Kukavica Stop the assassination, or start a war
London, 15 May 1914. 1.47 a.m. There was chill fog drifting from the oily black Thames and it had stopped raining.
But inside the Golders Club it was hot and clammy.
A thin young man of twenty-three with wiry dark hair, which starkly contrasted with his colourless skin, slouched at the bar. The pouches under his eyes were heavy and the whites of his brown eyes were red lined through prolonged irritation from tobacco smoke and late nights squinting at cards and dice. He sported a thin pencil moustache and dressed in fashionable clothes of a foppish nature: navy blue Italian-cut suit with a blue and white polka dot breast pocket handkerchief, and black pointed ankle boots with grey canvas sides.
The full throttle of the night had passed and he looked totally washed up. An example of a life improperly lived, getting through the day from one restaurant and club bar to another with a variety of dissipating distractions in between.
He was arguing with the bar steward over some apparent insult and becoming more and more belligerent, so much so that the club’s manager approached him with insincere deference and said firmly, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I believe it’s time you retired, don’t you think? I shall get a porter to escort you to one of our club bedrooms for the night.’
Breckenridge said in his truculent voice, ‘You’ll, you’ll what? You’ll do no such damned thing! Who do you, who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I am Stan… Stanley…’
‘We know who you are, Mr Breckenridge, sir. So please let me help you up.’
Breckenridge shrugged off the hands attempting to lift him from his bar stool.
He swore and said, ‘Get your, get your paws off me! That’s assault. You’ll be hearing from my solicitor. No, no by the devil! I’ll, I’ll thrash the life out of you first...’
He swayed to his feet and lunging a flailing punch at the club official fell over the stool. There was braying laughter from those around him, who were equally inebriated but more in control of themselves.
‘Old Brokenbridge is tight again, silly ass,’ said one, and a colleague added, ‘If one can’t take it, one shouldn’t taste it, what? Two more brandies, Harold, old dear. And a malt.’
They continued laughing as Breckenridge was politely but firmly led out of the saloon and up wide thickly-carpeted stairs to a long landing of oak doors with onyx handles. Complaining but compliant, the dissolute member of a family of unimpeachable reputation and social standing allowed his jacket and shoes to be removed and his helpless body rolled onto the bed with the blankets tightly tucked in around him. The light dimmed and he was left to sleep it off.
At eleven, Breckenridge delicately left the Golders Club, one of many he frequented though hardly knowing their names, drinking and gambling dens of varying grades of respectability. He had been fed thin toast and strong coffee tasting like Lyles black treacle, and presented with a bill for services rendered. He gave the few coins he had, signed yet another IOU and left without a word of apology or regret
There were two of them waiting for him outside. Quite smartly dressed for muscle men, broad shouldered and confident in their manner.
‘A bit under the weather, are we, sir?’
‘A bit lost, sir? We’re the gents to give you an ‘elping ‘and.’
‘This way, sir.’
‘Eh? Great Scott, get off me! Go away, damn you!’
Breckenridge’s head thudded like a marching band’s big drum and he felt wretched enough all round without this interference to his liberty. He attempted to move down the narrow side street to the bustle of the Strand; but they pulled him back and marched him in the opposite direction towards where the dim back streets and unwholesome alleys were. Feckless though he was, Breckenridge had indignant pluck if not heroic courage, and loudly berated them, tugging and struggling to break away. But they were too tough and determined and gripped him tighter, forcing him along the cobbles.
‘We’re taking you to see a certain gentleman who reckons you owe him guineas by the bucket load, Mr Breckenridge, sir.’
‘And ‘e told us to be firm and persistent, but not draw blood. Unless it ‘elped to make you realise how serious your situation is, me old cock sparra.’
This second thug lifted up an open razor to Breckenridge’s bone-white face, which looked to be unable to shed even the smallest smear of blood. His partner grinned at Breckenridge’s distraught expression. The fervour had now vanished like his money. But before bloody violence was inflicted on his person, two other gentlemen appeared upon the scene. Both equally well-built and confident, but more soberly and expensively dressed.
‘We shall take over from here on, lads.’
‘If that’s all the same to you, of course? Tell your governor Mr Breckenridge has a prior engagement.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ began the bullyboy with the blade, facing up to them.
His companion produced a knuckleduster as a magician does a rabbit, kissed it, and hunched his shoulders in readiness for a midmorning scrap, which they both received. In the disturbance that followed, judicious Stanley Breckenridge backed away, turned, and briskly strode towards his original destination of the Strand where he could quickly lose himself among the pedestrians before escaping completely in a taxi.
But a fifth person was waiting on the corner blocking his forward movement, pushing him gently backwards into the side street with the point of his walking cane. A tall domineering gentleman who wore a grey Harris Tweed suit, a black fedora, and an imposing ginger handlebar moustache and who introduced himself as Colonel Willows and said he worked for the Foreign Office.
‘We got here just in time, did we not, Mr Breckenridge? Oh, no, do stay with me, sir, do. Better if we all tootled off together. My colleagues will be with us shortly.’
They appeared moments later, wiping their knuckles on their handkerchiefs and dusting off their bowler hats. Breckenridge noticed the first pair lying in recumbent positions on the cobbles outside the inconspicuous narrow door of the Golders Club, unable to stand.
‘We have a carriage waiting, sir,’ said the tall domineering gentleman.
And Breckenridge found him being shepherded onto the Strand, into a motorcar parked by the pavement, and driven away without a word of protest. He assumed they were employed by one of his two overbearing older brothers.
He was wrong. Well, partly wrong.
Less than an hour later, Breckenridge and the gentleman in the tweed suit were seated on a pale leather davenport in a high panelled office with a large window bringing in the strong eastern sunlight. They were in Whitehall in one of the many government departments there.
After a morose silence, Breckenridge said petulantly, ‘What do you want with me? What am I supposed to have done?’
‘Shall we wait and see, sir?’
They were served Darjeeling and chocolate-coated biscuits by a frock-coated manservant. The agitated after effects following the confrontation were neutralised somewhat by his hangover, leaving Breckenridge with the occasional nervous twitch. His thirst from last night’s alcoholic dehydration made him drink the tea at an undignified speed, which Willows pretended not to notice. But when Breckenridge produced a Mexican cheroot he was politely asked to refrain from smoking it.
‘Not done in here, old boy,’ said Willows.
This rebuff revived Breckenridge and his demands to know what was going on became more vigorous, but before Willows replied, an inner door opened and an august grey-haired senior civil servant entered and seated himself in an imposing black wildebeest leather chair behind a majestic Burmese teak desk, both courtesy of the British Empire Colonial Service, and rubbing his palms together he sat back with an avuncular smile.
‘Do join me, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You will find these chairs comfortable enough.’ Without a word, Breckenridge and Willows got up and sat on elegant but more professional straight-backed chairs facing him across the desk. ‘You have not discussed anything with Mr Breckenridge, I trust, Willows?’
‘Indeed not, sir.’
‘He won’t tell me anything. What the hell’s going on?’ said the dissolute young man, looking indignant and fidgeting with his shirt cuff. ‘Look here, I have an important engagement… ’
The two gentlemen exchanged a pointed look, the one behind the desk nodding as if in agreement with a silent remark.
‘I am Sir Clarence Potter-Jarvis,’ he said, rising to stretch across the wide desk to shake hands with Breckenridge, who also, but reluctantly, had to stand and bend forwards.
Potter-Jarvis’ business-like grip indicated a person in command and came from regular usage. Breckenridge’s was slack and boneless indicating an indifferent attitude to life in general and people in particular.
‘We live in a world of permanent unease, I am sure you will agree, Mr Breckenridge?’ said Potter-Jarvis as they resumed their seats. Not waiting for a reply, he continued, ‘But we must not be down hearted, eh? Colonel Willows and I have a request of you, Mr Breckenridge. One that we hope will summon the blood and stiffen the old sinews, as the saying goes.’
‘I’d like a drink to summon mine,’ murmured Breckenridge with a smug grin.
‘Tea pot empty already, eh?’ said Potter-Jarvis, ringing a bell. ‘Mr Breckenridge, we know your background quite intimately. We understand how you came to be as you are. Disaffected. Indifferent to authority. Somewhat lacking in moral grit. We can change all that for you. Give you something, give you purpose in life. Ah, Pettigrew, another pot, there’s a good fellow. And, er…’ he paused and studied Breckenridge’s slumped posture of melancholy. ‘And the Glendrury bottle and a syphon.’
Potter-Jarvis continued speaking as he spread over the desk a large map of the Continent, with the dozen or so European countries on the west and Russia on the east; south were the Balkans; and below them the waning Ottoman Empire of Turkey.
He said, ‘You do not have a vast knowledge of European and Near Eastern political geography, Mr Breckenridge, so we are assured. Is that correct? Then let me give you a quick run through.’
Using a silver-handled paper knife, he indicated areas as they continued their conversation, more a monologue considering Breckenridge’s reluctance to fully participate.
‘There are two major political factions concerning us as we speak. Are you aware of this basic fact, Mr Breckenridge?’ Breckenridge shrugged and looked vague. Potter-Jarvis raised his eyebrows and then sniffed indifferently.
He said, ‘Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy comprise one, the Triple Alliance formed in 1881. The second is Great Britain, France and Russia, known as the Triple Entente.’ In a faintly mocking tone, he added, ‘Do you know what that means, Mr Breckenridge? It is French for agreement.’
The young man had been taught French and German at school, not that he had had any use for them other than for reading wine bottle labels.
Potter-Jarvis continued. ‘In 1907, we joined the Russians and the French to support each other in mutual interest. If either Germany or Austro-Hungary began to trouble one of us, the others would intervene. Italy has never been considered a serious threat, thus far at any rate. The Triple Alliance members, on the other hand, were joined together to assist each other if Russia or France invaded their territories, as they have in the past.’ He smirked, adding ‘We British are not considered a threat because we are essentially a peace-loving trading island nation forever preoccupied with our empire.’
Stanley Breckenridge said petulantly, ‘So what?’ and turned his attention to the arrival of a half-full whisky bottle.
Willows grabbed it off the tray Pettigrew held, and placed it close to him on the edge of the desk. ‘Do show a little more interest in and respect for Sir Clarence, sir,’ he told the young degenerate. He shook the bottle in a tantalising manner. ‘I take it you would care for a drop or two?’
Breckenridge glowered back.
Sir Clarence Potter-Jarvis impatiently tapped on the map.
‘In the centre here is Austro-Hungary, a constitutional monarchy formed in 1867 from the adjoining countries of Austria and Hungary, becoming one of the world’s greatest powers. Dual heads of state: Emperor-Kings Franz Josef I of Austria and Charles IV of Hungary. Motto: Invincible and Inseparable.
‘Directly north is Germany, formed in 1871 from the unification of twenty-seven autonomous regions. Deutsches Reich has territories in Africa and elsewhere, and is now a federal monarchy. Its head is Emperor Wilhelm II who is also King of Prussia. Motto: God with us.’
Potter-Jarvis glanced at Breckenridge. ‘But are you with us, sir?’
Breckenridge belched and emptied his glass and Potter-Jarvis paused. Breckenridge reached for the bottle but Willows pulled it away from him with a dark expression of displeasure. Potter-Jarvis closed his eyes briefly to regain his place in his evidently rehearsed liturgy, cleared his throat and carried on.
‘Adjoining Austro-Hungary to the west is long legged Italy, do you see, Mr Breckenridge? The third member of our opposing Triple Alliance. Its unification of independent states began in 1848. It is a constitutional monarchy with Victor Emmanuel III as king since 1900. Pope Pius X as head of the Catholic Church is a second leader, so to speak. Motto: We are held together by pact and by religion.
‘In opposition to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy, is, of course, the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and ourselves. The Russian Empire, covering the whole of the eastern half of this Euro-Asian continent, was once the Tsardom of Russia, a monarchy by divine right until 1906 when it became a constitutional monarchy under Emperor Nicholas II. Its motto is: God is with us.
‘The second member is the Third Republic of France. It is a parliamentary republic established in 1870. President, Raymond Poincare. Its motto is perhaps the most famous in the world: Liberty, equality, fraternity.’
He then paused to clear his throat again, although more reverentially.
‘And finally to our dearly beloved United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Mr Breckenridge, established in 1801 after a gradual and uneasy union of England, Scotland and Wales before Ireland entered the fold. It is a constitutional democracy with King George V the head of state. We have no collective motto, only the royal motto: God and my right.’
Sir Clarence stood erect and clapped his hands and once again rubbed them together vigorously.
‘Now, then, Mr Breckenridge, it is time to begin revealing the precise reason you are here. No, don’t interrupt, please. You have been extremely patient so far and we thank you for it. You will be able to ask as many questions as you like once I have explained everything. Please bear with me a little while longer.’
But the kidnapped young gent was now fortified with a little sustenance from the biscuits and a measure, if small, of alcohol, jumped defiantly to his feet.
‘No, I’ve had enough of school! I’m off. You can’t keep me here any more.’ He turned and met with the towering bulk of Willows. ‘Leave me alone, you bully!’ he said, attempting to push round him.
Willows grabbed him, and before his superior could restrain him, he shook the poor young man by his shoulders and dropped him back in his chair.
To Potter-Jarvis he said, ‘Mr Breckenridge is ready, sir, for you to continue. Am I not correct, Mr Breckenridge?’
Breckenridge rubbed both shoulders and scowled but said nothing. Potter-Jarvis tut-tutted, nodded, and tried to look as if all was in order. He tapped the map with his forefinger.
‘This is the reason you are here, sir. This area immediately south of Austro-Hungary is the Balkans – a Turkish or Persian name meaning high ground or wooded mountains. It is an area of on-going conflict, as you know all too well from your past, Mr Breckenridge.’
The civil servant, so skilful in the subtle ways of diplomacy, allowed a knowing pause to follow, during which Breckenridge jerked his head up and noticed the older man’s sly expression.
‘Or should I call you by your Bosnian name, Begović, Mr Stanislav Damir Begović?’
Before the agitated young man attempted to respond, Willows rested a heavy hand on his arm and gripped it tight.
Potter-Jarvis said, ‘We know your parents left Bosnia taking you and your brothers with them. Your mother was English and your father a Bosnian Serb. Because of the continuing unrest in the Balkan Peninsular due to the gradual breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, your mother’s family in Sussex, encouraged them to immigrate to Britain. Your parents anglicised their name and your father and his sons became true British subjects. Your family flourished in business, with your brothers now highly regarded in the City and in the shipping world.’
Breckenridge sat unmoved as Potter-Jarvis’ potted history of his family was tripped out so officiously. It was as if he was learning about some past figures of note.
‘You, as the youngest, were receiving your schooling while this was happening. Something went wrong though, didn’t it? Your father and mother died before you reached maturity and you never achieved anything like your brothers have. In fact you have never worked, living off an allowance willed to you by your father, which you squander without fail each month.’
It was true his two brothers were esteemed, upholding the new family name of Breckenridge in their new country. He was the only one to have failed to live up to his potential, to have failed his parents’ hopes for his success. No one, least of all Stanley Breckenridge, could understand why this had happened, other than his parents’ death in a railway accident when he was twelve and isolated at a boarding school.
By then he had been living in England for four years and spoke the language without an obvious foreign accent. Having an English mother and thereby English relatives, naturally helped. Along with this, his father insisted they relinquished their Slavic heritage and focus on becoming fully-fledged, entrepreneurial Britons, inheritors of the ‘greatest empire the world has ever known’.
Despite the Colonel’s resistance, Breckenridge was on his feet, leaning over the desk with his hands out spread on the map, his eyes wide and his cheeks afire.
‘What’s all this to do with you? To anyone!’ he shouted. ‘I don’t know what you’re babbling about! Let me go! Get off me!’
Willows held him firm as Potter-Jarvis shrank back and dropped into his imperious African chair.
‘Willows,’ he cried, ‘I cannot conduct this interview without a greater degree of reciprocation from this fellow. Will you please give him a fatherly talking to and fill in the gaps, there’s a good chap.’
Willows said he would be delighted, and hauled the sullen Breckenridge towards the door.
‘Bring him back when you have done and we’ll get him to sign the Secrets Act and all that’ He opened his pocket watch, saw the time, and calculated how the remainder of his day could be organised. ‘I shall round off the session after luncheon.’
In an anteroom, Willows thrust Breckenridge into a chair against the wall and with his stick limped around in front of him like an uneasy bear as he spoke. Willows had been a colonel in the British Indian forces and in Lord Curzon’s Tibet expedition in 1903, and had been invalided home with a disabling leg wound. He subsequently joined the Foreign Office, making use of his considerable knowledge of foreign parts.
He was not a man one could easily intimidate.
‘Listen and learn, Mr Breckenridge. The English Channel can only defend us so far against a modern enemy with the latest weapons and ever increasing aerial capability. Are you hearing me loud and clear, sir?’
Breckenridge rubbed the back of his hand on his mouth, sniffed, and nodded. He was about to say something but Willows pressed on.
‘To continue your education in current European affairs, Mr Breckenridge, after the six major participants, as Sir Clarence has just mentioned, we have the minor players. But, in this instance, they have as much power to influence events, even more so, perhaps, than the big six. I mean the Balkans, Mr Breckenridge, the Balkans. Comprising, as I am sure you know, sir, of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Albania and Macedonia et cetera. A real kedgeree of nations, what? Covering the disputed area between our eastern ally Russia and the all-important Ottoman Empire of Turkey south of the Balkans, a tacit supporter of Germany.’
Willows now stopped his ambling and stared down at Breckenridge, who squirmed as if sitting on broken glass. He bent lower so his face was a foot away from his prey.
‘Now, most importantly as far as you are concerned, Mr Breckenridge, we focus on the Balkan region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whence your family originates. Currently annexed to Austro-Hungary.
‘We believe your cousin Dario is a member of a loosely formed radical secret society, Young Bosnia, which is spread all over the country. We only have sketchy data on them ourselves. They are made up primarily of students and some of their tutors. The biggest mistake Emperor Franz Josef’s Austro-Hungarian government made was to make education a priority in the colony. And it is a colony, not as it ought to be, an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Feudalism is allowed to flourish, for instance, did you know that? They are second-class citizens in all but name. Like we Anglo-Saxons were after the Norman Invasion of 1066.
‘Young Bosnia wants their country to become autonomous after centuries of domination, and force Bosnia-Herzegovina into the 20th century, as the Young Turks have been doing with their country. And Young Greeks and others. Find out all you can about Young Bosnia.’
Stanley Breckenridge now stared back at Willows with unwavering eyes, a shocked expression contorting his pasty face.
‘You mean you, you want me to be a…’ his voice failed as he swallowed hard. ‘A spy?’
‘Yes, that’s the gist of it, by Jove, Mr Breckenridge. Rule Britannia and God save the King!’
‘Mr Breckenridge, please do sit down,’ said Potter-Jarvis brightly when the young man and Willows returned to his office at two-thirty.
They had had their late midday meal in a near empty dining room, Breckenridge picking at his plate like a petulant naughty boy who has been punished for wrongdoing.
To Willows he said, ‘How are we, then?’
Willows nodded in a satisfied sort of way and said he thought everything was fine.
But Breckenridge said quickly, glancing at Willows and back to Potter-Jarvis in a suspicious manner, ‘I haven’t said I’d do anything yet.’
Potter-Jarvis said, ‘It is bound to be a bit of a surprise, eh? Coming out of the blue like this. You are not the first to sit in that chair. But, when it sinks in…’
‘You can’t force me,’ said Breckenridge. Then he sheepishly added, ‘Can you?’
‘Force,’ laughed Potter-Jarvis. ‘Listen to the man. Since when does it need force to do one’s patriotic duty to one’s country? Adopted or not. Anyhow, you are half English, so not wholly a foreigner. Your pedigree is sufficient enough for us, eh, Willows? Good, good.’ He rubbed his hands and smacked his lips and picked up a handful of official-looking papers. ‘So, now down to further business.’
However, it was still not going to be that easy for Sir Clarence, because Stanley Breckenridge, free of the intimidating anteroom antics of Willows, looked for an exit, which alerted both men, but he was heading for the door that led into the corridor before either could do anything about it.
He plunged headlong into the corridor, scattering secretaries and clerks carrying their bundles of politically sensitive documents, and, steadying himself with the bannister rail, swung down the wide curved staircase to the entrance hall below.
‘Stop that man!’ yelled Willows, starting to descend after him but hampered by his stiff leg.
A porter grabbed Breckenridge who punched him in return and wriggled free, spinning through the revolving doors and into the street.
And the reluctant young prospective spy began running for his life.