It started out as an ordinary patrol – except that the squadron C.O. was in the air too. The R.F.C. needed all the thin ranks of its pilots to push back what might be the last great offensive of the German Army. So there was Captain Harry Hawkes, swooping and diving five hundred feet above the noise and turmoil of No Man's Land, his Camel quivering with the recoil of his guns, when across his vision flew a flash of red. A Triplane.
He was after it in an instant like a cat after its prey, never thinking until he'd pressed the triggers who it might be. But this Triplane was red and khaki, not red all over, and hard-pressed already by another couple of Camels diving in from the east.
One moment of inattention. That was all it took. His instruments flew to pieces. The Camel shuddered. A spray of castor oil flew back over Harry. The ground reared up in front of him, sprang sickeningly closer, whipped round - he cowered over the instrument-board, arms protecting his head. This is it.
The spin ended in a crash that jarred him to the bone. He was out of the wreck before the last of the wires parted, limbs doing his thinking for him, half-staggering, half-running for his life from the smoke of the burning machine. It was a perfect target – and - hang on? He was running towards the red and khaki Triplane, now on the ground ten yards away, crumpled like a dying dragonfly, its tail-unit already in flames -
Through the smoke, he could see the pilot struggling in the cockpit. A shell passed nearby, ripping the air. The ground rocked with the explosion. Harry stumbled, recovered, reached the Triplane, and clawed his way, gasping, up the fuselage. The pilot looked at him dazedly.
“One day you will remember my name, I swear.” A bullet sped with a mosquito whine through the crashed machine's struts; a moment later, Harry heard the rifle-crack behind him. Smoke from the burnt-out empennage rolled over them in a choking wave. No time to fumble the safety-belt undone. He dug in his pocket for his clasp-knife, cut, cut again and flung the straps back.
The flames were on the fuselage now, the heat striking through his flying-jacket. “Can you get out?”
The pilot lifted himself halfway out of his seat, coughed, and slumped back. “I cannot. Go.”
“Don't be stupid,” snarled Harry. He got his arms under the pilot's, heaved with a desperate strength and had him out of the cockpit, to the accompaniment of a dull cry. They skidded from the wing-root two feet straight down into Flanders mud. “Come on,” he yelled. “Up.”
Another shell landed, far too close. The ground shook, sending up more mud, some of it liquid, splashing Harry's face. He hoped it was only mud. No explosion. A dud.
“We've got to get away. They've got the range,” he gasped – in German or English? He snatched desperate glances around. There was a newly-dug shell-hole right ahead, and trenches, no doubt, just beyond. He grabbed the other man's arm and hauled it over his shoulder – another cry - and they stumbled as best they could through the thunder of the barrage. Five yards. Three. They were in, slipping down its walls. A good couple of yards deep, enough to protect them from anything except a direct hit.
Harry turned onto his back and looked up, panting, at the thick dark smoke roiling just above. A winged shadow flew right overhead, engine bellowing. Another. He didn't even know which side the machines belonged to.
His heart was slowing from its machine-gun speed. He got to his knees and pulled the German’s goggles up. Under the mud and oil, the man's face was white, but there was the faintest smile in those ice-blue eyes. “Harry Hawkes,” whispered Manfred von Richthofen, and passed out.
He manhandled the limp body in an attempt to lay it down, and in doing so discovered a wound, a long furrow, in Richthofen's back. He rolled him half over, and fished out the pocket first-aid kit, with its field-dressing and iodine ampoule that he always carried. So far, so good. He tore Richthofen's flying-jacket open, and wrestled the iodine-soaked dressing into place... ye gods, the man was thin. Surely Germany's greatest flying ace should not be so wasted? But Harry had lifted and half-carried him with very little effort... alright, panic strength, but -
No time for speculation. There was more struggling, this time with his scarf, to make some attempt at securing the dressing. Then he turned his attention to Richthofen's right hand. It was crushed somehow, and bleeding, though protected by the gauntlet. He would not remove that; simply wrapped his handkerchief (fortunately clean) round it, unwound and cut off a length of Richthofen's scarf and tied it round the hand.
That would have to do. He himself was uninjured, as far as he could tell. The spin had started close enough to the ground for that, and the wing had taken much of the impact into the soft Flanders mud. But now he sank back down against the side of the newly-dug shell-hole and began to shake.
It was not just he himself that was shaking; it was the ground that enclosed them. And then the barrage stopped, and he heard instead a noise very like aero engines, but louder, closer, almost on top of them.
He checked Richthofen – still breathing – and dragged him down into the very bottom of the shell-hole. Then he remembered that he had other duties, and felt about for his map, tore it up, and stamped the fragments into the mud. Had he been stupid enough to take his flying-orders into the air this morning? No. He pulled out his pistol in readiness, and waited.
He shrank down involuntarily as first steel monster hove into view above the crater rim. The world was filled with its noise, the tracks turning like the teeth of a mincing-machine as it slewed to avoid being trapped by the deep shell-hole. Its steel-clad sides showed then, and the black cross painted on them told Harry what he needed to know – that shortly, unless he was very lucky indeed, he would be a prisoner.
His care of Richthofen had been partly the care of common humanity, partly the care of an almost-friend - but now it looked as if it would save him from all sorts of mayhem. He could not spare the other pilot a glance, though, not even to check if he were still breathing, because now the storm-troopers accompanying the tank were appearing, steel helmets and grey uniforms making them all but disappear in the background smoke. The nearest peered down into the shell-hole, and seeing the uniforms of each pilot – for Harry had unbuttoned his jacket in the last frantic minutes – made an unmistakable gesture with his bayonet.
He could not fight tank and infantry and all. He laid down his pistol and raised his hands. The grey-clad soldier made another gesture with his bayonet, to indicate that Harry should move away from the German airman – and then took another look at the face of that airman. His instant recognition was so comical that Harry, in the heat of a very crowded moment, could not help but laugh. The last thing he saw was the butt of a rifle coming towards him. He flinched back.
Not quickly enough.
There was a white ceiling above him. Cloud, perhaps, or was he in a room? He blinked at it a few times, but no black-crossed machines came swarming out of it, so he lost interest and went back to sleep.
He was woken the second time by the clatter of what sounded like a trolley. Yes; a white-clad figure appeared, pushing it, and when she saw Harry was awake and watching her, she smiled.
“Good morning, Captain Hawkes,” she said, speaking with a care that indicated that English was not her native language. “We must see to your injuries, and then you must eat a little. How do you feel?”
“You have mild concussion. No doubt when you crash-landed... Luckily your flying-helmet took much of the blow.”
“Ah. The gun-levers.” And a rifle-butt, which he was not going to mention. He had been oblivious to the pain before, but now it hit him full force. He had been so anxious to get to the Triplane, he must have broken all records for the twenty-yard sprint – and why was that? It was red and khaki, not red all over. But he had heard that Richthofen flew other aircraft from time to time, and the man had hauled him out of danger last time they'd met, so -
“This will hurt a little.” She began to unwind the bandage around his head.
He braced himself for the awful pain that would inevitably follow these words, and when it was done, gasped, “Why do you always say that?”
“It is an important part of our training,” she assured him solemnly.
“It must be. Every doctor or nurse I've met - ”
“You will feel much better afterwards.”
“Yes. They all say that, too.” He closed his eyes again, and refused to open them when he heard the sounds of a plate and cup and saucer being deposited next to his bed; but his head did indeed feel better. He ate and drank a little, and shortly thereafter fell asleep again.
The next time he awoke there was sharp sunlight, slanting in through the high window opposite. It had an afternoon quality to it. He turned his head, carefully, wondering whether the food was still there, and in doing so realised that he was not alone. There were three other beds in the room – not a ward, it was too small for that. Two of them were empty, and one, in the quietest corner, contained a still figure, with a face that he knew. He tried to struggle up on one elbow, and there was a flurry of movement from his other side.
“Do not try to move too quickly, Herr Capitan. Here, let me help you.” His nurse from this morning slid a practiced arm under his neck, and raised him gently.
“Is he – will he be alright?” asked Harry in a low voice. Richthofen's face was milk-white, and completely lacking in animation.
“The surgeon says so, yes. Now, do you want to use the latrines?”
Harry discovered that he did, and was assisted to a wheel-chair, to his extreme annoyance, and taken along a cold, high corridor, to them: where, headache or no, he insisted peevishly that he was able to manage the few steps necessary, and thereafter felt considerably more comfortable. He was returned to his bed, and an hour later was given soup and coarse bread, and slept again.
There followed brief periods of wakefulness, and welcome sleep, and wakefulness again. Over the next few days there were visitors, though none for himself, of course. He caught some famous names and squinted at their bearers with interest. Young men with old eyes, like himself and Entwhistle and Hercules Hannibal Pootle. If he seemed awake enough, one or two of them would stop to greet him, or to shake his hand. He was happy enough when this was someone like Udet, coming in from another hospital, or Reinhard, a quiet, steady man.
Someone stopped by and handed him a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles in German; one of the nurses contributed a translation of Jane Austen. He tackled the Hound rather than Emma, though the latter was one of his mother's favourites; she had read out a choice line now and then. "But how could they not know they were in love?" a much younger Harry had asked a time or two, before reaching an age at which he considered such matters beneath him. So instead, he picked his way through the familiar detective story in the half-familiar language with increasing confidence.
“I always felt sorry for the hound,” remarked Richthofen out of the blue.
“Rittmeister!” Harry put the book down. They were alone in the room, as had happened increasingly often, now it was apparent that neither would die at a moment's notice, nor would Harry attempt murder.
“It was quite the innocent in that mystery. And it had no chance when pitted against Sherlock Holmes.”
“No-one ever does – except for that one woman! But the hound, yes, it came to a sad end.” A thought occurred to him. “You have a dog yourself, I've heard.”
“Yes. Moritz. One of my lieutenants is looking after him. They say he's pining.”
“They do that... I had a dog once. I gave him away to a little French boy. A scout squadron was no place for a St Bernard. In fact one day he thought he'd fly my machine himself.”
A smile, unexpectedly boyish. “I took Moritz up once, in a two-seater.”
Harry's jaw dropped. “Did he enjoy it?”
“Oh yes. He would have been a good observer. Intelligent, you understand.”
“An intelligent observer is worth his weight in gold.” What was Entwhistle doing now? Had he taken Harry's place as C.O? Was he worrying? He had been the best observer a man could wish for. It had taken him a while to make the transition to pilot, but he'd turned out to be a good one for all that. Harry hesitated, then added, “I read your book. Once I got back from No Man's Land last time.”
Richthofen actually winced. “I didn't know it had reached the enemy.”
“Oh, yes. Not translated yet, of course, but I worked my way through it. It was... interesting.”
“I hope you do not... I am not that person now.”
“You weren't that person in No Man's Land! I could hardly recognise you in the book.”
“I have grown up considerably in the months since writing it.”
“Haven't we all?” Harry was trying to smooth over what was obviously an embarrassment to Richthofen; he wouldn't mention the book again.
An hour or so later, there were brisk footsteps in the corridor, and a middle-aged lady came through the door, and Richthofen, suddenly smiling, said, “Mother!”
After a moment's involuntary gaping – this small, grey haired lady did not seem a likely mother for Germany's greatest hero – Harry came to his senses, took up his book and the old woollen dressing-gown which had appeared one morning by his bedside and had never been claimed, and ambled off down the corridor. There was a small waiting area there, with a window looking out over a sodden landscape of fields and trees, and there he sat down on one of the hard chairs and resumed his exploration of Dartmoor.
A while later, a woman's voice close by said, “Captain Hawkes!”
“Hmm? Yes?” He looked up and found, not a nurse, but the Baroness standing in front of him. “Ma'am!” He struggled to rise.
“No, stay where you are.” She took a nearby seat. “I am going now, but I wanted to thank you. For saving my son's life.”
To his annoyance, Harry felt himself blush. “Ma'am, he saved my life a few weeks ago. I was simply returning the favour. And we're both pilots, after all.”
“Well, that is admirable, though it does not lessen my gratitude. One day, you must tell me the story of how he did that.”
Harry made some sort of strangled response – he would have to check with Richthofen how much he could tell, or the Crown Prince would have his hide! “I will look forward to it,” he said politely, thinking nothing more of it, and she leaned across, took his hand briefly, stood up and was gone.
After a decent interval, he shuffled back to the little room, and climbed into bed again, glad to do so because the headache from the blow in the shell-hole was returning.
The next morning, he came back from a walk to try out his legs, around the top corridor of the hospital, to be given news.
“My mother has been given the use of a château close by,” said Richthofen.
“She will be able to visit you often, then? That's nice,” said Harry - utterly inadequately, but his mind was grappling with the idea of a château being lent out to anyone of his acquaintance.
“I will be moving there myself tomorrow.”
“Oh.” That was rather a facer. Richthofen was the nearest thing he had to a friend in this place – and that was a startling thought in its own right.
“She has exercised a mother's privilege, and asked that you be allowed to convalesce there too.”
Harry floundered for a moment. “I – well, that's very kind of her. But you won't want - ”
“My mother is not a person to be argued with,” said the Red Baron. “If she has asked for you to be her guest, you will go. Best to go with a good grace.”
“I'm not ungrateful -” began Harry.
“I understand that. She would not have suggested it if she did not want you there. Pack your kit, Captain Hawkes. You are going on a visit!”
There had been no mention of parole. Harry nodded. “Then - thank-you,” and began to revolve possibilities in his mind.
His kit was augmented that afternoon by a knapsack of clean clothes and a note from Entwhistle.
“One of you dropped a note!” he said, with real pleasure, to Udet, who had brought it in.
“Yes. We did not know which aerodrome you came from – but the message got through in the end.”
“Thank-you!” He had done the same thing himself from time to time. Not really endorsed by the authorities, of course, but pilots were pilots and had their own code of honour. He opened the knapsack. Clothes and a couple of books as well as Entwhistle's note.
Old chap, we're all so glad to know you're safe, if not sound. Here are your things. I've written to your people. Chin up! Telegraphic in nature, as being the only type of communication likely to make it through, but it was Entwhistle's authentic voice, and Harry was as glad of it as he was of the clothes. He tucked it into the breast pocket of his tunic, and returned everything else to the knapsack.
The château was quite small, and only had a few turrets. But it was a few miles further behind the Lines, and stood in a small park amid tall trees; all but leafless now, but they would be magnificent when in full leaf. April was turning towards May. It reminded Harry of his old school where the obsession with flying had bitten him, one fine Saturday afternoon, and never let go. What was the old place like now? he wondered. It was like another life.
The big car drew up by the front doors, from which issued a large and lolloping dog. It didn't need Richthofen's cry of “Moritz!” to tell him which dog this was; it had its paws up on the car door and was attempting to lick its master's face, who held it off, left-handed, with some difficulty, and planted a kiss on the top of its head instead. “Behave yourself, sir! Captain Hawkes, this animal is harmless, though he may not look it. Moritz, this is Herr Capitan Harry Hawkes of the R.F.C. Captain Hawkes, this is Moritz.” He grasped Harry's sleeve and moved his hand to where Moritz could sniff it, and the hound – certainly big enough to terrify a Baskerville – did so. For a moment there was silence, then Moritz's tail wagged, and he licked Harry's hand lavishly.
“You are accepted, Herr Capitan,” came another man's voice, and Harry looked up to see an older man, also in uniform, coming down the steps. One look told him who this was: the great ace's father.
“Sir.” He scrambled out of the car, and saluted. Albrecht von Richthofen returned the salute.
“I would shake hands with you, but I see Moritz has reached you first,” and Harry grimaced and fought the urge to wipe his hand on his breeches. “Come indoors – no, leave your things. The driver will bring them in. I am sorry I was not able to meet you at the hospital with my wife, but when the Crown Prince commands one's presence...”
It was as bizarre a situation as Harry had ever encountered, but he fought for the social training that his mother had dinned into him, and made his way into the cool dimness of the château.
The dinner that night was something of a trial to Harry. For one thing, the food was decidedly scanty and sub-par to someone used, as he had been, to British rations and all the fresh produce of France. He began to realise why Manfred (as he found he had to call him in his mind, since there were now two Baron von Richthofens in the room) had been so thin; he was not the sort to eat well when his compatriots were going short.
For another, Harry's head still ached slightly when he tried to chew. And for a third; although he had dined with the enemy before – dinner with Immelman's squadron was fresh in his mind at this point – eating with an entire nest of Richthofens was not an everyday experience for anyone.
He was coping pretty well, though, up until the point at which the servant removed the soup-plates. Remarkably pretty soup-plates too; his mother would know the make, but they had a pattern of gold and white lattice-work, very much in keeping with the light and delicate dining-room with its blue-green walls and gilt picture-frames. He was surveying the silverware and identifying which fork would be used for the next course, when the door opened suddenly.
Upon the civilised scene burst a man a year or so older than Harry, dressed in field-grey and with a brash and confident air. His hosts greeted him with pleasure. He returned those greetings and made straight for a chair which was standing, empty, next to Manfred.
“Well, brother, I'm glad to see you up and about! And Mother, Father, I'm sorry it's been so long.”
“Duty first, my boy.” Albrecht was regarding him indulgently, while Harry, sorting through names in his mind, came up with Lothar. He eyed him curiously. Word of Lothar had spread back across the Lines; and so had news of the friendly rivalry between the two brothers; who were now talking shop, having touched on Manfred's injury.
He was surprised to find himself being suddenly addressed. “I owe you a debt of gratitude, Captain Hawkes, for rescuing my brother.” This was said with a bonhomie that, Harry was sure, presaged something else. He inclined his head civilly, and waited.
“And also for increasing my score! You flew M-4963, did you not?”
Harry swallowed a mouthful of vegetables, and, in the second or two this gave him, decided on the course that would be most likely to annoy Lothar. A sporting attitude. “Yes, I did. Am I speaking to my conqueror?”
“You are indeed! And a pretty fight it was.”
Harry half-stood and reached across the table to offer his hand. “My congratulations, Herr Leutnant. You gave me quite a fright!” There was plenty more that he could have added, but he certainly wouldn't give Lothar that satisfaction.
Lothar, surprised but grinning, took the proffered hand. With luck the conversation was not going entirely as he had planned. They shook, and Harry sat back down. “Tell me, if I may ask - were you hunting me particularly, or was it simply that an opportunity arose and you took it?”
“Lothar does not hunt,” said Manfred, amused. “Lothar dives headlong into whatever fight he can find, and generally comes out unscathed. I am the hunter.”
“Ah yes, cold precision, that's our Manfred! Tell me, Captain Hawkes, how do you fly?”
Harry wondered briefly how he could translate “By the seat of my pants,” but gave it up. “It's second nature to me by now. I started on Farmans, that tells you how long I've been at it.” He reckoned his score was barely half Lothar's, and amassed over a longer period. But he was ready to swear that he'd done things neither Lothar nor his brother would ever dream of. Night missions, deep into enemy territory, for a start – though Manfred had spotted him on one of those, sitting in a Berlin café while waiting to make a contact.
“We have not heard of you in Germany,” Lothar was saying, still smiling.
“I don't suppose you have! That's not how we do things in England.” Harry smiled back.
“Teamwork. Playing the game.”
“Doing our jobs behind the scenes,” Harry took a sip of water from the cut-crystal glass. “It seems to work.”
The others were watching this passage of arms curiously. Two years ago, at Immelman's table, Harry had punched a man on the jaw for saying much the same thing as Lothar. He was a good deal older and wiser now; and there was the Baroness to consider. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw her watching with interest. Now what was going on?
“I had some experience of that in Scotland before the war,” remarked Albrecht. “I was at a country house-party, for the salmon-fishing. There were guests of all kinds – diplomats, industrialists, and peers. I believe there were more decisions made in that one week than in any session of Parliament.”
“Quite possibly. It sounds like the kind of thing my godmother would do,” replied Harry. “Lady Jermyn. You don't know her, by any chance?” he added, with a humorous lift of the eyebrow. As a child he had sometimes felt that she knew everybody.
A short silence fell.
Now that was interesting.
Lothar left the dining-room before the coffee was brought in - “I must get back to the Jasta, I'm needed there!”
“No rest for the wicked,” muttered Harry to himself sourly, and relaxed as Lothar's confident stride diminished into silence down the hallway. There was the sound of a car starting up and hurrying away, then all was quiet once more.
“You must not mind Lothar, Herr Capitan,” said the Baroness. “He is like that with everybody. Also, there is some rivalry with his brother. He is constantly chasing Manfred's score.”
“It's no disgrace to be shot down by any von Richthofen,” said Harry politely. “Though I confess I would rather his brother had downed me!” And they all smiled at that.
Really, his mother would be proud of him.
The next morning, he was sitting quietly in the morning-room (a pretty room with yellow walls, this one) and catching up with Holmes and Watson, who had just met on Dartmoor. He felt a good deal of sympathy for poor Watson, who, like himself, was completely at sea.
The family must be somewhere else in the château; the room was very quiet. This meant that he was able to hear a clattering of claws on the polished boards of the floor, which diminished to silence as their owner came further into the room and onto the rug. “Good morning, Moritz,” he said, without looking round the side of the armchair. “What can I do for you?”
“You may take him out for a run, if you like,” said a familiar voice, and Harry laughed and put aside his book quickly, and got up. There was Manfred at the door of the room, wearing carpet-slippers which looked incongruous with his uniform.
“I didn't realise you were there!”
“Just passing by – but Moritz is eager for a run, and I can't oblige him at this moment. Or indeed at all! This hand does not permit the throwing of objects as yet.” He held it up, swathed in its strapping. “If you would do so - ”
“Of course.” He held out his hand for Moritz to smell, just to reassure him that he was the same person who had been introduced to him the afternoon before; then caressed his head. He didn't have to bend, even slightly, to do so. Moritz was even taller than Champion Charlemagne of Cheviot, though not as heavily built. “Where shall we go?”
“The lawn below the terrace is a good place,” said Manfred. “He will find a stick for you to throw.” With a nod, he went across the hallway, and opened a door into what must be a library; Harry got a glimpse of Albrecht before the door swung to. A family conference, then. He debated going upstairs for his scarf and gloves – the morning was fresh, for all it was fine – but decided against it; if he was going to be throwing sticks for the biggest dog in the German Empire he would warm up soon enough.
Moritz led the way to the back door of the house, and they went down the semi-circular steps to the terrace. Another set of steps, and they were on a smooth lawn, beyond which was a stand of cedar trees, and a lake gleaming below. Moritz cantered across the lawn, picked up what looked like half a branch, brought it back to Harry, and sat expectantly.
“Right! Let's see how far I can get this!” The branch sailed through the air, turning end over end, and Moritz was after it before it had reached its apex. Harry put his hands on his hips, and assessed its flight. “Nothing like good enough! We'll try again!”
A faint breeze from the prevailing westerly wind brought the sound of guns.
He had given no parole.
He had been treated with courtesy and more than courtesy.
He had a duty.
Truth to tell, he had no idea why he was here at all. Gratitude could only extend so far. He frowned a little, as he and Moritz approached the reed-fringed lake at the furthest extent of the gardens. His superiors would surely question this little holiday, pleasant though it was, when the war was over.
That faint noise of gunfire reminded him that the war was not over. The Germans' great spring offensive had been halted. The awful grinding stalemate had been re-established – and for what purpose? In the middle of the offensive he had almost become friends with one of the enemy. Last night he had conversed perfectly pleasantly with that enemy's family, and had liked all of them. Well, almost all of them.
He found himself at the lake-shore. Moritz was off foraging somewhere; Harry wandered onto a little jetty, to which was tied a boat. Fifty yards across the water was a small, tree-grown islet. It would be fun to row out to it, and there were oars in the boat, but he didn't have the nerve to do it.
“I used to play at pirates on that island when I was a child.”
He spun round, and there was the Baroness making her way across the grass towards him.
“Ma'am! I didn't know you were there. I was -” the untranslatable term wool-gathering sprang to mind, to be replaced with “Miles away. You have been here before, then? I didn't realise.”
“It is my cousin's château. He is at the front, but when he heard what had happened, he offered us the use of it.”
He fought to continue the conversation. “You were happy here, then?”
“Oh yes. We spent the summers here, I and my cousins. I think that might be the same boat – though I swear it's got smaller.”
“Would you like to go out to the island again? I think I can row there.” Harry spoke on impulse.
She looked at him, surprised. Then she smiled. “Thank-you, yes. I would. But we should perhaps wait for my husband and son. Moritz went to meet them, and wanted more sticks thrown.”
“We can get the boat ready, at least.”
He scrambled into it, and as it showed no signs of leaking, assisted the Baroness down too. They busied themselves with oars and rudder, and while they were doing so, the rest of the family approached, preceded by Moritz.
“We're going to the island! Do you want to come?” The Baroness sounded almost girlish.
“Of course we do!”
“Moritz, lie down. Stay.”
The huge hound did so, with a mournful expression, and Harry held the boat steady while Albrecht and Manfred clambered down, both of them awkwardly, one of them coping with old wounds, one with new. But once in the boat, Albrecht insisted on taking the oars; so Harry pushed off, and Albrecht settled into a steady stroke, pulling for the island.
“Did I not win the pirate battles, more often than not?” asked the Baroness, smiling.
“You stayed here too, sir?” asked Harry.
“I did. She was the pirate queen, and was far more ruthless than I ever was.” Albrecht exchanged a smile with his wife, and Harry boggled quietly at this tale of early Richthofen family life.
“There might be photographs at the château still,” said the pirates' son. “Perhaps we can find them.” This brought on protests from his parents, and meanwhile the Baroness steered them towards her childhood lair. They drew under its trees, overhanging the water – oak and sycamore and alder, just like home. The leaves were beginning to show bright green. Birds were singing, too.
“Captain Hawkes, will you take the rope?”
Harry took the end of the painter, and scrambled, awkward in his boots, onto a rock, then pulled the boat after him into a little cove with a muddy beach. There was a flagstone to serve as a quay, and he helped the Baroness out. Albrecht and Manfred followed, while Harry fastened the painter to a stake he had found, driven into the beach.
“Well. Let us see if we can find the old fortress.”
In increasing mystification, Harry followed the family along a faint path through the trees that crowded the island. Birds twittered among the branches; there were wildflowers, bluebells and others he could not name. There was a difference of opinion ahead of him, but Manfred's parents agreed on a route in the end, and suddenly they came on a tiny clearing with a jumble of stakes and planks in it.
“Ah, it's fallen down!”
The desolation of the Somme rose suddenly behind Harry's eyes, but he remained silent, just hunching into himself a little. Beside him, Manfred was very still. Harry came out of his reverie to find that Albrecht was seating himself on an upended, sawn section of tree-trunk. There was a half-circle of these, and he gestured to family and guest to sit likewise.
“So. We cannot be overheard here, even by chance.”
“Sir?” Harry could not help an exclamation of surprise. The three Richthofens were all looking very serious.
Albrecht's expression was grim. “Captain Hawkes. We are here because we need to talk to you privately: and because we believe you may be trusted.” He paused. “This war has gone on long enough. Germany cannot win.”
Harry almost blurted out, “Why did you ever think you could?” but caught the words before they left his lips. “Well, no. But what - ?”
“In the absence of any sign of negotiation by the High Command, others might perhaps make the attempt.”
Harry exhaled as though he had been punched. He glanced round; the Baroness had her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and Manfred's expression was unreadable.
“You believe you may – end the war?” He could hear the incredulity in his own voice.
“Someone has to make the first move. We may begin negotiations for negotiations, at least.”
“But this should be a deadly secret! Why are you telling me?”
“You said last night that Lady Jermyn is your godmother. I was impressed when I met her before the War. This might be the opportunity we need.”
“You want me to take a message to her?” It seemed incredible, but it was the only possibility his reeling brain could come up with.
“More than that. I want you to take my son to her.”
Harry's jaw dropped. He stared in astonishment, first at Albrecht, then shot a wild glance at the Red Baron, sitting silent and still beside him; but who looked round, and gave a curt nod.
“Captain Hawkes,” said the Baroness, taking pity on his confusion. “This must go no further. But you risked your life to save Manfred. We know you are a good man. The High Command believes, or acts as though it believes, that we may still win this war. None of us here shares that belief. It must end. Your godmother is a political hostess of some note. Therefore, we wish to send a message to her, that certain elements in German society will be willing to negotiate. As a sign of good faith, our son will take the message.”
“But it must be secret,” said Manfred. “You understand this, Captain Hawkes?” He was giving Harry the stare that had surely so many times sighted along his twin Spandaus - and Harry read the warning in that look. Betray my parents, and I will kill you. He glared back, and turned to Albrecht and the Baroness.
“Of course I understand,” Harry assured them. “Forgive me. This is – a lot to take in.”
“It is. But someone must make the first move. It seems it falls to us – and you.”
Harry fought the urge to clutch at his hair. “To you, maybe – but to me? I'm not the sort of person you need. You need a statesman.”
“We need a brave man, a man of good faith, and we have one here," said the Baroness.
Harry gaped for a moment, then shut his mouth. “What do you want me to do?”
Manfred spoke again. “There is an aero park not far from here. Captured aircraft are stored there to be studied – it's where I got the Camel for you last month. Among them is a Bristol Fighter, in airworthy condition. Lothar will bring it here – to give me a joy-ride, you understand - and you and I will take it on to England.”
Harry twitched at the mention of Lothar.
“He will not betray us,” said Manfred, very distinctly.
“No, no, of course not,” Harry hastened to reply. “I just -” The thought of Lothar on a peace mission - he stopped that idea before he could dig himself any deeper. “I'm sorry. Go on.”
“Once in England, you and I will go to Lady Jermyn, and give her my father's message. She will speak to her friends in your government, and the way for negotiations will be open.”
Harry wondered who among the German government might be in favour of negotiations, and had a sudden memory of the Crown Prince, learning about the realities of war first-hand. That thought could not be spoken, even here. He banished it, passed his hands over his hair, and hid his face in them for a brief moment. Then he looked around the little ring of his enemies, and said, “When do we start?”
The next evening, he and his hosts stood on the stone-flagged terrace, watching Lothar bringing in the Bristol to land on the lawn behind the chateau. Harry could hardly restrain himself from dancing a little jig of pure happiness – with its big roundels it was such a reminder of normality – but managed not to. The people around him would not understand the impulse; or if they understood (and Manfred and Lothar might) they would look down on him for giving in to it. So he watched it trundle along the sheep-cropped grass, then ran down the steps, and out to catch hold of a wing-tip to turn it just before the end of its run. Lothar's helmeted head turned to regard him for a brief moment, then turned back, dismissing him. Behind him, in came a Triplane – an escort, provided by Wolfram von Richthofen, a cousin who also flew with the Circus.
Harry was beginning to feel hopelessly outnumbered, a solitary hawk amid a brood of eagles.
But there was the Bristol - “Good old Biff!” he said to it, and patted the fabric of the fuselage affectionately. Lothar gave him a look that said, “My brother is going to fly with this idiot?” and swung down from the cockpit. Harry smiled cheerfully at him, and while the two brothers shook hands and exchanged a few words, tossed his knapsack up into the cockpit, climbed after it and started checking over the controls. No need for the Richthofens to fear he'd take off alone in it, not with that Triplane sitting on the turf just behind him, with guns at the ready.
The Bristol dipped as his passenger climbed aboard, rather slowly, which must be a comedown for him – but there it was, Manfred's injuries would not permit the kind of vaulting ascent that he would have used in times past. Harry twisted in his seat, and looked an enquiry. He got a nod of assent, opened the throttle and heard once again the roar of a Rolls-Royce engine right in front of him. He allowed himself one moment of complete happiness as they took off, pretending to himself that this was just another night mission.
The Bristol had been on the ground for perhaps five minutes.
Something soared up beside them – almost bounced up, it climbed so quickly. A triple-winged silhouette against the glowing evening sky, of the sort that would normally give Harry the heebie-jeebies. But the pilot gave them a friendly wave, and settled himself comfortably to fly in formation. Wolfram would escort them to the coast, the red paint-work on his Triplane being all the passport they needed through occupied Belgium. And from coastal waters onwards, they would be on their own.
They reached the coast at dusk. Perfect timing. Harry glanced down at the angle of the shore-line below them, checked his compass, and altered course slightly, heading north-west with the sunset staining the clouds beneath them with pink and gold. The sky was eggshell blue. It was as peaceful an evening as could be wished – hold on, what was that? Richthofen was pointing south-west; Harry craned his neck and saw piled-up clouds advancing from the Channel. He frowned. They really did not need a storm, and it looked as though that was what they were going to get.
It was colder, too.
He picked out an early star for easier navigation, settled on his new course, and hunched lower in his cockpit. There was slight buffetings now as the wind began to pick up, shaking the Biff – good job she was so sturdy! His passenger would be getting the brunt of it: just as well they were both thoroughly wrapped up.
A shadow fell across him, startling him. He should have been concentrating -
But it was only Wolfram, just a few feet away, waving and grinning farewell, before banking away and dropping down like a stone sinking into a pond. Having escorted them a few miles out to sea, he was going home. They were on their own.
They would need their wits about them from now on. He sat up straighter in his cockpit, and checked all round. Good Lord, Richthofen would have noticed his lack of alertness a few minutes ago. How embarrassing.
An hour later, they were crossing the Essex coast – the low-lying, watery coast of home, he hadn't thought he'd see it again so quickly! - and were racing the storm sweeping in from the west. The clouds were piled high enough to bar their way, and the turbulence was getting bad. He peered downwards at the river-mouths curling out to the sea below, still visible and gleaming with reflected light from the last of the twilight, and came to a decision.
Holding the stick firmly clamped between his knees, he twisted round. Richthofen, alert as ever, leaned forward.
“We won't get there tonight! I'm going to land!”
“Too dangerous! Keep going!” An authentic Prussian order.
“No! My parents live not far from here! We can stop there for the night!” An especially strong gust of wind emphasised his point. The Bristol lurched. He grabbed at the stick, brought her back onto an even keel, and turned back again to shout, “We've lost too much time fighting this wind – I wouldn't even recognise Lady Jermyn's house if we flew right over it!” And it was still a hundred miles away. They'd get lost, no question. Richthofen may have flown as an observer, but his experience of night-flying was minimal.
He could feel the German's glare even through the goggles, but turned back decisively and ignored it; when all was said and done, Richthofen could hardly shoot him. He pushed the stick forward, and began to drop down among the dark masses of cloud, feeling the first snowflakes whip past him. It was going to be an unpleasant approach to the village of his birth. But he picked up the rivers again, and followed their course upstream to the town – there was the railway line to London, right where it ought to be. He pushed everything else out of his mind, and almost by sheer force of will began picking up more landmarks.
What if his parents weren't there? His mother sometimes went up to London for this meeting or that. She was prominent in the Women's Legion. And if his father was involved in a trial there, he'd stay overnight -
It couldn't be helped. Harry tilted the nose of the machine further down. Through the snow, flying past him in swirls and streams formed by the propeller, he could see the familiar landscape climb up towards him. There was the loop of the river, the big house on the hill, and the spire of the church where he himself had been christened.
And there, a little beyond the cluster of buildings, though still recognisably part of the village, was the substantial Georgian farmhouse that belonged to his parents, and the barn set at right angles to it. The field beyond was, if he remembered correctly, kept smooth and well-cropped by the sheep the local farmer ran on it, though the field itself was owned by his parents.
The engine was silent. He half-turned to look at Richthofen, who was standing braced in the rear cockpit, surveying the ground intently. Harry slapped the fuselage to attract his attention, then jabbed downwards with an urgent hand.
“We'll land in the field there! Hold on!”
A sharp nod, and Richthofen leaned further out of the cockpit, assessing the field – what could be seen of it under the snow – with close attention. Harry set his jaw, and brought the Bristol in on the final approach over the coldly-lit landscape. He had a sudden memory of going out with a shotgun for rabbits in this very field. With luck all the rabbits had been eaten and the burrows silted up - and at least the snow would cushion any impact.
The hedge passed under them. The Bristol bumped as it did so, dropped the last few feet, and the undercarriage swished through the snow. The wheels touched, juddered across the hidden grass. Harry lurched in his seat as the big fighter slowed much more quickly than he'd anticipated. Was it a rabbit-hole...? No, just the snow, of course.
They were down.
“An excellent landing, Captain Hawkes!” Richthofen was speaking in English; but Harry frowned as he pulled up his goggles.
“Best be quiet for a while,” he said in an undertone, “your accent is a give-away.”
Richthofen inclined his head curtly, but was first out of the machine. Harry clambered after him, setting foot in England for the first time in months. They stood listening; should in fact have stayed in the machine, but that was not Richthofen's way.
Another flurry of snow lashed them full in the face. But all was quiet otherwise; everyone in the village was sensibly huddled indoors.
“All right. I'll get something to weigh the machine down.” She was quivering in the cold wind, almost as if she wanted to be airborne again. Harry trotted to the barn – the gate between field and farmyard still stuck, just as it always did – and found a couple of sacks of something lumpy. Fodder of some sort, no doubt. He shouldered one and doubled back to the machine, dropping it across the undercarriage and returning for another. This time he scanned the barn: it was big enough, if need be...
Perhaps five minutes had passed since they landed, and they had not yet been noticed. “Right, I'll go and see if anyone's at home. Wait here.”
Another sharp nod. Richthofen didn't like being given orders. He would have to get used to it, for a few days at least.
Harry dog-trotted across the farmyard again, and found himself at the familiar back door. Soft light showed through the crack in the shuttered windows. Before he could give himself time to consider, he thumped at the blue-painted woodwork.
There was a sudden pause in the murmuring voices within; halting footsteps approaching the door; then it opened a little way. Someone peered round its edge. Then it was flung wide, and Harry was hauled inside, and a moment later he was shaking hands with his father.
“Harry! The last we heard, you'd been taken prisoner – what happened – Emily, Emily, Harry's here!”
Still breathless, Harry, before he had even dropped his father's hand, was seized, kissed and engulfed in his mother's arms. He gave her an almighty bear-hug, lifting her a few inches off her feet. He had not been able to do that before.
“Oh my dear, you're so cold! Come in - “
“A flying visit,” he laughed, and extracted himself from the embrace. “Is anyone else here?”
“No, no, Sarah's gone to her sister, there's a baby just arrived! And Solomon and Thomas go home at nights since the air-raids got worse.”
Harry sagged in relief. “Thank God,” he muttered to himself. “I've got a friend with me,” and he gestured out to the small figure waiting next to the machine. “Can you put us up for the night?”
“Of course we can! Call him here, what on Earth were you thinking of, keeping him in the field?”
“It's a long story,” said Harry, but turned and beckoned Richthofen. “We'll be glad to get in out of the cold – and the machine, we should get it under cover. It'll go in the barn if we open the big doors.”
Richthofen came up to the door, still all but unrecognisable, muffled up as he was in his old black flying-jacket and scarf and helmet, but his goggles were pushed up, and his eyes were ice-blue in the light that spilled from the doorway. His face was set.
“Why are we standing on the doorstep? Come on in. It's warmer inside. I'll stir up the fire.”
She was leading the way down the hall, smiling, her happiness almost lighting up the dim passageway that Harry remembered so well, with its photographs and samplers and water-colours. Harry's father reached for the key-board and said, “I'll get those barn doors unlocked.”
They had reached the little open space at the foot of the stairs. Harry glanced at his companion, and said, “Wait just a moment, Father. I haven't made introductions yet: and this must go no further.” That gave his parents pause.
Richthofen stood very straight, pulled off his helmet and shoved it into a jacket pocket.
“Mother, Father, may I present: Rittmeister Manfred, Freiherr von Richthofen.”
In the silence that followed, he fought down an insane urge to laugh, and was unaware that what then remained in his face was pride.
Richthofen clicked his heels and bowed. The small noise broke a spell of absolute astonishment.
“You are very welcome, sir,” said Father, in his most neutral voice, the voice that had been trained in courtrooms from the local assizes to the Old Bailey.
“Thank-you, sir. I apologise for the unexpected nature of our arrival, madam.”
“I – well. We should not stand here talking. Come through into the parlour. Take your jackets off and leave them here, there's snow all over them.”
And if they had doubted their son's word for one moment, the uniform that Richthofen revealed as he peeled off the bulky flying jacket left no uncertainty at all in their faces. Mother, falling back on her social training, led the way into the square, low-ceilinged room, and turned up the lamps. “Please – sit down.” She gestured to the two winged armchairs standing on either side of the fire, and sat herself, rather suddenly, on the old-fashioned sofa ranged facing it. The men followed suit.
Harry had by now mastered the impulse to laugh, and with barely a tremor in his voice, said, “In short, because we really must get the Bristol under cover, we are here to visit Lady Jermyn.”
“My father was acquainted with her, in the years before war broke out,” explained Richthofen. “We have come to speak with her – if we can.”
“To speak with her – about - ?”
“The war. It has gone on long enough.”
The firelight flickered, sending shadows leaping across the walls.
“Are there not – official channels – for this sort of thing?”
“They haven't been opened yet,” said Harry. “This is the very first move. We have to keep things secret. The Baron is here as evidence of good faith, which is why we have to be so careful. If it had not been for the snow, we wouldn't have landed at all.”
“The aircraft,” said Father suddenly. “That's why it must go in the barn.” He stood up. “I'll get the key.”
“I'll put the kettle on. Go on, Harry, Rittmeister -” and Richthofen blinked at her perfect pronunciation.
The tableau in the parlour broke up abruptly; Father was in the passageway a moment later, taking a big key down from its hook. The rest of them crowded out after him.
The Bristol’s wingspan just cleared the barn doors; Harry was more than relieved that they didn't have to take the wings off, which would have been a punishing task in the chilly, dank air of the April night. The three men tugged the machine in to a barn that was half-empty, with a small hill of fodder in one corner – a couple of cats regarded them with disdain from its summit - and plough and harrow stacked against the walls, along with a tangle of bicycles. At the far end horses shifted and champed in their stalls, but here there was space enough for their purposes; Harry fetched a horse-blanket and tossed it across the engine.
Harry saw how stiffly his father moved. His damaged leg was healed but would never carry him without difficulty. Harry was glad of it; he was still almost young enough to be called up in the war's fourth long year. Like Baron Albrecht, he was now out of that danger himself, but unlike Albrecht, had seen the dreadful waste of it all years ago.
Harry set down the tail-skid of the machine – the taller and stronger of the two airmen, he had appropriated that task – as soon as Richthofen signalled that the propeller was clear of the doors, and straightened, resisting the temptation to hurry round and swing one of the heavy doors closed. His father would not appreciate such solicitude.
There was a scrape and thud. The snow-light was gone, and the edge of the cold with it.
“The wheel-marks are half-covered already, and the landing was silent,” said Richthofen. “We have a good chance of escaping attention.”
“So says the man who flies a red Triplane,” grinned Harry, and his father gave him a surprised look; surprised that his son would poke fun at so famous an enemy.
“There is a time to hide, and a time to be seen. This is a time to hide.”
“With that in mind, let's get back into the house. I'm cold. Father - ” and Harry gestured for him to go first through the side door, and Richthofen after him.
Back in the parlour, Mother had set a tray on a little table, close to the fire. On an embroidered tray-cloth were a tea-pot and cups, a stack of bread, butter, potted meat, jam and half a Dundee cake. “Sit down. There are the toasting-forks,” she said, and Harry dropped into one of the winged chairs and took up a fork, passing the other to Richthofen who looked at it with a slightly mystified air.
“You skewer your bread, and toast it,” explained Harry, demonstrating, and Richthofen carefully followed suit.
“Ah. The English tea,” he said, suddenly realising what ritual he was taking part in.
“The English tea,” confirmed Mother, picking up the tea-pot, and beginning to pour out. “Do you take sugar?”
Half an hour later, the conversation had turned from their mission to the Hawkes' winter holiday in Germany, years before, and thence to the story of his parent's disastrous voyage across the Atlantic and their few weeks' enforced stay in the Azores. Harry, suddenly restless, got to his feet and peered out round a corner of the curtain. “Still snowing,” he said, glumly. “The cloud cover is – well, it's thick.”
“Old Elias said it would clear tomorrow,” said Father. “If he's right, will you be able to fly?”
The two airmen looked at each other. “We must try,” said Richthofen. “It is the only way. I cannot travel by train.”
“No, indeed! Well, I've made up beds for you – you may as well get a good night's sleep,” said Mother, who was collecting the cups together.
“We should keep watch,” protested Harry. “If anyone suspects the Baron is here -”
“We should perhaps remain in the barn,” said the Baron.
“I'll keep watch. You get a decent night's sleep,” said Father firmly, and a few minutes later, Harry found himself being sent upstairs, the Red Baron on his heels (each of them with a hot water bottle under his arm) and with instructions to show the guest to the spare room - as bizarre a mission as any he had undertaken.
He woke once in the night, staring at the crooked ceiling and the familiar sprigged wallpaper in the snow-light that came through the curtains. For a groggy few moments he wondered if all the long years of the war had been a wild dream, and he peered at his uniform hanging on the back of the door, half expecting it to transform into his schoolboy clothes; but it remained obstinately itself. He heard a faint murmur of familiar voices from below, and knew that both his parents were awake and keeping guard – and that in the next room, their country's most famous enemy was asleep, if he had any sense at all. Harry turned onto his side, bunched up his pillow, and slept again.
He was woken before dawn by a soft knock at his door. “Harry, wake up. The snow's stopped.”
He grunted, and rolled out of bed, and opened the door to find his father there. “Thanks,” he mumbled. “What time is it?”
“Half past five. The moon's coming up. I don't know if the snow's too deep to take off, though.”
The door to the spare bedroom opened. There stood Richthofen, barefoot, flying-jacket flung on over his pyjamas. “I looked out of the window. We can do it, I think.”
“I'll go and check.” Harry ran down the stairs and opened the back door, and called back up, “Just a few inches. Maybe less, out in the field. The Bristol can do it.”
“Breakfast first,” said Mother, appearing from the kitchen. “Go and get dressed.” She looked as tired as anyone who had been awake all night, but the kettle was singing, and through the kitchen door Harry glimpsed eggs and bacon laid out next to the range.
Richthofen, obviously considering that he had mastered the art of toast-making, appropriated the forks and settled down in a Windsor chair next to the fire.
Harry, coming in from the bathroom where first Richthofen and then he had been sent with cans of hot water to shave, said, “Wind's in the east. It'll be cold, but there shouldn't be any more snow. The cloud cover's almost gone.”
“Old Elias was right, then. He usually is,” said Mother.
“Then we will not have to turn the aircraft to take off,” observed Richthofen.
“That's good. The less time we spend on the ground, the better.” Harry had a vision of trying to take off amid a crowd of villagers armed with pitchforks. He was being ridiculous, he knew; but Colonel Roche at the big house was notoriously fiery. He could not risk an encounter between him and the Red Baron - who was now turning the toast, having decided that the first side was browned to his satisfaction.
There was a sizzling from the range as Mother put in the bacon. “Dear,” she said to Harry, “would you make the tea?”
Father came in, stamping the snow from his boots. “The doors are unlocked. Once you've eaten, we can get you away very quickly.”
“We'll have to. When the engine catches, the entire village will know we're here.”
“You'll be safely in the air by the time they can get here, and we'll just tell them you dropped by. No need to mention another visitor,” and she smiled at that other visitor before turning the bacon and cracking eggs into the pan.
It was a picture of homely comfort such as Harry had often experienced in that kitchen, though he would as much expect to have a phoenix, in all its glittering plumes, to breakfast with him as the present visitor. But a couple of minutes later, there he and the phoenix were, tucking in to that most glorious of meals, the English breakfast. He was aware that they were consuming his parents' rations, and as well aware that protest would be useless. The extra fuel might make all the difference to the success of their mission: and Richthofen needed the food. He could still remember the thinness of that immobile body in the shell-hole.
Father peered round the curtain's edge. “There goes Elias, and Fly with him. Up to the common.”
Harry crammed in a last mouthful of toast and marmalade. “Time we were going, I think, Rittmeister.”
Richthofen stood, picked up his flying jacket and slung it on. They trooped out to the barn, and dragged open the doors. Then Harry shook hands with his father, and embraced his mother. “Be careful,” she whispered. “There are sharks here at home too, you know.”
He drew back a little and looked at her, startled. But then he nodded. “I will, mother,” and kissed her cheek. Richthofen came forward, bowed, and took her hand and kissed it, causing her almost to laugh in surprise, and then between them the four of them dragged the Bristol out onto the snowy pasture.
Harry scrambled up into the cockpit, feeling the machine shake as Richthofen made his slower way up. He checked map and compass. Helmet on, goggles down. Then he nodded at his father. “Swing her now!”
A splutter, a roar; the engine settled to a steady beat. He gave it a minute to warm up, then taxied on into the white world. A raised hand to his parents; “Good-bye!”
“Good luck!” He could not hear the words over the engine noise, but he could see their faces, and knew what they had called.
“I hope so,” he muttered to himself, and opened the throttle.
It was a longer run than usual, but with a little room to spare they were airborne, the house and village dropping away behind them. A glance down past his passenger showed his parents, arms round each others' waists, just visible in the pre-dawn light against the white of the field, watching their son leave them once more.
He looked back up; Richthofen pointed, and Harry settled down to following the course he indicated. North-north west, a hundred miles. They'd be there in an hour.
“Your mother telephoned and warned me you'd be on your way. Though she didn't say who your friend was, of course. Baron, you are very welcome: let's hope this visit of yours is productive! Now, come in, out of this vile weather.”
Thus, Aunt Deb - not an aunt at all but a friend from his mother's school-days. The snow had, in fact, diminished to a few flakes spinning out of a gun-metal sky. Between them, she and the two airmen and a couple of servants had pulled the Bristol into the coach-house and dragged the doors closed. Now she was leading them in through a depressing stretch of lumpy ground that was perhaps once a rose-garden (though now it looked as though it was a vegetable patch,) through the French windows to the drawing-room and thence to a lair opposite the staircase, and from which, if she kept her door open, she could see all the traffic through the house. Now she closed it, and sat them down in chairs next to her writing-desk.
Harry had never been in this room before, but appreciated it for what it was, the nerve-centre of operations for a commanding officer. There were books on the shelves, ledgers on the desk, and even maps on the walls. Here she sent out her correspondence and invitations, and pulled on her spider-web of strings.
An elderly maid brought tea, and Aunt Deb poured out for them, but here the niceties ended. Harry, sipping on the strong India brew, listened as she outlined her plans.
“You're in luck. I've got a shooting-party coming over tomorrow. Couple of Fabians – we can rely on them – and Jacky Williams, that's Colonel Williams to you, Harry. He'd be in favour, I think. His son was killed at – well, never mind. He's bringing his daughter-in-law and the children. There are a couple of M.P.s I'm working on, coming over for the shooting tomorrow. One of them's a Cabinet Minister. I'll try and get them over here before then. A pity James isn't due home for a week or so, but they say he'll recover well.” Her son. “Alicia will be here, of course.” Her niece, in her mid-twenties, widowed before the war. “Look to yourself there, Baron; she's incorrigible!”
A blank expression in response.
“Ah well, you'll find out... Anyway, there's just one fly in the ointment, and that's Don Frazer. An industrialist from the North. Middle-aged fellow; says he's got a weak heart which is why he isn't in uniform. He thinks he's got a chance with Alicia; well, he hasn't, but she's stringing him along for now.”
“The arms manufacturer. We have heard of him. Almost as big a name as Krupps.” Richthofen placed his cup carefully in its saucer.
“Yes. I was getting to work on him. Too late to put him off now – he'll have started out already. Well, you can take care of yourself, no doubt – you'll know how to make use of such a party of people.”
“If it's a shooting-party, and if you'll allow me the use of a gun, I can make a good enough showing, I think. I have practised left-handed shooting before, as a game... But I am a soldier and not good at politics, even on this scale.”
“Just be seen, be civil, and leave the rest to me. Harry, stick with him. Unobtrusively. And Baron – try not to kill all my game. I don't doubt you could, but I'll need something for other house-parties!”
“Very well, I will not,” said Richthofen, and Aunt Deb blinked because he'd spoken in all seriousness. Then she laughed at herself. “There are hares, if you've a mind to them. Mad-marching all over our fields.”
“Hares,”said the Baron thoughtfully. “I have not shot hares for a while.”
“Have at them with my blessing. The farmers will thank you. You look as though you could do with feeding up, too. Shoot all the hares you like.”
“Aunt Deb,” put in Harry. “I never fully appreciated what you do before now. But I'm glad you're my godmother.”
“Well, you're young. In years. Old in other ways. The closest I've got to the front line is nursing, and I was no good at that. But between us, perhaps we've got the skills to start things moving. Just – watch Frazer, all right?”
“Yes, we will. And there's one other thing. The Biff is low on fuel. Can you find us some more?”
“In my copious spare time, yes.” She made a note in her day-book. “Now, you go to your rooms and rest. You're on at four. Harry, you're in the Blue Room – do you remember it? And I'll put the Baron in the Tudor room in the same wing. Frazer liked it when he was here before, but he'll have to lump it this time.”
“Thank-you, Lady Jermyn. My father told me but a fraction of what you do.”
“All serenity on the surface but paddling like hell underneath, young man. Well, it's time this awful business was sorted out. Off you go, both of you - and I'll see what I can do about the fuel.”
Thus dismissing them, and after a briefing that would put many of Harry's commanders to shame, Aunt Deb rang the bell, and they went back into the black and white hallway again. There she gave instructions to a gawky youth, whom Harry vaguely recognised as the boot-boy of long-ago days, about their scant baggage, and the party broke up.
After breakfast next morning, Harry wondered where he could go – not to hide exactly, but to be out of the way. Richthofen was closeted with Aunt Deb in her office, along with the promised Minister and M.P. Heaven help Parliament if she ever got a seat there... Or perhaps she'd be a Parliamentary private secretary, one of the powers behind the scenes.
He opened a door off the drawing-room, following his memories of previous visits, and found himself the perfect retreat: a conservatory, facing south but already catching the low spring light, with a central fountain, palms growing in large pots, seed-boxes on benches under the windows, and a couple of long cane chairs half-hidden by the greenery. Perfect. The chairs even had cushions.
He appropriated one and made himself comfortable. Then he opened the day's paper that he had picked up from the library, and settled in to a lazy morning.
This was rudely interrupted when his eye fell on reports of the last week's fighting. He lowered the paper abruptly. He imagined Entwhistle, holding the line, in charge of the squadron in Harry's place; Pootle, promoted to flight-commander, God help the poor members of the flight (but he'd survived a year in France; surely he could do the job?) And they'd already been without him for over a fortnight. If only he'd – no. He had only done what was necessary, as each crisis presented itself. He was doing far more to end the war now than he could have done in the cockpit of his Camel – or more likely, at his desk in the C.O.'s office. His office.
He turned resolutely to the sports reports, then backtracked to the society pages. He really should be doing his homework. Aunt Deb would expect it of him.
It bored him silly; he let the paper fall, and lazily watched the snowy landscape, very glad of the heating provided for the plants' benefit, and listened to the thin murmur of the fountain. It was very peaceful here.
Quiet, hasty footsteps sounded on the iron gratings that formed the conservatory floor. Whoever it was hesitated, then came on, and lowered themself into the next chair. Harry cracked open an eyelid, and saw Richthofen, looking a little harried.
“What's the matter?” mumbled Harry.
“I almost got caught by Lady Alicia. She wanted a game of billiards. I pleaded pain from my hand.”
“I will protect you, Rittmeister,” said Harry solemnly. “Here. You may hide behind the newspaper.” He handed it over, and drifted into a doze again. A creak or two from the other chair indicated that Richthofen was settling himself in.
After a quarter of an hour or so, there was a sigh from his companion.
Harry looked him over with an enquiring lift to the eyebrow. “Hard going, was it?” he asked sympathetically.
“I am not made for diplomacy.”
“No? Well, you're the best we've got. Did Aunt Deb help you out?”
“Oh yes. She and the others are discussing whom they should contact. She mentioned the King – no, I should not have said that.”
“I never heard it at all. Look, you need some fresh air. Let's go for a walk.”
“A good plan; but I do not wish to drag you into the snow. I can go on my own.”
“No, you can't. Sorry, Baron, but you'll have to put up with me. You could let me out on my own back in France, but you're too important to risk. Let's go and get our jackets.”
Richthofen looked irritated for a moment, then shrugged. “Very well, you may be my guard.”
“Bodyguard,” agreed Harry pleasantly but firmly. Which brought a surprised look from Richthofen, but they got their jackets in reasonable amity, and left the house via the front door. Down the steps they went, across the drive, and into the leafless, walled shrubbery.
Richthofen fetched a great sigh as Harry opened the gate in the further wall and the view suddenly opened out before them. His shoulders lost their rigid set, and his head went up.
“Better?” enquired Harry.
“I mean no disrespect to Lady Jermyn, but yes! I am accustomed to the whole sky, not a small room full of people.”
“And to more direct action,” murmured Harry. He couldn't stop himself.
“Yes. That too,” admitted Richthofen.
“We can get some fresh air, at least. Walk around the ha-ha.” Then he had to explain what a ha-ha was, and they went up to its brink and followed its course round to the other side of the house in silence.
A small herd of fallow deer sprang from the shelter of a copse and went bounding away across the snow, passing through a scattering of sheep towards a strange structure, like a large walled garden with a stone pavilion of some sort on the nearest side. The Deer-cote, Harry recalled; one of the follies with which this estate was dotted. Richthofen watched the animals as they as they passed through an arched entrance with narrowed eyes.
“Aunt Deb won't be pleased if you shoot them. They're for ornament only.”
“Then I will not. I have shot enough deer in my time.”
“Is there anything you haven't hunted?”
“Very little. It is a proper pursuit for a nobleman, after all. But I value it for other reasons than the kill.”
Harry scuffed at a cedar-cone under the snow, picked it up on the toe of his boot, and sent it flying across the ha-ha. He kept quiet.
“I like to get away. They won't let me alone, in Germany.”
“You were alone enough in that café in Berlin.”
“Yes, the staff know me – it's why I go there. They keep the crowds away from me. But even there – you saw how the generals came up to me -”
“I did.” He'd assumed the generals had made a bee-line to Richthofen to discuss strategy. But did they even know him? If it was because they wanted to be seen in his company, or simply to be near the famous flying ace -
Well, he couldn't ask that. “... Crowds?”
“Yes.” Richthofen was not going to say any more.
Harry considered for a moment what he would say to one of his men who was so tightly wound. Then he said, “Go on,” and nodded at the parkland beyond the ha-ha. “I mustn't let you go far on your own, but I'll stay at a decent distance.”
Richthofen gave him a sudden smile - Harry fairly blinked at the transformation, and grinned back – and dropped down into the ha-ha, scrambling quickly up the other side. Harry followed more slowly, watching the landscape for threats as carefully as he'd ever watched the skies above France.
Hands in pockets, Richthofen sauntered on, looking much more relaxed now. He kicked up the snow a few times, his head up, looking for all the world like one of those deer scenting the air. He described a wide half-circle, crossing the leafless avenue as it sloped up to the lodge and the road to the village, and from there made for a small, round folly on a kind of natural terrace closer to, and giving a view of, the house.
“Temple of Aeolus,” he called out as he reached it, translating the Latin inscription that ran round the domed building.
“That's appropriate!” replied Harry. His company was now apparently allowed, so he trudged up to the folly and stepped in between the encircling columns, to gaze at the carved heads of the winds at each cardinal point of the building proper. He did a circuit, looking for the door which he remembered, and tried it. “Here.” He pushed it open.
Inside there was an iron spiral staircase running up to a room in the dome – probably used for storage now. The main room itself was chilly, though the four glazed windows gave some protection as well as allowing light inside. The walls were covered with faded murals of skyscapes – exotic birds and windswept seas and pagodas rising above the mists.
“I'd almost forgotten the paintings,” said Harry, turning slowly on the spot to view them. “Aunt Deb's mother-in-law had them done, I think – or did she do them herself? They're pretty good, anyway.”
“For someone who could never have flown, they are excellent.”
“Oh, I think she went up in a balloon once. Pity she wasn't born a generation or two later.”
“Ah yes. In that, at least, you and I are lucky.” Richthofen continued to walk round, examining the paintings, while Harry went up the staircase and tried the door at the top.
“Locked. I've been up there once or twice, as a kid, but I don't remember it well.”
“It would be a pleasant place, in summer.”
“Yes. They used it for picnics, I think. Too cold for that now!”
They wandered out among the columns again, and began to descend the slope towards the house. Harry, hands in pockets, at some distance from Richthofen once more, and not really paying attention, saw something flash towards him at the corner of his vision.
He ducked, feeling whatever it was zoom just over his head. Wrenched his whole body round, fast as if he'd been in his Camel. The scene blurred with his speed -
- and there was Richthofen, scooping up another snowball left-handed.
“What? - you --” he sputtered indignantly, and bent for a handful of snow himself. Straightened. Hurled it. The two snowballs crossed in mid-air; each of them had to dodge to avoid being hit. Shouting with laughter, they continued the fight in a rush down the slope. Harry tripped at its base, grabbed at Richthofen as he fell, and each ended up trying to stuff snow down the other's neck.
He won that particular fight, being the heavier and stronger of the two, though scrupulously using only his left hand. But one-handed or not, Richthofen had scored a couple of direct hits on Harry, who also had snow up both sleeves. He rolled over onto his back, panting, and grinning at the sky.
“For someone who doesn't like company - ” he laughed.
“But I like to have fun sometimes.”
“Like taking Moritz for a joy-ride.”
“With Moritz, yes. But with friends too. Sometimes.”
A friend. “Well, I'm honoured.” Harry said it lightly, but it was true. He was ridiculously happy. He had enjoyed that tussle, as unexpected as it was.
They stood up, brushing the snow off as best they could, and sauntered – there was no other word for it – towards the back door of the house, hands in pockets, much closer to each other now and completely at ease in each other's company.
Aunt Deb, spotting them from her lair as they crossed the hall, came at them in a hurry. “Go and knock that snow off, or the housekeeper will Not Be Amused.” She surveyed them. “Have you been having a snowball fight?”
“Ah. Yes,” admitted Harry, hangdog.
“You're too old for that, both of you!” But she was smiling. “And another thing: you asked about more fuel for your aircraft. I've got someone organised from the flying school at Thetford, so you can put your minds at rest about that.” Her smile took on a mischievous glint. “Now, shoo!”
They went and brushed the last of the snow off, and resumed their climb to the first floor. Shortly thereafter, they were back in the conservatory, in a much happier frame of mind than before.
An hour or so later, a familiar noise from outside brought him sharply awake. Richthofen was already at the tall windows of the conservatory, leaning over the benches there, and Harry joined him. A spidery silhouette became clear against the low cloud. “A big Vickers,” said Richthofen.
“No, it's an FE2b.” The antiquated aircraft was not one that Harry had ever flown, but there were few enough pushers still in the air, at least by daylight. “What's it doing here?”
The ungainly machine made an S-turn to lose height, sank still lower, and dropped out of sight into the Deer-cote a hundred yards away.
“That must be Aunt Deb's friend!”
After ten minutes or so, they heard footsteps in the entrance hall. Harry went out to greet the newcomer: he took one look at a slim figure almost engulfed in cold-weather flying gear, and hurried forward, laughing, hand held out. “Lt. Brent – Daisy – Miss Brent, I should say! What brings you here?”
“Lady Jermyn telephoned and said I should get over here if I could, and I can see why. Hawkes, it's good to see you again!”
They shook hands enthusiastically, and Harry held her at arms' length. “I really don't know what to call you.”
“Brent will do, since we speak as pilots. Lady Jermyn was most mysterious – not that I'm not glad to see you again, Hawkes. What's happening?”
“All sorts of things. Come with me, there's someone I want you to meet.”
“Lead on. And if you can rustle up some hot coffee, I'd be most grateful.”
“Oh...” Harry rang, and Brent took off her flying-jacket, and backtracked for a moment to brush the last of the snow off her boots. A small maid appeared, and Harry ordered coffee in the conservatory. “Come on, Brent. Be on your best behaviour, now.”
“You should know by now that I do not have any best behaviour,” she rejoined, as they made their way through the drawing-room, still deserted at this time of the morning.
“That's true enough. But perhaps this time..” He opened the glazed door into the conservatory, and stood back to let her through. He followed her, and raised his voice slightly. “Baron! Here is an old friend I'd like you to meet.”
Richthofen was already on his feet, having heard their entry although hidden amongst the palms himself. So he was not entirely at a disadvantage for his first encounter with Daisy Brent. Indeed, she stopped suddenly in her tracks, as close to startlement as Harry had ever seen her. “Baron... von Richthofen?”
“I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Miss...”
“Brent. Daisy Brent.” She held out a grubby hand, smeared with engine-oil, looked at in dismay, and wiped it on her trousers. “Ach. I will not be able to sit down on anything civilised until I've changed. But I'm pleased to meet you, Baron! No wonder Lady Jermyn wanted me to pay a visit.”
“You came in that machine that has just landed?”
“That is my machine that I just flew here, yes.”
Richthofen glanced at Harry.
“One of the best pilots of my acquaintance, Herr Rittmeister,” said Harry. He checked that the door to the drawing-room was closed, and added, “May I tell him, since you won't?”
“You don't have to be so careful, Hawkes, though you doubtless have more important matters to think of, Baron. I spent a few weeks in France two years ago, as a pilot with Harry's squadron. I exchanged places with my twin brother, who was ill, and proved to my satisfaction that I was as capable a pilot as him. But people worked out soon enough where I was - after all, I was absent during his illness.”
“More than capable as a pilot,” said Harry, pulling up another chair, this one throne-like, with a high, round back. He positioned it for Brent, and all three sat down. “You may have heard, Baron, about the English pilot who flew right through one of Immelman's hangars?”
“That was you?”
“No need to sound so disbelieving, Baron. That was indeed me.”
“You've learned some trick flying, then?”
Harry hunched down in his chair, and waited. Brent leaned forward.
“I destroyed half a dozen Fokkers on that flight – my first over the Lines!” she snapped. “Can you say you did as well?”
“Miss Brent also downed a Halberstadt before she left us. Tread carefully, Herr Baron!”
The air between them crackled.
“My apologies, Miss Brent.” Richthofen knew when to pick his battles, on the ground as in the air.
The coffee arrived then, and gave them a pause from hostilities. They sat back, and sipped at the hot liquid. It wasn't bad, all things considered.
“I know better than to ask what you're doing here, Baron,” said Brent, with the air of one beginning afresh. “But if Hawkes is with you, you're in good hands. Lady Jermyn said she relied on my discretion, and I know what that means. I've been too long in the Suffrage movement to doubt that she knows what she's about.”
“Your a Suffragist?” Harry was surprised, quite why, he could not tell.
“Of course I am!” She waved an end of the green, purple and white scarf around her neck. “Anyway, I rescued the old Fee from the flying training school – yes, I'm an instructor there. That gaffed-fish look doesn't suit you, Hawkes. They pay me in benzene and spare parts, not money, of course. I've just got the Fee in the air after assembling enough parts.” She frowned. “Lady Jermyn asked if I'd got a full tank, though.”
There was a short silence. “And have you?” asked Harry.
“As it happens, yes. It's been too cold to do any flying lately.”
“Well, well. We came here in a Biff. She's almost out of benzene.”
There was another thoughtful pause.
“The Fee is in the Deer-cote. Let's go and have a look at her.”
Harry exchanged glances with Richthofen. “Okay.”
They left the conservatory by way of the outside doors, and kept close to its wall where there was no snow, continuing along the side of the house, past the offices and carriage-house. Then they were into the farmyard, which was already well-trodden. No-one questioned or even mentioned this caution. They crossed the gardens and ha-ha again and a few minutes later entered the Deer-cote, now revealed as a large flint-built enclosure. The FE2b was snugly housed in the pavilion, which from this side proved to be nothing more than a large open shed where the animals could take shelter.
“Isn't she beautiful?” said Brent affectionately, and Richthofen, after he had got a good look, started, and then put a hand up to the back of his head.
“Is something the matter, Baron?” asked Harry.
“I – this is the kind of machine that shot me down the first time. It nearly killed me.”
“Glad to hear it! - well, nothing personal, Baron, but it's good to know that they can bite even the best. You can see the gun-mountings, though I don't carry any, of course. Come to think of it, that makes my fuel go all the further...” Brent had led them right up to the machine, and they surveyed its stubby fuselage, swathed in an old blanket, and pusher propeller with interest; Harry had never flown one but it reminded him of the old DH2s he had flown before Camels. On being invited, Harry and Richthofen climbed up and looked at the controls.
After that they went on, all three, to look at the Bristol Fighter in the carriage-house, and Brent positively cooed at the sight. “She's a beauty! I'd fly her through a thunderstorm. I'd certainly fly her into a dog-fight.”
“I wonder, Miss Brent, if I have ever actually fought you,” said the Red Baron.
“Alas, no,” she replied. “Of course I checked once I began to hear about you. But you didn't start flying scouts until after I'd left. A pity.”
She was completely mad.
“Maybe, after the war, we could have a practice duel.”
“I'd like that. I read your book, by the way.”
A groan. “Please forget you did so!”
And now Harry felt rather odd. He was pleased that his two friends appeared to be getting on so well, of course, but...
He shook himself, and they retraced their steps back to the warm conservatory. Dimly, through two sets of doors, they could hear the sounds of more guests arriving: a woman's soft tones, the voices of a couple of young lads, and someone he could instantly identify as a military man. The house was filling up. Shortly afterwards a large car drew up outside, and a loud confident voice made itself heard quite clearly. “Lady Jermyn! Delighted to see you again, madam.” Shortly there after the same voice was raised in irritation. “You there, where do you think you're going?”
The erstwhile boot-boy replied, “Mum told me to take these to the Yellow Room.”
“The Yellow Room? I have the Tudor Room!”
“Not this time, I'm afraid, Mr. Frazer. We have another guest.” That was the housekeeper, Mrs Gates, a grim-faced lady of no little authority of manner. “I will show you to your room. Charles, bring the – gentleman's – things.”
“So that's the guest they're going to work on,” murmured Harry. “Uphill battle, if you ask me.”
Dinner that evening was an awkward affair, full of restrained surprise and absolute correctitude: but between the lady of the house and her niece, the Minister and a hefty dose of goodwill, it was got through at last. The carefully-thought-out seating arrangements helped, as did the presence of the two young boys, brought out of school for a couple of days and awestruck not just to silence but to good behaviour by the presence of the enemy ace. The talk remained determinedly focused on hunting, for tomorrow was the day of the shooting-party.
Early the next morning, Aunt Deb cornered Harry as he came back from a check on the Biff, and now hurried him into the gun-room at the back of the house. The heavy door swung to behind them. “You are to consider yourself the Baron's personal bodyguard, Harry,” she said, in an undertone.
Harry looked at the array of locked cupboards. He could well imagine what lay within them. “Do you really think that anyone would -”
“Honestly? No, especially not with children in the house. But accidents happen, after all, and it's not a chance that I'm willing to take. Nor can I give him a gun, not in the house. I'm sure he's got one somewhere. But not on him, not in that uniform.”
Harry grinned ruefully. He had seen Lady Alicia's eyes resting appreciatively on the Baron's tight-fitting field-grey. Why did the German Army's uniforms have to be so eye-catching?
“But you can carry weapons, so here you are.” She put a couple of pistols and ammunition into a satchel, and placed it on the table between them. “He really should be safe enough in the house. No need to hover. But outside – stick to him like glue.”
“He won't like that,” said Harry slowly.
“Well, what does he expect?”
“I mean, he personally won't like that. He's a lone wolf.”
“He'll have to put up with it. Make sure he stays alive, Harry.”
“Of course I will!” Harry began indignantly, but she cut him off. “I don't want to have to explain to the police if someone takes pot-shots at him. Or kills him.”
Harry was suddenly back in the Flanders mud, arms around the Red Baron, trying to fix the dressings in place with inexpert hands and praying he wasn't doing more harm than good. Smoke rolled at the corners of his vision. Its bitterness stung his eyes and made them water.
Lady Jermyn's voice, unwontedly gentle.
“Just keep an eye on him, that's all. Most people here will want this mission of his to succeed.”
He nodded and shouldered the heavy satchel.
“I got him out of the Triplane, that's all.” The words suddenly burst out of him. “And now I find myself doing this! I'm a Camel pilot. Only just made C.O. I should be with the squadron now. I know what I'm doing there.”
“The world's changing, Harry. You're helping to change it. Ride the tiger. Along with the rest of us.”
For a moment he considered this. “Is that what it's like for everyone? Being an adult?”
“That's what it's like. But you don't have to do everything. Just what's in front of you.”
He set his jaw. “I can do that.”
“Good man. Now go and have a rest. Shooting-party leaves at ten.”
The stands were in a line running parallel to the edge of the woodland; Harry surmised that in pheasant-shooting season, the guns' position would simply be turned through 180º. He had never been allowed out with the guns before the war; too young, his father had said, and indeed the sport seemed the height of sophistication to him then. They'd come in, comparing scores and trailing cold air and mud, and young Harry would sometimes survey them from the haven of the landing. Now it seemed such a trivial thing to do. Yet it had its uses. Food for the pot, for one; the chance to talk informally for another. They were doing this now, while waiting for the beaters to get into position; once the whistle sounded, they would go to their stands.
Frazer was standing at the centre of the group, his shotgun, its stock bright with silver chasing, negligently held in the crook of one arm. He was gesturing expansively with the other. Alicia, on the other side of him, handled her gun with a familiarity that surprised Harry.
“Yes, Mr. Frazer. Do stop fussing. I've shot here before, you know!”
Brent had cast an eye over the departing party, and said flatly, “You're all mad.” She had retreated to the little library overlooking both the drawing-room and the conservatory, and was deep in a novel before they had driven off. Mrs. Anstruther and Mrs. Williams had not even shown up at the breakfast table.
At the edge of the group were the Minister and Colonel Williams, who were surveying the ground with interest. The fields rose before them to a heavy sky, with nets stretched for a hundred yards or so diagonally off to the left. There were plough-furrows under the snow, and the leaves of vegetables poking through here and there. Turnips? Harry had little idea of what vegetables looked like before they were served... but anyway, the dogs, now milling about behind the guns, would have little difficulty getting over them.
Harry put the last of the bullets into the second pistol, and shoved his other hand into his pocket for warmth. “I hope they get started soon or we'll just be a line of snowmen!”
Frazer, a few yards away, overheard. “Easy to tell you've never shot in Scotland, Captain Hawkes. On my estate, if we were going out after capercaillie, we'd call this a fine day! Perhaps one day, after the war, you can come for the deer-stalking.”
“You have to crawl for hours, Captain, and the gillies are absolute tyrants,” said Alicia. “Be warned! Though I'll admit they know their work. How big is your estate there exactly, Mr. Frazer?” she added dulcetly.
“Oh, ten thousand acres or so. I can never remember the exact figure. The steward looks after all that for me: that's what I pay him for. Tell me, Baron, does your family have large holdings?”
Beyond Frazer, Harry could see Colonel Williams exchanging amused glances with the Minister.
“I believe so, Mr. Frazer, though they are scattered over Germany and Poland. When I wish to go hunting, I can always count on friends and relatives to oblige.” He lifted the pistol he was holding, and sighted along it at a leafless elm tree rising from the distant hedge. “I have not shot left-handed since I was at the Academy. It will be interesting.”
“You'll outshoot us all, Baron, I have no doubt,” said Alicia, all sweetness.
“I believe we're almost ready, Lady Alicia, gentlemen,,” called Aunt Deb just then; she had been standing at the periphery of the group, head cocked and listening for sounds from the stream a quarter of a mile away, with the curve of a wood beyond. And then the whistle sounded, and everyone trooped to their stand, where their loaders were already waiting.
“I don't care how many you get,” muttered Harry. “Just get more than Frazer.”
“I will do my best,” replied Richthofen seriously, and took up a dueller's pose. Harry fished in his satchel for more bullets.
The first hare burst out of cover, and streaked across the turnip-field. Lady Alicia was allowed the shot, missed, and was heard to mutter, “Another yard's deflection.” Colonel Williams dispatched the animal. She took the second one, and after that they came thick and fast. Aunt Deb's beaters had done their work well.
They settled into a rhythm, each gun taking its turn. Richthofen missed his first half-dozen attempts - “Good shooting, though, sir!” from the Colonel – but after that he shot true, handing the empty pistol, its barrel hot, to Harry and holding out his hand imperatively for its replacement. Harry grinned fiercely and re-loaded.
There was a pause in proceedings, to allow the dogs to go and collect the carcasses, a mix of rabbits and hares, which they did with enthusiasm and much wagging of tails. Then the beaters started up again, and chivvied a second wave of animals past the guns. One hare jinked at the last moment and began to run directly away from the guns, most of whom lowered their weapons, but one shot rang out. The hare rolled over among the turnips and began to scream; a horrible high-pitched wailing.
“Missed the little – devil!”
“You shouldn't have shot while it was running away, Frazer. That always happens,” reproved Mr. Anstruther.
“Oh, damn that – they're all fair prey. Well, it's too far to get a clean shot now. The dogs can pick it up. Here comes another one: mine!”
The wailing went on. Harry, digging frantically for bullets for the pistol he was reloading – he'd take a shot at that hare as soon as he could – nevertheless glanced at Frazer. So did everyone else down the line of guns, frozen for a moment in surprise. And while they did so, there was a sudden movement on his other side, an arm flung out. Right next to him a single shot rang out, and too far or not, the hare fell silent.
“Well done, Baron!” Colonel Williams called approvingly from the other end of the line, and the others added their congratulations. Harry, without thinking, clapped Richthofen on the back, and saw a faint suggestion of a flush on that pale face.
Then it was back to business. The hare Frazer had claimed as his own had escaped entirely, but there were rabbits on their way.
The bag, when counted up, was excellent. Thirty hares and half as many again of rabbits. Aunt Deb divided them up, giving the beaters and the loaders their share, and the guns handed out tips. Harry dealt with the tip for the beaters, but it was Alicia who suggested that Richthofen should tip him: which met with a startled look from the Baron.
“Next time I'll expect it,” grinned Harry, and the Baron realised that his leg was being pulled, smiled ruefully, and relaxed.
Flasks of hot soup were handed round, which revived flagging energy; eventually they all piled into the shooting-brakes, and made their slow way back to the Hall.
At half past seven that same evening, Harry surveyed himself in the mirror. He had combed his unruly hair into submission, but wished that the R.F.C. uniform was a little smarter. There it was: khaki was not remotely smart, but it was at least respectable.
He left the Blue Room, and found Richthofen on his way down the corridor, looking, of course, positively dashing. Well, there was no help for it – and of course Richthofen, as guest of honour, should also be the best-dressed.
The Anstruthers joined them a moment later. Mrs Anstruther, a middle-aged woman with a motherly air, claimed Richthofen's arm as they reached the head of the stairs – which he offered readily, perhaps because Lady Alicia had just reached the landing from the opposite corridor. So it was Harry who took Alicia's arm, feeling as though he had a big cat padding by his side, or perhaps a bird of prey.
“A penny for them,” she said, eyes meanwhile appreciating Richthofen's trim form as he descended the stairs in front of her.
He thought fast. She was wearing tawny silk - yes - “You look like a hunting-cat, Lady Alicia. One of the dangerous ones, like a leopard or cheetah.”
“Oh, I say, Captain Hawkes.” He had her attention now, for all that she was laughing. “I wouldn't have guessed you had it in you. Thank-you for the compliment!”
“We had an Indian regiment stationed near us once,” he said, desperately trying to continue the conversation. “They had a cheetah as one of their mascots.” Best not to mention the elephant. “They'd take it for walks on a leash now and then. It was trained – but definitely not tame.”
They reached the half-landing, and turned the newel.
“Well, well. Do you think I'm not tame?”
“Certainly not. I don't believe I've met anyone less tame!”
“Not even him?” She nodded at the Baron, who had now reached the ground floor in front of them.
“Not even him.”
It was a conventional enough compliment, but she terrified him utterly by murmuring as they in their turn reached the bottom step, “I had not thought of a leash, you know.”
The party was waiting to filter through into the dining-room; he took advantage of its Brownian motion to drop her arm and make his escape, as disconcerted as he had ever been in a dogfight. He took refuge next to Richthofen, who had perhaps overheard the conversation, giving him a rather wild look; but Aunt Deb claimed the Baron to take her into the dining-room. Harry found himself face-to-face with Brent, and greeted her with relief.
“I almost didn't recognise you! I don't believe I've seen you in a gown before.”
“Hawkes. That could have been better phrased,” she pointed out. “But I take your meaning. Do you like it?”
“Yes. That colour suits you. What would you call it?”
“Cherry. Well, I'm glad it meets with your approval.” With her dark hair, still in the short bob familiar from her time at the squadron, she looked rather like a robin. But he had seen robins fight a time or two, and refrained from pointing out the resemblance.
They gained the dining-room, and found their places. By mutual consent, hunting was barely mentioned, apart from conventional congratulations to Frazer who, with his superlative guns, had gained the biggest bag. Currently the only real potential for conflict was between Brent and Frazer, seated next to each other, and he knew well enough who he would back in that particular fight. Sure enough, between the soup and the main course, Brent opened fire.
“I was looking at your share prices in the Financial Times this morning, Mr Frazer. I see they are drifting slowly downwards. Do you have plans for new ventures, new acquisitions, once the war is over?”
Frazer set down his knife and gave her a disbelieving look. “Miss Brent, that's hardly a suitable subject for a young lady, especially at the dinner-table.”
“And yet I asked the question. When the war is over,” she nodded politely to the representative of the enemy sitting across from her, “there will be tens of thousands of men returning from the Front and needing work. Do you have plans to employ them?
“Indeed, Mr Frazer,” said Mrs Anstruther. “You could make such a difference to their lives and their families' lives, especially in the manufacturing North. Surely you have a responsibility to them.”
“I don't expect ladies to understand the issues involved.”
“We understand them very well, Mr Frazer, have no fear! The world is changing. It seems to me that it's you who do not understand.”
“Then, ma'am, I would say we have a different understanding of the matter. I'm far more likely to lay off workers than take them on – being in my line of business. I have my shareholders to think of, and times will be hard.”
“I don't think much of that -” began Brent.
“Miss Brent is, of course, concerned for her former comrades at the front,” remarked Aunt Deb, with the air of a referee. “You must expect nothing less of her; she was there, after all, as an officer and it was her duty to be concerned for the men.”
“For a couple of weeks!” sneered Frazer.
“That was enough,” said Brent. “Don't you agree, gentlemen?”
Colonel Williams rumbled assent at Aunt Deb's right hand.
“Indeed,” said Richthofen.
“Most certainly,” said Harry.
“You are all in such accord,” remarked Frazer, “that I wonder why we're fighting at all!”
“We can certainly agree with you on that, Mr Frazer,” said Lady Alicia, unexpectedly making a contribution. “So, when it's all over, or even before, you surely have a plan. A captain of industry such as you no doubt has something up his sleeve.” She smiled at him, and Frazer blinked. “Though not even Miss Brent would expect to know the finer details.”
“Oh, I've plans of my own!” said Brent, cheerfully, and with the insouciance of one born rich. “My brother and I have been discussing them since he came home from France. Perhaps, Mr Frazer, I should not have asked you your plans, since I have no intention of revealing ours!”
“It sounds to me as though they do not involve a husband and children, Miss Brent.” That was Aunt Deb, feeding her another line.
“Not at present, Lady Jermyn. There is far too much else to do. The vote, for instance.”
“Will you go into Parliament when you have it?” asked the Minister, regarding her with interest.
“Not I. I became accustomed to making my arguments at the point of a gun, not across the debating chamber. But there are plenty of women who can make a better job of it than the men.”
Harry concentrated on his meal, and out of the corner of his eye, saw Richthofen doing the same. This was a dogfight as confusing as any he had been in. But they made it to the end of the meal without any casualties, right through coffee in the drawing-room next to the conservatory. Perhaps the civilised surroundings were exerting their influence as they had been designed to do.
At ten the party broke up, and the guests climbed to the first floor. The ladies bade them good night and turned down the corridor to their own rooms, Brent giving the gentlemen a casual half-wave. Harry and Richthofen started down their own corridor. Harry stopped outside his own door and was about to wish Richthofen a good night's sleep.
“No, come to my room. There are things we must discuss.”
Some plan for their departure, assumed Harry, and nodded. They went on to the end of the east wing, and turned, and there was the door of the guest suite, giving on to the corner of the house with its views in two directions. In fine weather it would have a magnificent outlook. In snow, it would be rather cold: but as he went in, he was glad to note that there was a small fire burning in the grate. The old-fashioned four-poster bed had embroidered curtains, and in contrast to this magnificence, Richthofen's valise lay open on an ottoman. He had not even allowed his things to be unpacked.
“Do you wish a drink?” enquired Richthofen, frowning at the chest of drawers on which stood a silver tray with decanters and glasses.
“Not I, thank-you. If we have to fly at short notice I don't want even a trace of alcohol in me.”
Richthofen paced over to the window. “That man, Frazer...”
“I'm with you there. He's got at least two M.P.s in his pocket, Aunt Deb said. She's got more, she thinks. But he's got shareholders too...” Harry felt depressed; the mission that had begun in such hope was turning to sordid reality. “You don't know how much I itched to punch him tonight.”
“We can get away with such things on the battlefield. Not around the dinner-table, however.”
Harry laughed. “I swear my jaw still aches from when you knocked me out last month – no, I'm joking! I was not expecting it, that's all.”
A pause. Richthofen leaned back to the window, lifted a corner of the curtain, and looked out. Harry was oddly sure that he saw nothing of what lay beyond. “Nor was I expecting this.” He came back into the room, and faced Harry. “It is your turn to punch me, if you wish,” and he drew a deep breath, reached up, and set his hands on Harry's shoulders.
Harry's whole body jolted with surprise. Good Lord.
Shock, and recognition, and yes, this is what I've been wanting. His hands twisted up, and caught Richthofen's and brought them down, and they stood staring, hands clasped between them. The ice-blue eyes – no, they were the colour of stars, of Sirius at its brightest, thought Harry dazedly – were not a foot from his own.
“God. Oh, god. I don't know what to do,” Harry whispered. He stopped, and realised how this sounded. “I know what I want to do - ”
“This, perhaps.” Richthofen took half a step closer, the heat from his body coming over Harry like a wave, and they kissed, and Harry's heart was thumping as if he were diving into battle. He half expected to be consumed by the fire. But no. He was not a pile of ash. He could still breathe, still see: fair hair, and fair eyelashes, and those eyes, glinting under half-closed lids...
“My God.” He closed the gap at last, loosed their hands, and set his own, carefully, on Richthofen's waist. “What - ?" He hardly knew what he was saying. "You, of all people...”
“Me of all people – for what?”
“My first kiss. Anyone's first kiss.”
“Ah.” Richthofen drew back the slightest fraction, looking a little worried. “Is it acceptable? I am not exactly proficient myself.”
“Oh god, yes, don't be an idiot! Just come here again...” Harry was immobile, shaking, for a moment; then he felt strong arms close around his back. He made an inarticulate noise, hauled and held in his turn, and bent his head for another impossible kiss.
He had glimpsed this kind of embrace at school, behind this shed or that, and thought nothing of it. It happened, but not to him. And since the war began, there had been no time for such goings-on, either with boys or girls – or truth to tell, he was scared. But scared or not, this was what he wanted. There was an authentic spice of danger about it: he might as well have a young lion in his arms, or – no - an eagle.
He caught his breath. “I should have guessed – when I ran straight to that Triplane of yours. I couldn't just take cover - ”
“Nor could I leave that stubborn Englishman in No Man's Land last month. It was unthinkable that I should.”
Harry gave a breath of a laugh. He had come to being hauled to safety, the Crown Prince carrying the weight of his legs, and his head jammed against Richthofen's midriff. It was hardly surprising that his first reaction had been to grin.
“This is the most ridiculous situation. How many times have we tried to shoot each other down? And now I just want to -” He sobered, gazing at Richthofen. “We can't. Not now.”
“No. It would be impolite. This is enough. But – Harry – stay with me tonight. To sleep. Nothing more.”
Harry glanced at the bed, and away again. Big enough to take them both comfortably. “Very well, then. I don't know what to call you,” he added inconsequentially. “Manfred seems just wrong.”
“You may call me that - or what you will. And doubtless have, many times, in the air.”
Harry could not help giving a crack of laughter. “Perhaps I have!”
They had reached the bed now, and sat on opposite edges to pull their boots off. Tunics and breeches remained chastely on. Harry swung his feet up; gosh, they were going to be cold, socks or no.
“Here. We may lie under the – what do you call this?” Richthofen shook a handful of fabric in his hand.
“Under the counterpane, then.”
They rolled, and pulled it up over themselves. That was better. Not quite in bed together, but not frozen either. Harry turned his head, and there was Richthofen regarding him. That was – a great deal - to take in.
“Good night. Manfred.” The name felt beyond strange in his mouth.
“Good night, Harry.”
Manfred turned the lamp off. Harry lay still for a few moments, feeling completely tense and awkward. Then, nerving himself, he put a hand on Richthofen's – Manfred's - shoulder, and leaned across the gulf between them. His eyes had adjusted to the near-darkness of the firelit room now; there was the fair head turning towards him.
Harry's heart thumped, but he would not draw back. He leaned slowly across. One kiss, all heat clamped down: just a goodnight kiss. He felt Richthofen's smile, smiled in his turn, and retreated to his own side of the bed, his trembling subsiding: feeling that he could probably sleep now.
An unknown time later, there was a soft, urgent tapping. It drilled down into Harry's unconscious brain, It would not let him sleep.
“Baron!” A voice outside the door. A woman's voice. Harry raised himself on one elbow, and peered, as Manfred swung his feet to the floor and padded across the room. Harry had subconsciously recognised it as Aunt Deb's voice, which was perhaps why he did not think to hide himself.
Manfred opened the door a crack. A gleam of an electric torch shone through.
“Finally. And you're dressed; good. I must talk to you. Let me in, please.”
Manfred snatched a glance behind him; Harry whispered, “Yes.” The door opened wider, and Aunt Deb came in, and swung it shut behind her. The gleam of the torch fell on Harry, who was swinging his legs out from under the counterpane.
“Oh! So that's where you are!”
Manfred turned on the bedside lamp.
“I wasted a minute at your door, Harry. Didn't want to burst in on you. Looks as though I have done anyway. Still, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and all that.”
Harry, by now putting his boots on, hid his flaming face by bending down to the task; otherwise he was sure it would have lit up the whole room. It was not a matter of rosebuds so much as pæonies. He replied with a grunt, and straightened up.
“There are cars coming down the avenue. And the drive, as well.”
The two airmen were across the room in a moment, and peering cautiously around the edges of the curtains. It was dark, except for the radiance that heralded moon-rise.
“You won't see 'em; they put their lights out as they turned past the lodge. But I can hear them from my room. I was awake anyway; happens often enough at my age. I think I know who's responsible, too.”
“Frazer,” snapped Harry. “I knew I should have -”
“I think so too. Mrs Gates told me that his man was absent for the whole afternoon while we were shooting, and she doesn't know where he went. My guess is King's Lynn. But there's no time for that now. They're still a little way off. We have to get you out of the house, Baron.”
“The Bristol. No, it's almost out of benzene.” Richthofen was shrugging on his flying-jacket.
“I've already woken Daisy. She said you're to take her machine. She'll take the Bristol as a diversion. She said you're to get going as soon as your hear her engine, and not to stop for anything – not until you're in Germany.”
“Would he -”
“Of course he would. He's an arms manufacturer. He wants the war to last as long as possible.”
Richthofen loosed an imprecation in German, and snatched up his valise.
“I quite agree, young man, but we've no time for that now. Have you got those pistols, Harry?”
He mentally kicked himself; what had he been thinking of? Other things. “In my room. And I'll need to get my flying-gear, or I'll freeze.”
They sped down the corridor, and Harry dived into his room; grabbed knapsack, satchel and flying-gear, and was out again in moments. Close by, a door that Harry had not noticed before was open a hand's-breadth, and Aunt Deb, from within, beckoned urgently to him.
“Straight down, Baron. You'll see wainscotting – er, wood panelling – at the bottom. Go quietly there. It runs alongside the kitchens.”
“Miss Brent -”
“Knows her way around well enough.”
“How will she get the carriage-house doors open alone?” asked Harry. They were heavy and difficult to manage, especially in the snow.
“I woke Alicia too – and I'll help them, for goodness' sake!”
That silenced both men, and they concentrated on descending in safety. Their feet scuffled on the wooden treads. The torch sent their shadows scrambling around the walls of the staircase.
“Yes, that's it. Here, let me through.” She pushed past Richthofen, and cast about, looking for some particular spot on the rough inner face of the wainscotting. “Got it. This leads to the laundry. Straight across it there's a door to the yard. Once you're there you can see the Deer-cote beyond the wall. All the keys are on a board next to the door; just in case.” She opened the door, and they spilled out into the laundry.
A voice came out of the darkest shadows, beyond the reach of the snow-light coming in through the high windows. “Stop where you are. Put your hands up. Big bad Baron, airboy and – oh, the lady of the house. Nice.”
Yorkshire tones. It must be Frazer's man. Harry's hand stole to his pocket, but the sound of a safety-catch being released came out of the darkness. “Leave it alone, son.”
“My good fellow. Put that gun down immediately. I have alerted my staff -”
“Oh aye, that's why you used the back-stairs. Frighten me, lady.”
“Easy. We have lawyers in the family.”
That gave him a moment's pause – into which came the din of the carriage-house doors being flung open. Dogs began to bark. “What the ---- is that?”
For a second, the Yorkshireman was distracted.
Harry's hand flashed out and swept up something from the bench beside him. He leapt forward, and struck with all his strength. The man fell without making a sound.
The torch clicked back on. He dropped the laundry-stick. Aunt Deb was already at the outer door.
“The door key's gone.”
Harry pounced on the prone body. He found the iron key in one of the man's pockets, and had the door open in a moment. They piled out into the laundry yard. Now they could see better, and Harry flung himself at the bolts of the gate. There were outbuildings, the lawn beyond, and a hundred yards further on, the Deer-cote.
The Bristol's engine, at the other end of the house, roared into life. Brent was on her way. And they had not even reached the Fee yet.
“Go on!” shouted Aunt Deb. She had the Yorkshireman's shotgun in her hands. No, Frazer's shotgun - he recognised the silver chasing on the stock. But there was no time to do more than notice that. Harry and Richthofen raced across the lawn, leapt across the ha-ha, and hurled themselves onwards, in showers of snow, to the Deer-cote. It loomed closer and closer ahead. There was the door in the cote itself. Harry, reaching it first, tugged at it. If they had to climb the wall -
But it scraped back over the snow. They were through. There was the Fee waiting for them. He tossed his knapsack up, and scanned the Deer-cote.
Empty. Behind them, noises from the house indicated that people were waking up. And the Bristol was in the air, banking low, turning above the house to face the avenue from the lodge.
“Quickly.” Harry flung the rug from the engine, climbed into the pilot's cockpit and switched on. Where was Richthofen? Ah. Behind, swinging the propeller. The engine caught, and he was back and scrambling into the front cockpit. Harry assessed their run. No deer in sight. He tossed one of the pistols at Richthofen, who caught it left-handed, and opened the throttle. The Beardmore engine roared. Harry's eyes were fixed on the place where the opposite wall formed a final end to their run.
Out of the cote and across its enclosure with increasing speed. His heart lifted. The Fee had a light load, and she raced across the cote, as eager for flight as Harry himself. She leapt into the air yards away from the wall, and instantly he was pulling the stick back and nudging the rudder-bar to follow Brent.
And his heart fell again. Her aircraft, following the line of the avenue, was losing height. Engine trouble? Was she running out of benzene already? As the Bristol dropped, the avenue rose beneath it, so her course converged with the ground much faster than would normally happen. He stared past Richthofen, aghast. Brent was just feet above the ground now.
The lead car slewed in panic, and was off the road. Figures dashed from it: apart from one which stood its ground, arms raised in an attitude which Harry knew well. Aiming a rifle. He could see the greenish flashes as it fired.
The Bristol dropped lower. The figure turned to run – too late. The big machine swept on; then a wing-tip dragged on the ground, it slewed, and crashed between two of the trees of the avenue. And then the Fee was beyond the ensuing ant's-nest and Harry could see no more.
He threw them into a tight turn, to circle a couple of hundred feet above. Richthofen was leaning out of his cockpit, pistol gripped in his left hand, looking for a target. There was none. The three cars were off the road, men were running to avoid them – and the Bristol was in flames.
Harry stared at the scene in horror. But the Baron looked back at him suddenly, and made a savage gesture to the east.
“Trick flyer, remember?” he shouted. “This was her plan. We have to do our part now.”
Don't stop until you get to Germany, she had said.
Harry shut his mouth tight. Then he banked the Fee towards the newly-risen moon, and climbed for height.
All through that couple of hours' flight across the sea, he fretted. Was she all right? Had she engineered the whole catastrophe which had wrecked Frazer's plans? Had she escaped the fire that engulfed the Bristol? Had she set fire to the machine herself? Was she armed? Was she all right?
And then he'd shake himself, and look round. The night was all clear, bright stars with a moon-path along the tops of the clouds over which they flew, until the moon climbed too high to cast it. In front of him, Richthofen kept watch. Occasionally, in gaps between the clouds, they could see a trawler, looking like a child's toy on the sea far below; once they passed over a cruiser, steaming to an unknown destination in the dark. Doubtless there were submarines in the cold depths too. But the night sky seemed empty.
Harry's face grew stiff with the cold; he was beyond glad that he'd picked up his flying-gear in the mad dash to escape. He could not have piloted the machine otherwise. He at least had the engine right behind him, throwing out some heat for all its thunder. Richthofen, in the front cockpit, had none of that to warm him. He was hunkered right down now, keeping up that ceaseless watch and getting up occasionally to crane his neck where Harry could not see.
They flew on. Harry had half an eye on the fuel-gauge, but they were making good progress, and after another hour, Richthofen suddenly stood and peered forward. He glanced back, and pointed. “Friesian Islands!” he shouted.
“Where the cows come from,” muttered Harry to himself. “Do we land?” he shouted.
“Not yet! They are Dutch! Fly along, then turn inland. I will tell you.”
Harry nodded, and banked the Fee to alter course; then began to climb for what little height they could still add. Island after island passed under them, elongated, edged with foam, and with a wide strait between them and the mainland. He checked the chronometer on the instrument board. Two hours ago they had watched Daisy's machine go up in flames, and had turned away rather than go to help. Half an hour before that he had been sleeping beside the Red Baron. It seemed like years ago, another reality. He began to check the sky; the moon had set, but dawn was only an hour away. The first patrols might be airborne soon, although the Germans were not as assiduous about dawn patrols as the R.F.C. The country was being starved of other things than food.
“Alter course here!” Richthofen's arm went out again. Harry pulled a face behind his goggles; Richthofen was reverting to type, once again a German observer, in command, giving orders to his chauffeur-pilot. Harry gave the machine slightly more stick than was strictly necessary, and the resulting jolt made Richthofen stagger just a little bit. An annoyed look was met with a bland stare; they settled on their new course.
“We may land here.” Another shout; Harry nodded, and cut the engine. Now all he could hear was the song of the wind passing over the planes and through the wires. It was something he loved, and it comforted him as he glided in over the hostile shoreline – desolate except for gun-emplacements here and there, he could recognise the signs – and descended towards the soil of Germany.
They were both searching for a field or pasture where they could land. “There!” and Richthofen's arm was out again; Harry nodded and began the approach to the field he had indicated. A couple of miles from the sea, pine trees on either side of it, a village close but not too close. It would do. He'd only be on the ground five minutes.
The Fee's undercarriage was famous for its soft landings. Its telescoping legs settled them as gently and softly as a mother setting down her child. They ran for a hundred yards, slowed, and stopped.
Four days, five hundred miles round-trip, and Harry flying all the way.
He was tired. He wanted to sleep forever.
No, not forever.
He was a Camel pilot. Being tired was something he was used to. “Brace up, man!” he admonished himself, and heaved himself out of the cockpit and joined Richthofen on the ground; who was listening carefully, helmet and goggles off and head up.
Harry did the same; for a full minute they stood thus.
“Safe,” said Richthofen. “We're home. I'm home. Harry, thank-you.”
“That's all right.” Manfred stuck in his throat, for some reason. “You'll be all right from now on, I take it.”
A pause. Richthofen turned his head and looked at him. “We will be all right.”
Harry sighed. “We go our separate ways. For now, at least. I have to go back to the squadron.”
Silence. They were both scanning the pine-woods in case a sentry had noticed their arrival.
“You can stay here. As a prisoner of war, like you were before. You will get the best treatment - ”
“The squadron. I can't leave them to it. The war might drag on for months. You must understand.”
Richthofen sighed. “Of course I understand. I had hoped, that is all.”
Harry had been ready to fight, but his stance lost its coiled rigidity. “Idiot.” It was said with an affection which astonished even himself. They both stepped forward simultaneously, and embraced. Their flying jackets were so thick that no warmth got through at all.
There was very little time left, now. “Harry. Be careful, on the way back. Without guns – If you can let me know, do so. If not - after the war.”
“What else did you expect?”
“I don't honestly know. Here.” There was one kiss, almost as awkward as the others, and they drew apart. He had been wrong about the lack of warmth, because now he felt cold, and alone. “You can get back all right?”
“Yes, I'll go along to the nearest farmhouse.”
“They won't mind you just – dropping in?”
Richthofen just looked at him. “No. They will recognise me.”
Postcards, portraits, the book, pictures in the newspapers. He could not escape the attention, and wanted none of it.
“It'll come in useful for once.”
“This time, yes.”
There was another short silence, then both said together, “Be careful.”
Harry turned away, scrambled up the fuselage side, and slid into the cockpit. Helmet on.
“Swing her, then.”
Richthofen, invisible behind him, swung the propeller, and reappeared; picked up his valise, and walked a dozen yards to one side. Then he stood and watched Harry, who gazed back for perhaps five seconds; then he pulled his goggles down.
He glanced back again. Richthofen was grinning.
“See, I remember your name!”
“Red Baron!” His shout was joyous. He saluted, and opened the throttle.
The uproar when he landed the Fee at his squadron was immense; he climbed down from the cockpit and reeled under the barrage of back-slappings and questions. He did his best to formulate responses to those questions with an increasing sense of unreality. Less than twelve hours ago he had kissed an enemy of his nation; slept in the same bed; watched a friend fly into terrible danger for them. A front-line scout squadron seemed almost mundane by comparison.
He extracted himself from the scrum of well-wishers with a plea of writing his report, and almost dragged Entwhistle into the office. Then he stuck his head back outside, and requested tea. Then he glanced at the chair behind the desk, with an odd feeling that it wasn't his any more.
“How did you manage while I was gone?”
“Oh... “ Entwhistle waved a hand. “The paperwork! I thought I'd drown in a sea of it for the first few days, but after that I got used to it. It's very different from the flying, though. Sending people off, not knowing if they'll come back. But it's been quieter since Richthofen was downed. The Huns have been almost subdued. Can't say I blame them.”
The tea arrived, and Harry took a long swig.
“I'm glad it hasn't been too bad for you.” Richthofen. Had he really embraced him, just a couple of hours ago? Yes. The impress of his body against Harry's was almost tangible. He dragged his mind back to the present, to the morning sun slanting in through the dusty windows of the office, and Entwhistle's familiar face watching him with concern.
A flight of Camels took off with a roar. “Who are they?”
“They're “B” flight. Yours, then mine – and now they're Pootle's! He said he'd take this patrol for me, as a favour – I'm wondering what he'll ask in return. He's only lost one since you were here. Carver.” A name Harry barely knew; he'd been a recent addition.
There was short silence.
“It can't go on much longer.”
“I sincerely hope not. Look, here are the daily reports. Patrols, materiel, the lot.”
Harry leafed through them; Entwhistle's style was concise but missed nothing out. “You've done a good job, old thing.”
“Well, I just followed what you did...”
They began to relax back into each others' company; but Harry still hadn't taken the chair behind the C.O.'s desk. They were both on the visitor's side of it, passing the sheets of paper back and forth between them.
How were they all doing? When would he hear – about the Baron, about Brent, about the war? Trying to lose himself in the minutiae of the squadron was doing no good at all.
He took another sip of tea, which was stone cold.
“You need a rest, old chap.”
He looked up. Entwhistle was regarding him with some concern.
Harry laughed. “Yes. Yes, I do. I'll get my head down while Wing is getting used to the idea that I'm back. Gosh, I need to get used to the idea that I'm back!”
“When you've had a rest – tell me what happened. It was something big, I can see that.”
“Oh... you have no idea how big. Keep it under your hat. But it was important.”
Entwhistle looked at him again, then nodded once. “Off you go. Get some sleep. You look all in. I'll keep things under control here.”
“I knew you'd make a good job of it!” Harry regarded him affectionately, then took himself off to his quarters.
Lady Jermyn tells me you've been asking about me – thanks for that! I'm fine, though the broken leg is giving me some trouble. Broken in the exact same places as Dick's, too. Nobody is at all surprised about that.
The Chief Constable was absolutely charming about the crash, and says that with several bullets in the engine it's no wonder I was flying out of control and so low. He says it was just unfortunate that Mr. Frazer was struck by a wing-tip while I was trying to regain control. Mr. Frazer's body was released for burial almost immediately.
Dick and I have been talking over our plans for after the war. Have you got anything in mind? We think there will be an opening for civilian aircraft, and Dick says that the estate can support a small factory for a year or so to start with. There's plenty of skilled labour in the area and the old tithe-barn can be converted quite easily.
If we can get it to work, we'll need pilots. Do think about it! And if another of those pilots should happen to be a very famous ace, well, that wouldn't hurt, either.
Make sure you keep safe until it's all over, Hawkes!
With best regards
Two days after receiving this, he was more or less back in the swim of things, sitting in his old chair again, and the events of the last few weeks had begun to seem almost dream-like. And then, without warning, he was summoned to Wing Headquarters. He handed the squadron back to Entwhistle, shook hands with him, and got into the car that had been sent with a sense that the wheels were turning at last. He was not left guessing for long.
Captain H. Hawkes, from Wing H.Q. to 324 Squadron. Effective immediately.
“I don't know this squadron, sir,” he said to the Colonel at Wing H.Q. “Is it new? Coming out from England?”
“No, it's being formed from experienced pilots like yourself. Some high-up decided we needed a special escort squadron, apparently. For top brass, I don't doubt.”
Harry didn't doubt it either. He nodded, folded the paper up and tucked it into his breast pocket, and went on his way.
Another week, and he was once again in the air, in broad daylight, at ceiling height over East Anglia, and leading a mixed formation: single-seaters, two-seaters, British – and German. His skin prickled slightly as a series of triple-winged shadows fell on a brilliantly-lit cloud beneath; he glanced up involuntarily, and then smiled at his reaction. Some instincts were hard to let go.
The Wash was a gleam on the north-west horizon, the wooded Sandringham estate stretching out before it. It had been hidden by darkness on their two previous flights, but now Harry cast a thoughtful eye over it as they angled down towards Slade Hall. Maybe Richthofen would get in some shooting there, who could tell?
But that was in the future; for now, he needed to concentrate on his landing; which would be a good deal easier, now the snow was long gone, than last time he had landed at Slade Hall.
He and Richthofen were chivvied into Lady Jermyn's lair by the housekeeper, and brought tea by a harried housemaid, and waited out the half-hour until the commotion of the arrivals had ceased. And then she swept in and sat down with a thump.
“Yes, yes, it's lovely to see you, dear.” She returned the kiss, and disengaged herself. “Baron!” She held up her hand to be shaken, but it was taken and kissed instead. “Well, that's very gentlemanly of you. It's good to see both of you again. Now, there's no time to spare. We've got a full house and the King is coming over from Sandringham tonight. So, once the accord is signed, there will be no time for chit-chat.”
“A cease-fire,” said Harry wonderingly. “I can still hardly believe it.”
“Believe it. There are men in the park setting up a wireless mast next to the Obelisk. You'll have checked over the tents for the aircraft and your men; the local training camp obliged. Your parents are at the Lord Nelson in the village, Harry. There are people in every corner of the house and even the stables will be full, two to each stall.”
Richthofen seemed to withdraw into himself.
“Yes, you've lost the Tudor suite, I'm afraid: the Crown Prince is going to sleep there! So I've put you two in the Temple of Aeolus. You're important guests, after all, and it seemed the right place for you. It's a little Spartan, but there's a wash-room at the end of the stable-block. It's not too far to walk. Are you agreeable?”
The Temple of Aeolus. Even in the snow it had been charming; now, in the May sunshine -
“I certainly am! We can make ourselves comfortable there easily enough – can't we, Baron?”
“I will be happy to sleep there.”
“Thought so. Well, you know the way. I'll leave you to it. Dinner-gong is at seven-thirty.” She left them, in a renewed flurry of business; the two pilots looked at each other and shouldered their bags.
The Temple, when reached, proved to be a good deal cleaner than when they had last visited it. Someone had been sent to sweep it out, and boards had been removed to reveal a small fireplace, set ready with kindling and the broken-up planks. The windows and, yes, the murals had been cleaned, carefully enough to bring up the colours without doing damage. There were a couple of camp-chairs, and a small table with a lamp on it.
Harry, investigating the upstairs room, found a painted cloud-scape and a circular skylight, which he suspected would leak in wet weather; but he was more interested in the beds set against the walls. Not even Aunt Deb had the sheer nerve to give them a bed to share, but these were sturdy enough to take two at need.
Richthofen followed Harry up the stairs. “This will do, I think,” he said, looking at the surrounding clouds with a slight smile.
Harry dropped his bag at the foot of one of the beds. “Yes,” he said. “This will do.” He turned and crossed the room in a few strides, straight into the Red Baron's embrace.