GAMES AT DEAUVILLE is the sequel of FLIGHT AT PEENEMŰNDE. Hopefully, you'll find it as appealing.
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The train began to slow as it approached Bellingham village. I peered out of the window of my compartment, trying to see through the hoarfrost that had rimed it all the way from London. We're in for a cold winter, I thought.
I was home. And a fortnight before Christmas. "Well done, Petersholme," I mumbled, congratulating myself, "despite Max Molloy's best efforts to ruin it."
I tried to envisage myself submerged in the Hall's Christmas preparations, but the farmer in me kept coming to the fore. As the train continued to slow, I began to tick off a list of tasks I'd need to deal with.
Forcing thoughts of farming from my mind, I stood and stretched to loosen muscles cramped by the long trip. I watched as the station began to appear and smiled as I spotted the man who had become the love of my life standing in the centre of the platform. Barry Alexander peered into each carriage as it moved past him, looking for me. I couldn't help smiling.
He wore a plaid coat, earmuffs, and stocking cap that covered his head and which instantly caught my eye. It was a flaming orange, setting off his ginger hair absurdly. The bright green of the ball at the end of its tail made the effect even worse.
I shuddered and hoped that no-one else had seen him wearing it. No Englishman would wear anything so outlandish. I chuckled to myself then. Barry was definitely no Englishman, though he put on a fairly decent act of it in London when his classmates at the School of Economics might see him or his grandmother would collapse in shock.
He was a warm, witty, intelligent American who did things the American way. And I loved him - partly, I suspected, because he was so absurdly American.
I still didn't know how he'd got past my defences during the summer, but I was happy that he had. The two years since I had inherited my title had been lonely ones until he entered my life.
My carriage reached the platform and the train shuddered to a stop. I hoped that he'd remain in England after he had earned his degree from the London School of Economics. An absurd and forlorn hope, I supposed, but my hope none the less. I buttoned my coat.
Stepping from the carriage, I was hit by a bracing chill.
"Miss Elizabeth arrived yesterday afternoon, Lord Petersholme," Barry said loudly as I stepped onto the platform. Barry was playing the role of servant and failing miserably. Here in Northamptonshire, he was my housekeeper's nephew and, in public at least, our relationship was entirely formal as it had to be. Barry made me realise the subservience of one class to another was absurd. We could well learn a thing or two from the Americans, I thought.
"I brought her friend and the brother down to catch their train back to Leeds half an hour ago." He grinned as he reached me, his freckles spreading across his face until he looked like a young imp. "And waited around for you. It was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone."
"Today is what? Friday? You last saw me at the beginning of the week before you left London with Willi."
"Lord Molloy's had you under his thumb since we all returned from Poland, your Lordship." He arched a brow playfully. "I don't know what he's been doing to keep you so occupied but this past month it's like your mind's been a million miles away. But, here, I've got you for the next three weeks and there's no Foreign Office, no Lord Molloy, and no affairs of state to keep you away from me."
Barry had definite plans for me, and I suspected that I would have little say in how they were carried out. And he was quite right Molloy had kept me more than occupied since I had escaped the talons of the German eagle and brought with me the young boy who was now my son. I was now an active member of the Foreign Office group charged with countering Berlin's diplomatic efforts.
"How's Willi?" I asked.
"Your new son still misses his real dad but he's coming around nicely." Barry lowered his eyes and asked quietly: "Aren't you even going to tell me that you're looking forward to being with me as much as I am with you?"
"I love you, Barry," I told him, gripping his arm for emphasis. "I've missed being with you this last month and a half at least, I've missed concentrating on you." I took a deep breath and smiled as sheepishly as I could. "I've been neglecting you since we got back from Poland, and I promise that will change just as soon as we're in a quiet corner of the Hall. You're going to have my undivided attention for the rest of the month." I wasn't promising that simply to make him feel better. I was promising it because it made me feel better.
"I can hear Miss Alice and Willi now, dressing you down the first time you ignore them for me, Robbie," he chuckled. "You're going to have to give the farm and your factories some time. The family's going to need you too. I'll be glad to just have you hold me in the evening or make love to me without most of your mind being on whatever Max and his buddies have cooking over there in Europe."
* * *
We pulled to a stop at the front entrance of Bellingham Hall and, before Barry could turn off the ignition, the big oak doors had flown open.
"Uncle Robert!" came a scream in German as I opened the car door and began to turn. "Uncle Robert, you're here at last!" A ball of energy crashed into me, pushing me back against the gear box and Barry. Somehow, it landed in my lap and transformed itself into a five year old boy with his arms encircling my neck and his face buried in my coat.
"Willi." I ruffled his hair and returned his hug, tears welling in my eyes. "You must speak English here, you know," I told him gently, surprised at how happy I was to be holding him again. I looked up and saw Aunt Alice standing in the entranceway, shaking her head slowly and smiling at us.
Barry pulled the key from the ignition. "Carry him inside, Robbie," he said to me as he opened his door. "I'll get your things."
"Glad to see me, are you?" I asked Willi, holding him, as I walked towards Alice.
Willi nodded against my chest and then looked up at me, his eyes blue as the Prussian sky. "I thought you were never going to come, Uncle Robert. I thought that you had decided not to spend Christmas with me."
"I promised, didn't I?" I asked. He nodded. "I always try to keep my promises, Willi."
"Promise me that Father Christmas will bring me a horse for my very own then, Uncle Robert."
We had reached Aunt Alice and I hugged her to Willi and myself.
"This lad of yours has driven everyone insane asking after you, Robert," she grumbled, patting his back and hugging us both.
"I have not!" Willi said indignantly.
"Don't believe her, Robert," Elizabeth said from the step. "Our Aunt Alice has had her heart completely stolen by young Wilhelm."
Alice Adshead harumphed and pulled away from us. Before she could get away, Willi leaned over and placed a wet kiss on her cheek. She smiled.
"May I steal a small kiss from your Uncle Robert, Willi?" asked Elizabeth.
Willi permitted my cousin to kiss me as he had Aunt Alice's hug earlier.
"How do you like the wreaths?" he demanded before Elizabeth could step back.
I looked at the double doors. Boughs of holly had been shaped into two wreaths, one adorning each door.
"They're pretty," I told the boy. "Did you make them for us?"
He nodded, beaming. "Miss Murray and Aunt Alice helped. Let's go inside. I want you to see what's there."
My eyes suddenly watered and I blinked back tears. This was the first Christmas since I was younger than Willi that I had not helped prepare the Hall for Christmas.
"Uncle Barry said he would help me put up the Yule tree, Uncle Robert," he said as I stepped into the house. "But I wanted both of you to help me, not just him."
I smiled. "We'll do it this Sunday then, lad. But we'll need to make it a family project. If we're not careful, the ladies will think we don't need them."
I felt Elizabeth poke me in the side. Hard. Alice chuckled. Willi sagely nodded his understanding.
* * *
Logs burned in the fireplace of the sitting room. Willi sat on my lap, holding on to me and sucking his thumb as he slipped into sleep. Near the fire, Aunt Alice knitted. Elizabeth and Barry were going on about Schöpenhauer's suicide in quiet voices. I began to doze.
The Foreign Office had impinged on my life. I had come to know far more about the state of the world than most Englishmen and far more than I was happy knowing. During the last month and a half, I had woken to nightmares of the German eagle spreading its wings across Europe and a bloodied England caught in its talons.
Most of those nights, Barry had been in the bed beside me. Elizabeth and Willi were in their own rooms in the Mayfair house. The nightmares had seemed more real in London and had separated me from those I loved. Here, they had already begun to retreat into the distance. Now I was home, my sense of perspective seemed to be returning.
I jerked, pulled from the safe, comfortable haze I had slipped into. I looked over to Alice and saw that she was watching me. I hoped that she hadn't realised I was napping.
"Are you going to stay for New Year, Robert?"
"I mean, you aren't going to have to dash off to London because of this business with the Foreign Office, are you?"
Barry and Elizabeth stopped talking. I shifted the child on my lap and faced them. "Aunt Alice, the only government thing that I'm involved with is the Lords," I told her and felt my face flame at the transparent lie. "I only helped Max out with that excursion to Berlin..." I was burying myself deeper. I could see it on Barry's face.
"All right," I said, changing tack. "It's probably safe to say that I have been roped into doing some work for Whitehall." For a moment I wondered how much I should reveal. "But it will not interfere with our Christmas. I won't allow it." I smiled at the three of them. "I'm home. I am with the people I love. This is where I want to be." I forced myself to chuckle.
"Robert," Aunt Alice frowned, chose her words with care, and went on, "what exactly is going on in the world that has made you so concerned?"
I forced a smile to my lips. "You understand that there's much I can't tell you any of you?" All three of them nodded that they understood.
"Very well then you know Hitler has gobbled up Czechoslovakia? Not just the Germanic Sudetenland that Chamberlain surrendered to him at Munich but the Czech and Slovak lands as well?"
Each of them nodded but I noticed that Barry seemed to be holding himself back. Of course, it had been Barry who had held me in his arms when the nightmares had got too bad.
"The government has told Berlin that there can be no more territorial acquisitions. It will be war next time."
"War?" Alice gasped.
"And-?" Barry asked.
"We've got a nasty situation," I answered. "Look at the face of Europe. Spain has gone fascist. Italy is already fascist and allied with Germany. Hungary is as well. They have Austria and, now Czechoslovakia. The Low Countries and Scandinavia are neutral. That leaves only us and the French and France is pacifist."
"And?" Barry asked again.
"Britain needs five years to re-arm if we are to go into a war with Germany on an equal footing."
"And we don't have five years?" Elizabeth asked.
"We don't," I admitted.
She glanced to Barry. "What about the Americans?"
"Impossible," he said, answering for me. "It'd take the Krauts bombing New York to push us into war." He shook his head slowly. "The America First crowd has half the Congress eating out of their hand; Roosevelt could never talk them into it."
"So, we stand alone?" Elizabeth groaned, looking at Barry and then to me. "Have we started to rebuild our army yet?" she asked.
I sighed. "No, we haven't. But we can defend against a general invasion with the Navy besides, the Wehrmacht would have to get through France to threaten us. Where we will hurt the worst is in the air. Hitler's generals proved how effective the aeroplane can be in Spain. We'll be bombed far worse than in the Great War. It won't be pretty."
"I think, Robert," Alice said, firmly changing the subject, "that it is time for a certain young man to be put to bed." She smiled tightly. "I also think that this is probably not the most pleasant topic of conversation, given the season."
* * *
Early on Saturday morning, I left Barry asleep and stole downstairs to my study. There were two months of reports from the Petersholme factories in Coventry waiting for me in addition to the farm manager's reports. The time spent in Germany for the Foreign Office had played havoc with my business commitments.
Around nine, Barry knocked quietly at the door and backed in, carrying a breakfast tray. "You need nourishment, Robbie," he said as he laid his tray on the table beside the window.
Before I could protest that I wasn't hungry, my stomach growled. "Perhaps I do," I agreed as I stood up. "Will you join me?"
He grinned. "I did have Cook make enough for two."
I laughed. "So, you are joining me then?" He nodded.
He poured the tea. "Do you still have money, Robbie?"
"The tractor factory is still profitable."
"Sounds like you've got good men running it then." He grinned. "As I remember from this summer the fertiliser plant makes money all by itself. And your farm manager is a jewel as well."
I looked up at him. If I knew anything about Barry, it was that, when he began to close off lines of conversation, he had one particular thing he wanted to talk about. "To use your phrase, what's up?"
He nodded absently and sipped at his tea. "What have you got that boy for Christmas?"
"Last time I looked, Wilhelm von Kys, now William Adshead, sure looked like a boy, Robbie have you got him anything for Christmas yet?"
Blast! This practical American had me on the spot, and he knew it. Max had kept me so busy since I escaped from Germany that I hadn't had time to think about Christmas presents.
It wasn't just the family, either. Tradition dictated that I give each employee a gift, farm and factory.
"Have you got him anything yet?" I asked defensively.
"It arrived in London last week just before we left London for Bellingham Hall." He grinned. "A cowboy outfit, including the boots and a toy six-gun. Caps too. Mom sent it over from New York. What about Elizabeth and Miss Alice?"
I quickly glanced down to the reports on my desk to avoid his gaze. "I haven't ... Do you think perhaps you and Eliza...?"
He smiled so sweetly at me. "Robbie, come Monday morning, you, Elizabeth, and I are driving over to Coventry. We have some shopping to do."
"I couldn't possibly..."
"You owe it to your people, Lord Petersholme," he said quietly, hitting home. "And you'd better get the family and servants something nice or I'll write you off faster than you can spell Mississippi."
"Damn," I growled.
After Barry had left I called in Aunt Alice. She had already bought gifts for the staff in anticipation of my forgetting to do so. With the exception of putting up the tree on Sunday, there was nothing left for me to do.
I telephoned the managers of my factories and authorised the customary five shilling Christmas bonus in the pay packet of each man who had been with Petersholme for at least a year. I intended to do the same for the farm hands later when I met with the farm manager.
I could hear young Willi running through the great hall, goading Alice to hurry up. Barry had told me that he would be entertaining Elizabeth by reading the American poet Walt Whitman. I was home and in the arms of my family. I couldn't think of a place that I would rather be, even if I was working instead of playing.
A knock at my door pulled me from the reports in front of me. "Come," I called.
"M'Lord," Miss Murray said as she opened the door.
Looking towards the door, I saw Max Molloy stand aside to allow a short, pudgy man to enter the room. I recognised his bulldoggish face immediately, even if there had not been the thick cloud of cigar smoke around his head to identify him. Winston Churchill! I swallowed as both men stepped into the study. What could he possibly want with me?
Miss Murray closed the door behind them.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew that something was going to happen to ruin Christmas for us and I feared it, whatever it proved to be. For a moment, the idea of hiding crossed my mind. I stepped out from behind my desk instead and walked over to Molloy and Churchill.
"Happy Christmas, Max," I said. "And to you as well, Mr. Churchill."
Molloy stepped closer, his blue eyes intense and serious. I realised that he'd lost the several inches of extra girth that I'd noticed in September. I thought that Alan Dudding was having a nice effect on my friend until I saw his face. His round face actually seemed haggard. "You know Mr. Churchill then, Robbie?" he asked.
"We haven't actually met but, of course, I recognise him." I glanced from Max to Churchill and back. "Would you like tea, gentlemen?"
"Thank you, no, your Lordship," Churchill said, wagging his cigar. He stepped into the centre of the room and control gravitated to him naturally. "Lord Molloy and I need to return to London this afternoon." His gaze held mine and I knew I would agree to any request he made of me. "May we just sit for a while?"
"Lord Petersholme," Churchill said after we were comfortable in front of the fire. "I understand that you are pretty cool-headed nothing like the firebrand that the press makes me out to be." He paused and smiled. I found myself instinctively smiling back. "I fear," he continued, "that Fleet Street has been drawing me with longer fangs than the mirror tells me I have."
His gaze moved quickly over the room. "You haven't changed a thing, Petersholme," he said a moment later.
"I stood in this same room with your father that first year of the Great War." He chuckled and looked at me as a proud father would his son. "I even held you on my lap for a few moments."
"The tanks we made for the Crown," I said, remembering my father's pride at the contract Petersholme had garnered. We had built the first British tanks.
Churchill laughed. "We were so afraid they would become known as water closets for Russia."
"Water closets, sir?" I asked hesitantly.
"Our lads at the Admiralty were calling them hot water tanks for Russia to keep them secret. Several wags had already started calling the water closets. That was before I talked with your father." His nose wrinkled and his bulging eyes flashed. "But that was an earlier war. Almost a gentleman's war, if you will. It's no longer Kaiser Bill, but Uncle Adolf."
I was quickly drawn in by his intimate, yet hoarse, barking voice and the brilliance that drove it. "We are going to have a war, Petersholme. The signs are now so obvious that even our Prime Minister has begun to see them." He nodded towards me. "From what you said in your debriefing, you, sir, have seen them yourself - the long Wehrmacht troop trains in Berlin, that damnable rocket they tested while you were at Peenemünde, their occupation of Czechoslovakia, and their increasingly insufferable attitude. We have less than a year, Petersholme. Less than a year."
He studied me for a moment and I felt as if I were a small boy summoned by the headmaster.
"England will sorely need every friend it can find, Petersholme. Molloy here and Mr. Dudding from the Admiralty have been instructed to make you aware of how woefully unprepared we are for this coming war." He glanced to Max, and my old school chum nodded in agreement. "At present, we have only the French in Europe as an ally. Our most accomplished diplomats are vying with von Ribbentrop to win over the Bolsheviks in Moscow."
"We have the Navy," I said, reflexively parroting the common line.
"You are a flyer, sir. You can well imagine what a powerful and modern air arm can do for a country at war look at what those Stukas did to the Spanish Republicans a few years ago. They gained air supremacy and then bombed the Loyalists into surrender. Worse from Britain's point of view, an Army Air Corps officer in America named Billy Mitchell proved what an aeroplane could do to a Navy a couple of years ago. He sank one of America's largest destroyers with bombs from just one aeroplane. The Germans will have more than one hundred divisions in a fully trained and modern army by the summer they have the men for them now that they have Austria and the Sudentenland."
"Will we be able to bring men in from the Empire?" I asked, conscious of my ignorance.
"Hardly, Petersholme. Germany is allied with Japan, and they're already casting hungry glances at our possessions in the Orient. We'll have to keep both the Navy and the bulk of the army in India and beyond Hong Kong, Singapore and the Malay peninsula especially to hold them at bay."
I knew that I had been snookered. Of course, I had known that the moment I saw Churchill standing at my door, his bowler in hand. "What do you need me to do, Mr. Churchill?" I asked in surrender.
The corners of his lips twitched and I suspected that I had seen the ghost of a smile there. "Petersholme, I'm not on the King's official business today."
"Churchill, you may not be the Prime Minister; but you need me to do something something for my King and country." I shrugged and tried to smile. "I suspect that I have just volunteered."
Churchill slowly brought the fingers of both hands together to make a steeple and nodded. "You know that the present French government is even more pacifist than ours is?" I nodded. "We do have a friend there Paul Reynaud ... Do you remember him?"
"I can't think..."
"He was a hero in the Great War quite well known to his people. He's the Minister of Justice in the present government." I remained silent. "He and I have similar doubts about Hitler. We both see war on the horizon, and he has some support in both the government and army." I waited. "He is quite interested in this rocket business of the Germans, Petersholme. He would like to be briefed on everything you saw in Germany."
This didn't sound dangerous. I allowed myself to smile. "You want me to go to Paris then, Mr. Churchill?"
He chuckled. "Actually, Monsieur Reynaud has invited you to his country place in Deauville. It would be more private, you understand."
"You're thinking only a few days then?"
"No more than two or three, Petersholme. You'll be back well before Christmas and your family obligations here."
"Mr. Churchill?" Max asked. Churchill and I both turned to Max. "Robert has both his cousin and an American guest here for Christmas - both of them students at the School of Economics. They would provide him with any cover that he might conceivably need a British nobleman showing his cousin and guest the French sights, you know."
Cover? I glanced sharply at Molloy and saw the faint whisper of a smile touch his lips. It dawned on me then what he was doing, and my face began to burn.
"Cover?" Churchill asked, as surprised at Molloy's suggestion as I was.
"I'm not suggesting he actually needs a cover, Mr. Churchill. But one doesn't know, does one? If this Barry Alexander and Robert's cousin Elizabeth accompany him, they'll provide cover if someone becomes too interested in why a member of the House of Lords is spending time in France this close to Christmas."
"You may be right, Molloy." Churchill pursed his lips and thought a moment more. "Yes, definitely. We'd have everything on the ground to draw away any suspicion that could conceivably arise. Good thinking, sir. Very good thinking."
He turned to me. "Petersholme, I'll have an aeroplane from the Fleet Air Arm waiting for you on Monday morning. It will fly the three of you to Paris. I'll also have a car collect you at nine o'clock and take you to Coventry." I instantly nodded my acceptance. "Good. I'll telegraph Monsieur Reynaud to have a driver waiting for you then."
"Should I fly over then?" I asked. "If there's need for me to have cover, that is? Perhaps I should take the ferry and train?"
Churchill smiled. "Jerry won't know that you're coming and we do want to get you in to meet Monsieur Reynaud and his friends from the French army. If there's need for you to seem to be something you're not, that need will come after you're in France and in Deauville." He shifted in his chair and began to rise. I had the distinct impression that he considered the interview closed. I didn't. There were still aspects of this assignment I wanted clarified.
"Mr. Churchill, this Reynaud chap is their Minister of Justice," I said and the man sat back to wait for me. "While you've said he was a war hero, I can't conceive of him gleaning anything from what I might tell him. He's not military. It took your lads at the Admiralty to see a military significance in what I saw in Germany-"
He chuckled. "Reynaud is a strange one, Petersholme. He's surrounded himself with military men since he's been in government. Presently, he and a Colonel de Gaulle and his clique are quite tight."
"De Gaulle?" I questioned.
"Quite a brilliant chap, so I understand armour. St. Cyr too. But far too iconoclastic. A few years back, he wrote a book on tank warfare." He chuckled again but I sensed nothing mirthful there. "Our lads think the German general staff have been eating that book whole. I hear that they even tested his theories in the Spanish civil war along with aerial bombardment of civilian populations."
"Iconoclastic?" I asked.
"Unlike Reynaud, I don't trust him. And neither does the French general staff. He's reputed to see himself as a law unto himself. He has no network of friends. He uses allies to get what he wants and, then, discards them."
"Should I be careful what I tell him then?"
He pursed his lips again. "Your friend von Kys had permission to show you this rocket thing of theirs. The Nazi high command obviously wanted that reported back to us and, presumably, France - probably to frighten us. French and English visitors have seen the troop trains you saw in Berlin. They've also seen armament trains loaded with tanks." His eyes glazed for a moment as he pulled his thoughts together. "Tell de Gaulle anything he asks. With the exception of that damned rocket, he's probably already heard it all. If you take any other missions for the Crown that involve him however, remember to be careful with what may get back to him."
Churchill rose from his chair and Max stood.
"Thank you for seeing us this afternoon, Petersholme," Churchill said. "You've quickly become invaluable to England in this difficult time."
I shrugged. "I'm happy to be of service."
"A car will collect you and your party at nine on Monday, my Lord. And Reynaud will have you met in Paris."
He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. "As your ward will be going with you, I feel I should mention this..."
"What's that, Mr. Churchill?"
"One of the aviators flying you to France − Pettigrew his name is − has a reputation as a lady's man." His lips twitched. "He's a young, handsome lad. A word of warning...?"