Smoke and Fire

“Look here, I’ve only got a day’s leave,” pleaded Bertie, plaintively, trying to huddle under the rather inadequate shelter of his newspaper. “I can’t just stand dripping on the dashed doorstep all afternoon.”

“I’m very sorry, sir,” said the butler, blocking the doorway with a wall of social nicety as effectively as if it had been bricked shut. “You should have wired ahead. His Lordship isn’t receiving any visitors at present.”

“Soames, I’m not a bally visitor,” Bertie insisted. “I’m his friend.”

“His Lordship isn’t receiving his friends either, sir.”

“And don’t we know it,” said Bertie, darkly. “Burying himself down here like an old stoat in its burrow. Even old Wilks hasn’t got more than a cable out of him. It’s a bit much, really it is.”

“His Lordship is indisposed, sir, I’m sorry.”

The elderly butler peered down at the dripping figure from beneath a shaggy hedge of white eyebrows.

“He won’t see anyone at all, sir,” he stated, with great deliberation. “He’s been up in his study since first thing this morning, sir, and won’t have anyone admitted.”

Bertie cocked his head under the newspaper umbrella. “The study next to his rooms?” he asked, nonchalantly.

“That’s right, sir,” the butler replied. “The one opposite the big elm.”

Bertie cast a glance up at the low, lead-grey sheet of the heavens. “The first bally rain of the summer would have to fall today,” he remarked, irrelevantly. “It’s hardly the weather for it.”

“Indeed, sir,” said the butler. “I might make up a hot toddy for his Lordship. They’re very good against the damp.”

Bertie grinned, damply. “I say, what a splendid idea.”

He heard the door creak closed as he splashed across the terrace and squelched into the grass beyond. His elegantly-polished brogues were already mud-spattered and leaking sadly, so at least the inevitable scuff-marks weren’t too much of an additional tragedy.

Bertie stood by the trunk of the towering tree which grew close to the wall of Lorrington Hall, and looked up, mournfully. He and Gimlet had both climbed it more than once in the dim and halcyon past – setting up aerial runways (marvellous fun until the moment you approached the lower tree and realised that a choice had to be made between letting go and dropping ten feet to the ground, or crashing into the trunk at extreme speed), testing experimental aeroplanes, creeping into or out of the hall without attracting the notice of Gimlet’s late and not entirely lamented father.

He had vivid memories of scraped knees and skinned palms.

“You’re a bally nuisance, Lorry old man,” Bertie murmured, and jumped for the lowest branch.

The bark was rough, spotted with rain-slippery moss, and every new hand-hold dislodged a torrent of water from shaken leaves. Bertie lost his hat to a carelessly released branch about fifteen feet up; indeed, if the branch had been a few inches lower, he would in all probability have lost his grip on his perch, and possibly his head. He scrambled and slipped and swore his way to the upper branches, where he sat, legs swinging on either side of the last really stout branch, and looked in at the little fire-lit study. He gazed balefully at the auburn head, bent studiously over the desk which stood beneath the window, willing the man to look up.

After a few more minutes of rain dripping warm and heavy onto his unprotected head, he began to pitch ha’pennies at the glass.

Gimlet looked up at the second tap. Anyone else, Bertie reflected, would surely have registered some degree of surprise at seeing a fully-grown airman a few feet from his upstairs window. As it was, he didn’t even have the satisfaction of that.

His friend pushed himself halfway to his feet, rather awkwardly, and pushed open the casement.

“If you’ve had to bail out over Devonshire, you must have been even more lost than usual,” he called, sitting down again.

“Do you think I make a habit of going up in my best togs?” Bertie called back, rather testily. “You may go up in your tennis whites, but some of us have standards.”

“Then how do you come to be perched in my elm tree shivering like Keats’s owl?”

Bertie shrugged. “I would have climbed up your trellis, but you thoughtlessly neglected to provide one.”

“It’s round the other side, beside the orangery,” said Gimlet, gesturing with his fountain pen. “You could climb down and try again on that side.”

Bertie cast a look down towards the ground, past his soaked linen trouser-cuffs and his mud-spattered shoes. “I’m not sure I could,” he said mournfully. “I say, Lorry, do stop being such an ass and let me in.”

“I’m not receiving visitors,” said Gimlet, bending over his unseen work. “I’m sure Soames told you. It’s hardly my fault if you’ve decided to indulge this sudden mania for tree-climbing.”

“But I’ll drown on this beastly branch!”

Gimlet regarded him coolly for a moment, then sighed, and rang the bell. “Soames,” he said as the butler entered (suspiciously quickly for an elderly man who should have been summoned from his pantry two floors and half a mile of corridors away). “Kindly let Lord Bertram in before he breaks his damn fool neck. Oh, and send Vess round with a ladder while you’re at it. I’m sure you have it handy already.”

* * *

Bertie huddled himself beside the little fire, wrapped in Gimlet’s blue silk dressing gown and sipping the steaming whiskey gratefully. His eyes were resting on his friend’s rule-straight back, and on the head bowed over the neat piles of papers – day-books, account-books, the inevitable detritus of a large estate. The fire crackled and spat with new logs, the sound blending with the continual scratch of pen on paper.

“So how are you, old man?” Bertie asked, cupping his hands around the warm glass.

“Bearing up,” said Gimlet without turning.

“How’s that flea-bitten grey of yours? Ridden her to hounds lately?”

“Not lately,” said Gimlet. “Thinking of putting her in at Cheltenham next year. If it’s on, of course.”

“Dashed bad form if it weren’t,” said Bertie, indignantly. “There are few enough pleasures to be had at the moment. Why, I haven’t had a banana in more than a year. I’m beginning to dream of them. It’d be too bad if they took away the racing, too.” He took another sip of whiskey. “Going to ride her yourself, I suppose?”

“Probably.”

Bertie pulled the cool neck of the gown a little closer around his throat. “Well, she knows you best. I didn’t get anywhere with the wily old bird, she just went at her own sweet pace. I don’t suppose a jockey would have much more luck.”

“At least a jockey wouldn’t be six feet of knees and elbows.”

“Oh, I say, have a heart,” Bertie protested. “I mean to say – a fellow can’t help how he’s made. And anyway, Mater always used to say I cut a very dashing figure on horseback.”

“Mothers always do.”

A flurry of rain fell against the window, and the pen crawled inexorably onwards across the page, punctuated by the shifting brushes of Gimlet’s hand against the paper and his sleeve against the desk.

“Leg’s all right then?” Bertie asked.

“Bearing up.”

He draped his own legs languidly over the arm of the chair, directing his feet towards the flames and his back to the window.

“Going to be coming back to Wilks’s crowd soon?” he inquired. “They’re a pretty sorry lot without you. Your comrades are positively pining. Comrade Wilkinson goes around growling like a bear with its head stuck in a bees’ nest. General despondency reigns – “

“Bertie, what do you want?”

Bertie wriggled his toes in the warmth of the blaze. “Just checking you hadn’t been posted home in a box, old chap.”

“You’d have seen me in the casualty lists.” There was a snap of steel and a splinter of ice in Gimlet’s voice, though the path of the pen continued implacably.

“Well, if there hadn’t been enough of you to scrape up – “

“I’d still have been posted missing.”

“There’s more than one way of going missing,” said Bertie, finishing his reviver and setting the glass neatly and precisely on the corner of the hearth. “I asked after your health with old Wilks so often he began to think you’d borrowed half my fortune before absconding. And what did he have to tell me? A couple of official communiqués saying that you’d been prised out of that rotten crate of yours and transferred to hospital, and a cable from your bally butler thanking the lads on your behalf for their thoughtful gift of cigarettes.”

“I didn’t realise I was supposed to send flowers.”

Bertie glanced back over his shoulder at the still, straight silhouette in front of the grey-green square of sky and leaves. “Young Protheroe swears blind that he saw you ram a Dornier. We’ve all reminded him that not even Loony Lorrington would think that the best way of bringing down one plane was to hit it with another one, but he just won’t be swayed.”

“Well, the beastly thing just looked so flimsy up there. It didn’t really seem like I was taking much of a risk.”

Bertie pulled his feet up onto the cushions, half turning in the armchair, and rested his chin on his knees. “Well, quite, old thing,” he murmured. “Often had the same thought myself. Bally things are only made of pea-canes and brown paper, I’ve said to myself. You could knock ‘em down with a stiff breeze.” He paused for a moment. “Can’t say I’ve ever felt the urge to try the experiment though.”

“If my guns hadn’t jammed, I probably wouldn’t have tried it either.”

“I suppose ramming the blighter is the obvious thing to do if your machine gun jams,” Bertie agreed. “Well, I suppose you could always jump onto the other blighter’s kite and beat it into submission with your bare hands – “

“Oh, no. I’d have got engine grease all over my kit.”

Bertie passed one hand over his eyes. “Can I at least assume that you did it for some good reason? Stopping the blighter dive-bombing the old school or the like?”

“If you like.”

“There are days, Lorry old chap,” snapped Bertie, “when I would dare swear that you’re as contrary as that moth-eaten old horse of yours.”

He unfolded himself from the chair, and wandered over to give the fire a desultory prod. He fiddled absently with the pictures and what-nots on the mantelpiece, settling them into neater rows. He padded over to the desk, perched on the corner, and began to peruse a small sheaf of receipts.

“Any idea how long you’re likely to be laid up for?” he asked eventually. “I’m sure the other chaps in 666 would like to know when we’ll have to start locking up the gramophone again.”

“Oh, I won’t be coming back to the squadron,” said Gimlet, frowning at a particularly recalcitrant piece of paper.

“Beg pardon?”

“I’m resigning my commission with the RAF. Going back to the Guards.”

Gimlet scribbled a note on a sheet of blank paper, looked at it, crossed it out, and scribbled another.

“It’s no sort of way for a man to fight a war,” he said after another long minute of fire and rain. “It’s ridiculous, when you really come to think about it. One fellow in a box of pea-canes and brown paper at twenty thousand feet, trying to clobber another fellow in a box of slightly differently painted pea-canes and brown paper, before the other fellow can clobber him. What difference does it really make if one chap gets clobbered rather than the other? The whole thing’s in the lap of the gods anyway. Even if you’re the better pilot, you never know if your gun’s going to freeze, or if the engine’s going to fail in the next dive. And if it does, what then? Just sit back and watch the ground come up to meet you. Whoever thought air-combat was the future of warfare must need their head examined. It takes all the intelligence out of the thing, replaces it with blind luck.”

The brittle metal-on-glass rattle of the pen-nib against the ink bottle ended in a clatter, an expanding pool sending out dark rivers over the scarred leather-covered surface of the desk. Bertie hopped to his feet, twitching a corner of blue silk out of the path of the tide, as Gimlet pushed himself away from the edge with a reflexive jolt.

“Butter fingers,” said Bertie, setting the half-empty bottle upright and throwing a handful of blotting paper onto the puddle.

The small sounds of punctuation in the silence were abruptly somehow very obvious – the background chorus of rain, of fire, but over it the sullen slow drip of black ink on the old oak floor-boards, and the ragged edge to Gimlet’s breaths.

There was a touch of grey to his skin, the shadows around his eyes exaggerated and darkened by the sudden pallor. His leg, no longer hidden by the desk-top, stuck out straight and awkward and unnatural as a wooden peg grafted onto the flesh.

“Is it bad?” Bertie asked, looking away, kneeling to attack the dark spatters on the floor with a wadded handful of paper.

“Just – caught it as I moved.”

“Did they give you anything to take for it?”

“Been off the stuff for a week or so.”

Bertie painstakingly worked a corner of the paper into the crack between the stained old boards, sopping up the remnants of the spill. The rough breathing was smoothing itself away into quietness before he stood up.

“Probably ought to get someone up here to play with that lot,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the mess on the desk. “You might as well supervise in lordly state from the chaise longue. Won’t be a tick.”

He padded down the creaking and drafty hallway, down a long portrait-lined gallery, down the grandly panelled and rather uneven stairs, and had just winced at setting bare foot to cold flagstone in the entrance hall when he happened to run into a house-maid, and reported with earnest apology that he’d managed to upset a bottle of ink over old Lorry’s papers while foolin’ about, though really, if a man insisted on leaving his cricketing gear just lyin’ around the place, well, it was all rather bally inevitable, wasn’t it?

By the time he returned to the study Gimlet was reclining on the chaise longue, and the grey, pinched expression in his face was almost concealed by the firelight.

Bertie dropped into his own armchair, graceful as a damp sock, and proceeded to prattle cheerfully about his new foxhound pups for the ten minutes it took for the maid to arrive, clear up the worst of the mess, dispose of the soaked blotting paper, restock the logs in the coal-scuttle, remove the dirty glass, and generally, as Bertie put it, make him feel like the most slovenly bachelor in London.

“It’s going to be jolly peculiar getting used to it again,” said Bertie, as the door closed behind the girl. “I mean to say, it’s jolly peculiar getting used to it again when I have leave. Dashed if I know how I’ll cope with all the female attention after all this is over. At least my bat-man knows that when a chap leaves a slipper full of tobacco in the middle of mantelpiece, it’s because he wants it left there. I’ve never yet managed to teach that to the parlour-maids at the Hall. I’d clear the old place of female staff entirely, if it wasn’t for the damper it’d put on local morale.”

He paused, slim fingers picking at the stitching at the end of the dressing-gown’s belt.

“Beastly ticklish business, noblesse oblige,” he murmured. “There’s no getting away from it. Duty, and all that.”

There was a sizeable pause before Gimlet spoke.

“It really isn’t any sort of way to fight a war,” he said. “Finding yourself at ten thousand feet with half your tail gone, your leg in pieces and your engine cutting out, and knowing there’s not a damned thing you can do to save yourself – “

He broke off, abrupt and awkward.

Bertie smiled his foolish, inoffensive smile. “Well, rather you than me, old man. Can’t say I’ve got the pluck for the running, jumping, climbing trees school of warfare. All that crawling around in the muck with leaves stuck in your hair – sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Climbing a bally elm in the rain is quite as close to that sort of nonsense as I care to get. Give me a nice comfortable mess any day, and a nice cozy Spit.”

The corner of Gimlet’s mouth curled in a smile, small and sharp and unwilling. “Well, I suppose if one starts out with a head full of air, then keeping it permanently in the clouds isn’t such a trial.”

Bertie’s eyes were level and oddly softened in the firelight. “Couldn’t have put it better myself, old thing. Much the best thing for a chap like you to keep his feet firmly grounded.”