The Watch Thief, Chapter 14

January, 1911. Watford, England.

Park View was less a home for her husband than an office: Wayside couldn’t have been more different. The house was roomy enough for the boys to spread jigsaw puzzles over tables. Krausz, twenty-one and living with them, would play cards on Sunday afternoons. His uncle would pretend to lose so the lad could have some extra money in his pocket. The nearby River Gade was a gentle sound, streaming away all their problems. It would flow through Cassiobury Park where Margarethe would take the boys and they’d run among the trees or play football with whomever was around. Sometimes the air was too cold but there was a beauty to even that. She felt it encapsulated England: the marshes, the bowling green and the kind neighbours. More importantly she hoped he wouldn’t disappear to London every day. After the Commons it was the casinos of Monte Carlo and Nice. He told her all about his system for blackjack, judging the size of
the split deck and the temperament of the dealer. Of roulette, watching the players and calculating when his chance would come around: once in every three or four spins of the wheel, sometimes
twice in a row. How he described it. She was like that ball caught up in the energy and thrill of his gamble. Their adventure! Three times a week he would cable her £100. She missed him but the money paid for six helpers including a cook and a housemaid. They lived extravagantly. He was there with the paid nurse when she screamed in labour. They brought a new life into their new home, Clifford, born the month of May. He had his father’s nose.

Work in Galicia continued to take Trebitsch away from them. His travelling case was specially made with morocco and pigskin, with fitted pouches for toiletries, whiskey, stationery, all kinds of things. The boys next door played with theirs and the schoolyard heard Mr. Lincoln was a pioneering oil-man overseas. When he came back, Julius took his brothers to meet him at the station. At home,
he sat them down to pronounce names of places in Galicia: Boryslaw and Tustanowice. She knew he’d leave again, was sure he was having an affair. The mother-in-law had advised her to show discretion to him. One night they held a dinner party and a guest remarked that with so many trips abroad he must have been tempted to stray. He swanned on about his faithfulness at great length. Though he’d met many countesses and businessman’s daughters he was focussed on the investment and the gushing of wells. She threw a crystal goblet across the dining room. Oh, they still quarrelled. He threw another right back.

Despite this, she said her life in Watford was the happiest she’d ever been.

If Watford was the promise of a new space, Strada Cosma was all their happiness and opportunity withdrawn into static boxes. Julius, Ignatius and John were enrolled in boarding school and remained in England. Eddie was sick over his mother on the train. They traveled for days: through Brussels and Nuremberg, into Vienna and Budapest, where Trebitsch’s nephews waved to them from the platform. Then it was Timisoara, the first sign they were in Romania and on and on to
Bucharest. They leased a home near King Carol’s palace on the banks of the Dâmbovita. It was previously a hotel. They had fifty rooms but lived on the bottom two floors, bricking up the others for it was impossible to heat. Margarethe had begun to lose weight and could feel the damp of the old building going through her. She’d thought Eddie and Clifford might see more of their father. Daddy go. Daddy go. She explained to Clifford, not two years old, that he missed them all terribly. He told her, Margarethe, I was out at out at Bustenari, supervising the drilling at Steaua and Astra Romana, and guess what? We’ve named one of the wells in Tosca ‘Margarethe’. They got letters from the boys: Julius wrote for permission to join the school’s cadet corps. They refused. Ignatius had scored highly in his tests and was talking with excitement about visiting.

Their English butler and a servant accompanied her shopping because she couldn’t understand the Roumanian tongue. The streets were windy and humid. The buildings were six storeys or twice that. There were parks and gardens but they were a distance. There were fast cars and people shouting at all hours. Bucharest was just like any other city and the people were rich maybe snooty, or poor, perhaps violent. The Lincoln family belonged to the haves. They had a refrigerator, a rarity, and there were so many taxis at the house it was as if they had a second motor car. Trebitsch boasted of earning £20,000 from Galician Oil but then told her he’d taken a loan of £4,000 from an American insurance company. Margarethe wondered sometimes if they were living beyond their means. It was no use arguing with him. One day she found a letter, half-written, pleading with Goldstein for money. It said they were penniless. She couldn’t understand. As she moved to replace it on the pile,, she paused. The next letter was scrawled kisses and hugs: Anna; New York; devoted. Margarethe’s eyes reddened like fire. She’d been here before. Him hopping the beds of Europe. The dam burst, tears ran a cheek, then hotter, faster and it was all wrong. Under her own cries she heard Clifford sobbing and composed herself.

Two months after the Trust was liquidated, he came home from the wells ranting and raving about the Parker Company man. Lucey reneged on the deal, had told the press there never was a deal! He was wrapped in his sorrow and she held her tongue still. Then he put an envelope of money in her hands; assets he’d recovered from selling off machinery.

The boys were to visit at Christmas. Julius’s boarding school wrote to them saying that he had run away. Ignatius, only nine, arranged for he and his younger brother to travel across Europe, just the two of them. The young son insisted on making all the arrangements and they travelled the week Calais to Cologne, through Linz and Brasov. On Christmas Day, they had crisped succulent turkey. There were boiled and roasted potatoes, gravy and vegetables which Ignatius lined up on his fork like a skewer kebab. The servants roasted parsnip and carrots, boiled potatoes and crisped succulent turkey. They drank hot wine and sang around a great fire. Among the presents, Trebitsch had brought them Parker drill pieces. He was already talking about another oil enterprise out of the London office. In the New Year she saw them all off at the station, emerging alone, from the locomotive’s cloud of black burned coal.

February, March, the months went by on Strada Cosma. He wrote of course. He’d given up the Lincoln & Co. office in Islington but was hopeful Premier Oil’s London branch would find him work. Julius wrote: he had lied his way into the British Army and was training as a bombardier in the artillery. She had few friends and with two babies to look after struggled to get out, now the servants were departing. Krausz returned in April, gave the others notice and lent a hand packing boxes were he could. His time was mostly spent trying to find buyers for the wells. In June, Margarethe, Eddie and Clifford reached London in May.

Her husband found them a boarding house in Bloomsbury. Torrington Square smelled of old cabbage, gravy and loneliness. People said good morning in shame. Everything was dark and the people seemed to have no attachments. They employed a nanny, Mrs. Williamson, who turned out to a be a terrible bigot. Trebitsch caught her stealing, fired her on the spot. Most days he worked out of the Liberal Club, enduring insults while trying to secure a position with Premier Oil.
Occasionally they went out. He showed her the churches of Whitechapel, they went for an evening at the Shoreditch Music Hall. But Margarethe remembered being alone the day the papers reported that Archduke Ferdinand had been shot. A clammy sweat came over her and she sat in a sickly state watching the clock for hours.

As a German by birth, Margarethe had to register with the police after the war broke out. Long forms and signatures and understandings that she could be interned or deported. The flat was
too small for them. Trebitsch paced and spoke of enemies around every corner, a black cloud on him. The Daily Mail and John Bull printed tales of occupations and captured regions, troops bombing their way through wet land and cruisers set on fire in rivers. Everyone must do their bit. The Liberal, Henry Dalziel, had helped Trebitsch in the past and was reaching out to find him work in the War Office. She listened patiently while he updated her. Every day there was nothing. Finally, Dalziel found him a job at the Post Office but there was little money in it. He soon talked of quitting and they argued about this.

The argued about Julius serving in Kitchener’s army, somewhere in France. God knew where! They argued about overdue rent and John’s tuition fees. Few dinners went by without arguments. One night Detective Inspector Ward knocked at the door and his Chief, Basil Thomson. Thomson said they were investigating a report one or both of them were German spies. Trebitsch said no, the charges were grossly offensive, inexcusable! He and his wife were long naturalised and known to the government, in fact he was once part of that government! Ward explained that in accordance with the Defence of the Realm Act they had go take Mrs. Williamson’s complaint to the Gloucester Constabulary very seriously. Trebitsch laughed. Williamson? Mrs. Williamson? Margarethe told the detectives about their ex-nanny, the watch she’d tried to steal and her vendetta. Thomson said not many would have been so forgiving. However, he was satisfied Williamson was wasting their time and apologised forinterrupting the evening.

Mount Pleasant Sorting Office was tedious and menial and they could have found something more suited to his talents. She consoled him with reminders he was in a position to to protect ordinary Germans. He hated the victimisation, hated Edward Grey’s idiotic slaughter. In early November German boats shelled Yarmouth beach and sank a British submarine off the coast. The next day the workers singled him out for abuse. He quit before the day was done. He was sour to the core but she knew him. He was never in this mood for long. He was creative and sometimes an idea would land on him and he’d work it until it came to pass. The next day he told her he had attended
the first of several job interviews for a position with Military Intelligence. After all, the Post Office had him checking the mail for enemy communications. It was all connected. They sat in front of
a roaring fire and he put her mind to rest about Julius’s safety and that of her mother, who was somewhere in Rotterdam. He was an energetic reader and was able to tell her all about the war,
divining the strategies of the major powers based on the personalities and their aims. As ever he saw ways around the doom that was everywhere in the world. He wondered if Captain Kenny was
as impressed by his skills as he claimed to be. Nothing came easy for him, he said. She reminded him how he’d defied the ministry in Brecklum by marrying her. McCarter, Rowntree and Lloyd George saw his worth: Captain Kenny would too.

MO5 continued to put off his final interview, the weeks went by. She worried were the money was coming from and had no interest in a job making bullets to be used against her own people. On December 16th, they were talking about the boys returning home. The date was fixed in their minds, the night twenty-seven warships hit the nearest coast killing hundreds. Two days later he came home with news MO5 had asked him to spend a few weeks establishing contacts in Rotterdam. He would look for Margarethe’s mother while he was there, but had to leave right away. John, eight years old, had hoped his father would be there to answer his questions about Santa Claus. Ignatius said there was no such person.

In January the Germans struck Yarmouth again by mighty zeppelin, and Norfolk: terror from the skies. Winter seemed to drag on: rations and alarms, suspicions and fears. She found another loan letter to Goldstein, this time requesting £100. Margarethe said nothing. He came clean about it on his own. MO5 were delaying his payment. She pawned necklaces.

He had a meeting with the Admiralty at the end of the month and hoped he would be paid then. As the date got closer, he became more frantic and agitated. He wrote notes to present himself as best he could. When he returned that afternoon he was quiet and unresponsive: still agitated. After dinner, the babies were put to bed and he told her he would have to go. Dangerous men were after him. Not even his colleagues could protect him. If he was in England they would hurt his family to get to him.

They held one another all night. She wept and he told her to be brave for the boys. He couldn’t leave her much money but would send more when he could. Margarethe didn’t sleep. She stayed with him until 5am when he kissed her a final time. Then he got up and she listened to him creep down the stairs to where his bags were packed. He closed the front door and it was like her soul was shut out.

#

c. Andy Luke, 2017

The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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