Authors: Robert Goddard
1919. The eyes of the world are on Paris, where statesmen, diplomats and politicians have gathered to discuss the fate of half the world’s nations in the aftermath of the cataclysm that was the Great War.
A horde of journalists, spies and opportunists have also gathered in the city, and the last thing the British diplomatic community needs at such a time is the mysterious death of a senior member of their delegation. So when Sir Henry Maxted falls from the roof of his mistress’s apartment building in unexplained circumstances, their first instinct is to suppress all suspicious aspects of the event.
But Sir Henry’s son, ex-Royal Flying Corps ace James ‘Max’ Maxted, has other ideas. He resolves to find out how and why his father died – even if this means disturbing the impression of harmonious calm which the negotiating teams have worked so hard to maintain.
In a city where countries are jostling for position at the crossroads of history and when the stakes could hardly be higher, it is difficult to tell who is a friend and who a foe. And Max will soon discover just how much he needs friends, as his search for the truth sucks him into the dark heart of a seemingly impenetrable mystery.
THEY COULD IGNORE
the telephone. That was one of the unwritten clauses of the Armistice. No telephone would have rung unanswered for long at the squadron base in France where their paths had first crossed in the summer of 1915. But they were not in France. And the war was over. So there they stood, side by side, aware of the importunate ringing in the unattended office in the corner of the hangar, but unmoved by it, lulled by the scent of oil and varnish and the fluttering of a pigeon in the rafters and the vernal brightness of the light flooding in around them.
It was a silvery late-morning light that gleamed on the fuselages of an array of aircraft that had never strained through dives or loops in combat, or been strafed by enemy fire, because they had been constructed just as the war was ending and were now as redundant, for all their elegance and cunning of design, as the pair of youthful Royal Flying Corps veterans who were admiring them.
Even at a glance the two men would have struck an observer as dissimilar, so dissimilar that probably only the war could account for their ease in each other’s company. The taller and slimmer of them was James Maxted, former lieutenant, known to all but his family as Max. He had a good-looking face that held a promise of rugged handsomeness in middle age, boyishly flopping fair hair, pale-blue eyes and an ironic tilt to his mouth that hinted at cynicism. His companion, a shorter, bulkier figure, was Sam Twentyman, former sergeant. Max had served in the RFC as a pilot and known Sam as the most reliable and resourceful of the engineers who kept his plane in the air. Sam was five years older
than Max, but looked younger, despite some greying of his curly brown hair, thanks to his round, rosy-cheeked face and general air of terrier-like eagerness.
‘You’re sure Bristols are the ones to go for?’ Max asked, arching a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Some of the lads who flew them said they preferred the Sopwiths.’
‘They did at first, sir,’ Sam replied. He still addressed Max as an NCO would an officer and showed no sign of breaking the habit. ‘But after all the modifications we made the Bristol was the best two-seater by a long chalk. You were out of circulation by then, of course.’
By ‘out of circulation’ Sam meant held for the duration in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia. Max smiled at the euphemism and stepped close enough to the nearest plane to run an appreciative hand over the burnished wood of its propeller vanes.
‘Well, you’re the boss, Sam.’
Now it was Sam’s turn to smile. They were spending Max’s money, not his. He had no illusions about who would be calling the tune in their future enterprise. ‘Will the budget stretch to a couple of SE5s, then? Beautiful machines, they are. Ten quid the pair. A real bargain.’
‘Is that what Miller said?’ Max nodded towards a scurrying, overalled figure who had just entered the hangar by a side-door and was heading towards the still-ringing telephone in the office. He wore an irritated frown on his thin, oil-smudged face. ‘The airworthiness certificates will treble that price, remember.’
‘You’re right. They will. But …’
‘But?’ Max turned and gazed at Sam expectantly.
‘Our customers will want to fly solo eventually.’
‘If I teach them well enough?’
Sam grinned. ‘You’re a natural, sir. You gave quite a few of the Hun a flying lesson, as I remember.’
The telephone had stopped ringing. Miller had finally answered it. In the welcome silence Max recalled the intoxicating pleasure of his first flight, a joy-ride from this very aerodrome eight years before, in the summer of 1911. Was it only eight years? It seemed longer, so very much longer, in so very many ways. Cambridge.
Farnborough Flying School. The Western Front: those crazy days of scouting above the trenches, nerves stretched as taut as the rigging of his plane, ending in a crash behind enemy lines he had been lucky to survive – doubly so, given the rapidly declining life expectancy of pilots as the war advanced. Then eighteen months of tedium and privation in the POW camp. And now, here he was, back at Hendon, birthplace of his passion for flying, about to acquire a training squadron of his own at a knock-down price.
‘Miller would let you take one of the SE5s for a spin,’ Sam continued, ‘if that’s what you need to make your mind up.’
‘I’m sure he would. And I’m sure you reckon it
make my mind up.’
‘They’re sweet as honey, sir.’
‘And we deserve some honey, don’t we, Sam, you and I?’ Max clapped his friend on the shoulder and was suddenly overtaken by a surge of optimism about their joint venture. He planned to call the flying school Surrey Wings. He had the perfect partner in Sam. He had the site, courtesy of his father. And soon, after a little horse-trading with Miller, he would have the planes. Flying was the future. For the first time in years, the sky was wide and blue and full of promise.
‘What?’ Max emerged from his fleeting reverie to find Miller looking towards him from the doorway of the office. ‘What is it?’
‘This call’s for you.’
‘For me? Impossible. No one knows I’m here.’
‘Well, evidently your mother knows. And she wants to speak to you. She says it’s urgent.’
‘My mother? Confound it all.’ Max glanced at Sam and shrugged helplessly, then hurried towards the office.
In the twenty seconds or so it took him to reach the telephone, Max concluded that the only way his mother could have tracked him to Hendon Aerodrome was first to have telephoned the flat. Saturday was one of Mrs Harrison’s cleaning mornings. He had mentioned his destination to her on his way out. She must still have been there when Lady Maxted rang. But as explanations went it did not go far. Lady Maxted was of a generation that scarcely
made habitual use of the telephone. Off-hand he could not recall her ever calling him before.
He grasped the receiver. ‘Mother?’
‘James?’ No telephone line could drain from her voice the querulousness that always seemed to attach itself to her pronunciation of his name.
‘Yes. I’m here.’
‘I think you should come home at once.’ By home she meant Gresscombe Place, the house in Surrey where Max had spent a sizeable portion of his childhood and youth without ever quite thinking of it as home. ‘There’s been … an accident.’
‘What sort of accident?’ Max felt the mildest tug of anxiety, but nothing more. Surviving the aerial war in France had inured him to most of the calamities of everyday existence. Whatever his mother might be about to say, it surely did not represent a turning point in his life.
But such moments come when fate decrees. And this was such a moment. ‘It’s your father, James,’ said Lady Maxted. ‘He’s been killed, I’m afraid.’
MAX USED TO
tell any friends who asked about his father that they could know him as well as he did simply by studying his entry in the Foreign Office List. He was only half-joking.
MAXTED, Sir Henry, 2nd Baronet, born 1853. Educated Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. Clerkship in the Foreign Office, 1875. Assistant Private Secretary to Lord Granville, 1880–82. 3rd Secretary, Vienna, 1882–86. Vice-Consul, Budapest, 1886–89. 2nd Secretary, Tokyo, 1889–91. Home attachment, London, 1891–92. 2nd Secretary, Constantinople, 1892–96. 1st Secretary, later Chargé d’Affaires, Rio de Janeiro, 1896–1910. (Succeeded as 2nd Baronet, 1897.) Consular Counsellor, St Petersburg (later Petrograd) 1910–18.
That was as much as the latest edition revealed. There was no mention of Sir Henry’s father, Sir Charles Maxted, a diplomat in his own right as well as a noted Assyriologist, who had earned the baronetcy his son inherited through his negotiation of the route of the Odessa–Tehran telegraph in the 1860s. Nor was his marriage to Winifred Clissold, the future Lady Maxted, alluded to. Their eldest son, Ashley, was born in 1882, Max’s senior by nine years. Max was born in Tokyo, during the last posting on which his mother accompanied his father. She professed a dread of Turkish sanitation and sent her husband off to Constantinople alone. The threat of yellow fever precluded her joining him in Rio de Janeiro and by then the
pattern was set. Lady Maxted led a contented life in Surrey with little thought (as far as Max could tell) for Sir Henry’s activities a continent or half a world away.
So it was that Max knew his father merely as an occasional visitor during periods of leave, which often coincided with his school or university terms, thereby limiting their contact to a stilted conversation in an Eton or Cambridge tea-room. Sir Henry struck the young Max as a gruff, stiff, emotionally restrained man, the archetypal diplomat in that sense, who conversed with his son about as freely as he might with an official of a foreign government. But perhaps he was too gruff and stiff for his own good. Rio de Janeiro was far from the diplomatic high road and St Petersburg was no place for him to spend the concluding years of his career. Lady Maxted sometimes referred to him ‘losing his way’, though precisely how he had done so she never specified.