old soldiers (november 1923)

His first thought – the one that burst in his mind with perfect clarity, even as the cold sickness pulled at his stomach – was oh God, no, it’s happening to me too.

The other man looked entirely normal, dressed in a dark overcoat, grey hat, dark leather gloves, with a tightly furled umbrella over one wrist; but then, apparently they often did. Not all of them came burned into inhuman unrecogniseability, guts hanging out, rat-eaten eyes. Sometimes, he knew, they came just as they had been – quiet, smiling. Sometimes, he’d heard, one might even be pleased to see them.

The man looked entirely normal.

And then Algy caught hold of himself by the scruff of his mental neck, and shook.

“I assume you’re not dead then,” he said, making himself walk over to the man standing still and silent under the street lamp, willing his voice into dryness and steadiness. “What a pity.”

Von Stalhein raised his hat in courteous greeting. “Considering the briefness of our acquaintance, Captain Lacey, I hardly think I deserve your ire.”

“Considering the circumstances of our ‘acquaintance’, as you so euphemistically put it,” Algy snarled, “you’re lucky I don’t knock you down where you stand.”

“I thought we were all friends together now,” said von Stalhein, pleasantly. “Forgive and forget appears to be all the rage – except for the niggling question of reparations and so forth, I’ll concede.”

“You can think what you like,” Algy answered shortly. “What do you want?”

Von Stalhein shrugged, and reached into his coat pocket. Algy tensed, instinctively.

The other man smiled. “You’ve been reading too many – penny dreadfuls, I believe you would call them? This is London, not Chicago. Or Palestine, for that matter. I haven’t so much as touched a gun in three years.”

The gold cigarette case caught the light, flashed into Algy’s eyes. Von Stalhein removed a single slim white cigarette, and proffered the rest. “Would you care to join me?”

Algy pushed his hands deep into his pockets, even though the refusal made him feel petulant and childish and he didn’t much care for the sensation. “What do you want?”

Von Stalhein tapped the cigarette meditatively on the back of the case then slipped the gleaming object back into his pocket; produced a foppishly elegant cigarette-holder, fitted the white stick into the socket, and his leather-covered fingers made each movement with practiced deftness, never fumbling. “Would you believe that I’m here on business?”

“What sort of business?”

The clever fingers paused for a moment. “Dull, business-like business.”

“Then no, I wouldn’t believe you.”

“Perhaps it has escaped your notice that my country no longer has an army,” said von Stalhein. The flame rising from the gold lighter was steady as the rock of ages; but the glow reaching up into his face touched something twisted and hard in his lips. He inhaled, deeply, and breathed out a wreath of smoke into the cold air. “Nor indeed a navy, an air force, or any of the other accoutrements of an active foreign policy. Under the circumstances, you should hardly be surprised if I have found alternative employment.”

The scent of cigarette smoke, sharp and acrid, touched off an itching edge of desire, and Algy made himself turn away. “Well, in most instances I’d be all for parcere-ing the subiectis, but in your case I might make an exception – “

“I neither want nor need your pity,” von Stalhein said, and for a second the steel beneath the polish flashed out.

Algy smiled.

Von Stalhein drew on his cigarette again. “It is Lacey, isn’t it?” he asked mildly. “Forgive my uncertainty, but I had a surprisingly difficult time trying to locate your good self and your friend, the some-time Leopold Brunow, in the files of British military intelligence.”

Algy shrugged. “It’s Lacey if you like.”

“And your friend’s name is – Bigglesworth, I believe?”

He tried not to let any reaction show in his face.

“Such an unlikely name,” von Stalhein mused. “I wonder if his impressive qualities were deliberately cultivated as a reaction to the absurdity of it -”

“Have you been following us?” Algy interrupted.

Von Stalhein wore an expression of innocent – if slightly amused – confusion surprisingly well, Algy thought. He must have practised it. “My dear Lacey, if I had been following you, do you really think you would have noticed?”

Algy snorted a laugh. “Biggles found you out before – do you really think he couldn’t do it again?”

The pale blue eyes almost shone in the dimness. “Ah, so it’s Bigglesworth who believes you are being followed.”

Algy bit his lip, pushed his hands deeper into his pockets, if that were possible. His fingernails were catching in the stitches of the lining.

When Biggles sat with his back to a window, he sat hunched forward, as if feeling the hostile gaze between his shoulderblades. He would stand by the sash-window in the sitting-room of the flat, looking down into the street – not scanning the faces of the passers-by, but looking fixedly, smoking cigarette after cigarette, a mountain of ashes collecting in the saucer on the side-board.

Algy could never ask who he was looking at, and Biggles would never say.

“If you’ve come here looking for him, I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” he said, trying to speak normally around the sudden thickening in his mouth. “He’s – away from town at the moment. Visiting his people.”

“Is he.”

Von Stalhein tapped the ash from his cigarette with his forefinger, a gesture that tore at Algy with second-hand familiarity; he could hear Biggles, dictating his report on that mess in Palestine, in a voice that stayed colourless and monotonous, even as he described the desperate risks, the lightning jumps of intuition, the terrible, heart-stopping danger.

“What a shame,” the German officer went on. “It would have been pleasant to see him again. I believe we would have had a lot to talk about. But I assure you, I didn’t come here to see Bigglesworth.” The cigarette was burned down nearly to the holder; deftly he removed it, the butt describing a glowing arc into the gutter, where it hissed into darkness in the dregs of last night’s rains. “If anything, I came to see you.”

For a moment, Algy was at a loss. “Well, that was a waste of a journey,” he managed.

Von Stalhein slipped the cigarette holder into his pocket. “Perhaps. Would you at least do me the courtesy of hearing me out?”

There was a poppy in the gutter, too; one of those scrappy paper ones from Haig’s latest ridiculous British Legion campaign, its creased petals soggy and sad alongside the dead leaves and scraps of newsprint and inevitable cigarette butts.

‘Horrible bloody things,’ Biggles had said, looking down from the flat window at the crowds of women and children and the crippled and the old on the pavement, making their way to the cenotaph, a splash of crimson on every breast. ‘Wear it next to your heart, they said. Just makes it look like a German machine gunner’s had a go at them.’ Those jerky, joking, uncomfortable sentences –

This would be the moment to walk away. To go back.

“All right,” said Algy, hoarse and abrupt.

They walked along the edge of the park. The air was cold, damp, typically Novemberish; it beaded in the hair, setting off a glitter of droplets under each widely-spaced lamp.

Von Stalhein’s stride was longer than Algy’s – no trace of a limp now, just slim strength – yet they kept easy pace; and Algy felt the unreality of it keenly, as the sunburnt, hawk-tinged face from Palestine melted into the London night.

“We hardly had time to converse at our last meeting,” von Stalhein began.

“No, being a prisoner of war does tend to put a bit of a crimp on conversation,” Algy answered, politely.

Von Stalhein made a slight, dismissive gesture. “I won’t apologise for behaving like a soldier in war-time. I don’t regret my actions – only the necessity which placed us on different sides.”

“I don’t regret that.”

“And yet I’m sure you deplore the necessity of war as much as the next man,” von Stalhein persisted.

“Are you the next man?”

A sound that might almost have been a laugh. “No. I, by contrast, believe that war is necessary, inevitable, and to a large extent desirable. No one wishes for slaughter, but war can bring out the best in all men.” Algy could feel the sidelong gaze resting on him, but trained his eyes on the pavement. “You, for example. War has made you…extraordinary.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Von Stalhein’s tightly-furled umbrella tapped along the paving slabs in perfect synchronisation with his steps. “Before the war, you were – unformed. A school boy. Without the war – Eton. Oxford. Perhaps a minor position in the diplomatic service. A neat, timid wife, and two neat, timid children, and dead in your bed at seventy.”

“I’m still rather hoping for that last bit.”

Von Stalhein’s smile was sharp and wintry. “You aren’t the type. Not any more. My point is that the war has been the making of you. Your service records make fascinating reading, but your character is, if anything, more fascinating still. You are…capable. Quick-witted. Selfless. Calm in the face of the unexpected. All admirable qualities, as I’m sure you would agree. And all more or less directly attributable to your war experiences.”

“Along with the incomplete education, the nightmares, the scars, the dead friends – “ Algy cut himself off, abruptly. “This is ridiculous. You surely didn’t lurk under a street lamp in my path just to throw me bouquets.”

Von Stalhein shrugged. “I hardly have anything more concrete to offer. I only wanted – to put a certain proposition to you.”

“What proposition?”

“The simple proposition that you are a better man than you believe yourself to be. Or than Bigglesworth believes you to be.”

Algy stopped short. “Say another word against Biggles and I’ll knock you into the gutter,” he said, very deliberately.

The German laughed – an amused chuckle, bright as bayonets. “Ever the faithful guard-dog. Or perhaps you prefer to think of yourself as the knight in shining armour, always waiting with sword and lance ready for the fray. It must be such a relief when he’s still willing to do the same for you.”

“You – “

He broke off. Von Stalhein had raised his umbrella against the steadily increasing drizzle, and offered the arm which held it.

“I’d prefer to get wet,” he said, coldly.

“As you please,” von Stalhein replied, gently chiding. “But risking pneumonia seems a rather childish way of arguing a case.”

“I don’t need to argue it,” Algy answered. Not with his father, not with his sisters, not with any of those left alive from 266 – “Not with anyone, and certainly not with you.”

Von Stalhein began to walk on again, and Algy found himself walking beside him, unwilling – unable – to leave the argument there. “Yet he belittles you constantly. He shouts you down in your club, and snarls at you in private. He drinks too much, goes out too little, suffers from nightmares to which he will never admit.” He smiled slightly, although Algy had made every effort to keep any hint of recognition out even of his eyes. “No witchcraft, I assure you. Merely an extrapolation of probabilities. It is neurasthenia, I assume?”

It was a movement almost instinctive in its swiftness – the umbrella skittering away on the pavement, the rain misting cold on his cheeks, the rough wool of von Stalhein’s coat bunching under his fingers as he pushed him back against the railings with a strength and rage that almost astonished him.

Von Stalhein didn’t seem astonished. “The faithful guard-dog barks,” he murmured.

They stood for a long moment, steaming breath mingling between them.

“I suggest you let go before the local police begin to take an interest,” said von Stalhein, pleasantly.

Algy let go, his fingers stiff and reluctant. The cold, of course.

Von Stalhein brushed down his lapels, picked up the umbrella, and once again offered his arm to Algy, who took it, silently.

“I have a younger sister,” said von Stalhein as they walked on, the words oddly incongruous in the clipped, unemotional voice. “She’s just turned twelve. An awkward age. Our parents have been dead for some years, so most of the responsibility for her care devolves on to me. Of course I have to take care of her, even when she seems ungrateful or sulky or simply ill-mannered. And I don’t resent the responsibility, of course – not for my own flesh and blood.” There were beads of moisture on the tanned cheek, Algy noted, but the pale eyes were as hard as ever. “And I have the comfort of knowing that, as a child, she does not resent the fact that she needs me.”

Even the slightest tensing of his hand on the damp cloth of von Stalhein’s sleeve would be felt, noted, analysed, filed, Algy was sure; so he kept it loose, cold and limp and heavy as a dead thing.

“Of course he needs you now, as a cripple needs a cane. And like a cripple he hates the prop that supports him. The mistake you make is in assuming that when is well again, when he stops needing you – or at least when he stops believing he needs you – he will stop hating you. He won’t. He will make you suffer every day for the fact that he needed you once.”

The voice was soft, insinuating, curiously gentle, and Algy tried to think of cobras which hid poison under their mesmeric eyes and soft hissings; but all that came to mind, irrationally, was Socrates’ cup of hemlock, bringing sleep under its bitterness, numbing gradually, gratefully.

“You don’t know him.” The words came from a long way away.

“I do.”

It was so utterly absurd, to be walking with this ghost through a rain-swept London, the umbrella a common roof above them, the ghost a line of warmth at his side, smelling of wet wool and tobacco, and to feel this nebulous, helpless hatred within himself.

“I believe in him. I trust him. I don’t trust you.”

There was no mocking edge to von Stalhein’s expression now. “I’ve never given you cause to distrust me.”

“You were a spy. A German spy, at that.”

“Bigglesworth was a spy too.”

“Once. Only once. And – “

“And?”

“And you have no idea how he hated it.”

Von Stalhein laughed, short and quiet. “There are two kinds of spies, Lacey. The first kind is the kind who take to it easily and delightedly – the kind who are actors within their own lives, and who take on new masks far more easily than they reveal their own faces. The second kind hate and despise the first. They can never leave themselves behind. They become spies for principle, not for pleasure – because their country requires it of them. The first kind are undoubtedly the better spies – but the second kind are undoubtedly the better men.”

“And I suppose you’d count yourself amongst the second kind too?”

“Yes.”

The softness and simplicity of the answer caught him off-balance.

“You said you came here to see me,” said Algy, after a long moment’s silence. “Even if I were to believe you about that – which isn’t very likely – I still don’t believe you only came to – to give me a lecture about – whatever you think you’ve been lecturing about. What do you think you’re going to achieve? I’m hardly going to abandon Biggles on your say-so, am I?”

“Of course not,” said von Stalhein, matter-of-factly. “Not at present, at any rate.”

“Not ever.”

Von Stalhein smiled, very slightly. “As you wish. And you can believe me or not as you wish too – it hardly makes a difference to me. I simply did not wish to see your potential – your considerable potential – thrown away on an undeserving cause. There are some things worth fighting and dying for. There are other things which are not.”

“I think friendship is worth dying for.”

“Perhaps it would be.”

The rain was growing heavier, the soft thuds of heavy droplets against the taut material a rustling accompaniment to the wind in the trees. Algy’s left arm was wet, but he couldn’t move any closer to the other man.

“You should know something about lost causes,” he said, but the attempt at a sneer came out cold and weary and wooden.

“No cause is lost if men are still willing to fight for it,” said von Stalhein. The coiled spring of certainty in his voice made Algy shiver. “There will be other wars.”

“If there are, then we’ll beat you again.”

“And even if there are not – I hope that you may at least come to realise that a side is something you take from choice, not something you remain with from guilt, or blind loyalty, or misplaced affection.”

Algy snorted a laugh. “Is that it? Your great proposition?”

Von Stalhein stopped, and faced him. “Merely a suggestion. One that I may perhaps repeat one day.”

“Save your breath.”

The end of Mount Street loomed out of the mist on the other side of Park Lane. Algy hadn’t realised they had walked so far.

Von Stalhein raised his hat, again, courteous and mocking and precise. “Here I believe we should part. Good night, Captain Lacey. Please think about what I’ve said.”

Algy swallowed. “Mister Lacey.”

The Prussian officer smiled. “Captain.”

When Algy cast a furtive look backwards from across the road, he was still there, his long, dark outline slashing a black line through the fog.

Algy pulled his overcoat more closely around himself against the rain and the fog that seemed to be working its way into his lungs, stealing his breath, and began to walk back towards the flat; straining his eyes through the gloom for the glow of a lighted window, and not sure whether he wanted to see it or not.

He hated November.