The Burning Shore (Courtney Series #4 / Burning Shore Sequence #1)

The Burning Shore (Courtney Series #4 / Burning Shore Sequence #1)

by Wilbur Smith
The Burning Shore (Courtney Series #4 / Burning Shore Sequence #1)

The Burning Shore (Courtney Series #4 / Burning Shore Sequence #1)

by Wilbur Smith


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A Courtney series adventure - Book 1 in The Burning Shore sequence

"The deck bucked under her feet and she was hurtled backwards on to the bunk again, and the blast of a massive explosion ripped through the ship. 'What is happening?' she screamed. Love in a time of war. Hope in a time of danger. One of the greatest fighter pilots of the Great War, Michael Courtney is saved by the French noblewoman Centaine de Thiry when he crashes near her home. When Michael is killed, Centaine is determined to live out the future they had dreamed of and sets out alone to travel across the ocean to join his family in South Africa. But no journey is ever simple, and a pregnant Centaine finds herself shipwrecked in shark-infested waters off Africa's notorious Skeleton Coast, a deadly swim away from even deadlier land: the sun-bleached desert that will see her defenceless and alone. When hope arrives, she has no way of knowing if she will be saved — or left in greater danger than ever before...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781499860689
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Series: Courtney Series , #4
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 644
Sales rank: 157,671
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Wilbur Smith was born in Central Africa in 1933. He became a full-time writer in 1964 following the success of When the Lion Feeds, and has since published over fifty global bestsellers, including the Courtney Series, the Ballantyne Series, the Egyptian Series, the Hector Cross Series and many successful standalone novels, all meticulously researched on his numerous expeditions worldwide. An international phenomenon, his readership built up over fifty-five years of writing, establishing him as one of the most successful and impressive brand authors in the world.
The establishment of the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation in 2015 cemented Wilbur's passion for empowering writers, promoting literacy and advancing adventure writing as a genre. The foundation's flagship programme is the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.

Wilbur Smith passed away peacefully at home in 2021 with his wife, Niso, by his side, leaving behind him a rich treasure-trove of novels and stories that will delight readers for years to come. For all the latest information on Wilbur Smith's writing visit or

Read an Excerpt

Michael awoke to the mindless fury of the guns.
It was an obscene ritual celebrated in the .darkness before each dawn in which the massed banks of artillery batteries on both sides of the ridges made their savage sacrifice to the gods of war.
Michael lay in the darkness under the weight of six woollen blankets and watched the gunfire flicker through the canvas of the tent like some dreadful aurora borealis. The blankets felt cold and clammy as a dead man’s skin, and light rain spattered the canvas above his head. The cold struck through his bedclothes and yet he felt a glow of hope. In this weather they could not fly.
False hope withered swiftly, for when Michael listened again to the guns, this time more intently, he could judge the direction of the wind by the sound of the barrage. The wind had gone back into the south-west, muting the cacophony, and he shivered and pulled the blankets up under his chin. As if to confirm his estimate, the light breeze dropped suddenly. The patter of rain on canvas eased and then ceased. Outside he could hear the trees of the apple orchard dripping in the silence – and then there was an abrupt gust so that the branches shook themselves like a spaniel coming out of the water and released a heavy fall of drops on to the roof of the tent.
He decided that he would not reach across to his gold half-hunter on the inverted packing-case which acted as a bedside table. It would be time all too soon. So he snuggled down in the blankets and thought about his fear. All of them suffered under the affliction of fear, and yet the rigid conventions under which they lived and flew and died forbade them to speak of it – forbade them to refer to it in even the most oblique terms.
Would it have been a comfort, Michael wondered, if last night he had been able to say to Andrew as they sat with the bottle of whisky between them, discussing this morning’s mission, ‘Andrew, I’m frightened gutless by what we are going to do’?
He grinned in the darkness as he imagined Andrew’s embarrassment, yet he knew that Andrew shared it with him. It was in his eyes, and in the way the little nerve twitched and jumped in his cheek so that he had constantly to touch it with a fingertip to still it. All the old hands had their little idiosyncracies; Andrew had the nerve in his cheek and the empty cigarette-holder which he sucked like an infant’s comforter. Michael ground his teeth in his sleep so loudly that he woke himself; he bit the nail of his left thumb down into the quick and every few minutes he blew on the fingers of his right hand as though he had just touched a hot coal.
The fear drove them all a little mad, and forced them to drink far too much – enough to destroy the reflexes of normal men. But they were not normal men and the alcohol did not seem to affect them, it did not dull their eyesight nor slow their feet on the rudder bars. Normal men died in the first three weeks, they went down flaming like fir trees in a forest fire, or they smashed into the doughy, shell-ploughed earth with a force that shattered their bones and drove the splinters out through their flesh.
Andrew had survived fourteen months, and Michael eleven, many times the life-span that the gods of war had allotted to the men who flew these frail contraptions of wire and wood and canvas. So they twitched and fidgeted, and blinked their eyes, and drank whisky with everything, and laughed in a quick loud bray and then shuffled their feet with embarrassment, and lay in their cots at dawn, stiff with terror, and listened for footsteps.
Michael heard the footsteps now, it must be later than he had realized. Outside the tent Biggs muttered a curse as he splashed into a puddle, and his boots made obscene little sucking noises in the mud. His bull’s-eye lantern glowed through the canvas as he fumbled with the flap and then he stooped into the tent.
‘Top of the morning, sir—’ his tone was cheerful, but he kept it low, out of courtesy to the officers in the neighbouring tents who were not flying this morning‘— wind has gone sou’-sou’-west, sir, and she’s clearing something lovely, she is. Stars shining out over Cambrai—’ Biggs set the tray he carried on the packing-case and bustled about the tent, picking up the clothing that Michael had dropped on the duckboards the night before.
‘What time is it?’ Michael went through the pantomime of awaking from deep sleep, stretching and yawning so that Biggs would not know about the hour of terror, so that the legend would not be tarnished.
‘Half past five, sir.’ Biggs finished folding the clothes away, then came back to hand him the thick china mug of cocoa. ‘And Lord Killigerran is up and in the mess already.’
‘Bloody man is made of iron,’ Michael groaned, and Biggs picked the empty whisky bottle off the floor beneath the cot and placed it on the tray.
Michael drained the cocoa while Biggs worked up a lather in the shaving mug and then held the polished steel mirror and the lantern while Michael shaved with the straight razor, sitting up in his cot with the blankets over his shoulders.
‘What’s the book?’ Michael demanded, his voice nasal as he pinched his own nostrils and lifted the tip of his nose to shave his upper lip.
‘They are giving three to one that you and the major take them both with no butcher’s bill.’
Michael wiped the razor while he considered the odds. The sergeant rigger who ran the betting had operated his own book at Ascot and Aintree before the war. He had decided that there was one chance in three that either Andrew or Michael, or both of them, would be dead by noon — no butcher’s bill, no casualties.
‘Bit steep, don’t you think, Biggs?’ Michael asked. ‘I mean, both of them, damn it?’
‘I’ve put half a crack on you, sir,’ Biggs demurred.
‘Good on you, Biggs, put on a fiver for me.’ He pointed to the sovereign case that lay beside his watch, and Biggs pressed out five gold coins and pocketed them. Michael always bet on himself. It was a racing certainty: if he lost the bet, it wasn’t going to hurt much, anyway.
Biggs warmed Michael’s breeches over the chimney of the lamp and then held them while Michael dived out from under the blankets into them. He stuffed his nightshirt into the breeches while Biggs went on with the complicated procedure of dressing his man against the killing cold of flight in an open cockpit. There followed a silk vest over the nightshirt, two cable-stitched woollen fisherman’s jerseys, then a leather gilet, and finally an army officer’s greatcoat with the skirts cut off so that they would not tangle with the controls of the aircraft.
By this time Michael was so heavily padded that he could not bend to pull on his own footwear. Biggs knelt in front of him and snugged silk undersocks over his bare feet, then two pairs of woollen hunting socks, and finally eased on the tall boots of tanned kudu skin that Michael had had made in Africa. Through their soft, pliable soles, Michael had touch and feel on the rudder bars. When he stood up, his lean muscular body was dumpy and shapeless under the burden of clothing, and his arms stuck out like the wings of a penguin. Biggs held the flap of the tent open, and then lit his way along the duckboards through the orchard towards the mess.
As they passed the other darkened tents beneath the apple trees Michael heard little coughs and stirrings from each. They were all awake, listening to his footsteps pass, fearing for him, perhaps some of them cherishing their relief that it was not they who were going out against the balloons this dawn.
Michael paused for a moment as they left the orchard and looked up at the sky. The dark clouds were rolling back into the north and the stars were pricking through, but already paling out before the threat of dawn. These stars were still strange to Michael; though he could at last recognize their constellations, they were not like his beloved southern stars – the Great Cross, Achemar, Argus and the others – so he lowered his gaze and clumped after Biggs and the bobbing lantern.
The squadron mess was a ruined labourers’ chaumière which they had commandeered and repainted, covering the tattered thatch with tarpaulin so that it was snug and warm.
Biggs stood aside at the doorway. ‘I’ll ‘ave your fifteen quid winnings for you when you get back, sir,’ he murmured. He would never wish Michael good luck, for that was the worst of all possible luck.
There was a roaring log fire on the hearth and Major Lord Andrew Killigerran was seated before it, his booted feet crossed on the lip of the hearth, while a mess servant cleared the dirty plates.
‘Porridge, my boy,’ he removed the amber cigarette holder from between his even white teeth as he greeted Michael, ‘with melted butter and golden syrup. Kippers poached in milk—’
Michael shuddered. ‘I’ll eat when we get back.’ His stomach, already knotted with tension, quailed at the rich smell of kippers. With the co-operation of an uncle on the general staff who arranged priority transport, Andrew kept the squadron supplied with the finest fare that his family estates in the highlands could provide — Scotch beef, grouse and salmon and venison in season, eggs and cheeses and jams, preserved fruits – and a rare and wonderful single malt whisky with an unpronounceable name that came from the family-owned distillery.
‘Coffee for Captain Courtney,’ Andrew called to the mess corporal, and when it came he reached into the deep pocket of his fleece-lined flying jacket and brought out a silver flask with a big yellow caimgorm set in the stopper and poured a liberal dram into the steaming mug.
Michael held the first sip in his mouth, swirling it around, letting the fragrant spirit sting and prickle his tongue, then he swallowed and the heat hit his empty stomach and almost instantly he felt the charge of alcohol through his bloodstream.
He smiled at Andrew across the table. ‘Magic,’ he whispered huskily, and blew on his fingertips.
‘Water of life, my boy.’
Michael loved this dapper little man as he had never loved another man – more than his own father, more even than his Uncle Sean who had previously been the pillar of his existence.
It had not been that way from the beginning. At first meeting, Michael had been suspicious of Andrew’s extrava – gant, almost effeminate good looks, his long, curved eyelashes, soft, full lips, his neat, small body, dainty hands and feet, and his lofty bearing.
One evening soon after his arrival on the squadron, Michael was teaching the other new chums how to play the game of Bok-Bok. Under his direction one team formed a human pyramid against a wall of the mess, while the other team attempted to collapse them by taking a full run and then hurling themselves on top of the structure. Andrew had waited for the game to end in noisy chaos and had then taken Michael aside and told him, ‘We do understand that you hail from somewhere down there below the equator, and we do try to make allowances for you colonials. However—’
Their relationship had thenceforth been cool and distant, while they had watched each other shoot and fly.
As a boy, Andrew had learned to take the deflection of a red grouse, hurtling wind-driven only inches above the tops of the heather. Michael had learned the same skills on rocketing Ethiopian snipe and sand-grouse slanting on rapid wingbeat down the African sky. Both of them had been able to adapt their skills to the problem of firing a Vickers machine-gun from the unstable platform of a Sopwith Pup roaring through the three dimensions of space.
Then they watched each other fly. Flying was a gift. Those who did not have it died during the first three weeks; those who did, lasted a little longer. After a month Michael was still alive, and Andrew spoke to him again for the first time since the evening of the game of Bok-Bok in the mess.
‘Courtney, you will fly on my wing today,’ was all he said.
It was to have been a routine sweep down the line. They were going to ‘blood’ two new chums who had joined the squadron the day before, fresh from England with the grand total of fourteen flying hours as their combined experience. Andrew referred to them as ‘Fokker fodder’, and they were both eighteen years of age, rosyfaced and eager.
‘Did you learn aerobatics?’ Andrew demanded of them.
‘Yes, sir.’ In unison. ‘We have both looped the loop.’
‘How many times?’
Shamefaced they lowered their shining gaze. ‘Once,’ they admitted.
‘God!’ muttered Andrew and sucked loudly on his cigarette-holder. ‘Stalls?’
They both looked bemused, and Andrew clutched his brow and groaned.
‘Stalls?’ Michael interposed in a kindly tone. ‘You know, when you let your airspeed drop and the kite suddenly falls out of the sky.’
They shook their heads, again in unison. ‘No, sir, nobody showed us that.’
‘The Huns are going to love you two,’ Andrew murmured, and then he went on briskly, ‘Number one, forget all about aerobatics, forget about looping the loop and all that rot, or while you are hanging there upside down the Hun is going to shoot your anus out through your nostrils, understand?’
They nodded vigorously.
‘Number two, follow me, do what I do, watch for my hand signals and obey them instantly, understand?’ Andrew jammed his tam-o’-shanter down on his head and bound it in place with the green scarf that was his trademark. ‘Come along, children.’
With the two novices tucked up between them they barrelled down past Arras at 10,000 feet, the Le Rhône engines of their Sopwith Pups bellowing with all their eighty horsepower, princes of the heavens, the most perfect flying fighting machines man had ever devised, the machines that had shot Max Immelmann and his vaunted Fokker Eindekkers out of the skies.
It was a glorious day, with just a little fairweather cumulus too high up there to hide a boche Jagdstaffel, and the air so clear and bright that Michael spotted the old Rumpler reconnaissance biplane from a distance of ten miles. It was circling low over the French lines, directing the fire of the German batteries on to the rear areas.
Andrew picked out the Rumpler an instant after Michael, and he flashed a laconic hand signal. He was going to let the new chums take a shot at her. Michael knew of no other squadron commander who would stand aside from an easy victory when a big score was the high road to promotion and the coveted decorations. However, he nodded agreement and they shepherded the two young pilots down, patiently pointing out the lumbering German two-seater below them, but with their untrained eyes neither of them could pick it out. They kept shooting puzzled glances across at the two senior pilots.
The Germans were so intent on the bursting high explosive beneath them that they were oblivious of the deadly formation closing swiftly from above. Suddenly the young pilot nearest Michael grinned with delight and relief and pointed ahead. He had seen the Rumpler at last.
Andrew pumped his fist over his head in the old cavalry command, ‘Charge!’ and the youngster put his nose down without closing the throttle. The Sopwith went into a howling dive so abrupt that Michael winced as he saw the double wings bend back under the strain and the fabric wrinkle at the wing roots. The second novice followed him just as precipitously. They reminded Michael of two half-grown lion cubs he had once watched trying to bring down a scarred old zebra stallion, falling over themselves in comical confusion as the stallion avoided them with disdain.
Both the novice pilots opened fire at a range of a thousand yards, and the German pilot looked up at this timely warning; then, judging his moment, he banked under the noses of the diving scoutplanes, forcing them into a blundering overshoot that carried them, still firing wildly, half a mile beyond their intended victim. Michael could see their heads screwing around desperately in the open cockpits as they tried to find the Rumpler again.
Andrew shook his head sadly and led Michael down. They dropped neatly under the Rumpler’s tailplane, and the German pilot banked steeply to port in a climbing turn to give his rear gunner a shot at them. Together Andrew and Michael turned out in the opposite direction to frustrate him, but as soon as the German pilot realized the manoeuvre had failed and corrected his bank, they whipped the Sopwiths hard over and crossed his stem.
Andrew was leading. He fired one short burst with the Vickers at a hundred feet and the German rear gunner bucked and flung his arms open, letting the Spandau machine-gun swivel aimlessly on its mounting as the 303 bullets cut him to pieces. The German pilot tried to dive away, and Andrew’s Sopwith almost collided with his top wing as he passed over him.
Then Michael came in. He judged the deflection of the diving Rumpler, touched his port rudder bar so that his machine yawed fractionally just as though he were swinging a shotgun on a rocketing snipe, and he hooked the forefinger of his right hand under the safety bar of the Vickers and fired a short burst – a flurry of .303 ball. He saw the fabric of the Rumpler’s fuselage ripped to tatters just below the rim of the pilot’s cockpit, in line with where his upper body must be.
The German was twisted around staring at Michael from a distance of a mere fifty feet. Michael could see that his eyes behind the lens of his goggles were a startled blue, and that he had not shaved that morning, for his chin was covered with a short golden stubble. He opened his mouth as the shots hit, and the blood from his shattered lungs blew out between his lips and turned to pink smoke in the Rumpler’s slipstream, and then Michael was past and climbing away. The Rumpler rolled sluggishly on to its back and with the dead men lolling in their straps, fell away towards the earth. It struck in the centre of an open field and collapsed in a pathetic welter of fabric and shattered struts.
As Michael settled his Sopwith back into position on Andrew’s wingtip, Andrew looked across at him, nodded matter-of-factly, and then signalled him to help round up the two new chums who were still searching in frantic circles for the vanished Rumpler. This took longer than either of them anticipated, and by the time they had them safely under their protection again, the whole formation had drifted further west than either Andrew or Michael had ever flown before. On the horizon Michael could make out the fat shiny serpent of the Somme river winding across the green littoral on its way down to the sea.
They turned away from it and headed back east towards Arras, climbing steadily to reduce the chances of an attack from above by a Fokker Jagdstaffel.
As they gained height, so the vast panorama of northern France and southern Belgium opened beneath them, the fields a patchwork of a dozen shades of green interspersed with the dark brown of ploughed lands. The actual battle lines were hard to distinguish; from so high, the narrow ribbon of shell-chumed earth appeared insignificant, and the misery and the mud and the death down there seemed illusory.
The two veteran pilots never ceased for an instant their search of the sky and the spaces beneath them. Their heads turned to a set rhythm in their scan, their eyes never still, never allowed to focus short or become mesmerized by the fan of the spinning propeller in front of them. In contrast, the two novices were carefree and self-congratulatory. Every time Michael glanced across in their direction they grinned and waved cheerfully. In the end he gave up trying to urge them to search the skies around them, they did not understand his signals.
They levelled out at 15,000 feet, the effective ceiling of the Sopwiths, and the sense of unease that had haunted Michael while he had been flying at low altitude over unfamiliar territory passed as he saw the town of Arras abeam of them. He knew that no Fokker could be lurking above them in that pretty bank of cumulus, they simply did not have the ability of fly that high.
He swept another searching glance along the lines. There were two German observation balloons just south of Mons, while below them a friendly flight of DH2 singleseaters was heading back towards Amiens, which meant they were from No. 24 Squadron.
In ten minutes they would be landing — Michael never finished the thought, for suddenly and miraculously the sky all around him was filled with gaudily painted aircraft and the chatter of Spandau machine-guns.
Even in his utter bewilderment Michael reacted reflexively. As he pulled the Sopwith into a maximum-rate turn, a shark-shaped machine checkered red and black with a grinning white skull superimposed on its black Maltese cross insignia flashed across his nose. A hundredth of a second later and its Spandaus would have savaged Michael. They had come from above, Michael realized; even though he could not believe it, they had been above the Sopwiths, they had come out of the cloud bank.
One of them, painted red as blood, settled on Andrew’s tail, its Spandaus already shredding and clawing away the trailing edge of the lower wing, and swinging inexorably towards where Andrew crouched in the open cockpit, his face a white blob beneath the tam-o’-shanter and the green scarf. Instinctively, Michael drove at him, and the German, rather than risk collision, swung away.
‘Ngi dla!’ Michael shouted the Zulu warcry as he came on to the killing quarter on the tail of the red machine, and then in disbelief watched it power away before he could bring the Vickers to bear. The Sopwith juddered brutally to the strike of shot and a rigging wire above his head parted with a twang like a released bow string as another one of these terrible machines attacked across his stem.
He broke away, and Andrew was below him, trying to climb away from yet another German machine which was swiftly overhauling him, coming up within an ace of the killing line. Michael went at the German head-on and the red and black wings flickered past his head — but instantly there was another German to replace him, and this time Michael could not shake him off, the bright machine was too fast, too powerful, and Michael knew he was a dead man.
Abruptly the stream of Spandau fire ceased, and Andrew plunged past Michael’s wingtip, driving the German off him. Desperately Michael followed Andrew around, and they went into the defensive circle, each of them covering the other’s belly and tail while the cloud of German aircraft milled around them in murderous frustration.
Only part of Michael’s mind recorded the fact that both the new chums were dead. They had died in the first seconds of the assault; one was in a vertical dive under full power, the maimed Sopwith’s wings buckling under the strain and at last tearing away completely, while the other was a burning torch, smearing a thick pall of black smoke down the sky as it fell.
As miraculously as they- had come, the Germans were gone — untouched and invulnerable, they disappeared back towards their own lines, leaving the pair of battered, shottom Sopwiths to limp homewards.
Andrew landed ahead of Michael and they parked wingtip to wingtip at the edge of the orchard. Each of them clambered down and walked slowly round his own machine, inspecting the damage. Then at last they stood in front of each other, stony-faced with shock.
Andrew reached into his pocket and brought out the silver flask. He unscrewed the cairngorm and wiped the mouth of the flask with the tail of the green scarf, then handed the flask to Michael.
‘Here, my boy,’ he said carefully, ‘have a dram. I think you earned it — I really do.’
So on the day that Allied superiority was wiped from the skies above France by the shark-nosed Albatros D type scoutplanes of the German Jagdstaffels, they had become comrades of desperate necessity, flying at each other’s wingtips, forming the defensive, mutually protective circle whenever the gaily painted minions of death fell upon them. At first they were content merely to defend themselves, then between them they tested the capability of this new and deadly foe, poring together at night over the intelligence reports that belatedly came in to them – learning that the Albatros was driven by a 160 horsepower Mercedes engine, twice as powerful as the Sopwith’s Le Rhône, and that it had twin Spandau 7.92 mm machine-guns with interrupter gear firing forward through the arc of the propeller, against the Sopwith’s single Vickers .303. They were outgunned and outpowered. The Albatros was 700 pounds heavier than the Pup and could take tremendous weight of shot before it fell out of the sky.
‘So, old boy, what we’ll do is learn to fly the arses off them,’ Andrew commented, and they went out against the massed formations of the Jastas and they found their weaknesses. There were only two. The Sopwiths could turn inside them, and the Albatros radiator was situated in the upper wing directly above the cockpit. A shot through the tank would send a stream of boiling coolant hissing over the pilot, scalding him to a hideous death.
Using this knowledge, they made their first kills, and found that in testing the Albatros they had tested each other and found no fault there. Comradeship became friendship, which deepened into a love and respect greater than that between brothers of the blood. So now they could sit quietly together in the dawn, drinking coffee laced with whisky, waiting to go out against the balloons, and take comfort and strength from each other.
‘Spin for it?’ Michael broke the silence, it was almost time to go.
Andrew flicked a sovereign into the air and slapped it on to the table-top, covering it with his hand.
‘Heads,’ said Michael and Andrew lifted his hand.
‘Luck of a pox-doctor!’ he grunted, as they both looked down on the stem, bearded profile of George V.
‘I’ll take number-two slot,’ said Michael, and Andrew opened his mouth to protest.
‘I won, I call the shot.’ Michael stood up to end the argument before it began.
Going against the balloons was like walking on to a sleeping puff-adder, that gross and sluggish serpent of the African veld; the first man woke it so that it could arch its neck into the ‘S’ of the strike, the second man had the long recurved fangs plunged into the flesh of his calf. With the balloons they had to attack in line astern, the first man alerted the ground defences and the second man received their full fury. Michael had deliberately chosen the number-two slot. If he had won, Andrew would have done the same.
They paused shoulder to shoulder in the door of the mess, pulling on their gauntlets, buttoning their coats and looking up at the sky, listening to the rolling fury of the guns and judging the breeze.
‘The mist will hang in the valleys,’ Michael murmured. ‘The wind won’t move it, not yet.’
‘Pray for it, my boy,’ Andrew answered, and, hampered by their clothing, they waddled down the duckboards, to where the Sopwiths stood at the edge of the trees.
How noble they had once appeared in Michael’s eyes, but how ugly now when the huge rotary engine, vomiting forward vision, was compared to the Albatros’ sleek shark-like snout, with its in-line Mercedes engine. How frail when considered against the Germans’ robust airframe.
‘God, when are they going to give us real aeroplanes to fly!’ he grunted, and Andrew did not reply. Too often they had lamented the endless wait for the new SE5a that they had been promised – the Scout Experimental No. 5a that would perhaps allow them to meet the Jastas on equal terms at last.
Andrew’s Sopwith was painted bright green, to match his scarf, and the fuselage behind the cockpit was ringed by fourteen white circles, one for each of his confirmed victories, like notches on a sniper’s rifle. The aircraft’s name was painted on the engine housing: ‘The Flying Haggis’.
Michael had chosen bright yellow, and there was a winged tortoise with a worried frown painted below his cockpit and the appeal, ‘Don’t ask me – I just work here.’ His fuselage was ringed by six white circles.
Assisted by their ground crews, they clambered up on to the lower wing, and then eased themselves into the narrow cockpits. Michael settled his feet on to the rudder bars and pumped them left and right, peering back over his shoulder to watch the response of the rudder as he did so. Satisfied, he held up a thumb at his mechanic who had worked most of the night to replace one of the cables shot away on the last sortie. The mechanic grinned and ran to the front of the machine.
‘Switches off?’ he called.
‘Switches off!’ Michael confirmed, leaning out of the cockpit to peer around the monstrous engine.
‘Suck in!’
‘Suck in!’ Michael repeated, and worked at the handle of the hand fuel pump. When the mechanic swung the propeller, he heard the suck of fuel into the carburettor under the cowling as the engine primed.
‘Switches on! Contact!’
‘Switches on!’
At the next swing of the propeller the engine fired and blathered. Blue smoke blew out of the exhaust ports, and there was the stink of burning castor oil. The engine surged, and missed, caught again and settled down to its steady idling beat.
As Michael completed his pre-flight checks, his stomach rumbled and spasmed with colic. Castor oil lubricated the precision engines, and the fumes they breathed from the exhausts gave them all a perpetual low-grade diarrhoea. The old hands soon learned to control it; whisky had a marvellously binding effect if taken in sufficient quantity. However, the new chums were often affectionately referred to as ‘treacle bottoms’ or ‘slippery breeks’ when they returned red-faced and odorous from a sortie.
Michael settled his goggles and glanced across at Andrew. They nodded at each other, and Andrew opened his throttle and rolled out on to the soggy turf. Michael followed him, his mechanic trotting at his starboard wingtip to help him swing and line up on the narrow muddy strip between the apple trees.
Ahead of him Andrew was airborne and Michael opened his throttle wide. Almost immediately the Sopwith threw her tail up, clearing his forward vision, and Michael felt a prick of conscience at his earlier disloyalty. She was a lovely plane and a joy to fly. Despite the sticky mud of the strip, she broke swiftly free of the earth, and at 100 feet Michael levelled out behind Andrew’s green machine. The light was just good enough by now for him to make out to his right the green copper-clad spire of the church of the little village of Mort Homme; ahead of him lay the T-shaped grove of oak and beech trees, the long leg of the T perfectly aligned with the squadron’s landing strip, a most convenient navigational aid when coming in during bad weather. Beyond the trees stood the pink-roofed chateau set in the midst of its lawns and formal gardens, and behind the château the low knoll.
Andrew banked fractionally to the right, to pass the knoll. Michael conformed, peering ahead over the edge of his cockpit. Would she be there? It was too early – the knoll was bare. He felt the slide of disappointment and dread. Then he saw her — she was galloping up the pathway towards the crest. The big white stallion lunging powerfully under her slim girlish body.
The girl on the white horse was their good-luck talisman. If she was there waiting on the knoll to wave them away, all would be well. Today, when they were going against the balloons, they needed her – how desperately they needed her benediction.
She reached the crest of the knoll and reined the stallion down. Just a few seconds before they drew level she whipped the hat off her head and the thick dark bush of her hair burst from under it. She waved the hat, and Andrew waggled his wings as he roared past.
Michael edged in closer to the crest. The white stallion backed up and nodded nervously as the yellow machine came bellowing at him, but the girl sat him easily, waving gaily. Michael wanted to see her face. He was almost at the same height as the top of the hillock and very close to where she sat. For an instant he looked into her eyes. They were huge and dark, and he felt his heart trip. He touched his helmet in salute, and he knew now, deep down, that it would go well this day – then he put the memory of those eyes from his mind and looked ahead.
Ten miles ahead, where the low chalk ridges ran across their front, he saw with relief that he had been right, the breeze had not yet dispersed the morning mist that hung in the valleys. The chalk ridges were horribly chewed by shellfire, no vegetation remained upon them, the stumps of the shattered oak trees were nowhere as tall as a man’s shoulder, and the shell craters overlapped each other, brimming with stagnant water. The ridges had been fought over, month after month, but at the moment they were in Allied hands, taken at the beginning of the preceding winter at a cost in human lives that challenged belief. The leprous and pockmarked earth seemed deserted, but it was peopled by the legions of the living and the dead rotting together in the waterlogged earth. The smell of death borne on the breeze reached even to the men in the low flying machines, an obscenity that coated the back of their throats and made them gag.
Behind the ridges the Allied troops, South Africans and New Zealanders of the Third Army, were preparing reserve positions as a contingency measure, for should the Allied offensive which was being prepared upon the Somme river further to the west fail, then all the fury of the German counter-attack would be unleashed upon them.
The preparation of the new line of defences was being seriously hampered by the massed German artillery to the north of the ridges, which deluged the area with an almost continuous barrage of high explosive. As they roared towards the front, Michael could see the yellow haze from the bursting howitzer shells hanging in a poison bank below the ridges, and he could imagine the anguish of the men toiling in the mud, harassed by the unremitting fall of explosives.
As Michael raced towards the ridges, the sound of the barrage rose above even the thunder of the big rotary Le Rhone engine and the buffeting rush of the slipstream. The barrage was like the sound of storm surf on a rocky shore, like the beat of a demented drummer, like the fevered pulse of this sick, mad world, and Michael’s fierce resentment at the men who had ordered them to go against the balloons abated as the roar of the barrage mounted. It was work that must be done — he realized it when he saw this dreadful suffering.
Yet the balloons were the most feared and hated targets that any man could fly against – that was why Andrew Killigerran would send nobody else. Michael saw them now, like fat silver slugs hanging in the dawn sky high above the ridges. One was directly ahead, the other a few miles further east. At this range the cables that tethered them to earth were invisible, and the wicker basket from which the observers obtained a grandstand view over the Allied rear areas were merely dark specks suspended beneath the shining spheres of hydrogen-filled silk.
At that moment there was a shocking disruption of air that hit the Sopwiths and rocked their wings, and immediately ahead of them a fountain of smoke and flame shot into the sky, rolling upon itself, black and bright orange, rising anvil-headed, high above the low-flying Sopwiths, forcing them to bank away steeply to avoid its fiery pillar. A German shell directed from one of the balloons had hit a forward Allied ammunition dump, and Michael felt his fear and resentment shrivel, to be replaced by a burning hatred of the gunners and of the men hanging in the sky, with eyes like vultures, calling down death with cold dispassion.
Andrew turned back towards the ridges, leaving the tall column of smoke on their right wingtips, and he dropped lower and still lower, until his undercarriage was skimming the tops of the sandbagged parapets and they could see the South African troops moving in file along the communication trenches, dun-coloured beasts of burden, not really human, toiling under the weight of their packs and equipment. Very few of them bothered to look up as the gaily painted machines thundered overhead. Those that did had grey, mud-streaked faces, the expression dulled and the eyes blank.
Ahead of them opened the mouth of one of the low passes that bisected the chalk ridges. The pass was filled with the morning mist. With the thrust of the dawn breeze agitating it, the mist bank undulated softly as though the earth was making love beneath a silver eiderdown.
There was the rattle of a Vickers machine-gun close ahead. Andrew was testfiring his weapon. Michael turned slightly out of line to clear his front and fired a short burst. The phosphorus-tipped incendiary bullets spun pretty white trails in the clear air.
Michael turned back into line behind Andrew and they hurtled into the mist, entering a new dimension of light and muted sound. The diffused light spun rainbow-coloured haloes around both aircraft and the moisture condensed on Michael’s goggles. He lifted them on to his forehead and peered ahead.
The previous afternoon, Andrew and Michael had carefully reconnoitred this narrow pass between the ridges, reassuring themselves that there were no obstacles or obstructions, and memorizing the way it twisted and turned through the higher ground – and yet it was still a perilous passage, with visibility down to 600 feet or less and the chalky slopes rising steeply at each wingtip.
Michael closed up on the green tailplane and flew on that alone, trusting Andrew to take him through, while the icy cold of the mist ate corrosively through his clothing and numbed his fingertips through the leather gauntlets.
Ahead of him Andrew banked steeply, and as Michael followed him round, he caught a glimpse of the barbed wire, brown with rust and tangled like bracken beneath his wheels.
‘No man’s land,’ he muttered, and then the German front lines flashed beneath them, a mere glimpse of parapets beneath which crouched men in field-grey uniforms and those ugly coal-scuttle helmets.
Seconds later they burst out of the mist bank into a world lit by the first low rays of the sun, into a sky that dazzled them with its brilliance – and Michael realized that they had achieved total surprise. The mist bank had hidden them from the observers in the balloon and it had deadened the beat of their engines.
Directly ahead, the first balloon hung suspended in the sky, 1,500 feet above them. Its steel anchor-cable, fine as a spider’s strand of gossamer, led down to the ugly black steam winch half-buried in its emplacement of sandbags. It looked utterly vulnerable, until Michael’s eye dropped to the peaceful-seeming fields beneath the balloon, and there were the guns.
The machine-gun nests resembled ant-lion burrows in the African soil, tiny dimples in the earth, lined with sandbags. He could not count them in the brief seconds left to him, there were so many. Instead, he picked out the anti-aircraft guns, standing tall and ungainly as giraffes on their circular baseplates, the long barrels already pointed skywards, ready to hurl their air-burst shrapnel as high as 20,000 feet into the sky.
They were waiting. They knew that sooner or later the planes would come, and they were ready. Michael realized that the mist had won them only seconds, for he could see the gunners running to man their weapons. One of the long anti-aircraft barrels began to move, depressing and swinging towards them. Then, as Michael pushed the throttle lever hard open against its stop and the Sopwith surged forward, he saw a cloud of white steam spurt from the massive winch as the ground crew began desperately to haul the balloon down into the protective fire of the banks of guns. The shimmering sphere of silk sank swiftly towards the earth, and Andrew lifted the nose of his machine and roared upwards.
With the throttle wide open and the big rotary engine howling in full power, Michael followed him up, aiming his climb at the cable halfway between the earth and the balloon, at the spot where the balloon would be when he reached it, and that was a mere 500 feet above the heads of the gunners.
Andrew was four hundred yards ahead of Michael, and still the guns had not opened up. Now he was on line with the balloon and engaging it. Michael clearly heard the clatter of his Vickers and saw the streaking phosphorus trails of the incendiary bullets, lacing through the icy dawn air, joining the balloon and the racing green aircraft for fleeting seconds. Then Andrew banked away, his wingtip brushed the billowing silk, and it rocked sedately in his slipstream.
Now it was Michael’s turn, and as he picked up the balloon in his gunsight, the gunners below him opened up. He heard the rip-crash of shrapnel bursts, and the Sopwith rocked dangerously in the tornado of passing shot, but the shells were all fused too long. They burst in bright silver balls of smoke three or four hundred feet above him.
The machine-gunners were more accurate, for they were at almost point-blank range. Michael felt the solid crash of shot into his plane, and tracer flew thick and white as hail about him. He hit the rudder bar and at the same time threw on opposite stick, crossing controls to induce a gutwrenching side-slip, throwing off the sheets of fire for a moment while he lined up for the balloon.
It seemed to rush towards him; the silk had the repulsively soft sheen of a maggot coated in silver mucus. He saw the two German observers dangling in their open wicker basket, both of them bundled in clothing against the cold. One stared at him woodenly, the other’s face was contorted with terror and fury as he screamed a curse or a challenge that was lost in the blare of engines and the rattling clatter of machine-gun fire.
It was barely necessary to aim the Vickers, for the balloon filled all his vision. Michael opened the safety lock and pressed down on the firing lever; the gun hammered, shaking the entire aircraft, and the smoke of burning phosphorus from the incendiary bullet blew back into his face, choking him.
Now that he was flying straight and level, the ground gunners found him again, shooting the Sopwith to tatters – but Michael held on, pressing on alternate rudders to wing his nose slightly from side to side, directing his incendiaries into the balloon as though he was wielding a garden hose.
‘Burn!’ he screamed. ‘Burn! Damn you, burn!’
Pure hydrogen gas is not inflammable, it has to mix with oxygen in proportions of 1:2 before it becomes violently explosive. The balloon absorbed his fire without visible effect.
‘Burn!’ he screamed at it, his clawed hand locked on the firing handle, the Vickers hammering, and the spent brass shells spewing from the breech. Hydrogen must be pouring from the hundreds of bullet holes that both he and Andrew had shot in the silk; the gas must be mingling with the air.
‘Why won’t you burn?’ He heard the anguish and despair in his own wild cry. He was on the balloon — he must break away now, he must turn to avoid collision, it had all been in vain. Then, in that instant of failure, he knew that he would never give up. He knew he was going to fly into the balloon if he had to.
As he thought it, the balloon exploded in his face. It seemed to swell to a hundred times its size, to fill the sky and at the same time turn to flame. A stunning dragon’s breath licked over Michael and the Sopwith, scorching the exposed skin of his cheeks, blinding him, flinging both man and machine aloft like a green leaf from a garden bonfire. Michael fought for control as the Sopwith tried to turn on her back, then tumbled down the sky. He caught her before she smashed into the earth and as he climbed away he looked back.
The hydrogen gas had burned away in that single demoniac gust, and now the empty, fiercely burning silk shroud collapsed, spreading like a fiery umbrella over the basket and its human cargo.
One of the German observers jumped clear and fell 300 feet, his greatcoat fluttering about him, his legs kicking convulsively, disappearing abruptly, without sound or trace, into the short green grass of the field. The second observer stayed with the basket and was enveloped by the billows of burning silk.
On the ground the crew were scrambling from the winch emplacement, like insects from a disturbed nest, but the burning silk fell too swiftly, trapping them in its fiery folds. Michael felt no pity for any of them, but was overcome instead by a savage triumph, a primeval reaction from his own terror. He opened his mouth to shout his warcry, and at that moment a shrapnel shell, fired from one of the guns near the north edge of the field, burst beneath the Sopwith.
Again it was tossed upwards, and humming, hissing shards of steel tore up through the belly of the fuselage. As Michael struggled to control this second wild surge and drop, the floor of the cockpit was ripped open so that he could see the ground below him and arctic winds howled up under his greatcoat, making the folds billow.
He held her on an even keel, but she was hard-hit. Something was loose below the fuselage, it banged and whipped in the wind and she was flying one wing heavy, so he had to hold her up by brute force – but at least he was out of range of the guns at last.
Then Andrew appeared on his wingtip, craning across at him anxiously, and Michael grinned and whooped with triumph. Andrew was signalling for his attention, and stabbing his thumb in the signal, ‘Return to base!’
Michael glanced around him. While he had been fighting for control, they had been roaring northwards, deeper and still deeper into German territory. They flashed over a crossroads jammed with animal-drawn and motorized transport; startled field-grey figures scattered for cover in the ditches. Michael ignored them and swivelled in the cockpit; three miles away across the flat and featureless green fields the second balloon still sailed serenely above the ridges.
Michael gave Andrew the cut-out negative and pointed at the remaining balloon. ‘No — continue the attack.’
Andrew’s signal was urgent. ‘Return to base!’ and he pointed at Michael’s machine, and gave him the cut-throat signal. ‘Danger!’
Michael looked down through the hole between his feet where the belly had been shot out of her. That banging was probably one of his landing wheels dangling on the bracing wires. Bullet holes had peppered the wings and body of the aircraft, and loose ribbons of torn fabric fluttered like Buddhist prayer flags as the slipstream plucked at them, but the Le Rhône engine roared angrily, still under full throttle, without check or stutter in its warlike beat.
Andrew was signalling again, urging him to turn back, but Michael gave him a curt flick of the hand – ‘Follow me!’ – and threw the Sopwith up on one wingtip, bringing her round in a steep turn that strained her damaged bodywork.
Michael was lost in the raptures of fighting madness, the berserker’s wild passion, in which the threat of death or fearful injury was of no consequence. His vision was heightened to unnatural clarity, and he flew the damaged Sopwith as though it were an extension of his own body, as though he were part-swallow skimming the water to drink in flight, so lightly did he brush the hedgerows and touch the stubble in the fields with his single remaining landing wheel, and part-falcon, so cruel was his unblinking gaze as he bated at the ponderously descending balloon.
Of course, they had seen the fiery destruction of the first balloon, and they were winching in. They would be down before Michael reached the site. The gunners would be fully alerted, waiting with finger on the trigger. It would be a ground-level attack, into the prepared positions — but even in his suicidal rage, Michael had lost none of the hunter’s cunning. He was using every stick of available cover for his approach run.
A narrow country lane angled across the front; the row of slim, straight poplars that flanked it was the only feature on this dreary plain below the ridge. Michael used the line of trees, banking steeply to run parallel with them, keeping them between him and the balloon site, and he glanced up at the mirror fixed to the wing section above his head. Andrew’s green Sopwith was so close behind him that the spinning propeller almost touched his rudder. Michael grinned like a shark and gathered the Sopwith in his hands and lifted it over the palisade of poplar trees the way a hunter takes a fence at full gallop.
The balloon site was three hundred yards ahead. The balloon itself had just reached ground level. The ground crew were helping the observers out of the basket and then running in a group for the cover of the nearest trench. The machine-gunners, their aim frustrated up to that moment by the row of poplar trees, had a fair target at last, and they opened together.
Michael flew into a torrent of fire. It filled the air about him, and the shrapnel shells sucked at the air as they passed, so that his eardrums clicked and ached with the pressure drops. In the emplacements he saw the faces of the gunners turned up towards him; they were pale blobs behind the foreshortened barrels that swung to follow him and the muzzle flashes were bright and pretty as fairy lights. However, the Sopwith was roaring in at well over 100 miles an hour and he had barely 300 yards to cover. Even the solid crunch of bullets into the heavy engine block could not distract Michael as he lined up his sights with delicate touches on the rudder bars.
The group of running men escaping from the balloon was directly ahead of him, racing back towards the trench. In their midst the two observers were slow and clumsy, still stiff with the cold of the upper air, burdened by their heavy clothing. Michael hated them as he might hate a venomous snake; he dropped the Sopwith’s nose fractionally and touched the firing lever. The group of men blew away, like grey smoke, and disappeared into the low stubble. Instantly Michael lifted the aim of the Vickers.
The balloon was tethered to earth, looking like a circus tent. He fired into it, bullets streaming on silvery trails of phosphorus smoke into the soft silken mass without effect.
In the berserker’s rage, Michael’s brain was clear, his thought so swift, that time seemed to run slower and still slower. The micro-seconds as he closed with the stranded silken monster seemed to last an eternity, so that he could follow the flight of each individual bullet from the muzzle of his Vickers.
‘Why won’t she burn?’ he screamed the question again, and the answer came to him.
The hydrogen atom is the lightest of all in weight. The escaping gas was rising to mingle with oxygen above the balloon. It was so obvious then, that he was shooting too low. Why hadn’t he realized it before?
He hauled the Sopwith up on her tail, streaming his fire upwards across the swelling side of the balloon, still up until he was shooting into empty air, over the top of the balloon — and the air turned to sudden flame. As the great exhalation of fire rolled towards him, Michael kept the Sopwith climbing into the vertical and jerked the throttle closed. Without power she hung for an instant on her nose and then stalled and dropped. Michael kicked hard at the rudder bar, spinning her into the classic stall turn, and as he opened the throttle again he was headed back, directly away from the immense funeral pyre that he had created. Beneath him he caught a green flash as Andrew banked on to his wingtip in a maximum-rate turn, breaking out left, almost colliding with Michael’s undercarriage, and then hurtling away at right angles to his track.
There was no more ground fire; the sudden acrobatics of the two attackers and the roaring pillar of burning gas entirely distracted the gunners, and Michael dropped back behind the cover of the poplar trees. Now that it was all over, his rage abated almost as swiftly as it had arisen, and he swept the skies above him, realizing that the columns of smoke would be a beacon for the Albatros Jagdstaffels. Apart from the smoke, the skies were clear, and he felt a lift of relief and looked for Andrew as he banked low over the hedgerows. There he was, a little higher than Michael, already heading back towards the ridges, but angling in to intercept him.
They came together. Strange what comfort there was in having Andrew on his wingtip, grinning at him and shaking his head in mock disapproval of the disobeyed order to return to base and the berserker fit which had seized Michael.
Side by side they roared low across the German front lines again, contemptuous of the splattering of fire they drew, and then as they began to climb to cross the ridge, Michael’s engine spluttered and lost power.
He dropped towards the chalky earth, and then the engine fired again, bellowed and surged, lifting him just clear of the crest, before missing and banging unevenly once more. Andrew was still beside him, mouthing encouragement — and the engine roared again, and then missed and popped.
Michael nursed it, pumping the throttle, fiddling with the ignition setting, and whispering to the wounded Sopwith. ‘Come on, my darling. Stick it out, old girl. Nearly home, there’s my sweetheart.’
Then he felt something break in her body, one of the main frames shot through, and the controls went soft in his hands, and she sagged, sick unto death. ‘Hold on,’ Michael exhorted her – but suddenly there was the pungent stink of petrol in his nostrils, and he saw a thin transparent trickle of it ooze from under the engine cowling and turn to white vapour in the slipstream as it blew back past his head.
‘Fire.’ It was the airman’s nightmare, but the vestiges of rage were still with Michael and he murmured stubbornly, ‘We’re going home, old girl. Just a little longer.’
They had crossed the ridges, there was flat terrain ahead, and he could already make out the dark T-shaped wood which marked the approach to the airstrip. ‘Come on, my sweetheart.’
Beneath him there were men, out of the trenches, lining the parapets, waving and cheering as the damaged Sopwith clattered and popped close above their heads, one of its landing wheels shot away, the other dangling and slamming against its belly.
Their faces were upturned, and he saw their open mouths as they called to him. They had heard the storm of fire that heralded the attack, and seen the great balls of burning hydrogen shoot into the sky beyond the ridges, and they knew that for a little while the torment of the guns would ease, and they cheered the returning pilots, shouting themselves hoarse.
Michael left them behind, but their gratitude was uplifting and ahead lay all the familiar landmarks – the spire of the church, the pink roof of the chateau, the little knoll.
‘We are going to make it, my sweetheart,’ he called to the Sopwith, but under the engine cowling a dangling wire touched the metal of the engine block and a tiny blue spark arced across the gap. There was the whoosh of explosive combustion, and the white trail of vapour turned to flame. Heat washed over the open cockpit like the pressure flame from a blow lamp, and Michael instinctively flung the Sopwith into another side-flip so that the flames were pushed out obliquely away from his face and he could see ahead.
Now he had to get her down, anywhere, anyhow, but fast, very fast, before he was cooked and charred in the burning carcass of the Sopwith. He dipped towards the field that opened ahead of him, and now his greatcoat was burning, the sleeve of his right arm smouldered and burst into flame.
He brought the Sopwith down, holding the nose up to bleed off speed, but she hit the ground with a force that cracked his teeth together in his jaw, and instantly she pivoted on her one remaining wheel and then cartwheeled, tearing off one wing and crashing into the hedgerow that bordered the field.
Michael’s head slammed against the edge of the cockpit, stunning him, but there were flames crackling and leaping up all around him now and he clawed himself out of the cockpit, fell on to the crumpled wing and rolled on to the muddy earth. On his hands and knees he crawled desperately away from the flaming wreckage. The burning wool of the greatcoat flared and the heat spurred him to his feet with a scream. He ripped at the buttons, trying to rid himself of the agony, running and flapping his arms, wildly, fanning the flames and making them fiercer and hotter.
In the crackling roar of the burning wreckage, he did not even hear the galloping horse.
The girl put the big white stallion to the hedge and they flew over it. Horse and rider landed in balance and immediately plunged forward again after the burning, screaming figure in the centre of the field. The girl unhooked her leg from the pommel of the side-saddle, and as they came up behind Michael she pulled the stallion down to a sliding halt and at the same time launched herself from his back.
She landed with her full weight between Michael’s shoulder-blades, and both arms locked around his neck, so that he was knocked sprawling flat on his face with the girl on his back. She rolled to her feet and, whipping the thick gaberdine skirt of the riding-habit from around her waist, spread it over the burning figure at her feet. Then she dropped to her knees beside him and wrapped the voluminous skirt tightly around him, beating with her bare hands at the little tendrils of flame that escaped from around it.
As soon as the flames were snuffed out, she pulled off her skirt and heaved Michael into a sitting position on the muddy ground. With quick fingers, she unbuttoned the smoking greatcoat and stripped it off his shoulders and flung it aside. She pulled away the smouldering jerseys – there was only one place where the flames had reached his flesh. They had burned through across his shoulder and down his arm. He cried out with the pain when she tried to pull the nightshirt away. ‘For the love of Christ!’ The cotton shirt had stuck to the bums.
The girl leaned over him, took the cloth in her teeth and worried it until it tore. Once she had started it, she ripped it open with her hands and her expression changed. ‘Mon Dieu!’ she said, and jumped up. She stamped on the smoking greatcoat to extinguish the last of the smouldering wool.
Michael stared at her, the agony of his burned arm receding. With her long skirt removed, her riding jacket reached only to the top of her thighs. On her feet she wore black patent-leather riding boots fastened up the sides with hooks and eyes. Her knees were bare, and the skin at the back of them was smooth and flawless as the inner lining of a nautilus shell, but her knee-caps were smudged with mud where she had knelt to help him. Above the knees she wore a pair of cami-knickers of a sheer material through which he could distinctly make out the sheen of her skin. The legs of the knickers were fastened above the knee with pink ribbons, and they clung to her thighs and lower body as though she were naked – no, the semi-veiled lines were even more riveting than naked flesh would have been.
Michael felt his throat swell, so that he could not breathe, as she stooped to pick up his charred coat, and he was allowed a brief vision of her small, firm buttocks, round as a pair of ostrich eggs, gleaming palely in the earlymorning light. He stared so hard, he felt his eyes begin to water and as she turned back to him, he saw in the fork framed by her hard young thighs a dark triangular shadow through the thin silk. She stood with that mesmeric shadow six inches from his nose while she spread the coat gently over his burned shoulder, murmuring to him in the tone a mother uses to a hurt child.
Michael caught only the words ‘froid’ and ‘brûlé’. She was so close that he could smell her; the natural musk of a healthy young woman sweating with the exertion of hard riding was mingling with a perfume that smelled like dried rose petals. Michael tried to speak, to thank her, but he was shaking with shock and pain. His lips wobbled and he made a little slurring sound.
‘Mon pauvre,’ she cooed to him, and stepped back. Her voice was husky with concern and exertion, and she had the face of a pixie with huge dark Celtic eyes. He wondered if her ears were pointed, but they were hidden by the dark bush of her hair. It was windblown and kinked into dense springy curls. Her skin was tinted by her Celtic blood to the colour of old ivory and her eyebrows were thick and dark as her hair.
She began to speak again, but he could not help himself, and he glanced down again to that intriguing little shadow under the silk. She saw the movement of his eyes and her cheeks glowed with a dusky rose colour as she snatched up her muddy skirts and whipped them around her waist — and Michael ached more with embarrassment at his gaffe than he did from his bums.
The overhead roar of Andrew’s Sopwith gave them both respite and they looked up gratefully as Andrew circled the field. Painfully and unsteadily Michael clambered to his feet, as the girl settled her skirts, and he waved up at Andrew. He saw Andrew lift his hand and give him a relieved salute, then the green Sopwith circled out and came in on a straight run not higher than fifty feet above their heads — and the green scarf, with something knotted in one end, fluttered down and plunked into the mud a few yards away.
The girl ran to it and brought it back to Michael. He unknotted the tail of the scarf and grinned lopsidedly as he brought out the silver flask. He unscrewed the stopper and lifted the flask to the sky. He saw the flash of Andrew’s white teeth in the open cockpit and the raised gauntleted hand – and then Andrew turned away towards the airfield.
Michael lifted the flask to his lips, and swallowed twice. His eyes clouded with tears and he gasped as the heavenly liquid flowed scalding down his throat. When he lowered the flask, she was watching him, and he offered it to her.
She shook her head, and asked seriously, ‘Anglais?’
‘Oui — nonSud Africain.’ His voice shook.
‘Ah, vous parlez français!’ She smiled for the first time, and it was a phenomenon almost as stunning as her pearly little bottom.
‘A peine – hardly.’ He denied it swiftly, staving off the flood of voluble French that he knew from experience an affirmative would have brought down on his head.
‘You have blood.’ Her English was appalling; only when she pointed to his head did he understand what she had said. He lifted his free hand and touched the trickle of blood which had escaped from under his helmet. He inspected his smeared fingertips.
‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘Buckets of it, I’m afraid.’
The helmet had saved him from serious injury when his head had struck the side of the cockpit.
Pardon?’ She looked confused.
J’en ai beaucoup,’ he translated.
‘Ah, you do talk French.’ She clapped her hands in an endearing, childlike gesture of delight and took his arm in a proprietorial gesture.
‘Come,’ she ordered, and snapped her fingers for the stallion. He was cropping the grass, and pretended not to hear her.
Viens ici tout de suite, Nuage!’ She stamped her foot. ‘Come here, this instant, Cloud!’
The stallion took another mouthful of grass to demonstrate his independence and then sidled across in leisurely fashion.
‘Please,’ she asked, and Michael made a stirrup of his cupped hands and boosted her up into the saddle. She was very light and agile.
‘Come up.’ She helped him, and he settled behind her on the stallion’s broad rump. She took one of Michael’s hands and placed it on her waist. Her flesh under his fingers was firm and he could feel the heat of it through the cloth.
‘Tenez, hold on!’ she instructed, and the stallion cantered towards the gate at the end of the field nearest the château.
Michael looked back at the smoking wreckage of his Sopwith. Only the engine block remained, the wood and canvas had burned away. He felt a shadow of deep regret at her destruction – they had come a long way together.
‘How do you call yourself?’ the girl asked over her shoulder, and he turned back to her.
‘Michael — Michael Courtney.’
‘Michel Courtney,’ she repeated experimentally, and then, ‘I am Mademoiselle Centaine de Thiry.’
‘Enchanté, mademoiselle.’ Michael paused to compose his next conversational gem in his laboured schoolboy French. ‘Centaine is a strange name,’ he said, and she stiffened under his hand. He had used the word ‘drôle, or comical. Quickly he corrected himself, ‘An exceptional name.’
Suddenly he regretted that he had not applied himself more vigorously to his French studies; shaken and shocked as he still was, he had to concentrate hard to follow her rapid explanation.
‘I was born one minute after midnight on the first day of the year 1900.’ So she was seventeen years and three months old, teetering on the very brink of womanhood. Then he remembered that his own mother had been barely seventeen when he was born. The thought cheered him so much that he took another quick nip from Andrew’s flask.
‘You are my saviour!’ He meant it light-heartedly, but it sounded so crass that he expected her to burst into mocking laughter. Instead, she nodded seriously. The sentiment was in accord with Centaine’s own swiftly developing emotions.
Her favourite animal, apart from Nuage the stallion, had once been a skinny mongrel puppy which she had found in the ditch, blood-smeared and shivering. She had nursed it and cherished it, and loved it until a month previously when it had died under the wheels of one of the army trucks trundling up to the front. Its death had left an aching gap in her existence. Michael was thin, almost starved-looking under all those charred and muddy clothes; apart, then, from his physical injuries, she sensed the abuse to which he had been subjected. His eyes were a marvellous clear blue, but she read in them a terrible suffering, and he shivered and trembled just as her little mongrel had.
‘Yes,’ she said firmly. ‘I will look after you.’
The château was larger than it had seemed from the air, and much less beautiful. Most of the windows had been broken and boarded up. The walls were pocked with shell splinters, but the shell craters on the lawns had grassed over – the fighting last autumn had come within extreme artillery range of the estate, before the final push by the Allies had driven the Germans back behind the ridges again.
The great house had a sad and neglected air, and Centaine apologized. ‘Our workmen have been taken by the army, and most of the women and all the children have fled to Paris or Amiens. We are three only.’ She raised herself in the saddle and called out sharply in a different language, ‘Anna! Come and see what I have found.’
The woman who emerged from the vegetable gardens behind the kitchens was squat and broad with a backside like a percheron mare and huge shapeless breasts beneath the mud-stained blouse. Her thick dark hair, streaked with grey, was pulled back into a bun on top of her head, and her face was red and round as a radish; her arms, bare to the elbows, were thick and muscular as a man’s and caked with mud. She held a bunch of turnips in one large, calloused hand.
‘What is it, Kleinjie — little one?’
‘I have saved a gallant English airman, but he is terribly wounded—’
‘He looks very well to me.’
‘Anna, don’t be such an old grouse! Come and help me. We must get him into the kitchen.’
The two of them were gabbling at each other, and to Michael’s astonishment, he could understand every word of it.
‘I will not allow a soldier in the house, you know that, Kleinjie! I won’t have a tomcat in the same basket with my little kitten—’
‘He’s not a soldier, Anna, he’s an airman.’
‘And probably as randy as any tomcat—’
She used the word ‘fris’, and Centaine flashed at her, ‘You are a disgusting old woman — now come and help me.’
Anna looked Michael over very carefully, and then conceded reluctantly, ‘He has nice eyes, but I still don’t trust him – oh, all right, but if he so much as—’
‘Mevrou,’ Michael spoke for the first time, ‘your virtue is safe with me, I give you my solemn word. Ravishing as you are, I will control myself.’
Centaine swivelled in the saddle to stare at him, and Anna reeled back with shock and then guffawed with delight.
‘He speaks Flemish!’
‘You speak Flemish!’ Centaine echoed the accusation.
‘It’s not Flemish,’ Michael denied. ‘It’s Afrikaans, South African Dutch.’
‘It’s Flemish,’ Anna told him as she came forward. ‘And anybody who speaks Flemish is welcome in this house.’ She reached up to Michael.
‘Be careful,’ Centaine told her anxiously. ‘His shoulder—’ She slipped to the ground and between the two of them they helped Michael down and led him to the door of the kitchen.
A dozen chefs could have prepared a banquet for five hundred guests in this kitchen, but there was only a tiny wood fire burning in one of the ranges and they seated Michael on a stool in front of it.
‘Get some of your famous ointment,’ Centaine ordered, and Anna hurried away.
‘You are Flemish?’ Michael asked. He was delighted that the language barrier had evaporated.
‘No, no.’ Centaine was busy with an enormous pair of shears, snipping away the charred remnants of the shirt from his bums. ‘Anna is from the north – she was my nurse when my mother died, and now she thinks she is my mother and not just a servant. She taught me the language in the cradle. But you, where did you learn it?’
‘Where I come from, everybody speaks it.’
‘I’m glad,’ she said, and he was not sure what she meant, for her eyes were lowered to her task.
‘I look for you every morning,’ he said softly. ‘We all do, when we fly.’
She said nothing, but he saw her cheeks turn that lovely dusky pink colour again.
‘We call you our good luck angel, l’ange du bonheur,’ and she laughed.
‘I call you le petit jaune, the little yellow one,’ she answered. The yellow Sopwith – Michael felt a surge of elation. She knew him as an individual, and she went on, ‘All of you, I wait for you to come back, counting my chickens, but so often they do not come back, the new ones especially. Then I cry for them and pray. But you and the green one always come home, then I rejoice for you.’
‘You are kind,’ he started, but Anna bustled back from the pantry carrying a stone jar that smelled of turpentine and the mood was spoiled.
‘Where is Papa?’ Centaine demanded.
‘In the basement, seeing to the animals.’
‘We have to keep the livestock in the cellars,’ Centaine explained as she went to the head of the stone stairs, ‘otherwise the soldiers steal the chickens and geese and even the milch cows. I had to fight to keep Nuage, even.’
She yelled down the stairs, ‘Papa! Where are you?’
There was a muffled response from below and Centaine called again, ‘We need a bottle of cognac.’ And then her one became admonitive. ‘Unopened, Papa. It is not a ocial need, but a medicinal one. Not for you but for patient – here.’
Centaine tossed a bunch of keys down the stairs and minutes later there was a heavy tread and a large shaggy an with a full belly shambled into the kitchen with a gnac bottle held like an infant to his chest.
He had the same dense bush of kinky hair as Centaine, t it was woven with grey strands and hung forward on to forehead. His moustaches were wide and beeswaxed o impressive spikes, and he peered at Michael through a gle dark glittering eye. The other eye was covered by ratical black cloth patch.
‘Who is this?’ he demanded.
‘An English airman.’
The scowl abated. ‘A fellow warrior,’ he said. ‘A com-rade-in-arms — another destroyer of the cursed boche!’
‘You have not destroyed a boche for over forty years,’ Anna reminded him without looking up from Michael’s bums, but he ignored her and advanced on Michael, opening his arms like a bear to envelop him.
‘Papa, be careful. He is wounded.’
‘Wounded!’ cried Papa. ‘Cognac!’ as though the two words were linked, and he found two heavy glass tumblers and placed them on the kitchen table, breathed on them with a decidedly garlicky breath, wiped them on his coattails, and cracked the red wax from the neck of the bottle.
‘Papa, you are not wounded,’ Centaine told him severely as he filled both tumblers up to the brim.
‘I would not insult a man of such obvious valour by asking him to drink alone.’ He brought one tumbler to Michael.
‘Comte Louis de Thiry, at your service, monsieur.’
‘Captain Michael Courtney. Royal Flying Corps.’
‘A vôtre santé, Capitaine!’
‘A la vôtre, Monsieur le Comte!’
The comte drank with undisguised relish, then sighed and wiped his magnificent dark moustaches on the back of his hand and spoke to Anna.
‘Proceed with the treatment, woman.’
‘This will sting,’ Anna warned, and for a moment Michael thought she meant the cognac, but she took a handful of the ointment from the stone jar and slapped it on to the open bums.
Michael let out an anguished whinny and tried to rise, but Anna held him down with one huge, red, work-chafed hand.
‘Bind it up,’ she ordered Centaine, and as the girl wound on the bandages, the agony faded and became a comforting warmth.
‘It feels better,’ Michael admitted.
‘Of course it does,’ Anna told him comfortably. ‘My ointment is famous for everything from smallpox to piles.’
‘So is my cognac,’ murmured the comte, and recharged both tumblers.
Centaine went to the wash basket on the kitchen table and returned with one of the comte’s freshly ironed shirts, and despite her father’s protests, she helped Michael into it. Then as she was fashioning a sling for his injured arm, there was a buzzing clatter of an engine outside the kitchen windows and Michael caught a glimpse of a familiar figure on an equally familiar motor-cycle skidding to a halt in a spray of gravel.
The engine spluttered and hiccoughed into silence and a voice called agitatedly, ‘Michael, my boy, where are you?’
The door burst open and admitted Lord Andrew Killigerran in tam-o’-shanter, followed closely by a young officer in the uniform of the Royal Medical Corps. ‘Thank God, there you are. Panic not, I’ve brought you a sawbones—’ Andrew pulled the doctor to Michael’s stool and then, with relief and a shade of pique in his voice, ‘You seem to be doing damn well without us, I’ll say that for you. I raided the local field hospital. Kidnapped this medico at the point of a pistol – been eating my heart out about you, and here you are with a glass in your hand, and—’
Andrew broke off and looked at Centaine for the first time, and forgot all about Michael’s condition. He swept the tam-o’-shanter from his head. ‘It’s true!’ he declaimed in perfect sonorous French, rolling his Rs in true Gallic fashion. ‘Angels do indeed walk the earth.’
‘Go to your room immediately, child,’ Anna snapped, and her face screwed up like one of those fearsome carved dragons that guard the entrance to Chinese temples.
‘I am not a child,’ Centaine gave her an equally ferocious glare, then recomposed her features as she turned to Michael. ‘Why does he call you his boy? You are much older than he is!’
‘He’s Scots,’ Michael explained, already ridden by jealousy, ‘and the Scots are all mad – also, he has a wife and four children.’
‘That’s a filthy lie,’ Andrew protested. ‘The children, yes, I admit to them, poor wee bairns! But no wife, definitely no wife.’
‘Ecossais,’ murmured the comte, ‘great warriors and great drinkers.’ Then, in reasonable English, ‘May I offer you a little cognac, monsieur?’ They were descending into a babble of languages, crossing from one to the other in midsentence.
‘Will somebody kindly introduce me to this paragon among men, that I may accept his fulsome offer?’
‘Le Comte de Thiry, I have the honour to present Lord Andrew Killigerran.’ Michael waved them together and they shook hands.
Tiens! A genuine English milord.’
‘Scots, my dear fellow — big difference.’ He saluted the comte with the tumbler. ‘Enchanted, I’m sure. And this beautiful young lady is your daughter – the resemblance – beautiful—’
‘Centaine,’ Anna interposed, ‘take your horse to the stable and groom him.’
Centaine ignored her and smiled at Andrew. The smile stopped even his banter; he stared at her, for the smile transformed her. It seemed to glow through her skin like a lamp through alabaster, and it lit her teeth and sparkled in her eyes like sunlight in a crystal jar of dark honey.
‘I think I should have a look at our patient.’ The young army doctor broke the spell and stepped forward to unwrap Michael’s bandages. Anna understood the gesture, if not the words, and she interposed her bulk between them.
‘Tell him, if he touches my work, I will break his arm.’
‘Your services are not required, I’m afraid,’ Michael translated for the doctor.
‘Have a cognac,’ Andrew consoled him. ‘It’s not bad stuff — not bad at all.’
‘You are a landowner, milord?’ the comte asked Andrew with subtlety. ‘Of course?’
‘Bien sûr—’ Andrew made an expansive gesture which portrayed thousands of acres and at the same time brought his glass within range of where the comte was filling the doctor’s glass. The comte topped him up and Andrew repeated, ‘Of course, the family estates – you understand?’
‘Ah.’ The comte’s single eye glittered as he glanced across at his daughter. ‘Your deceased wife has left you with four children?’ He had not followed the earlier exchange all that clearly.
‘No children, no wife – my humorous friend,’ Andrew indicated Michael, ‘he likes to make jokes. Very bad English jokes.’
‘Ha! English jokes.’ The comte roared with laughter and would have clapped Michael on his shoulder had not Centaine rushed forward to protect him from the blow.
‘Papa, be careful. He is wounded.’
‘You will stay for lunch — all of you,’ the comte declared. ‘You will see, milord, my daughter is one of the finest cooks in the province.’
‘With a little help,’ Anna muttered disgustedly.
‘I say, I rather think I should be getting back,’ the young doctor murmured diffidently. ‘I feel rather superfluous.’
‘We are invited to lunch,’ Andrew told him. ‘Have a cognac.’
‘Don’t mind if I do.’ The doctor succumbed without a struggle.
The comte announced, ‘It is necessary to descend to the cellars.’
‘Papa—’ Centaine began ominously.
‘We have guests!’ The comte showed her the empty cognac bottle and she shrugged helplessly.
‘Milord, you will assist me in the selection of suitable refreshments?’
‘Honoured, Monsieur le Comte.’
As Centaine watched the pair, arms linked, descend the stone staircase, there was a thoughtful look in her eyes.
‘He is a drôle one, your friend – and very loyal. See how he rushed here to your aid. See how he places a charm on my Papa.’
Michael was surprised by the strength of his dislike for Andrew at that moment. ‘He smelled the cognac,’ he muttered. ‘That’s the only reason he came.’
‘But what of the four children?’ Anna demanded. ‘And their mother?’ She was having as much difficulty as the comte in following the conversation.
‘Four mothers,’ Michael explained. ‘Four children, four different mothers.’
‘He is a polygamist!’ Anna swelled with shock and affront, and her face went a shade redder.
‘No, no,’ Michael assured her. ‘You heard him deny it. He is a man of honour, he would not do such a thing. He is married to none of them.’ Michael felt not a qualm, he had to have an ally somewhere in the family, but at that moment the happy pair returned from the cellars laden with black bottles.
‘Aladdin’s cave,’ Andrew rejoiced. ‘The comte has got it filled with good stuff!’ He placed half a dozen bottles on the kitchen table in front of Michael. ‘Look at this! Thirty years old, if it’s a day!’ Then he peered closely at Michael. ‘You look awful, old boy. Death warmed up.’
‘Thanks,’ Michael grinned at him thinly. ‘You are so kind.’
‘Natural brotherly concern—’ Andrew struggled to draw the cork from one of the bottles, and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘By God, isn’t she a corker!’ He glanced across the kitchen to where the women were at work over the big copper pot. ‘I’d rather feel her than feel sick, what?’ Michael’s dislike for Andrew turned to active hatred.
‘I find that remark utterly revolting,’ he said. ‘To talk like that about a young girl, so innocent, so fine, so — so—’ Michael stuttered into silence, and Andrew held his head on one side and peered at him wonderingly.
‘Michael, my boy, this is worse than just a few bums and bruises, I’m afraid. It’s going to need intensive treatment.’ He filled a glass. ‘To start with, I prescribe a liberal dose of this excellent claret!’
At the head of the table the comte had the cork out of another of the bottles, and refilled the doctor’s glass.
‘A toast!’ he cried. ‘Confusion to the damned boche!’
‘A bas /es boches!’ they all cried, and as soon as the toast was drunk the comte placed his hand over the black patch which covered the socket of his missing eye.
‘They did this to me at Sedan in ’70. They took my eye, but they paid dearly for it, the devils – Sacré bleu, how we fought! Tigers! We were tigers—’
‘Tabby cats!’ Anna called across the kitchen.
‘You know nothing of battle and war – these brave young men, they know, they understand! I drink to them!’ He did so copiously and then demanded, ‘Now, where is the food?’
It was a savoury ragout of ham and sausage and marrow bones. Anna brought bowls of it steaming from the stove and Centaine piled small loaves of crisp new bread on the bare table.
‘Now tell us, how goes the battle?’ the comte demanded as he broke bread and dipped it into his bowl. ‘When will this war end?’
‘Let us not spoil good food.’ Andrew waved the question away, but with crumbs and gravy on his moustache the comte insisted.
‘What of a new Allied offensive?’
‘It will be in the west, on the Somme river again. It is there that we have to break through the German lines.’ It was Michael who answered; he spoke with quiet authority, so that almost immediately he had all their attention. Even the two women came from the stove and Centaine slipped on to the bench beside Michael, turning serious eyes up to him as she struggled to understand the English conversation.
‘How do you know all this?’ the comte interrupted.
‘His uncle is a general,’ Andrew explained.
‘A general!’ The comte looked at Michael with new interest. ‘Centaine, do you not see that our guest is in difficulty?’ And while Anna gruffed and scowled, Centaine leaned over Michael’s bowl and cut the meat into manageable portions so that he could eat with one hand.
‘Go on! Continue!’ the comte urged Michael. ‘What then?’
‘General Haig will pivot right. This time he will succeed in cutting across the German rear, and roll up their line.’
‘Ha! So we are secure here.’ The comte reached for the claret bottle, but Michael shook his head.
‘I am afraid not, not entirely anyway. This section of the line is being stripped of reserves, regimental fronts of the line are being reduced to battalion strength – everything that can be spared is being moved to take part in a new push across the Somme.’
The comte looked alarmed. ‘That is criminal folly — surely the Germans will counter-attack here to try and reduce pressure on their front at the Somme?’
‘The line here, it will not hold?’ Centaine asked anxiously and involuntarily glanced up at the kitchen windows. From where they sat, they could see the ridges on the horizon.
Michael hesitated. ‘Oh, I am sure that we will be able to hold them long enough — especially if the fighting round the Somme goes as well and as quickly as we expect. Then the pressure here will swiftly be relieved as the Allied advance swings across the German rear.1
‘But if the battle bogs down and is stalemated once again?’ Centaine asked softly in Flemish.
For a girl, and one with little English, she had a firm grasp on the essentials. Michael treated her question with respect, answering, in Afrikaans, as though he was speaking to another man.
‘Then we will be hard-pressed, especially as the Huns have aerial superiority. We may lose the ridges again.’ He paused and frowned. ‘They will have to rush in reserves. We may even be forced to pull back as far as Arras—’
‘Arras!’ Centaine gasped. ‘That means—’ She did not finish, but looked around at her home as though already taking farewell of it. Arras was far to the rear.
Michael nodded. ‘Once the attack begins, you will be in extreme danger here. You will be well advised to evacuate the château and go back south to Arras or even Paris.’
‘Never!’ cried the comte switching back into French. ‘A de Thiry never retreats.’
‘Except at Sedan,’ Anna muttered, but the comte did not deign to hear such levity.
‘I will stand here, on my own land.’ He pointed at the ancient chassepot rifle that hung on the kitchen wall. ‘That is the weapon I carried at Sedan. The boche learned to fear it there. They will relearn that lesson. Louis de Thiry will teach it to them!’
‘Courage!’ cried Andrew. ‘I give you a toast. French valour and the triumph of French arms!’
Naturally the comte had to reply with a toast to ‘General Haig and our gallant British Allies!’
‘Captain Courtney is a South African,’ Andrew pointed out. ‘We should drink to them.’
‘Ah!’ the comte responded enthusiastically in English. ‘To General — what is your uncle, the general, called? To General Sean Courtney and his brave South Africans.’
‘This gentleman,’ Andrew indicated the slightly owl-eyed doctor swaying gently on the bench beside him, ‘is an officer in the Royal Medical Corps. A fine service, and worthy of our toast!’
‘To the Royal Medical Corps!’ The comte accepted the challenge, but as he reached for his glass again, it trembled before he touched it, and the surface of the red wine was agitated into little circular ripples which lapped against the crystal bowl. The comte froze and all their heads lifted.
The glass of the kitchen window-panes rattled in their frames and then the rumble of the guns rolled down from the north. Once again the German guns were hunting along the ridges, clamouring and barking like wild dogs, and as they listened in silence, they could imagine the misery and agony of the men in the muddy trenches only a few miles from where they sat in the warm kitchen with their bellies filled with food and fine wine.
Andrew lifted his glass and said softly, ‘I give you those poor blighters out there in the mud. May they endure.’ And this time even Centaine sipped from Michael’s glass and her eyes swam with dark tears as she drank the toast.
‘I hate to be a killjoy,’ the young doctor stood up unsteadily, ‘but that artillery barrage is the work-whistle for me, I’m afraid, the butchers’ vans will be on their way back already.’
Michael tried to rise with him, but clutched quickly at the edge of the table for support. ‘I wish to thank you, Monsieur le Comte,’ he began formally, ‘for your gentility—’ The word tripped on his tongue and he repeated it, but his tongue blurred and lost track of his speech. ‘I salute your daughter, Mademoiselle de Thiry, lange du bonheur—’ His legs folded up under him, and he collapsed gently.
‘He is wounded!’ Centaine cried as she leaped forward and caught him before he hit the floor, supporting him with one slim shoulder under his armpit. ‘Help me,’ she pleaded. Andrew reeled forward to her assistance, and between them they half-carried, half-dragged Michael through the kitchen door.
‘Careful, his poor arm,’ Centaine gasped under the weight, as they lifted Michael into the side-car of the motor-cycle. ‘Do not hurt him!’ He lolled in the padded seat with a beatific grin on his pale features.
‘Mademoiselle, rest assured he is beyond all pain, the lucky devil.’ Andrew tottered around the machine to take the controls.
‘Wait for me!’ cried the doctor as he and the comte, giving each other mutual support, bounced off the door jamb and came crabbing down the steps in an unintended sideways charge.
‘Climb aboard,’ Andrew invited, and at the third attempt kick-started the Ariel in a roar of blue smoke. The doctor clambered on to the pillion behind him, and the comte thrust one of the two bottles of claret that he carried into Andrew’s side pocket.
‘Against the cold,’ he explained.
‘You are a prince among men.’ Andrew let out the clutch and the Ariel screeched into a tight turn.
‘Look after Michael!’ cried Centaine.
‘My cabbages!’ screamed Anna, as Andrew took a short cut through the vegetable garden.
‘A bas les boches!’ howled the comte and took a last surreptitious pull at the other claret bottle, before Centaine could confiscate it from him and relieve him of the cellar keys once more.
Copyright © Wilbur Smith 1985.

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