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With this chapter, we're ready to leave rural England to enter London and its political intrigues. Hopefully, I've grounded Robert's moral compass firmly in Bellingham Hall as well as developed the characters closest to him.
I'll stress that the English simply didn't know much about Americans in 1938. They'd seen some of the American army in 1918, but most American troops were landed in France where they were closer to the front lines. Earlier, Britons who lived in the cities and were middle-class or better had seen one or more of Buffalo Bill's tours. And, of course, Hollywood's cowboys could be found at the cinema IN the larger towns and cities. The American Ambassador and Charles Lindberg were very publicly saying that the German eagle would destroy Britain and France if there was a war. The image, then, that Europeans generally and the English specifically had of Americans was a warped one.
The copyright to Flight belongs to me. It cannot be reprinted in any medium without my express permission. If you're under 16-18 yos, you shouldn't be reading stories from the Nifty archives -- however, this story will not lead you into orgasmic prurience (mum and dad can read it over your shoulder, in other words). If you enjoy reading stories stored at Nifty and are delirious that they are free, donate a couple of bucks to Nifty so that those stories will remain free to you.
The city was dirty as I left Euston Station to the street on the second of September. Soot stained the walls of nearby buildings. The slight morning breeze blew paper across the pavement in small eddies. Bird droppings covered the kerb and steps. I was startled at the deterioration obvious since my last visit four months earlier.
I could only assume His Majesty's government with Neville Chamberlain at the helm wasn't giving the City of London enough to maintain the public ways. I made a mental note to demand an explanation of the Liberal Member for Northamptonshire and to see the man while I was in the city. After all, the capital city of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen should be clean and safe. If the poor lads who were beginning to converge on me outside the station were an indicator, there were plenty of hands available to do that cleaning. There were simply some things one could not cut back on.
A queue of men eyed me as I began to descend the steps, their hands coming out in supplication. "Spare a ha'pence, gov?" one after another asked as they closed about me. I counted twenty of them even as I began to smell their unwashed odour.
I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet, pitying their plight. I retrieved nine notes and waited until the men had surrounded me. "I don't have coins, lads -- but I do have nine pounds. But there are -- what? -- twenty of you. Will you share?"
A constable strolled up to us as the poor lads debated amongst themselves which of their number they could trust with my largess. "These boys a bother to you, sir?" he asked as he came abreast of me, his accent thickly Cockney.
I smiled. "I think not, officer," I answered honestly. "They've been quite good men." He touched the bill of his cap in farewell and turned to the men watching him warily. "Be good, lads," he told them sternly. "And don't keep the good gentleman waiting all day, now." He strolled off and the tramps quickly chose four of their number to receive the money I was giving them.
I hailed a cab from the kerb and went directly to the house in Mayfair. I was in London to learn what my old school chum had in store for me.
Molloy's letter had arrived in yesterday's post, immediately reminding me of his cryptic telephone call back in the spring. The slow flow of rural life the past four months had helped me forget his request to aid the Foreign Office, as had the deepening friendship with Eliza and the growing relationship with Barry.
Max's letter had given me nothing more than an appointment with him in Whitehall for ten o'clock tomorrow morning. With no real information available to me, my mind had come up with ever increasing flights of fancy these past twenty-four hours. A young boy's fancies at that.
I was embarrassed by my imaginings. One moment, I was escaping hordes of evil-looking Huns and, the next, I was photographing top secret files with exposure and death but a heartbeat away. It was as if I were again just entering Rugby and imagining my escape from the masters there. I was embarrassed at how quickly I still fell victim to swashbuckling dreams of derring-do.
Such dreams were nonsense, of course. I was no longer a young boy with an overly active imagination. As an adult, I knew that the Foreign Office was not involved in spying or any sort of military operations. Dear old Max had suggested nothing that would involve me with the army.
Molloy had told me nothing. That was the bugger to the whole thing. He had put me on a damned string and left me to twist with every thought my imagination might come up with. For four long months! It was enough to have me growing grey hairs.
Arrived at the house across from Hyde Park, I firmly resolved to put all thoughts of whatever Molloy had in store for me out of my mind. I would find out tomorrow at ten o'clock.
* * *
I sat in the smallest office I had ever seen, the sun streaming through a single window lighting it. Maximillian Molloy had only been attached to the Foreign Ministry four years but I still could not help but think that the eldest son of Earl Molloy of Easthampton-Mares warranted something a bit more comfortable than this.
In the sunlight, the oak panelling gleamed on the wall behind me, as did the desk and drinks cabinet against the far wall. I definitely approved of the char staff the Foreign Secretary retained. The office might be tiny but it was kept well.
The older woman who occupied Maximillian Molloy's anteroom entered and set a tray of biscuits on a table near my chair. "Lord Molloy shall be along in a moment, Lord Petersholme," she told me. She studied the tray for a moment and turned back to me. "May I get you anything else, my Lord?"
I shook my head and smiled. I watched her curtsey and step towards the door. I stretched my legs and nibbled at a biscuit and allowed my thoughts to turn to the young American now escorting my cousin up to London from Bellingham Hall this morning.
I had become damned fond of the American lad. I had to admit that. There had been several times the past month that I nearly forgot my own rules and almost invited him to my rooms. We were both in London now, however -- or would be as soon as he and Eliza arrived in the early afternoon. I smiled as I realised that I had been most careful in establishing the rules for my behaviour to apply to Bellingham Hall only. Here in London I had always seen myself being able to play.
I did not see myself simply frolicking with Barry Alexander, however. He was not just some dirty street gamin earning himself a pound note for a bit of buggery. I suspected that I might be in love with the American lad. My feelings were definitely something I wanted to explore.
I wanted to make love with him now that we were in London. But I was still the same man I had been the long summer just past when I denied him and myself our pleasures so that I could be Petersholme.
"Petersholme!" Max Molloy greeted me from the entrance to the room. I looked up quickly and found him smiling back at me.
"Molloy!" I pushed myself out of my chair and turned to him as he crossed the room. "Good to see you again, old boy."
He grinned and took my hand. "You've not gained a damned pound this whole summer -- your Aunt Alice cooking for you these days?"
"We still have our cook, Max."
"It must be the country living then." He patted his belly. I noticed then that he had put more than a few inches on his waist since I saw him last. He chuckled. "I have this thanks to Cunard's kitchens -- and all that frying the Yanks put everything they eat to.
He grinned again, his eyes twinkling and his tongue licking his lips as he studied me from head to toe. "Have you eaten yet?" he asked suddenly.
I snorted. "Just one of your tea biscuits, old lad -- and an early breakfast this morning."
He chuckled. "Then we shall have a light luncheon at my house and eat well this evening at my club and write it off as one more of His Majesty's many expenses. Come along, Robbie, dear boy." He was already moving towards the coat rack beside the door. "I've taken off the afternoon so we can discuss this thing privately."
"What thing?" I asked following behind him as we passed through the anteroom and started towards the lifts.
"Not now," he told me resolutely. "Ears, you know?." I followed him past the attendant into the lift silently. "The wife and boy are in Easthampton for the week, Petersholme," he told me as we began to descend.
I understood I was with the same Molloy I had known at Rugby and then at Oxford. The man had been genetically uncomfortable without daily doses of inverted sex. He seemed to be trying to open that back up between us. I remembered Barry then and frowned.
"Your boy needs good country air, Molloy," I offered quickly. "Keeps him away from all sorts of germs," I continued as our cabin descended. "I hear they've had another outbreak of polio in America."
Malloy sniffed. "Any civilised man would send his family to the country in the summer. Even then, one can't be too careful." His face lightened. "And the good Earl does so love to play grandfather."
"So, you trek them out to Easthampton-Mares every summer?"
He nodded, glancing over at me, his brow arching. "Where are you staying? Have you opened up your digs on the park?"
We stepped into the ministry's lounge and started towards the entrance.
"It was never closed, but I am staying there," I told him as we passed through the doors into the bright sunlight of early September. We took the steps down to street-level and stepped out to the kerb before the ministry. "I'm also allowing a young American -- my housekeeper's nephew -- to stay there with me."
He pivoted to face me, surprise spreading across his face. "You've done what?" he demanded.
I chuckled. "Don't bother yourself, Molloy. The lad's from quite a good family in New York -- bourgeoisie, of course. The father's some sort of civil servant, I think."
"Not really one of us at all, then," my friend grumbled. "Why are you letting this boy stay there?"
"He's at the School of Economics." A thought struck me and I smiled. There were ways to keep Molloy off-balance and away from subjects I would rather not entertain. "Attending classes with their Ambassador's son, you know?"
"That prig!" Molloy hissed. "Joe Kennedy would sell both England and America to Jerry if he could find a way." He groaned. "An Irish Catholic at St. James! Can you believe it?"
"Our Premier seems not to mind him." I was enjoying my little diversion more than I had thought I would. Maximillian Molloy was more than a spot of fun once riled. I lowered my voice conspiratorially. "It appears to be a joint Anglo-American adventure -- appease the Boche with titbits in eastern Europe and get them face to face with the bolshies."
Molloy's face flushed and he gulped. He swallowed again and looked around quickly before turning to study me. "There are serious doubts about that policy in certain circles, Petersholme," he mumbled. "And you had better not know anything."
Molloy hailed a cab as I stared at him. I had thought to have a bit of sport at his expense; instead, it appeared that I had somehow pinpointed a real stratagem. I thought it just as well that it was Molloy who was the diplomat and not me.
Once inside the cab, he gave the driver his address across the park from my own. Sitting back and turning to me, he said: "We need to talk about several things, Petersholme -- including why I've asked you up to London. Very privately." He glanced quickly at the back of the driver's head as our vehicle began to make its way out of Whitehall. Lunch at his club had been a ruse already forgotten. I understood there would be no serious discussion until we were at his house. I nodded my agreement silently.
After his housekeeper brought us tea and sandwiches in the study, Molloy allowed her the rest of the day off -- telling her we would dine that night at his club. He poured us both a cup, handed me mine and sat in the chair nearest me. "Petersholme, we've got a deucedly bad situation developing on the continent," he began without preamble.
He snorted, his aquiline nose wrinkling in disgust and his blue eyes squeezing shut. "Our Prime Minister thought we were finally going to settle it by giving the mad corporal that piece of Czechoslovakia, old boy -- the Sudetenland -- as he did the time before when Mussolini convinced him to give in on Austria back in March."
He pushed himself out of his chair and began to pace. "Petersholme, England has not had a government that supported the Empire during the past eight years -- not since Labour won the elections in `31. MacDonald allowed Hitler to march his army into the Saar years ago, in total violation of Versailles. He simply looked the other way and went on with business as usual. Then Baldwin allowed Hitler to train his army in Spain. All the while, Britain continued to disarm. Chamberlain has continued this policy of appeasement. Hitler will be ready to take another bite soon -- a very big bite. And this time London will not be able to look the other way."
He came to a stop beside the fireplace and turned to face me. I remained silent.
"England is going to have to take a stand. It has to!" He slammed his fist down on the mantle and looked up at the painting above him. "It bloody well has to. We're supposed to stand for something." He stood there, gazing at the Chardin hanging before him as if he didn't see it. "We've gone six long years letting Hitler build up his army, his infrastructure." He pivoted to face me. "Do you know how many men we have in the Local Defence Forces, Petersholme?" he shouted and I shook my head slowly.
"Six divisions! It'd take us a bloody year on a war footing to recruit and train thirty divisions -- and he already has that many and more. In another year, with the Austrians and Sudetenlanders he's now got, he'll have over a hundred."
I sat and felt helpless as his emotions crashed over me. I felt embarrassed as well. Molloy had been trained far better than this. "Is there anything I can do, old boy?" I glanced at the sideboard where his liquor was kept. "A brandy perhaps?"
He chuckled and I suspected he bordered on hysteria. "Of course, there's something you can do -- otherwise, why would I have asked you up here to London?" A smile touched his lips. "Before we go into that, Robbie, I want us to find the bedroom."
The smile struggled to gain ascendancy of his lips. "I want to relive the naïveté I knew that last night I stayed over at your rooms -- whilst we were still at Oxford." The smile had won his lips and now sought to claim his face. "I want to forget this bloody mess for a few hours and I want you to help me." The smile now covered his face and, with it, a flush of embarrassment. He gazed at me hopefully.
I felt my face flame as I saw young Barry's face watching me in my mind's eye. I blinked and forced myself to meet Molloy's watchful, hopeful eyes. "This is London. Aren't there young men a plenty to pleasure you between the sheets, old boy?" I asked carefully. "One or two you might fancy?"
"No." He did not stop watching me. My face flamed brighter.
"Have you looked over the available lads at the Foreign Office?"
"That's not particularly wise, you understand." He continued to gaze at me, waiting.
"A lad from the market? Even the docks. Unemployment is still near on twenty percent."
"Petersholme!" he growled. "A commoner? An unwashed tramp? What do you take me for, man? I will not stoop that low."
"I can't, Molloy."
"You've not married some farm girl there in the north country, have you?" His eyes widened and a knowing smirk settled over his face. "The bloody Yank at your house!" he crowed. "You've finally done it, old boy -- you've fallen for another man. A bloody working class colonial at that!" He fell back in his chair and laughed.
"Molloy!" I growled, feeling myself tense.
He sat up and stared at me. "I'm sorry, Robbie. I'm sure this lad is quite the gentleman." He smiled defensively. "It's just that this is something of a shock coming from you, old lad."
I relaxed now that we were no longer threatening to revisit the more physical side of our relationship. The responsibilities of the past two years rolled off of me and I was again a young university student enjoying a friendly set-to with my best friend. Molloy pushed himself from his chair and poured us drinks from the sideboard.
"What's this American of yours like, Petersholme?" he asked finally and I found I was finally comfortable with the prospect of discussing Barry Alexander with another person. Molloy, after all, had been my best friend for almost twenty years.
"Young chap -- eighteen. His maternal aunt is my housekeeper at Bellingham Hall and he was taken on as groundsman during the summer so that my regular lads could keep the estate in fine mettle."
"You were always quite careful with the working class -- even at university where being a Petersholme wasn't a concern." He grinned.
"We did nothing this summer, Molloy -- I won't have that at Bellingham Hall."
"What have you done with this Yank then, Petersholme?"
"We caught the pictures in Coventry weekly. Took in the band musicals on the cathedral's greens..."
He stared at me, his jaw agape. "You're bloody well in love with this lad!"
"I suspect I am," I answered and didn't even have to think about it. I sipped at my drink and studied my friend. "What about you, Max? You are married and become a father. I don't remember you showing much interest in the young ladies -- either while we were at Rugby or, later, at Oxford."
"Father decided that I needed a wife immediately that I had graduated. I didn't have much to say about it when it was said and done." He grinned. "I suspect the old dear had an idea or two about the pleasures I took."
"Do tell, Molloy! That sort of thing went out of fashion in the last century among our set."
"She was the first, you know?" He snorted. "I was as nervous as a cow dropped off at the abattoir our wedding night and Sarah was as virginal as fresh fallen snow."
"And you a twenty-one year old man," I sniggered.
"How did it go?"
"Abysmally. But we guessed at where everything went, how it worked, and finally managed to get the deed done."
"You must have learnt to do it right, old lad. You have a boy from it."
He blushed and looked down at his hands. "We practised rather often the first month or two, but neither one of us were particularly fond of it. Sarah and I are much happier simply being friends without the sex."
"You have a son -- Cecil, isn't it?"
He chuckled, blushing brightly. "A result of one of our practice sessions, Petersholme. Things like that happen when it's a man and a woman doing it, you know?"
"I suppose they do," I answered smiling, become more mellow as I sat with my dearest friend and the years of our separation melted from us.
"Oh, bloody hell!" His face became seriousness incarnate. "Petersholme, England is facing a long, hard night. This Prime Minister doesn't understand that -- he chooses to appease that Austrian rabble-rouser."
"This has something to do with me, doesn't it?" I said brightly. "This thing with the Munich Treaty is why you asked me up to London?"
Molloy began to pace and, for the next several moments, there was no sound in the room other than the steady pad of his shoes against the teak floor boards. He stopped and turned to face me finally, his hands easily riding his hips. "Have you heard of an American named Goddard?" he asked.
I gazed at him in bewilderment. I had thought we were talking about the small problem of a war brewing between Great Britain and Germany. I really didn't see where an American, any American, entered the picture. And who was this Goddard chap any way?
Molloy snorted. "Goddard's been developing fireworks into something a bit more -- uh -- scientifically interesting these past ten years."
"Fireworks?" I yelped. I tried to understand without laughing. "Like on bonfire night? Perhaps roman candles?" He nodded. "You must be jesting, old boy!"
"I wish I were, Petersholme."
"Jerry's got Mausers and Panzers and aeroplanes, Molloy -- from what you're saying and what I've read," I finally allowed, still managing not to laugh. "Does he think that adding a few roman candles can break England's will?'
"Goddard has developed fireworks into something that comes close to having military significance -- with no help from his government. Jerry's got a whole team of their best scientists developing a viable rocket."
I stared at my friend. My jaw was agape.
"Do you remember Janus von Kys?"
"Janus?" I gazed at my friend now in foreign service suspiciously. Von Kys had been an avid aviator and convinced me to learn to fly. While Molloy had watched, he and I had flown loops over the spires of Oxford. The three of us had been uncommonly thick.
"He's heading up Jerry's rocket group, Petersholme -- he's the Waffen-SS chap in charge."
I now stared at Maximillian Molloy. My stomach lurched. "You want me to turn Janus," I accused him, finally understanding where this thing was going. "You want me to turn him into a spy for England!"
"I suppose the National Workers Socialist Party of Germany could conceivably see it that way," Molloy chuckled.
I gulped. "You want them to shoot me at dawn!"
"You're a subject of the British Crown and we're not at war with the German Reich."
"You want Janus shot at dawn -- both of us," I yelped. "God! I've heard those bastards use the guillotine with some of their own. You're asking me to lose my head."
"You have a factory in Coventry that manufactures tractors and other farm implements, don't you?"
"You manufacture fertiliser as well as tractors, don't you?"
I stared at him dubiously. I had half of the British market for things agricultural tied up in my factories in Coventry. Of course, Petersholme made fertiliser.
"The Reich is putting on an agricultural symposium in Berlin next weekend. As a manufacturer of farm implements, you're more than qualified to attend. It's an excellent cover, Petersholme."
"Molloy, how can tractors have anything to do with these rocket things of yours?"
"I understand the Graf von Kys shall be attending that symposium, Petersholme. His Majesty's Government would be greatly pleased if you renewed your close relationship with him."
"You're asking me to be a damned spy." I stared hard at my friend, now totally into his role as a Foreign Office functionary. "You're asking me to recruit one of our best friends to be a spy." Janus von Kys had often been between us when Molloy fancied a three-way.
"Your King needs you, Petersholme."
"And if I am caught?"
"If it even begins to smell fishy, get your bloody arse over to Poland. Our embassy there will get you back home."
"How would I get through -- what -- a hundred miles of German territory to the damned border?"
"You and Janus used to be in some aeroclub or other back at university. You can fly out. You'd be in Poland before they could even raise Reichsmarschall Göring's Luftwaffe."
"And how would I get hold of an aeroplane?" I demanded.
"You've always been a resourceful lad -- besides, Poland will have one of its agents there to help you keep your head down."
I did not like the feeling I was getting. I also knew I had no choice. I was after all a subject of the Crown. My commitment to King George VI and the Crown he wore was even greater than the common Briton's. My very title was invested in me by authority of the Crown of the United Kingdom. My duty was to King and country.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked, knowing I had no choice. I had been well had.
He nodded, accepting my surrender. "Listen to anything that might relate to rocketry or a fuel system."
"That doesn't sound difficult -- if I don't fall asleep first."
"Listen in on German discussions where possible." He grinned impishly, relishing his control of our situation. "The second thing will be easier and may keep you awake as well..." I arched a brow questioningly. "You need to reacquaint yourself with the Graf von Kys -- as much as he allows you to."
"You want me to interrogate the man in his own country?"
Molloy laughed. "Entice him with whatever comes to mind. If that doesn't work, reacquaint him with your fine tribute to English manhood." He stopped pacing, turned to me, and smiled.
"You want me to bugger him?" I yelped.
"And, when you've sated his hunger for things English, listen to anything he has to say about rockets and their development."
My eyebrows hid in my hairline as I stared at Molloy. "You want me to listen to pillow talk like some King's Cross prostitute?"
"Just listen. Don't ask questions. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't put yourself or the Graf in jeopardy. Simply be alert." He leered at me. "And enjoy yourself." He sat in the chair beside me. "As this isn't official, you'll be going as your own man. The government will reimburse your expenses, however. But, remember, it's all hush hush."
My stomach growled, reminding me I hadn't eaten since early that morning. "I think perhaps we need to eat these sandwichs," I told him. I glanced at my watch; it was already four o'clock. "Make that supper."
Molloy fixed me with his gaze. "Think about milk cows, Petersholme. Von Kys has a herd of the damned things -- from a strain Jerry's developed that I'm told substantially raises milk production. And you remember how our friend used to dream of tinkering with genetics. That should get you invited out to his estate so you may speak freely."
Over a dinner of lamb and asparagus, I told Lord Molloy that, before I left on this mission he had given me, I would need to chat with another school chum, Alan Dudding.
"Him?" he growled. "He's so bloody bourgeoisie, Petersholme! From what I remember of him, he's even insufferable. How can he possibly be helpful?"
"Alan knows far more about chemistry than either of us do, old man," I reminded him gently. I had not been the only one young Alan tutored in the finer points of the science. "If you want more from this trip than idle gossip about who's doing what to whom in Berlin, I need more information on what this bloody Yank of yours has done with firecrackers."
"Do you know what's become of Alan?" Molloy asked.
"He said something about accepting a civilian position at the Admiralty -- in ordnance, I believe."
"I'll find him in the morning. Be near your telephone around ten -- I'll call you then."