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A Long and Separate War

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"I was admiring the night from the tarmac. I can’t sit indoors in this weather."

With the body of the Arab assassin at their feet, Biggles found himself trading verbal jabs with von Stalhein, trying to stay one step ahead while his mind spun frantically over what he had just seen: the lithe figure leaping for the window, unencumbered by walking sticks or old war injuries.

I have you red-handed, El Shereef—but what am I going to do about it?

First he simply had to get through the conversation without being caught in a lie that would end in being shot for a traitor. He was all too aware of von Stalhein's sharp eyes on him, and sweat prickled his spine beneath his uniform.

Just as he was reasonably sure he had pulled it off, there was a sudden outbreak of commotion and shouting from down the tarmac.

"Now what is it?" von Stalhein murmured impatiently. He started in that direction, leaning heavily on his sticks, then gestured for Biggles to go in front of him. "Hurry, Brunow. I'll catch up to you."

You can probably outrun me, you sly fox, Biggles thought, but he turned and ran down the tarmac to find out what was the problem.

It soon became evident that the assassin in von Stalhein's quarters had not been alone. Biggles saw several camels with riders being routed from behind the hangars. There were shouts and the sound of gunfire.

Looking around, Biggles saw one of the swift, darting figures run into one of the hangars. He had only an instant to choose what to do, whether to stay with his Brunow guise or let the Arab get away. What decided him was that this hangar was one he hadn't been able to look inside yet. He had inferred that it was used for storage, possibly of fuel or munitions, but there was always a guard on it and he had not yet come up with a plausible excuse to go in.

Now he had one. Swiftly he hurried across the tarmac and shoved through the half-open door. The darkness inside was stifling, but he felt about until he found a switch. He flipped it and the interior of the hangar was flooded with harsh electric light.

There was not much to see, as it turned out. A couple of German aeroplanes in different states of repair were broken down upon the concrete floor, and there were a great many barrels along the wall, unmarked and lacking any hint of what was in them.

As Biggles, gun in hand, peered around for the suspected assassin, there was a clatter behind him. He jumped and turned as von Stalhein pushed through the door, out of breath. "This area is classified," von Stalhein said shortly.

"I saw one of the scoundrels run inside," Biggles said. "He's hiding here somewhere."

Von Stalhen made a soft sound of annoyance and drew his gun. He held it carefully with a practiced grip that allowed him to hold the sticks as well, and limped into the hangar. Biggles eyed him. He found it interesting that von Stalhein refused to drop the ruse even in a position of danger, and it occurred to him to wonder if von Stalhein had been angered to find him in the hangar not because of whatever was stored here, but because in Biggles's presence he was unable to move freely.

However, the German adapted gracefully. He gestured, and Biggles immediately understood that he was to circle around.

They went to either side of the torn-down Halberstadts on the hangar floor. The hangar was very quiet, with much of the noise outside muffled by the sheet-metal walls. Biggles peered over the Halberstadts, catching a glimpse of von Stalhein, who, even with the sticks, moved with feline grace and absolute silence.

Then Biggles saw movement among the barrels behind von Stalhein.

"Look out!" he exclaimed.

He leaped to the wing of the nearest Halberstadt and vaulted over it. He had forgotten, in the instant, that von Stalhein was his enemy, and probably it would have made his life a great deal less complicated had he allowed the evident planned assassination to proceed. All of that flew out of his head at the flash of a knife in the ghosting figure's hand.

Von Stalhein spun round. Biggles caught a brief glimpse of the Arab behind the barrels and aimed his gun, but then the fleeing man delivered a tremendous shoved to the stacked barrels and sprinted for the door.

There was no opportunity to chase him. Biggles, who had just leaped down from the Halberstadt's wing, was nearly caught under the falling barrels—would have been, in fact, had not von Stalhein wrenched him out of the way. Then the falling barrels hit the floor and one of them broke open.

Instead of the outwash of petrol or other fuel that Biggles expected, there was a cascade of some sort of powdery substance. It was pale yellow and resembled fine sand or talc. The air filled with a strange, sweetish smell.

Von Stalhein snarled a curse. Dropping his sticks, half dragging Biggles by the collar, he stumbled back. It was too late; Biggles was covered in the stuff, whatever it was, and a good deal of it was on von Stalhein as well. It seemed to go everywhere, down their collars and into their hair and the folds of their uniforms. Biggles inhaled a lungful of it and started coughing.

"Spit it out!" von Stalhein snapped. "Get away from it, if you can!"

Biggles coughed again. He felt very strange, his entire body tingling and his head floating. It was some sort of chemical weapon, he finally understood in a dazed shock, and they had just been deluged in it.

He stumbled away, frantically brushing it off himself. Von Stalhein, now frozen in a sort of glacial calm, looked about for his sticks, picked them up, and limped over to the door, through which the Arab had vanished. A German serviceman was just opening it further.

"Get out!" von Stalhein said shortly. "There has been a chemical leak. I need to have some items brought and then the door sealed until we open it—do you understand?"

The serviceman hastily withdrew. Whatever he knew of what was in the hangar, he clearly wanted nothing to do with it. "What do you need, Hauptmann?" he asked, closing the door but for a crack.

"We need jerry cans of water, blankets, and fresh uniforms," von Stalhein rapped out. "Bring them as fast as you can, put them inside, and then no one, absolutely no one, comes into this warehouse until we come out."

He closed the door and pressed his hand against it, lowering his head for a moment.

Biggles found that he was having trouble thinking. His entire body was flushed hot one minute, cold the next. The lights were too bright; there seemed to be a shimmering halo around everything in sight.

He forced himself to push past his increasing discomfort and panic to think about it rationally. Von Stalhein did not seem to expect that they were going to die. At any rate, his instructions had not suggested it. Biggles stumbled over to him and reached out a hand, only to have von Stalhein whirl on him.

"Why did you do that?" von Stalhein demanded. His eyes, Biggles was startled to see, were blown out until there was only a slim ring of pale blue around the black centers. Biggles's own eyes must be doing likewise; that was why the room seemed so uncomfortably bright.

"Do what?" Biggles asked, too rattled to comprehend the question.

"You were not in danger. You should have stayed out of the way."

"But he was about to attack you. I wasn't going to stand by and watch it happen."

"But you—" von Stalhein began. He stopped and shook his head. It was clear that, for all he was fighting to contain it, he was having similar problems to Biggles's, having to struggle to keep his mind clear.

Biggles couldn't tell what was happening to either of them. The feeling of floating and heightened sensitivity was becoming acute. Biggles's uniform felt too close and scratchy, his entire body overheated. He noticed that von Stalhein was flushed.

"What is that stuff?" Biggles asked, brushing at his hair. "What does it do?"

Von Stalhein began to answer, but just then there was a swift knock at the door. Von Stalhein pushed it open a crack to receive the requested supplies, which included several metal cans of water and a soft bundle of blankets and clothing.

"No one comes in without my order," von Stalhein reaffirmed, and got a crisp agreement from the other side. He closed the door and lowered a metal bar that locked it from the inside. Then he paused for a brief moment of stillness, as if he was getting himself together, and turned abruptly to Biggles.

"Get your clothes off," he said. "We have to get as much of it off us as possible. We will need to take turns rinsing each other. It's the only way, as we daren't go in to use the showers and risk contaminating the barracks."

He leant down to unscrew the top of one of the cans.

"Yes, but what is it?" Biggles asked. He began to strip as requested. The air in the hangar, cool now with the always-surprising chill of desert night, seemed to caress his overheated skin, sparking a fresh round of tingling throughout his body. In the hazy, floating state that he kept wanting to slip into, he found himself captivated by the grace of von Stalhein's long fingers as the German unscrewed the top of the water can.

"It is a classified weapon that was being developed for deployment against the enemy," von Stalhein said, his gaze downcast. He began to unbutton his own uniform with reluctant, jerky movements. "It was not meant to kill, only to incapacitate. It has not yet been used in the field."

Biggles realised that he was panting in shallow gasps. His symptoms were coming on rapidly now. Everything simply felt like too much—the bright lights and the touch of his uniform and the rough surface of the concrete under his now-bare feet. He began to unbuckle his trousers, but stopped at the horrified realization that the over-sensitivity everywhere was affecting him below the waist as well.

"Take everything off," von Stalhein said shortly. He shed his own shirt and bent over to untie his boots. Biggles swallowed, captivated by the play of muscle across von Stalhein's lean, bare shoulders and back.

Hauptmann Erich von Stalhein was a very beautiful man. Biggles had not been unaware of this, but now, confronted with a rapidly disrobing von Stalhein, it was all he could think about. His throat felt dry.

Von Stalhein glanced up. His jaw was tight; it was clear that he was fighting the effects of whatever they had been doused with. "Did you hear me? Get it off."

Biggles swallowed. "I'm ..." One hand gestured to the front of his trousers to indicate the problem.

"It takes men that way. It's taking me as well. The faster it's off your skin, the less the effects." Von Stalhein straightened, graceful as water, and Biggles was arrested all over again by the speed and grace of his movements as the German shoved his trousers down his lean hips in a quick, fluid motion.

Now naked, but no less beautiful, von Stalhein picked up one of the jerry cans of water. Biggles gasped as the cool water cascaded over his head and shoulders, soaking the trousers that were only half off. It brought him back to himself a little. Shivering from a strange mix of heat and cold, he hopped on one leg until he managed to get himself completely naked. Von Stalhein slopped more water over him.

"Now me," von Stalhein ordered curtly.

Biggles accepted the half-empty can, and von Stalhein's long fingers brushed his as he took it. At the touch, it felt as if an electric spark danced up his spine. Von Stalhein made a sound in his throat.

Biggles had to stretch to splash him with the water, as von Stalhein was the taller of the two. Von Stalhein scrubbed his fingers through his short hair, trying to get as much as possible of the stuff out. Biggles was having trouble concentrating on anything, because now Von Stalhein's body, the whole lithe length of him, glistened with water. Biggles was dimly aware of the empty can falling from his fingers to ring on the concrete floor.

"It's no good," von Stalhein said under his breath, not looking at Biggles. "No good. We had too much of it on us; the effects are already taking full hold."

Biggles barely registered the words. The intensity of feeling was rapidly becoming painful, as if the breeze shivering across his wet skin raked him with claws.

When von Stalhein's hand closed on his arm, the relief was sudden and overpowering. Biggles gasped and sagged against him.

Von Stalhein placed a hand at the small of his back. The contact shivered along Biggles's every nerve ending. Although he hardly had the mental capacity to register it, he was somehow still aware of how careful von Stalhein was. The touches were light and gentle.

"Come on," von Stalhein said softly. He led Biggles to the pile of blankets and kicked them out on the floor with his bare foot for a makeshift pallet. "Brunow, attend." He gave Biggles a little shake that somehow turned into a caress, brushing Biggles's wet hair back from his face. Biggles gasped softly. "Brunow, listen. Have you been with anyone before?"

Biggles had to blink his way back from the place in his head where he had gone. Von Stalhein's face was close to his, the blown-out blue eyes looking into his with a curious gentleness. Biggles's tongue seemed stuck to the roof of his mouth. He had to wrench his gaze away from von Stalhein's in order to answer. He felt flushed across his entire body.

"I never ... no, there hasn't really been any time," he said. "The war ..." His tongue seemed to tangle up in his mouth.

"I thought not." Von Stalhein's voice was little more than a whisper. He guided Biggles down to the coarse woolen blankets, and Biggles went pliantly; he didn't think there was anything that he wouldn't have done at that moment.

He could feel von Stalhein shivering, rigid with the fight for self-control, and found himself wanting to do something about it—so he did what felt right, running his hand up and down the muscular length of von Stalhein's back. Von Stalhein went tense all over, and then Biggles felt him sagging into the touch, conforming to the pressure of Biggles's hand like a cat being petted. The shivering eased a little.

"Brunow, we haven't any choice about what we must do. You understand that, don't you?" Von Stalhein spoke quietly, the words pitched for Biggles's ears alone, and not whoever might be listening outside the hangar. "It will burn itself out in time. By morning we should be fit again. But it will drive us mad if we do not give in to it now."

Von Stalhein was petting his hair, smoothing it back. Biggles felt as if his entire burning body pivoted around that touch.

There were no words, then, for a long while. They moved together, heated and passionate. At some point one of them thought of turning the lights off, which helped a little. In the dark, it felt less overwhelming. Yet still, for all that he was half incoherent with the drug, Biggles was on some level aware of von Stalhein holding himself back, treating Biggles with gentleness and care. Trying—as best he could, under the circumstances—to make it good for him.

 

***

 

He came back to himself some long while later, with von Stalhein caressing his hair in slow gentle strokes. They were lying together on the blankets. The clear gold light of a desert morning filtered in through the small windows high up under the building's corrugated metal roof, blacked out with sacking and cardboard so that only a few pinpoints of the light filtered through. The air was already becoming uncomfortably warm.

Biggles found that his head was clear. He was sore and tired, but not in an unpleasant way.

He could feel the instant when von Stalhein realised that Biggles was awake. The hand that was petting his hair jerked away, and a moment later von Stalhein sat up. He wet a handkerchief from one of the jerry cans and began cleaning them both up.

Biggles made some moves to help him, but then let him do it. Von Stalhein's touch was gentle, but he didn't meet Biggles's eyes.

"It is unfair," von Stalhein said abruptly. "That this should be your first experience."

Biggles had been lying in a sort of languid, sleepy haze. Now he realised that von Stalhein was truly upset about it—not out of embarrassment, but on Biggles's behalf. Biggles sat up so swiftly that he reeled a little. Von Stalhein caught him quickly, one hand supporting his back and the other under his elbow.

"It wasn't—no," Biggles said, desperate to make him understand. "It wasn't bad in the slightest. If we had the choice, I should have preferred other circumstances, of course. But it was—if it had to be someone, I'm glad it was you."

He meant it sincerely. He wasn't sorry; he only wished that he'd had a chance to appreciate the beauty of von Stalhein's long, graceful body without having his head muddled with drugs.

Von Stalhein hesitated and then pulled away and wet the handkerchief again. "You're not entirely in your right mind yet, Brunow. You should get some rest."

Brunow.

Biggles felt as if an icy waterfall had poured over him, clearing out the last of the dazed, sleepy haze and replacing it with cold panic. Brunow. He wasn't Biggles here; he was Brunow, the spy. It was probably just as well that von Stalhein had used the name, because in his sleepy, relaxed state, he might well have given up things that would get him shot.

And von Stalhein was also El Shereef; now that Biggles had seen him naked, and the lack of wasting in either of his lean, muscular legs, there was no doubt of it.

What have we done?

Von Stalhein, oddly courtly about it, offered him a clean and neatly folded uniform. Biggles dressed in silence, only too aware of the vivid sense-memory of von Stalhein against every part of him—the careful touches, the soft kisses, the passionate urgency as they had coupled again and again. He hadn't known the man could be so gentle. He wondered what von Stalhein was thinking of as the German dressed with quick, efficient movements.

"What's going to happen to the rest of this?" Biggles asked. The slightly sweetish smell of the chemical could still occasionally be scented, but it didn't seem to be affecting him; it appeared to have run its course.

"We'll have a crew with proper equipment clean it up as soon as we're out of the way." Von Stalhein was tidying up, rolling the blankets and using that protection to scoop up their contaminated uniforms. He moved swiftly, efficiently—and he was very clearly avoiding Biggles's eyes.

And we'll have to have a bombing crew out here shortly, Biggles thought. The idea of this chemical being dropped on any British base was terrible to contemplate.

Although he still didn't feel that what had happened last night had been terrible. Not for him personally. It was considerably harder to tell about von Stalhein.

Von Stalhein went off to confer with his men, and Biggles slipped off to his quarters to try to catch a couple hours of sleep, as the previous night had been less than restful. He was drowsing on top of the blankets, trying to let his mind go blank as much as possible and not dwell on the intrusive sense-memories that kept recurring, when there was a soft tap at the door.

Biggles sat up hastily. "Come in."

It was von Stalhein, cleaned up and back to his usual immaculate neatness. He had a tray balanced in the crook of his arm, carefully navigating that, the door, and his walking sticks.

Biggles got up to help him with it, and was surprised and baffled to find that von Stalhein had brought him something to eat. It was only the standard breakfast fare from the mess, but had been arranged neatly, with a napkin folded beside it and a steaming cup of coffee—not the ersatz variety that the men normally received, but real coffee, presumably from the officers' stores.

"They said you hadn't been down yet," von Stalhein said, his voice a bit clipped. "I thought the least I could do was bring you breakfast."

"Thank you," Biggles said. He felt dazed again as he set the tray beside the bed. The portions were generous, more so than enlisted men would normally receive. "Will you—stay and eat?"

Von Stalhein looked briefly tempted, but he shook his head. "No, there's a lot to deal with. I will see you later, perhaps?"

"Yes, of course," Biggles said automatically. After von Stalhein left, he sat heavily on the bed and ran his hand down his face, then picked up a piece of bread smeared with butter and honey.

What a complication.

But there was not, in fact, time to talk again—at least not without other people around, or other, more pressing concerns. Matters proceeded swiftly from there, until Biggles found himself looking at von Stalhein (or El Shereef, or Major Sterne) over a revolver in the General's office.

In years to come, Biggles's friends would speak of von Stalhein as if the man was utterly stonefaced, a man without feelings. But Biggles would never forget the expression on his face that day, the furious betrayal that haunted Biggles for years afterward, as much as the bone-shattering, heart-shattering crunch of von Stalhein's stolen aeroplane crumpling behind a dune.

 

***

 

In the years after the war, there was some part of Biggles that still entertained the thought of running into von Stalhein again one day. It was foolish; he had lost too many friends in the war to allow himself to court that sort of false hope. However, he had also seen instances of men presumed lost in the chaos of war, only to reappear alive and healthy.

But as many times as he had imagined a possible meeting, he was completely unprepared for his own physical reaction when it finally happened. He had imagined himself cool as a cucumber about it. Instead his entire body jolted with reaction, a feeling as intense as any dogfight he'd ever been in. His palms went damp; his heart raced. For a moment he could feel the ghostly memory of von Stalhein's deft hands on his oversensitive skin. A shiver ran through him. It was hard to think, especially with those cool ice-blue eyes on him.

He could not read von Stalhein's expression at all—nor could he, throughout the cat and mouse chase that ensued in the castle, determine what von Stalhein was thinking about him, no matter how desperately he wanted to know. Did the German still think at all of what had passed between them on the floor of the hangar? Did it matter to him any more, or had it all been eclipsed by the cascade of revelations and betrayals that had followed?

On the roof, while he and Algy waited for dawn, Algy said quietly, "So that's your German, is it?"

"He's not my anything," Biggles said, a trifle sharply. Believing von Stalhein dead, he had seen no reason not to tell Algy all that had transpired at Zabala, although he had never spoken of it to anyone else. He now wished he had shown more forbearance.

"No? You only talk of him all the time."

"I do not."

"I can practically recognise the way the man holds his cigarette from your description of it."

"It's a very distinctive—can we talk of something else for a while?"

"Rather a cold fish, I'd say," Algy said. He adjusted his back against the chimney, trying to find a comfortable position. "You can do better."

Biggles was inclined to a vehement argument about this—Algy escaped a stern disagreement only by either falling asleep or pretending to be asleep—but found himself agreeing a bit more with him later, as von Stalhein threatened Ginger. It was at the end, though, that he found himself hesitating over the thing he knew he needed to do—a sharp rap to von Stalhein's skull from the butt of Biggles's gun. In his moment of hesitation, he saw von Stalhein's eyes widen, a look of fury and confusion in them.

Then Ginger moved in and gave him a smart rap and he went down. Biggles was left standing foolishly. Getting himself together, he went to lock the door and then returned to von Stalhein.

"We shall have to go out the window," Algy said. "Biggles! Are you listening?"

"Yes, of course," Biggles said absently. He went down to one knee. There was blood on the side of von Stalhein's head where Ginger had struck him, soaking into his fine, close-cropped dark hair. Biggles took off his own jacket and propped it under the finely shaped head. He turned von Stalhein's head gently to the side, that he might be more comfortable.

"It's hopeless," Algy said to no one in particular.

"What's he doing?" Ginger asked.

"Dallying until we're caught, that's what he's doing!"

"Go, I'll be right behind you," Biggles ordered them. He seized a sheet of paper from the desk and scribbled a quick note, which he tucked into von Stalhein's limp hand. He couldn't help being captivated, despite the tension of the situation, by the long graceful fingers; it seemed his fascination with them had never truly left him.

"Biggles!"

"I'm coming!" Biggle said, and sprang after them.

On the note, he had written: I'm sorry for the head and the rest of it. Come see me in London, if you like. I know you have my number. We are not at war any more.

 

***

 

Three nights after he had settled back at the flat, the phone rang. Biggles answered curiously; it was late for someone to ring him.

No one answered his queries, but he felt the sense of someone on the other end of the line, a presence that was nearly tangible in the soft crackling of the long-distance static. He couldn't say how he knew who it was, but he knew.

"I am sorry I had to leave you with nothing at the end of the caper," Biggles said. "But we had to return all the money and the jewels, or the firm would have been bankrupted."

There was a soft sigh. Abruptly a voice spoke—a voice he should know anywhere, and he could only wonder that he had not recognised it when von Stalhein had tried to warn him off the jewelry heist, although it was true that von Stalhein had been trying to disguise it, and Biggles at that time had no reason to consider him a possibility.

"I do not intend to come see you. We have nothing to talk about."

"I don't regret what we did in the aerodrome," Biggles said. "But I do regret what came after, and the years since. I would like to make it up to you, if I can."

There was another pause, hissing with static. Then the sharp voice rapped out, "You can't." The connection was ended.

 

***

 

Biggles had never been one to back down from a personal challenge.

 

***

 

After all the years of anger and hurt, and von Stalhein pushing him away at every turn, it was almost a surprise—almost—on the Sea Otter, after the rescue from Sakhalin, when von Stalhein allowed Biggles to help him comb out his unkempt, straggling gray-streaked hair.

He had a hot, sweetened mug of tea in his hands and a blanket round his shoulders. They were in the tail of the machine, with the others leaving them more or less alone. Algy had a lot to do with that, Biggles suspected. After all this time, Algy was still the only one who knew the entire story of the events at Zabala—though it was only to be supposed that Ginger and Bertie must have inferred a good deal of it by now.

The long fingers Biggles had once so admired were chapped and swollen from cold and ill-treatment, and it looked as if one of them might have been broken and reset. Biggles said nothing, only sat with his shoulder against von Stalhein's, gently combing out his strangely long hair and making no mention of the way that a good deal of von Stalhein's weight had come to rest on him.

"You are entirely free to go at any time, on the journey to England or afterward," Biggles said quietly. He worked the comb through the tangles, and found that he was following it with his fingers, caressing von Stalhein's scalp to ease the tugging—not so different from how von Stalhein had stroked his hair all those years ago. "I'd like it very much if you'd decide to stay. But there are no strings on you, Erich. You can go wherever you'd like."

Von Stalhein sighed deeply. His hands were shaking; he sipped from the mug and then let it rest in his blanket-covered lap. "You'll do what you want, I'm sure."

"In this," Biggles said, and he couldn't help smiling a little, "I'll do what you want. I promise."

He could sense that von Stalhein was gathering himself to respond to this, but in the end, no response came; instead the weight on his shoulder grew heavier. Von Stalhein was exhausted from his ordeal, lulled by the rocking of the machine and the warm tea, and soothed by the strokes of the comb in his hair—perhaps the only gentle touch he had received in a long time. He had fallen asleep.

Biggles put the comb down, but he went on stroking the long gray hair for a while.

 

***

 

Biggles waited a few weeks after they returned to England, intending very much to keep his promise and let von Stalhein make his own way. But after time enough had elapsed that he didn't feel as if he would risk making von Stalhein feel crowded or pressured, he asked Raymond for the address of the flat—provided instantly, it seemed almost as if Raymond had been waiting for him to ask. He arrived on von Stalhein's doorstep early in a crisp sun-drenched morning, with a grease-stained paper sack in one hand and a large, steaming flask in the other.

The door was cracked open; the muzzle of a gun met him.

"It's me, Bigglesworth."

The gun was lowered and von Stalhein peered out. Biggles couldn't help thinking that he looked much better and much more like himself; he was trimmed and shaved, and neatly dressed despite the early hour, although he still looked gray in the face and much too thin.

"It would be you, of course," he said. "I receive few visitors. What's that you've got there?"

"Breakfast," Biggles said simply. "I hope you haven't eaten yet. You'll recall I'm one down, and I felt I should return the favour."

Von Stalhein heaved a sigh. And then he smiled a little, not his usual bitter, sardonic smile, but something a little warmer, in which Biggles could see a hint of the much younger man he had been when they had met all those years ago.

"Come in, then," he said, and opened the door wider.