Colin’s aunt was a different kind of balm. She was actually Colin’s great aunt, a woman in her seventies, who had married a certain Graf Walmsdorf in 1889. “It wasn’t at all unusual back then,” she pointed out. “The English and Prussian royal families were so close that there were always Germans at court. My husband and I met while fox hunting with the Prince of Wales.”
She had lived nearly fifty years in Germany before returning to England after her husband’s death. She had lost a son and son-in-law in the First World War, spoke flawless German and detested the Nazis. “Every decent German detests the Nazis,” she told Banks emphatically.
“Proving conclusively,” Banks quipped back, “that the majority of Germans aren’t decent.”
They were having tea on the terrace behind the house with Sammy stretched contentedly at Banks’ feet. Honeysuckle climbed up the latticework attached to the brick Elizabethan manor that had long since lost its fortress character, despite still being called a “castle.”
“I beg to differ with you, young man,” Aunt Louisa insisted firmly. She was ramrod straight and elegantly dressed in a grey raw-silk skirt and lace-trimmed blouse. Pearls studded her ears and encircled her throat. She reminded Banks of his maternal aunts. Like them, she had managed large estates through the last war, confronted deserters and revolutionaries, and overcome inflation and economic depression. She was the kind of woman who could have commanded battalions or managed a bank with equal competence. The table in the parlor they had passed through was stacked with the latest editions of not only the Times but the Zuericher Allgemeine as well. “Hitler never did win a majority of the popular vote,” she reminded Banks.
“His popularity, however, increased with each of his victories after all elections were suppressed,” Banks countered. He found it surprisingly liberating to be able to talk about Germany with someone who understood it.
“True enough. Success is a powerful, seductive elixir,” Aunt Louisa admitted, “but he has suffered his first defeat, thanks to you and your colleagues.” She nodded towards the wings on his tunic.
“I wonder if he – or anyone in Germany – has even noticed,” Banks questioned.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he always claimed he didn’t want war with England. Rather than admitting he was defeated, I’m sure he tells himself – and Goebbels then tells everyone else – that he simply chose not to invade last fall. Besides, we can’t be certain he won’t invade this summer. If he sends the Luftwaffe over in the same strength this year as last, there is no guarantee that the RAF will win,” Banks warned.
“You are wise to be cautious,” Aunt Louisa noted, “but we also need to be optimistic. It’s hard to get through a war without some kind of hope.”
“May I ask …”
“How did you, well, get through the last war, as an Englishwoman in Germany?”
“Remember, by the time the war came, I’d been married and living there for a quarter of a century. On our estates in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, I was quite simply the ‘Frau Graefin.’ My husband was in the army and my sons were in the army – fortunately fighting in the East more than the West.”
“I meant emotionally,” Banks clarified his question. “Didn’t you have divided loyalties?”
“Not really. I was on the side of my family – regardless of which side they were on. It helped, I suppose, being in the East. We were sincerely afraid of the Bolsheviks, and I was appalled by the terms of Versailles. The betrayal and double-dealing of the allies at Versailles shattered my faith in British ‘fair play.’ I might have been ambivalent about the war, but not the peace. Things only changed after Hitler started to gain support. When he seized power and disbanded the Reichstag, my alienation from Germany increased almost daily. I could not feel at home in a nation that admired, indeed adulated, such a crude, corrupt, hate-filled bully. With each new outrage, I rediscovered my Britishness. It got to the point where I simply had to leave. I tried to persuade my husband to come with me, but he didn’t have the luxury of being British. He was utterly incapable of abandoning ‘the Fatherland’ even though he suffered to see it misused and misled. Among my many grievances against Hitler, the most bitter is the fact that he ruined the last years of what had been an excellent marriage up to then.” She paused to think about her words, with her eyes turned inward.
Then directing her gaze at Banks, she asserted. “People make far too much of nationality. Having two countries that you love is a blessing, not a curse. It widens your horizons, your perspective. It gives you greater scope for action. If at some time in the future Germany is freed of Hitler, you will have the option to return. Meanwhile, you are here and can fight against him. Colin tells me you want to be passed fit for flying again.”
“Yes, very much.”
“I can understand that. I have a grandson roughly your age who was absolutely mad about flying. He could think of nothing else as a teenager.”
“What happened to him?”
“He’s in the Luftwaffe, of course.”
That shook Banks. “But then …” She understood. She understood precisely what it was like – and Colin knew it. No wonder he had wanted them to meet.
“Yes, exactly,” she answered with a wry smile.
“Your grandson, do you know what he flies? Where he is now?”
“No, I have no idea where he is now. I’ve had no contact with my daughter since the first day of the war. Before the war he flew hunters – fighters – of some kind. He’s my daughter Sophie’s second son. I have a picture of him if you’re interested.”
She went inside and returned with a silver-framed photo of two teenage boys on tall, elegant horses. Both youths smiled out of the picture, one dark and one fair. The dark-haired youth seemed more serious, his smile almost shy, and he bent to stroke his horse’s neck. The fair-haired boy looked full of himself and decidedly saucy. “The dark one is Philip, the elder boy, he went into the cavalry and was in General Staff College when I left. The blond is Christian, now in the Luftwaffe.” Her eyes lingered on the photo, then she put it down and focused on Banks. “Some more tea? Or should we open a bottle of champagne to drown our sorrow?”
“I think I better stick with tea.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
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