I. Berlin, May 1918
The sunshine always crept in here apologetically, gleaming on the balding patches of the red-velvet benches, finding out the faded folds of the scarlet brocaded curtains. It was a heavy sort of place, weighed down by its own comfortably-faded finery. Outside the heap of discreet sandbags had overbalanced and blocked half the doorway; Marie had tried to prod them aside with her toe before hitching up her skirts to hop over. By now, they would have been tied back into an unobtrusive corner, to allow the patrons of the Café Löwe once again to forget that even Berlin was not out of reach of the new British Handley-Pages. The patrons of the Café Löwe were good citizens, and preferred not to be reminded of such things.
The shabbiness, however, did not extend to dust. Not even the best coffee in Berlin would have persuaded Erich to countenance dust during his lunch hour.
“Whenever you laugh without telling me what you are laughing at, I always feel that you are laughing at me.”
Marie didn’t trouble to compose her face into sobriety. “That is because I usually am laughing at you, dearest.”
The fact that Erich never quite knew the spirit in which to take her more personal remarks was one of the things she was most fond of about him. She watched, half smiling, as he stirred his coffee (the best in Berlin, she knew, the pinch of real coffee beans in its ancestry just enough to brighten the darkly burnt taste of the chicory), and set the spoon down in his saucer with a precise click, before answering.
“I’m afraid I haven’t found much that’s amusing in myself of late.”
“And that’s exactly the time when it’s most important we laugh.”
Gentleness always caught him off guard, made him look up from his cup and meet her eyes. Gentleness was a commodity even rarer than coffee beans, these days.
Marie smiled. “Though I must admit, you’ve done your best to make it difficult these last few weeks.”
The coffee cup was another survival of an age of luxury, strung about with garlands of over-blown roses. It looked ridiculous in his brown, capable fingers, and Marie had always had a keen appreciation for the ridiculous. “My apologies. I have been a little distracted of late.”
“With your young man?”
A small, sardonic smile tugged at his lips. “Yes.”
“Have you made any progress in tracing him?”
“None whatsoever.” He set down the cup, and unconsciously reached up to resettle the military-grey sling which supported his still-bandaged arm. “It becomes increasingly embarrassing to have been so thoroughly outmanoeuvred by what was clearly an experienced and subtle intelligence operative when one begins to realise that he was in fact probably only a raw and inexperienced pilot.”
“Is that what he was?”
“It would explain why none of our records of known British intelligence agents seems to bear the slightest resemblance to what I know of the good Lieutenant Brunow.” Erich sat, always, with an uprightness which would have done credit to a soldier on the parade ground, and his voice remained low and soft, even within the curtained seclusion of their alcove booth; but his hand moved restlessly on the tablecloth. “Of course, it is possible that he is such a well-regarded agent that even those fools in British Military Intelligence have realised that it is in their best interests to keep his details secret to all but the highest echelons of command; but – “
“But that would be to exaggerate the importance of your own work in Palestine,” said Marie.
“Precisely,” Erich replied. “To have been considered worthy of the attention of such an opponent – well. False modesty has never been one of my vices, but neither has unwarranted vanity.”
Marie laughed. “Only warranted vanity?”
Erich bowed his head in a wryly self-deprecating dip, before picking up his coffee spoon again and toying idly with it. “If only that doddering fool von Faubourg hadn’t been so set against me,” he murmured. “If I had had a free rein – “
“Then this man Brunow would have been before a firing squad two months ago, and you would have nothing to occupy yourself with now but collating erroneous reports of supply-train movements and working out what happened to Generaloberst von Bulow’s Christmas schnapps, like the rest of us.” She sipped her tea – or whatever it was they were using these days; in the winter it had been dried Linden blossom, but the brew tasted different in the bright May sunshine – and looked across the table at her friend. Slim, tall, immaculate, and with that sense of purpose about him always, like a sword at rest in its scabbard; steel in the blue-grey eyes which even the absurd monocle couldn’t hide.
“But just think, Erich – if you had had your way, then Brunow would be dead,” she pointed out, leaning back into the cushioned seat and breathing in the smells of tea and hot potato broth and summer. “And you wouldn’t have the pleasurable anticipation of facing him again one day.”
“War is not a game played for my personal enjoyment – “ he began, stiffly, before he noticed the dimples that always gave away her amusement whether she wanted it or not, and broke off with the soft exhalation of breath that was as close as he ever managed to a laugh. “I believe we have known one another too well for too long.”
He reached out his hand – his good hand, the one not still cramped and painful from the aeroplane crash which had been the rather spectacular finale of the Palestine operation – across the table to take hers, but she intercepted it, capturing it between both her own.
“You’re so brown,” she remarked, inconsequentially, admiring the contrast between her pale skin and his weather-beaten tan. At the point where the shirt-cuff usually sat was a line, sharp as a rule, where brown met white. She traced it, idly, with the tip of her forefinger.
“So would you be if you’d been in the east for the last six months,” said Erich, dryly.
“Me?” she exclaimed, letting go his hand with a laugh. “I should be scarlet and miserable, as you well know. This – “ She tugged lightly at the sweep of fair hair that framed her face – “ought to give you an idea of how well I cope with the sun.”
“Nevertheless, I’m sure you would look most picturesque on a racing camel, galloping through the desert sands by moonlight,” he replied, gravely.
A curl of hair had escaped from the neat coil into which she had tamed it, and swung impudent and unruly over her eye. For a fleeting moment she wondered if Erich would reach out to smooth it back into place; before reaching up to tuck it behind her ear herself. Erich, she thought, would probably not even have noticed, except perhaps to pass ironic remark.
“I wonder if I might ask you a certain question.”
Marie picked up her tea-cup, and took a sip of the rapidly cooling liquid. It tasted even more peculiar cold, and she set it down with a little wry look of displeasure. “Of course you may. I can’t guarantee a certain answer, you understand.”
He ignored her. “You are to go to France in a few weeks?”
“Will it be a long trip?”
“I hope not.”
“And – not a dangerous one?”
She could feel the laughter welling up again, for all that it wasn’t a laughing matter, not by any stretch of the imagination. “Again, I hope not.”
She took up his hand again, turning it over and toying with it until his fingers tightened around her own. She smiled. “My dear Erich, you’re indulging in that wonderful Prussian seriousness again. Anyone would think that you were planning to propose.”
His grip on her hand did not change. “I was planning to propose.”
She breathed out, soft and sudden. “I rather thought you were.”
For a moment only she felt his fingers loosen and tug at hers. She tightened her grip.
“I’m going away in a couple of weeks,” she said.
“I had thought that we might marry before then, if you were amenable.”
“Doesn’t that seem rather hurried?”
“Things may get more hurried yet before the war is over.”
She looked up at him, and found his eyes grey and level and calm.
“We would probably make one another very miserable,” she said, simply.
That hint of dry humour caught once again at the corner of his lips. “I’m sure of it.”
They had neither of them spoken of love, of course. She did not love him; did not feel certain that she had a capacity for love. Perhaps he loved her, somewhere under the steel and the purpose and the duty; but there would always be more important things in both their lives, she knew, and that was as it should be.
“And when the war is over, and I’m dispatched back to my kitchen, just as every good German girl has dreamed for the last four years?” she teased. “When you’re still living at your desk in Wilhelmstrassse, or galloping over the moonlit deserts?”
“I think that when the war is over we shall all have more important things to worry about.”
She stood, leaned across the table, and kissed him on the cheek. Despite the sunburnt brown, it was still cold and smooth as a statue’s. “I have to go to work. I’ll think about what you’ve said, I promise. When I get back – “
“Marie – “
“When I get back from France, I’ll give you an answer.”
* * *
(It was in the dying days of the war when the report came across his desk; part of the debriefing process after Marie’s failed assignment across the lines. It contained what little evidence they had gathered about the aerodrome at Maranique – a blurred reconnaissance photograph, taken from far too high to have been of real use; notes on the squadron strength, on personnel, on equipment, on the damage inflicted on German troops and machines; a number of snapshots, mostly of stiff, awkward-looking young men with their curious humped planes. And amongst them, slight, pale, boyish, he recognised Lieutenant Leopold Brunow.
(He turned it over; read the name printed neatly on the back. Checked it against the personnel records; against the number of reported victories. Looked at the photograph again.
(Nineteen. He had been only nineteen.)
* * *
II. Amiens, September 1918
The air was hot, thick enough to taste: cigarette smoke and sharp wine, sweat with an undertone of pomade from the first real bath in weeks, and the musty scent of water-vapour beading on stones left abandoned over a long summer.
“Quite like old times,” remarked Wilks, making the wicker chair groan as he stretched his legs proprietarily under the table.
Algy kicked him in the shin, more on principle than from any real sense of grievance, and shuffled his feet grudgingly out of the way. “If this were really like old times then we wouldn’t be stifling in this bloody cellar,” he grumbled. “Between sitting around in this pea-souper and flitting about the aether like Icarus, it’s a wonder any of us have any lungs left.”
“Wait ‘till they equip us with oxygen tanks,” said Wilks, grinning broadly and blowing a deep-blue plume of cigarette smoke in Algy’s general direction. “Your lungs’ll get so spoiled by the pampering that you’ll have to carry the thing under your arm for a quick puff every time you walk down Piccadilly.”
Impossible to believe there could be so many shades of khaki, across shoulders narrow and broad, knots of drab-clothed figures stained still with dust and mud; and moving through the crowd, girls in white frocks, sprigged with flowers. More people together than Algy had seen in months, and every permutation of the English tongue ringing from the low vaulted roof.
Biggles sat in silence in the corner, feet braced against the edge of the table, balancing delicately on the back legs of his chair, eyes on a distant horizon. His fingernails tapped a persistent, preoccupied rhythm against the tooth glass of wine.
Algy elbowed one of his shoes, idly. “We should have a toast.”
Biggles’ eyes refocused, and he shot his cousin a smile. “Not sure that’s a good idea with this muck,” he said, holding the glass up towards the light and peering into the murky depths. “Champagne they may call it, but I’m sure I saw M’sieur fishing gherkins out of it earlier.”
“As long as you’re happy to foot the bill, you can bathe in it as far as I’m concerned,” said Wilks, generously.
“Might improve the taste,” Biggles pointed out.
“And it’d certainly improve your smell,” added Wilks.
Algy kicked him with slightly more feeling.
Wilks refilled his glass, tapping the bottom of the bottle smartly to encourage the last few drops to fall, and then lifted it in salute.
“To the Sopwith Camel. May it never have to turn left.”
Algy touched his glass to Wilks’. “To the S.E.5 – may its greenhouse ne’er grow grubby.”
Wilks grinned. “Well - to the Grand Offensive, maybe?”
“To the grand reopening of the Cafe Cathedrale, and to its hopefully speedy refurbishment,” Algy suggested. “The mess is all well and good, but my armchair’s started to resemble me, I’ve spent so much time in it this summer.”
“Better yet – to la belle Marguerite,” Wilks suggested, smiling winningly up at the pretty waitress who brought a fresh bottle.
She had dark hair caught in a bun at the nape of her neck; two escaping curls clung to her forehead and temple. As Algy reached for the bottle, his hand brushed hers. The skin on the back of her hand was terribly soft, hot, damp as dough. Her eyes flickered up, caught him looking; there was the lightest dusting of freckles over her nose and cheekbones. She smiled.
Wilks leaned forward conspiratorially. “You shouldn’t bother with him, Mam’zelle. He had his shot off over Douai last month.”
Algy flushed crimson to the roots of his hair, and jerked his hand away.
“At least that’s something you’ll never have to worry about,” he stuttered over Wilks’ roar of laughter. “No Hun could ever hit a target that small.”
Wilks’ expression became one of pained sorrow. “You see, Mam’zelle? There he sits, this tender youth whose cheek beard has ne’er yet sullied, with a mouth that’d shame Marie Lloyd.” He rounded on Algy. “You couldn’t kiss the Kaiser with a mouth like that, let alone a lovely girl like Marguerite.”
The girl tutted, neatly evading Wilk’s attempt to encircle her waist with his arm. “I know you English soldiers,” she scolded. “You blush and play the gentleman, yet once you have stolen a girl’s heart, you are posted away and never write so much as a line.”
“Mam’zelle, do we look like common Tommies?” Wilks called after her retreating back. “We’re pilots - nous sommes aviateurs - we can fly back and see you every weekend!”
Biggles righted his chair with a thump, and stood up. “Just stepping out for a breath of air. You could waterproof canvas with the atmosphere down here.”
Wilks sipped his drink and watched Biggles shoulder his way through the packed room. “Something up?”
“Oh, let him stew,” said Algy disconsolately. “He’s been in a funny sort of mood all week.”
Wilks pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and lit a fresh one from the end of the last, still smouldering in an ash-encrusted saucer. “Been in any big scrapes recently?”
“Nothing for days,” said Algy, refusing the proffered pack. “I think all the Huns have cleared off south for the winter.”
“That’s probably it then,” Wilks remarked, drawing deeply on the cigarette. “His constitution’s so used to war flying, he’s got to kill a German every two or three days or he starts pining.” He shook his head, sadly. “It’s always the good ones who crack.”
Algy took another mouthful of slightly sour champagne. Because really, Wilks wasn’t the sort of person you could tell that you were mainly worried because your cousin was drinking less, eating more; because you heard him humming tunelessly while counting the bullet holes in his fuselage from a dawn patrol; because he spent more time in the mess reading than playing bridge. Because he’d force-landed three times in the last week.
“Maybe he’s going off to meet a girl,” Wilks suggested.
The other pilot laughed. “Well, it’s possible, anyway...”
It was perhaps fifteen minutes later, when Algy had attached Wilks and the remaining dregs of the champagne bottle to a group of Canadian pilots, that he managed to leave them merrily discussing the merits of the D.H.9 and slip away.
The late summer breeze was soft as a breath against his flushed cheek, smelling of the river and somehow, in this country of shell-fire and blood, of over-ripe apples. The cathedral towers of Amiens were silver under the moon, the spire a spike of darkness; the whole a study in contrasts, shadows turning the solemn mediaeval saints into grotesques, the grotesques into mysteries. Algy skirted the square, staying near the houses even where it meant picking his way around the piles of rubble and debris that had still to be cleared from the spring bombing raids; it made him feel a little less like a scuttling creature, pinned to the cobbles by the moon. Far away, the guns roared; but quieter now than for many months, pushed back mile by mile across the old German lines.
There were others about; other footsteps breaking the stillness; but most went in pairs, with the rustle of skirts and the hesitating, laughing stutter of conversations held half in French, half English, and neither perfectly understood. Four days ago, the streets had been empty, the population scattered to other towns, further from the lines, beyond the reach of the German bombers.
He found Biggles by the flare of the match in one of the three great cathedral doorways, awakening the carved saints into dancing life for an instant, before dying to the ember glow of a cigarette.
“You’re right, it’s pretty thick down there,” Algy commented, stepping into the darkness of the aperture. “I’ll be jolly glad when a few more of the old places can open again – at least that ought to spread the crowds out a bit.”
“Assuming we’re here that long,” said Biggles.
Algy laughed. “Well, yes. Apparently GHQ reckons we’ll be in Berlin by Christmas. But I’ve a feeling they’ve said that before.”
He felt a touch on his arm; through the gloom he could just make out the pale oblong of Biggles’ cigarette case. It felt faintly warm against his fingers as he fumbled for the catch, the warmth leeching away into the air as he located a cigarette and snapped it closed again.
“Penny for them?” he asked, as he handed it back.
Biggles struck a match – another burst of light, the brilliance as surprising in the darkness as archie – and lit Algy’s cigarette. In the moment of dazzlement which followed, Algy felt rather than saw his cousin move back to lean against the stones.
“Just thinking about all the places you could be if you weren’t here,” said Biggles.
“Easy,” said Algy. “School. Probably doing Latin prose comp., and a fat lot of good that would do me.”
“Ass.” Algy could hear the smile. “It’d probably do you more good than learning to fly a Camel. There won’t be much call for trench strafing in a few years time.”
The moon cast thick shadow over the half of the arch in which they stood; on the other, it plucked the carved figures out of the darkness. Two saints stood holding their own decapitated heads; their displaced lips were shaped into gentle, beatific curves.
“Do you really think it’ll be over soon?”
Biggles’ cigarette flared into orange, faded to dull scarlet. “No, not really. Not even with the Americans wading in. Not even with this last big push. There’ve been big pushes before, and what’s happened? We’ve run out of juice half a mile from the target, and the whole thing has to be scratched. This mess isn’t going to be sorted out with big pushes, it’s going to be a question of us having fifty men left, them having twenty men left, and then we’ll have won.”
Algy settled next to his cousin; the stone was chill, and encrusted with carving. “It’s not that bad, surely.”
Biggles laughed – not the queer, high-pitched laugh that so often punctuated his speech, but a ghostly breath of amusement. “That’s what I mean, really. It’s not so bad. You sort of get to feel that you can go on as you are forever. Maybe you go west tomorrow, maybe you don’t, it doesn’t really make much odds. Only then something happens.”
He lapsed into silence again. Algy jammed his left hand into his trouser pocket, and watched, idly, as the mingled cloud of smoke suddenly appeared as it rose into the line of moonlight, a line as straight as the glow of the projector in a smoky cinema.
“There’s a girl.”
Another flare of orange.
“She’s – ” The glowing cigarette swung, firefly-like, through the darkness, as Biggles gestured vaguely. “The sort of girl you want to go out and slay dragons for. That’s the only way to describe it. Stuck on a farm in the middle of the Somme, for heaven’s sake, and somehow so far away from all that muck and blood that the war might as well be happening on the moon. And suddenly – suddenly you can see what this war’s all about. It’s about keeping her safe.”
Algy looked at the cigarette, held in his cupped hand; watched the paper glow and consume by another fraction of an inch. “When did you meet her? Where, for that matter?”
“A week ago – when I had to make that forced landing at her farm. Coming down out of the clouds into the middle of paradise.” Another soft laugh. “Kick me as you pass. I’m starting to sound like a penny romance.”
“Well, I didn’t want to be the first to mention it...” His voice sounded fractionally alien in his ears, slightly distant.
“I didn’t want to say before, because – well, that oaf Wilks was bound to get the wrong end of the stick, and then the whole squadron’d know, and there’d never be an end of it. Not an ounce of gallantry in the whole rotten bunch. At least you won’t rag me for it - ”
He broke off, as two figures blundered into the sheltered darkness.
“Here, I think this one’s occupied,” whispered a male voice, bringing with it a hint of cheap whisky. “Pardon – um – pardonnez moi, monsieur.”
A bright female laugh was hurriedly smothered, and the couple disappeared into the night.
“A good night for bombers,” commented Algy, as the silence drew out.
Biggles dropped his cigarette end, the still-glowing tip describing a bright arc before flashing into moonlight and dissolving into a shower of sparks. “A fortnight ago I’d have looked at that moon and thought the same. Now – ”
He lapsed into quiet.
“You needn’t have come this evening, you know. I wouldn’t have told the others if you wanted to – well. Go and meet her.”
“Thanks, laddie. But I wouldn’t want to push my luck by flying out every evening, and it’s a devil of a way padding the hoof.”
From La Cathedrale came the notes of a sentimental tune, the sweet, languorous drift of French the patrons didn’t care they didn’t understand.
“Her name’s Marie.”
* * *
(Biggles would forever associate Marie with a particular song which she used to hum to herself as she went about the daily tasks of the farmhouse; something about cherries and nightingales, that seemed as much a part of her as the orchard in full leaf and the scent of autumn on the air. Afterwards, he made every effort never to hear it again.
(Many, many years later, she would tell him, smiling, that it was the only French song to which she knew most of the words, apart from the Marseillaise; ‘and that wouldn’t have struck quite the right romantic note, would it?’)
* * *
III. 266 Squadron, Maranique. September 1918
“Positive, I’m afraid.”
Mullen passed his hand briefly over his eyes. “But – there’s no question of Bigglesworth being – knowingly involved?”
Colonel Raymond smiled, thin and faintly self-mocking. “In my line of work, one can’t afford to start thinking of men as ‘above suspicion’. But after that business in Palestine, Bigglesworth has more right than most to be given the benefit of the doubt. No, I’m certain he doesn’t know anything about the lady’s...choice of career. He’s just another in a long line of young fools to be lead astray by a pretty face.”
Mullen pulled the manila file across the desk towards him, tugged at the corner of the snapshot which lay on top – a pretty girl, certainly, with strong straight brows, a very delicate profile, and lips that hovered on the edge of laughter; but not a face to launch a thousand ships, or even half a dozen Camels. “It’s funny. I’d have thought Bigglesworth would be the last person to fall into that sort of trap.”
Raymond sighed. “Older and wiser heads than his have been turned by Marie Janis. She’s one of the most promising female agents ever to have come out of the Wilhelmstrasse. The fact that they’re hazarding her behind enemy lines suggests that there’s either a major intelligence operation underway – or that the failure of the spring offensive has left them desperate enough to throw away a Knight on a Pawn’s errand.”
Mullen’s ear caught the distant drone of Clerget engines, and he stood and crossed to the window. A clear afternoon, with the lightest striping of cloud at about eight thousand feet. “And you don’t have any idea which of those it is?” he asked, eyes scanning the blue almost unconsciously.
“None.” A pause. “Which is why we want to give her free rein for the present.”
Three dark specks in the blueness; three out, three back. Slightly out of formation, the leftmost plane tending to side-slip, but nothing untoward.
“I don’t like it at all,” he said. “I’m quite aware that such luxuries as personal feelings must always be subject to the requirements of the service, but – “
“There can be no ‘buts’ where the conduct of the war is concerned.”
The lead plane drifted delicately earthward, red streamers flapping. Maclaren’s flight. Blythe next, coming in too fast as always – and that was Lissy, having trouble with his left aileron, but holding the Camel steady as he came in to an awkward cross-wind landing.
Three out, three back. Mullen felt something unknot in the base of his spine.
“I understand that, sir,” he said, turning towards the visitor. “But I feel it’s putting the kid at unnecessary risk – which may sound rich coming from his C.O., but there it is. He’s the type he’s more likely to get himself into trouble on the ground than he ever is in the air.”
Raymond’s eyes held his steadily for a long moment, before he sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. “To be entirely frank, Major, I can’t pretend I’m exactly proud of the idea myself. But it’s by the purest chance that we’ve been given this opportunity to curtail the activity of a most dangerous agent, and we can’t squander it out of misplaced moral scruples. Don’t you think that Bigglesworth would choose to do the same, if we were in a position to ask him?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” said Mullen, blandly. “Perhaps we should try the experiment.”
Raymond shook his head decisively. “Too risky. Janis is subtle and observant. She speaks French like a native, and has a singular talent for finding friends. The slightest suspicion that she is under observation, and she will disappear into France without a trace.”
“And when you do find out why she’s here – will the lady disappear without a trace then?”
Raymond stood, and retrieved the file, tapping the papers back into neat alignment. “I know it’s not a pleasant thought when a woman’s involved. But a spy can wreak more havoc in an army than a hundred fighter planes. We have no choice but to take drastic steps.”
“I’m aware of that, sir.” Mullen paused; passed a hand distractedly over the curls barely curbed into obedience by brylcreem and patience. “It’s just – for Bigglesworth’s sake, I wish there was another way.”
Raymond slipped the file into his leather case; closed the clasps with a snap. “We’ll be keeping a close eye on Miss Janis for the immediate future, and on Captain Bigglesworth. It’s more than probable that she’ll attempt to use him in her schemes. She is, by all accounts, a most resourceful young woman. When she does, we’ll be there.”
Mullen opened the door to the Mess.
Biggles and Maclaren were passing one another in the main doorway.
“Off out?” Maclaren queried.
“Just for a jaunt,” Biggles said, airily. “I’ll see if I can spot any Boche nosing around over No Man’s Land. Maybe now you’ve finished clod-hopping all over the sky, they won’t be quite so scared to poke their noses out of their burrows.”
“Well, just make sure you take adequate precautions,” said Maclaren, gravely.
“And don’t take any risks we wouldn’t take!” called Mahoney, from the depths of one of the gently-collapsing armchairs.
Biggles shot them a somewhat suspicious look, and left.
The moment the door closed, Algy flung a cushion at Mahoney with unerring aim. “Bloody idiot,” he growled. “I’ve known toddlers who are better at keeping secrets than you lot – “
“Lacey, was that Bigglesworth leaving?”
Algy shot to his feet, flush flooding his cheeks. “Yes, sir. He’s – taking an O.P. over towards Bapaume. Did you – did you want to see him about something?”
He could feel Colonel Raymond at his shoulder.
“Not especially,” said Mullen. “Just an old-fashioned notion that a C.O. ought to keep an eye on his pilots.”
Lacey turned scarlet.
Mullen escorted the Colonel to his car, and then stood beside the hanger in the September sunshine, and watched as Bigglesworth warmed up his engines, and took off towards the north.
“Poor bloody kid,” he muttered, eyes fixed on the disappearing plane. “What a wretched bloody mess.”
* * *
(“I don’t know which is worse,” he said frankly to Major Benson of 301 squadron, a fortnight later. “The ones who throw themselves into the war who don’t know what it’s like, or the ones who throw themselves into the war that do.”
(Benson was twenty years older, had fought against the Boers and in a dozen other campaigns. He shook his head, slowly. “There’s not really anything you can do about either. Not much point in trying to assign priorities.”
(Mullen fiddled with his fountain pen; didn’t meet his friend’s eye. “I never could stand waste...”)
* * *
IV. German Intelligence Field Headquarters, Chateau Boreau. October 1918
...I need hardly remind you that I write in a strictly unofficial capacity in this matter. I would urge you to bring any pressure you can to bear on the higher command to resolve this situation. I have been in contact already with my superiors in Berlin, but they are of the opinion that the life of a single agent, no matter how valuable, is not of sufficient importance to warrant risking further resources at this crucial stage.
He paused; flexed the fingers of his left hand. The weather had turned damp and misty, making his knitting bones ache. The perfect weather to risk a flight beyond the Allied lines; cloud low enough, weather still enough, to keep a pilot clear of enemy eyes almost until they were on the ground. There were a dozen designated points where an agent might wait to be picked up, in the flat fields beyond Maranique; Marie knew them all.
She almost certainly wouldn’t risk staying in the vicinity of the farm, of course. But there was a chance – one of the further drop points – if he were only fit to fly –
I feel, however, that further steps could be taken to aid her retrieval without significant danger to the operatives involved. In the aftermath of the recent Allied offensive, it seems highly improbable that a significant search will be mounted away from the Front. The inefficiency of communication between the various forces composing the Allied Expeditionary Force is notorious; our information from within British Military Intelligence suggests that knowledge of the operation is confined to a relatively small number of personnel. This conclusion is reinforced by their despicable decision to utilise our own bombers to destroy –
He hesitated; crossed out the last two words.
– to attack the civilian building in which she was based.
He had seen the reconnaissance photographs, taken first thing the following morning. The farm was a smoking crater; mud and rubble and the blackened charcoal twigs that had been apple trees. Why the bomber squadrons could manage pinpoint accuracy on a farmstead but found aircraft hangers an impossibly elusive target, he couldn’t guess.
How could they not have noticed?
There is every reason to believe that Marie was not at the farm during the raid; to abandon her behind enemy lines, knowing the fate which would await her upon capture, seems to me reckless and short-sighted.
There was no reason to believe that Marie had not been at the farm during the raid.
What should have been a fortnight’s mission, simple for one of her experience, had turned into a month’s silence; some unforeseen, unforeseeable knot in the smooth skein of events. He had come from Berlin because their shared history would, he hoped, help him to think as she did. Would help them to find her.
It hadn’t been needed, of course. He should have had more faith. The message had dropped out of heaven into their very laps, trailing her scarf like a triumphal banner; and there was something of her laughter in that, in its bold flicker through the bright morning air from the British plane. He had almost laughed to see it, could almost hear her chiding him for having wasted his journey.
And then –
How could they not have realised? Even though it was night; even when the position had been so certain, so precisely marked, near the curve of the river shining in the shell-fire.
I am aware that your duties more than occupy your time; and that the position of an officer of the Royal and Imperial army is a delicate one when negotiating with military intelligence in the German forces. Yet for the love you bear your daughter, and for the love you bear our common Fatherland, for which she has risked so much and to which she still has much to give, I beg you to use what influence you have.
He could have written more; had written more, in fact, to his own superiors in Berlin, to their superiors, to his and Marie’s old mentors at the Wilhemstrasse, to anyone over whom he had any sort of hold. It’s possible that he only writes to Marie’s father now to save having to explain it all when she fails to return; it’s hardly likely it’ll make any practical difference.
Von Stalhein rose from the paper-strewn desk, crossed to the window, and looked out towards the south-west. The distant river gleamed fitfully as the veil of misty rain thinned and thickened. Good weather for spies.
He flexed the stiffening fingers of his left hand, and waited patiently for a miracle.
* * *
(When the miracle happened and Marie returned – hair stained dark and fastened in a tight bun, black-clad and draped in a knitted shawl of considerable antiquity, the very image of a peasant woman from the south – he expected her to register some surprise at his presence, to tease him, accuse him of rushing in Perceval-like to her rescue. He had never known her too weary to tease.
(She had reported her flight across France to the Spanish border in a low, even voice; answered all questions lucidly and carefully; and had requested permission for two days’ leave before returning to duty, which was duly granted.
(On the second day, she formally refused his proposal of marriage.
(In time, he grew to believe that she was right.)
* * *
V. Maranique, 2nd November 1918
“You know, I wouldn’t object quite so much to Biggles’ determination to kill himself if he didn’t seem so set on taking the rest of us with him.”
Fortymore flopped bonelessly into one of the Mess’ ancient armchairs, and let his head fall backwards onto the faded and incongruous chintz. His forehead was swathed in a neat white bandage. “Hardly a Hun to be seen, so he insists on tootling on over the lines until we do. I’ll take my dying oath that we went over the church at Hamburg. And of course, just as we’ve reached the limits of our fuel we run across a pack of tripehounds, just spoiling for a fight. It’s a bloody miracle we got home in one piece. Well, more or less one piece, anyway.”
“Hold fast, lad,” said Mahoney, from behind his paperback. “If you make it through the next fortnight alive, I’m sure he’ll put himself out of your misery.”
Algy, sitting at the piano and muddling his way quietly through the score of ‘The Maid of the Mountains’, stopped playing abruptly and swung round on the stool. “Why not start a bloody book on it?” he flared. “You lot make me sick. Is there anyone in this room whose fat Biggles hasn’t pulled out of the fire at some point in this stupid war? And now you talk about him as if – “
“Easy, laddie,” Maclaren broke in, soft and sober. “You know any one of us would give our right arm for Biggles if it’d do him any good. But we’ve all seen men go that way – tearing up the sky all hours, just looking for death. And you can’t say that death’s not easy enough to find round here.”
Algy bit back a dozen angry responses.
“Sorry, Algy,” said Fortymore. “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s this beastly head, it’d be enough to make a saint cuss.”
His face still had the softness of a schoolboy about it; his apology the anxious edge of a fourth form boy accused of cheeking the captain of cricket. Algy managed to force his face into a smile. “Well - lots of saints had their headaches cured in a pretty terminal way, so watch it.”
As he began to play again, Biggles entered, still clad in his ‘warm’, with flying-helmet and gauntlets in his hand.
“Off out again?” asked Mahony.
“Thought I’d take advantage of the break in the weather,” Biggles said, fiddling with the fingers of his liner gloves. “Unfortunately, my kite took a bit of a knock in that last scuffle, and Smyth doesn’t reckon he can get it going again until tomorrow morning. Any chance I could borrow yours?” He smiled. “I promise I’ll bring it back safe and sound.”
“Afraid not,” replied Mahoney, returning to his book. “B Flight’s detailed for escort duty in an hour. Can’t have you getting her all mucky before then, the brass hats wouldn’t reckon it showed the correct decree of decorum.”
“And mine’s out until the AMs can find a new cowling,” Fortymore offered, helpfully.
“You’ve done four hours already today,” Maclaren pointed out. “Why not sit down and let the poor boobs at 187 have a crack at the enemy for a change?”
Biggles hesitated for a moment, then smiled again – a swift, sharp smile, something awkward in the set of the lips. “All right, but only because I wouldn’t want you lot to look like the lazy layabouts you are when your trip sheets go in to the old man for approval.”
He divested himself of the jacket, threw it carelessly over the back of a chair, and planted himself in front of the fire. “Portrait of a squadron at war,” he said, sadly, looking around the Mess. “Shilling shockers, cosy fires, Horlicks for young Thirty, and the usual sentimental bilge from the piano. It’s no wonder this war is going to the dogs.” He fiddled with his gauntlets as he spoke; straightening and stretching each finger in turn, fourth finger to thumb and back, entirely independent of his speech. “Do stow it, Algy. If you can’t play something uplifting, don’t play anything at all.”
He stood, crossed to the fireplace, and signalled the Mess sergeant for a drink.
Algy shut the piano quietly, and crossed to the circle of chairs near the fireplace. He perched on the edge of an armchair, looking into the flames.
When the Mess sergeant returned with a tumbler half full of whisky, Algy looked up.
“I’ll have one too.”
Maclaren cast him a look. “You’re not normally one for the spirits,” he commented. “What would your mother say?”
Algy grinned. “The last thing my mother said to me face to face was ‘don’t you dare think of running off to France until you’ve taken your university entrance, young man’, so I think a little whisky will be the least of my worries when I get home.”
The afternoon drew in, clear and cold. Biggles talked, clearly and fluently, about his flying that day; the Rumpler he had brought down over Tournai that morning; about the odd atmospheric effects brought on by the change in the prevailing wind the previous day; about William Barker’s recent astonishing dogfight in the new Sopwith Snipe, and the probable advantages of the model over the Camel; a staccato patter of speech, punctuated by gestures with the hand that held the glass, and that awkward, nervous laugh. He crossed from the fire to the chair to the window and back, never settling for long.
Every time he ordered a fresh drink, Algy would order one too; throwing back the last half-inch of spirits in his glass, then holding it wordlessly up to the Mess sergeant, whose face was a cultured blank.
The third time this happened, Biggles looked at him sharply. “Don’t be a young fool, you know you’ve no head for whisky.”
“If I don’t practice, I’ll never learn,” said Algy, with the faintest edge of over-annunciation.
After Mahoney left for his escort job, Maclaren invited them and Fortymore to a game of bridge. Algy was partnered with the younger boy; he could feel Thirty’s eyes on him, dark and evaluating. He bid recklessly in the first rubber, insisted on betting five bob on a hand of no-trumps in the second, and in the third dropped his cards entirely.
Biggles tossed his cards to the table and stood up abruptly, setting down his glass with a precise click. “I’m going for a breath of air,” he announced.
Algy levered himself out the chair. “What a good idea. Think I will too.” His voice was lightly slurred.
“You’re going to go to bed and sleep it off,” said Biggles, quietly. “You’ve made a big enough ass of yourself already this evening.”
“I’m not sure I have,” Algy replied, meditatively. “I think I can be more of an ass yet. If I really make an effort, you know. I’m terribly good at it.”
Biggles looked at him for a long moment, then turned away. “Suit yourself.”
He made a move for the door; Algy, attempting to cut him off, misjudged his speed and distance, and cannoned heavily into Biggles’ shoulder.
“Stupid bloody Camels,” he muttered, clinging to the solid khaki for support. “Always trying to put you in a spin.”
“Go to bed,” said Biggles, coldly.
“I won’t – I won’t let you go out by yourself,” Algy said, indistinctly. “Not by yourself.”
“Will someone take this disgusting object and douse his head in the nearest horse-trough?” Biggles growled, pushing him away
“I’ll take him, sir,”
Algy felt a steady, capable hand on his shoulder, easing him away from his cousin. He felt suddenly very hot, then very cold, sweat beading on his forehead.
“I – I don’t feel – “
Then, for a while, he rather lost track of events; which was probably for the best.
He came back to himself while heaving wretchedly into a bin, around the back of the mess hall. When he was reasonably confident that there was nothing else in his stomach – not that there had been much in there to begin with, aside from the whisky, and that might perhaps have been the problem – he straightened up, shivering and mortified.
“A little better now?”
Fortymore was leaning against the wall near the kitchen doors, eyes politely averted. He held out a glass of water, which Algy took, gratefully. He rinsed his mouth out, thoroughly, and poured some into his cupped hand to splash over his face.
“Thanks,” he whispered. His throat felt sandpaper raw. His head was a little clearer than it had been, but the world was still spinning. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a stick of gum?”
The younger boy rooted in his tunic pocket, and held out a packet.
“Keep it. You’ll probably want some later.”
He pushed himself away from the wall, and looked at Algy. There was a thin crack of light falling through the half-open door, which shed over them a glow dim as a single candle. Fortymore looked more than ever like the tomb-effigy of a Norman knight, the ascetic lines of the middle ages frozen into immobility in his face. Then he shook his head, slowly.
“You’re an ass, and you’re worth ten of him,” he muttered, fiercely.
Algy dozed, fitfully, forcing himself awake every time he nodded off, until his cousin came in. He opened his eyes as the lamp flared and dazzled him.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Biggles paused, halfway out of his tunic. “So I should think. A truly rotten display. You’ll be lucky if you’re fit to fly in the morning.” He continued to undress, moving in front of the lamp, cutting off the glare. Algy closed his eyes; could still see his movement in the shifts of orange and purple behind his eyelids. “What on earth did you think you were doing?”
“’m not entirely sure, to be honest,” Algy whispered. “Bloody awful idea. Definitely. Trying to prove a point.”
“Do you think you could see your way clear to not doing it again?”
“Depends. Will you?”
The shift of light halted. “I’ve got a rather better head for it than you.”
“’s because I don’t do it every day. You do.”
So strange, to be able to hear so little of the guns.
“Your mother would have my hide for a suitcase if she knew I let you get into that sort of mess,” Biggles muttered.
The lamp went out. Algy opened his eyes, let them adjust, as the bed-springs described Biggles settling for the night in their metallic groan.
“Why didn’t you say – about Charles?”
A long pause.
“It didn’t seem the sort of thing that comes up in conversation.” Another pause. “You heard from your people, I suppose.”
“Last letter from my mother.” Algy smiled slightly, buried it against his pillow. “She told me to keep an eye on you.”
“I would think she had enough mother-henning to do over you without worrying herself about me.”
“My mother could mother-hen over the world...”
The moonlight was falling in a narrow cascade through the ill-meeting curtains, over the mounded sheets.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel it as much as I thought I would.”
Algy turned over, to face the wall.
“Go to sleep.”
* * *
(Peter Fortymore had been sixteen when he made his way to France and joined 266 squadron; when the war ended, he was still too young to enlist. Which wasn’t so bad, at first – there had been Rip, for one, and Algy only a year or so older, and out here for a year already. But then – then there wasn’t Rip any more, and Algy –
(Biggles had saved his life before he’d even met him; could fly like no one he’d ever seen; had scores of victories to his name; had talked to him sensibly when anyone else would’ve packed him off to school with a flea in his ear. And then –
(He couldn’t pretend to understand.)
* * *
VI. London. September 1920.
“Seen much of Biggles lately?”
Algy swirled the whisky and soda around his glass, the ice chiming softly. “A little. I was in Monte most of the summer, but I’ve tried to look him up when I’m in town.”
Wilks grinned. “You gay old dog. I suppose it’s easier to find a little excitement when you’re living on an Hon’s income.”
“If the Hon. in question comes from Merionethshire, he spends most of his income doing anything to keep away from the place,” said Algy, grimacing. He swallowed another mouthful of whisky. “Anyway, I’d have thought you’d had enough excitement to last a lifetime.”
“So would I,” said Wilks. “Those last few months at 187, all I could think about was finding a nice girl and an allotment in Sussex, and settling down to grow prize marrows for the rest of my days.” He pulled a wry face. “Well, that lasted about a month.”
“You had a girl for as long as a month?” gasped Algy.
“Well, I had the allotment, anyway,” Wilks conceded.
There was hardly a uniform to be seen in the Long Bar these days; the normal uniform of London life, with its muted greys and browns, had reasserted itself. But there was still an indefinably military air to the place: something in the similarity of hair cuts, in the way people stood; certainly something in the almost imperceptible current in the air when a car backfired in the street outside. Perhaps, Algy thought, this would be the way this generation would always be: frozen into patterns of khaki and stripes of rank.
“Then about a fortnight later, I remembered that marrows were about the dullest things on God’s earth, chucked it in, and started looking about for someone who’d let me fly things for a living,” Wilks continued. “Unfortunately, footling about between London and Paris isn’t really my idea of flying.”
Algy smiled, wryly. “Well, there isn’t much call for trench-strafing these days...”
“And even if it were, there’s already a hundred other pilots in the queue in front of me.” Wilks regarded his drink moodily. “It makes you fairly sick when we’ve spent the last four years becoming the best flyers in the world, and then the government’s not willing to put in the money to really make Britain into the dominant power in the air. How on earth do they think we’re going to secure out borders if we can’t secure our skies?”
Algy raised an eyebrow. “Why so dull and mute, young pilot? Are you practising for your maiden speech?”
Wilks snorted. “You try indulging in irony when the Boche are back in twenty years and we’ve got to fight them off with pots and pans.”
“Is that why you’re buzzing off to Bolivia?”
“Well, part of it,” said Wilks. “The flying should be a bit more exciting than working for AT&T, and they’re letting me have more or less carte blanche to build up the airforce as I want – well, as long as the funds hold out, anyway. Mostly – “ He paused, tilting his glass to look through the mess of ice and whisky at the polished surface of the bar. “London’s a pretty stinking place, really. I never cared for it much, and it’s worse since we came back. The place is stuffed with profiteers, fellows who talk loudly about the war and how sorry they are that their asthma wouldn’t let them go out – and women are worse – “ He broke off, patted his pockets. Algy silently held out his cigarette case. Wilks took one, lit it, and handed the case back before continuing. “It’s got to be better out there. Freer. More like – “
Algy took a cigarette himself.
“Why don’t you come out with me?” Wilks offered. “And Biggles too, for that matter. I’ll need all the experienced instructors I can get for the first few years. Can’t promise that much by way of pay, but – oh, damn – “ as he distractedly tapped cigarette ash into the remnants of his drink, where it hissed, sadly. Algy wrinkled his nose, and reached for an ashtray. “With board and lodging thrown in you won’t do too badly. And the flying’ll be unbeatable. It’ll be just like the old days.”
Algy managed a smile. “What, with you and Biggles spending about as much time squabbling over gramophones and convincing each other’s squadrons you were dead as you did fighting the Germans? I’m not sure your new employers will be quite as understanding as Major Mullen.”
Wilks grinned. “So long as we get the job done, I don’t think they’ll complain. Go on, what do you say?”
Algy thought about his sisters, still writing to him once a week; about the big empty house that Biggles had sold after his father and brother had failed to return from the war, and the small, empty flat on Mount Street he had bought in its place, every surface covered with maps, newspapers, coffee cups and half-smoked cigarettes.
He finished his drink. “Nothing doing, I’m afraid. London may be stinking, but it’s the only place for me.”
Wilks sighed. “Your loss. Mention it to Biggles for me, if you see him.”
“I think he’s had about as much of war-flying as is good for him,” said Algy.
* * *
(Perhaps it’s surprising how few of them stay in Britain after the war: Wilks flitting from Bolivia to Canada to half the Commonwealth, Mahoney in Alexandria, Mullen in Cape Town, and half the squadron scattered between the two. Perhaps it isn’t.
(The threads that bind them together are imperceptible, until one draws tight.)
* * *
VII. Wootton St Lawrence, near Basingstoke. June 1967
The cottage was red brick; he had imagined it would be half-timbered. It was much straighter than he had thought, much sturdier; the bricks were weathered into a deep rose pink, against which the scarlet blooms nodded complacently in the breeze. The door was low, and sounded decidedly solid when he knocked.
After a minute, it opened by a few inches. He supposed she had good enough reason to be suspicious of strangers.
“I – I’m sorry to intrude,” he began, removing his hat. The words he had rehearsed on the train felt forced and uncomfortable. “You don’t know me. I’m a friend of Biggles.”
The door opened a fraction wider. Through it, in the dimness, he could see a strip of sober dress, a sheen of hair growing silver with the years, a fragment of pale face and the flash of narrow reading glasses.
“You – I’m in the right place, aren’t I? You are Marie Janis?”
“Has something happened to Biggles?”
Her voice was lower than he had expected; the hint of an untraceable accent.
“Well, it hadn’t when I left London this morning,” he said, with a small smile. “I hope it still hasn’t. I just – well. It sounds ridiculous, but I wanted to meet you. My name’s Algernon Lacey.”
The door opened further. She had the delicate uprightness of a wren, the sense of swift movement briefly arrested. She frowned, very slightly.
“You are Biggles’ cousin?”
Algy swallowed. “Yes.”
Marie smiled like sunshine on water. “Then I’ve wanted to meet you too.”
* * *
(There are very few love stories which are only about two people.)