It was, mused Biggles, entirely his own fault that he was sitting here, high above the Channel in the cockpit of an S.E.5. The sea shone below, an expanse of grey silk reflecting the glint of April sunshine; far beneath his left lower wing he was able to see the leave-boat, just swinging round from zig to zag as it pursued its course to Dover. Biggles had flatly refused to take that method of transport.
“Once was enough for me, sir,” he protested to Major Mullen. He had memories of sitting with Mahoney in the least draughty corner of the boat on the outward leg of its journey, while Mahoney passed the time by tutoring Biggles in the tricks that, Biggles freely acknowledged, had helped keep him alive in the skies of France ever since.
But the leave-boat was too slow a means of transport for Biggles now. He had put his foot down, and Major Mullen had pulled strings at Wing, abetted by Major Paynter, and Wing, in revenge, perhaps, had condemned him to the S.E.5. A prototype. Faster and stronger than Camels, he'd been told at St Omer as he stared in disdain at the cart-horse like thing on the tarmac: but it had its problems. Notably, that the engine was underpowered for its armament and the wings might come off in a crisis.
“But it's got a lot of potential; they just want to have a look at this one now it's flown a few hours,” and St Omer's O.C. clapped Biggles on the shoulder with a grin, and left him to it.
So far the wings had not failed him, though he felt as though he was piloting a battleship after his agile and highly-strung Camel; and it looked as though he would reach the South Coast without mishap. From there, an hour and a half away, was the factory of the cart-horse's origin, and, doubling back on his tracks a little, the hospital where Mark Way was convalescing.
And for Mark's sake he would undergo any amount of ferry-pilot indignities. After all, two days ago he had risked his life to avenge Mark, who, as he knew full well, had been lying safe in hospital the whole time. He checked the sky, settled more comfortably in his seat, and concentrated on getting the best performance out of his conveyance.
He picked up the landmarks without difficulty. London was, after all, impossible to miss, under its thick haze of coal-smoke. There was the silver river, snaking through it; somewhere beyond its source was Mark. He altered course slightly, a little to the north, and less than an hour later was gliding down over the big Midland city that was his destination. He spotted the factory on the outskirts, where a wide road swung left before arrowing out into the countryside. He dropped lower and lower over red ploughed fields, picked out the airstrip he would use, and touched down in a perfect, if heavy, landing.
Taxi to the hangars: turn: switch off. A couple of mechanics ran out to him, and someone in a brown dust-coat, carrying a clip-board.
“How did she go?”
Biggles eyed him with disfavour. “If you can't do any better than this thing...”
“Grand.” The man was obviously not listening at all. “You can get something to eat in the canteen,” and he pointed it out. Then he began to circle the machine, making notes as he did so; counting the wings, Biggles presumed. He gave it up, and made his way to the factory canteen.
After a meal of sausage and mash, he felt more at peace with the world, and waited at the tram-stop in something approaching contentment. His flying-jacket and tunic marked him out for approval among the two or three people queueing with him – a young woman and her little son, who regarded the aviator with awe and envy, and an old woman who gave him an approving nod. But that was all; they were obviously used to seeing pilots arrive, land, and go on their way. The valise at his feet contained all that he would need for his week's leave, and the jacket insulated him from the penetrating April weather, and his heart was light. He was going, not home exactly, for he no longer knew where that was, but to a home of sorts, the steady north of his compass for his first three months in France.
Mark had saved Biggles' life more times than he could count. He would not have survived his first trip over the Lines if it had not been for Mark; so much for his ambitions to join a scout squadron right away! But he could hold his own in a dog-fight now, and deal with most situations that came a pilot's way: and a great deal of that he owed to Mark. So he was very glad that he'd been the one to avenge Mark and Mabs, and that he now had a week to see one of those friends at least.
The tram arrived with a clang, interrupting his musings, and he got on it, and was taken into the city at a crawl that nearly drove him to distraction. There he sent a telegram, and caught a train to his destination - the convalescent home on the Severn, with grounds that sloped down to the river, and tall trees in the gardens. Mark's scrawled letter had painted a picture that was economical and vivid, and it could not be guessed that he was seeing the scene with only one eye.
Biggles was not sure whether to be glad or sorry that Mark was out of the war. He was safe: and wing-clipped. It was entirely typical of Biggles that he did not give any thought to his own safety over the coming months – though over there in the skies of France, things were hotting up considerably.
The hospital, when he arrived, was exactly as Mark had described – a big shabby country house, with outbuildings of peeling stucco, and a terrace on which ambulatory patients could take the air. It had been a hydro before the war, and was admirably suited to its present function, though the clientele was different. Biggles presented his credentials at the entrance, and was waved to a cedar tree overlooking the river – and remembered nothing at all until he stood before his former observer.
He was tongue-tied. He couldn't think of a single thing to say.
“Hello, old man,” and Mark extended a hand: his left hand. Biggles looked at it in confusion for a moment, his own right hand half-extended out of sheer habit, made to change hands, then seized Mark's in both his own. It was warm and strong, and he clung to it - but glanced down at Mark's other arm, the one without a hand.
“Don't look like that. I've got one left, after all!”
And Biggles wrapped both arms around him and held on, as if to a spar in a storm. Mark's arms closed around him in their turn, and for a few moments they stood like that, under the shelter of the cedar tree.
Then he drew back. “You're alive, that's what matters. Mabs -”
“Yes. Mabs.” Hands and arms all jumbled up now, heads bent together. There was no telling who was giving comfort and who receiving it. “It was quick. He wouldn't have suffered. He wouldn't even have known.”
“That's something, I suppose. Von Kraudil got off too lightly; he barely had time to know what was happening...”
“You got him for us, Biggles. That's all that matters.”
“Yes.” Biggles pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes and nose. No shame in that: this was a hospital. He looked round at the sloping turf and the river beyond, and the patients, making their slow way around the grounds. “Are they treating you well here?”
“According to their lights. The Matron frightens me half to death, though.”
Biggles managed a watery smile. “Can you get a pass? It so happens that I came here from the station on a motor-cycle...”
Half an hour later, they were roaring through the lanes, all white with flowering hawthorn, and were both grinning by the time they disembarked. They found a tea-room overlooking the river, and were shortly sitting on the terrace, dealing with a plate of sandwiches.
“The Matron wasn't that frightening after all,” observed Biggles.
“You haven't been in her power. She's the very devil when it comes to exercise and keeping at it and not giving up.” He gave the last three words capital letters. “Well, perhaps I'm jaded; the German hospital was not so much fun, after all.”
Biggles set his knife down. The river ran loud close at hand; a breeze stirred the leaves of the sheltering oaks above them.
“It wasn't just von Kraudil, then?”
“Ah, no, don't get me wrong. They were overwhelmed, just like our medical chaps. They did a good job on me and patched me up – what was left of me -”
Biggles fought the urge to reach out and touch: it would not be appreciated now the first flurry of meeting was over. He waited.
“But they were busy. And von Kraudil was stationed just down the road from the hospital. So he came to enjoy himself at my expense.”
“What did he do?” asked Biggles between his teeth.
“Oh, he told me what it felt like to have us in his sights, and that if he'd had a few moments more he would have come round again for me. And then he made to sympathise, and patted my hand – the one that wasn't there any more -”
Biggles stirred abruptly.
“And then a nurse came and more or less swept him away bodily – well, maybe she realised I'd do murder, one hand or not. She came back and apologised for him, and gave me some stuff for the pain in my wrist. They're not all like him, you know. She was a Trojan.”
“Close relative of your current Matron, perhaps.”
“Aunt and niece, at a guess.” Mark fell abruptly silent, and Biggles could see his one remaining eye become unfocussed. There was more that he was not telling, and maybe never would.
The eye-patch was only temporary, Mark had assured him, until a false eye could be fitted: a matter of a month or so. But the new eye would not have the far look that was one of the first things he had noticed about Mark – that keen grey glance that would take in a man at one look, or spot a Hun machine as soon as it dropped out of a dazzling cloud thousands of feet above.
“Biggles? Come back.” And now Mark was smiling at him. “Tell me about this house of your family's.”
“Ah.” Biggles relaxed and began to smile again. “It was my grandfather's originally. My aunt lived nearest, so she used to look after it – but she's away in the south-east now, terrorising munitions girls. And her kids are in boarding school. So I wired her from France. There's a caretaker, and she's opened it up for us. It's on a lake, and there's even a boat-house – there might still be a boat, for all I know! And we can eat at the tea-room in the village so we don't have to worry about food: so we'll have a few days away from it all.”
“Away from the war.”
“Away from the hospital, since you dislike it so much. I wonder if I can remember how to row?” And then Biggles mentally kicked himself; Mark would not be able to row.
“You can row me across the lake and back. I'll steer,” said Mark, as instantly as if he had divined Biggles' thoughts. “And I'll tell you something else, Biggles; I'm going to learn to drive that motor-cycle of yours.”
The cottage, when they reached it, seemed smaller than Biggles remembered from his few visits as a schoolboy. The black-and-white building was, in fact, small, and shabby. Behind it stood the boat-house and the jetty from which he had dived, showing off to his younger cousins – and the alder trees that straggled along one side of the back garden, down to the lake, were definitely larger.
The key was under the same flowerpot as it had been years ago – and inside, the cottage was only slightly musty, with fires laid ready in the kitchen and parlour. There was a set of oars propped up in the hallway, and a cricket bat and a bundle of stumps. A couple of beds were made up in the rooms upstairs. It was like walking into his own past, except that this time he had to do the cooking and washing-up: but there were bacon and eggs in the pantry and he managed well enough while Mark brought in their bags.
They spent the next day around the cottage and grounds. Mark's first few attempts at riding the motor-cycle were hair-raising in the extreme to Biggles, but after a while he got used to seeing Mark manoeuvring about in the neglected garden. Eventually he became blasé, and sat on the seat under the kitchen window offering advice and opinions, to which Mark responded in sarcastic kind. There were weedy flower-borders all along the front of the house, with leggy roses coming into leaf, and self-set annuals of some sort showing here and there. The alder trees were full of birdsong, and forget-me-nots covered the marshy ground beneath them in a blue mist, spreading down to, and halfway along, the dilapidated jetty.
A scuffling thump attracted Biggles' attention as Mark fell off for the third time, but since he'd only been doing about five miles an hour, he came to no harm. “You need to get above stalling speed!” shouted Biggles derisively, causing the heron at the end of the jetty to take flight, and put his feet up along the bench while Mark wrestled the machine upright again.
“Come and put the clutch in for me!” was Mark's only response, and Biggles swung his feet down again and did so. “Right, now get on the back!” and he did so, threatening, “If you crash this thing while I'm on it..!”
“That's how I felt the whole time I was flying with you! And I might remind you, Biggles, that you actually did it once or twice!”
“Or three or four times!” Biggles was grinning. There was Mark in front of him as he always had been. This was like old times. Two things were different – no-one was shooting at them, and Mark was a good deal closer and safer than he had been when stuck in that appallingly exposed front cockpit.
Still, Biggles was relieved when they got to the gate to the lane without mishap; he'd been ready to reach out and grab the handlebars the whole time, but it hadn't been necessary. Mark turned back between the cottage and the trees again, towards the lake, with some assistance from Biggles. A few yards further on, they hit a small marshy patch, and this time both of them fell off in a tangle of arms and legs, blaming each other and helpless with laughter.
The next night it was raining, and neither of them felt inclined to make the trip to the Red Lion in the village. So Biggles essayed sardines on toast, which they consumed in front of the kitchen fire. Then, with the washing-up dumped in the scullery sink, they talked, over mugs of tea.
“I know it's early days yet, but what will you do now? Major Mullen said you won't go back to France.” Biggles' eyes were on the faint glow from the fire.
“No, I'd be a liability, even as a recording officer or an armourer.” Mark held up his right arm. “I can't even write properly with my left hand yet. But I sorted it all out with my people before leaving New Zealand. Here I am in the Old Country, with my passage paid and everything. I might as well make use of that. So there's some money in the bank for me, and I'm going to study engineering. You remember how interested I was in the railway sidings at Vanfleur? Well, my old man works for New Zealand Railways - he's assistant station master at Dunedin, you should see the place – and I'm going to follow in his footsteps. So I've got to send applications to the universities here. I should be ready in good time for the autumn term.”
“University? Mark, that's wonderful. Trust you to have a plan.” Biggles reached over to clink mugs with him, grinning unashamedly in his relief. He'd pictured Mark wandering through life, maimed and half broken. He'd been an idiot. Mark had his eyes – his eye – fixed firmly on the future. “Which university?”
“One of the Scottish ones.” Biggles, pouring out more tea from the brown pot, grunted a little in disappointment. It would be difficult to see Mark on future leaves. “Yes, I know. But my mother's people are from Scotland, and I've distant cousins up there. I wouldn't mind living in the Dunedin of the North for a few years.” And at Biggles' inquiring lift of the eyebrow, he added, “Edinburgh.”
Biggles snorted in amusement. “I bet it's not often called that... And it's hardly the outermost wilds.”
“No, it's not too far.” Mark was looking at him affectionately. “Not as far as New Zealand, at any rate!”
“No.” Biggles became subdued once more, transferring his gaze to the fire again.
Mark, in an effort to cheer him up – why was Mark doing all the cheering-up? He was the one who'd been hurt so badly. He was the one who'd seen Mabs shot in front of him – but anyway, Mark was speaking again. “And an interest in railways has its uses, you know. I would never have got back through the Lines otherwise.”
That caught Biggles' attention. “I hadn't liked to ask. It's all so recent...”
“Yes. Three weeks ago.” Mark paused for a moment. “Well, it wasn't too bad. That is, I suppose it was, really – but I was so fired up, I felt I could smash down anyone who stood in my way. And I had a couple of pals with me, from the hospital: that helped.”
“Tell me about it.”
Mark settled more comfortably into his chair, and resumed his gaze into the fire. “I was still at the hospital. We'd been told to get ready for a move; a transfer to a prison camp some way behind the Lines. They only move personnel by night, if you remember? So we were all dressed and waiting in the main hall of the hospital – umpteen guards there, of course. It was like waiting for the boat-train, only worse, if that's possible. It was the night of a surprise air-raid, though, and while we were waiting the bombers came over. They must've climbed to the ceiling and cut their engines, because there was no warning before the bombs fell. I remember wondering if you were on escort duty.”
“Not I,” said Biggles, “but I wish I had been.”
“Well, there was a direct hit on one of the hospital outbuildings. I don't think any of our chaps were there, and of course our lot weren't aiming for us at all. But the confusion gave us the chance we needed – me and Collinson and Geordie. We were off through one of the side doors and made it through the boiler-room and got outside before anyone spotted we were gone.
“The back end of the railway yard wasn't too far away – it must've been what the bombers were aiming for, come to think of it. And you don't spend a lifetime around railways without knowing the ins and outs of any goods yard in the world. I got the lads into the most deserted siding I could find, and we sat out the bombing raid there. We got hungry after a few hours, of course, and Collinson went and poked through the dustbins behind the canteen when the raid died down... he's a mad devil, is Collinson. We had enough stale bread to keep us going for a few hours.
“We talked it through, and reckoned our best chance was to go up to the Lines on an ammunition train. Or rather, under one -”
“You travelled under an ammunition train.” Biggles was getting creeping chills.
“Yes. Von Kraudil had given me the cold horrors. I wanted him dead. So I had to get word back across the Lines. Honestly, we all felt the same way. We weren't going back to the hospital – and for all we knew, there were more like him further east. And I had to tell you what had happened, after all.” He threw a sidelong glance at Biggles, who nodded once, soberly. It had been Mark's duty to get word of Mabs' death to him, and Biggles' duty to avenge it. “So I had a look round, and picked out which train seemed likeliest – there was enough light from the fires to do that – and we lay doggo for a bit until the fires died down. Then we got ourselves up under a wagon, and waited.”
“How – I'm sorry, Mark – how did you hold on?”
“Oh, they made an arrangement with a belt for me. I was quite comfortable. And it wasn't too far to the Lines – a matter of ten miles or so, I reckon. So we got a free ride all the way up there, and crawled off into the trenches once we'd arrived. We were bloody lucky: the bombing raid was part of a push in that sector, and there was a lot of confusion. Our lads made some gains – by the time we arrived it was dawn, and the Canadians were coming over the top. I'd've blown up the train if I'd known how, but I didn't, and the others were tank men. Not good at large-scale sabotage, any of us. But all we had to do, really, was find a dead-end dugout while the advance came towards us, then make a run for it – or at least, as close to running as any of us could manage by then. We hollered at the Canadians, and they sent us back to their old trench – and from then on, it was easy.” Mark took another swig of tea, and set his mug down.
Biggles sat quiet for a moment or two, trying to imagine that journey in the fire and darkness and mud, with the bombs falling around them, and later on the shells screaming overhead. “Thank God for your two mates,” he said.
“Yes, they were good pals. I wouldn't do what they do for quids! Sitting in a tank ploughing through No Man's Land. Not for me. Well, we've all got a bit of a respite from that for now.”
“You've got a permanent respite.”
“Yes. But the risk's always there, and I got off lightly, in the end – and you got von Kraudil, and that was all that mattered to me by that point.”
“I got him with the first bullet. The whole squadron was looking for him – both squadrons – and I was terrified someone else would get him. But no. It was me. I'm very glad about that. He didn't suffer quite enough for my taste -”
“If there's any justice, he's still burning.”
“Let's hope so.”
Reminded of fires, Biggles got up to drop another log into the grate: split birch, with the sheen of the bark still on it, and a dried leaf or two. It broke the spell of the tale of terror and darkness, and he returned to his seat and said, “And so you're going to university. You'll need to learn to write quickly - ”
“I've made a start already. I wrote to you, if you remember!”
“ - and legibly,” added Biggles.
“The people at the hospital have been helping me with my letters of application.”
“Won't it seem tame after flying?”
“Oh God, yes. Though if I end up building bridges in South Island, there'll be plenty of excitement – it's wild country still. But I wanted to fly first – and I've been lucky, really.”
“I wish you'd got your wings, though it's a terrifying business. I know the instructors called us Huns, but honestly I think they're just as dangerous themselves.” He remembered the first few wobbly circuits, with the sound of impatient voices coming up from the airfield below; he'd been lucky with his instructor, brisk but not unsympathetic, and not a bad teacher.
“Yes, I wish had, too. Being an observer was almost enough, but not quite.” Mark paused. “I wanted to be a pilot.” Then he added, quite deliberately, “I wanted to be like you.”
The fire crackled; the grain on the scrubbed kitchen table stood out in fine detail where Biggles' arm rested on it. The clock ticked, and ticked again. He turned his head slowly to look at his friend. Who was watching him, smiling slightly, calm as always, with a world of affection in his one remaining eye.
“Mark Way,” said Biggles, on a gasp. Time began to move again. “You don't mean that.”
“I do. I was a bit slow on the uptake; it took a few weeks. You've got something, young Bigglesworth. I don't know what it is, but I felt it just like all the rest.”
“No. I haven't. I thanked God every day that you were flying with me. You saved my bacon so many times.”
“Well, perhaps we're glad we had each other.” That bright grey gaze didn't leave his face. “The question is, are we going to do anything about it?”
“Yes. Yes, we are.” And Biggles was up, round the table, knocking his chair over in the process, and fell to his knees beside Mark and put both arms urgently round him. Then he dropped his head to Mark's shoulder and wept for a few moments.
“Oh come on, old fellow, it's not that bad, is it?” Mark's hand was on Biggles' hair, stroking it with anxious movements; his whisper buzzed in Biggles' ear.
“No. No, it isn't. You're safe.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“I've got no idea.”
“Well. We'd better find something else to do, then.” Mark's whisper had turned seductive; he tilted Biggles' head up: and that was Biggles' first kiss, and once again time was doing strange things because it seemed to go on forever. There was warmth, and the taste of sardines, and the feel of dampness on Mark's uniform from when he'd gone out into the rain to chuck the burnt toast away. Their hands and arms kept getting in each other's way as they tried variations of the embrace: and there was a fierce need to get closer. And another sensation, which got more and more insistent.
“Mark,” he said, at length, and with a laugh, “my knees hurt. I've got to get up.” They did indeed hurt; the red clay tiles of the kitchen floor looked soft, but they most definitely were not.
“Sit on my lap, then.” Mark's strong arms loosed him a little, enough that he could squirm round to do just that, and once settled, Biggles plunged into another kiss, and another, while the fire flared in the grate and burnt down again, and the tea cooled in the pot and the clock ticked on. It was like flying, like stunting among the clouds for sheer joy, like the race for the Lines after combat -
“I want my bed,” he stated. “Or yours, it doesn't matter. Yours is nearer.” He struggled out of Mark's embrace, cast around for the fire-guard, and put it on the hearth. “Lamps,” he muttered, and went quickly round the room putting them out. Mark was at the scullery door, locking it; then Biggles picked up the last lamp and said, “Come on, what's taking you so long?”
“It's been six months. A few seconds won't make any difference.”
“Yes, they will. For Heaven's sake, Mark, hurry up!” And he snaked his free hand around Mark's waist, and kissed him again, just to stir the fire, and fairly dragged him up the narrow staircase.
They were both inexpert, and it was over too fast, and it was utterly glorious. Their embrace afterwards was far too close for comfortable sleep, but neither loosed his hold: Biggles, draped over Mark's broad chest, thought as he lost consciousness that he'd never been so comfortable in his life.
Later in the night Biggles woke with a start with his brain full of chattering Spandaus, and an image of Mark braced half out of the front cockpit firing back, and black-crossed machines buzzing round them like angry hornets. He managed to lie still enough not to disturb Mark, while his breathing and heartbeat returned to normal. Then he got up quietly to close the curtains, because the room was flooded with brilliant silver, the clouds having drifted away eastwards some time in the last few hours.
He stood by the little dormer window, the thin flowered fabric of the curtains forgotten in his hands, because from among the alder trees, clear over the lapping of lake-water, there came a trill, and another trill, and then a cascade of golden notes. He opened the window to hear better. He knew what was singing out there between moon and lake and forget-me-nots, though he'd never heard one before.
“You look wonderful like that,” came a sleepy voice, “but come back to bed.”
“Mark, you Philistine. It's a nightingale. Come and listen.”
A heavy sigh, then Mark got up and padded across the little room, fetching up behind Biggles; wrapped his arms around him, and rested his chin on Biggles' shoulder. Biggles leaned back into the steady warmth, which was what he'd done during their whole time flying together, after all, and put one hand with utmost gentleness on Mark's maimed wrist. They stayed like that for a while, just listening, glad of the warmth of each other's naked body. There was no sound other than the nightingale and the ripples and their own quiet breathing.
“It's pretty good,” whispered Mark, when the nightingale fell quiet after a couple of minutes - or an age of the world. “But you should hear a tui sing! One day you must come out to New Zealand, and hear a tui sing by moonlight with me.”
“One day I will,” said Biggles. “You can count on that.”