The year is 1920. Kaiser Wilhelm II has abdicated. The Treaty of Versailles has been
imposed signed. Contours and colours of possession have changed across the globe. The sun still doesn’t set over the British Empire. Time perhaps to put the past behind… The Prince of Storytellers, however, has different ideas. In 1920 comes his The Great Impersonation set in the years preceding the war and detailing a German plot to infiltrate the upper echelons of English society. The book is a roaring success and sells more than a million copies in the year of its publication alone.
Well, how does it read a 100 years later?
Everard Dominey loses his way in the scrub of Africa finds himself in German East Africa. He had set out for a hunt:
We were doing a big trek after lions. I took some new Askaris in and they made trouble,—looted the stores one night and there was the devil to pay. I was obliged to shoot one or two, and the rest deserted. They took my compass, damn them, and I’m nearly a hundred miles out of my bearings. You couldn’t give me a drink, could you?
[Oh how I love these obligations of the Colonial Masters]
The person in whose camp he finds himself turns out to be an old schoolmate and now the Military Commandant of the Colony, Major-General Baron Leopold Von Ragastein. Soon the two are telling each other tales over glasses of whisky. Leopold has a punishment posting in Africa because he fell in love with a Hungarian Princess, relative to the Kaiser and married to boot. Her husband challenged Leopold to a duel and then accidentally killed himself by losing his balance and falling on Leopold’s sword! Everard’s story is stranger still. While coming home one day he was suddenly assaulted by Roger Unthank, an old (and rejected) suitor of his wife. Everard defended himself and came home bleeding, only for his wife to start screaming bloody murdrer and take a vow that she will kill him was he to sleep in his home again!!! And now believe it or not, the mother of Unthank acts as nanny to Everard’s wife, Rosamund, who has become mentally fragile because Everard had the temerity to come bleeding to his home and seeking medical aid. How could a person of such delicate sensibility as Rosamund bear it!!
Leopald has however a sinister reason for trading these secrets with Everard because in accordance with a German secret plan, he wants to kill Everard and take his place in the English society, become part of the powerful set, the ones who formulate public policies and send secret missives to the Fatherland. What happened to the public-school-boy code, Leopald? A night of drunken reminiscences and a striking resemblance to each other (though Everard has let himself go to seed while Leopald is the prototype of the top-booted, smartly attired, slick soldier who would march the streets of Germany in a decade) is enough for this plan to be put in action.
A few months later we have Sir Everard Dominey back in England surprising everyone with his new well-built muscular physique, his new-found wealth which sees him pay off his old debts and mortgages, and a new determination which makes him sleep in his home though he is welcomed in the night by a dagger held to his throat by his wife. He has also acquired a new friend, a German by the name of Seaman, who apparently helped him in his business ventures in Africa.
Everybody is stunned and impressed by this new version of Everard, no one more so than Rosamund, the woman who had vowed to kill him now appeals to him at every turn:
“I can stay here, Everard, can’t I, until you come up to bed?” … “I think,” she murmured, “I shall be just what you want me to be. I think you could make me just what you want. Be very kind to me, please,” she begged, stretching her arms out to him. “I suppose it is because I have been ill so long, but I feel so helpless, and I love your strength and I want you to take care of me.”
These piteous cries of this child-woman, though they made me want to strangle her, arouse the chivalrous feelings of every man, including the Germans who tell her husband that he is a Prussian nobleman and should not take advantage of a woman in such a position. He assures them of his honourable conduct. In fact, Everard’s marital woes have a large role to play in the novel because Oppenheim is not content with a novel of espionage, he has to introduce an element of Gothic in the form of the spirit of Roger Unthank (remember him?) whose ghost haunts the dirty unclean woods near the house and whose beastly cries can be heard in the night. So, Everard determines to solve that mystery too because there are no village bobbies in the area.
In all, Everard’s plan seems to be succeeding, only there is the Hungarian princess who insists on calling him Leopold and whose ardour for him hasn’t cooled-off? Will she bring the plan down?
So what’s the verdict, a century later? The espionage element is laughable, the German agent who can upset the apple-cart insists on sending a message through a slip of paper instead of talking directly, but the Gothic element is deliciously creepy. So no more novels of spies by Oppenheim for me but I’d like to read novels dealing with something more local. Any recommendations?
First Line: The trouble from which great events were to come began when Everard Dominey, who had been fighting his way through the scrub for the last three quarters of an hour towards those thin, spiral wisps of smoke, urged his pony to a last despairing effort and came crashing through the great oleander shrub to pitch forward on his head in the little clearing.
Publication Details: Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1920
First Published: 1920
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Submitted for the The #1920 Club