Part One: England.
2. Shadows of an Empire
But I saw Love go lonely down the years,
And when I drank, the wine was salt with tears
(May Wedderburn Cannan (1893–1973),
from her poem
Paris, 11 November, 1918)
After recovering the Home Islands, the Empire was at shambles. Some of the former colonies and dominions had just proclaimed their independence, while some other had been engulfed by the victorious German Reich. Only Canada, South Africa, Delhi and the Australasian and the Caribbean Confederations still remained loyal to the Crown, albeit in a quite diferent status. Just a shadow remained of what once was the the glorious British Empire.
Britain found herself struggling to survive, to overcome the damage caused by the years of Syndicalist dictatorship in England while, at the same time, having to face the threat of the vindictive Commune of France, where most of the British Syndicalists were gathering in their forced exile. The rising militarism and aggressive attitudes of France did not pass unnoticed, but, quite oddily, the victorious German Reich seemed asleep in their glory and apparent power. The old kaiser, Wilhelm II, had made plainly clear how much he enjoyed that Britain had rejected the "ungodly faith" and boasted that the Nordic race that both Britons and Germans represented, soon would rule the world together. And, after that, the old Warlord had returned to his iddle silence. Perhaps the unexpected death of his son and heir in a car crash (in 1932) had stolen him part of his vitality.
The Kaiser, with his grandson and heir, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia
Britons were decided to return to the old "bussiness as usual" as soon as possible. Under the rule of the old and fragile George V, hopes were placed on his son, Edward, Prince of Wales, the "Prince of the People". Due to the economical crisis and all the world still to be done, the king was dead set against any grand celebration of his return to England, but was very moved by the great masses that gathered to celebrate his return. "I cannot understand it, after all I am only a very ordinary sort of fellow", said the deeply moved king, overcomed by the situation.
The world was tired and sceptical after four years of war and a couple of decades of international revolutionary turmoil. Peace had been absent for too long. In this, Britain was no different to the rest of the world. A solution was needed, something powerful to break the chains of the crisis. It was to be found in an informal meeting of the German and British Crown Princes. And, as all the great events that changed the face of the world, it went unnoticed by the whole world.
- I've been here before. - I answered when the second-in-command told me the name of the place. I had been there before, indeed; I knew all about it.
All of the sudden, it was as though the quiet voice that had been bawling in my ears for years beyond number, had become suddenly mute. An immense silence followed, but gradually, as my senses came back from a forgotten past, there came a multitude of sweet and natural and long unremembered sounds: for the name of the place, that was so familiar to me, had such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted me in those years of exile and pain began to take flight.
There I stood bemused. It was a still morning and the smoke from the cookhouse rose straight to the leaden sky. A cart-track, once metalled, now rutted and churned to mud, followed the contour of the hillside and dipped out of sight below while all the zoo-noises of the battalion came to life with the beginning a new day. Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. It was a sequestered place, enclosed and embraced in a single, winding valley. From where I stood the house was hidden by a green spur, but I knew well how and where it lay, couched among the lime trees like a hind in the bracken.
Then I walked to the house. The commanding officer, surronded by the rest of the staff of the batallion like a modern mother hen, wasn't in the best of mood.
-The worst place we've struck yet - said the colonel -, no facilities, no amenities, and Brigade sitting right on top of us. Brigade expects us to clean up the house for them... Ryder, you will find a party of fifty and report to the Quartering Comandant at the house at 1045 hours; he'll show you what we're taking over.
-Very good, sir - I replied.
-The Syndies do seem to have been very enterprising. They used the valley for an assault course and a mortar range, and as well as for recce training areas. Anyone happens to know this district?
I said nothing.
-That's all then, get cracking.
We were in the space before the main doors, where I had my half-company fallen-in, waiting for orders. We'd only requisitioned the ground floor and half a dozen bedrooms. Everything else upstairs was still private property. My fellow officers were amazed at the furniture gathered there. “You never saw such stuff, Ryder –they said-, priceless some of it”.
There was plenty of room, of course. After the revolution, the Syndies had been making a beast of themselves here. Then came the Quartering Commandant, an old, retired, re-appointed lieutenant-colonel from some miles away. We were outside, looking at the fountain.
-An awful lot of transports comes in and out, you see - he was telling to me, and I was hardly listen, as my mind was wandering again in the lost tracks of the past-. Look where one careless devil went smack through the box-hedge and carried away all that balustrade; did it with a three-ton lorry, too; you'd think he had a tank at least. That fountain is rather a tender spot with our landlady; the Reds used to lark about in it on guest nights and it was looking a bit the worse for wear, so I wired it in and turned the water off. Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there, and you can't get to it to clean it up, since I put the wire round it. Florid great thing, isn't it?...
Finally I gathered my strenght and went inside the building, to meet the old ghosts the past, with the Quartering Commandant following my trail.
-This eyesore is what they used as the mess; that's why I didn't cover it up; not that it would matter much if it did get damaged; always reminds me of one of the costlier knocking-shops, you know, "Maison Japonaise"... and this was the ante-room...
-Yes, sir, I know. I've been here before.
The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon.
-Oh well, then you know all about it.
The Sacred and Profane Memories
of Capt. Charles Ryder,
by Captain (ret.) Charles Ryder, MC).