Perhaps, Wilhelm thought, it was only the reflection of candle flames flickering on the tree that gave the impression of tears in his sister’s eyes. Amid the seasonal foliage bedecked with coloured bows, the pallor of her cheeks above the blackness of her dress brought to mind a leafless snow-topped tree in the midst of a forest of evergreens. She stared into space with a glazed, almost icy, expression and Wilhelm had no doubt that the gentle Heilige Nacht washed over her unheard. She did not see this cosy Christmas scene; rather, she gazed on the blood-drenched mud of a Belgian battlefield, screaming with bullets and shells, and reeking of the gangrenous limbs of rotting corpses.
So intense and silent was her suffering that Wilhelm could hardly bear to look at her and the longer she stood isolated in grief the more she began to resemble their mother. It was not only the darkness of her mourning clothes and the sorrowful expression in her eyes that evoked in him such tortuous reminiscences, but also the atmosphere of wounded innocence that emanated from her, leaving him with the bitterest feeling that somehow he was to blame.As had so often happened when his mother was alive, chaotic emotions clashed within him like the cacophony of war: first shame and frustration, then anger and rage that almost provoked him to scream, “It is not my fault! I am not to blame!”....
“Max did not hate the British or the Russians,” Mossy choked.
“Then he should have done!”
“Why? Do you think they wanted this war any more than we do? Do you think their mothers grieve any less than I? What of poor Aunt Beatrice in England? She, too, has lost a son in this dreadful war and she must be suffering for Maurice exactly as I am for Max. At any other time we might have comforted one another but now I cannot even send my condolences or tell her that I grieve for her loss as I grieve for my own. It’s too cruel, Willy, to think that cousins are killing each other, and for what?”
“For the honour of Germany!”
“Where is the honour in so much suffering – so much bloodshed and grief? Every day I see more and more women in mourning, weeping for a son, a brother, a husband or a friend – and I am sure it’s exactly the same in London and Paris and Vienna and St. Petersburg and…”
“Petrograd,” Wilhelm said.
Her face crumpled, “What?”
“Petrograd. When the war began, Nicky changed the name from the Germanic St. Petersburg to the Russian Petrograd.”
She shook her head, dismissing the irrelevance of his correction, and Wilhelm felt his stomach churn more excruciatingly than ever.
“If this war goes on much longer,” she said, “the whole of Europe will be dressed in black and what is it all for?”
She glanced frantically around the room, desperately seeking an answer.
“If someone could explain to me what it’s all for, it would be easier to bear but there is no reason, no purpose in any of it. No one knows why we are fighting; why there is all this horror and carnage and hatred. So many lives are being sacrificed for nothing!”
Wilhelm urgently sought an answer but, finding none, shook his head and stepped back from her, “Out of pity for your grief, I’ll overlook the treachery in what you have just said.”
“Treachery!” she gasped. “I have given my son, my lovely gentle boy, to your war. Three more of my sons are out there risking their lives every day and you dare to accuse me of treachery?”
He shuffled clumsily, “Such sentiments are dangerous in wartime. They undermine the unity of the country and weaken people’s commitment to our cause.”
“Our cause,” she sobbed, “what cause? We have no cause…”
He could not bear to hear her voice his own fears and he nodded dramatically, “I know how deeply you feel Max’s death and, as his uncle, I feel it too, but, as the Kaiser’s sister, you have a duty to restrain such emotion.”
“Yes, of course, my duty,” she laughed ironically through her tears. “I have a duty to sacrifice one son and endure the daily anxiety of wondering whether the same fate awaits his brothers. How much longer will this go on? What did you say at the start? It would all be over by Christmas.”
“And it would have been,” he said, stamping his foot. “It would have been if the Austrians had played their part as we agreed. If they had held back the Russians for just a few weeks, we could have continued on to Paris. France would have been conquered and we could have turned the full weight of our army on Russia. Nicky would have surrendered and peace would have been restored. But the Austrians were hopeless! Divided and hopeless – they were so busy carrying out their vendetta with the Serbs that they let the Russians march in to East Prussia and we had to divert troops from the Western Front to repel them! We would be better off without Austria! We have shackled ourselves to a corpse! Don’t forget that it was thanks to them that were dragged into this war in the first place.”
Mossy shook her head pathetically, “There is always someone else to blame. It is all just too terrible.”
Again the conflicting emotions tormented Wilhelm and, in search of comfort, he reached for her hand, “It is terrible, Mossy, and I understand that your grief is unbearable but it is good that our people see that we suffer, too. My own sons face the same dangers every day – they, too, are on the front line, willing to give their lives for the good of our people. The people appreciate that! You must have heard that when our troops were losing heart at Guise, Eitel knew that as the Kaiser’s son he had to take a stand. He seized a drum and led the men forwards without a thought for his own life. Wilhelm, Joachim and Oskar, too – all of my boys are out there playing their part so you must know that Dona and I, share your anxiety. You are not alone, Mossy. As you said, everyone is facing the same anxieties and horrors.”
“Then why not stop it?” she said. “We loved England. Mama was English! We were friends with George; Aunt Beatrice played with you when you were a little boy – all of those people whom we love and who loved us, are now killing each other. It is the same with Alix and Nicky in Russia; they, too, were our friends.” She glanced at Irene, “Cousins, sisters, aunts and uncles torn apart and made into enemies. Can you imagine how Grandmama and Mama would feel if they saw what has become of us all? Oh, Willy, in the name all mothers, and in the name of God and all we hold dear, I am begging you to stop this terrible evil.”
He flinched and wished he could tell her how deeply he, too, longed to free himself from this nightmare and waken from the torment of the past four months to find everything was peaceful again and all that had happened was nothing but a terrible dream.