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The Distant Hum of Engines

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He'd thought to find peace and quiet in the family home, but Saint-George had not been there long when he came to realise that the place he really needed peace and quiet was in his own head, and he was not going to find that anywhere, least of all here. He'd been trying to find some kind of same-ness at home, too, a place untouched by the war, but that hope was as much in vain; his father looked strained, and years older, and while at first he thought his mother seemed unchanged he came to notice that her clothes were a little too worn, her hands a little too rough, and there was a line of worry that appeared, a small crease in her forehead, whenever she glanced at her husband.

Perhaps it would not have been so bad if he'd felt he'd had somewhere else to go, but with his beloved London a wreck of her former self - and with his hands shaking so, every time he even thought about getting behind the wheel of a car - he was stuck, it seemed, where he was, always with the distant overhead hum of engines that weren't there.

He found out later that it was his grandmother who had asked his uncle to visit, although visit was perhaps not quite the right word; Saint-George suspected his uncle did not speak to his parents beyond the necessary courtesies, but made haste to the library, where Saint-George was - where he had been, almost every day, since he'd left the hospital – in a large armchair, staring listlessly out the window. Some people would have, and did, feel the need to ask Saint-George "how he was holding up", or to speak of inconsequential matters as if that would distract him from the invisible, roaring fire. His Uncle Peter didn't, but merely sat, and waited until Saint-George was ready to speak.

"Does it ever get any better?" he asked, at last. He didn't mean his leg, but Uncle Peter knew that.

"Slowly," his uncle replied. "Too slowly, really. You'll wake up one morning and realise you didn't see any dead men in your sleep, but they'll be back the next night, just the same. You might have weeks and months that you don't see them, and then you'll smell the wrong thing, or see the wrong picture, and they're just there, waiting for you."

Saint-George smiled, although he knew it looked nothing like the light-hearted smile he'd been able to wear five years ago. "You couldn't give a chap a little false hope?"

"It would be even worse if I did," Uncle Peter replied, his voice tinged with regret, and Saint-George thought of the tall, withdrawn man from his childhood, the uncle who had fought in The War, who he was Not To Disturb. The Invalid. He wondered if others would think that of him, now. He certainly felt like the label applied, and he hated himself for being so weak.

 "If only I wasn’t so useless,” he said, and regretted it almost immediately. But Uncle Peter didn’t hasten to reassure him that he’d done his bit, that he should rest now and let others do the fighting. He looked thoughtful, instead.

“As it happens, I do have a job that needs doing, and preferably by a chap I can trust. How’s your head? Hurting much?”

“Only at night, sometimes,” Saint-George replied, and felt a small prick of curiosity break through the blanket of lethargy which had surrounded him ever since the accident. “Why does that matter?”

“You’ll need to be able to read – and worse, think. I know you have the ability for the former and even, at times the latter, but whether you can do it for long stretches-”

“I’ll give it a damned good shot,” said Saint-George, more eagerly than he really felt – but anything had to be better than sitting here, unsure if he wanted to do something or if he just felt like he ought, and unable to bear the thought that nothing might be all he was good for, now.

***

Uncle Peter did not even suggest that they drive. They caught the train instead, and so long as Saint-George did not look out at the scenery flashing by it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. Uncle Peter kept his talk strictly inconsequential; but then, they were hardly going to talk about anything important in public, lest of all the work he’d asked Saint-George to do.

“He was half gone by the time he’d got to England, poor fellow,” his uncle had said, the night he’d arrived, “and I don’t know whether he was half gone before he’d made his escape. So he could be right, and there could be something hugely, horribly important in those papers – and then again, there might not be.”

“Shouldn’t there be someone better – well, qualified to find out?” Saint-George had asked. “One of those code cracker johnnies old Phipps used to go on about?”

“The best code cracker johnnies are already doing something even more important, and as for the others – as I said, I need someone I can trust.” And he’d looked so brooding at that, that Saint-George forbore to ask any more questions. Now, on their way to his uncle’s house, it occurred to him that that may have been exactly the effect that his uncle was trying to produce.

When they arrived at the house itself – collected from the station by horse and trap, which Saint-George found to be both amusing and something of a relief – he understood why his mother had taken to referring to it as “your uncle’s little place in the country”. It was certainly nothing compared to the family home; and yet, compared to the barracks, even compared to his own old apartments in town, it was a decent size. He supposed Uncle Peter did not have much staff at the moment, apart from Bunter and the children’s nurse; and probably the gardens, while not extensive, had been pretty, once, before necessity had meant they needed to be sown with cabbages, or whatever those leafy things were.

“Don’t be a young idiot,” Uncle Peter said when he tried to unload his own case. “I’ll see to it. You go and find your aunt; she’s been worrying about you. I did try to tell her that you had the famous Wimsey hard-headedness and that it does tend to keep what little brains we have more or less in tact; but she won’t believe me until she sees you for herself.”

Reluctantly, Saint-George did as he was told. He took a wrong turn at first, and wound up in the kitchen, but on second try managed to locate the front stairs and a long hallway. He could hear children’s voices floating towards him from the far end – his cousins’, he supposed. As he slowly tapped his way towards them, he glanced through the doorways he passed. Mostly bedrooms and bathrooms up here, one of which would soon become his – others, he knew, belonged for the moment to WLA girls who were working at nearby farms and had not managed to find closer board.

As he passed one of the closed doors, the doorknob turned and it opened. For a moment, Saint-George was seized with a deep desire to flee – and then he took hold of himself, and held steady as a young woman emerged from the room.

 He recognised her at once. How could he not? Like everyone else he’d met since he returned she looked as though she’d aged too much; and yet, while so many people had faded, he would swear that she shone brighter than ever. Her deep red hair was pulled into a tight, practical knot behind her head, and she stood straight, almost as tall as he was. Her lashes still framed large, intelligent eyes; he chin was still determined, if not a little pointed; and if, perhaps her arms were a little thicker and more freckled than he remembered he could not say that it had harmed her particularly.

“Miss Thorpe,” he said, quite politely, he thought, under the circumstances.

“Lord Saint-George,” she replied, as though they’d run in to each other at the wrong party. And then perhaps the surrealness of the situation struck both of them at once, because her lips twitched into that familiar bewitching smile at the same time that he felt his own produce a grin, the first real one for weeks – months – years.

“Lady Harriet said you’d be arriving today,” she said. “I didn’t think you would actually show.”

“I didn’t know you were here at all,” Saint-George admitted.

“And would you still have come if you had known?” she asked.

There was no answer to that, not that he could think of then. It would be a lie to say he’d never thought of her, in all this time, but he’d only thought of her as a sort of ghost of happiness. He’d never expected to see her again, not so casually. Hell, he’d often never expected to see anyoneagain. So he simply responded with, “How’s Knightley?” and was surprised to hear the lack of bitterness in his voice. Too much had happened, he supposed. It was hard to begrudge anyone their contentment, even Hilary.

“Happily married,” she replied. “Or so I’ve heard.”

 Saint-George leaned rather more heavily on his crutches, and said “Oh,” rather stupidly.

 “You should probably go and say hello to the rest of your family,” Hilary told him pointedly. “I’ll see you this evening, I expect.” She gave him a sharp nod and passed by, and Saint-George stood and watched her retreating back until she disappeared down the stairs. The corridor felt suddenly empty without her, and he wondered if he’d actually lost his mind, and his family had been too polite to tell him he’d start imagining lost chances reappearing.

 Eventually he did seek out his aunt and cousins. Aunt Harriet was clearly pleased to see him, welcoming him very literally with open arms, and he would have liked to have stayed there but the children’s voices were too high, too loud. His aunt must have understood because she’d offered to show him to his room.

“If it’s not a bother I’d rather see the library,” he said. “I’m to use it as my office as long as I’m here, and I’d like to get stuck in as soon as possible.” And his uncle had the same idea, as he was in the library as Saint-George and his aunt arrived, stacking bundles of paper on the floor, next to a chair and desk that had obviously been set up for his nephew. Aunt Harriet dropped a kiss on Saint-George’s cheek, to his surprise – she’d never been demonstrative – and told him she’d make sure to let him know when it was time for the evening meal.

“How on earth did he manage to smuggle out so much?” Saint-George demanded, once he was settled. The paper was in two stacks, each standing as high as his own seat. “I thought you meant a few leaves, or perhaps a journal, but this-”

“Is going to be a lot of work,” Uncle Peter agreed, neatly avoiding the question. “You needn’t start today, if you’re tired.”

“I’m not,” Saint-George lied, but as he was always tired these days it was practically the truth. “Is there any order to these?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. And will be better, hopefully, when you’ve had a chance to start reading through. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?”

With nothing for it, Saint-George grabbed a large wad of papers from the nearest pile, and started reading. It was probably safe to assume that this would not be any kind of code that he – or Uncle Peter – was familiar with, and the further he read the more convinced he was that he was right. The pages read like a novel – a racey one, at that – and there was nothing in it to suggest it was anything but a rejected manuscript – or perhaps, he thought, looking at the piles, several manuscripts.

It wasn’t the easiest of writing to read, either. Forty pages in Saint-George was starting to feel irritated that Uncle Peter’s loony German had not invested in a typewriter; and then, as if she had sensed he was needing a break, Aunt Harriet appeared with a small tray - and Hilary Bennet.

“Miss Bennet,” Saint-George said, again.

“Lord Saint-George.”

“I won’t ask you how it’s going, Jerry,” Aunt Harriet said. “I heard you muttering from the other side of the house.”

“Thank you,” Saint-George said as she set down a pot of tea on the small table beside him. “No, but I wouldn’t expect to be making much headway yet.” He glanced at Hilary. He’d had time to wonder what she was doing there – not just in the room, but in the house, in this part of the country. He just hadn’t figured out how to ask yet.

“I’d quite forgotten that you and Hilary had met at Oxford,” said his aunt. “Did Peter tell you she was working as his secretary, for the moment?”

“It must have slipped his mind,” Saint-George replied, dryly. “I didn’t realise Uncle Peter needed a secretary.”

Aunt Harriet sighed. “There are so many people wanting him just now – and I wish he didn’t need to go up to London quite so often. At least you’re here now – I know he’s been worrying about those papers.” From somewhere, there was a crash, and a yelp. “Bredon,” she groaned. “Hilary, don’t let anyone ever tell you about the serenity of motherhood.” She left the library.

Saint-George looked back across at Hilary, who had made herself comfortable on one of the few armchairs that wasn’t stacked with books. “Are you enjoying your work?” he asked politely.

“Oh yes. I’ve always dreamed of using my MA to become someone’s secretary.” Again, Saint-George found himself smiling. She still spoke in that vaguely ironic way he found so attractive.

“Not much call for decent writers at the moment.”

“Or even half-decent ones. No paper to spare.” She was watching him intently, he noticed. Not staring at his legs, either; her eyes were trained keenly on his face. It was slightly unnerving. “Lord Peter makes sure I’m not bored, though, and it’s real work – although the land girls think I have it easy.” She laughed suddenly. “P’raps they’re right. I certainly hate the thought of getting up at dawn to go…” she paused.

“Milk the hens and feed the cows?” Saint-George said, and she laughed again.

“Bother you! I drink too much wine at one party and you’ll never let me forget it. How ungentleman-like!”

Saint-George managed to give her a small bow from his seat. “My pardon, lady, but I have no intention to forget the first night I saw you dance.” It was a good imitation of Millican, and she laughed again.

“How ghastly! What’s Milly up to these days?”

Saint-George suddenly felt his stomach flop. He’d been back at Oxford, for a moment. For a moment, he’d forgotten. “Dead,” he said abruptly. “Shot down.”

The laughter left Hilary’s face. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. He shook his head, wanting to talk about something else.

“How’d you come to work for Uncle Peter anyway? Wouldn’t you rather be in the Fens?”

“I was. But the army decided they needed the Red House – without me in it – and I wasn’t allowed to say no. I knocked around London for a little while, but we were bombed out of our rooms – and then, luckily, I ran into Lord Peter. And now here I am.”

“I’m glad,” Saint-George said, without thinking, and then his brain caught up with his mouth, and he said, “I mean-”

“I’m glad too,” Hilary said cheerfully. “If you’ve finished your tea, I’ll take it back to the kitchen for you.”

He let her, glad not to face any more of her company just then. He found himself too distracted to read, after that, and muddled his papers so badly he had to spend a good half hour re-ordering his pile. Aunt Harriet duly came to tell him when supper was ready – it was late, to accommodate the WLA girls – and he found he was disappointed that Hilary was not there. Seeing him look around, Aunt Harriet smiled at him. “Peter and Hilary work odd hours, I’m afraid.”

“I see,” he said hurriedly, and picked at his chicken and potatoes, half-listening to the women gossip, until he could excuse himself as needing an early night.

He did, too, but he couldn’t sleep. Instead Saint-George lay awake, remembering the matter of fact way Hilary had talked of being bombed, thinking of the jagged London buildings, of the times he’d flown off course, of the flames and the hum and arms torn from bodies.

Eventually, he got up. His hands wouldn’t work for buttons, so he wrapped himself in a dressing gown, rescued his crutches from where they’d fallen beside the bed, and went, as softly as he could, down to the library.

He’d only meant to find a book to read, but he was drawn back to those piles. Making sure the blackout curtain was drawn, he shut the library door and switched on the electric light. Sitting down, he again grabbed a wad of paper – from the second pile, this time – and began to read. It was more of the same, bizarre characters doing and saying odd , although not incomprehensible, things, and he was just about to give it up when a sentence caught his eye. Hadn’t he read those words – those exact words – before?

He groped for the papers he’d read earlier – he’d thrown them to the floor in his irritation – and skimmed through. There. And – there, wasn’t that another, the same? Neither of the sentences seemed to mean anything, either separate or together, and yet surely they couldn’t have been repeated so exactly by accident?

He opened his desk and pulled out a pad of rough paper and a biro and in his own quick, neat handwriting, copied down the two phrases. He felt his heart racing, but he tried to temper his excitement. If this was the key to the puzzle, it was going to take him a long time to read through every single sheet of paper, to make sure that every single repeated phrase was kept. He supposed he should be thankful he’d been blessed with a good memory.

***

He awoke to find natural light pouring into the library, and someone was setting a tray down beside him. Saint-George twitched, stiff from sleeping seated upright in addition to the usual pain. “Bunter?” he croaked. “I didn’t see you yesterday.”

“Good morning, my Lord,” Bunter said. Saint-George had never managed to get a particularly good read of the man, but he seemed pleased to see him. Or perhaps, he thought suddenly, remembering the uncle who fought in The War, he was just relieved to be recognized. “Yesterday I was detained until late in the village, drilling the Home Guard.”

“Uncle said you’re damned well running the thing,” Saint-George said, reaching for the cup of tea he’d spied.

“My Lord exaggerates. They were merely in need of someone with experience in areas that they were lacking, and my small experience has helped them, somewhat.”

Saint-George had drained his cup already. “Well, that’s certainly helped me. I suppose you’re quite used to finding Uncle Peter asleep in his chair at odd hours.” He thought he saw Bunter’s face lift ever so slightly into what might pass for a smile.

“Not so often since his marriage, my Lord.”

The cup of tea only got him so far; but after washing up and snagging a few thick slices of bread from the kitchen, Saint-George felt almost awake, and hunted out his uncle to tell him what he thought he might have found. Uncle Peter pursed his lips into a silent whistle. “There could be something in that,” he said at last.

“I don’t know what it means, just yet,” Saint-George admitted.

“No, but you know it probably means something, which is a step forward, so keep at it and you may find your step turning into more of a leap.”

It didn’t that day, although Saint-George found two more repeated phrases, and that night Hilary appeared next to him at supper, although there was no sign of his uncle. “You look pleased with yourself,” she told him.

“I’m feeling useful,” he explained.

“Then you’ve changed since Oxford,” she said with a cocked eyebrow. “You never wanted to be useful to anyone then.”

“The circumstance have changed,” he pointed out, and wished he could tell her that he loathed the young man he’d been before the war, for being so light hearted and carefree without knowing he was either. There was a burst of laughter from the women down the other end of the table, and he felt a cool hand on his arm.

“I’ve met other men I knew before the war, after they’d returned. I knew you’d change, I just – wasn’t sure whether I was going to like you more or less than I did before.” Her voice was quiet, so that the others couldn’t overhear them.

“And what have you decided?” Saint-George asked, his throat sticking slightly.

“I think I like you just the same.” She prodded a stray pea with a fork, and added, “I just don’t want to hit you as much as I did before.”

***

The days went on. Uncle Peter left for London and returned, his brow furrowed, and prowled around the library until Saint-George told him that he could work, or his uncle could pace, but not both at once. The piles of unread papers got smaller and Saint-George’s list of phrases got longer. Hilary started coming to every meal, and they’d both linger afterwards, talking. Saint-George found himself telling her about visiting Millican’s family when he had first got out of hospital; of some of the other fellows who’d been part of their crowd, back in those carefree days before the war. It wasn’t all bad news, after all. Hilary was still in touch with some of the girls they’d both known – most, like her, had found work of some sort, joining the Wrens or going home to organise what they could through their mothers’ WI. Some now had young children, and they both shook their heads trying to reconcile the irresponsible people they remembered with the sensible adults they must be now. They talked about Oxford, reminiscing about crusty professors and the jokes and arguments they’d shared. The only topic they avoided was that of their last argument – the big one – and Hilary’s former engagement. Saint-George wasn’t sure whether this was a good sign or not.

The dead men were still there at night. He started to take the papers to his room with him so that when he woke up sweating or shivering or both he didn’t need to chance waking up anyone else when he went down to the library. That didn’t seem to matter; more than once while he was screwing up his eyes over near illegible scraps of writing there’d be a gently tap at the door and Bunter would appear, always with a cup of tea and a small something to eat. At first he assumed that Uncle Peter had put his manservant up to it; but then, one night, he caught something that might have been worry in Bunter’s eye, and it dawned on him that the other man might be worried about him for his own sake – that he might, in fact, be fond of Saint-George. And that thought was so surprising that he managed to put down his work and sleep, dreamlessly, for the rest of that one night at least.

At last he reached the last sheet of paper on the last pile, and then had the horrible realisation that the easy part of his job was over. And the hard part, it turned out, was hard.

“I have no idea where I should even start,” he complained to Hilary over an afternoon cup of tea, when it had felt like he’d spent all morning tearing his hair out. She rolled her eyes at him.

“At the beginning, of course.”

“Yes, but where’s that? I’ve tried all the obvious things – alphabetical, numerical, length and breadth, cross-referencing them with quotations and each other, backwards, forwards, sideways-”

“If you were to ask my expert opinion…” she left the sentence hanging there, and he grimaced at her.

“What’s your expert opinion?”

“It was the repetition that you were following in the first place, wasn’t it? So maybe that’s his modus operandi.”

Saint-George looked doubtful. “I would have noticed any more recurrences in the wording; I’ve read it enough times.”

“So maybe it isn’t an exact – er, echo – but it’s a pattern of some kind.”

“What kind?”

Hilary shrugged and grinned. “I’m not going to do all your work for you.”

Saint-George pulled a face again, but when she left attacked the work with renewed vigour. It struck him that the writer was unlikely to have left everything to chance, and hunted along his uncle’s shelves for any books he might have on unravelling codes beyond the ordinary. There were several, and all of them thick. Saint-George resigned himself to not discovering the answer that day, or the next.

In fact, it was the third day when everything finally fell into place. He woke up feeling even muzzier than usual, and Aunt Harriet, possibly taking pity on him, asked him to run into the village for the mail, as their usual postman had taken ill.

Glad of the fresh air, Saint-George agreed, and found, when he got to the stable, that Hilary was there, already readying the horses. “Your uncle doesn’t need me this morning,” she said. “So I’m coming with you.” She didn’t give him any choice in the matter, he noticed, but then, that wasn’t exactly her way.

The mornings were getting colder, and Saint-George probably should have worn a thicker coat. Luckily, Hilary was leaning against his arm, which somehow managed to warm his whole body. It was a short run into the village, and Hilary seemed to know most of the people they passed – at least, she waved or nodded her head at most of them. She directed him to the small post shop, where a gossipy woman gave them the latest news on their postman, who sounded more as though he were paying for a night of solid drinking than any deadly illness. Saint-George did not feel entirely unsympathetic.

On the way back Hilary began to talk about a novel she’d begun to plan. It was funny, but while it didn’t seem to be the kind of story Saint-George usually enjoyed, listening to her describe it made him ache to read it. “Of course,” she added as the horses trotted back in towards the stable. “It’s partly just one of those things to think about when I’m going through one of those never ending list of names that Lord Peter gives me-”

“What?” Saint-George said, not even noticing his own rudeness. “List of names?”

Hilary stared at him. “Yes, of course. Checking to see which people have been where with whom – Jerry, what on earth is the matter?”

List of names,” he said again, and kissed her soundly on the mouth. He felt her freeze in place, but didn’t care; he half fell off the trap in an effort to get down, having to steady himself against the stable wall before he could move again. He heaved himself through to the library, only stopping when he caught sight of his oldest Wimsey cousin. “Bredon!” he called. “Here, Bredon! Do you know where Aunt Harriet keeps her old copies of the Times? Yes? Bring them through to the library, there’s a good chap.”

Names! Why hadn’t he thought of that? He’d been thinking the information would be directions, or instructions, but he’d been looking in the wrong place entirely. He once again looked at his list, and picked up one of the books on code; he discarded articles and counted and rearranged and finally, something with meaning began to take place. His small cousin arrived with a stack of newspapers almost too heavy to carry; Saint-George thanked him distractedly, and skimmed through financial sections and reports on Government officials, making notes and crossing them out again. He worked through lunch, not even noticing when his aunt looked in on him and quickly left again.

And then, suddenly, he was done. His list had turned from a collection of nonsensical ramblings to a solid, sensible list of names. He didn’t recognise all of them, but he thought his uncle probably would.

He was right. His uncle was in his own office, talking to Aunt Harriet; Hilary was in a corner, with work of her own. Wordlessly, Saint-George handed Uncle Peter his list. His uncle’s eyes drifted slowly down it, and his jaw clenched, ever so slightly.

“Are you sure?” he asked at last.

“As sure as I can be,” Saint-George replied. “But even if it is right, it won’t be simple, will it? They’ll need to be watched – investigated - before anyone can do anything. Some of those men are high up. If anyone ever had the slightest idea-”

“Some people already do have an idea,” Uncle Peter said, and Saint-George remembered the pacing. “I’ll have to go to London.” He glanced at his wife. “I’ll have to leave right away.”

“Will you ‘phone?” Aunt Harriet asked.

“I don’t dare to. I’ll have to go myself. Bunter – I must have Bunter with me. We’ll take the car, she should just about have enough petrol to make it, and speed is the most important thing right now. Jerry-” He looked apologetic, and Saint-George shook his head.

“It’s alright. I don’t need to go – and I’m not sure I even want the credit for this.”

“No,” his uncle agreed grimly. “Harriet-”

“You get yourself ready,” she told him firmly. “I’ll find Bunter.” They both left the room, leaving Hilary and Saint-George alone together.

“Well,” Hilary said, as though she were unsure of what to say. Saint-George thought that he knew exactly what to say.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. I was an ass.”

 “This morning?” she asked.

 “Almost always,” he returned, and Hilary smiled.

 “You were an ass,” she told him. “Not this morning, but almost always.” She’d been holding a pen in one hand; now she spun it between two fingers, a nervous gesture that surprised him. “It was always worst when you were being an ass and you were right, though.” She gave him a wry smile.

“Knightley?” he asked, and wished he hadn’t.

“Robert and I were all wrong for each other,” she said, reluctantly. “If I hadn’t been so angry at you I would have seen it for myself. I did see it, but not until you’d joined up, and – it wasn’t the right time, then…” 

“It’s alright,” he said, as her voice trailed off. “I took me a long time, to admit it to myself, but I’d never had the right to ask you to marry me, nor object to who you wanted to marry.”

“You thought you were being a good friend,” Hilary told him, but he shook his head.

“I was being a conceited idiot. If I could do it over-” He cut himself off.

“Yes?”

“I don’t know that it would be fair,” he said. “Not now.”

 “You still are an ass,” Hilary told him. “I haven’t spent the past five years praying you wouldn’t die not to marry you when you came back home.” And she grinned at him in a truly antagonistic way until he kissed her again, which put a stop to that.

***

The knowledge of those names kept Saint-George’s eyes open for a long time that night. And when sleep arrived the dead men were there, with heat and the flames and the smell of burning flesh. But when he woke up Hilary was sitting at the foot of his bed, watching him with worried eyes; and he was sure, then, that in time the dead men would fade away.