Alice in Exile: A Novelby Piers Paul Read
By critically acclaimed author Piers Paul Read, Alice in Exile is an exquisite historical novel featuring Alice Fry--a free-thinking and independent-minded woman in a world ruled by men--and the two men who love her. It is 1913 when Alice, the daughter of a radical publisher, meets Edward Cobb, the eligible young son of a baronet who has recently quit the/i>
By critically acclaimed author Piers Paul Read, Alice in Exile is an exquisite historical novel featuring Alice Fry--a free-thinking and independent-minded woman in a world ruled by men--and the two men who love her. It is 1913 when Alice, the daughter of a radical publisher, meets Edward Cobb, the eligible young son of a baronet who has recently quit the army to pursue his political ambitions. Edward's family could accept his liaison with a girl they consider "fast," but when he proposes, they are appalled.
When Alice's father becomes involved in a scandal, it becomes clear that Edward must choose between Alice and his political career. He breaks off the engagement, unaware that his lover is expecting his child. Desperate, Alice accepts the offer of a rich and charming (if somewhat predatory) Baron Rettenberg, returning to Russia with him to serve as a governess for his children, while Edward marries suitably, but unhappily.
Two of the greatest cataclysms of the twentieth century--the Russian Revolution and World War I--serve as backdrops to Alice's story as she raises her young son, yearns for Edward, and begins to fall passionately for the Baron.
Alice in Exile is Piers Paul Read's triumphant return to the fiction for which he is widely hailed--romantic, dramatic, and rich with historical detail and fascinating characters that make Alice's story an enchanting and unforgettable read.
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Alice in Exile
By Piers Paul Read
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Piers Paul Read
All rights reserved.
In January 1913, a young army officer, Edward Cobb, passing through London on his way home after a tour of duty in South Africa, was taken by a friend to a party in Chelsea. There he found himself among people he had never encountered before – actors, artists, writers, publishers and young women who smoked cigarettes, drank gin and danced the Boston and the Tango. Edward was drawn to one young woman in particular who was dark and pretty and taught him the steps of the Turkey Trot, the latest craze. When they went out on to a narrow balcony to escape the heat and noise, she became more serious and asked him about South Africa: what were the differences between General Herzog and General Botha? Had he seen the effects of the recent drought?
With the gin coursing through his veins, Edward answered her questions at rather greater length than was appropriate at a party. The girl, Alice, listened patiently and smiled and seemed to like him. When they went back into the living room, the music from the phonograph had slowed and most of those dancing had reduced their step to no more than a swaying embrace. They did the same. Edward could feel her bosom against his chest and her hair tickled his nose. A pleasant scent came from her skin – a whiff that had something of spices and incense and the aroma he remembered from the cigars in his father's humidor.
In a dark corner of the room, they kissed. Edward had kissed few girls before: her embrace was gentle, her lips were soft and she seemed to know when it was the right moment to break for a breath of air. After a while, the thought entered Edward's head that they might go further – that in the world of actors and artists and writers girls thought little of going to bed with a man after a party, even a man they had never met before.
'Where do you live?' he whispered.
'In Markham Square,' she replied.
'On your own?'
'With my parents.'
He thought of his parents' house in Eaton Place where he was to stay overnight with Hamish, the friend who had brought him to the party. Could he take her there? Or to a hotel? What did she expect?
The girl gently pulled away from him and said: 'I think, in fact, since you mention it, the time has come to go home.'
'May I escort you?'
'If you like.'
While she found her coat, Edward told Hamish that he would have to make his own way back to Belgravia. He rejoined Alice and the two went out into the streets. The air was damp and the pavements wet but the rain had stopped. Edward looked for a cab but Alice said that her home was nearby and she would rather walk.
'How did you come to be at the party?' she asked.
'I came with a friend.'
'Who knew Erskine?' She gave a short laugh. 'It must have been Erskine.'
Edward frowned. 'What makes you so sure?'
'He paints portraits.'
'He has never painted mine.'
'No. But it means he meets people ...' She hesitated. 'People one wouldn't normally meet.'
'Don't you like to extend your circle of acquaintance?' Edward asked.
'Yes, I do. And you?'
'It depends upon who the new people are,' he said.
They walked on for a moment in silence. Then Edward asked: 'Will we meet again?'
She looked up and across at him, as if trying to judge from his expression what measure of feeling lay behind this question. The yellowish light from the street lamp, diffused through the damp air, made her face, framed by her dark hair, seem like an exquisite mask. He stopped, took hold of her shoulders and kissed her with a clumsy vigour.
She did not resist him but this embrace in the cold air seemed unwelcome. They walked on. She said nothing until they turned a corner into Markham Square.
'Thank you for seeing me home,' she said.
'Is this your house?' he asked, looking up at the front door.
'Might we meet again?'
'At another party?' She went up the steps and put a key in the door.
'No. I mean, may I invite you for dinner or something like that?'
'Of course. You know where I live.'
'But I don't know your name – your family name, that is.'
'Fry. I'm called Alice Fry.'CHAPTER 2
On the train to York the next morning, Edward was unable to concentrate on the newspaper he had bought at King's Cross station. Instead, he rested his head on the antimacassar, closed his eyes and thought about Alice Fry. Hamish, who was to spend a weekend with him in Yorkshire before returning to his family in Ireland, sat beside him in the first-class compartment.
After the train had passed through Peterborough, Edward opened his eyes and turned to Hamish. 'Did you talk to that girl called Alice Fry?'
'You hogged her. I didn't get a chance.'
'Do you know anything about her?'
'Apparently her mother's foreign.'
'Yes, she told me. Her mother's French.'
Edward frowned. 'She was very well-informed.'
'I'd say so,' said Hamish. 'I bet she taught you a thing or two on your way home.'
Edward turned to look out of the window to hide his annoyance – an annoyance compounded by recalling that he had hoped, the night before, that she would be the kind of girl Hamish took her to be. His head rose and fell as his eyes followed the telephone wires that were strung from pole to pole along the line. In the smutty glass he could see a faint reflection of his own lean face. What would his family make of him after two years away? Would they remark on the change? He thought of the veldt, of Natal, of Cape Town; then of the long voyage back in the troopship and the different ports of call: and as the sky darkened he wondered whether perhaps last night's encounter had been just the last of his adventures that would fade from his memory once he had returned to the affections and preoccupations of home.
* * *
At York, Edward and Hamish changed on to the branch line that took them across the Vale of York to the market town of Malton. A pale sun illuminated the landscape so familiar to Edward who, as a child, had often made this same journey returning home from boarding school in the south. As the train entered the valley of the River Derwent, the line following the twists and turns of the river, the same strong emotions that had always accompanied this homecoming arose in Edward once again. Passing the ruined abbey of Kirkham, he rose precipitately from his seat as if this would somehow hasten his arrival and, with Hamish behind him, stood looking out of the open window of the carriage door.
As the train drew in, the chauffeur from Nester Park was waiting on the platform with a young woman who, seeing Edward, ran towards him with a shout of 'Eddie!' and a look of delight. It took a moment for Edward to recognise his younger sister, Sylvia, who, when he had left for South Africa, had been a scrawny tomboy confined to the nursery. Now, her figure had filled out and her long blonde hair, once loose and straggling, had been pinned up in a grown-up fashion.
Running ahead of the chauffeur, Sylvia reached her brother and his friend. She did not kiss or even embrace Edward but took hold of his arm, saying: 'I nearly didn't recognise you. I thought you were an Indian, you're so brown.'
'And I thought you were ... someone else.'
'Someone enormously grown-up and sophisticated, I dare say?'
Edward introduced her to Hamish. Sylvia shook him by the hand. Edward then turned to Jennings, the chauffeur, who welcomed him with the same mixture of deference and affection as he had shown when Edward had returned for the holidays from school.
'So you've come out?' Edward said to Sylvia as the three young people settled back in the seat of the car.
'Last summer. And you missed my ball, you pig,' said Sylvia.
'You could have waited.'
'How could I have waited? When one's out, one's out.'
'And have you hooked a husband?'
'Not yet. I'm being choosy.'
As they drove out of Malton and up into the Wolds, Edward questioned Sylvia about what had gone on at Nester in his absence, and Sylvia relayed the gossip about her debutante friends in London. Hamish joined in when a name came up of someone he knew and Edward would take advantage of his friend's intervention to glance out at the rolling countryside, his eye alighting on a familiar farmhouse or a horse-drawn plough until finally the well-trimmed hedges and stout fences marked the start of the Nester estate. Five miles on they came to the tall stone wall that surrounded the parkland and a mile after that they turned in past the south lodge of Nester Park.
* * *
Edward's home was a large four-square country house built in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Palladian style. Running up the steps ahead of Sylvia and Hamish, Edward found his parents, Sir Geoffrey and Lady Joyce Cobb, in the drawing room where, with their two younger children, they had been waiting for the hero's return. Lady Joyce stood to greet her elder son, and proffered her cheek for a kiss. She showed no more emotion than if Edward had been absent for a weekend; only a slight quiver of the muscles around her eyes suggested the effort required not to show any stronger emotions.
Edward's father, Sir Geoffrey, tried but failed to show the same sangfroid: with a red face and moist eyes he embraced his elder son and heir, saying: 'Good to have you back.' He then stepped back to let the two younger children, Rose and Arthur, each grab one of Edward's hands. 'Come on,' said Rosie, dragging him towards the door. 'It's teatime. We've been waiting and waiting and waiting.'
'Tell them we're ready for tea, will you, darling?' Lady Joyce said to Sylvia. Then, from a reflex politeness, she turned away from Edward to his friend Hamish to ask after his parents whom she had known in Ireland as a child.
Edward let himself be led by Arthur and Rosie up the shallow stone staircase and along the corridor to the nursery. They, like Sylvia, had grown while he was away but they were still indubitably children. What changes had come over the other members of his family? As they sat down at the nursery table, a shaft of sunlight from the fading winter sun fell on the face of Sir Geoffrey. Smaller than his son, and largely bald, his face had always been ruddy from heavy drinking and life in the open air; but now, as he leaned forward to take a cucumber sandwich and accept the cup of tea that had been poured out for him by Nanny Peake, Edward perceived a new fatigue in his manner and bleariness in his eyes.
Nanny Peake was unchanged – the same old crone – and Edward's mother remained much as Edward remembered her – tall, erect, reserved. The sight of her evoked the same tepid affection that Edward had felt for her before but now, after two years' absence and a greater knowledge of the world, his affection was tinged with a measure of pity. How constrained she was by her inhibitions; how blinkered her narrow concept of good form.
'Don't pester poor Edward,' Lady Joyce said to her younger children who were impatient to see the elephant tusk and zebra skin that Edward had told them were in his baggage; and then, to give them some distraction, added: 'Why don't you show Hamish to his room?'
* * *
During the days which followed, Edward basked in the comforts of his family home – not simply the physical comforts of a large, well-run country house but the psychological satisfaction of a new respect in those who had seen him leave as a child and now saw him return a man. Physically, all was the same – the linoleum of the nursery floor, the flaking limestone of the Temple in the landscaped gardens, the smell of dead vegetation; but these familiar things that had once marked the boundaries of his experience were now mere mementoes of his past.
It was in his mind, and in the minds of those around him, that a shift in perception had taken place. The plump cook, the grave butler, the jolly maidservants, the trainer, the gamekeeper, the groom, even old Nanny Peake, all deferred to him in a way they had not done before. The young Eddie whom they had once teased and even chastised was now Lieutenant Cobb of the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards.
The attitude of his family had also changed. On the very evening of his return, when his mother and sisters had left the dining room and Geoffrey Cobb had called forward the two young men to sit down beside him to drink port and smoke cigars, the opportunities that were open to him, now that he had left the army, were set out by his father as if he had been waiting impatiently to launch his son on a political career.
'I think they'd adopt you at Knapley if you felt you were ready to stand,' he said. 'I saw Billy Berwick at Doncaster and he said that they're keen to get some young blood into the party.'
Edward, as he listened to his father's plans for his future, wondered for a fleeting moment whether standing as a Conservative might affect the feelings of the girl who had taught him the Turkey Trot; but the thought slipped away as, in a haze of cigar smoke, he and his father and his friend Hamish discussed how they would settle the somewhat chaotic state of the world. They talked with gravity, conscious that they belonged to the oligarchy that ruled a vast empire, and so that the conclusions they reached could have some bearing on the course of events.
Edward, at the age of twenty-eight, now had all the qualities and qualifications required to enter Britain's governing class. His father was a baronet with a great deal of money and his mother the daughter of a peer. Certainly, the peer was only an Irish peer but the connection was old enough and good enough to provide cousins in some of the most influential families in Britain. There was also money to back his ambitions – money that came originally from coal in the West Riding of Yorkshire but had now lost its grimy provenance and was mostly invested in government stocks and agricultural land.
Like his father, Edward had gone to school at Eton; and then, unlike his father, had gone up to Oxford where he had studied Mods and Greats – classical Latin and Greek and the philosophy of the ancient world. He had won a second-class degree when he had hoped for a first, which was like drawing a Jack instead of a King; but he had been dealt a King from another source. Sir Geoffrey's membership of the Jockey Club had made him friends who were dukes and princes, and even a real king, a reigning monarch, King Edward VII himself.
After leaving university, Edward had drawn another card which turned out to be an ace. Against the advice of his parents and friends, he had joined the army and, while serving in South Africa, had distinguished himself in a minor action against a force of fractious Zulus. Accounts of this engagement had been printed in both The Times and the Morning Post and Edward Cobb had been mentioned in dispatches. His parents were proud; some friends were envious; but, to the kind of people in the counties who chose candidates for safe Conservative seats, here was a young man in the mould of Scott and Shackleton, an outstanding specimen of the British race.
* * *
It was, of course, an account of this adventure that Edward's family wanted to listen to over and over again – a version for his father with details of strategic deployment; another for his mother touching on the family connections of the colonel who had sent him on this hazardous mission; and, for the younger children in the nursery, some vivid details – the hide shields and long spears, the fierce face-paint and the wild war cries of the Zulus.
One afternoon, after telling the story yet again over tea in the nursery, Edward found himself alone with Sylvia. Hamish had gone home to Ireland; his parents had left and the two younger children had been dragged off by Nanny Peake to have their bath. Edward sat on the scuffed club fender by the nursery fire, Sylvia on the lumpy sofa.
'Weren't you awfully afraid?' asked Sylvia, referring to the fracas with the Zulus.
Edward shrugged. 'I'm pretty thick-skinned.'
'It would have been horrible if you'd been killed.'
He laughed. 'A spear in the belly?'
'I mean it would have been horrible for us.'
'For Mother and Father, of course. But once you find a husband, you'll manage quite well without a brother.'
Sylvia thought for a moment, then said: 'I'd hate to think that by marrying I'll somehow stop being part of our family.'
'It depends who you marry. If you marry a duke, you'll move into his orbit, but if you married Potts ...'
'Oh shut up.' Potts was the gamekeeper.
'Even if you married someone like Hamish, you'd be off to Ireland and kept busy moving the buckets to catch the rain from the leaking roof.'
'I'm not going to marry Hamish.'
'That's rather harsh. I think he took a fancy to you.'
'He's not my type.'
'What is your type?'
'Someone able and ambitious and brave. In fifteen years' time I'd like to see you and the man I marry both in the Cabinet.'
'Ah, but who would be the Prime Minister – him or me?'
'That remains to be seen.'
The chimes of the nursery clock struck six.
'You mustn't marry with too great expectations,' said Edward, standing, arching his back and stretching his legs. 'The man might not measure up.'
Excerpted from Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read. Copyright © 2001 Piers Paul Read. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Piers Paul Read studied history at Cambridge and is the author of more than a dozen acclaimed novels and several works of nonfiction, including the international bestseller Alive! and The Templars. His previous novels have won the Hawthornden Prize and the Geoffrey Faber, Somerset Maugham, and James Tait Black Awards. He is married with four children and lives in London.
Piers Paul Read is best known for his book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, which documented the story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 and was adapted into a film in 1993. He has won a number of prizes for his fiction, including the Hawthornden Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
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Got a little bogged down in details about the Russian Revolution, but it was better than I expected. Good character development.