23. October 2020 · Comments Off on The Princess Who Went Her Own Way · Categories: Uncategorized

She wasn’t actually a princess, through it is the usual understanding that the sons and daughters of a ruling monarch are princes and princesses. But they did things differently in Russia; up until the Russian Revolution, the legitimate offspring of the Tsar were grand dukes or grand duchesses, born to the purple and far outranking mere princes and princesses, who seem to have been, in the Russian scheme of things, merely mid-ranked nobility.

This grand duchess was named Olga; the youngest of five children of Tsar Alexander III and his wife, the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, originally Princess Dagmar, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark. (Her older sister Alix was married to Albert, Prince of Wales.) Born in June, 1882, the infant Olga was not in the most robust of health. Her father as the Tsar of all Russians, and her mother being a veritable whirlwind when it came to duties social and administrative, Olga and her next-oldest brother Michael were raised day to day by governesses and tutors, as was customary for the upper classes. They had a comfortable, but rather Spartan lifestyle at Gatchina, the country palace of the Romanovs. She and her brother slept on plain cots, ate porridge for breakfast, bathed in cold water, rarely saw other children and had daily lessons – and private time for walks in the nearby woods with their formidable father. Olga excelled at painting and sketching – and in fact, for the remainder of her life, most always had a paintbrush in her hand, and as an adult earned a modest living from her watercolors. (a selection of her watercolors is here)

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Letter, from Peg to Vennie, dated December 27, 1941, postmarked Singapore, Federated Malay States.

Dear Peg:

As you can see from the postmark, Little Tommy and I are safe in Singapore, and staying with Ada Dawlish’s older brother Arthur Nicholl, who keeps a very comfortable home in a pleasant garden suburb of Singapore. All British women and children in Penang and Perak were evacuated at mid-month, by order of the L.D.C., because of the threat from the invading Japanese.  Ada and I traveled together by car to K.L. – a hideously uncomfortable journey. When we parted, at a bare twenty-minutes notice, he gave me all the money that he had left after paying all the estate and household workers as well as his bank book so that I could draw on his account when we reached safety in KL or Singapore. Both Tommy and Ada’s husband Reg had commanded that we should go to Singapore as soon as we could, for safety sake, which is what we did – a journey almost as nerve-wracking as the drive to there from the estate. The train was very slow, often interrupted for no reason that anyone could tell us, other that troop trains had the priority right of way. The war front is somewhere around Jitra, where there is supposed to be a great battle being fought by Indian and Gurkha troops. I have had no word of my husband since his Volunteer company was called to active duty, and he kissed me and our son, said ‘goodbye’ and sent us off with Ada in her husband’s car. He went in the other direction with his fellows in the Company, including Chandeep Singh, who is an old soldier, a veteran of quite a good many big and little wars. I hope that if anything, Chandeep Singh’s good sense and advice will keep my husband safe. There is nothing but rumors – and yet the radio and the Straits Times maintain an air of cheerful assurance about it all. There is said to have been intense fighting up-country. Singapore is full to bursting, with evacuees like myself, and military troops from India, Britain and Australia. There have been air raid alarms most nights, although with very little result that we can see. A range of shops along Raffles Place was hit by Jap bombs overnight. And it’s awful to see, in person, after seeing years of this in newsreels. A place that I knew, where Ada and I had been, the very day before … and the next morning, all blown up, burnt and wrecked. We were both more deeply shocked than we confessed to upon our return to Arthur’s house.

My dear Vennie – it all seems quite surreal. On the surface, everything seems most desperately normal. The tenor of our days, a leisurely breakfast on the shady verandah of Arthurs’s house, looking into the shady garden, a round of shopping, playing with little Tommy, a rest in the afternoon and the usual social round – all very much the life that I have enjoyed since coming to Malaya. Arthur has been the most considerate host. He was employed for many years by the Shell Oil company. He is very much older than Ada, and his house is almost a museum of Oriental objects d’ arte. He is quite the collector in his semi-retirement, so his house is full of beautiful things, as well as having been constructed on the most pleasing and comfortable lines. Quite honestly, I wish that our house on the plantation had been so sensibly designed, instead of built out in every hap-hazard direction as necessity commanded. Ada and I occupy ourselves with much of the same amusements as we did, formerly … but there is a desperate shadow hanging over us, more marked because no one admits it. There is almost a feverish intensity in the air, a wish to behave as if everything were absolutely normal. Ada meets with old friends and goes dancing at the Raffles and playing tennis at the Tanglin. (She says that everyone went out dancing during evenings in the London Blitz in defiance of Mr. Hitler’s bombs and who am I to argue about that?) Arthur has old friends for tiffin in the late afternoon, and I join them, and then rest, and try and pretend for little Tommy that this is all either an exciting adventure – when the air raid siren sounds and the guns go ‘boom’ – or otherwise a perfectly normal visit to friends in Singapore. The amah, Miss Hui, is wonderful in this, behaving as if all is perfectly normal. It reassures little Tommy, but I wonder for how much longer. Little Tommy is such a willful little boy, I don’t know quite how I would manage him, if it were not for Miss Hui.

One of Arthur’s young Shell Oil employee friends is American – and from Houston! Peter Gregory. He says that he spent summers now and again with friends in Galveston. I wonder if you and he ever met there. I do assure you that I am not flirting with him – but oh, Vinnie – how comforting to hear an American accent again, and to speak with someone dearly familiar with Texas, while I wait word from Tommy!

Dearest Vennie, how are you getting along, now that war has begun and we both are a part of it, willy-nilly? Your nurse friend Helen who joined the Army Nurse Corps and was sent to Manila – is there any word of her? I hope for your sake that she is safe – although from the news reports, I fear not; Manila is as much under siege from the beastly Japs as Malaya is. I saw a bevy of Australian Army nurses today and was reminded of you and your friend, who must go where you are needed the most, no matter what the danger.

Singapore is packed full of soldiers, anti-aircraft guns, naval ships and simply awesome land artillery. Everyone says that we can endure a siege, if the worst comes to worst. I wish I could be assured of my husband’s safety – then I could sleep peacefully at night. I have had no word from him since departing from Ipoh. If it were not my own determination to remain close to where he might be, I would be on the next boat to return to Texas and the Becker ranch.

Please write to me soon.

Love, Peg (and Little Tommy.)    

14. August 2020 · Comments Off on A Bit From the New Book… · Categories: Uncategorized

(For which I am accepting suggestions for a title. The basic premise is the WWII experience of two women – cousins and descendants from the Adelsverein Trilogy characters: one is married to an English planter in Malaya, and the other a nurse in the US Army.)

The road to the south, to Kuala Lumpur was crowded, automobiles full of English families crawling slowly along in the afternoon heat. When they passed through a kampong, the pungent smell of garbage on the heavy air; that smoke and stagnant water in the ditches, privies and ponds surrounding the attap houses on stilts made Peg want to vomit. Ada Dawlish drove expertly, her hands clamped onto the wheel of the Dawlish’s Austin sedan, her eyes fixed on the road, and the dusty bumper of the car just ahead, while the sun burned in a pitiless blue sky.  

“Where are we to stay, once we get to KL?” Now that Peg was fully awake, she could think of practical things.

From the front seat, Ada Dawlish answered steely and determined, “I think we should go on to Singapore, just as Reg and Tommy said. We can go to my brother’s place. He’s certain to have room enough. He has a house in the Dalvey Road, near to the Tanglin Club – and if he can’t put us up, he’ll know of a place for you to stay. And when Tommy and Reg get to Singapore, they’ll know where to find us.” The steely resolve cracked, just a bit. “Thank god the girls are in England! Safe enough from all this. I’d have stayed with them there, if we had the slightest hint that something like this would happen! Why can’t we stop those yellow bastards! Isn’t the British Army and Navy good for anything?”

In Miss Hui’s arms, little Tommy stirred from sleep, and murmured something – good heavens, was it in Chinese? Whatever it was, Miss Hui produced a bottle of water from her own bundle of possessions. Little Tommy drank from it, thirstily, and Miss Hui met Peg’s gaze.

“He thirsty, Mem,” was all that she said, and Peg thought guiltily that she should have thought of all that. At the very least, considered that they all should have brought along something cool to drink for the long slow drive to KL. It was a nerve-wracking journey and seemed to take two or three times as long as normal, this slow, dust-clogged journey. More than once, Peg was horrified at the sight of airplanes swooping low over the road, the blood-red ball clear and plain on their wings. She remembered the newsreels, of refugee-clogged roads in France, machine-gunned by German Stuka dive-bombers. The very first time that it happened, Ada saw them coming, a line like the dark wings of gulls in the cloudless sky to the south. Fortune had it that they were at a point in the winding road towards KL where Ada had space to pull the Austin off on the side of the road, a roadside thickly grown with tall trees and rustling stands of cane. Ada set the brake and snapped,

“Everyone out!” Ada flung herself out of the driver side door, and Peg, half-asleep from the heat, tumbled out from the passenger door, Miss Hui and little Tommy on her heels. They crouched among the stands of cane, as the roar of engines overhead blotted out all sound. There a moment, and in another gone, lifting up into the hot blue afternoon sky to the north. Peg picked herself up, comforted her son, who was fractious and frightened. They resumed their seats in the Dawlish’s Austin, seats now hot and sticky from the enervating heat, and continued on.

Sometime in early evening, well after sunset and black-out time (which would have made the roads nearly as perilous as an overt air raid), they finally arrived in the forecourt of the splendors of KL’s enormous and sprawling main station, with the Mughal-style pavilions perched atop the grand staircase columns. Ada Dawlish parked the Austin as close as she could and looked at the keys in her hand.

“I don’t know what I am supposed to do with the car,” she said. “Although – I wish that I could blow it up, to keep the Japs from using it. From what Tommy said, they might be here in a couple of days, maybe as much as a week.”

“Those bastards,” Peg replied, with feeling. “How could this all be happening so fast, Ada? Barely two weeks ago, everything was peaceful … well, not everywhere, but here in Malaya. But everything was calm, ordinary … we had meals on the veranda, went for walks in the garden, played tennis and had stengahs with our friends at the Club … and between one week and the next …”

“I’ll carry your suitcase,” Ada replied, grimly, as if she had not heard a single word. “You shouldn’t be lifting anything heavy in your condition, and damn if I can see any porters around.” She took out the two suitcases, already having her handbag slung like a satchel over her shoulder. “We’re on the run, and running thin, as little as we like facing that reality, Peg. Ever since they sank the Repulse and the Prince of Wales… we’ve been at a disadvantage. Hate to say admit it but we are, and nothing broadcast over the wireless or published in the Straits Times will convince me otherwise. And nothing good will come from giving up Penang and running like cowards. We underestimated the Japs, and now we’re paying the price for arrogance. But Singapore will hold out. It’s a fortress, like Gibraltar, you know. Our chaps will be able to hold – we’re being reinforced from India and Australia. And I wouldn’t count out the Volunteers, no, not by any chalk.”

Peg took Little Tommy’s small hand; Miss Hui had his other hand. Miss Hui had her shapeless rucksack slung over her shoulder. She found Ada’s comment rather bracing; brutal but realistic. At a time like this, brutally realistic had it all over unrealistic hopes, and soothing announcements on the radio. Meanwhile, Ada put the keys to the Austin under the driver seat, and left the door unlocked, saying, “If Reg comes for it, he’ll know where to find them. And if he doesn’t – it means nothing. Let’s go get our tickets, Peg – or if not, get a room at the station hotel or at the Majestic until morning.” She sent a searching look over her shoulder at Peg. “You look exhausted, Peg. You ought to get a good rest, if there isn’t a train tonight. If you lose the sprog to a miscarriage, Tommy will never forgive us.”

“I’m fine,” Peg insisted, for she didn’t feel nearly as frail as everyone insisted that a visibly pregnant woman ought to be. She had bursts of energy, where she honestly felt that she could climb mountains – albeit rather small mountains. They walked into the station together, into the chaos in the main hall. The main hall was filled with women and children, British mostly, or Australian and loudly querulous. The few station staff present looked baffled and defensive. The roar of voices in the railway hall, amplified by the space, was nearly as overwhelming as the racket from the Jap airplanes, buzzing the road from Ipoh.

“Dear God,” Ada breathed. “It’s been the usual cock-up on all sides, Peg. It looks like no one in KL had the faintest clue about an organized evacuation. About typical for this bloody war, I’d say.”

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Peg suggested, hesitantly, but Ada shook her head, and since her hands were full of suitcases, merely jerked her head in the direction of a cluster of women. Two of them at the center of it seemed to be making lists and directing the rest of them here and there.

“I’d say that lot have got it sorted, but I’ll check and see if they need anything else,” Ada set down the suitcases close to the nearest bench, and went to speak to the other women, all of whom appeared as rattled and exhausted as Peg felt. Only Miss Hui seemed impervious to the enervating heat, the sense of subdued panic in the air, and the sheer unpredictability of it all. For this, Peg was grateful; Miss Hui’s calm kept little Tommy on an even keel. She couldn’t think how she would have managed a frightened, tantrum-prone toddler on this horrific day. Now Miss Hui made a seat for herself on the suitcases, with little Tommy half-asleep in her lap. Peg sank onto the bench, her handbag in her lap, a handbag bulging with all the unaccustomed items crammed into it at the last minute.

So many things, all left behind in that frantic few minutes. Nearly three years of her life – her married life with Tommy, all the little bits and pieces of a settled, happy existence, the easy routine of things in the sprawling bungalow – all swept away, but for a few bits in her suitcase. She had been half-asleep, and harried; she would have made a better and more sensible choice of things to take with her, had she been fully awake and thinking more rationally.

The baby turned over and kicked within her. Peg gasped, at once startled and relieved. No hurt taken to what Ada called ‘the sprog’ on this awful, draining day. Now it was Ada returning, with a somewhat lightened expression on her perfect English Rose of a face.

“Not to worry, Peg – they are all mining people, from up-country. Their husbands all work for Anglo-Oriental, and they’re being taken care of – parceled out to the houses of Anglo-Oriental employees here in KL for the term of evacuation. I think we should get a room – I could murder a stengah, or two, and you and the sprog ought to have something to eat, and a good meal. Then,” and Ada’s expression hardened. “I think we should go on to Singapore in the morning. As soon as we can.”

14. August 2020 · Comments Off on It’s Here! Luna City #9 · Categories: Uncategorized

The Kindle version is available here – and the print version will be up by the first of September. And when the third Luna City Compendium is released, around Christmas time, books 7,8 and 9 will be in it. But all good things come to whose who wait, patiently!

01. August 2020 · Comments Off on From the New W-I-P · Categories: Uncategorized

It doesn’t have a title yet – but this is another snippet of the letters between two cousins, in the late 1930s. Yes, this will have to do with WWII, and the two woman correspondents are the granddaughters of characters in previous novels.

Letter, dated 24 April 1938, Postmarked Ipoh, Perak – Federated Malay States

Dearest Vennie: We have finally arrived at Tommy’s plantation, after hopscotching by railway, airplane, steamship, railway again, and automobile, until we reached the lovely little town of Ipoh on the River Kinta – all in very jungly and mountainous landscape, and not the least like the ‘great grey green greasy Limpopo, all set about with fever trees!’ We stayed the night at the station hotel, as we arrived very late in the afternoon and we were both exhausted beyond words. I honestly would not have been the least surprised to complete this long journey in a rickshaw! (We rode in one in Manila – a carriage pulled by a carabao – that is, a tame water-buffalo!) Tommy’s household apparently did not get the telegram sent from Singapore alerting them to our arrival. Well, never mind, said Tommy – I’ll telephone in the morning and Chandeep Singh will send the auto for us. (This Chandeep Singh is Tommy’s butler/driver/right-hand manager.)

I wrote to you from Hawaii, before we departed – so I hope that you received my letter, sent via airmail! In case it has gone astray, I had a full account in it, about how Tommy met up with the famous champion Olympic swimmer, Mr. Duke Kahanamoku, who was quite the resident celebrity where we stayed. During our week-long stay at the Royal Hawaiian, Mr. Kahanamoku made fast friends with Tommy – and even favored him with a long session in the water, tutoring him on the technique of riding those long boards at the crest of the waves. Tommy said it was enormously good fun, rather like riding a horse in a steeplechase at full gallop, although he barely had gotten the hang of standing up on the board before we had to move on. My husband has the unerring ability to make friends with so many people, and especially relishes the companionship of those who are expert at so many things. Mr. Kahanamoku was fit as the athlete he was in previous decades, comely and dark brown. I would have thought him a Mexican, on seeing him at first glance, like one of the Becker ranch vaqueros.

Anyway, at the end of our week-long stay, we boarded the Clipper for the long flight to Manila … oh, there were stops at a several miniscule islands scattered at convenient intervals across the Pacific, but we did not linger any significant length of time at them. We stayed a week at the completely luxurious and modern Manila Hotel on Rizal Park, recovering from the rigors (hah!) of the journey from Hawaii. While we were there, an old friend of Daddy’s treated us to a splendid dinner at the Army & Navy Club. Do you remember Daddy mentioning his old friend and pal, Chester, who thought his best bet for a college education was to take an appointment at a military academy? Like Daddy, Chester was the grandson of one of the old original settlers in Fredericksburg. Indeed, Daddy insists that Chester’s grandfather had once courted Great-Grandma Magda in the early days, but she decided to marry Great-Grandfather Becker instead. Still, according to all the family stories, they remained friends, and the Beckers and the Nimitzes were always on the best of terms thereafter. Well, anyway, Daddy’s friend Chester had just finished a tour as the commander of a cruiser in the Asiatic Fleet. Are you impressed? I was, terribly. I expect Daddy sent him a telegram – which caught him as he was heading back to the United States to take over some fearfully responsible duty, something called “The Bureau of Navigation.” Neither Tommy nor I could divine exactly what this meant. Apparently, Chester has spent the last couple of years with the Asiatic Fleet showing off the flag to the obstreperous Japs. Well, someone has to do it, although Tommy reposes enormous confidence in the Royal Navy when it comes to this tiresome obligation. Well, another thing which we must agree to disagree upon, the abilities of the British VS the American navies.

It was quite an enjoyable evening, though. I felt quite at home with Chester, almost as if Daddy had been with us – grave and blond and handsome. He reminisced to us about being a boy in his grandfather’s house, and the doings of Fredericksburg – where his grandfather was simply the most awful man for pranks and tall-tale-telling (or so said Daddy!), with the old Verein-Kirche in the middle of Main Street, his grandfather’s hotel and ballroom all tricked out like a steamboat grounded, and the little Sunday houses for the families from the outlaying properties who came to do business on Saturday and church on Sunday, and marvelous barbeques for any celebration. I would have felt most homesick, hearing him talk about this all, and Tommy nodding with the deepest interest and asking him to tell us more. My husband has done it again, charming the most unlikely people by taking such an intense interest in their doings. We went to see many of the sights of Manila – the hotel had a view over the vast bay where the Navy has moorage and that was simply the most spectacular scene.

Then, on to Singapore, which was really more of the same, only with British accents. This was where we went by steamer. Really, it was quite relaxing. Tommy presented me with a guide to the Malay language, which he says that I will simply have to learn as essential to my new life. I whiled away those days on the puttering passenger steamer, studying the pages of Fraser & Neaves’ Short Malay Handbook in Roman Characters. Tommy says that I will absolutely have to be able to cope in Malay, with the servants and plantation employees. Well – I could swing it in Spanish when I was growing up on the Ranch – now, hard could this be?

Depressingly hard, as it might be after a week or so wrestling with the vocabulary and pronunciation in that little red-covered handbook, although Mr. Song the Chinese cook speaks very passible English. So much for the use of the cooking book that I was given as a wedding present from Ivy. I do not have any use for recipes at all, as Mr. Song does all the cooking and resents very much any interference with his methods and the organization of his kitchen.

Sigh. I am getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Longcot Plantation is named after some grim and moldy stately pile in England, which, if you ask me, would be embarrassed at sharing a name with a plain wooden cottage with a tin roof, even though it sprawls in every direction and boasts a splendid garden and a very green lawn, kept carefully mown by the syce. (More about the resident servants later – Vennie, I now live in a veritable League of Nations when it comes to nationalities!) Tommy’s grandfather had some sentimental connection to the original Longcot House, I guess. But picture a simple wooden sprawl, with deep verandahs all the way around, and large stretches of windows covered sketchily by louvered shutters, if at all. It seems that the whole purpose of walls here is so that they may be as open to admit as much of the wandering and hopefully cooler air as is possible. Of course, mosquitoes and other flying insects are simply ubiquitous – we all sleep under clouds of mosquito netting. Nothing must be done to impede the fresh air, morning and night. It is hot here, which I admit – and humid. You would simply not believe the amount of condensation sweated off a glass filled with plain water and ice, after five minutes! Picture that structure surrounded by tall trees of a jungly-nature, beds of fabulously flowering shrubs, and a sweep of green lawn … it is so green, so lush, so burgeoning with tropical life … honestly, the Hill Country seems to be a barren desert by comparison. (Save in spring, when the wildflowers overwhelm …)

At any rate, when we arrived, all the household staff and the local workers were lined up at the edge of the gravel drive to receive us, as if we were royalty on tour of some splendid pile or enterprise. Honestly, can you imagine anything more personally embarrassing to me, everyone bobbing curtseys and bows, and calling me ‘Mem Peg’ and greeting me as if they were swearing eternal devotion to us and our bloodline? Chandeep Singh practically did; it seems that he served with Tommy’s father in some Indian regiment and followed him after the war to Malaya. Tommy has known Chandeep Singh for all of his own life and regards him as a kind of honorary uncle. Vennie … this whole thing is more complicated than I thought, upon marriage to Tommy. And you are the only one whom I may confide in. I will write you again, in more detail about our dear little house and the conundrums that I find there.

Love, Peggy

PS – how might one be certain of being pregnant? Since you are a nurse and have knowledge of these awkward things. Let me know, soonest.