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.
(The entire section is 10,075 words.)