Chapter 1 Summary
On June 22, 1911, the day George V is crowned king, thirteen-year-old Billy Williams, called “Billy Twice," goes to work for the first time in the mines of his home in Aberowen, Wales. His one surviving sister, Ethel, comes to wish him a happy birthday and a good first day in the mines. She is in service to the local aristocrat, Earl Fitzherbert.
Billy meets his friend Tommy Griffiths and the two boys go off to the mines. Billy’s father, who is known as a socialist, and Tommy’s father, who is an atheist, are not popular with the mine managers. The boys are warned not to be troublemakers. Billy realizes that he is protected from harm by his father’s position as a union agent.
The boys are led to their workplaces by Rhys Price, who dislikes Billy because Ethel refused to “walk out with” (date) him. Billy and Tommy are given lamps designed so they will not spark an explosion in the methane from the coal seams. They ride down the shaft in a cage lift.
At the bottom, Billy breaths in the coal-dust-filled air, which explains why so many of the colliers (miners) are always coughing and spitting. Tommy is given the job of working the underground stables of the ponies that pull the drams (carts), which is the job he was hoping to get.
Led down into an abandoned section of the mine, Billy is given the task of cleaning out muck in a deserted section. Price checks Billy’s lamp, proclaims it “not so good,” and leaves him on his own.
Billy begins shoveling the muck into the dram. Before long, his lamp goes out. Since he is not allowed to have any matches, he is supposed to take the lamp to a lighting station to have it relit, but he knows he will not be able to find his way in the pitch-black mine.
He decides to stay where he is and wait for Price to return. He continues to work and after some time eats his lunch. The smell of food draws the rats to him, so he eats quickly. When he has finished, the rats leave and Billy continues to shovel. He suspects that Price planned this, but he also knows that he will not be left overnight out of fear of his father.
Remembering his mother (“Mam”) telling him that Jesus was always with him, even in the mines, Billy begins to sing hymns. It is several hours before Price returns for him.
As he leaves, Billy sees a bearded face and a pale robe. He silently says “thank you” and follows Price to the entrance. When he explains what happened, Billy says that he was not afraid because Jesus was with him, earning him his new nickname: “Billy-with-Jesus.”
Chapter 2 Summary
In January 1914, Earl Fitzherbert (“Fitz”) and his difficult Russian wife, Bea, prepare for a visit from King George, who wants to know what the younger members of the aristocracy and diplomatic community are thinking. As he tours the wine cellar, Fitz feels a strong attraction to Ethel Williams, who is filling in for the ill housekeeper, Mrs. Jevons. Ethel does nothing to discourage him.
Ethel enjoys the responsibilities of a housekeeper and hopes she will be replacing Mrs. Jevons. Fitz’s sister, Maud, unexpectedly arrives, which worries Fitz because of her liberal political views. She greets Walter von Ulrich, an old school friend of Fritz and now a diplomat at the German embassy. With him is his cousin Robert von Ulrich, the Austrian military attaché. Among the other guests is Gus Dewar, whose father is an American senator.
After dinner, the talk is of the possibility of war between Germany and Britain. Gus Dewar brings up many reasons for conflict between the two nations. Walter von Ulrich points out that Britain and Germany are the only major European countries not seeking territorial expansion.
The following morning, Maud asks Ethel to go for a walk with her as a chaperone and they exchange gossip about political figures. They meet Walter von Ulrich, which is the purpose of the walk. As Ethel walks separately, she sees them holding hands and then kissing passionately until they are interrupted by the ground shaking.
Billy and Tommy, now sixteen years old, are working when they hear the explosion. They go down to rescue the trapped workers. It becomes clear that changes to the safety conditions required by recent laws have not been implemented. Billy gains a reputation as a hero for his efforts in the rescue operation.
Perceval Jones, the mayor of Aberowen, reports the details of the mine disaster to the king and Fritz. Ethel is brought in to give details she learned from Billy, including the lack of safety precautions. She boldly suggests that the king might make a low-key visit to the bereaved families, which King George thinks is an excellent idea. Ethel, who knows all the mining families, goes along to inform the king and queen about the people who have lost loved ones.
A week later, Billy takes part in the informal services at Bethesda Chapel, praying for understanding of the hard-heartedness of the mine directors, whose negligence caused so many deaths and injuries.
Earl Fitzherbert opens his gardens to the grieving community. Ethel has been made housekeeper because of her excellent management during the king’s visit. Ethel’s father, however, is not happy about his daughter being involved in “that farce,” as he calls the king’s visitation of the bereaved. Upset, Ethel goes inside and cries. Fitz overhears her and, as he comforts her, they kiss, giving in to their desire for each other.
Chapter 3 Summary
The following month, Fitz is summoned to the London office of Mansfield Smith-Cumming, an old friend of his father, on a matter of “national importance.” Smith-Cumming explains that he is with the Secret Service. Knowing that Fitz is taking his wife to Russia to see her brother, Smith-Cumming asks him to do some spying to determine the Russian preparedness for war, especially their railways.
In St. Petersburg, Fitz and Gus Dewar tour the Russian locomotive works, guided by Lev and Grigori Peshkov. Grigori recognizes Fritz’s wife Bea as the sister of the Russian prince who had killed his father.
A boy races into the shop, chased by his mother. The boy runs into Bea, who slaps him in the face. Dewar is disgusted by Bea’s behavior.
Grigori tells Dewar that he and Lev are saving money to go to Buffalo, where Dewar is from, to get jobs with the Vyalov family. Dewar knows that the Vyalovs are a criminal gang, but he tells Grigori simply that they employ several hundred people in their hotel bars.
Grigori remembers back to his childhood when the tsar came to his village. As the carriage approached, all the villagers knelt on the ground as the carriage rolled on without stopping. Grigori was upset that he did not get to see the tsar.
On his way home from work, Grigori stops a policeman from molesting a young woman. Dewar, who is passing by in a car with Fritz and Bea, stops and rescues both Grigori and the woman. Unfortunately, Dewar calls Grigori by his name, which means the police now know his identity. Dewar takes the two Russians back to Grigori’s home.
Grigori tells the woman, Katerina, of the time when the soldiers came to his village. His mother grabbed him and his brother and took off running, but they were captured by the police and dragged back to the gallows in the village market place, where the Prince and his sister, Princess Bea, sat in a carriage. They were forced to watch as Grigori’s father was executed along with two other men for allowing his cattle to graze on the Princess’s land.
As Grigori finishes his story, he cleans Katerina’s wounds and falls instantly in love with her. He tells her of the death of his mother, killed on Bloody Sunday in 1905 when the workers marched to the Winter Palace to plead to the tsar for redress of grievances.
Lev comes home and Katerina explains that her mother threw her out when she thought her new husband preferred Katerina to his own wife. Grigori notices that Katerina’s attention has turned to Lev and she all but ignores her rescuer.
Chapters 4-5 Summary
Billy Williams and his father argue over Billy’s growing spiritual doubts. They are interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Dai Ponies, the widow of one of the workers killed in the mine accident. She has received an eviction notice to make way for a current mine worker and has two weeks to find a new home for herself and her five children.
Mr. Williams learns that the widows of all eight dead miners are being evicted. Billy is outraged. He and his father confront Maldwyn Morgan, one the managers of the mines, who says the company’s negligence was not a contributing factor in the explosion. Mr. Williams’ arguments have no effect on Morgan, so a meeting of the union members is called. After much discussion, they vote to strike the following day.
Fitz and Ethel consummate their affair, careful to avoid pregnancy. Ethel shudders to think of what her father would say. She persuades Fitz to feed the children of the striking miners and learns that all the striking miners have been evicted.
Ethel gathers the widows together and convinces them to write a letter to the king, helping them with the wording. However, they receive no reply, and the villagers of Aberowen watch as the miners and their families are evicted forcibly.
Although only twenty eight, Walter von Ulrich hopes to be a German ambassador someday. He feels that his father’s generation has built their arrogance on the past. As Otto von Ulrich goes with Walter to be presented to the king, he talks with Señor Diaz of Mexico about shipping arms to the Mexican government, although America is arming those in rebellion against the new leader, General Huerta. Otto’s only request is that Mexico stop selling oil to Britain.
After King George greets Walter, Otto suggests that Walter keep up his friendship with Earl Fitzherbert in case the Conservatives ever return to power. They visit a charity clinic sponsored by Fitz and find Maud working there...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Chapters 6-7 Summary
Grigori Peshkov finally has saved enough money to go to America and has bought his ticket from the Vyalov family, along with a letter guaranteeing employment in Buffalo. On the morning of his ship’s departure, Grigori must run from the police; they are looking for Lev, who is wanted for the murder of a man during a smuggling operation.
Katerina begs Grigori to help Lev. At the ship, Lev meets Grigori and asks him to give him his ticket to America. Reluctantly, Grigori does so, knowing that he has no choice. When Grigori tells Katerina that Lev has gone, she is furious with Grigori and tells him that she is pregnant with Lev’s baby. Despairing, Grigori promises to take care of her.
On the ship, Lev has to...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Chapters 8-9 Summary
Ethel discovers that she is pregnant. When she tells Fitz, he tells her that Bea is also pregnant. Fitz’s main concern is for his heir, who can only be by his wife.
Ethel contemplates leaving Aberowen. Maud shares with Ethel her own tragedy of having to give up Walter von Ulrich. Ethel meets with Fitz’s attorney, who explains that Fitz is offering her a pension at housemaid wages, provided she never attempt to contact Fitz. Ethel refuses the offer.
Fitz worries about what Ethel will do, fearing that she will tell his wife and cause her to have another miscarriage. Perceval Jones tells him that the tensions in Ireland are reaching a breaking point: Ireland has been promised independence, but the...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Chapters 10-11 Summary
Fitz, Bea, and Maud discuss the possibility of a coalition government comprised of Liberals and Conservatives, which Maud fears will make war more likely because it will leave very few to stand for peace. When Bea rushes from the breakfast table with morning sickness, Fitz tells Maud that she is pregnant. Maud congratulates her brother but wonders aloud if he will be alive when the baby is born in January.
At the German Embassy, Walter hopes that the British and the French can stay out of the war so that the conflict is confined to eastern Europe. However, this depends on France’s ability to maintain a position of neutrality. Germany has told Britain that, if she promises to stay out of the war, France will not be...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Chapters 12-13 Summary
When Grigori Peshkov is called up to the army, his supervisor manages to get him a reprieve since his labor is needed on the home front. However, his clash with Police Officer Pinsky in his rescue of Katerina leads Pinsky to force him to join up anyway.
Katerina asks him to marry her so that she may get government assistance as a military wife. On their wedding night, Katerina offers to sleep with him, but Grigori rejects her, knowing that she is offering her body in payment, not out of love.
As his battalion meets the German offensive, Grigori’s fear soon turns to anger at the relentless barrage of bullets. The battle is nothing but confusion and Grigori is unable to make any shot count. He is surprised...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Chapters 14-15 Summary
Although Ethel has found a lodger (Mildred, a bawdy Cockney girl), she works in a factory sewing army uniforms, saving up money for when her baby comes. She works for improvements in the workplace, much as her father had. She attends a union meeting at which Maud is the speaker in support of women’s equality. Ethel writes a letter to Billy, telling him of the woes of an unmarried pregnant woman working in the city.
The coal miners’ strike in Aberowen is over, but Lev Peshkov continues to work in the mines. He is surprised to see Spirya (who was his partner in cheating at cards on the immigrant ship) dressed as a priest. Spirya threatens to reveal Lev’s past unless he gives up card games. Lev plays one more game to...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary
It is June of 1916 and Billy Williams is going to war. For the last year he was in training with the other men of Aberowen, but now there is a need for more soldiers as there is to be a big push by the British army. Billy’s father makes a feeble attempt to make peace with his son, knowing that it is unlikely he will return to Aberowen.
The armies of Europe are lining up on both sides of the River Somme. Walter and Maud have had no contact with each for almost two years. Walter spies on the preparations of the British army and reports that a major assault is being planned.
Maud runs a newspaper supporting better treatment of the dependents of servicemen; Ethel Williams is the manager. Together they have...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Summary
After Lloyd becomes ill and she starts fearing for his life, Ethel decides to return home so that her parents can see their grandson. When she returns to Aberowen, she waits before going to her parents’ home. When she does, only Gramper is there. He is pleased to see her and his great-grandson. Ethel’s mother returns and also is glad to see them, exclaiming that Lloyd looks just like his Uncle Billy.
When Da Williams comes home he says he has no grandson, and Ethel leaves in tears. She is still in Aberowen when telegrams are delivered to the families of the soldiers killed at the Somme. Da, Mam, and Gramper watch as the post office boy passes them, meaning Billy is alive. Da looks at Ethel, and they run into each...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Chapters 20-21 Summary
The Battle of the Somme lasts until November and Ethel checks the casualty lists daily, fearful of seeing Billy’s name. Mildred announces that she wants to start her own business as a seamstress. Bernie Leckwith, a Jewish librarian, regularly visits Ethel, even though she earlier rejected his offer of marriage. Like Ethel, Bernie is a reformer, but he believes it will take a revolution to effect any change. He repeats his offer of marriage to Ethel, but she is still reluctant.
Woodrow Wilson narrowly wins re-election as Gus Dewar watches nervously. Rosa Hellman, an anarchist, visits him; she warned him when he became engaged to Olga and was proved right. She tells him that Olga gave birth to a girl and that Lev runs...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
Chapters 22-23 Summary
After the rejection of peace talks, Walter fears the entry of the United States into the war, which the new policy of unrestricted warfare is sure to guarantee. The Foreign Minister proposes offering U.S. land to Mexico to keep America distracted.
Fitz learns of the Zimmerman plan through an intercepted telegram. He gives the information to Gus Dewar. The details include a return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico if Germany wins the war, as well as the intention of encouraging Japan to invade the American West Coast.
After Fitz’s renunciation of peace talks, Ethel decides to marry Bernie Leckwith. She realizes that she and Bernie are soul mates in a way that she and Fitz never could be. She feels...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapters 24-25 Summary
Walter finds himself attracted to Monika von der Helbard despite his marriage to Maud. He and Monika discuss the new Russian government’s announcement that they will continue to fight. Despite his own attraction and her obvious interest in him, Walter keeps Monika at arm’s length, even though he knows that her feelings are hurt by his distance.
After finding an article about Maud in his wallet, Monika guesses that not only is he in love with Maud but is in fact married to her. Despite her pain, she promises to keep their secret. Walter writes a letter to Maud in code, telling her that his family wants him to marry someone and that he has been forced to tell their secret.
On April 6, 1917, the United...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapters 26-27 Summary
Ethel and Bernie are true soul mates working toward the same goals. Ethel has no regrets about their marriage. Bernie hopes to run for Parliament as a Labour candidate. They discuss the increasing possibility that at least some women will be given the right to vote. Maud is not optimistic, suspicious that Parliament will only pretend to give women suffrage. She is proved right when the bill gives only women householders over thirty and wives of householders the vote. Ethel is willing to settle for what they can get and keep on working, but Maud calls her a traitor to the cause. The two friends go their separate ways.
The war is going badly for the Allies, and French soldiers are becoming mutinous. Russia is an unknown...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Chapters 28-29 Summary
Walter blames his father and his father’s generation for the prolonged war. The American Expeditionary Force landed in France in June 1917, despite the arrogant assurances of the German leadership that it would not. All now depends on Russia withdrawing from the war.
Grigori rises in the emerging Bolshevik Party. Katerina is miserable as the birth of her baby draws near. In an attempt to break up the soviets, the government decides to send the Petrograd garrison to the front. Lenin and Trotsky argue over the merits of a coalition government.
The leader of the Russian provisional government, Prime Minister Kerensky, is on his way out. Trotsky is seen as the new leader, and Grigori is at his side as he very...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Chapters 30-31 Summary
Fitz holds a house party for those who are opposed to the new Russian regime. Among the guests is Winston Churchill, a Liberal despite being a descendant of the nobility. Churchill and Maud trade barbs over the “freedoms” of the socialist government, much to Fitz’s chagrin. He and Churchill both fear the spread of socialism.
Despite Fitz’s warning, the House of Lords narrowly passes the bill on limited women’s suffrage. There are also efforts to reform (limit) the House of Lords. Fitz’s son “Boy” is now three but is ill during the house party. Bea is eight months pregnant. When the doctor arrives to check on Boy, he announces that Bea is in labor, having miscalculated the timing. She gives birth to...
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Chapters 32-33 Summary
Maud has lunch with Lord Remarc, a junior minister in the War Office. He tells her that Britain resents being bypassed by Germany in favor of America in armistice talks as well as British disagreement with colonial rights in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Maud learns that Fitz’s meeting with the Cossack leader Semenov was a disappointment.
Billy and the Aberowen boys are shipped to Vladivostok. Fitz is in command and explains that their mission is to protect Allied arms now that the Russians have declared peace with Germany. They are secretly going to Omsk to support the anti-Bolshevik movement. Billy is upset that their mission has not been approved or even announced to Parliament.
Lev Peshkov is also back...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapters 34-35 Summary
Bernie is still bitter about Ethel being considered the better candidate. Ethel is angry at his bitterness. Lloyd George announces that he will continue with a coalition government during peacetime. Bernie sees this as traitorous to the Labour party, which soon announces that it will campaign against Lloyd George.
Maud sends a letter to Walter, not sure that the mail service between Britain and Germany has resumed. She is horrified by the anti-German sentiment at home. She and Ethel still have not made up. At a meeting, Bernie is interrupted by demands that he explain his views about throwing Germans out of Britain. He gives a half-hearted reply.
Woodrow Wilson becomes the first President to leave the...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapters 36-37 Summary
The anti-Bolshevik White armies continue to fight with the unofficial assistance of Fitz and the Aberowen Pals, among others.
Fitz reads the British papers, delighted that Winston Churchill has been named Secretary of War since Churchill is a hardliner when it comes to intervening in Russia. Fitz is worried that information of their operation is being leaked. When he sees that Ethel Williams is leading the “Hands Off Russia” campaign, he realizes that the leaks are probably coming from her brother Billy, who is still under Fitz’s command in Russia.
The Bolshevik Red army attacks, and Fitz is sure they will win the civil war. Lev Peshkov, still working as an interpreter, disappears.
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapters 38-39 Summary
Gus and Rosa return to America with President Wilson and then go up to Buffalo so that Rosa may be introduced to Gus’s parents. Mrs. Dewar has always been critical of women in whom Gus has been interested, so he is very nervous about what her reaction to Rosa will be.
He warns Rosa that his mother can be a snob, but Mrs. Dewar seems genuine in her welcome, explaining that she knows Rosa’s brother, who plays violin in the orchestra of which she is a board member.
Rosa’s parents come to dinner and the two families become acquainted. The men discuss the League of Nations, which America wants to reject. President Wilson will travel around the country, reaching out to the public rather than to the...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Chapters 40-42 Summary
Billy Williams is held in a military prison in London. Although it is more comfortable than many of the places he has slept in since before the war, he has no communication with anyone on the outside except through the newspapers.
He reads an article by Mildred revealing to the public the details of his wrongful imprisonment. It presents Billy as a hero and a victim of the same type of injustice against which Britain fought.
During the summer of 1920, the Bolsheviks are at war with Poland. Fitz feels that Britain should intervene on the side of the Poles, but public feeling is against this. At a dinner party (which is less elaborate than those before the war), Fitz publicly berates Lloyd George to his face....
(The entire section is 432 words.)