Read an Excerpt
The decisive moment for Germany's fleet in the Great War was, indisputably, its ill-timed arrival at the Falkland Islands. Having avoided detection by the Allies for three months since the outbreak of hostilities, it was their great misfortune to head straight for the Falklands just hours after the British fleet put in to coal there. Had they borne in and launched an offensive, they would have caught the British in the disarray of refueling. Instead, and for unknown reasons, all eight ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Graf Von Spee, tried to flee. Compounding this fatal decision was atypical weathera bright, cloudless sky hung overhead; there were neither the usual fog banks nor the low-lying squall clouds to afford even momentary concealment. The British, with their superior cruisers, were quick to pursue. From all sides gunfire bombarded the Germans. After three hours of battle, Von Spee's flagship, the Scharnhorst, turned over on her beam, heeled gradually to port, and slid into the icy Atlantic, a cloud of black smoke shooting up from the boilers as she submerged. Only a coal collier, which was later interned in Argentina, and the small cruiser Dresden, which was to be run down and blown up in three months, escaped the fiery battle. Within hours, the rest of the squadron met its fate at the bottom of the sea.
The question, then, is what brought about this decisive event. What accounts for Von Spee's untimely arrival at the Falklands? Why did he order his ships to flee? How did so gallant and skilled an admiral, a man known for his precision, bring about the destruction of the German East Asiatic Squadron and turn, forever, the tides of the Great War?
Fleet of Misfortune: Graf Von Spee and the Impossible Journey Home
14th January 1912
My dearest Max,
I'm unsure as to where you are, but I'm sending this to Grete at Gjellerup Haus in the hopes she's had word from your household and will forward it.
Alice and I have found ourselves in quite difficult circumstances. One month ago Father passed on and I left my position in Lancashire immediately. Please don't be angry with me for not writing sooner. I needed time to determine in exactly what station this placed me and, I'm afraid to say, it's worse than I first suspected. How I should like to curse the textile industry and this endless muddle of strikes. The cost of Father's faith in English labour, it now appears, has been nearly his entire life savings. By my most modest calculations, the sum left can sustain Alice and me no more than six months. I cannot accept a new position unless I can bring her with me & even your extravagant letter of reference (indispensable demeanour? really, Max) cannot outweigh the obvious difficulty of Alice let loose in a respectable household. The solicitor, who looks to be younger than myself, seems convinced an impoverished twenty-two-year-old woman could not possibly tend to the needs of a nineteen-year-old. He "most emphatically advises," for Alice's welfare, for my own welfare, and for the good of the community, that I place her in one of the Crown's colonies at Bethlam or St. Luke's. Well, I, in turn, have told him in most unladylike terms that I should sooner lock myself away than Alice. Incarceration is the growing fashion these days. Even as I write this, the Feeble-Minded Control Bill is edging its way through both houses of Parliament. Progressthat's what the doctors and the legislators like to call it. If it passes, I'm not sure what we will do. Alice has only me, now, and I cannot let her down.
I know we made no promises to one another. But all this past year I was happy so long as I dreamed I might see you again. What could be grander than to think of you giving up everything and coming for me? Forgetting your responsibilities, your life, arriving on my doorstep with a handful of lilies from your garden. That was my hope, and how silly it now seems. Did you ever realize how childish I could be? But with Father gone, my sense of the world has darkened. I've lost the conviction that life eventually works itself out for the best.
I know your frustration at my position. I, too, wish things were different. But to be angry at my situation is also to be angry with Father. How can I blame him for trying to better our prospects? I hope you believe, as I do, that my education was a far more valuable gift than any investment. That I cannot do with it, as you have always wished, something more than help children conjugate verbs and crayon maps of the world, is simply the lot I have inherited. It is best that I accept it. Please don't think me weak for my resignation. I still share your spirit of fight, only I haven't the means to indulge it right now.
I am here in England and I've not had word from you for months. Your duties no doubt prevent you from writing, but no longer can I afford to hope you will one day appear at my door. We've always known you have obligations to your family & your career. What point is there in my wishing you will awake one day able to extract yourself from the life you've led for years? I understand clearly now that it will never happenI will never again see you.
I cherish the time we had together. Not for a moment do I regret our conversations on that shaded bench, the walks in the gardenit still makes me laugh to think that you, of all people, know the name of every plant and shrub. Who would have suspected your love of nature? It's awful really; I cannot see a flower without thinking of you. But when you left, I could no longer stay in Strasbourg. I could not face your family alone, with only the faintest hope you might return for a day or two in several months.
I know you worry Alice will consume my life, and you think I must look after myself. And these past few weeks, in my mind I've listened again to all your arguments. But, dearest, I have to ask myself: what life? Alice is, in truth, the only companion I've ever known. For nineteen years she has been my life. To tend to her is to tend to myself. Please understand.
I suppose I must finally come to it: Professor Beazley (Father's colleague in the Department of Anthropology, and yes, the "jungle man" of whom I sometimes joked) has agreed to look after Alice and me. The University has granted him Father's position and he has made intelligent investments with his family's large estate (if only he could have advised Father) that should keep us quite comfortable. We are to be married within the month.
Will it really be so difficult to teach him a thing or two of charm? Perhaps a short lesson in the art of laughter? Never have I known a man so ill at ease; only reading and writing, and the occasional mapmaking, seem to relax him. Maybe if I constantly keep a book propped before him we might forge something of a normal house! No. Oh, Max, what is wrong with me? I shouldn't joke at his expense. After all, if he hadn't proposedwell, Alice and I would soon be wandering the East End. Can I really ask for more?
Max, please do not imagine I've chosen Professor Beazley over you. I have simply chosen to care for Alice rather than wait for the impossible. I wish I could tell you this in person, but I haven't that luxury. Perhaps this will make things easier for you. Perhaps you've always known this would happen. Long before I did, I think you sensed there was little hope for us. But for me this marks a change, a painful awakening. There is no one but you to whom I can write, no one but you who would understand.
Isn't it strange? I will be a married woman by the time this reaches you.
Elsa sets her pen down, folds the letter, and tucks it between the pages of her morocco journal. Edward will soon be home. She will post it in the morning, after he has left for the university.
Behind the tall glass windows of the sitting room, dusk is falling. Elsa stands, strikes a match, and lights each branch of the candelabrum. The shadows move across the curtains, the burgundy wallpaper, the thick lacquer of the walnut armoire. From every corner, elegance gleams. And carefully, like a child cautioned against sudden movements, she gathers her black skirt and inches toward the divan. Elsa still cannot consider this place home. It reminds her too much of the houses she has worked in, of the vast, chandeliered dining rooms, the cold carpeted entrance halls. In Strasbourg, in Max's house, she moved with even greater caution, always kneeling to straighten the corner of a rug, fluffing each gold-fringed pillow as she rose from the sofa, as though the prudence of her movements might make up for, or disguise, the negligence of her emotions.
As she settles on the divan, Elsa feels content with what she has written. Just the right balance of affection and firmness has been struck. She knows that the toneso much more adult than her other letterswill surprise him. Now she is the one offering apologies. Max won't have expected her to end things; he has always known the depth of her feelings. But surely he will understand the circumstances. Even if it means upending his ideals about liberty, his belief that all objectives can be reached through ardor, skill, and determination. That was, after all, what he said he admired in herher ardor. And it was what she loved in him. But of what use is it now? For all his sympathy, Max has never known what it means to be trapped.
She glances at her journal, the envelope's corner protruding from its pages. How odd that a few sheets of paper bear her decision, that at any moment she can hold them to the candle's flame, or never post them at all. But her decision is final, and has little to do with Max's knowledge of it. After all, it will be months before the letter reaches him. Perhaps it's for herself she has written, to understand once again her predicament, the unsatisfying idea of what now seems her future.
On the table beside her lies Edward's most recent book: The Indigenous Peoples of British East Africa. She extracts the ribbon marking her page and begins reading. The book so far engages herand how nice, finally, to have the luxury to read such a comprehensive study. Religious practices, domestic life, transfer of property: to each of these Edward has devoted a detailed chapter. Father always praised his field research skills. The language, though, she finds too formalA monthly ritual to grieve the dead allows adolescent members of the tribe to display emotion in the form of tears, yelps, or occasional songbut she hasn't told Edward so. "It's engrossing!" she has announced across the dinner table, the white tablecloth stretched between them like a snow-covered boulevard. "Edward, you really have known such excitement! You've seen such wonderful places." And she has watched a brief smile nudge the reserve from his face: "I am delighted, my dear, that your attention is captured by those studies which have occupied the bulk of my days. The world is filled with other wonderful places ready for study. Perhaps someday you can share in my endeavors. Really. I am touched, in the utmost, by your interest in my work." It is, thinks Elsa, the least she can do. And how could she not be intrigued by such far-off lands, and the faint promise he might take her to one?
In the center of the sitting room's carpet, Alice is sprawled on her stomach, drawing pictures. Her stocking feet, flung up behind her, crisscross in distracted excitement. Her long brown braid, Elsa's morning handiwork, has already unfurled into a riot of curls. Every few minutes Alice leaps up and rattles a picture in front of Elsa: "Beazley," she announces with a smile. From years of hearing their father use that name, Alice cannot be persuaded to call him "Edward." "Wonderful, dearest," Elsa replies. Then she straightens Alice's dress, tucking away the lacy edges that have crept up the bodice, the straps that have wandered out of place. A fortnight earlier, Alice lay slung across the chesterfield, her skirt twisted like a bedsheet about her waist, her stark white bloomers perforating the dark shadows of the room. When, returning from the university, Edward had stepped in to say hello, Alice's indecency startled him. She should at least prevent him further embarrassment. Now, beneath the fastidiousness of Elsa's hands, Alice squirms and sighs and huffsthe opening notes to her temper's looming aria.
"Allie, dear, I've an idea." Elsa whisks her expression into exaggerated delight. "Would you draw me another?"
Then Alice drops down, her black skirt ballooning, and begins again.
Of course, before Edward returns, Elsa will have to hide the drawings. They emphasize too strongly the hollows beneath his eyes, the crease of concern across his forehead; they will no doubt surprise him. "It's strange to say," Edward has remarked several nights earlier, "but you do make me feel so much younger." He is fifty-five and has never been married. An elderly woman has kept house for him for years, but the presence of two new women in his home clearly unnerves him. Each day, he consults Elsa about the curtains, the wallpaper, and the house itselfWe shall arrange everything to suit you, Miss Pendleton. (Please, she reminds him, try to call me Elsa.) Edward seems as uneasy in this house as she is. It belonged to his parents, and fell into his hands as the only child when his father died. For the past fifteen years he has lived amid the brocade curtains and the china and the glistening cutlery of his childhood. But rather than growing accustomed to what has for so long surrounded him, he seems a guest in his own home. Only now, with the arrival of Elsa and Alice and their crates of pinafores and hats and yellow-back novels, does Edward realize he is not a visitor. He is the host, and his new role absorbs him. Anything Elsa touches or appears to avoid, he notesThe mahogany side table, I see, is not to your liking; of course it can be replaced easily enough. And perhaps you think the table linens should be a cheerier shade?as though women were yet another foreign culture of which he has embarked on a study.