In 1912, failing at Cambridge in pre-law, Eric Foster rebels against his father’s rigid plans for his future as a barrister with the family’s London law firm. In his search to control his own destiny he falls in love with the daughter of a minor German baron. To prove his worth to Brigitte’s aristocratic family, he exploits his German mother’s old family connections to buy a commission in an elite Prussian cavalry regiment. By joining the most respected, most powerful stratum of Imperial German society, he opens the way to marry his beloved only months before the outbreak of World War One, the war to end all wars.
His father was raving again. Back and forth he paced behind the desk, clutching that letter like a sword in his hand. Lean pointed face, clipped Edwardian beard, gunmetal-blue eyes like bullets ready to fire. He was dressed for church. The desk clock said eleven minutes after ten. They would be late for Easter services.
Eric stood before the desk, barefoot and in his nightshirt, with the walls closing down about his head. Summoned out of a deep sleep, only half awake even now, he let his father’s thunder blast past his ears. There was no point in answering. Or even in listening. He glimpsed a King’s College crest on the letter, “Truth and usefulness”, the college motto ingrained into every King’s student. Truth and usefulness.
The room went abruptly quiet. His father sat down in his captain’s chair and turned the paper over, as if something extra might be found on its blank side. In the long, frozen silence he did not look up.
“Where were you last night?”
The question startled Eric rigid. Where was he last night? What had last night to do with this letter from King’s—?
“We went to the dance over at St. James Pavilion—”
“We? Who are ‘we’?”
“Gordon and Ruth and—”
“And Jenny Henshaw?”
“Yes sir.” Eric didn’t know why he was drowning in quicksand.
“Jenny Henshaw’s mother rang me this morning, said she was up all night, said she was desperate when Jenny didn’t come home after the dance. Said she trusted the chaperones. Trusted you! So in return, you and this silly girl decided to compromise yourselves and in the same stroke to destroy both your reputations. And mine as well, by the way. Is that it?”
“Nothing like that happened, sir.”
“But it’s the appearance that counts, damn it. Can you not get that through your head?”
“But nothing happened, sir.” Now he was mumbling. He took a sharp breath. “I borrowed Gordon’s motorcycle and took her for a ride out along—”
“And this ride lasted six or seven hours?”
“No sir, no sir, um… Yes sir, a few hours. But I mean, not the actual ride itself—”
“Ah, so you stopped, did you! Ran out of petrol? In a public place, I do hope?”
Swift image of skidding on gravel in the darkness into a country ditch, landing in a heap together in the dew-drenched grass, giggling in the cool spring night—
“Well?” his father pressed.
“We had a bit of an accident, sir. We had to walk home.”
“Can I believe you?”
“You could ask Gordon, sir. The handlebars were bent off line, I couldn’t drive it like that, I had to push it all the way from—”
“Oh, no doubt your friend Gordon will back you up on this. That’s what friends do, do they not?” He studied the paper, intent and frowning. “What am I to do with you, Eric? I’m a judge. Reputation! Do you understand me? London’s a country village when it comes to gossip. And off you go, never a thought for family, gadding about with horses-and-hounds, motors and yachts, and who knows what other bloody falderal? This Henshaw girl, it won’t stop there, mark my words. I have enemies enough eager to make use of this sort of rubbish.” He crumpled the paper in his fist. His voice crumpled with the paper. “And now this.”
Eric’s feet were cold on the hardwood. Draughts wafted relentlessly through the house in all seasons, never quite sealed out by closing doors and windows. This was Easter holiday. A time for escaping the endless books and papers, every week another paper, another test. Ten days for simple fun. A break in the drudgery.
And now, this.
He knew what was on that paper. It represented tome after tome of common law, of dates and legal decisions and famous jurors’ biographies, mindless memorisation that he hadn’t caught inside his skull long enough to spew back in the orals.
It was as if his father read his mind. “You came tripping home for the holiday knowing full well you’re being sent down, and you did not trouble yourself to tell me.” Those bullet eyes.
“Answer me then.”
“Was it a question, sir?”
“Damn it you young whelp, do not presume to be impudent with me.”
“Sorry, sir.” He felt his face flush red. He stood immobile and awaited judgment.
“This is quite the end, Eric.” His father folded his hands on the desk, a signal that the subject was closed. “I’ve been up since that woman called, five o’clock this morning, been up with your mother talking it over. This must change. Your mother agrees with me. For once, concerning you, she agrees.”
Eric stood mute, staring at his father’s Winchester tie.
“Your don told me that you’re not likely to go on next term without reviewing the very stuff I sent you up to do. Said you’ve made no effort. Pity is, you can be so bloody brilliant. If you try. When it pleases you. So, here’s the thing. You’ll leave King’s and hie yourself over to your mother’s alma mater at Heidelberg, my God, the thought of it.”
“I hardly think—”
“That’s right! Please do not presume to think at this late hour. We must get you right out of the country, out of reach of this… this… bourgeois woman and her ambitious daughter.” He leaned a little forward, his image reflected in the gleaming wood of the tidy desk. “Do you realise the Henshaw woman wants a wedding? To justify your bloody nonsense?”
“Father, it wasn’t in the least like that—”
“You’re not even nineteen years old! My God! I was thirty, settled in my profession, a partner in The Office before I married your mother. No boy at eighteen knows what in God’s name he’s fit for, never mind with whom he’ll marry and in what circumstances!”
“It isn’t that way!”
The room went silent with the shock of Eric shouting.
His father stared at him.
“It was just a ride on a motorcycle.” His voice trailed off. No use, no use…
“It’s all decided. You may thank your mother for this. She’s convinced me that Heidelberg may provide the incentive you need to apply yourself. I agree that removing you from your current circle of pals may be half the battle. I’ll arrange your admission and reserve your courses, starting at once. There, you’ll prepare for The Law once again. I’ll give you a year, my boy. If by then you have not pulled up your socks, we shall consider a different path.”
“I only hope your German is adequate, God help us if it’s not.”
“I can probably—”
“I’m selling Spats. You’ll not need a horse at Heidelberg. Put your nose in your books my boy, and do not look round until next spring. Are we quite clear?”
“Yes sir.” He wondered numbly what Spats had to do with it. The punishment, he mused wryly, for walking Jennie Henshaw safely home.
Mid-evening, the house quiet, the sounds of the city distant. His father was in the study poring over a court case. Out of sight, out of trouble.
Eric lay sprawled across his mother’s bed while she lounged in her chaise by the window. The gauzy curtains fluttered in a light breeze. This was their special time. Ever since he could remember they had spent the last hour in her bedroom, talking over his day.
“I don’t understand,” he said again. “Is there nothing else in life but Law?” They spoke in German, their secret language.
“Ah, you understand well enough, Eric. Don’t be stubborn about this.”
“But Germany! I can’t come home on the weekends.”
“Heidelberg is a wonderful university, Schätzel. I was there only a few months, a history course, but I saw enough to love it. I wanted to study at the Sorbonne, you know, where women can study for a baccalaureate…” Her voice drifted off into the memory. She gazed past the billowing curtains.
In the lamplight he studied her face, made smooth with powder. Emphatic chin, long noble nose. Chestnut curls framed the faraway eyes. Always this edge of sadness when she spoke of Heidelberg, as if her dreams were behind her.
“Why don’t you go back to it?” He sat upright with this new idea. “Cambridge? King’s College? Wouldn’t that be a joke? Mother and son in the same college?”
“With my terrible English?” She smiled. “You’re so young. Life is so hopeful. While at Heidelberg be a good boy, na? Do as your father says. Please? Promise me?”
“Why Heidelberg? If your family’s in Stettin.”
“Stettin is too far, Heidelberg is only two days away.”
He mused on it.
“And because,” she added, “you know my family wants nothing of… wants nothing of me.” She smiled quickly. “We don’t need them.”
He sank back down on her pillow. He wanted to bury his face in its pervasive scent of rosewater. Vaguely uncomfortable, he shifted back upright against the headboard.
She smiled across at him. “If my family met you they would know you at first sight. You have those Schellendorf eyes, my darling, straight and true. And the curly stiff hair, you know the girls love it, they want to put their fingers through it, they want to tame it.” She grew serious. “I want you to be more careful of the girls, Eric. Too easy is it to fall into traps.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m a pal, Mutti, they don’t find me so attractive.”
“Yes, but already they do. Some day… put a little muscle on your skinny bones… you will be such a lady-killer.”
He laughed. He felt his ears go red.
“But be serious,” she said. “In Heidelberg you must work. Is it so terrible that he wants you in The Office? To carry on the tradition? You know a judge cannot associate with his own office. He needs you, Eric. Do you see that?”
“Why won’t he let Colin do it?”
“Ach, Colin!” She threw up her hands as if any argument were pointless.
“Father puts all the responsibility on me, and Colin can do anything he pleases… Which,” he muttered in English, “is bugger all that I can see.”
“You’re the elder.”
“Why is it important? Colin would die for his approval, he’d dig a hole in the moon for half the attention Father puts on me.”
“Colin is not a very bright boy, Eric. He has no capacity. Be realistic.”
“This girl, Jenny…?”
He shrugged. “She’s a nice girl, Mutti. She’s a pal. She makes no claim on me.”
They stood in a knot beside the first class carriage of the Continental Express. Passengers gathered along the platform, steam hissed, baggage carts rattled, carriage doors banged, all in a chorus of noise echoing off high metal girders. The locomotive chuffed quietly on the track ahead.
His mother was crying again. “Hear me, my darling,” she said to Eric in German. “Be a good boy and make the best use of your time exactly as your father wishes. And when all is over, you’ll have a fine education, and then you’re a man, my darling, free to make your own decisions. Only a few more years—”
“Come now!” said his father. “Speak English, you two, you’re in public here.”
Amidst the press of travellers James and Gordon stood to one side, waiting to say goodbye. Colin hung behind Mutti, somehow alone. Colin always seemed alone.
Gordon had forgiven the bent handlebars, easily fixed with the proper spanner. But nobody believed Eric had merely walked Jenny home. Among her friends at school she was said to enjoy new distinction as a femme fatale, before her family had spirited her off to Switzerland.
“Now do get on,” said his father brusquely. “Where’s your letter of credit?”
Eric patted his breast pocket.
“Don’t trust foreigners, guard your money, keep a sharp eye out for thieves. Work hard, son. Don’t let your mother down, this is her idea, you know.”
He nodded, unconvinced. He turned to Colin, who hung behind staring down at his shoes. Poor helpless little brother who never seemed to know what time the bell rang, or if it had rung at all. Eric went to him and reached out to shake his hand.
“Don’t go.” Colin wouldn’t look up. “I shan’t get on without you.”
“No choice, old man. You know Father when he’s got the wind up.”
“Promise you’ll come home for the holidays. Promise.”
“No promises. I’ll be working through.” He grasped Colin’s hand and shook it, and clapped him roughly on the arm. “But I’ll try.”
Colin didn’t look up. Wordlessly he turned away.
His mother gathered Eric into a tearful embrace. She brushed fingers through his stiff, sandy hair, as if she saw him still a child. “Be cautious,” she said in English, “to know vell who are the true friends.” After twenty years in England her w’s still came out as v’s and her r’s still rolled in the back of her throat. She released him, and he broke away to his two best chums. Awkwardly he shook hands with them, and they promised to exchange letters and get together over the holidays, conscious of his father’s disapproval. Especially Gordon, rolling his eyes and grinning.
The train hooted. On the platform a guard swung his lantern. “Close all doors please!” Eric climbed into the compartment where a porter had tucked his bags. He lowered the window to lean out. Doors slammed and the guard’s whistle shrilled and a blast of steam burst from between the carriage wheels. The train jolted gently forward with a gliding, swaying, accelerating click… click… click… and he waved out the window and they all smiled and waved after him, Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
No sailing, no fox hunting, no polo.
No Jenny, no Gordon…
A whole year without Father.
* * *