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Biggles looked at von Stalhein and frowned. He was sitting silently, looking at the champagne glass which he twirled in his fingers. Suddenly von Stalheins tanned fingers whitened at the knuckles as he tightened his grip on the glass. He seemed to be squeezing it tighter and tighter. Biggles opened his mouth to warn him that it was going to snap, but before he could speak the glass gave a crack! and it shattered in von Stalheins hand. The champagne flowed over his hand and soaked the table cloth. The waiters nearby rushed over, and von Stalhein stood up, knocking his chair over, and marched out of the hotel restaurant.
Biggles sat at the hotel window, gazing out into the night, smoking a cigarette. He remembered how earlier that day von Stalhein had stood and gazed at the countless rows of white crosses. He remembered how von Stalhein had slipped the Flanders poppy in his pocket when he thought Biggles wasn’t looking. And he remembered how von Stalheins mouth had twisted and tightened when Biggles mentioned about German pilots.
The sound of light, uneven footsteps came down the corridor. They stopped at the door next to Biggles’ room, and the door opened and shut. Von Stalhein. Biggles gave him a minute or two, then went and knocked gently on the door. On receiving a curt ‘Come in’, Biggles opened the door and then shut it behind him. Von Stalhein was sitting on his bed, looking at some photos that he quickly hid in his cigarette case when he saw it was Biggles.
‘What happened at dinner?’ Biggles asked softly.
‘You saw what happened.’ Von Stalhein answered in a neutral voice.
‘No, I mean, why did you act like that? Is there something wrong?’
Von Stalhein shook his head. Biggles took a step closer. ‘Are memories from the war coming back?’
Von Stalhein look startled. ‘How do you know?’
Biggles smiled slightly, sadly. ‘Mine came back too. When I saw those white crosses. I know how you feel in your position.’
Von Stalhein shook his head slowly, keeping his eyes on Biggles. ‘You have no idea how I feel now. You were in the air force. You have no idea what it is like seeing your friends slaughtered in front of you, seeing them die, choking on blood and splintered bone, feeling so helpless, that you can do nothing, just leave them on the battle field to die, while you ran on with the rest of your battalion, stumbling over dead bodies and sliding in pools of blood- ‘
He stopped, trying to regain his composure. Then he went on in a dry, bitter voice. ‘You sat in your aeroplane, clean, free of the blood of your comrades- ‘
Biggles interrupted him furiously. ‘It isn’t like that! It isn’t like that at all! I went up every day, leading my squadron into battle. I saw them being hit, spiral out of control, flames engulfing their aircraft. I always watched for the parachute, hoping against hope that I would see it before the plane hit the ground. I could do nothing but watch, and pray, and see the aircraft in flames hit the ground and explode, knowing that inside was a terrified young boy of about eighteen, knowing that later I would have to find the remains of his body and bury them, knowing that later I would have to write a telegram to his parents...’
Biggles stopped and swallowed, memories flooding back. Von Stalhein looked at him silently.
‘You started the war anyway.’ Biggles said. ‘You have to take the consequences.’
‘I know!’ von Stalhein cried. ‘I know! That’s the worst part of it. Seeing these proud young boys going off to battle, thinking that they are helping Germany, and in my heart I knew the ugly truth, I knew everything that is happening inside the glamorous coating of Hitler’s glorious Reich. I had to encourage them, train them up, when I knew that we were losing the war, that we were being enclosed in on each side. When the Soviets came, they tortured and killed every Nazi they could lay their hands on. I saw my closest friends being treated like this, and I knew, as their leader and superior, I was responsible for their death and pain. I have lived with that guilt since. You haven’t.’
Biggles stood silently after this outburst. Then von Stalhein drew a deep breath. ‘Major Bigglesworth.’ He said coldly, back to his usual self. ‘Please do not repeat a word of this conversation to anybody.’