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Psmith and Jackson, RFC

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In the officers' mess that night, there was cricket with swagger sticks and bread rolls. Harper and Cotterell had been killed on dawn patrol, or at least everyone hoped so. Fairleigh had seen their kite going down on fire, and if they weren't dead, they were worse off.

Mike scored fifty runs off of Tulliver by hitting a roll straight into a portrait of Lord Kitchener. Cheers and catcalls followed, as well as a consultation between Tulliver and Minton, the impromptu team captain. Tulliver was about to bowl again, polishing a roll hopefully upon his trousers, when Lisle's voice sounded from a far corner of the mess. 'To Harper and Cotterell!' he said loudly and unsteadily. He had raised a water glass full of wine, and might--Mike squinted--have been crying.

An appalled silence fell. Naming dead men in the mess! It wasn't done in this squadron, not since a legendary disaster in early 1915 when they'd lost four machines and crews in four days, one after the other. Even Lisle, fresh from England with about half an hour's flying time to his name, ought to know it wasn't done. Of course he's been fond of Harper. Harper was the only one who didn't stand off from the replacement pilots until they'd lasted long enough for it to be worth learning their names. Harper had probably learnt the names of their dogs. He was everyone's kindly elder brother.

Mike laid his stick down on the table. Nobody would have the heart for cricket now.

'You bloody little fool!' Rawley shouted at the quivering Lisle. 'Don't you know it's bad luck?' It was the longest speech he'd got out without stammering in weeks. He was living on nerves and cigarettes and would mention things like bad luck that other fellows kept quiet about. 'I've had enough of - '

What Rawley had had enough of was never to be known, because he was cut off by the gramophone playing a French accordion tune. Psmith was standing next to it, peering through his eyeglass at a stack of records. New ones kept turning up, and most of the squadron had a bet on about how Psmith did it. 'On an evening such as this, ' Psmith said, 'when April with its sweet showers brings relief to arid March, when the soft west wind breathes upon the budding flowers, when nature cheers the heart of every little bird and makes it sing . . . I want to dance, comrades. I believe we ought to dance.'

''We haven't got any girls!' offered Fitzwilliam, an officiously obstructive soul of whose sort there is one in every group.

'Oh, b-bother girls,' answered Rawley, stammer returned now that his anger was cooling into irritability.

'I would if we had any!'

'It is true,' Psmith continued unflappably, 'that our gathering is deficient in some respects. The lack of girls might discourage the faint-hearted. Others might quail at the absence of champagne and a twenty-piece orchestra. But what, I ask you, is the English spirit, the spirit of empire, if not that of conquering every obstacle and going bravely on?'

The spirit of empire was met with raspberries by the assembly.

'Did Henry V despair at Agincourt because there were no girls to dance with?' Psmith nevertheless continued. 'No, I tell you. A thousand times no. And shall not our happy few show as great a heart as his? Are we not a band of brothers?'

Lisle and a couple of other newish chaps looked actually moved; everyone else was willing, as people usually were, to fall in with one of Psmith's ideas. Even Fitzwilliam's 'Are you sure you're not Irish, Psmith, with that colossal load of blarney?' was tolerant and amused.

Neville, always the peacemaker, said, 'Oh, why not?' He swept Lisle up into a waltz and seemed to be explaining one or two things to him under cover of the music.

Soon the others started pairing off, some with grand gestures to make it all a joke, some with embarrassment caused by reluctance or other reasons entirely. Simpson turned bright red when he spoke to Delgado, who was known around the squadron as 'Byron' for his romantic good looks, and even redder when Delgado accepted. Mike avoided all offers by edging his way over to Psmith and waiting until the first record finished and Psmith changed it for another. Then he held out a hand.

'Well done,' he said as they danced. 'The last thing anybody needed was a row.'

Psmith, leading, turned him neatly between an armchair and Plimpton and Browne, who seemed to be imitating the dancing bears in a circus. 'You are, as always, inclined to attribute too much virtue to others. I only wanted an excuse to dance with you. It's not exactly our club, but since we'll never get leave together, I have embraced the imperial spirit of making do.' By 'our club' Psmith did not mean the Conservative Club or any other well-known institution, but a discreet establishment for gentlemen of the classical taste. They had drunk champagne and danced there before the war, although, in keeping with its discretion, the music there as here came from a gramophone rather than an orchestra.

'Well done either way.' Mike, long practised now at reading Psmith's moods through his body, felt a smile in the ease of Psmith's shoulders and the subtle quickness of his hips. They were dancing too closely for him to see Psmith's face, more closely perhaps than they should have been, but no one noticed, or no one cared. They'd survived more than a year in the squadron and had begun to be seen through a lens of awe and myth. 'Come to my room tonight and we'll have a dance all to ourselves.'

'I can think of nothing I would like more.'

'Quite right, too.'

The dancing went on for more than an hour, and in the end Mike took a turn with everyone in the squadron, even Browne, as clumsy at a foxtrot at he was brilliant in an aeroplane, and Lisle, who was inclined to cling as though survival would rub off on him. Mike let himself remember Harper and Cotterell for a little while: Harper would have been pleased to have a dance as his memorial, and Cotterell would have laughed cynically and quoted something in Latin that only Psmith would understand.

In the secrecy of his own thoughts, Mike danced with them both. Then he put them away among the other dead, and danced with Psmith again.