By the time Biggles had finished debriefing with Colonel Bradfield, the hum of activity around the base told him that something was up. Two men in US pilots' uniforms rushed past him carrying several bottles, and the strains of a gramophone caught at his ear. He heard Algy's voice carrying from the officers' mess, and opened the door to find a party was just warming up inside.
"Biggles! You're finished at last! Come in and have a drink," Algy shouted to him. "We should rescue American pilots more often, they know how to throw a party!"
Biggles accepted a glass of American beer and wandered across the room. At once he found himself buttonholed by Pat's flight commander, who wanted to shake his hand repeatedly and invite him to come and visit his family home in Montana one day, and tell him all about how Pat's family had taken the news that their 'missing presumed dead' son was alive after all.
When he got free of the enthusiastic Americans, Biggles scanned the room. It was natural enough that the Americans would want to celebrate Pat's safe return, but he did not see the man who was truly the reason for the entire endeavour. Fritz was there under Ginger's wing--Ginger had obviously enjoyed not being the youngest and most junior member of the party and had spent the past months giving Fritz a comprehensive education in everything related to aircraft and adventures--but von Stalhein himself was absent. Biggles caught Ginger's eye and then beckoned to Fritz, who obediently crossed the room to him.
"Where's your uncle?"
"He remained in the bunkroom," Fritz said. "He gave me permission to come," he added earnestly, as if expecting a lecture.
"Naturally," Biggles murmured. "All right. Go back to the party, Fritz."
Biggles set down his drink and quietly left, heading back to the bunkroom where von Stalhein had been billeted, and knocked at the door. A curt voice called, "Enter!"
Von Stalhein lay supine and motionless on one of the bunks, turning his head only slightly when Biggles approached. "Are you all right?" Biggles asked at once, surveying him anxiously. He was clean-shaven now, his hair washed and cut short, dressed in bland American exercise clothes which didn't suit him but which seemed clean and comfortable enough.
"I am well." He didn't move, but under Biggles's continued scrutiny his lip twisted. "You are ascertaining that your cargo is undamaged? The medics said I needed nothing but a little rest and food and I have had both."
Rest and food, but rather more than a little, Biggles thought. Von Stalhein had spent four months in the prison, and from the looks of him, if it had been six they might have been too late.
"My cargo," Biggles echoed, "is invited to a party. The Americans are happy to have their lost lamb back, but none of it would have happened except for you. You should come along."
"A skeleton at the feast," von Stalhein murmured. "Thank you, I will remain here."
Biggles studied him a moment longer, then pulled up a chair and sat down.
"What are you doing?" von Stalhein asked warily.
"Staying here." He sat forwards, hands on his knees. "Look here, Erich. I know you've had a bad time of it. And if you're really worn out now and want to sleep, I'll leave you in peace. But if you're just going to lie here and brood, I will go back to the party and collect drinks and food and steal their gramophone player and bring the party in here, because brooding won't do you any good at all. Which is it?"
"There are times," von Stalhein responded, "when I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been born a Prussian and therefore had no risk of ever ending up under your command. Do you always manage everyone else's lives for their own good?"
"Everyone needs a friend close enough to tell them when they're being a fool. Fritz won't, he's too in awe of you. Come on. An American base may not be your preferred spot, but it's surely an improvement on your previous home, and the boys won't bite."
Von Stalhein sighed. "I know you too well to suppose you will not carry out your threat. Very well. I will join the party."
He got up and accompanied Biggles back through the base to the mess, where the gramophone was now playing something loud and jazzy. Von Stalhein hesitated only briefly in the doorway before following Biggles in.
Bertie grinned and came over to join them as they entered the room, a drink in each hand. "Ah, you found him again," he said to Biggles. "I was wondering what had happened to you."
Von Stalhein accepted the drink Bertie offered and gave the first smile Biggles had seen from him since they'd reached the American base, faint and unwilling, but real. He took a sip and raised his eyebrows. "What is this?"
"I was told it was punch," said Bertie. "An American recipe. I haven't the foggiest what they put in it, but it certainly packs a wallop, if you see what I mean."
Biggles borrowed Bertie's glass and tasted it. "Too sweet for me," he said, returning it. Bertie looked at his glass wryly, then finished it anyway. Across the room, Algy and Ginger were dancing with a group of young American pilots, and Pat was holding court at a table liberally adorned with glasses and bottles, no doubt regaling his cronies with the stories of his adventures. Von Stalhein fell into conversation with one of the senior American officers, his expression still wary but his voice more animated.
The record came to the end, but instead of someone putting on a new one, a young man with a fiddle stood up to a chorus of encouragement and good-humoured mockery. Biggles saw von Stalhein turn to watch. The man began to play a brisk dance melody in a workmanlike way: competent, but with the occasional squeak or sour note that made von Stalhein wince. It was nothing like the sounds Biggles had once heard von Stalhein coax from a violin. "Perhaps he'll let you take a turn," Biggles said after he finished his piece.
Von Stalhein turned, stretching out his hands in front of him. They were calloused and scarred from his months of hard labour, and Biggles wished he hadn't spoken. But von Stalhein stretched his hands and shoulders again, testing each finger in turn, and then said, "I don't suppose he will permit me," in a tone that told Biggles that he would like to play.
Biggles caught Pat by the elbow. "Introduce me to the guy with the fiddle," he said.
"Erich plays. Von Stalhein, that is. He'd like a turn."
"Is he good?"
"Sure. Rudy's no maestro, he found that in a junkshop and picked it up, he used to have lessons as a kid, he said. But it makes a change from the record player. Come on over."
It turned out as Pat had said, and Biggles waved von Stalhein over, noticing how the man went carefully around the edge of the room, as if guarding a line of retreat. Rudy gave von Stalhein an unaffected grin.
"Pat says you play?"
"I do. Though not for some time now."
"I'll bet not! No music where you've been. Help yourself, I'm going for a drink. The boys haven't ever thrown any rotten tomatoes at me, so you'll probably be safe."
Biggles leaned back against the wall and watched as von Stalhein took the instrument from Rudy's hands. The impassive, frozen look gradually lifted from his face, revealing an intensity bordering on joy. He ran his hands over it like a man caressing his lover, and plucked at the strings one by one. He might have been alone in an empty room. He lifted it to his chin and raised the bow, gliding it over the strings, then adjusted the tuning pegs slightly and repeated the manoeuvre. Biggles couldn't take his eyes away. The total focus of von Stalhein's concentration seemed contagious: around him the Americans were lowering their voices, turning to look.
"Who is that guy?"
"He must be that defector the Limeys went to pick up."
Von Stalhein's shoulders stiffened. He raised his bow again, but all he did was play a scale, the notes harsh and uneven, and some of the Americans looked away again and picked up their conversations. Biggles waited. Von Stalhein flexed his fingers and tried again, and the scales were smoother, the sound somehow rounder and fuller. Biggles found himself remembering the first time he'd got into the cockpit of a plane again after the Armistice, after his first bad crash.
The third time, von Stalhein began a song. Biggles had expected something classical, slow, sad, but instead von Stalhein picked up an old German folksong, something from his boyhood, bright and lilting. A child's piece, an easy piece. Biggles found himself picturing von Stalhein performing this as a schoolboy, innocent of war and loss and defeat. The Americans were looking around again, smiling, but casually: von Stalhein's playing was a little freer, more graceful than Rudy's, but nothing remarkable. But the strain was easing from his face.
His second piece was more ambitious. Biggles couldn't have named the composer, but it sounded more modern, technically complicated to play, as if von Stalhein was testing his ability. Biggles could tell when he went wrong not so much from the sound of the violin as from the flashes of annoyance that crossed von Stalhein's expression, the flinches as he tried to force his unaccustomed fingers to respond.
The Americans were all turning to listen now, the other diversions of the party fading into the background, and before von Stalhein came to a conclusion there was a little group of men standing around him attentively.
At the end there was some scattered applause, but von Stalhein stared blankly above the heads of the crowd as if he wasn't seeing them. Biggles frowned, not wanting to see von Stalhein embarrassed if he found he could not go on. But then von Stalhein raised his bow again, and Biggles leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, years in his past. It wasn't the same piece that von Stalhein had played once at Zabala, but it seemed to carry the same weight, loss and longing and grief. Not a piece for a joyful celebration of the return of a lost friend, but a piece for a man going into exile, alive but far from home, perhaps never to return.
The room was utterly silent now apart from von Stalhein's music, all faces turned to him. Biggles watched him standing against the wall, dressed in borrowed clothes playing a lament on a borrowed violin as if pouring out decades of misery into the air around him. The Americans would not understand, but Biggles caught Algy's eye and knew he understood: this was a funeral, the death of their enemy. But in his place, this battered and grieving man playing the violin. Biggles swallowed something in his throat.
Then von Stalhein shifted his stance a little, the music changed, the grief giving way to a steadily growing thread of hope and peace. Von Stalhein's eyes were closed as he played, his expression distant and tranquil, every trace of anger and pride gone, subsumed by his focus on the music. His playing slowed, calming and quieting until he drew his bow out on a single long final note and he opened his eyes again. His face had turned very pale. His hand dropped to his side, the bow in his hand like a fencer saluting.
For several heartbeats all the Americans were silent. Then they set up a storm of clapping and shouting, and von Stalhein bowed to them, white to the lips. Under cover of the sound, Biggles dragged a chair over to him and pushed von Stalhein into it as the American pilots crowded around him, a babble of congratulatory voices and loud praise rising around them. Von Stalhein had looked more relaxed, Biggles thought, when he'd been facing down two hundred attacking Kurds in Iraq, and he went to stand at his enemy's shoulder.
"We should keep you!" one blond-haired man with lieutenant's insignia on his collar shouted happily. "Don't go with those English! We've got nicer planes and a better base, we'll show you the American Dream here, buddy."
Rudy had pushed in and von Stalhein stiffly returned the violin. "Damn," Rudy said. "I didn't know this old thing could sound like that. Willya give me a lesson or two, if you're staying for a few days?"
Rudy held the violin as if expecting it to start playing on its own. "Damn," he repeated. "You okay, um,--"
"Call me Erich," von Stalhein said helplessly.
"You okay, Erich? You look kinda pale. Oh, here's that kid--yeah, have a drink, that's right."
Biggles gave Fritz an approving nod as he went to his uncle's other side with a glass of water. A little colour had returned to von Stalhein's face and he sat straighter in the chair, seeming to become aware of Biggles and Fritz bracketing him. He did not show any outward sign of gratitude, but he did relax slightly.
The congratulatory crowd was moving away as von Stalhein showed no signs of giving them an encore. Biggles saw Algy pushing his way through it, wearing his Flight Leader expression as he displaced the junior Americans with a frown.
"I didn't know you played," he said in accusatory tones, as if he'd caught von Stalhein smuggling messages to the Soviets. "You're good." His eyes flicked sideways to Biggles standing over him, and he added, "Are you all right? I thought you were going to keel over at the end there."
"It is a long time since I played for an audience," von Stalhein said blandly, but he hadn't tensed as he had at the Americans' babble.
"And not long at all since he was rescued from that terrible place," Fritz said earnestly. "The doctor said you should rest, Uncle Erich. But it gave me great joy to hear you play again."
"Ignoring the doctor's orders already?" Algy gave an unexpected grin. "Consider me unsurprised." His eyes met Biggles's, filled with laughter. "Who else do I know who's like that?"
Biggles knew that von Stalhein was feeling better when he said, "I am aware that it is the custom amongst the English to mock their friends, but I did not know I was admitted into that category, Captain Lacey."
Biggles turned a snort of laughter into an unconvincing cough and said, "Fess up, Algy. You don't know what you'd do without Erich any more than I do."
"Am I depriving you of sport?"
"You absolutely are," Biggles said with a grin. "We'll have to learn some new tricks now."
"Speaking of which, if you're feeling up to it tomorrow," Algy put in, "borrow that violin again and come find me at the piano and we'll show these Yanks some music."
Von Stalhein glanced up at him with a glint in his eye. "If you think you'll be up to it," he murmured, and Biggles laughed again as they both turned to him, von Stalhein bland, Algy mock-outraged.
"Don't ask me to decide which of you is the better musician," he said. "Are you going to stay longer or have you had enough, Erich?"
"You ordered me here," von Stalhein pointed out whimsically. "Do I dare leave?" When Biggles frowned he gave a straightforward answer. "I am well enough now. I will stay a little longer."
On the far side of the mess was a quieter corner with several comfortable-looking sofas and armchairs. Biggles nodded in that direction and they made their way through the party. Every seat was occupied and Biggles had expected to have to pull rank to dislodge someone, but to his surprise a pair of young American pilots sprawled on one of the sofas sprang to their feet as they saw him approach. He was taken aback when he realised that this courtesy was not for him but for von Stalhein, for they immediately bombarded him with enthusiastic praise and offers to fetch him drinks and food and cigarettes. In a few minutes they were both comfortably installed, von Stalhein sinking in the corner of the sofa with another glass of the lethal punch and a slice of a heavily iced cake that the American pilots had insisted he accept. "They made it for Pat to welcome him back, but it must be for you as well," they'd explained.
Von Stalhein took a bite of it and raised his eyebrows. "I did not know there was so much sugar in the entire world. If this is how the Americans always eat, how is it that their teeth are all so white and straight?"
Biggles broke off a corner of the slice to taste. "No rationing here." He glanced after at the departing Americans. "They're nice boys, they reminded me of your Fritz. You've made quite an impression."
"They're scarcely more than children," von Stalhein said. "They can have no real understanding of what it all means."
"They liked it anyway." Biggles pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered it to von Stalhein. Von Stalhein took one and leaned forward a little so that Biggles could light it for him. "Our old world's almost gone now, how could they understand where you and I come from? But now all your wars are over, you can have peace."
Von Stalhein set the cake aside. "You mean all my wars are lost."
Biggles took a long draw on his cigarette. "No sense baulking at facts. Yes. All your wars are lost. But here you sit, and I am glad of it. I never went to war to do any harm to you in particular, Erich. You know that by now. If you went to war to hurt me, well, you never quite managed it, and I'm glad of that too. This will be much better. We'll have to make sure you get a violin when you get to London. That is to say, if you're travelling with us as far as London," he added quickly.
Von Stalhein gave him a sardonic look and said, "So if all else fails I can earn a crust playing on street corners? I thank you."
"You wouldn't care for that in London's climate," Biggles answered, matching his tone. "No, I was thinking more of taking pupils, if you have the patience for it."
"You think English parents will send their child to take lessons with a foreign agent, a criminal, a--"
"A brave man and a talented musician," Biggles interrupted. "If you'd like it, I'll set Algy on it, he gets endless letters from relatives detailing all their numerous offspring, some of them must want to learn the violin."
Von Stalhein exhaled slowly, blowing a ring of smoke towards the ceiling. "You've really never seen an obstacle you couldn't find a way around, have you? The thought of having that directed in my favour instead of against me is a shock. Yes, Bigglesworth, I will be travelling with you as far as London, though I confess I cannot imagine what it will be like when I arrive. I have only ever walked in London as a spy, every man's hand against me. The idea of--anything else, is a little beyond me at present." He leaned his head back against the sofa, his usually upright carriage relaxed, and watched the party with a vague eye. After a moment Biggles realised von Stalhein was humming under his breath, not the song that was now playing on the gramophone but something quite different. Biggles listened, picked up the tune, and smiled as a second rush of memory went over him. Quietly he added the ending words.
"...a long long way to Tipperary, but my heart's right there."