By Garnsey Potts
Before starting an aerial trip from London to Paris in one of the small pioneer machines of 1919, passengers often provided themselves with sandwiches. More often than not the sandwiches remained uneaten. The cabins of the two-seater machines were mere boxes, the engine roared only a few feet away, and the whole procedure of air travel in those days was such a breath-taking, exciting adventure that few developed appetites in mid-air.
With the advent of the three-engine air liner of the Hercules and Argosy types it became possible, for the first time, for a steward to serve refreshments from a small buffet at the rear of the saloon.
Six-course meals aloft. In the British air liners regularly flying between London and the Continent more than 500 people a week now enjoy, while up in the air, five and six-course meals which are equal in every respect to those provided in the most fashionable West End restaurants…
Beverages not overlooked. In addition to the subject of food, the equally important question of beverages is not overlooked by the airway caterer. A comprehensive list of wines is available for passengers, and there has been developed a special airway cocktail, known as The Silver Wing Special.
—The Sunday Mail, Brisbane, 1933
• • • • •
“He’s going to hang himself….” Edna gasped as the knot was pulled tight, then reefed violently apart once more. The sculptress bit her lower lip nervously as she watched the process begin again.
“Looks that way.” Clyde had folded his brawny arms as he leaned against the doorjamb. The faint smile on his lips was given away by the curve of the lines at the edges of his eyes.
Milton Isaacs poured tea from the silver service before him. “We’ll get involved if he turns blue,” he promised her. Rowland Sinclair would ask for help if and when he wanted it. In the meantime, Milton could not resist a poetic commentary. “There is in this no Gordian knot which one might not undo without a sabre.” He flourished the cake knife like a sword.
“Poe,” Rowland muttered just loud enough for them all to overhear through the bedroom’s open door. It was possibly less than gracious to point out that Milton’s poetry was not actually his, but the game of appropriation and attribution had become something of a tradition between the two men. Elias Isaacs had gained both the moniker “Milton” and his reputation as poet by virtue of his ability to quote the English bards at will. And, until he had taken up residence in Rowland’s Woollahra mansion, few with whom he kept company had possessed either the education or interest to make the acknowledgement he so conveniently omitted.
Milton smiled, neither chastised nor offended. He handed Edna a cup of tea as they settled upon the chaise lounge to observe as Rowland struggled with his necktie, hampered by the fact that his right arm was encased in plaster beyond the elbow. It had been reset and cast just the day before, and Rowland was still becoming accustomed to the restriction it inflicted.
Cursing as he realised the tie was again too short, Rowland pulled it off for a third time, frustrated. Movement had been painful in the rudimentary splint they had fashioned for their escape from Germany, but it had been possible.
Ever helpful, Milton suggested Rowland adopt the cravat, which the poet himself favoured. Their friendship was such that even Rowland Sinclair did not feel the need to respond politely.
“Give up and tie a four-in-hand, Rowly,” Clyde called, checking his watch.
Although mumbled, Rowland’s reply made clear what he thought of the knot Clyde advocated. He hadn’t used a four-in-hand since he was a schoolboy.
Unable to watch him struggle any longer, Edna intervened. He protested, of course, but she ignored him, slapping his hand away and knotting the tie with the full Windsor she’d always known him to wear. She slipped the ends beneath the sling which supported the cast and turned down his collar.
He looked down, a little surprised that the length was perfect. “Thank you, Ed.”
She reached up to brush the dark hair off his forehead. A barber had come to the hotel suite that morning, but Rowland’s hair never stayed in place for long. “You really are ridiculous sometimes,” she said, smiling into the intense blue of his eyes. “Come and have some tea before we go.”
Rowland nodded. He could sense that his companions were anxious to depart, to put oceans between themselves and Germany. As much as Paris seemed a world removed from the dark, ordered insanity from which they’d fled, the fact that they were probably wanted for murder in Munich made the protection of a single border fragile. Even here in the Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde, it seemed that Nazi officialdom was a presence—on leave or business—recognisable by language and manner, though they were not in uniform.
The four Australians had been in Paris for three days and had, in that time, kept to themselves. All their meals had been taken in the privacy of the suite. They had visited the war cemetery in Ypres where one of Rowland’s brothers was buried, but such pilgrimages were nothing out of the ordinary and they’d been careful to draw as little attention as possible. And yet they were uneasy.
Eager to be on home soil as soon as possible, Rowland had booked their passages on Imperial Airways’ silver service between Le Bourget and the Croydon Aerodrome in Surrey. They would cross the Channel and land on the coast of Surrey in under three hours start to finish, and sail for Sydney thereafter.
They had little luggage. What clothes they now possessed had been purchased in Paris, for they had left Germany with barely more than what they’d been wearing. The new bags were, in fact, half empty—containing only basic and quickly acquired wardrobes.
Rowland drained the cup Milton had handed him. The poet wore a jacket of orange velvet which he had purchased from a street vendor near the hotel. In Paris it did not seem so odd, and Milton’s tastes had always been flamboyant.
Rowland slipped his arm out of the sling to pull on his own jacket, easing the sleeve over the cast with Edna’s help. The fabric was strained around the extra thickness, but at least it wasn’t orange.
Clyde grabbed their bags, refusing to let Rowland help or call the bellboy. “It’ll be quicker to take them ourselves,” he insisted, handing Edna’s Gladstone bag to Milton. “We don’t want to miss that flight.”
And so they made their way down to the hotel’s gilded foyer. They found it uncommonly crowded. Not accustomed to anything but instantaneous and obsequious service, the guests who waited in the foyer were noticeably irritable and indignant.
“I’ll settle the account,” Rowland said quietly. “You chaps get the doorman to hail a taxi. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Clyde nodded, glancing at his watch. They were cutting it fine.
Rowland joined the queue at the reception desk. There were several people ahead of him waiting impatiently. It seemed there was a problem at the head of the line. At the counter, a fair, thickset gentleman made demands of the manager. He spoke French haltingly with a German accent. He was accompanied by two gendarmes and a particularly fat man who compulsively mopped the perspiration from his brow with a large handkerchief. It was the presence of this fat man that alarmed Rowland. He knew him—Rousseau—the sweaty rotund doctor who had cast his arm and treated the burns on his chest.
The manager signalled the concierge, and they conferred before he turned back to the German. “Monsieur Sinclair’s party has neither checked out nor called for a bellboy, Monsieur. I expect he is still in his suite.” He took a key from the rack behind him. “I shall take you up myself.”
For a moment Rowland was panicked, certain Rousseau would notice him in the crowd. As soon as the men left the service desk, the guests who had been waiting surged towards it, demanding to be attended. Rowland went with them, keeping his head down and his back turned. The concertina doors of the lift closed. Quietly then, without hurrying, Rowland walked out of the hotel.
Clyde waved him over to their taxi and Rowland slipped into the vacant front seat. The others were already inside.
“We’re late, Monsieur—would you hurry, please?” he asked, slipping easily into French. He said nothing to his companions. There was a chance the taxi driver understood English and Rowland was uncertain of what extradition arrangements existed between France and Germany. They had already made one mistake.
When they reached the aéroport, he asked the driver to wait. “We are just seeing our friends off, and then we shall need to return to the hotel.” He handed over a generous enticement and the driver agreed readily.
Edna, who understood French, cast a questioning glance in his direction but uttered nothing to contradict his story. It was not until they were within the aéroport building that Rowland told his friends what had happened.
Milton cursed the doctor. “Fat underhanded pig! I knew he was too interested in how you’d been injured.”
“The cigarette burns,” Clyde said grimly. “He must have realised we’d had trouble with Nazis.”
“But this is Paris,” Edna protested. “Surely the Germans can’t…”
“We can’t take the risk, Ed. We’re wanted for murder, remember?”
“So what do we do?” Edna glanced uneasily at the customs officials.
“I’m hoping the French police won’t have put out a general alert for us simply because Rousseau reported some unusual injuries…not yet, anyway.” Rowland looked out at the double-winged Argosy, ready on the runway. Passengers had begun to board. He made a decision. “Wait until I’ve gone through. If there are no problems, follow.” He took a pocketbook of money from inside his jacket and handed it to Clyde. “If they stop me, get back into that taxi and get out of here.”
“We can’t just leave you,” Edna protested.
“There’s not a lot of point in all of us being arrested.” Rowland smiled reassuringly at her. “I didn’t check out. With any luck, Rousseau and company will assume we stepped out to see the sights…they are probably still waiting for us at the Hôtel de Crillon.”
Edna shook her head, unconvinced.
“We haven’t time to argue, Ed.” He grabbed one of the bags. “I’ll be fine.”
The customs official who took his passport paused, inspecting the photograph closely and then lifting his eyes to the sling which supported Rowland Sinclair’s right arm.
“You’ve had some trouble, Monsieur Sinclair?”
Rowland shrugged. “Cycling accident—wasn’t keeping a proper lookout, I’m afraid…rather embarrassing really.”
The official shook his head. “You do not fool me, Monsieur Sinclair!” He pointed sternly at Rowland.
Rowland tensed, ready.
“Your eyes, they were on the mademoiselles and not the road!” The official laughed now as he handed back the passport and called for someone to take the Australian’s bag. “It is always the way with young men like you. We remember your countrymen from the Great War…always chasing the mademoiselles!”
Rowland smiled. “You have found me out, Monsieur.”
• • • • •
Rowland made his way slowly down the aisle between the seats. Having last flown in the rudimentary comforts, or lack thereof, afforded by the Southern Cross, he was more than a little impressed with the civility of the City of Glasgow’s cabin. Accommodating twenty passengers, it was not entirely spacious, but the appointments were tasteful and clearly designed to make the crossing as comfortable as possible. On either side of the aisle ran a single row of leather armchairs. The walls were panelled and the fittings, brass, in a style reminiscent of first-class train carriages.
Rowland took his seat, glancing back to see if his friends had boarded.
Edna waved from the rear of the plane. Rowland smiled, relieved, and she blew him a kiss.
“That is a very beautiful lady who blows you a kiss.” The young man in the seat across the aisle spoke to him in English. The accent was European definitely, German possibly. “She is a friend of yours? Perhaps she would like to exchange seats with me…?”
“That won’t be necessary.” Rowland remained wary. “But thank you. I don’t really know her.”
“And yet she blows you the kiss.”
“Yes, highly improper.” Rowland tried to look disapproving. “Where I come from, women are not so forward.”
The man laughed. “You must not be so strict, my friend. You are a lucky man then to catch the eye of so beautiful a stranger.” He sighed and pressed his palm sadly to his heart. “It is only the flat-faced, toothless girls who smile at poor Arnold Deutsch.” He chuckled at his own misfortune. “I would shake your hand, sir, but I see that doing so would cause you some difficulty.”
“Rowland Sinclair. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Deutsch.” The City of Glasgow had started to coast down the runway, gathering speed as she prepared to leave the tarmac. A bump, a sensation of heaviness, and she was airborne. Rowland relaxed now.
“Are you German, Mr. Deutsch?”
Deutsch laughed. “No, do not be fooled by the name. I have been recently in Berlin, but I am Czechoslovakian. Now I go to your Great Britain to study.”
Rowland chose not to correct Deutsch’s assumption that he was English. There was probably no reason to be suspicious of the man, but he had also thought that about Rousseau.
A uniformed steward walked down the aisle, distributing hot towels to each passenger. He had scarcely collected the used towels when he returned with an extensive luncheon traymobile, stopping to fuss over how Rowland would manage the buffet with the use of only one hand—his left, at that. Despite Rowland’s assurances that he could feed himself quite adequately, the enthusiastic steward insisted on cutting his roast beef into manageable pieces before seeing to the other passengers.
Deutsch grinned. “The Imperial Airline is just a little bit too much first class, I think.”
“Quite,” Rowland muttered, ignoring his meal and resorting instead to the concoction of gin and vermouth he’d been told was a silver wing special.
The flight over the English Channel was blessed on this day with fair skies and gentle winds. Notwithstanding his initial caution, Rowland found Deutsch rather pleasant company. The Czechoslovakian, who it seemed intended to study psychology at the University of London, was friendly, and though he talked at length, he did not require too much by way of contribution from Rowland.
Still, Rowland was relieved when the English coastline came into view and the City of Glasgow finally touched down at the Croydon Aerodrome in Surrey.
One of the last passengers to disembark, he found his companions already waiting for him as their luggage was unloaded. Edna hugged him euphorically, whispering in his ear. “We’re here, Rowly! I was beginning to fear that nightmare would never end.”
Deutsch paused as he walked past. “She is unstoppable, this improper young woman that you do not know.” He winked at Rowland and tipped his hat at Edna.
Rowland laughed as Edna stared after the Czechoslovakian, affronted. “Who was that?”
“Arnold Deutsch…he’s some kind of scholar, I believe.”