The flight home
Jonathan is numb.
Childermass, who half dragged Jonathan from the railway, deposits him on one of the seats in the plane and leaves him there. He has more important things to worry about, counting the men aboard as fast as he can, accounting for stragglers. One of his men is dead and Winespill has been shot, the bullet cutting across his upper arm. Ned helps Childermass administer first aid as soon as the plane gets into the air. At least it looks more messy than serious and if they can stop the bleeding he ought to be alright: just one new scar to show his wife when he goes home.
There are other injuries: a sprained ankle, some cuts from shrapnel from the explosion, ringing ears all round. Merlin is his last remaining responsibility, but he looks like he will need more than bandages and a mouthful of spirits to cure him, so Childermass leaves him for a moment and goes to confer with the pilot. They still don’t know if the enchantment is broken or not: he thinks it did break, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the feel of magic and the shock from the blast. If SOE can now see into France, all hell will be breaking loose back in England.
Childermass returns to Merlin. He hasn’t moved an inch from where Childermass left him. He stares fixedly at the floor and his burnt hands are shaking. When Childermass rinses them with the last of the water in his canteen, Merlin hardly seems to notice the sting.
He just sits and shakes without saying a word.
The unit resembles a hornets’ nest after a good kicking. The big central table has been cleared and along the wall, magicians are bent over vision spells, calling out the names of the captured, the living, and the dead.
“Three men gone from Unit Five.”
“Two survivors confirmed Unit Seven.”
“I’ve got contact with Collette. Henri is dead; they shot him after he set off the explosion. She got away with three others, but there’s no word from Emilie.”
Grant is working with William on the map they have of the area, laying out who was there, who is left. The incriminating photograph of Arabella Strange burns in his pocket.
“Grant! I want you on the radio!” Arthur has been on the telephone with the other Unit Commander operating in this area of France but now emerges from his office, downing a mug of coffee. This emergency got him out of bed, still unshaven and hair unkempt. At least he has his own clothes on. William, Grant can’t help but notice, is wearing one of Arthur’s shirts. He’s in that state of hyper-vigilance that has kept him alive in France so long, noticing everything as fast as he can in case it makes the difference between life and death. The details of today will be imprinted in his memory forever. It’s why, when the ground crew return, he sees in a moment that the worst must have happened.
“Childermass, Strange, I want you in my office now.”
Arthur must have seen the same thing. The scribbled notes on the table say that Emilie is on the list of those who may have been captured and they both know who she was working with. Grant showed Arthur the photograph in the five minutes they had before all hell broke loose.
He sees Segundus look up, poised as though to run across the room to Childermass but holding himself in check. Childermass nods at him, and Segundus turns back to his desk. Grant rather envies them the certainty of their relationship.
“Grant! Forget the radio, I need you in on this.” Arthur is summoning him. For a split second he contemplates making some excuse but he knows it would be cowardly. He squares his shoulders and goes in.
In Arthur’s office, Strange is slumped in a chair, saying nothing. Childermass does the talking, giving them his version of what happened and filling in the blanks that vision spells didn’t cover. Grant takes notes. The situation is bad, but perhaps not as bad as first feared, if only the soldiers had not managed to take prisoners.
Childermass finishes his report, looking at Strange. “Is there anything you want to add, sir?” he asks. Strange shakes his head, not looking up.
There is a silence. Childermass and Arthur turn their eyes to Grant.
“Merlin?” he says, hating what he has to ask. “You were the only man there with a clear view of your section. I have to ask this. Did you see any agents taken captive? We need confirmation.”
“How many agents?”
Merlin says nothing.
“Two, there were two agents.”
Grant swallows hard. “I need names Merlin.”
“You know who they were, Grant, you know very well who they were.” Merlin looks up for the first time. He meets Grant’s eyes: hard and angry. “Did you know? Did you send me out there, knowing this would happen?”
“Merlin,” Arthur says, warningly, “we need confirmation of names from an eye witness.”
“The agent you called Emilie and my wife. Is that sufficient confirmation?”
“I swear to you Jonathan, I didn’t know.” It’s what Grant has wanted to say since Merlin walked in but it doesn’t do anything to help.
“How could you not know?”
“Childermass, you don’t need to be here for this.” Arthur dismisses him and Childermass goes. It’s probably best that nobody else hears.
“Unless I directly recruit an agent to this unit I only have code names, the aliases they use in France. I don’t see their real names. It’s part of the security protocol. I met her, certainly, but I’d never seen a photograph of your wife so I had no way of knowing that she and my agent were the same person.”
“Your agent. She was never just your agent. She was… everything. But she said she was working in an office. I had letters from her.” Merlin is less angry now, heading towards disbelief.
“We train our agents to lie. It’s essential. Nobody can know, Merlin, not even those closest to them.”
“I knew there were times when she couldn’t talk on the phone. I thought she was just busy, that they worked her too hard. The woman in her office, was that one of your people, employed to turn people away when they called?”
“But I had letters from her, letters about ordinary things: dresses, the girls she worked with, rationing. Those can’t have been sent from France. How long was she there?”
“Merlin, I can’t disclose an agent’s operational history. It is classified information. But if there are delays in the arrival of letters most people blame the post office nowadays and some of our agents will write letters in advance, to be posted after deployment.”
Grant can see Jonathan digesting the information. It’s a hard thing to hear, to know that the person you love has been hiding so much of themselves: how many subterfuges agents must enact on their family and friends.
He tries to soften the blow. “She did good work, necessary work. For her country.”
“She was helping me with my French. I knew she was good, but I never imagined this.”
“I just… I need her back Grant. What do I do, to get her back?”
“Merlin, you have to understand…”
“She can’t be gone, this can’t be the end. She’s still there, somewhere, in France. We have to get her back. There must be some way, some magic. Tell me, what do I do? You can rescue her, can’t you?”
He looks so desperate, so pleading. Grant doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she may already be beyond saving. That this may not be within his power to fix.
“This is not a topic to discuss now.” Arthur is the one to save him, even though it is only a postponement of the truth. “Mr Strange, I suggest you have those burns looked at.”
Arthur goes to the door and bellows “De Lancey!” at full volume. Grant can only hear half of the resulting conversation. His attention is all on Merlin, who has folded in on himself again, picking at his sleeves and apparently lost in thought. Grant hopes he isn’t planning something stupid.
“Well get him off the bloody telephone, I want him in here.” Arthur slams the door. “Merlin, William is going to take you to medical and then I want to you eat something and sleep. I don’t want you doing anything stupid: understand? No attempts at magic, no scrying, no, I don’t know, summoning a faerie and putting everyone’s lives at risk.”
Merlin looks up, already starting to protest.
“No, Merlin, I want your word. Otherwise I’ll have to make sure you are not a risk to the rest of my men. Do I have it?”
There is a brief knock at the door and then William appears.
“William, take Merlin to medical would you and feed him.”
“Of course. Um, Arthur, I’m afraid there is something you should know. I’ve been on the phone to Sir Walter.”
“Precisely. He wanted you to call him.” William makes his escape with Merlin in tow. Arthur scowls at the telephone as though it might leap up and attack him at any moment.
“So now I must explain to another man why his wife is captive in France. Grant, I suggest you get out there and keep an eye on things. I’ll call a meeting later. No doubt Sir Walter will have something to say on what we do next.”
“Tell me Grant, what the fuck did I do to deserve this?”
“Segundus, take a break.” Grant points at him, then with a quick jerk of his thumb, dismisses him from his post. Another magician is lined up ready to take his place and Segundus flees. It’s barely dawn outside, only a faint grey light showing, but Childermass is there, waiting for him with open arms.
Segundus throws himself into them, despite the mud sticking to John’s clothes and the bitter, smoky smell that clings to him.
“My God, John, I thought you were dead!”
“So did I. I’m so sorry love.”
The two of them hold tight against the stress of the last few hours: the strain of waiting and then the pressure of the work that needed doing.
“Did you hear about Strange’s wife?” Childermass asks him, when the five minutes of falling apart he has allowed himself are over.
“Yes, Cassandra told me, she heard it from Ned. Poor man.” Segundus frowns in sympathy. “I can only imagine how he must be feeling.”
“As can I. I don’t suppose he’ll be doing much for the next few hours. It was right in front of him, poor bastard.”
Segundus shivers, half from cold and half from imagined fear. “I don’t know what I’d do.”
“I do.” Childermass sounds so certain that Segundus looks up in surprise.
“Aye, I do. I’d steal a plane and go to France to raise hell until I got you back. What did you think? What wouldn’t I do, to get you back?”
“If they ask you, will you go with them to get Mrs Strange back?”
“John…” Childermass has no answer. He is a soldier and he will get his orders whether he likes them or not.
“You should go,” Segundus tells him. “You should go, for Strange’s sake and hers. Just promise you’ll do your best to come home safely.” He squeezes Childermass’ hand tight.
“I promise, love. You know I’ll always try to come home to you.”
The day is a long one for all of them. Breaks are snatched where they can get them but there’s no real rest. Eventually the stream of information from France starts to slow and Arthur calls a meeting, although he tells Jonathan that he is there as a courtesy only.
Sir Walter, it appears, has had a great many things to say about his wife’s imprisonment. Arthur looks like a man who has weathered a great storm and is now bracing himself for the next one.
“The difficulty is,” he explains for Merlin’s benefit, “that we use female agents because they arouse less suspicion. They are able to make enquiries more freely, particularly when most of the men are in the armed forces. However, they cannot be classed as combatants. They do not have the same protection as the men and are unlikely to be made prisoners of war. If caught… I’m afraid there is very little we can do about it. I’m sorry Merlin.”
“Surely you can’t… surely you don’t mean to tell me that there’s nothing you can do?”
“Merlin,” Grant says, “you have to understand, if we staged a rescue mission we would put a lot of other people at risk. There is an element of balance, of probable gain against acceptable loses. I hate to lose anyone, but hard as it is, we must be realistic about the chances.”
Jonathan can hear the words but his whole mind is rebelling against them. He clings to hope, even though he knows rationally that Grant is doing his best to take it away.
“But you escaped,” Jonathan says, “if you were able to get free, surely there is a chance that they might do the same.”
“I’m afraid the method I used would be unavailable to them.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would it be unavailable?”
“You have permission to tell him,” Arthur says to Grant.
“It is unavailable because I doubt that any of the interrogators would be female. I was fortunate; one of the men was not dissimilar to me in height and appearance. I learned the rotation of the guards and when this particular solider was interviewing me, I killed him and took his uniform. I was able to leave before they noticed what had happened.” Grant makes it all sound so clipped, so… ordinary, as though escaping from prison was no great matter, no more than a magician making a door and stepping through it.
“But surely if you managed to get out, you could get in the same way?”
“I’m afraid that strategy is highly unlikely to succeed. I left by replacing one of their own soldiers, however briefly, this would require bluffing one’s way through the front gate.”
“It’s too risky to go in unannounced,” Arthur tells him, “you’d be likely to be taken prisoner, if not shot on sight, trying to enter without the correct papers.”
“But surely,” Jonathan says, “it is better to try than to leave them there without doing anything.” He feels like the only sane man in the room, the only one who can see what this really means beyond all the talk of risk and strategy.
“Merlin, I don’t think you understand what you’re asking.” William says, sharply.
“I don’t think any of you appreciate what you are allowing to happen by refusing to do anything!”
“Merlin, Grant does have the experience but he is also a high risk target. Deploying him into enemy territory risks a lot more than his own skin.” Arthur looks sympathetic and Jonathan hates him for it.
“Grant, please. These were your agents: you recruited them. Surely you must want to get them back safely. Please?”
Grant doesn’t so much as blink, just keeps looking at the opposite wall. It’s William who reacts, angrily. “Don’t ask him that unless you understand what you are sending him back to! You keep asking, thinking of nothing but your wife and not even considering what happened in France when he was captured, what would happen to him if he was captured again.”
“William!” Grant finally snaps, “Shut up! This isn’t helping.”
“No, Grant, I will not shut up! If he’d seen you when you came back from France, he wouldn’t dare ask you. Or question your loyalty to your agents. Don’t go back, it’s madness. You know it is. You can’t do that again.”
“You cannot ask me to sit here and do nothing while they execute my wife!” Jonathan is at the end of his patience. “He told me what happened in France: he killed a man and stole his uniform. I don’t see that that was so particularly dreadful compared to leaving two women in France to be, to be killed for following his orders. We are at war after all. I don’t suppose it was the first time he killed someone.”
A muscle in Grant’s jaw twitches. Arthur’s face looks particularly blank.
“What have I not been told?” The atmosphere tells him he has overstepped but nobody appears willing to enlighten him. “William?”
“What he neglected to tell you about his escape was that they tortured him first.”
“William!” Grant’s rebuke has no effect and William continues regardless.
“Would you prefer I said ‘interrogated’? I saw you when you came back, with your fingernails missing and half the bones in your hand broken. You see Merlin, they knew Grant was someone relatively high up and they wanted to make him talk. So they interrogated him, and when that didn’t work, they beat him. To escape he had to get out of handcuffs, kill a man and walk out of there as if nothing hurt. And then, the stupid bastard, he walked half the way home with broken ribs. If the man on the boat hadn’t known him already, they’d probably have shot him, turning up in a German uniform unannounced.”
Jonathan feels sick. Grant is sitting rigidly, back perfectly upright and Jonathan can see him, so clearly, walking through the enemy with his perfect posture and his broken ribs, waiting for someone to recognise him, to kill him. And then, like a nightmare, he sees Bell in the same situation, beaten and in pain. He’s seen the scars, faint white on Grant’s hands and he imagines what must have caused them, how Bell’s delicate hands would look…
William is still talking, still describing horrific things, and it makes Jonathan dizzy.
“For God’s sake William, stop it. Think for a second: you’re telling him what his wife might be going through at this moment.”
Jonathan really might be sick.
“He had to know.” William sounds cold now and Jonathan wants to hit him the way he did after Jeremy died, sending him reeling for being such an unfeeling bastard.
“And you want me to leave her there.” He says, voice sounding strange even to his own ears, “How the fuck would you feel if it was your wife?”
There’s a small, shocked intake of breath from William. He looks down, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Grant is staring at Arthur. The atmosphere was already thick with cigarette smoke, now you could cut it with a knife.
“Enough.” Arthur allows the full weight of his command to fall on the single word. “Flight Lieutenant De Lancey, would you like to be excused? Mr Strange?”
Jonathan shakes his head. He can’t risk leaving, however ill he feels. He has to be here to fight for Arabella. William stubs out his cigarette and goes. The clatter of his chair is loud in the sudden silence. The door bangs behind him and everyone draws a breath.
“I don’t know if a rescue operation can be carried out within an acceptable level of risk.” Grant says, looking at Arthur.
“That would be a decision to make between us, if we had an appropriate plan. I will not make that decision without one in place. The question is not whether or not it should be attempted, but if the attempt is possible.” Arthur nods at Grant.
“Please,” Jonathan says, reduced to pleading, “if I can help in any way, with whatever you do…”
“Tell me, could you kill a man by magic?” Grant asks, staring at him as though he can read the true answer, regardless of what Merlin says out loud.
“I don’t know. I’ve never considered…”
“You wrote once that a magician could kill a man, but a gentleman ought not. We have a copy of the article on file. If you wish to help me Merlin, you will have to reconsider your position.”
“I wrote that article a long time ago, when I was still working with Mr Norrell.”
“That doesn’t tell me whether your opinion has changed. A rescue mission, if one can be planned, would be far more dangerous than anything you have done before. It would almost certainly require you to kill.”
“I think that none of these decisions are to be taken lightly.” Arthur saves Jonathan from having to reply. “We have no plan at present, nor could we implement any rescue operation tonight. The forecast is for adverse weather across the channel. I suggest we take a break, have some rest and reconvene when the situation changes.”
Jonathan spends the afternoon in the restless and fruitless study of magical books. Nothing seems to make sense. Everything that was once certain is clouded with doubt, with fear, with the overwhelming loss he feels. Arabella is so far away from him, in so much danger and he is powerless. He reads her letters, so carefully kept, trying to work out which ones were real and which ones were sent when she was abroad. The deception stings. He always thought their relationship was so open, that they could tell each other anything. But even as it hurts, he’s so proud of her. Bell, doing something so incredibly brave, something that needs such skill and oh, how he wishes he could see her and tell her how proud he is.
He scribbles plans and discards them: each as improbable and impossible as the last. Eventually Childermass and Segundus march him off to eat something. He doesn’t taste it, tells them he can only spare half an hour, but the food makes him suddenly tired and he sleeps, bent over his books with the photograph of Bell in his hand.
Much later he goes to Grant’s room and taps on the door. He hasn’t seen him since Grant left the closed door meeting with Arthur but they have unfinished business and much as his heart is in France with Arabella, there are things he cannot leave unsaid.
“Grant?” he says as he knocks, “I wanted a word, please. Will you open the door?”
He stands so long in the corridor that he’s contemplating walking away when the door finally opens.
“What do you want, Merlin?”
“Can I come in, just for a moment?” Grant, somewhat reluctantly, allows him in. “I wanted to apologise. For earlier, I mean. It wasn’t fair of me to ask you to go. It wasn’t fair of me to use what we have to ask you to risk your life for Bell’s.”
“Strange…” Grant drops onto his chair. “What do you want me to say? They are my agents. My mission got them captured, and one of them is your wife. One of them is the wife of the one of the highest ranking members of SOE . I wish I could save them, you have asked me to save them, but to do it risks every man I take with me and every agent whose life is put at risk if I am captured.”
“I’m sorry.” Jonathan puts his hand on Grant’s shoulder but Grant shakes it off.
“Don’t,” he says, voice full of warning, “don’t touch me like that and ask me to risk my life for the woman you married.”
“I’m sorry.” It’s all he seems to be saying now. “I didn’t realise, I mean, I’d heard the rumours about what happened in France but I didn’t know how bad it had been.”
“You can’t have thought it was anything good. You’re not so foolish Jonathan.”
“I know. I suppose I didn’t think. Was it… was it how De Lancey described it?”
“It was worse. You don’t know, you can’t imagine it. You go through all the training, try to imagine what you’d do and how it would feel, but I didn’t know until I was there.” Grant shakes his head, puts his face in his hands and rubs at it as though trying to scrub away the memories. He continues, “And I was one of the lucky ones. I was with a man called Leon, a local man, when we were captured. They realised I was in command and when I wouldn’t talk…” He falls silent.
“What happened? I wish to understand, if you will tell me. Or perhaps understand is not the right word. I would like to listen, if you will tell me.”
“There’s not much to tell, Merlin. They killed him, in front of me. They made him kneel with a gun to the back of his head and said that if I talked, they would let him go. If I remained silent they would kill him. He… he begged me…”
There are tears in his eyes. This time he does not pull away from Jonathan’s hand. “To talk would have caused the deaths of many more men. I had no choice but to remain silent. I still see him, I still hear him. I remember every one of my agents who dies but Leon, I remember him more clearly than anyone else.”
“I think you should leave now.”
Grant looks up at him, “I mean it. I’d like you to leave. I have a decision to make and I can’t make it with you here.”
Jonathan leaves, letting go of him even though his instinct says to stay, to comfort. Knowing he cannot help either of the people he cares most about is the hardest thing of all.
“Will he go to France?” William is sitting on Arthur’s bed, brow furrowed. They are both tired, over tired, and Arthur wishes they didn’t have to have this conversation now.
“Grant? I don’t know.”
“You won’t stop him?”
“I’ve told him it’s his decision. I’d prefer it if he refuse, but you can see that politically, with Emma involved, the decision is complicated.”
“And with Mrs Strange.”
“That too.” Arthur sighs heavily. Mrs Strange is a complication they don’t need. “The French have contacted the higher ups. We assume they will send someone to collect the prisoners, which gives us our way in if we choose to take it.”
“Did you know?”
“About Grant and Merlin? I knew something had happened after Jeremy was killed. Did you?”
William shakes his head. “He didn’t tell me. I wondered, but he never said anything. So much for his rules!” William sounds bitter.
“I suppose that was why he didn’t tell you. I hoped…” Arthur sighs. “I hoped it would end of its own accord and that would be that, no hard feelings and Strange would go back to his wife.”
“And is that what you thought was best?” William gets up, going to the window to fidget with the blackout curtain. Arthur watches him.
“Wartime affairs can be… messy. Perhaps it’s better if people go into them with their eyes open or never start them at all.”
William’s reply is spoken very quietly. Arthur isn’t sure if he’s supposed to hear. “It seems unfair sometimes, that that’s all there is. That the best option is for it just to end.”
“Is that what you hope for? Do you want it to stop now?”
“William,” Arthur goes to stand next to him, tries to turn William to face him but he won’t turn and his face is set like stone. “I was talking about Grant and Merlin. This wasn’t about us.”
“I don’t want…” William swallows hard. “I don’t want to watch you walk away. I don’t want to see you and not have you. I don’t want it to be over, but I’ve no right to ask you to stay.”
“William, when we started this we both knew that this would be… it wasn’t meant to be anything more than an affair. We never made any promises.” William flinches away from him; Arthur pulls him back. “Listen to me, you young fool. I meant to say, we never talked about this, but that doesn’t mean I want it to end. I don’t want to lose what we have.”
“Neither of us are free to have it! You have your sons and I…”
“I know. I know why we can’t but I do care about you and I hope...”
“Don’t, please Arthur, don’t” William looks wretched. “Don’t say it if you can’t mean it.”
“I do mean it. Come here. We’re both tired; we don’t have to talk about this now. Let me take you to bed.”
William goes, letting himself be tucked into Arthur’s arms, letting himself be kissed and undressed. He’s always laughed at the phrase ‘making love’, assumed it was essentially a code for boring sex between the placidly married. Arthur doesn’t say the words, doesn’t say anything, but the phrase appears in William’s mind unbidden. Loving hands can still pin him down; tenderness can demand its own surrender. Maybe it’s still the wrong way to describe it, maybe making love shouldn’t involve teeth and bruises, but he knows that Arthur loves him and it is, without question, the best sex of his life.
On the far side of hell
The bare lightbulb swings above them, the light stinging Bell’s eyes.
“Tell me what you know about the English magicians.”
She says nothing. This was her training. Give them nothing, no matter what they threaten, no matter what they do. Die, if you have to, but do not speak.
“You will have to tell me eventually, my dear.”
The interrogator smiles, another change of mood. She has been keeping herself sane by watching for the techniques, for the things she was taught to expect and have used against her.
“If you do not tell me something, next time it will not be her fingers.” Emma is a heap on the floor in front of Bell, curled around her hand. The interrogator pulls her up, his hand holding her chin hard enough to bruise. “Next time it will be her neck.”
He twists Emma’s face to his. “Such a shame. She is, after all, very beautiful.”
Emma spits in his face and he slaps her for it.
He gets bored not long after that and has them thrown back in the cell they have been in since they arrived. Bell is losing track of how long it has been. A day? More than a day? There’s nothing to mark the passing time. Emma is weeping silently. She’s taken the brunt of the abuse, perhaps trying to spare Bell the worst of it.
Bell tears strips from her skirt to bind Emma’s hand. There’s no food, only a little water but she lets Emma drink most of it. It’s cold and dark: no way of knowing if it’s morning or night. The two of them huddle together for warmth.
Bell finds herself thinking of Jonathan, even though she told herself she mustn’t. She recalls his face in the darkness by the railway line and his shock. If only she’d told him, or had time to explain.
“What are you thinking of?” Emma asks her.
“My husband,” Bell replies, “I was wishing I could talk to him.”
“Really? I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to talk to mine.”
“I don’t think I could help wanting to talk to him. I think a lot of the joy in life is to see his face when I tell him things.”
“That sounds very different to my husband. Although, perhaps, I would have liked to dance with him, one last time.”
Bell sobs once, remembering the last time Jonathan took her dancing. She quickly stifles the noise but not quickly enough.
“Don’t cry, my dear,” Emma tells her, “I will protect you as long as I can. Just stay strong, and say nothing. Fix your mind on something good and try to remember that instead of anything else.”
“Is there no chance of a rescue?” Bell asks, already knowing the answer.
“I don’t think you should count on it. But who knows. If you get the chance, run.”