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Lusitania WWI Female Spies

Updated on August 10, 2016


On May 7, 1915, at 2:10 in the afternoon, a fishing vessel operates outside the English Channel off the Old Head of Kinsale. The two men on the vessel hear a SOS tapping across their newly installed radio.

They pull on their gear and race at full speed to the location of the SOS about five miles to the north. From the deck they stare at the giant luxury liner, the Lusitania, as it turns bow up high into the air.

The older man recognizes opportunity and shouts, “The rich bastards will pay!” His pot of gold is swimming in the Atlantic sea.

The younger man cannot turn away from the sight. “May God have mercy,” he whispers.

The men lower their row boat. They row toward the sound coming across the water; the luxury liner is no longer visible. In eighteen minutes the huge vessel disappears beneath the ocean water.

The older man stops his oars. He turns to his companion and yells above the sound of waves, “Only kids, we can hold five.” He holds up five fingers. The two men pull from the sea six children: a young girl, two small boys, two toddlers, and an infant.

“The people on those ships are rich the like of which you see only in pictures. They’ll pay for the return of their children. They will pay dearly,” he tells the young man as they both study the children shivering before them.


Chapter One: The Audition

Tillie lowered her arms and rested her hands palm up on her lap. The music remained inside her head as Tillie turned on her seat and stood, dropping a curtsy. Her black pumps echoed as she crossed the hardwood stage to find her chair beside Walter.

Walter felt solid beside her like comfortable furniture. Nearly she touched him. Instead she gathered her features to mirror his, the stoic arrogance of the concert pianist, and she waited. Her mouth felt dry, and her hands were damp. She had done it, the performance of her life. The music failed to calm the excitement rushing invisible through every inch of her body.

The house lights remained dark, but Tilly could feel the rustle and murmur of people in the front rows. Who would come to an audition? The conductor stood from the chair he had placed on the stage. He walked to the standing microphone and spent some minutes making it work. Tillie could barely breathe. Then Ludwig Guderman, the prestigious conductor, motioned for the house lights to come on and cleared his throat.

Again silence in the theatre. Astounded by the number of people who had come to watch an audition, Tillie barely managed to stop from gaping. She recognized students from the school as well as instructors, but many of the men wore military uniform and carried hats with points on the top under their arms. The seconds passed slowly.

The Conductor Guderman, who had final say as to his selection for the solo, did not look at all imposing. To Tilly he looked thin and bent and untidy. He began to speak, then bent his head down prayer like and, at last, faced his audience.

“This is a time of war. Still the Frankfurt Orchestra will perform. The music must go on.” He sounded calm and straightforward as though speaking with friends. “The performers will be boys, old men, girls and women. We will, however, have one extraordinary young man to elevate the music. Our soloist for the 1915 Frankfurt Symphony concert is Walter Stein.”

The way the conductor said the name was so calm and low key that Tillie continued to wait for him to raise his voice and shout her name. Only when Walter stood and bowed did she understand. Not her. Walter turned to her and waited until she lifted a damp hand. As he took her hand he started to say something. She thought his eyes held misery, but that could not be. He had no chance to speak as actual reporters and photographers began to surround him.

Tillie fought to keep her shoulders straight and her eyes dry as she turned from the stage. She refused to run down the back stairs. Any student at the school could see her and she would give them no satisfaction. Once on the street, she found her bike among a large number of bikes that blocked hers. First remembering to change her shoes only because the heel stuck in the boardwalk, she lifted her bike free and then climbed on. She hoisted her black silk skirt beneath her, stashed her bag in the basket and rode off.

The May breeze did not cool her hot cheeks. Her throat felt too tight for air. She whispered, “Mom, my heart is in pieces.” She could hear her mother’s voice with that American accent. “So what, Tillie? Everybody in Germany has a broken heart. Do what comes next and don’t think about it. You knew that soloist had to be a boy. Be glad you are allowed to play.”

Her mother was not home to hear Tillie, but she voiced the words anyway. “There is no rule that says the soloist has to be a boy. The soloist has to be the best pianist, and that is me.” Now anger propelled her feet, and she rode hard through the queue standing at the butcher’s door. Ignoring the shouts in her wake, Tillie finally forced herself to slow down. What if someone recognized her? They would complain to her stepfather.

Tillie dropped her bicycle on the stone walk that touched the brick of her house. With trembling fingers, she unlatched the wood gate beside the house and ran down the stone steps into the garden. From the garden she entered a small sitting room. Her heart still raced, and she wondered at her passion. How could she not have known that Walter would win the audition? “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Flinging her book bag containing her sheet music onto the desk, she began hurriedly to change from her silk skirt to her work skirt. She changed in the sitting room. Since her mother sailed for America, and Tillie was alone in the house, she changed wherever she pleased. Today it pleased her to stand inches inside the door and slide her black skirt down over her hips, step out of the material and leave it lay. Taking her work skirt from the back of the tall, ladder-back chair, she pulled over her head the brown wool material. As Tillie settled her work skirt into place, the material scratched even through her petticoat.

All the while she changed her clothes and her stockings, her mind repeated every note, every pause and finger touch of her music. Her performance had been perfect. She knew it had been perfect. She felt the appreciative hush in the room as she lowered her arms and laid her hands in her lap.

When she heard the tap on the door, assuming the caller was Antonius, she flung the door open and greeted her friend, “It is not fair!”

“I know,” Antonius said.

Antonius did not look surprised. With tight lips, he looked as if he expected worse from her than an angry girl. He took her face in one hand and wiped the tears from her cheek with his other hand.

Antonius was no pianist, no musician at all, but he went out of his way to encourage Tillie. He was her friend from across the garden. Walter lived in a high walled house on the corner of Antonius’ street. For the huge city that was Frankfurt, Tillie thought her piece of it was small indeed. Tillie seldom considered why it was that the three of them lived so close. They came from wealth and influence. Not nobility, but wealth enough to live in houses with gardens in the soft hills near the River Main.

“Walter told me. He did not appear pleased with his victory.”

“How could he not be pleased?” Tillie was nearly as astounded at Walter as she was disappointed for herself. She remembered that look of misery in his eyes.

“Tillie,” Antonius stepped back and removed his hand from her face. His narrow, ascetic features already registered acceptance. “Walter has the solo for the fall concert at the Frankfort Opera House. The conductor’s decision is final and you and I have to accept it. We all have to accept it.” He bent to kiss her lightly on the cheek.

“I have to go,” Tillie said, the frustration lingering in her voice. She could not look at him. He accepted too easily.

“Tomorrow is my birthday,” he reminded her. “After I sign up for service, we have a picnic, remember?”

This reminder stopped her. She had forgotten that life would go on after the audition. She stared at Antonius, repeating, “Tomorrow is your birthday.”

Excitement ran through him like a visible current. When Antonius was excited his shoulders hunched and his arms tightened and his body was taut like a violin string. This barely suppressed passion was not for his birthday and not for a picnic and not in outrage on her behalf. His passion was to enlist.

“Tomorrow you will enlist?”

“Yes, tomorrow. You couldn’t have forgotten.”

For hours, they had discussed the various options, but only as a possibility for some distant future time. Some distant time after the audition. Tillie had not actually considered what might take place after the audition. The weight of her unhappiness made the light dim and the air heavy.

“You still want to be a pilot?” She asked only to fill the silence. She knew he wanted nothing else.

“Yes,” Antonius said. “I do not know for sure how to start. No one seems to know. I will find out tomorrow or maybe you could ask your stepfather.”

“Wait to enlist until I ask Jarvis. There might be something different you need to do. Once you enlist the man in charge will put you in the trenches.”

Sounding exasperated, Antonius said, “Tillie you’ve thought of nothing but your music for months. I’ve asked you a thousand times to ask Jarvis if there was something different I needed to do.”

Tillie nodded. What Antonius said was true. Even now she had to struggle to think of anything not part of the audition. This time she would ask her stepfather. The question of how a young man could become a pilot would not slip from her thoughts as soon as Antonius slipped from her line of vision.

“It would be far better if I could ask my mother to ask my stepfather, but mother is not due home for three weeks. Can you wait that long?” She knew better.

“No,” he said. “I will enlist tomorrow. I can enlist on a Sunday.” He shrugged. “I won’t be able to finish my latest airplane model.”

“Stay home to finish it,” Tillie said. Hopeless.

“I will take it along if I can,” he said. He looked like an earnest little boy.

While he stood by her through the ups and downs of her music, she could not do the same for this odd, dangerous obsession of his. She frowned at him. They were crazy, every boy in the city wanted nothing more than to go to war.

“Don’t give me that look, Miss Tillie. Germany is the greatest nation on earth. I want to be part of it.”

“Why does great mean more and more and more? Defending Austria is one thing, but it is more than that and you know it. The Kaiser is worried about the Czar and both of them are worried about their own necks.”

“Not true.” His face blushed crimson. “Your American mom tells you that and you believe it.”

Tillie closed her lips in a firm line. She couldn’t argue with her best friend, not today. Tillie had not protested when Antonius along with his classmates petitioned to finish their exams early. In fact she helped him study. Now it came to this, her only friend would go to war.

She was suddenly incapable of moving past him for her ride to work. For several seconds she considered not going, but that was not possible. The manager would call her stepfather. “No, no, no,” she shook her head. At last she stepped past Antonius into the early afternoon sunlight. She felt him shut the door behind them both.

“What about your blouse?” he asked.

Tillie glanced down at her white silk school blouse and shrugged. “I wear this full-body apron. It will be okay.”

“Will I see you later?” he asked, meaning after work.

She nodded as she straddled her bike. Tillie rode away, her skirt tucked up under her thighs revealing shapely calves encased in black stockings. As she pedaled as fast as she could down Dorr Wieson Street, she considered the empty hole inside of her. No need to play keys in her head. No need for hours of practice while ignoring all else in life. She felt so empty. And only because emptiness fills with whatever is at hand did she begin to think about Antonius. She had no need to practice after work, so she would ride to her stepfather’s building and make inquiries regarding aeronautics school.

Tillie worked for seven hours a day at an ammunition plant along with several hundred girls and women. Still, her stepfather knew - was informed - if she was late by ten minutes. She had never missed a day since she turned fifteen. It was a mindless job, and she used the hours to play music in her head while her hands capped bullets.

Her stepfather worked at the War Office on Romerberg Square in Frankfort. In fact, he was the director in charge of war provisions in this sector. Now she considered what her stepfather would do if she did not go to work. She never felt her wages in her hand. She went to the conservatory of music, and she went to work, and she went home. Everything was always there, was always as it should be. Her allowance lay on the upstairs table every Sunday morning. Tillie thought, I can still go to school. I can still play in the performance as a second pianist. Small comfort.

Again she considered what would happen if this one day she did not go to work? She could turn around. She could claim sickness, and sit inside her darkening house and nurse her disappointment. While she considered this option, her feet continued to pedal and soon the building stood squat before her. Such sadness to fill an empty hole.

to be continued


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