The conference of 1923 was the culmination of long planning on the part of Lord Darlington; indeed, in retrospect, one can see clearly how his lordship had been moving towards this point from some three years or so before. As I recall, he had not been initially so preoccupied with the peace treaty when it was drawn up at the end of the Great War, and I think it is fair to say that his interest was prompted not so much by an analysis of the treaty, but by his friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann.
Herr Bremann first visited Darlington Hall very shortly after the war while still in his officer’s uniform, and it was evident to any observer that he and Lord Darlington had struck up a close friendship. This did not surprise me, since one could see at a glance that Herr Bremann was a gentleman of great decency. He returned again, having left the German army, at fairly regular intervals during the following two years, and one could not help noticing with some alarm the deterioration he underwent from one visit to the next. His clothes became increasingly impoverished, his frame thinner; a hunted look appeared in his eyes, and on his last visits, he would spend long periods staring into space, oblivious of his lordship’s presence or, sometimes, even of having been addressed. I would have concluded Herr Bremann was suffering from some serious illness, but for certain remarks his lordship made at that time assuring me this was not so.
It must have been towards the end of 1920 that Lord Darlington made the first of a number of trips to Berlin himself, and I can remember the profound effect it had on him. A heavy air of preoccupation hung over him for days after his return, and I recall once, in reply to my inquiring how he had enjoyed his trip, his remarking:
‘Disturbing, Stevens. Deeply disturbing. It does us great discredit to treat a defeated foe like this. A complete break with the traditions of this country.’
But there is another memory that has remained with me very vividly in relation to this matter. Today, the old banqueting hall no longer contains a table and that spacious room, with its high and magnificent ceiling, serves Mr Farraday well as a sort of gallery. But in his lordship’s day, that room was regularly required, as was the long table that occupied it, to seat thirty or more guests for dinner; in fact, the banqueting hall is so spacious that when necessity demanded it, further tables were added to the existing one to enable almost fifty to be seated. On normal days, of course, Lord Darlington took his meals, as does Mr Farraday today, in the more intimate atmosphere of the dining room, which is ideal for accommodating up to a dozen. But on that particular winter’s night I am recollecting the dining room was for some reason out of use, and Lord Darlington was dining with a solitary guest – I believe it was Sir Richard Fox, a colleague from his lordship’s Foreign Office days – in the vastness of the banqueting hall. You will no doubt agree that the hardest of situations as regards dinner-waiting is when there are just two diners present. I would myself much prefer to wait on just one diner, even if he were a total stranger. It is when there are two diners present, even when one of them is one’s own employer, that one finds it most difficult to achieve that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting; it is in this situation that one is rarely free of the suspicion that one’s presence is inhibiting the conversation.
On that occasion, much of the room was in darkness, and the two gentlemen were sitting side by side midway down the table – it being much too broad to allow them to sit facing one another – within the pool of light cast by the candles on the table and the crackling hearth opposite. I decided to minimize my presence by standing in the shadows much further away from table than I might usually have done. Of course, this strategy had a distinct disadvantage in that each time I moved towards the light to serve the gentlemen, my advancing footsteps would echo long and loud before I reached the table, drawing attention to my impending arrival in the most ostentatious manner; but it did have the great merit of making my person only partially visible while I remained stationary. And it was as I was standing like that, in the shadows some distance from where the two gentlemen sat amidst those rows of empty chairs, that I heard Lord Darlington talk about Herr Bremann, his voice as calm and gentle as usual, somehow resounding with intensity around those great walls.
‘He was my enemy,’ he was saying, ‘but he always behaved like a gentleman. We treated each other decently over six months of shelling each other. He was a gentleman doing his job and I bore him no malice. I said to him: “Look here, we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t have to be enemies any more and we’ll have a drink together.” Wretched thing is, this treaty is making a liar out of me. I mean to say, I told him we wouldn’t be enemies once it was all over. But how can I look him in the face and tell him that’s turned out to be true?’
And it was a little later that same night that his lordship said with some gravity, shaking his head:
‘I fought that war to preserve justice in this world. As far as I understood, I wasn’t taking part in a vendetta against the German race.’
And when today one hears talk about his lordship, when one hears the sort of foolish speculations concerning his motives as one does all too frequently these days, I am pleased to recall the memory of that moment as he spoke those heartfelt words in the near-empty banqueting hall. Whatever complications arose in his lordship’s course over subsequent years, I for one will never doubt that a desire to see ‘justice in this world’ lay at the heart of all his actions.
It was not long after that evening there came the sad news that Herr Bremann had shot himself in a train between Hamburg and Berlin. Naturally, his lordship was greatly distressed and immediately made plans to dispatch funds and commiserations to Frau Bremann. However, after several days of endeavour, in which I myself did my best to assist, his lordship was not able to discover the whereabouts of any of Herr Bremann’s family. He had, it seemed, been homeless for some time and his family dispersed.
It is my belief that even without this tragic news, Lord Darlington would have set upon the course he took; his desire to see an end to injustice and suffering was too deeply ingrained in his nature for him to have done otherwise. As it was, in the weeks that followed Herr Bremann’s death, his lordship began to devote more and more hours to the matter of the crisis in Germany. Powerful and famous gentlemen became regular visitors to the house – including, I remember, figures such as Lord Daniels, Professor Maynard Keynes, and Mr H. G. Wells, the renowned author, as well as others who, because they came ‘off the record’, I should not name here – and they and his lordship were often to be found locked in discussion for hours on end.
Some of the visitors were, in fact, so ‘off the record’ that I was instructed to make sure the staff did not learn their identities, or in some cases, even glimpse them. However – and I say this with some pride and gratitude – Lord Darlington never made any efforts to conceal things from my own eyes and ears; I can recall on numerous occasions, some personage breaking off in mid-sentence to glance warily towards my person, only for his lordship to say:
‘Oh, that’s all right. You can say anything in front of Stevens, I can assure you.’
Steadily, then, over the two years or so following Herr Bremann’s death, his lordship, together with Sir David Cardinal, who became his closest ally during that time, succeeded in gathering together a broad alliance of figures who shared the conviction that the situation in Germany should not be allowed to persist. These were not only Britons and Germans, but also Belgians, French, Italians, Swiss; they were diplomats and political persons of high rank; distinguished clergymen; retired military gentlemen; writers and thinkers. Some were gentlemen who felt strongly, like his lordship himself, that fair play had not been done at Versailles and that it was immoral to go on punishing a nation for a war that was now over. Others, evidently, showed less concern for Germany or her inhabitants, but were of the opinion that the economic chaos of that country, if not halted, might spread with alarming rapidity to the world at large.
By the turn of 1922, his lordship was working with a clear goal in mind. This was to gather under the very roof of Darlington Hall the most influential of the gentlemen whose support had been won with a view to conducting an ‘unofficial’ international conference – a conference that would discuss the means by which the harshest terms of the Versailles treaty could be revised. To be worthwhile, any such conference would have to be of sufficient weight so that it could have a décisive effect on the ‘official’ international conferences – several of which had already taken place with the express purpose of reviewing the treaty, but which had succeeded in producing only confusion and bitterness. Our Prime Minister of that time, Mr Lloyd George, had called for another great conference to be held in Italy in the spring of 1922, and initially his lordship’s aim was to organize a gathering at Darlington Hall with a view to ensuring a satisfactory outcome to this event. For all the hard work on his and Sir David’s part, however, this proved too harsh a deadline; but then with Mr George’s conference ending yet again in indecision, his lordship set his sights on a further great conference scheduled to take place in Switzerland the following year.
I can remember one morning around this time bringing Lord Darlington coffee in the breakfast room, and his saying to me as he folded The Times with some disgust:
‘Frenchmen. Really, I mean to say, Stevens. Frenchmen.’
‘And to think we have to be seen by the world to be arm in arm with them. One wishes for a good bath at the mere reminder.’
‘Last time I was in Berlin, Stevens, Baron Overath, old friend of my father, came up and said: “Why do you do this to us? Don’t you see we can’t go on like this?” I was jolly well tempted to tell him it’s those wretched Frenchmen. It’s not the English way of carrying on, I wanted to say. But I suppose one can’t do things like that. Mustn’t speak ill of our dear allies.’
But the very fact that the French were the most intransigent as regards releasing Germany from the cruelties of the Versailles treaty made all the more imperative the need to bring to the gathering at Darlington Hall at least one French gentleman with unambiguous influence over his country’s foreign policy. Indeed, I heard several times his lordship express the view that without the participation of such a personage, any discussion on the topic of Germany would be little more than an indulgence. He and Sir David accordingly set upon this final crucial lap of their preparations and to witness the unswerving determination with which they persevered in the face of repeated frustrations was a humbling experience; countless letters and telegrams were dispatched and his lordship himself made three separate trips to Paris within the space of two months. Finally, having secured the agreement of a certain extremely illustrious Frenchman – I will merely call him ‘M. Dupont’ – to attend the gathering on a very strict ‘off the record’ basis, the date for the conference was set. That is to say, for that memorable March of 1923.
As this date grew ever nearer, the pressures on myself, though of an altogether more humble nature than those mounting on his lordship, were nevertheless not inconsequential. I was only too aware of the possibility that if any guest were to find his stay at Darlington Hall less than comfortable, this might have repercussions of unimaginable largeness. Moreover, my planning for the event was complicated by the uncertainty as to the numbers involved. The conference being of a very high level, the participants had been limited to just eighteen very distinguished gentlemen and two ladies – a German countess and the formidable Mrs Eleanor Austin, at that time still resident in Berlin; but each of these might reasonably bring secretaries, valets and interpreters, and there proved no way of ascertaining the precise number of such persons to expect. Furthermore, it became clear that a number of the parties would be arriving some time before the three days set aside for the conference, thus giving themselves time to prepare their ground and gauge the mood of fellow guests, though their exact arrival dates were, again, uncertain. It was clear then that the staff would not only have to work extremely hard, and be at their most alert, they would also have to be, unusually flexible. In fact, I was for some time of the opinion that this huge challenge ahead of us could not be surmounted without my bringing in additional staff from outside. However, this option, quite aside from the misgivings his lordship was bound to have as regards gossip travelling, entailed my having to rely on unknown quantities just when a mistake could prove most costly. I thus set about preparing for the days ahead as, I imagine, a general might prepare for a battle: I devised with utmost care a special staff plan anticipating all sorts of eventualities; I analysed where our weakest points lay and set about making contingency plans to fall back upon in the event of these points giving way; I even gave the staff a military-style ‘pep-talk’, impressing upon them that, for all their having to work at an exhausting rate, they could feel great pride in discharging their duties over the days that lay ahead. ‘History could well be made under this roof,’ I told them. And they, knowing me to be one not prone to exaggerated statements, well understood that something of an extraordinary nature was impending.
You will understand then something of the climate prevailing around Darlington Hall by the time of my father’s fall in front of the summerhouse – this occurring as it did just two weeks before the first of the conference guests were likely to arrive – and what I mean when I say there was little room for any ‘beating about the bush’. My father did, in any case, rapidly discover a way to circumvent the limitations on his effectiveness implied by the stricture that he should carry no laden trays. The sight of his figure pushing a trolley loaded with cleaning utensils, mops, brushes arranged incongruously, though always tidily, around teapots, cups and saucers, so that it at times resembled a street-hawker’s barrow, became a familiar one around the house. Obviously he still could not avoid relinquishing his waiting duties in the dining room, but otherwise the trolley enabled him to accomplish a surprising amount. In fact, as the great challenge of the conference drew nearer, an astonishing change seemed to come over my father. It was almost as though some supernatural force possessed him, causing him to shed twenty years; his face lost much of the sunken look of recent times, and he went about his work with such youthful vigour that a stranger might have believed there were not one but several such figures pushing trolleys about the corridors of Darlington Hall.
As for Miss Kenton, I seem to remember the mounting tension of those days having a noticeable effect upon her. I recall, for instance, the occasion around that time I happened to encounter her in the back corridor. The back corridor, which serves as a sort of backbone to the staff’s quarters of Darlington Hall, was always a rather cheerless affair due to the lack of daylight penetrating its considerable length. Even on a fine day, the corridor could be so dark that the effect was like walking through a tunnel. On that particular occasion, had I not recognized Miss Kenton’s footsteps on the boards as she came towards me, I would have been able to identify her only from her outline. I paused at one of the few spots where a bright streak of light fell across the boards and, as she approached, said:
‘Ah, Miss Kenton.’
‘Yes, Mr Stevens?’
‘Miss Kenton, I wonder if I may draw your attention to the fact that the bed linen for the upper floor will need to be ready by the day after tomorrow.’
‘The matter is perfectly under control, Mr Stevens.’
‘Ah, I’m very glad to hear it. It just struck me as a thought, that’s all.’
I was about to continue on my way, but Miss Kenton did not move. Then she took one step more towards me so that a bar of light fell across her face and I could see the angry expression on it.
‘Unfortunately, Mr Stevens, I am extremely busy now and I am finding I have barely a single moment to spare. If only I had as much spare time as you evidently do, then I would happily reciprocate by wandering about this house reminding you of tasks you have perfectly well in hand.’
‘Now, Miss Kenton, there is no need to become so bad-tempered. I merely felt the need to satisfy myself that it had not escaped your attention…’
‘Mr Stevens, this is the fourth or fifth time in the past two days you have felt such a need. It is most curious to see that you have so much time on your hands that you are able to simply wander about this house bothering others with gratuitous comments.’
‘Miss Kenton, if you for one moment believe I have time on my hands, that displays more clearly than ever your great inexperience. I trust that in years to come, you will gain a clearer picture of what occurs in a house like this.’
‘You are perpetually talking of my “great inexperience,” Mr Stevens, and yet you appear quite unable to point out any defect in my work. Otherwise I have no doubt you would have done so long ago and at some length. Now, I have much to be getting on with and would appreciate your not following me about and interrupting me like this. If you have so much time to spare, I suggest it might be more profitably spent taking some fresh air.’
She stamped past me and on down the corridor. Deciding it best to let the matter go no further, I continued on my way. I had almost reached the kitchen doorway when I heard the furious sounds of her footsteps coming back towards me again.
‘In fact, Mr Stevens,’ she called, ‘I would ask you from now on not to speak to me directly at all.’
‘Miss Kenton, whatever are you talking about?’
‘If it is necessary to convey a message, I would ask you to do so through a messenger. Or else you may like to write a note and have it sent to me. Our working relationship, I am sure, would be made a great deal easier.’
‘I am extremely busy, Mr Stevens. A written note if the message is at all complicated. Otherwise you may like to speak to Martha or Dorothy, or any members of the male staff you deem sufficiently trustworthy. Now I must return to my work and leave you to your wanderings.’
Irritating as Miss Kenton’s behaviour was, I could not afford to give it much thought, for by then the first of the guests had arrived. The representatives from abroad were not expected for a further two or three days, but the three gentlemen referred to by his lordship as his ‘home team’ – two Foreign Office ministers attending very much Off the record’ and Sir David Cardinal – had come early to prepare the ground as thoroughly as possible. As ever, little was done to conceal anything from me as I went in and out of the various rooms in which these gentlemen sat deep in discussion, and I thus could not avoid gaining a certain impression of the general mood at this stage of the proceedings. Of course, his lordship and his colleagues were concerned to brief each other as accurately as possible on each one of the expected participants; but overwhelmingly, their concerns centred on a single figure – that of M. Dupont, the French gentleman – and on his likely sympathies and antipathies. Indeed, at one point, I believe I came into the smoking room and heard one of the gentlemen saying:
‘The fate of Europe could actually hang on our ability to bring Dupont round on this point.’
It was in the midst of these preliminary discussions that his lordship entrusted me with a mission sufficiently unusual for it to have remained in my memory to this day, alongside those other more obviously unforgettable occurrences that were to take place during that remarkable week. Lord Darlington called me into his study, and I could see at once that he was in a state of some agitation. He seated himself at his desk and, as usual, resorted to holding open a book – this time it was Who’s Who – turning a page to and fro.
‘Oh, Stevens,’ he began with a false air of nonchalance, but then seemed at a loss how to continue.
I remained standing there ready to relieve his discomfort at the first opportunity. His lordship went on fingering his page for a moment, leaned forward to scrutinize an entry, then said:
‘Stevens, I realize this is a somewhat irregular thing to ask you to do.’
‘It’s just that one has so much of importance on one’s mind just now.’
‘I would be very glad to be of assistance, sir.’
‘I’m sorry to bring up a thing like this, Stevens. I know you must be awfully busy yourself. But I can’t see how on earth to make it go away.’
I waited a moment while Lord Darlington returned his attention to Who’s Who. Then he said, without looking up:
‘You are familiar, I take it, with the facts of life.’
The facts of life, Stevens. Birds, bees. You are familiar, aren’t you?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, sir.’
‘Let me put my cards on the table, Stevens. Sir David is a very old friend. And he’s been invaluable in organizing the present conference. Without him, I dare say, we’d not have secured M. Dupont’s agreement to come.’
‘However, Stevens, Sir David has his funny side. You may have noticed it yourself. He’s brought his son, Reginald, with him. To act as secretary. The point is, he’s engaged to be married. Young Reginald, I mean.’
‘Sir David has been attempting to tell his son the facts of life for the last five years. The young man is now twenty-three.’
‘I’ll get to the point, Stevens. I happen to be the young man’s godfather. Accordingly, Sir David has requested that I convey to young Reginald the facts of life.’
‘Sir David himself finds the task rather daunting and suspects he will not accomplish it before Reginald’s wedding day.’
‘The point is, Stevens, I’m terribly busy. Sir David should know that, but he’s asked me none the less.’
His lordship paused and went on studying his page.
‘Do I understand, sir,’ I said, ‘that you wish me to convey the information to the young gentleman?’
‘If you don’t mind, Stevens. Be an awful lot off my mind. Sir David continues to ask me every couple of hours if I’ve done it yet.’
‘I see, sir. It must be most trying under the present pressures.’
‘Of course, this is far beyond the call of duty, Stevens.’
‘I will do my best, sir. I may, however, have difficulty finding the appropriate moment to convey such information.’
‘I’d be very grateful if you’d even try, Stevens. Awfully decent of you. Look here, there’s no need to make a song and dance of it. Just convey the basic facts and be done with it. Simple approach is the best, that’s my advice, Stevens.’
‘Yes, sir. I shall do my best.’
‘Jolly grateful to you, Stevens. Let me know how you get on.’
I was, as you might imagine, a little taken aback by this request and ordinarily the matter might have been one I would have spent some time pondering. Coming upon me as it did, however, in the midst of such a busy period, I could not afford to let it preoccupy me unduly, and I thus decided I should resolve it at the earliest opportunity. As I recall, then, it was only an hour or so after being first entrusted with the mission that I noticed the young Mr Cardinal alone in the library, sitting at one of the writing tables, absorbed in some documents. On studying the young gentleman closely, one could, as it were, appreciate the difficulty experienced by his lordship – and indeed, by the young gentleman’s father. My employer’s godson looked an earnest, scholarly young man, and one could see many fine qualities in his features; yet given the topic one wished to raise, one would have certainly preferred a lighter-hearted, even a more frivolous sort of young gentleman. In any case, resolved to bring the whole matter to a satisfactory conclusion as quickly as possible, I proceeded further into the library, and stopping a little way from Mr Cardinal’s writing desk, gave a cough.
‘Excuse me, sir, but I have a message to convey to you.’
‘Oh, really?’ Mr Cardinal said eagerly, looking up from his papers. ‘From Father?’
‘Yes, sir. That is, effectively.’
‘Just a minute.’
The young gentleman reached down into the attaché case at his feet and brought out a notebook and pencil.
‘Tire away, Stevens.’
I coughed again and set my voice into as impersonal a tone as I could manage.
‘Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.’
I must have paused a little to form my next phrase, for Mr Cardinal gave a sigh and said:
‘I’m only too aware of that, Stevens. Would you mind coming to the point?’
‘You are aware, sir?’
‘Father is perpetually underestimating me. I’ve done extensive reading and background work on this whole area.’
‘Is that so, sir?’
‘I’ve thought about virtually nothing else for the past month.’
‘Really, sir. In that case, perhaps my message is rather redundant.’
‘You can assure Father I’m very well briefed indeed. This attaché case’ – he nudged it with his foot – ‘is chock-full of notes on every possible angle one can imagine.’
‘Is that so, sir?’
‘I really think I’ve thought through every permutation the human mind is capable of. I wish you’d reassure Father of that.’
‘I will, sir.’
Mr Cardinal seemed to relax a little. He prodded once more his attaché case – which I felt inclined to keep my eyes averted from – and said:
‘I suppose you’ve been wondering why I never let go of this case. Well, now you know. Imagine if the wrong person opened it.’
‘That would be most awkward, sir.’
‘That is, of course,’ he said, sitting up again suddenly, ‘unless Father has come up with an entirely new factor he wants me to think about.’
‘I cannot imagine he has, sir.’
‘No? Nothing more on this Dupont fellow?’
‘I fear not, sir.’
I did my best not to give away anything of my exasperation on discovering that a task I had thought all but behind me was in fact still there unassaulted before me. I believe I was collecting my thoughts for a renewed effort when the young gentleman suddenly rose to his feet, and clutching his attaché case to his person, said:
‘Well, I think I’ll go and take a little fresh air. Thanks for your help, Stevens.’
It had been my intention to seek out a further interview with Mr Cardinal with minimum delay, but this proved to be impossible, owing largely to the arrival that same afternoon – some two days earlier than expected – of Mr Lewis, the American senator. I had been down in my pantry working through the supplies sheets, when I had heard somewhere above my head the unmistakable sounds of motor cars pulling up in the courtyard. As I hastened to go upstairs, I happened to encounter Miss Kenton in the back corridor – the scene, of course, of our last disagreement – and it was perhaps this unhappy coincidence that encouraged her to maintain the childish behaviour she had adopted on that previous occasion. For when I inquired who it was that had arrived, Miss Kenton continued past me, stating simply:
‘A message if it is urgent, Mr Stevens.’
This was extremely annoying, but, of course, I had no choice but to hurry on upstairs.
My recollection of Mr Lewis is that of a gentleman of generous dimensions with a genial smile that rarely left his face. His early arrival was clearly something of an inconvenience to his lordship and his colleagues who had reckoned on a day or two more of privacy for their preparations. However, Mr Lewis’s engagingly informal manner, and his statement at dinner that the United States ‘would always stand on the side of justice and didn’t mind admitting mistakes had been made at Versailles’ seemed to do much to win the confidence of his lordship’s ‘home team’; as dinner progressed, the conversation had slowly but surely turned from topics such as the merits of Mr Lewis’s native Pennsylvania back to the conference ahead, and by the time the gentlemen were lighting their cigars, some of the speculations being offered appeared to be as intimate as those exchanged prior to Mr Lewis’s arrival. At one point, Mr Lewis said to the company:
‘I agree with you, gentlemen, our M. Dupont can be very unpredictable. But let me tell you, there’s one thing you can bet on about him. One thing you can bet on for sure.’ He leaned forward and waved his cigar for emphasis. ‘Dupont hates Germans. He hated them before the war and he hates them now with a depth you gentlemen here would find hard to understand.’ With that, Mr Lewis sat back in his chair again, the genial smile returning fully to his face. ‘But tell me, gentlemen,’ he continued, ‘you can hardly blame a Frenchman for hating the Germans, can you? After all, a Frenchman has good cause to do so, hasn’t he?’
There was a moment of slight awkwardness as Mr Lewis glanced around the table. Then Lord Darlington said:
‘Naturally, some bitterness is inevitable. But then, of course, we English also fought the Germans long and hard.’
‘But the difference with you Englishmen,’ Mr Lewis said, ‘seems to be that you don’t really hate the Germans any more. But the way the French see it, the Germans destroyed civilization here in Europe and no punishment is too bad for them. Of course, that looks an impractical kind of position to us in the United States, but what’s always puzzled me is how you English don’t seem to share the view of the French. After all, like you say, Britain lost a lot in that war too.’