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Till the Boys Come Home

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Even in the throes of defeat it took time to unravel a bureaucracy as complex as the Kaiser's army, and three days after the Armistice was signed, Erich von Stalhein was still at work in his office with his adjutant, still occasionally receiving new reports even as they destroyed all those he did not wish the British to find. The killing had stopped, but the other activities of war continued, pointless as the last convulsive jerks of a dying body. It would have been a bitter thought, but he still felt too stunned, too blank and empty even for bitterness. That they could be defeated, and so fully defeated, was a thought his mind shied away from altogether as a man might avoid putting weight on a broken bone.

"Bigglesworth," said Leutnant Hoffman aloud, and von Stalhein jumped as if he'd been struck.

"What?" he demanded.

"That was your flier fellow, wasn't it? Dreadful name. But we got him. Practically the last shot of the war."

Von Stalhein was on his feet and looking over Hoffman's shoulder without conscious awareness of movement. "Not killed," he said, looking at the list Hoffman had been reading. "Shot down and a prisoner. In a field hospital."

"Prisoner doesn't mean much now," Hoffman said. "They've given the prisoners the keys. Had to, I suppose. Not like our poor lads."

Von Stalhein looked at the list again. "No. Not like our lads."

This was not his duty, but there was nobody left to care whether he did his duty or pleased himself. Not that this visit gave him pleasure either. But two hours after reading the list in his office, he was walking as if compelled between two rows of pallets with the familiar stench of field hospitals in his nostrils, blood and gangrene and vomit and lice. Just the smell was enough to bring back the memory of pain.

The British were at one end, Germans at the other. Von Stalhein made his way along until he saw the familiar face. Even untidily hospital-shaven, with the sheen of fever on his brow and eyes only half-aware, he would not have mistaken him. He stopped at the end of the bed.

Bigglesworth had a greyish hue to his skin, eyes sunken and lips dry. He stirred restlessly on the straw mattress, head turning, gazing about as if seeing something quite different, mumbling in English. Von Stalhein watched him for a minute, then went closer, between the pallets, and stooped down.

Bigglesworth's wandering eyes skimmed over his face several times before lingering on him. "Don't sit on the bomb," he said distinctly.

"Bigglesworth," von Stalhein said. It was the first time he had addressed him by his name.

"Brunow," Bigglesworth told him. "Not Bigglesworth. Never get that wrong."

The desperation in his voice resonated deep in von Stalhein, who had answered flawlessly to Major Sterne and El Shareef as needed, and in consequence sometime spun around when any name beginning with S was spoken in his vicinity, three languages jostling on his lips.

"You were very good at that," he observed distantly.

"Are you going to stay there until I die?" was Bigglesworth's next remark, which seemed almost lucid.

"Perhaps." He wondered if it would alter that frozen empty feeling inside him if he saw the life finally leave Bigglesworth. Repayment for the wrongs he had done, for the injuries he had caused.

"Good," Bigglesworth answered, and von Stalhein rocked back on his heels. "Water?" he added faintly.

In his imagination, picturing Bigglesworth helpless before him, von Stalhein had denied such requests many times, had rejoiced in the sight of his foe suffering. Here with the live Bigglesworth before him, von Stalhein found he could remember too clearly the sense of lying helpless in a hospital tent, and without a word he found a tin cup and filled it with clean water and carried it to Bigglesworth. He had to lift him so that he could drink, his arm under the slight fever-hot shoulders, Bigglesworth's head against his own shoulder. Bigglesworth drained the cup and sank back, and von Stalhein laid him down on the bed, feeling even more unsatisfied than when he'd arrived.

"You're dead."

"What?" von Stalhein said, baffled.

"Someone told me once that all the men you've killed come and drag you to hell with them at the end," Bigglesworth informed him. "I wish you'd got away. They didn't find a body in the wreckage, but it was so badly burned up you wouldn't have found anything but belt buckles anyway, and there wasn't anywhere to go except back through the British lines."

He had been wearing a British officer's uniform under the burnous, and he could impersonate a British officer flawlessly, he knew all the codes of the day and every inch of the land. After he had dragged himself from the wreckage of the Bristol he had crept back through the British lines, worked his way back to Cairo, vanished into the Arab quarter of that bustling city and emerged again as Hauptmann Erich von Stalhein. By the time he had returned to France and the consoling embraces, so he had hoped, of Marie, he found her instead heartbroken over the memory of a British flyer named Bigglesworth. Then she had shown him a photograph of her precious Bigglesworth.

Von Stalhein gazed down at the man himself, who in a single week had destroyed all his labours and then gone on to bewitch his beloved, and whose country had destroyed his home. "Why would you care?" he demanded.

Bigglesworth gazed up at him vaguely. "You'd think I wouldn't even notice after everyone else. Poor little Tom, and Batty, and all of them--maybe I'll get to see them again. And you. Then you can tell me how you did it."

"How I did what?"

"How you knew. You knew the moment you saw me, didn't you?" He extended a hand feebly as if to emphasise his words, then fell back. "It was just a race, in the end. I knew too." His eyes closed.

"Knew what?" von Stalhein demanded, though he thought he understood. But Bigglesworth made no answer. Von Stalhein glared down at him, then turned at a commotion from the door, loud voices shouting in English. Listening, he realised that the British had arrived to collect their wounded and take them home. He stood back from the pallet, looking towards the second exit that he had reflexively spotted as he entered the hospital tent, but there were English voices from that direction too. Hastily he picked up a civilian coat that lay draped on the back of a chair and put it on, turning up the collar to obscure his uniform, and walked briskly towards the nearer door.

A pair of British medical orderlies were entering as he reached it and they looked at him suspiciously. Before they could challenge him von Stalhein spoke in English. "There's an urgent case in bed 23, a flying officer. Start with him."

The crisp, perfect upper-class English voice had saved him from disaster a thousand times as Major Sterne. It worked now too; the orderlies straightened to attention at the tone.


One of the orderlies held the door for him, the other saluted. Von Stalhein did not look back at them as he strode out of the tent. He took a grateful breath of the fresher air outside and kept walking until he was out of sight of the British contingent. They would take Bigglesworth and the others away now, and the chances were he would live, with youth and victory at his side. But von Stalhein no longer wanted Bigglesworth's death. That was too easy, too thin and poor a repayment for the debt he bore.

"We will run this race again," he murmured to himself as he went, "and when we do, I will not lose."