Thanks for coming back for a fourth helping of FLIGHT AT PEENEMÜNDE. Robert, Lord Petersholme, is one the 2 characters I've created that I'm the fondest. There's Prince Karl, my vampire in Nifty's scifi/fantasy folder. Robert is more real, I think. Perhaps that's more human.
Do you enjoy this story and others in the other folders of Nifty? Do you like the fact that they're free? Only you can ensure they stay that way. Throw a couple of bucks at Nifty, let's keep it free.
FLIGHT is copyrighted by me. It cannot appear anywhere in any medium w/o my express permission. You have only the right to read it.
Even if you're a minor, you could share this story with your mother. Still, don't stay around if under 16 in Europe or 18 in the US.
I appreciate knowing that you like my effort to entertain you. Write me at vichowel (that's one 'l') at aol.com.
I stood in the great hall at the foot of the stairs, gazing down the corridor towards Eliza's rooms with ever increasing irritation. It felt as if I'd been waiting hours for the girl.
I knew better, of course. I had only looked at my watch the moment before. Eliza was perhaps ten minutes late for the time we had set for our ride into Coventry. My dear cousin, however, had never kept me waiting in all the years that I had escorted her. "She was behaving like the most supercilious woman -- and I didn't like it. It was damned inconsiderate of her.
Eliza looked up and smiled at me as she pulled the door closed behind her. Even in the dimness of the corridor her smile was radiant, and I forgot my irritation immediately. She hurried to me as I stood waiting for her. "I'm sorry to be so late, Robert."
I shrugged. "It's quite all right, Eliza," I told her soothingly. "I was late myself."
"Robert?" She took my hand in hers. I waited. With Eliza, this action of hers always presaged something I wasn't comfortable doing. "I have a favour to ask," she said finally.
"A small one, really. Quite innocuous, to be honest."
Inwardly, I cringed. I knew my cousin far too well. This was definitely not boding well.
"Did you know Barry's Aunt Jane hasn't taken him into Coventry yet, Robert?" she asked.
I knew then what Eliza was about. A small favour? I thought not. Unless amongst circles where turning the entire English class system upside down was considered small and inconsequential. The woman had become a red Fabian, and I had not seen it happening. "Eliza!" I groaned.
"I thought we might take him along with us, Robert. It might all be quite boring after living so close to New York, but this is his family's home."
"I should think that reacquainting a colonial with his roots should fall on his family's shoulders," I offered feebly, knowing I had already been had.
"Jane Murray doesn't have time what with our Aunt Alice always glancing over her shoulder. She works six and a half days a week as it is."
"Eliza!" I instantly lowered my voice. "This Barry Alexander is a servant with Bellingham Hall. His aunt is a servant here. And his father is some sort of tradesman over there in America. He's not exactly our sort."
She studied me silently for several moments and I flushed under her gaze. "Robert, I thought you presented yourself as a Liberal in the Lords," she said softly. "You're beginning to sound much too much like those Whigs who have already consigned themselves to the history books."
"I am a Liberal, thank you!" I fumed. "A man should not be held back simply because of his birth status." I knew then that I had not only been had but that I had damned myself. I frowned and decided to cut my losses. "I assume this Barry shall be going into Coventry with us this afternoon?"
She smiled sweetly. "I'll ask him, Robert, but he'll likely agree. He's bringing the car up for us."
Barry pulled the car up to us at the Hall's entrance. I held the passenger door open for Eliza and walked around the bonnet, making it plain that I intended to take over the driver's side of the front seat. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the young American, understanding my intent, opened the door and got out of the car before I could reach him.
"His Lordship and I would like that you join us in town, Barry," Eliza told him before I had even sat my weight in the driver's seat. "Would you have time to see some of industrial England this afternoon?"
"My work's done for the day and I'm free. I'd really like to join you." He glanced at me. "If you don't mind, that is, sir." There was no hint of subservience in his request. He was a gentleman recognising that his involvement required my acceptance.
The lad had washed, his ginger hair was still damp. His clothing was new and looked to be quite good material, even if the cut wasn't English.
What was I to say? There were my political beliefs about the rights of men. There was my own knowledge that this lad was intelligent and was able to communicate pleasantly. There was too the friendship that had grown up between Eliza and this young American. And, then, there was my own sexual interest in the lad. I had to admit it was there, though I knew I would never allow it to become reality -- despite the American's seeming willingness.
I smiled at him. "Please come along, Barry," I told him. "We'd love to have you join us." At that moment, I was sure that I sincerely meant my invitation. I vaguely wondered at my change of heart but laid the blame for that on my cousin as well as the lad's comfortable ability to move into our circle -- even if it was only with Eliza and myself.
He grinned at me, nodded to Eliza, and jumped into the back seat behind us with an easy, agile grace. Gymnastically. He hadn't so much as touched the car's finish as he angled himself into the rear passenger seat. I found myself wishing that I was still in sufficient shape to have such grace.
* * *
We stood before the old tower that had once been the first prison home of Queen Mary of Scotland once she was in England. He stared.
"What's the matter, Barry?" Eliza asked.
"This is older than even the first colony in America," he whispered back. "Roanoke in Virginia."
"The first English colony," my cousin reminded our American guest. "The Spanish had already reached your state of Florida by then. And the Dutch had begun to settle your home state of New York. There were even Swedes there somewhere."
I stared at her. Where in bloody hell had she learned colonial history? From all the empty-headed young ladies I'd had to chat with the past ten years, I knew absolutely that finishing schools were quite lax about history. Had I taken such a course whilst at university? Were my textbooks still in the library at Bellingham Hall? Was the insatiable curiosity behind such mundane knowledge what had attracted a Wildean like this young American to my cousin?
"See the cathedral spire?" I asked, pointing as both turned back to me. "They're having a band concert on the green there. Should we go?"
"Oh, let's!" Eliza squealed happily. "Robert's not taking me to a band concert since the summer before Mama died." She covered her mouth quickly and looked down. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"Are you all right, Elizabeth?" the American asked immediately. I turned to study my cousin myself.
"I don't wish to darken a lovely day, Barry." She smiled and I knew she was forcing it. "I'm quite all right."
We stepped away from the medieval town hall and adjacent prison, making our way towards the cathedral. Barry's curiosity proved instantly insatiable, however. I was explaining every building in the oldest part of the industrial town as Eliza stayed up with us but remained silent.
"It's really amazing, Lord Petersholme," Barry gushed as we left the medieval town. "I mean, New York feels old -- powerful and old. But Manhattan was still an Indian hunting ground when this was built."
"Are you looking at the history?" I asked.
"No. More the architecture than anything else." We had reached a roadway that separated the dense impaction of the old town and the sun-lighted grounds of the cathedral then. "If it was just me, I think I would study only architecture."
"Why shouldn't you then?"
"Because, sir, we have to learn to control the bull and the bear in the market. This Depression is the worst one yet, but they'll continue to get worse -- unless we learn to harness the energy of capitalism and make it work for the people, for everyone -- not just the gamblers."
"Are you a Fabian then?"
Barry turned to look at me curiously. "Fabian?"
"A Socialist -- one of George Bernard Shaw's disciples."
"I'm a Roosevelt Democrat, Lord Petersholme. That means I'm a capitalist. I don't want to socialise the means of production at all. But there's much we can learn from socialist economic philosophy. That's what Lord Keynes has sought to do -- bring government into the market place to provide control. That way people don't lose jobs. Small businessmen don't lose their businesses to the bank when there's a downturn. Government keeps the playing field level and enforces some rules on the flow of money. We want people employed, not crowds with nothing to lose who'll follow every nut into a fairy tale land."
Bloody hell! Out of the mouths of babes! This damned Yank made sense -- far more sense than the damned reds, Labour, and the bloated Tories together. I quietly resolved to become more interested in what the bloody Yanks were doing over there across the Atlantic. It sounded as if it might be of interest for the whole United Kingdom. Not that there were crowds of unemployed seeking the head of King George, but more and more people were listening to Labour -- even after the disaster of the National Unity Coalition that followed the beginning of the Depression. There were even those listening to that strange little man, Sir Oswald Moseley, who would be England's Hitler.
I glanced back at Eliza and saw she was trailing us by several steps. "She lost her mother when she was eleven. The poor woman pined away after her husband killed himself in the crash of '29," I offered quietly. "A stockbroker."
Barry grimaced, nodded, and fell back to walk with Eliza.
* * *
"Robert, you have taken all leave of your senses!" Aunt Alice fumed at me in my study. "You are completely daft." She stood directly before my desk, her face blanked by shock. Her fists clenched at her sides. I stood at the open window, facing her.
"What have I done now?"
"You're sending young Elizabeth off to London, alone. To university. No-one will want her after that. You shall end up having a spinster under your roof to bedevil your wife, long after I'm gone."
I smiled at her. "I hope you postpone your leave-taking by a number of years, Aunt. I would rather miss you."
She continued to stare at me, trying to maintain her anger; but I had disarmed her as I knew I would. "Why, Robert?" she finally asked. "Young ladies of our sort have no need for university."
I crossed the room and took her hands in mine, smiling down into her gaze. "Eliza is quite clever, you know?"
She nodded dubiously.
"She's actually read all my textbooks from when I was at Oxford."
"What conceivable reason would she have for doing something like that?" she grumbled.
"She has an enquiring mind, Aunt."
"All the more with which to get herself into trouble, Robert. She needs a marriage and a good, firm husband."
"Would you deny a mind the knowledge it seeks, Aunt Alice?" I asked gently. "Any mind, not just Elizabeth's? Say one of our young people here at Bellingham Hall?"
She wrinkled her nose and scrowled half-heartedly at me. "Dear Robert, it's your duty to King and Country to care for our retainers. If one of these lads were -- if the teacher from the village school came to you and told you that one of them was bright enough -- I know you'd enrol him in a university. It'd be your responsibility to..."
"Yet, I'm to treat my own cousin -- a Petersholme -- more poorly than I would a servant boy?"
She knew she was trapped, but Alice Adshead refused to surrender. She took a deep breath. "Robert, one of those lads -- a child of one of your factory employees -- he's not got the resources our sort have. A degree from university would provide him with the opportunity to better himself."
"And our Eliza shouldn't have the same opportunity?"
"She'd have a husband, Robert -- and, soon enough, children. Title, money -- all the things our class have as part of the natural order of things. Things no servant child could possibly have. She doesn't need an education to fill her head with even more strange ideas than she already has."
I sighed. "Aunt Alice, I was already in trousers before you -- before any woman -- was allowed to vote in this country. Even today, a woman does not automatically inherit from her father -- even if she is his only child -- or from her husband. He has to make specific bequests to her in his will; otherwise, a trust is set up for her." I gripped her hands tighter. "The oldest son of the lowest of my employees in Coventry is automatically assumed to be his father's heir -- even over his own mother. Does that sound as if our Eliza -- or any woman -- is taken care of under English law?"
"We take care of our own, Robert -- as your father, and now you, have taken care of your poor cousin."
"Aunt Alice, if I died unmarried, without an heir, all of Petersholme would go to one of my many male cousins. Whatever happened to Eliza and to you would rest upon his head -- he would not have to support either of you, or have you continue to reside here at Bellingham Hall. If I died and were married with an heir, then Eliza's and your fate would be in the hands of that heir and the mother who influenced him."
She stiffened as the possibility of her fate spread through her thoughts.
I smiled. "Aunt Alice, I have set aside trusts for both you and Eliza. If I'm not here, you shall still be able to hold your head up proudly." I watched the relief flood across her face. "Let Eliza have the opportunity that you never had."
She nodded slowly. "She'll live at the Mayfair house then?" she asked finally. I nodded. "Then Roger and Mrs. Murray will watch after her," she continued, accepting the reality of my cousin's entering university. "But she'll need a companion, Robert -- one to escort her to and from campus. Do we have a girl here at Bellingham Hall with enough poise?"
I took a deep breath. Aunt Alice had accepted that Eliza would go to university, but it was not assured that she would accept my idea for my cousin's safety there. "This American lad, Miss Murray's nephew, is enrolled at the same university."
"A man?" she growled, staring at me as if I were truly daft.
"Jane Murray's nephew and Roger's grandson, Aunt Alice. He could live there in Mayfair, perhaps help her with her studies, and watch over her. They're quite close friends already, you know."
"You would put her in the hands of a servant boy? A foreigner at that? Who knows what unacceptable things he learnt as a child?" She glared at me. "You say that they are already friends? Robert, Elizabeth's mother made a mistake and married a tradesman -- would you put that young woman in the way of making the same mistake her mother did? Would you let her ruin her life?"
"I think there's little to fear from our young American, Aunt. Barry Alexander will be too interested in other people to go after Eliza."
Her anger was palpable. "Fiddlesticks!" she hissed, muscles in her face and neck knotted as she spat the word out.
I knew I bordered on fighting skirmishes with Alice Adshead forever if I allowed her fears to continue. I forced myself to smile at the woman who had been a mother to me most of my life. "Barry is a gentleman, Aunt Alice -- perhaps a bit rougher than we English are, but a gentleman nonetheless. He is fond of Eliza as a friend only." I looked back at the windows, unwilling to face her shock when I told her exactly why I knew that the American boy would not become more than just friends with Eliza. "He also is Wildean -- an invert -- in his sexual tastes -- what they're calling homosexuals these days."
There was only silence in the study then. I could not even hear her breath.
"He -- he likes men?" she finally asked in a small, strangled voice. I suspected she was staring at me as if I were a headless corpse come to life before her. I nodded without turning back to her.
"We certainly can't have that sort here at Bellingham Hall. I'll tell Jane she'll have to pack the boy off tonight."
"You'll do nothing of the sort, Aunt Alice."
"We can't have inverts here, Robert. We have families working here; there are young boys he may influence..."
I turned to face her. "Aunt Jane, I do not dismiss anyone from my employ without cause, and young Barry has received only glowing reports from the gardener. There has not been even the suggestion of improper behaviour with the young men of the farm. He doesn't even have a pint in the village with the other lads. In fact, he has been the model of proper behaviour."
"He's behaved himself here because of his aunt and because he's under your scrutiny, Robert. Once that boy is London, he'll become one of those wild American Indians. Is that what you would have Elizabeth involved in? Associating with inverts and the very dregs of society?"
"Aunt Alice, I can only judge a man by his actions. This lad has been a gentleman every time he has been with me or Elizabeth. He does his work without complaint and he behaves himself with the men and boys of the farm. And I have found that he truly respects my cousin as well." I smiled. "Add to his proper behaviour at all times the fact that he prefers men to women sexually, and we have a friend who will have Eliza's interests at heart."
"Robert, what you are suggesting just isn't done by our sort!"
"I'd be surprised if it wasn't, Aunt Alice. It's just kept quiet. Watch the boy this next month. Keep an open mind, though. See if you don't come to agree with me."
* * *
Eliza sat between Barry and myself as the lights at the cinema in Coventry lowered towards darkness, almost as if she were the chaperone. The thought shocked me as it came to mind, but I could still see the humour of it. What was even more humorous was that I wasn't at all sure that young Barry and I didn't need a chaperone.
I had no intention of compromising the American, of course. Or myself. Not this close to the inner workings of Petersholme, despite the interest I discerned. Definitely not.
Yet, I understood too well that meant that the lad had managed to breech my defences. I had become interested in him. And not just as another person, either -- regardless of how intelligent he was. Or how interesting a conversationalist he was. He was altogether much too winsome. And I was becoming all too aware of my continuing celibacy for my peace of mind. I was thinking more of inviting young Barry to my rooms than I was of managing the estate and Petersholme's factories.
It had been two years since father died. Two years since I had last given myself to carnality. I made a mental note to find an excuse to travel up to London and find my way down to King's Cross. Yes, that would work nicely. An afternoon spent with an uninhibited boy would certainly relax me. My sexual tensions relieved, I could then return my roving attention to where it belonged.
In the flickering light from the film on the screen a middle-aged professor made his way through the narrow backstreets of Berlin. He had heard of the cabarets and how immoral they were from several of his students and had to see them for himself.
I smiled, knowing he would soon meet Marlene Dietrich and then would be completely lost. I had already seen Blue Angel at least ten times since its release six years earlier and practically knew it by heart. If ever there was a woman I would want to spend my life with, it was Marlene Dietrich. I sat back in my chair and relaxed.
"I thought Miss Dietrich was blond," Barry offered when we were back at the car.
"With the help of peroxide," Eliza offered with a laugh as I opened the door for her. "I wonder if that was her decision or Hollywood's?"
"Hollywood's," I grumbled. "Those lads in Barry's country seem to think all Germans are blonde and the French are all brunettes." I snorted as I sat behind the wheel and started the car. "Remember what they did to that Harlow woman."
"We're not all that bad, sir," Barry said as he leant on the back of the seat. "I admit some of us Americans are rube goldbergs, but not all -- not even most of us any more. And we have men in government now who have been to Europe and studied here."
I caught the defensive tone in his voice even above the wind gusting past us "I didn't mean to say that," I said in apology. "You'll have to forgive me, Barry. I'm used to speaking with my countrymen and, sometimes, we use a shorthand in our speech that we understand but forget that others may not." I turned to him. "Forgive me?"
"Of course I do, sir."
I smiled in thanks and turned back to face the carriageway. I saw that Elizabeth was smiling knowingly at me as I turned. What was that about? I wondered as I felt my face warm further under her scrutiny.
"I shall have to go up to London soon," I said above the wind, changing the subject quickly.
Elizabeth squealed and clapped her hands. "That'll be so lovely. A play surely. And we must take Barry with us." She looked over at me and put her hand on my arm. "When shall we go, Robert? Next weekend?"
I wondered if I could pretend it was not homicide if I choked her. I gripped the steering wheel more tightly and forced my irritation at her to pass. I glanced at Barry's freckled face in the rear-view mirror. Perhaps, if I was ever going to enjoy myself in a bed again, I would not have to lower my standards after all.
He really was a handsome lad, Barry Alexander was. And quite intelligent too -- far more than what I could find in King's Cross for even a quid. I began to imagine what his naked, tight body would feel like against mine.
I cringed and forced my thoughts back to the carriageway ahead of us. Damn Eliza anyway! She seemed intent to keep me closely tied to the lad.