagful of gold. That’s enough to set one of my boys up for life.’
‘Are you still flying with your buddy Piper, the Englishman you met on the boat?’
‘The one that went for Veronica.’
It was the whiskey of course. Glenn could have bitten his tongue off. ‘It’s a long time ago.’
‘Veronica. My Veronica?’
‘You remember how I went to stay at old Frau Winter’s house that summer when they were all on vacation there. It was long before the war … 1910, I think. I was starting that tour around Germany that I did with “Boy” Piper. I’d just met him, and we spent a week with the Winters.’
‘Never mind the goddamned filibuster,’ said his father. ‘What happened?’
‘Hell, nothing happened, Dad. But Boy wanted Veronica to marry him. He was crazy about her. He still is. He never got married, and once, when he left his wallet and stuff in my locker – Royal Flying Corps pilots are not allowed to carry personal effects when they’re in the air – a photo of Veronica fell out. He made some silly joke about it being a photo of his sister, but I recognized Veronica all right. Then, after that, he always carried it with him, like a lucky piece.’
‘Jesus! How did Harry react to all this?’
‘I told you, Dad, there was nothing to react to. Boy just fell head over heels in love with Veronica. I think she went for him too, but she figured she had to stay with Harald because of the boys.’
‘You mean you even discussed this with Veronica?’ His father was incredulous. ‘She knew Piper was in love with her? It sounds like a damned funny business.’
‘We were in a hotel in Kiel. Veronica told me that Boy had asked her to go away with him. She had to tell someone, and she couldn’t tell Harald. She was in love with Boy, there was no doubt about that. I could see it in her face.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I wish I’d told her to go with Boy. He’s a great guy; she would have been happy with him. And Harald is a louse.’
‘Well, I’m glad you told me about this,’ said Cyrus bitterly. ‘I’m relieved that your mother never found out.’
‘No one will find out. I never even discussed it with Boy.’
‘And is your friend Piper still working with you?’
‘The lucky dog got command of a squadron on the Western Front. Can you imagine that? He’s over forty years old. And he didn’t even learn to fly until the war began. How the devil he fixed it I’ll never know. Not fighters of course, but even so…’
‘What’s that across there?’
‘Searchlights. That will be a zeppelin; they always come in that way from the northeast. Some of them mistake the river Lea for the Thames and drop their bombs there, which can be bad luck if you live out that way.’
‘I think they’ve got him. See the little sparks – bluish-white flickers. That’s the anti-aircraft shells exploding. Maybe you can hear them.’
‘Well below him.’
‘We haven’t got enough long-range high-velocity guns.’
Glenn’s father noticed that ‘we’ hadn’t got the guns. Although Rensselaer senior was an unreserved Anglophile, he was, above all, an American, and determined to stay out of this European quarrel. He was tempted to lecture his son on the subject, but he wisely decided that this was not the time or place. ‘There must be a dozen searchlights there.’
‘The defences concentrate there because that’s the way the Germans come.’
‘What kind of dopes are they to keep coming that way?’
‘No, they are smart to come that way. The Thames estuary is wide. The zeps come over the water and they can get very close to London before making a landfall.’
‘More searchlights.’ There were much louder explosions from the other direction, somewhere south of the river – Southwark, probably – but the bombs were small ones and the sound was muffled. In the street below a policeman cycled past, blowing blasts on a whistle.
‘There’s another zep there … maybe three or four. The searchlights are trying to find them all. They come in like that sometimes – three or four together – one zep is detected but the others slip past.’
‘They’re coming this way.’
‘It’s central London they are looking for. Look at the gunfire now.’
‘The searchlights have got him!’ Despite the elder man’s determination to stay neutral, the atavistic excitement of the hunt now brought him to his feet. Glenn steadied his father on the slippery moss that grew in the guttering. Now the silver fabric of the airship was gleaming as the stiletto-thin beams stabbed into it. There were half a dozen lights and, at the point of the pyramid, the fishlike airship. ‘He’s hit!’ For a moment the airship disappeared behind a cloud of white smoke. As it cleared, the fish was tilted at a crazy upward angle. ‘He’s hit!’
‘No. That’s not smoke. He’s dropping water ballast…’
Boom, boom, boom. Like distant thunder came the sound of high explosive, much lower and more vibratory than the crack of the guns. The building shook.
‘…and his bomb load, too. Now he’s lightened, he’ll climb for dear life.’
‘What’s that?’ Coloured flares lit the sky bright red.
‘They’re Very pistol lights. One of my boys telling the guns to stop firing while the airplanes try. Look at that zep go!’ Without bombs and water ballast, the zeppelin rose at an astonishing speed, so that the searchlights slid away and the airship disappeared into the dark night.
‘Has he escaped?’
‘Maybe. Somewhere up there two of them are playing a game of hide and seek. There’s a little scattered cloud to the north. If I was the zep captain I’d be making for it.’
‘And if you were the airplane pilot you’d be heading that way, too.’
They continued to stare towards the northeast. ‘It’s damned cold tonight,’ said Rensselaer senior. He shuddered.
Suddenly there was a red glow in the sky. Small at first; then, like a Chinese paper lantern, the great airship became a short red tube that lengthened as the flaming hydrogen burst from one gas cell to the next until the whole shape of the airship was depicted in dull red. Then at one place the flames ate through the fabric and were revealed as bright orange. Only then, as the aluminium melted, did the zeppelin cease its graceful forward motion. Halted, it became a cloud of burning gas around a tangle of almost white-hot metal, and then, slowly but with gathering speed, the great airship fell from the sky.
‘Oh my God!’ cried Rensselaer senior. No hatred now for friend or foe. He turned away and covered his face with his hands. ‘It’s horrible, horrible!’ Glen Rensselaer put his arms round his father’s shoulders and embraced him in the way that his father had so often comforted him as a child.
‘You’re a good, reliable officer’
On the wall of the office there was a calendar advertising ‘the margarine Germans enjoy’. It was there because some thoughtful printer had provided for each day a small diagram of the phases of the moon. The week before and the week after the new moon were marked in red ink. For the zeppelin service, knowing which nights were to be dark and moonless was a matter of life and death.
Lieutenant Peter Winter sat at the desk under the calendar. He wore the dark-blue uniform of the Imperial Navy complete with stiff wing collar that dug into his neck as he bent over his work. From this window, on those very rare moments when he looked up from his task, he could see the hard morning sunlight shining on the zeppelin sheds, the hydrogen plant and the flat landscape of the sort that he’d known as a child at Travemünde, not so far away.
‘Can I get the twelve-noon train, Peter?’ Hans-Jürgen, a fellow Berliner was today taking the despatch case to the ministry. If he caught the early train, he’d have a chance to see his girl.
‘Fifteen minutes, no more,’ promised Peter without looking up from his labour. When he’d volunteered for the Navy Airship Division, he’d never guessed how much of his time he’d spend at a desk, filling out forms and signing long reports about things he only half understood. Compared with this drudgery, working for his father would have been stimulating. On the other hand, working for his father would not have provided him with the naval officer’s uniform, of which he was secretly so proud, or the bombing trips over England, which he found both daunting and stimulating. Stimulating because he was at the period of physical and mental development when humans suddenly discover who and what they are. And Peter had discovered that he was courageous. The flights did not frighten him in the way that some of his comrades were frightened.
He signed the form and slapped it into the box while grabbing the next pile of paperwork. It seemed absurd that each zeppelin commander had to file seven copies of each flight log. Then came the route charts and endless lists showing the precise time that ballast was jettisoned and the exact amount of it. The weather forecast was compared with the actual weather conditions; the name, rank, number and age of each crew member had to be entered each time, and their behaviour throughout the mission noted. The times of take off, changes of course, bombing and landing were all here. Attached, on separate sheets submitted by the navigating officers, there were observations of enemy targets, and descriptions of any shipping seen en route. These had all been signed and then verified and countersigned by the commanders. All of it would soon be filed away and forgotten in some dusty Berlin office. Sometimes he felt like screaming and shovelling the whole pile of it into the wastepaper basket. But he plodded steadily on – with glances at the clock so as to have it all ready in time for his friend to catch the Berlin train.
There was no opportunity for Peter Winter to get to Berlin and see his girl, Lisl, the youngest of the Wisliceny girls – for tonight, according to the margarine calendar, was to be dark. And Peter was due to take off at 1:30 p.m. There would be no time for lunch.
And yet he must get to Berlin soon. Inge Wisliceny seemed to have some idea that she was his girl. He liked Inge, but only as a friend. It was her sister Lisl that he was seriously attracted to and this would have to be explained to Inge. Inge would be hurt; he knew that. Losing Peter to her young sister would be especially wounding, for Inge was rather haughty about her sisters. He didn’t look forward to it, but it would have to be done.
Inge was too serious, too conventional, and too intense. In some ways she was too much like Peter, though he’d never admit that. Lisl was young – childlike sometimes – irreverent, impudent and quite outrageous. But Lisl made him laugh. Lisl was someone he wanted to be with on his precious brief trips to Berlin.
The paperwork was only just completed in time for Peter to change into his heavy leather flying clothes, which came complete with long underwear. When he arrived at the airship, hot and sweaty, the engines were already being run up. Within the confines of the iron shed the noise was deafening. Their shed companion, an old zeppelin that dated from the first weeks of the war – her crew called her ‘the Dragon’ – was already out on the field.
‘Achtung! Stand clear of propellers!’ the duty officer in charge of the ground crew shouted. The engineers let in the clutches and engaged the gears. One by one the big Maybach engines took the weight of the four-bladed wooden props and the engines modulated to a lower note. A cloud of dust was kicked up from the floor of the shed.
Peter swung aboard and almost collided with men loading the bombs: four thousand pounds of high explosive and incendiaries. As he stepped aboard, the airship swayed and one of the handling party unhooked a sack of ballast from the side of the airship. Its weight approximated that of Peter so that the airship continued in its state of equilibrium within the shed.
He climbed into the control gondola, a tiny glass-sided room two yards wide and three yards long. The others were already in position, and there was little space to spare. Above the roar of the engines came the constant jingle of the engine room telegraph and the buzz of the telephones. The noise lessened as the engineers throttled back until the engines were just ticking over. Then they were switched off and it became unnaturally quiet.
The captain – a thirty-three-year-old Kapitänleutnant – nodded in response to Peter’s salute, but the rudder man and the man at the elevator did not look up. Hildmann, the observation officer – a veteran with goatee beard – immediately said, ‘Winter, go and take another look at the windsock. This damned wind is changing all the time…. No, it’s all right. Carl is doing it.’ And then, to the captain, he said, ‘All clear for leaving the shed.’ The observation officer then climbed down from the gondola in order to supervise the tricky task of walking the airship out of the shed.
There was the sound of whistles, and the command ‘Airship march!’ as the ground handling party tugged at the ropes and heaved at the handles on the fore and aft gondolas to run the airship out through the narrow shed door. Peter leaned out of the gondola and watched anxiously. The previous month, in just such a situation, the airship had brushed the doorway and suffered enough damage to be kept grounded. For that mistake their leave had been cancelled, and leave these days was precious to everyone. When the stern came out of the shed there was a murmur of relief.
‘Slip astern!’ The rearmost ropes were cast off, and she began to swing round so rapidly that the men of the handling party had to run to keep up with her. Then, with all the ground crew tugging at her, the airship stopped. Hildmann climbed back aboard and, with a quick look round, the captain gave the order to restart engines. In response to the ringing of the telegraphs, one after another the warmed engines roared into life. ‘Up!’ The handling party let go of the leading gondola and she reared up at an angle.
‘Stern engines full speed ahead!’
Now the handling party holding the handles along the rear gondola could not have held on to it without being pulled aloft. Suddenly the ship was airborne and every man aboard felt the deck swing free underfoot, and the airship wallowed in the warm afternoon air. It would be many hours before they’d feel solid ground underfoot.
The engineer officer saluted the captain before climbing the ladder from the control room up to the keel. His fur-lined boots disappeared through the dark rectangle in the ceiling. He was off to his position at the rear-engine gondola. He would spend the rest of the flight with his engines. The other men moved to take advantage of the extra space.
Now that the airship was well clear of the roofs of the sheds, the motors were revved up to full speed. There was no real hurry to reach the rendezvous spot in the cold air of the North Sea, but when so many zeppelins were flying together, it always became something of a race.
There were twenty-three in the crew. They knew one another very well by now. Apart from two of the engine mechanics and the sailmaker – whose job it was to repair leaks in the gas bags or outer envelope – they’d all trained and served together for some ten months. They’d flown out of Leipzig learning their airmanship on the old passenger zeppelins, including the famous Viktoria-Luise. They were happy days. But that was a long time ago. Now the war seemed to be a grim contest of endurance.
Oberleutnant Hildmann, the observation officer – who was also second in command – was a martinet who’d served many years with the Baltic Fleet. It was he who had assigned Peter to navigation. Actually this was the steersman’s job, but Peter’s effortless mental arithmetic gave him a great advantage when it came to working out endless triangles of velocity. It was a skill worth having when Headquarters radioed so many different wind speeds, and in the black night they tried to estimate their position over the darkened enemy landscape.
Peter had been given a sheltered corner of the chilly, windswept control gondola in which to spread his navigation charts. Now he scribbled the airship’s course and her estimated speed on a piece of paper, and tried to catch glimpses of the North German coast. Upon the map he would then draw a triangle, and from this get an idea of what winds the night would bring.
There was cumulus cloud to the north and a scattering of cirrus. The forecast said that there would be scattered clouds over eastern England by evening. That was good news: cloud provided a place to hide.
When they reached Norderney – a small island in the North Sea used as a navigation pinpoint – Peter spotted several other zeppelins. The sun shone brightly on their silver fabric. One of them, well to the rear, was easily recognized as the Dragon: her engines were worn out with so many war flights over these waters, so that her mechanics had to nurse the noisy machinery all the way. Nearer was the L23, with another naval airship moving through the mist beyond. It was a big raid today. Rumours said that there were a dozen naval airships engaged, and three or four army airships, too. Perhaps this would be the raid that would convince the British to seek peace terms. The newspapers all said that the British were reeling under the air raids on London, and the foolhardy British offensive along the river Somme in July had been a bloodletting for them.
For Peter, London was just a dim memory. It seemed a long time ago since he had last visited his grandparents in the big house there. He remembered his grandfather and the big English fruitcakes that were served at four o’clock each day. He remembered the busy streets in the City, where Grandfather had an office, and the quiet gardens and the street musicians to whom Grandfather always gave money. Especially vividly he recalled the piper, a Highlander in kilt and full Scots costume. He seemed too haughty to ask for money, but he stooped to pick up the coins thrown from the nursery window. The piper always came by about teatime, and the little German band came soon after. The bandleader was a big fellow with a red face and furious arm movements. He was astonished when Pauli responded to their music with rough and rude Berlin slang.
Peter’s memories of London had no meaning for him now. His boyhood desire to become an explorer was almost forgotten. The war had changed him. He’d lost too many comrades to relish these bombing missions. He was proud of his active, dangerous role, but when victory came he’d be content to spend the rest of his life in Berlin.
The whistle on the speaking tube sounded. Peter took the whistle from the tube, which he then put to his ear: ‘Hello?’ It was the lookout reporting the sighting of a ship: a German destroyer heading for Bremen. Peter noted it in the log and went back to his charts. They were at the rendezvous. Now commenced the worst part of the mission. Here at the rendezvous there would be hours of waiting, the engines ticking over just enough to hold position in the air. A skeleton crew on duty and anything up to a dozen men in hammocks slung along the gangways. No one would sleep; no one ever slept. You just stretched out and wondered what the night would bring. You remembered the stories about the airships that had broken up in mid-air or burst into flames. You wondered if the British had improved upon their anti-aircraft gunfire or perfected the incendiary bullets that the fighter planes fired.
The whitecapped sea would soon darken. But the days were long up here in the sky. Although the sun sank lower and lower, the waiting airships remained bathed in its light, glowing with that golden luminosity that is so like flame.
‘Winter. Leave whatever you’re doing and go to the number-two gun position: the telephone is not working.’
The observation officer was not a bad fellow, but he, too, succumbed to the nervousness of these waiting periods. Peter knew that there was nothing wrong with the telephone. The gunners were down inside the hull, out of the cold airstream, trying to keep warm. Once you got cold there was no way to get warm again: there was no such thing as a warm place on a naval airship. And who could blame the gun crew? There was no chance of enemy aircraft out here, so far from the English coast.
‘Ja, Herr Oberleutnant. Right away,’ Peter saluted him. Saluting was not insisted on in such circumstances, but Hildmann, like most regular officers of the old navy, didn’t like the ‘sloppy informality’ of the Airship Division.
Peter climbed the short ladder that connected the control gondola to the keel. To get to the upper gun position took Peter right through the airship’s hull. As he walked along the narrow gangway, he looked down through the gaps in the flapping outer cover and could see the ocean, almost three thousand feet below. The water was grey and spumy, speckled with the last low rays of sunlight coming through the broken cloud. Peter didn’t look down except when he had to. The ocean was a threatening sight. He had never enjoyed sailing since that day when he’d nearly drowned, and the prospect of serving on a surface vessel filled him with horror.
Some light was reflected from below, but the inside of the airship was dark. Above him the huge gas cells moved constantly. All around him there were noises: it was like being in the bowels of some huge monster. Besides the rustling of the gas cells there was the creaking of the aluminium framework along which he walked and the musical cries of thousands of steel bracing wires.
It was a fearsomely long vertical ladder that took him up between the gas cells to the very top of the envelope. Finally he emerged into the daylight on the top of the zeppelin. Suddenly it was very sunny, but the air was bitterly cold and he had to hold tight to the safety rail. What a curious place it was up here on the upper side of the hull. The silver fabric sloped away to each side, and the great length of the airship was emphasized. What an amazing achievement it was for man to build a flying machine as big as a cathedral.
Peter stood there staring for a moment or two. To the port-side he could see two other zeppelins. They were higher, by several hundred feet. Ahead was a flicker of light reflected off another airship’s fabric. That would be the old Dragon fighting to gain height. She’d caught up with the armada. It was good to see her so close; Peter had friends aboard her. They were not alone here in the upper air.
It was late afternoon. Still the airships glowed with sunlight. Soon, as the sun sank lower, the airships would darken one by one, darken like lights being extinguished. Then, when even the highest one went dark, they would move off towards England. Peter shivered; it was cold up here, very cold.
‘Hennig!’ called Peter loudly. He knew where the fellow would be hiding: all the gunners took shelter, but Hennig was the laziest.
‘What’s wrong, Herr Leutnant?’ He emerged blinking into the light and behind him came the loader, a diminutive youth named Stein, who followed the gunner everywhere. Stein was a Bolshevik agitator, though so far he’d been too sly to be caught spreading sedition amongst the seamen. Still, his cunning hadn’t saved him from several nasty beatings from fellow sailors who opposed his political views. Hennig was not thought to be a Bolshevik, but the two men were individualistic to the point of eccentricity, and neither would be welcomed into other gun teams. So they had formed an alliance, a pact of mutual assistance. Erich Hennig pushed his assistant gently aside. It was a gesture that said that if there was any blame to be taken he would take it. ‘What’s wrong, Leutnant?’ he said again. Hennig was a slim, pale youth of about Peter’s age. His dark eyes were heavy-lidded, his lips thin and bloodless.
‘You should be at the gun, Hennig.’
‘Ja, Herr Leutnant.’ Hennig smiled. It was a provocative and superior smile, the smile a man gave to show himself and others that he was not subject to authority. It was a smile for Peter Winter alone: the two men knew each other well. Winter had known Hennig since long before both men volunteered for the navy. Erich Hennig lived in Wedding; his father was a skilled cooper who worked in the docks mending damaged barrels. The apartment in which he grew up, with half a dozen brothers and sisters, was cramped and gloomy. At school Hennig proved below average at lessons, but he earned money by playing the piano in Bierwirtschaften – stand-up bars – and seedy clubs. It was a club owner who brought Erich Hennig’s talent to the attention of the amazing Frau Wisliceny. And through her efforts Hennig spent three years studying composition and theory at the conservatoire. By the time war broke out, Erich Hennig was being spoken of as a talent to watch. In April 1914 he’d given a series of recitals – mostly Chopin and Brahms – at a small concert hall near the Eden Hotel. There was even a paragraph about it in the newspaper: ‘promising,’ said the music critic.
Peter had met Hennig frequently at Frau Wisliceny’s house. Once they’d even played duets, but no friendship ever developed between them. Hennig was fiercely competitive. He saw the privileged Peter Winter as a spoiled dilettante who lacked the passionate love for music that Hennig knew. He’d actually heard Peter Winter discussing with the Wisliceny daughters whether he should pursue a career in music, study higher mathematics, or just prepare himself for a job alongside his father. This enraged Hennig. For Hennig it was a betrayal of talent. How could any talented musician – and even Erich Hennig admitted to himself, if not to others, that Peter Winter was no less talented than himself – speak of any other career?
‘When the telephone rings, you make sure you answer it,’ said Peter.
‘I do, Herr Leutnant.’ He continued leaning against the gun.
‘You should be standing to attention, Hennig.’
‘I’m manning the gun, Herr Leutnant.’
The wretch always had an answer ready. And Peter well knew that any complaint about Hennig would not be welcome. Hennig played piano in the officers’ mess. He could be an engaging young man when he tried, and he had a lot of supporters amongst the senior ranks. When the beer and wine were flowing and the old songs were sung until the small hours of the morning, Hennig became a sort of unofficial member of the officers’ club. It would be a foolish young officer who punished him for what might sound like no reason but jealousy. For Peter would never be able to play the sort of music that got a party going. In this respect he admired Hennig’s talent and envied those years that Hennig had spent strumming untuned pianos for drunken clubgoers. Hennig always found under his fingertips the right melodies for the right moments. And he remembered them. He knew the tune the Kapitänleutnant had danced to the night he met his wife. He knew those bits of Strauss that the observation officer could hum. He knew when the captain might be induced to sing his inimitable tuneless version of ‘I’m Going to Maxim’s’ and changed key to help him; and he knew the hymn tunes for which there were words that could be sung only after the captain departed.
Peter Winter’s musical talent was the talent of the mathematician, and, as was the case with most mathematicians, Bach was his first musical choice. Peter’s love for Bach was a reflection of his upbringing, his social class, and the time and place in which he lived. There was a measured orderliness and formality to Bach’s music: a promise of permanence that most Europeans took for granted. Playing Bach, Peter displayed a skill and devotion that Hennig could never equal. But Hennig never played Bach. And Peter never played the piano in the officers’ mess, where Bach was not revered.
Peter went to the telephone, swung the handle round until the control gondola answered. ‘Upper gun position. Testing,’ said Peter.
‘Your voice is loud and clear, Herr Leutnant,’ said the petty-officer signalman.
Peter replaced the earpiece. ‘Carry on, Hennig,’ he said.
‘I will, Herr Leutnant,’ said Hennig. And as Peter started on the long and treacherous vertical ladder, he heard the loader titter. He decided it was better not to hear it.
As he picked his way back down the ladder to the keel, he thought about his exchange with Hennig. He knew he’d come out of it badly. He always came out of such exchanges badly. He didn’t have the right temperament to deal with the Hennigs of this world. He had tried, God knows he’d tried. Early in their first training flights, on one of the old Hansa passenger zeppelins, he’d talked to Hennig and suggested he apply for officer training. Hennig had taken it as some subtle sort of insult and had rejected the idea with contempt.
But in the forefront of Peter’s mind was the fact that Hennig had lately become more than friendly with Lisl Wisliceny, whom Peter considered his girl. Particularly hurtful was the latest letter from Lisl. Until now she’d been pressing Peter to become engaged to her. Peter, reluctant to face the sort of scene that his father would make in such circumstances, had found excuses. But in her latest letter Lisl had written that she now agreed with Peter, that they were both too young to think of marriage, and that she should see more people while Peter was away. And by ‘people’ she meant Erich Hennig. That much Peter was certain about. Only after Peter had taken Lisl to the opera did young Hennig suddenly begin to show his interest in this, the youngest of the Wisliceny daughters. And Hennig got far more opportunities to go to Berlin than Peter got. For the other ranks there were two weekend passes a month if they were not listed on the combat-ready sheet or assigned to guard duties. But officers were in short supply at the airship base. And, as any young officer knows, that meant that the junior commissioned ranks worked hard enough to prevent the shortage of officers, bringing extra work to those with three or more gold rings on their sleeve.
Damn Hennig! Well, Peter would show him. Little did Hennig realize it, but his insolence, and his pursuit of Peter’s girl, would be just what was needed to make Peter into the international-class pianist that Frau Wisliceny said he could become. From now on he would practise three hours a day. It would mean getting up at four in the morning, but that would not be difficult for him. There was a piano in the storage shed. Though it was old and out of tune, that would be no great difficulty. Peter could tune a piano, and there was a carpenter on the Dragon who would help him get it into proper working order, a decent old petty officer named Becker. He’d worked as an apprentice in a piano factory and knew everything about them.
For the next half-hour Peter was kept busy with his charts. Having missed his lunch, he became hungry enough to dip into his ration bag. The food supplied for these trips was not very appetizing. There were hardboiled eggs and cold potatoes, some very hard pieces of sausage and a thick slice of black rye bread. There was also a bar of chocolate, but for the time being he saved the chocolate. If they went high, where even the black bread turned to slabs of ice that had to be shattered with a hammer, the chocolate was the only substance that didn’t freeze solid. He took a hardboiled egg and nibbled at it. If he could get down to the rear-engine car, there might be a chance of some hot pea soup or coffee. The engineering officer let the mechanics warm it on the engine exhaust pipes. In some of the zeppelins there was constant hot coffee from an electric hot plate in the control gondola, but on this airship the captain wouldn’t allow such devices to be used because of the fire risk.
When his calculations were complete, Peter turned to watch the men in the control gondola. At the front was a seaman at the helm. He steered while another crewman beside him, at the same sort of wheel, adjusted the elevators to keep the airship level. This was said to be the most difficult job in the control room, although Peter had never tried his hand at it. A good elevator man was able to anticipate each lurch and wallow and turn the wheel to meet each gust of wind. The control gondola was like a little greenhouse into which machinery had been packed. The largest box, a sort of cupboard, was the radio, for keeping in touch with base and with the other airships. There was the master compass with an arc to measure the angle to the horizon, a variometer for measuring descent or climb, an electric thermometer to measure the temperature of the gas in the envelope, and there were the vitally important ballast controls. At the front, where the captain stood alongside the helmsman, was the bomb-release switchboard and a battery of lamps for signalling and for landing.
Tonight’s plan was simple: the main body of airships would attack London, approaching from over the Norfolk coast while two army airships were sent north to fool the defences by making a feint attack along the river Humber. The plan itself was good enough, although its lack of originality meant that the British would not be fooled.
And the attack started too early. Even the captain, a man whose formal naval training prevented him from criticizing the High Command or his senior colleagues, said it was a bit early when the first of the airships moved forward from the place at which they’d hovered for three hours. The whole idea of waiting was so that the sky would be totally dark when the airships crossed the English coastline. But it wasn’t dark. Even the English countryside, some six thousand feet below them, was not quite darkened. Peter had no trouble following the map. He could see the rivers, and many of the villages were brightly lit. And that meant that the British could see them. The alarms would go off, London would be made dim, and civilians would go to the bomb shelters. Worse, the pilots would stand by their planes and the gunners would load the guns; their reception would be a hot one.
All the time he watched the horizon; there was always some sort of glow from London, no matter how stringently the inhabitants doused their lights. Then he spotted it, and as they came nearer to London Peter could see the looping shape of the river Thames. There was no way that could be hidden. Suddenly the guns started. Flickers of light at first as the gunners tried to get the range, but then the flashes came closer. Staring down, Peter spotted the Houses of Parliament on the riverbank. And then the shape of London – well known to him more because of his study of target maps than because of any memories that the sight evoked – was recognizable.
‘Prepare for action! Open bomb doors!’ He noted the exact time: 2304 hours. At first he was going to advise dropping bombs on the Houses of Parliament, but the briefing clearly said railway stations. There were two right below: Waterloo and Charing Cross. Peter signalled and the captain ordered the first lot of bombs released. There was a series of flashes as they hit, and though Peter could imagine the terror and destruction they had brought, he had no deep feeling of remorse or regret. The British had had every chance to stay out of the war, but they had decided to interfere, and now they must face the consequences.
Crash! The second lot of bombs were striking somewhere south of the river. It was mostly just workers’ housing on that side of the water. The captain should have awaited Peter’s signal, but everyone got excited. There were more explosions, though without any corresponding lights on the ground. He suddenly realized that it was the sound of the British anti-aircraft guns. They were very close, and for the first time on such a war flight Peter felt a little afraid.
At least there were no searchlights here in the very heart of town. The British had concentrated their searchlights to the northeast and along the approaches. They could be seen there now, steadily moving in search of the zeppelins that were behind them. Wait: they were clustering together. They’d caught someone. Two more anti-aircraft shells exploded very close. In the gondola Peter heard the captain order the firing of a red Very pistol light. It was a trick – pretending to be a British fighter plane ordering the guns silent – but the ‘colour of the night’ was changed sometimes hour by hour, and the gunners were not often tricked. The light went arcing out into the darkness, a red firework sinking slowly.
‘Drop water ballast forward!’ murmured the captain, and immediately the orders were given. Peter hung on tight, knowing that the airship would tilt upwards to an alarming angle as she began to rise. There was the whoosh of water rushing through the traps. There she went! The gunfire explosions dropped away below them like the repeated sparking of a cigarette lighter that would not ignite. They continued to rise. Here in the upper air it was dark and cold.
By now a dozen searchlights had fastened on the airship behind them to the north. ‘The Dragon!’ said a whispered voice in the gondola. How could it be the Dragon? She’d been ahead of them. Of course, she was always very slow. Those old engines of hers were the subject of endless grim jokes. They’d been promised new engines again and again, but all the new engines were needed for new airships.
The telephone rang and was answered by Hildmann. ‘Number-two gun position report enemy aircraft,’ he said.
‘Switch off engines!’
The silence came as a sudden shock after so many hours with the throbbing sound of the engines. Everyone throughout the airship remained as quiet as possible and listened.
It was Peter, staring down to the townscape below who spotted him, a large biplane climbing in a wide circle trying to get into position for an attack. The fighters liked to rake the airships from stern to nose, using the new explosive and incendiary bullets. ‘Fighter!’ He pointed.
The captain bit his lip and turned his head to see the instruments. The airship was still at the slightly nose-up angle that provided extra dynamic lift.
Suddenly all was grey: the sky, the ground and all the windows. The zeppelin had passed up into a patch of cloud. Now, with all speed, the airship was ‘weighed off’. The upward movement ended and the airship stopped, engines off and completely silent, shrouded in the grey wet cloud. The mist around them brightened as the searchlight beams raked the cloud’s underside and made the water vapour glow.
They could hear the aeroplane now. It had followed them into the cloud and passed near on the starboard side, its engine faltering as the dampness of the cloud affected the carburettor. It circled once, as if the fighter pilot knew where they were hiding, and then, after another, wider circle, the sound of the plane’s engine grew fainter.
‘Restart engines!’ The clutches were engaged till the props were just turning, treading the air so that the airship scarcely moved. They waited five minutes or more before dropping more water ballast and recommencing their upward movement. Suddenly they were out of the cloud and the stars were overhead. They were very high now and could see a long way. Over northern London clusters of searchlights were still moving slowly across the sky, searching for the airships heading back that way.
Peter provided a course to steer, and slowly – the engines weakened on this thinner air – they headed for home. Everyone was watching the horizon, where the English defences were concentrated. Every few minutes there was a flicker of gunfire, like fireflies on a summer’s evening. That was the gauntlet that they must also run.
One by one the searchlights swung over to one point in the sky, forming a pyramid with a silvery shape at its tip. Then the silvery shape went red. At first the red glow was scarcely brighter than the searchlight beams below it. Then it went to a much lighter red, as a cigar tip brightens at a sudden intake of breath.
‘My God!’ Even the captain was moved to cry out aloud. Everyone stared. Flight discipline, rank, was for a moment forgotten. All stared at the terrible sight. None of them had seen such a thing before, except in their nightmares. The stricken airship flared white like a torch, so bright that it blinded them, and they were unable properly to see the dull-red sun into which it changed before dropping earthwards. Then the fiery tangle vanished into a cloud, and the cloud turned pink and boiled like a great furnace.
It was in the silence that followed that the telephone rang. The observation officer – Hildmann – answered tersely. He looked round the control gondola and stared at Peter. If there was a job, then Peter was the one likely to be spared from duties here in the car. The course home was set, and the charts were already folded away, the pencils in their leather case in the rack over the plotting table.
So it was Peter who was sent to speak with the sailmaker. The gas bags were holed; the captain must know how badly. Was it the small punctures that the scout’s machine guns made, or the far more serious jagged tears from shell fragments? Were the leaks low down, or were they in the upper sections of the bags, where a leak meant the loss of all the gas it held? Peter looked around to find an extra scarf and the sheepskin gloves that he’d removed to use the pencils. It would be cold back there inside the envelope, even colder than it was here in the drafty control gondola. He’d found only one glove by the time Hildmann shouted to him again. No matter: he’d keep his hand in his pocket.
He went up the ladder again. It was dark and dangerous picking his way along the keel between the lines of gas bags. It was like walking down the aisle of some echoing cathedral, except that hug silky balloons floated inside and filled the whole nave, from floor to vaulting.
Some of the giant bags were hanging soft and empty. It was here that the sailmaker was already at work, patching the leaks. He called down from the darkness: ‘Herr Leutnant.’ The sailmaker was clinging to the girders high above him. Peter climbed with difficulty. The lack of oxygen made him feel dizzy.
It was while Peter was inspecting the damaged gas bags that the anti-aircraft battery scored its hit. There was a loud bang that echoed in the framework. The airship careened, remained for a moment on its side, so that everything tilted and the half-emptied bags enveloped the two men. Peter fought the silky fabric aside as the airship rolled slowly back and then steadied again. ‘What the devil was that?’ said the sailmaker. Peter didn’t reply, but he knew they were hit and hit badly. It was a miracle that there was no fire. ‘Stay here,’ said Peter. ‘I’ll find out what’s happened.’
When he got back to the control gondola, it was in ruins. The rear portion of the car was gone completely, and a large section of the thin metal floor was missing, so that, still standing on the short communication ladder to the keel, Peter could see the landscape thousands of feet below them. The helmsman and rudder man were nowhere to be seen: the explosion had blown them out into the thin air.
There was broken window celluloid everywhere, and the aluminium girders were bent into curious shapes, like the tendrils of some exotic vine. The body of the captain – hatless to reveal an almost bald head – was sprawled on the floor in the corner, his head slumped on his chest. The observation officer had survived, of course: Hildmann was a tough old bird, the sort of man who always survived. He had somehow scrambled across the two remaining girders and got to the front of the car. He was manning the elevator wheel. When he saw Peter coming down through the hatch, he pointed to the wheel that controlled the rudders and then went back to his task.
‘How bad?’ Hildmann asked him after Peter had swung himself across the gaping hole to take his place at the wheel and steer for home.
‘The gas bags? Two of them are bad, and some of the holes are high. But the sailmaker is a good man, and his assistant is at work, too.’
The observation officer grunted. ‘We can let it go lower, much lower.’ His voice was strained as he gasped for breath. Hildmann was no longer young. At this height the lack of oxygen caused dizziness and headaches and every little exertion seemed exhausting. Peter’s clamber down into the car had made his ears ring, and his pulse was beating at almost twice its normal rate. In the engine cars, and up on the gun positions, men would be suffering nausea and vomiting. It was worth going high to avoid the defences, but today they hadn’t avoided them. ‘A lucky shot,’ said Hildmann, as if reading Peter’s mind.
‘There will be more guns along the coast,’ warned Peter.
‘We must risk that. The gas will be escaping fast at this height; soon we’ll lose altitude whether we want to or not. And the engines will give us more power lower down.’
Peter didn’t answer. Hildmann was deluding himself. The pressure inside the bags would make little difference. Whatever they decided, the airship was continuing to sink, due to the lost hydrogen from the punctured gas cells. Peter was having great difficulty at the helm of the great ship. He had never touched the wheel before; the seamen given this job were carefully chosen and specially trained. Holding the brute, as it wilfully tried to fly its own course through the open sky, was a far harder task than he ever would have believed. He had new respect for the men he’d watched doing it so calmly and effortlessly. And as the thought came to him, he realized that now he would never be able to tell them so: both men had long since hit the ground at terminal velocity, which meant enough force to indent themselves deep into the earth.
‘Is he patching the holes?’ said Hildmann.
‘The sailmaker and his assistant,’ affirmed Peter. ‘They can’t work miracles, though.’
In other circumstances Hildmann might have considered Peter’s reply insubordinate, but now he seemed not to notice the apparent disrespect.
‘We’re sinking still,’ said Hildmann, at last facing the reality of their danger. ‘They’d better work fast.’ The airship dropped lower and lower until the altimeter – an unreliable device worked by barometric pressure – warned them they were as low as they dared go in darkness. Then it became a battle to stay in the air. In other parts of the airship, crewmen, on their own initiative, began to throw overboard everything that could be spared. Desperately men dumped the reserve fuel, ammunition boxes, then ammunition; finally, as they crossed the coast near Yarmouth, the guns went, too.
‘Can you work the radio?’ asked Hildmann.
‘I can try, Herr Oberleutnant.’ The radio looked to be in bad shape, the glass dials shattered and a fresh bright-silver gash across its metal case. There was little or no chance that it would still be working. The clock over it had stopped, a mute record of the exact moment the shell burst struck.
‘We’ll probably come down in the sea. We need to know the position of the nearest ship.’
And find it, thought Peter. He had only the haziest idea of their present position, and finding such a dot in the North Sea would need a navigational skill far beyond his own crude vectors and sums. But for a moment he was spared such tests; there was no question of his leaving the helm until a relief could be summoned, and the telephone link was severed.
‘Better not look down,’ said Hildmann in a voice that was almost avuncular.
Had the old man just discovered that, thought Peter. The void beyond the gap in the car’s floor was the most terrifying sight he’d ever seen. After that first shock he’d kept his eyes away from the jagged hole.
‘Jawohl, Herr Oberleutnant!’
‘You’re a good, reliable officer, Winter.’
‘Thank you, Herr Oberleutnant,’ said Peter but he wished the observation officer hadn’t said it. It was too much like an epitaph. He had the feeling that Hildmann had said it only because their chances of survival were so slim. It would be just like him to be writing their final report in his head before going to meet his Maker.
‘Request the Oberleutnant’s permission to change course five degrees southwards.’
‘Why?’ asked Hildmann.
‘The compass must be wrong. Dawn is coming up.’
The observation officer stared at where the horizon would be if the night had not been so very dark. Then he saw what Peter had been looking at for five minutes: a dull-red cotton thread on the silky blackness of the night. Hildmann looked at his watch to see whether the sun was on schedule. ‘Yes, change course,’ he said, having decided that it was.
The dawn came quickly, changing the sky to orange and then a sulphurous yellow before lighting the grey sea beneath them. Crosslit, the choppy water was not a reassuring sight.
‘Is that the coast ahead?’
‘Yes, Herr Oberleutnant.’
‘Won’t need the radio now.’
‘No, Herr Oberleutnant.’
‘Just as well. I don’t think it’s working.’
‘I don’t think it is, Herr Oberleutnant.’
‘Do you think we’ll be able to get it down in the right place?’
‘I think we can, Herr Oberleutnant.’ Hildmann would have been outraged by any other response, but he smiled grimly and nodded. Peter wondered how old he was; rumours said he was a grandfather.
‘We lost the Dragon.’
‘Yes, Herr Oberleutnant.’ Trees appeared behind the desolate sandy coastline. They were very low. He stared down into the darkness.
‘Good men on the Dragon.’
‘Yes, Herr Oberleutnant.’
‘Oh my God!’
Everything happened so suddenly that there was no time to avert the crash. The elevator cables had been in shreds for hours. Hildmann didn’t realize that the movements of his wheel depended upon a single steel thread until the final thread snapped and the elevators slammed over to put the airship into a violent nose-down attitude. It all happened in only a few seconds.
First there was the sudden snapping of the control cables: bangs like explosions came as the released steel cables thrashed about, ripping through the gas bags and tearing into the soft aluminium. The lurch started Hildmann’s wheel spinning and sent Hildmann staggering across the car so that he stumbled and was thrown half out of the hole in the floor. Then came the big crash of the airship striking the tree tops.
Branches came into the car from every side, and a snowstorm of leaves and wood and sawdust filled the control room, until the weakened gondola was torn into pieces by the black trees. There was a scream as Hildmann disappeared into the darkness below, and then the airship met a tree that would not yield, and, with a crash and the shriek of tortured metal, the vast framework collapsed upon him and Peter lost consciousness.
‘My poor Harry’
In Vienna that same September morning it was bright and clear. The low-pressure region that had provided the zeppelins with cloud cover over England had broken. Southern Germany and Austria had blue skies and cold winds.
Martha Somló – or Frau Winter, as she had engraved on her visiting cards – was awake. She’d been an early riser ever since she was a child, when she’d got up at five every morning to prepare the work in her father’s back-room tailor shop.
Harald Winter was sound asleep. He snorted and turned over. ‘Wake up! Harry.’ She had a tray with coffee and warm fresh bread.
‘Wake up! You were snoring.’
He rubbed his face to bring himself awake. ‘Snoring?’
‘Yes. Loud enough to wake the street.’ She smiled sweetly and forgivingly.
He looked at her suspiciously. Veronica had never mentioned his snoring, nor had any of the other women he enjoyed on a more-or-less regular basis. ‘It’s an ugly habit, snoring,’ he said.
He opened his eyes to see her better. She was wearing the magnificent silk dressing gown he’d bought for her on one of his trips to Switzerland. It was black and gold, with huge Chinese tigers leaping across it. He’d thought at the time how like Martha the snarling tigers looked. ‘It doesn’t matter, darling. You can’t help it,’ she said.
The truth was that Harald Winter did not snore, but teasing him was one of the few retaliations she got for being neglected.
She set the tray down on the bed and slid back under the bedclothes. This was her very favourite time: just her and Harry at breakfast. He gave her a quick hug and kiss before taking a kaiser roll and waiting for her to pour his coffee and add exactly the amount of cream and sugar he liked. From the street below came the sound of horses’ hoofs and wheels upon the cobbles and the jingle of harness. It was a large contingent of field artillery moving off to the war. The noise continued for a long time, but neither Harry nor Martha went to the window to look. Soldiers had become too common a sight in the streets of Vienna for breakfast to be interrupted.
Prompted by the sounds of the horse artillery, Martha said, ‘The war’s going badly for us, isn’t it, Harry?’ She removed the tray to the side table and came back to bed.
‘It goes up and down: wars are always like that.’
‘And you don’t care, as long as you sell your airships and planes, and make lots of money.’
‘My God, but you are a little firebrand, aren’t you?’
He grabbed her wrist and clutched it tight. It hurt, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of complaining. In fact, his physical strength attracted her even when it was directed against her. In the same way, her strong-willed antagonism fascinated him. She was the only woman who openly defied him.
‘I heard there were wooden airships now,’ she said spitefully, ‘and smaller, collapsible ones better than Count Zeppelin makes.’
He smiled. ‘I have persuaded the navy that airships made of wood and glue are not suitable for use over the sea in bad weather.’
‘You think only of money!’ she said.
He released her arm and said softly, ‘How can you say that, you little bitch, when I have two sons fighting for us?’
‘I’m sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean it.’
He gently pulled the silk negligee from her shoulders so that he could look at her pale body. ‘You are exquisite, darling Martha. All is forgiven in your embrace.’ It was the frivolous, supercilious manner he adopted for their bouts of lovemaking. It was a way of avoiding any serious discussion.
But as he reached for her there was a knock at the bedroom door. Martha twisted away from his hand and, pulling her dressing gown tight, went to the door.
It was her maidservant. He couldn’t hear what was said. Despite reassurances from his physician, he was convinced that he was growing deaf.
‘What is it?’ he said as she returned to the bed. ‘Come back to bed, my little tiger.’ But she remained where she was, a petite, pale figure, her face forlorn, with jet-black hair tumbling over her eyes till she pushed it back with her small, perfect hands.
‘The zeppelins over England last night…five didn’t return. Your son Peter…’ She couldn’t go on. Tears filled her eyes.
‘My Peter…What?’ He got out of bed, and went to her and held her. She was sobbing. ‘My poor Harry,’ she said.
It was almost noon next day when Peter started to regain his senses. Even before he tried to open his eyes, he smelled the ether in his nostrils. The hospital room was filled with yellow light: the sun coming through a lowered blind. When he moved his feet – an exploratory movement to discover if he was all in one piece – he felt the stiffly starched sheets against his toes. It was only then that he realized he was not alone in the hospital room. Two men in white coats were standing near the window, looking down at a clipboard.
‘…the only one to escape from the forward gondola,’ said one voice.
‘And completely unharmed, you say?’
‘Just scratches, bruises, and the finger.’
‘Did he lose the finger?’
‘No, he had the luck of the devil. I just removed the tip of it.’
‘And it was the left hand, too; well, I can’t imagine that that will make a scrap of difference to any young chap.’
‘Unless he was a pianist…’
‘And the pianist – Hennig, isn’t it? – was the one with the broken ankle. God moves in strange ways; I’ve always said that.’
‘It’s a curious war, isn’t it? The zeppelin staff plan to bomb Saint-Omer’s town hall when all the top Allied military commanders are there together with the King of England and the Belgian King. And the Kaiser forbids it.’
‘After a night looking at the cruelly mutilated bodies of so many very young men, I simply say it’s a curious war.’
Peter heard one of them hang the clipboard back on its book before they went out of his room, but he kept his eyes closed and pretended to be asleep.
In England the next day, visitors went to the wreckage of the zeppelin that had been shot down near London. Frederick William Wile – one time Berlin correspondent of The Daily Mail – wrote ‘…even those who felt most bitterly about the brutality of raids upon unarmed civilian populations could not refrain from pity at the sight.’
Wile continued: ‘It is one of the traditions of the Hohenzollerns that the King of Prussia must ride across the battlefields on which his soldiers have fallen and look his dead men in the face. Trench warfare and a decent regard for his own skin have prevented William II from carrying out this ghoulish rite in his war. But I wish some cruel Fate might have taken the Kaiser by his trembling hand yesterday morning and led him to that rain-soaked meadow in Hertfordshire, and bade him look as I looked at the charred remains of human wreckage which a few hours before was the crew of an Imperial German airship. I wish Count Zeppelin, the creator of the particular brand of Kultur which sent the baby-killers to their doom, might have been in the Supreme War Lord’s entourage. I wondered, standing there by the side of that miserable heap of exposed skulls, stumps of arms and legs, shattered bones and scorched flesh, whether the Kaiser would have revoked the vow he spoke at Donau-Eschingen in the Black Forest eight years ago when he christened the inventor of airship frightfulness, “the greatest German of the twentieth century”.’
‘Not so loud, voices carry in the night’
Paul Winter had been called ‘little Pauli’ for so much of his life that, now seventeen-years old, he still thought of himself in that way. He had the cherubic face that made some lucky men youthful and attractive all their lives. Some of the others called him ‘Lucky’. So what rotten luck that a member of the Prussian Officer Corps on active service on the Western Front should be attached to this wretched Royal Bavarian infantry regiment. What was ‘little Pauli’ doing sitting in this deep dugout on the Western Front, listening to the muffled thumps of enemy shells exploding? The morning bombardment had started with the adjoining sector, but now they were landing closer and closer. He tried to push the fears out of his mind and concentrate upon writing a letter to his parents. The dugout was dark; he had only the light of one flickering candle. He used a penknife to sharpen the stub of his indelible pencil, and he gave a deep sigh.
But this introspection didn’t mean that he felt in any way sorry for himself. The last remnants of self-pity had been eliminated during his years at the cadet school. Pauli accepted life day by day as it came but that didn’t mean that he never asked himself why his life had for so long consisted of spartan food, strict discipline, and so little rest. A regime to which had lately been added gluey mud, mortal danger, and long periods of boredom. Pauli was at heart an easy-going, pleasure-loving fellow who wanted only to live and let live.
My dearest parents,
Thank you for the parcel. It arrived safely. It was so kind of Cook to knit the socks for me, but they are very big – two sizes too big. No matter, one of the other men will benefit. I shared the tin of meat with only my friend Alex but we had a little party to eat all the other food. You must not worry about me. I am many miles away from where the real fighting is taking place. Most of the time I am in Headquarters and cannot even hear the artillery fire
He stopped writing. Perhaps that was going too far. Even back in Brussels they could hear the artillery fire, and his parents might well know that. He added:
except when the wind blows from the west. Peter is coming to see me today. I will have lunch with him at Headquarters.
He wondered what to say next. Several times reduced almost to despair by the cold, filth, mud and cruel loss of friends, he’d attempted to write a letter that truthfully described what it was like here. But each time he’d abandoned the effort and scribbled the same sort of reassuring banalities that everyone else sent home to keep the family ignorant and happy. So he wrote:
The weather here is good for this time of year and the war is going well for us. I must end this letter now. It is very early in the morning and I have a lot to do.
I will write again – a longer letter – after Peter’s visit,
Your loving son,
Carefully he signed it and read it again before he put it into an envelope. He was always promising ‘a longer letter’ but he never wrote longer letters, just short thank-you notes. Though he wrote wonderful letters in his mind, he never got them on paper. He felt constantly guilty about neglecting his parents. He knew how much they liked to hear from him and how much they worried all the time. Did all sons feel such guilt about their relationship with their parents? Most specifically, did his brother, Peter, feel guilty about his relationship with them? He knew the answer to that even before asking the question. Peter didn’t neglect them. He wrote a long informative letter to them every week. Pauli had seen the letters piled up high on his father’s desk. They read them again and again. And yet he knew that they didn’t worry about Peter as they did about him, especially since Peter was taken off flying duties after the crash. Since Christmas 1916 Peter had been assigned to liaison duties in Brussels, and his life was no more dangerous than it would be at home in Berlin. Here on the front line, life was more hazardous; the regiment had lost fourteen officers in five weeks, five dead and nine wounded. From his pocket he took the postcard that Peter had sent arranging their meeting. For the thousandth time he made sure he had the date, time, and place right. He put the postcard away again with other cards from Peter that made a bundle so thick he couldn’t button his breast pocket over them. Ever since cadet school, Peter had sent postcards regularly: every two weeks, never more than three. Sometimes it was no more than a sentence – a joke, a greeting, a memory from the past, one of their nanny’s oft-repeated Scottish aphorisms. How did Peter know how important the cards were to him? Pauli never told him and never even responded to them. Peter, Peter, Peter. How he missed him.
‘Runner!’ The command was that of a Prussian officer. Pauli was always a little surprised to hear the voice coming from himself.
‘Herr Leutnant?’ The man almost fell down the steps and into the dugout. He was typical of the farm boys that made up most of the regiment. The rest of them were older men with families or physical disabilities that had kept them out of the war until last year, when the casualties meant that more and more men were needed. They were only half trained. The regiment should not be holding a section of the line: it should be at a training camp, where these fellows could learn to march and shoot. On the ranges, half of them couldn’t even hit the target, let alone score. The machine-gun teams were pitifully slow at stripping the guns or even at clearing them when they jammed. If the British infantry decided to attack on this sector, they would be able to walk through. Or at least that’s the way it appeared to those who hadn’t seen the state of the British soldiers facing them. But Pauli had spoken with enough British prisoners to know that the winter of endless rain, and the waterlogged trenches, had brought enemy morale down to a point where some Tommies were thankful for the prospect of a dry POW camp away from the fighting.
The theory held by the generals at Imperial Army HQ was that a few experienced NCOs and some trained Prussian officers for each company would work a miraculous transformation in this fighting force, but of course it wouldn’t. The ‘trained Prussian officers’ were no better than boys from cadet schools, some with less training than Pauli. And as for the experienced NCOs, they were too damned experienced. They were disillusioned veterans, many of them only recently discharged from hospital, men who had hoped to spend the rest of the war in safe jobs with training units. Now they were back in the front line, but instead of being with their comrades, they were wet-nursing this raggle-taggle bunch of stupid peasants, some of them not even Bavarians, kids with incomprehensible Austrian accents or unpronounceable Hungarian names. No wonder there were mutterings of discontent, Marxist leaflets, and every now and again, a wound that looked suspiciously like something that might have been self-inflicted.
He put the letter into an oilskin pouch to protect it from the mud, the rain and the runner’s filthy hands. ‘Take this letter to regimental Headquarters and tell the clerk to put it with the officers’ mail so that it goes off this morning. Do you understand?’ There was a crash that made the candle flicker and some dried pieces of mud fell from the lintels overhead. ‘That’s not very close: the other side of the railway lines … even farther, perhaps.’ It was an automatic reaction, done always to reassure whoever was nearby. Pauli buttoned his precious stub of indelible pencil into his jacket.
‘Yes, Herr Leutnant.’ The boy didn’t believe it, of course; the runners got about and knew what was happening. The British artillery were softening up the communications trenches so that no reserves would get here when they attacked. Rumours said that it would come in two or three days’ time. Lots of British patrolling lately – that was usually a sign of an impending attack. Pauli knew all about it because he was the only officer in the regiment who spoke fluent English. He was called upon to interrogate the prisoners or sort through the personal effects of the British dead before the things were sent back to the intelligence officers. Two days, three at the most. A sergeant from the South Wales Borderers had virtually admitted it to him.
The soldier took the oilskin packet and stumbled over his rifle butt, striking his helmet against the low doorway as he hurried up the steps and out along the trench. Pauli watched him without comment: Pauli, too, was inherently clumsy. He, too, stumbled up the steps more times than not. Why were some people like that, no matter how hard they tried. Pauli would have loved to be adroit and elegant, but he couldn’t even dance without stepping upon his partner’s feet.
As the antigas flap on the door swung back, a heavy smell of fresh cordite and the stink of the latrine buckets came into the dugout. Oh well, it was a change from the steady smell of unwashed bodies and putrefaction that was the normal atmosphere down here.
‘What’s the time?’ From one of the wooden bunks built into the far wall a figure swung his legs to the floor and then slowly emerged from the blanket that cocooned him. Alex Horner – Pauli’s close friend at the cadet school – had found himself attached to the same regiment. Both boys had hoped to be assigned to one of the better Prussian units – cavalry, guards, or dragoons – instead of this collection of conscripts. But they were together, and that was the one consolation in the whole miserable, tormented existence they led.
‘Next time I’m in Wertheims department store, I’ll get you a watch with an illuminated face,’ said Pauli sarcastically.
‘Well, that might be a long time,’ said Alex. He rubbed his chin to decide whether he needed a shave badly enough for the company commander to admonish him. He decided to risk it: seventeen-year-old chins did not show much stubble per day. Leutnant Alex Horner was already acquiring the look of the Prussian officer. A duel at cadet school had left him with a sabre cut along his jaw, and the lice-infested conditions here on the front line required him to have his head almost shaved. But he was not yet the austere, unbending Prussian figure: he smiled too much, for one thing, and his nose was pert and upturned, the sort of nose more often to be seen on farmers’ daughters than on Prussian officers.
‘It’s three-thirty-two,’ said Pauli.
‘What a terrible time to be awake.’
‘Stand-to in fifteen minutes.’ At dawn the front-line trenches had to be manned, because it was the best time for the British to attack. But, since the trenches were full of infantry, it was also a good time for the British to strafe them with a barrage of mortar shells.
Alex Horner groped on the floor to find his cigarettes. Together with the matches, he found them in his steel helmet. Unlike most of the soldiers, Alex Horner couldn’t sleep with his helmet on his head. When he’d got his cigarette lit, he tied up the laces of his boots and buttoned up his woollen cardigan, his jacket, and the overcoat in which he’d been sleeping. He moved slowly, as a man does when drunk. Stress, lack of rest, and the stodgy food so lacking in protein made them all a bit robotic.
‘If only the army had not disbanded their airships…’ said Alex. He put some eau de cologne on a dirty handkerchief and wiped his face with it.
‘Well, they have,’ said Pauli, who’d heard Alex’s sad story a hundred or more times.
‘My application was completed and approved. The physical exam would have been no more than a formality. I’m a hundred per cent fit; you know that, Pauli.’
‘I know,’ said Pauli. He couldn’t be too rude to his friend; they both needed someone to complain to. In the absence of any other sympathetic friends they told each other the same stories over and over again.
‘I’d be flying by now.’
‘Perhaps you could transfer to the Naval Airship Division.’
‘They’d never allow that, you know they wouldn’t.’
‘I’ll talk to my brother when I see him. Perhaps he could arrange something for you.’
‘I even bought those books on engine repair and maintenance.’
‘Airships are dangerous. My brother, Peter, was shot down.’
‘You talk to him. Perhaps if I was prepared to go in as a midshipman…’ They both knew that there was no possible chance that he’d be permitted to transfer to the navy, but by common consent they talked of it often.
‘Have you got your pistol belt and the flashlight? It’s time to go, Alex.’
‘It’s the monotony that gets me down. We’ll stand to and freeze for an hour; then we’ll spend ages while the captain inspects every rifle barrel.’
‘Not this morning; this is Easter Saturday. Wake up, Alex! We’re assigned to check the sentries and then be at the old supply line when the wiring party returns.’
Alex nodded, but he didn’t abandon his moaning. ‘Then, when the breakfast is coming, the British will mortar the communication trenches and those fools will drop our breakfast into the mud, the way they did three times last week. On Monday I only got a bread roll and half a cup of coffee.’
‘Don’t you ever think of anything else but food and drink, Alex?’
‘What else is there?’ It was Alex’s ‘morning moan’. Pauli had got used to his friend’s bad moods, which came immediately after waking. In another hour he’d be his normal cheery self again. Until then he needed to moan. ‘I suppose the planes will come over any time now.’
‘It’s too early. The attacks last week were planes coming back from patrol. The English patrol planes go out at dawn and come back about half an hour later. Perhaps the English pilots will stay in bed for Easter.’
‘Where are our planes?’
‘The British believe they must enter our airspace every morning. They say it keeps up their fighting spirit. They send the infantry patrols over to our trenches for the same reason. They are frightened that their soldiers will lose their appetite for the war unless they are sent often to fight us.’
‘Is that what you find out when you speak with the prisoners?’
‘They make no secret of it.’
‘Is Leutnant Brand on duty this morning?’ Alex asked, making the inquiry sound as casual as possible, and yet the imminent encounter with the dreaded Leutnant Brand was uppermost in the thoughts of both young men.
‘Yes, he’s duty officer.’
‘Jesus Christ!’ Alex rubbed his beard again and regretted not shaving, for Leutnant Heinrich Brand was a tyrant, a cruel man who lost no opportunity to make the lives of his junior officers a misery. Brand was thirty-two years old, the son of a baker in a village near the Austrian border. He’d entered the Bavarian cavalry as a boy and risen to the rank of Feldwebel by 1914. It was a rank beyond which he would never have been promoted except for the coming of the war. By the end of December 1914 he was a senior NCO in the regimental training camp. But it was on the Eastern Front, in the fighting of early 1915, that he saved the life of his commanding officer. Attacking Cossacks cut his cavalry regiment to pieces as they retreated through woodland that became marsh and then an open piece of ground that gave the Russian cavalry a chance to demonstrate their superior skill and reckless courage. Brand got the Iron Cross and a commission for that day’s hard fighting. But the same officers who applauded Brand’s bravery did not want to share their mess with this coarse-accented villager, and Brand soon found himself amongst strangers. And this time he was not even in the cavalry.
It was dark and cold, and there was rain in the air. The wind was singing in the massed barbed wire that filled no-man’s-land. As Pauli and Alex plodded their way along the duckboards which made a slatted floor for the deep trench, both were thinking of Brand. The Leutnant saved his particular hatred for these two products of the Prussian army’s most exclusive officer-cadet school. Brand envied them. He would have given almost anything to have the panache, the style and the background – to say nothing of the proper Berlin accent – of the two youngsters.
‘I hate him,’ said Alex Horner as they negotiated the zigzag trenchline, the skirts of their greatcoats heavy with accumulated mud. The sky was clear with a thousand stars and a moon that was almost full and very yellow. The night was bitterly cold. Underfoot the duckboards had frozen hard into the mud, so that they didn’t sink under the boys’ weight the way they usually did in the daytime.
‘Not so loud,’ said Pauli. ‘Voices carry in the middle of the night like this. Last night I could hear the stretcherbearers taking the casualties back to the medical post near Regimental HQ, and that’s a long way away, isn’t it?’
‘What about that Englishman in no-man’s-land last week? Did you hear him sobbing?’