Ambassador Grant Duff led David and George across the room and introduced them to John Wallinger. "Let's find a quiet corner for a few minutes." He led them into an adjoining room.
"John, this is the young man of whom I was telling you. With the assistance of your network and George's knowledge of rail engineering and operations, we need to sort out how David's skills and ingenuity can be best used to conduct covert operations into Germany. I've just received the Prime Minister's authorisation to have him stick thorns in the Kaiser's trousers."
"Yes, I received a cable from... from up the chain." He patted his coat's breast and chuckled. "I have it here. I'm still trying to figure out some of the cryptic phraseology he used, but this now makes sense of it."
Grant Duff laughed. "I often have difficulty with it myself. Let's work at getting the war won so we can get back to proper English... But to this. I'll leave you three here to scheme. I must get back to our guests."
A butler came in twenty minutes later to inform the three men that seating for dinner would be in five minutes. Wallinger thanked the butler, then turned back to David. "Can we meet in the morning? We've still much to discuss. We could do it in Skipworth's office if that suits him. More secure there than in the hotel."
"We could start first thing; eight thirty," Skipworth said as he looked from face to face. "Will that suit your schedules?"
David nodded. "I have no schedule."
"Fits well with mine," Wallinger said. "This is most exciting, but we must rejoin the ladies. Not a word of this to anyone."
Maria was surrounded by a group of women as they approached. "Appears your wife has made a hit with all the ladies. What a smashing beauty she is."
David smiled and looked at Wallinger. "Thank you, sir. I cannot dispute your taste."
The women opened their circle as the men approached. David took Maria's hand and kissed her cheek. "It appears you were well entertained."
"They like your taste in gowns." She giggled. "And they love my taste in men. I missed you. What were you discussing?"
"War stuff... Nothing really to talk of. And you, what did you find to share?"
She opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by the announcement of dinner. Edith Grant Duff turned to them. "You'll be sitting with us. I'll show you where. We'll wait for the others to precede us before we head in."
As they watched the guests move toward the dining room, Edith asked David quietly, "Are you familiar with seating protocol?"
"If it's the same as the French, yes. My mother explained that the men assist the women to their seats, then they stand behind their own chairs to wait for the host to sit before seating themselves."
"Precisely. I think our tradition comes from theirs. Maria was telling me your mother is a baroness."
"Not exactly. Her father was a baron, but French titles go to the eldest son. He had no children but her, so the title died with him. I find it strange that women are not treated as people in their own right. Like here this evening. Most of the wives were introduced to us as Missus."
"We're slowly working to change those attitudes. I refuse to be known as Mrs Grant Duff. I'm Edith, and I'm pleased to see that Maria is Maria. Come, they're ready for us now."
The seating was on the outer periphery of tables arranged in a horseshoe pattern composed of a head table and two wings. David and Maria sat either side of the Ambassador, and Edith sat beside David. The remainder of the guests alternated man and woman.
Once they had all taken their seats, Edith leaned to David. "This arrangement prevents the men from descending into talking business and keeps the women from gossiping among themselves."
The Ambassador rose and tapped his bread knife on one of his wine glasses to ring it for attention. "Ladies and Gentlemen, let us give thanks for what we have. Let us honour the sacrifice of those who have enabled us to hold against the aggression and who have kept alive our conviction we will prevail. Great opportunities lie before us, so let us not waver in our resolve. We ask God to guide us and to bless all we are given. God save the King."
There was a murmur of Amen and God save the King around the table, then a group of waiters entered with bottles of wine and platters of canapés. When David saw the Ambassador had taken a sip of wine, he picked up his glass, swirled it and held it to his nose, then took a sip.
"You appear to know wine, David."
He looked at the Ambassador and nodded. "Maria is a winemaker, as are her mother, her aunt and her grandparents. It's in the family, so I couldn't help but absorb a little of it."
"Now I understand the vineyards about which you wrote. What do you think of this wine?"
"It tastes like a Thurgau I've had, but you need to ask Maria, she's the expert. I'm still very much a neophyte."
The Ambassador beckoned the wine waiter. "I'll have him show us the bottle, I'm not sure what the staff have organised this evening." They read the label as it was presented, and the Ambassador laughed. "It seems you're not quite a neophyte."
"I've had wines from only half a dozen grape varieties, and this happens to be one of them, so I was familiar with it. Wine has fascinated me since Maria first introduced me to it."
"I've been curious... Wondering how she had been able to meet with you over here. But it now seems her family's from here. Was she visiting at the start of the war?"
David laughed. "It's much simpler than that. Her grandparents were British but settled in Switzerland in the 1870s. They're still on the shores of the lake just outside Zürich. Maria's mother married the son of a Swiss wine family, then a dozen years later, with three young children, they moved to Germany in 1905 to establish their own vineyards. Maria's father and brothers were taken into the German Army and were killed early in the war. I met her as she served my dinner in a gasthaus in Freiburg while I was preparing to escape across the Schwarzwald to Schaffhausen."
"So you've known each other only a few weeks. It seems you've been together for years. You move as one."
"After a few days in the mountains, it felt as if we had always been together."
"And your marriage? That was quick."
"It seems we married each other during the first week of our escape over the mountains. A ceremony now is redundant. Besides, my Swiss identity has me as her brother, precluding a marriage."
"Most interesting. I'm not sure of my powers here regarding this, but in many countries, the British Ambassador is empowered to perform marriage ceremonies for British subjects abroad, and as a Canadian, you're one. May I look into it for you?"
"If you could, please. But would it make any difference?"
"For you personally, no. I can see plainly that it wouldn't, but for the official paperwork, it would. Things such as next of kin records and separation allowance."
"I'd like to be married, but I've no need for additional allowances."
"You're an intriguing young man. I'll be following your exploits with great interest." He looked down at the plate that had been sitting in front of him for the past minute or so. "We should eat our plaice before it cools."
YOU ARE READING
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...