THE FIRST DUTY
At the sound of footsteps in the courtyard - one set firm and purposeful, the other shambling, stumbling - Lieutenant Dick Player, Royal Navy, pressed his back against the ice-cold stone wall in the comer of the tiny solitary confinement cell and tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. The pool of light from the corridor when the door was opened wouldn't reach this far, and there was very little chance of any German soldier being bright enough to think of inspecting a solitary cell before its inmate had been delivered, but he wasn't going to take any risks. Besides, if the Jerries ever got the idea that solitary confinement wasn't quite as secure as they'd hitherto believed, the consequences would be far-reaching; more guards, more locks, more suspicion - a tipping of the scale in favour of the captors.
Here in Colditz - the German Sonderlager or 'bad boys' camp' near Leipzig - the War had long ago been reduced to a matter of such minute victories and defeats. Every piece of contraband successfully concealed during an inspection was a victory; every foot of tunnel dug, every false passport prepared, every German officer embarrassed counted as much to the inmates as a squadron shot down, a capital ship sunk, a city bombed. By the same token every plan foiled, every secret hide discovered, every privilege withdrawn hurt like the loss of a friend. Yet the little hurts, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks, somehow only served to make them all stronger, to unite them against the common foe - not Germany, but indolence.
There was a school of thought, unexpressed except by those who were perceived as having radical views, that the Germans were as much prisoners as they were themselves. Certainly most of them seemed remarkably unsuited to the role of prison guard; some of them possessed a strong streak of humanity that showed through even in the most trying of circumstances.
However the most benevolent jail is still a jail; Player had rationalised it until he was sick of rationalising it. Colditz could be worse - in fact just lately it had rather a lot to be said in its favour - but he, for one, would rather be almost anywhere else.
Confined in the cells a few days previously after an escape attempt from the park - the area of starved grass surrounded by barbed wire in which the prisoners took their infrequent exercise - he was at this moment acting in response to a request from Captain Pat Grant, the British contingent's escape co-ordinator. A note and a Colditz-made skeleton key smuggled to him in the bread that accompanied his evening meal had made everything clear, although without the key he thought that probably he would have dug his way through the wall in any way he could, like the Count of Monte Cristo. With its assistance, he could be on hand to await the arrival of the cell's new occupant.
Waiting, part of his mind rejoicing in the knowledge that he had been right to trust in Carrington, he could not help reviewing a conversation he had had with Grant only a few weeks earlier. At that time, Flight Lieutenant Philip Reinhardt Carrington - a recently arrived American officer - had succeeded in making enemies of most of the British. Grant, for some reason, seemed to enjoy Carrington's company, but the American's expressed pro-German views had alienated everyone else in the place - to the extent that he was known as the Herr Leutnant Carrington and facetiously saluted in the courtyard.
Carrington had played his part as a turncoat to the hilt, stomping and scowling like Olivier's HeathcIiff that wayward lock of dark hair falling down over his brow and making him look more than ever like some uncontrollable elemental force only temporarily contained in human form. That it was just a part he was playing had only been known for certain by Captain Grant, but Player had had his suspicions - suspicions he had confided to Grant in low, whispered tones during one of their early morning heart-to-hearts. Grant's words came back to him now as he waited for the Goons to deliver the American to the cell.
"What's the matter, Dick? Are you ... Are you keen on him, or something?" Uncomfortable with Player's openly acknowledged homosexuality, Grant still found it difficult to come to terms with discussing the emotions his friend was experiencing. He had never before had a close friend who admitted to such feelings, and he was still getting used to Player's complete refusal to be ashamed either of himself or of his needs.
"I could be," the younger, blond man admitted. "And I can't believe he's such a complete rat as he seems." Player paused, scrambling out of his bunk and wrapping himself in a threadbare dressing-gown before hauling himself up to sit on Grant's bunk. In the pre-dawn dark, somehow, cigarettes were found and lit.
"Pat," Player said at last, choosing his words carefully, "you know how vulnerable I am in here. I don't expect to be able to have any kind of relationship with any man except on a purely friendly basis - it's just too complicated. But I can't stop myself feeling things for people. I just don't want to find that I've become attracted to someone on the other side. It doesn't matter about him being straight, but I do mind about him being a Nazi. I'd expect a friend of mine to warn me off if he thought that was the case."
Grant took a long drag on his cigarette and expelled the smoke before replying. "As escape officer," he said, his voice a mere whisper, "anything that's said to me is as much in confidence as if I was the padre. You know that. But I'll tell you this, Dick; I like Carrington - and I don't have many Nazi friends."
Player smiled. "That's good enough for me," he said softly. "He may be as straight as a Roman road, but he's not a complete rat. Thanks, Pat."
It had given him all the confidence he needed. Carrington was certainly good to look at, and Player had enjoyed doing just that on the rare occasions when they met. Confined in a Prominente cell writing the book for which the German Military Intelligence had given him both permission and facilities, Carrington hadn't mixed much with the other prisoners - a fact which had earned him the scorn and distrust of the rest of the camp. Now, it seemed, whatever scheme the American had been trying to put over on the Germans had failed disastrously, and he'd been on the receiving end of a very thorough Gestapo interrogation and beating.
Footsteps on the stone flags outside heralded the door opening. A German soldier flung Carrington into the darkness and had the door closed and locked again before he had even hit the ground. For a moment Player waited, hearing the footsteps retreat, and as soon as the outer door slammed he struck a match and applied it to the wick of his home-made lamp, emerging from the shadows long enough to cast an assessing eye over the interrogators' handiwork.
By the looks of the American, he'd put up quite a fight.
Good for you, Yank, he told the man, silently. He had not come unprepared, and made haste to soak his handkerchief in clean water in order to use it as a swab. Carrington's face was a bloody mess, his eyes closed, his shirt wet with sweat and flecked with his own blood. The Gestapo had taken out their frustrations on him with gusto, but they had obviously decided - or been ordered - to inflict no permanent damage. Perhaps in the long term it would be more satisfying to them to know he was safely under lock and key for the duration.
Bending over, he began to wipe the blood from the battered face; it was pure luck he had been the one currently doing solitary, the one to whom Pat Grant's stooge had ghosted the cell key. He knew that, of all the inmates of the SonderIager, he was the one with Carrington's well-being most truly to heart - almost to the point of obsession, in fact - but whether or not he could look after the American without revealing his own feelings was not a question he was anxious to have answered. if he'd had a choice he wouldn't have gone within a thousand miles of Carrington just at this moment. Still, the man was only semi-conscious at best and certainly the sight of Phil Carrington weltering in his own blood was not as attractive as that of Phil Carrington active and healthy. Player realised he had never seen the man smile; it would probably be a spectacular sight.
The American's dark blue eyes opened cautiously, reflecting the faint gleam of the fat-lamp with its pyjama cord wick.
"Hello," Player said, softly, not interrupting his tender cleansing of the bloodstained face. "Pat got a message through to me. It was a damned good try, Yank."
Carrington grimaced, trying to smile. "Thanks, Limey," he replied. He let Player continue until the job was finished, watching him through half-open eyes. "You know, you'll make someone a wonderful mother one day."
"So I've been told," was the Englishman's arch response. He turned and threw the bloody cloth back into the bucket. "Any other injuries?" he asked, fingers reaching for the top button of Carrington's blue uniform shirt and unfastening it rapidly - then the next and the next, gently checking beneath for any signs of damage.
"They kicked me around pretty good," Carrington told him.
"Uh-huh. Well, your breathing's fine so I don't think they've broken any ribs. What about lower down?"
"Well, somebody certainly landed a jackboot right where it hurts - but I think I'll wait and let the Doc take a look at that, if you don't mind."
"Why? Unduly modest, or have you got something I haven't seen before?"
Carrington's hand caught Player's wrist just as the Englishman reached the waistband of the uniform trousers.
"Don't get me wrong, Player," he said, brusquely. "I don't think I have anything you haven't seen before. I just like to pick and choose who gets access to it, is all."
In the flickering yellow light Player's face seemed paler than ever, his eyes large and startled.
"Oh. You've heard something, I presume."
Carrington's grip on the captive wrist loosened. "I hadn't been in this place twenty-four hours before one of your so-called buddies sidled up to me and told me you were queer."
"And you believed him?"
"Yeah. You tellin' me it isn't true?"
Player leaned over and blew out the lamp to save fuel. The slightly rancid smell of the smoke seemed to increase in the semi-darkness, a fugitive sliver of light from the high barred window casting a pale gleam into an empty comer of the room.
"Listen, Yank," Player told him, controlling an old anger, "whatever I may or may not have been outside Colditz, in here I'm celibate. We all are. Sex in this place is something you do by yourself- if you have the energy. The Germans and the SBO and a lot of other people - the Doc included - have issued very stern warnings about what will happen to anyone caught doing his fellow-man a favour. It was the subject of the padre's very first sermon, in fact, and I've never seen a man blush so much in all my life. Besides, I'm here to help you and I think it's bloody ungrateful of you to suggest otherwise. A queer can mop up blood just as well as anyone else, you know."
"Hey, easy, Player, easy," Carrington drawled. "I'm a big grown-up boy and I've been around the world a time or two. Actually I couldn't care less whether you're queer or not. What I care about is that nobody except the Doc gets their hands on my private parts unless I'm in a condition to make the decision for myself. Right?"
There was a long silence from Player, and then the voice from the darkness said, shakily; "Good God. Are you telling me you might be ... interested?"
The American groaned. "I might be," he conceded. "Only I've been hit on the head, remember. Ask me again when I've got my wits about me, okay?"
"No. No, it's ridiculous. It's impossible to be queer in a POW camp."
"Really? I'd have thought it was very difficult to be anything else."
"That's the whole point, Yank!" Player told him, in exasperation. "Apart from all the official condemnation, when do any two men ever get time to be alone? And where, for God's sake?"
"Hey, you're the expert, I'll leave the technical details to you. But we're alone now, huh?"
'Yes. And in case you hadn't noticed, you're still flat on your back on a stone floor. Let me help you onto the bunk, at least."
"I guess if you must ... " was Carrington's weary response as he let Player ease him into a sitting position and then, carefully, help him to stand up only long enough to guide him a few steps across the cell floor and then lower him onto the bunk. It was fully as uncomfortable as the floor, only slightly warmer.
"Fine, mom, thanks. Should you be getting back?"
'Yes, in a few minutes. I won't be able to come again; I have to smuggle the key back to Pat in the morning."
"I guess I'll see you maybe June or July, then?"
"I'll look forward to it," was the warm reply.
"Yeah, Limey, so will I." In the darkness he still had hold of Player's hand, and he gripped it more tightly and pulled the Englishman towards him. "Listen, a lot of my best friends are queers," he said, gently.
"Oh? What does that make you?"
"Well, in a couple of months' time maybe we'll both find out," Player said, in a confiding whisper. "I've got to admit, Yank, I do fancy you. Have done for a while, actually."
"Yeah, I thought so. And the name's Phil. Not 'Yank'."
An amused chuckle. "The name's Dick. Not 'Limey'," was the response.
"Uh-huh. You know what 'dick' is, don't you?"
"Not only do I know, I've met a fair few."
"I'll just bet you have. You know, tomorrow, I'm not gonna believe this conversation ever took place."
Player leaned down over him, his hand still twined with Phil's. "Tomorrow," he said, "you won't remember a word of it. Now go to sleep." He bent low, placing a kiss of gentle affection on Carrington's brow. "Goodnight," he whispered.
"G'night, mom," the American told him, sleepily. "Thanks for taking care of me."
"Hmmm." Player paused, hallway to the door. "Maybe in June or July I'll let you return the favour."
In the first week of July Carrington was removed from solitary and, carrying his palliasse and his washing-kit, ceremoniously escorted back to the British quarters. Grant and Flight Lieutenant Simon Carter, seemingly engaged in an innocent game of cards, were the only occupants of the dormitory when he arrived. They both greeted him with a new friendliness, contrasting with their earlier reserve.
"Hello, Phil," Grant said, the warm tone of his voice conveying both welcome and regret. "Sorry it didn't work out. Your old bunk is still unoccupied, if you want it back."
In subdued mood, Carrington reclaimed the lower of the two bunks nearest the washroom, noting that the resident of the upper tier seemed to have moved out.
"What happened to whassisname - the guy in the top bunk?" he asked, absently.
"Collapsed during Appell about ten days ago and got taken to a Kraut hospital. He won't be back. Something wrong with his heart, apparently."
Grant had abandoned the card-game and was leaning idly against the upright at the foot of Carrington's bunk as the American bestowed his few belongings. "The next new boy will move in with you," he added.
"Uh-huh. And how soon can I start thinking about moving out again?"
"Escaping, you mean? Come up with a scheme and convince me, and then we'll see what can be arranged. Fair enough?"
"Yeah" Carrington ran a hand over his stubbled chin. "I need a shave. A change of clothes, maybe."
"Yes, well, take your time," he was advised. "Simon's kept something back for you from the last Red Cross parcel, by the way. It's a little tradition we have when anyone comes out of solitary. I believe in this case it's a bar of nougat."
"Oh yeah? Nice tradition. Thanks. Look, Pat, I'm not much in the mood for company right now. Give me half an hour or so and then I'll be fine."
"Right. But there's one more thing." Grant lowered his voice conspiratorially, leaning so close that not even Carter, a few feet away, could hear him. "Dick Player."
Immediately Carrington was on the defensive. "what about him'?"
Grant's expression was unreadable. "We're friends, that's all. Dick confides in me. Things he wouldn't tell anyone else, if you know what I mean. I know what the two of you talked about."
Carrington's glare was hostile enough to make Grant shift his feet uncomfortably. "What does that have to do with you?"
The Englishman grimaced. This was difficult ground for him; his own emotional responses kept getting in the way of his judgement.
"In a place like this, Phil, it isn't just your own business. Any rash or ill-considered behaviour could bring the Germans down on every one of us. Our position here is precarious enough as it is."
"You're saying 'Don't make waves'?"
"I suppose so. You can understand that, can't you?"
"Yeah. Yes, Pat, I can." Carrington paused in his obsessive reorganisation of his belongings long enough to meet Grant's eyes on equal terms. "Look," he said, "I've gotta be honest with you, I have no idea how I feel about the guy. Yeah, I find him attractive and no, it wouldn't be the first time I'd been with another guy. Apart from that - being in Colditz is probably the only thing we have in common. It would be easy enough to get into some kind of affair, but I don't want anybody to get hurt. I'm not going to make use of somebody just because he's there and he's willing, if you know what I mean. I'd rather have Dick as a friend than as an ex-lover. Whatever I feel, I plan to keep it under control - sublimate it into getting out of here. That's all there is," he added, with a sheepish smile, as though embarrassed by his own honesty.
Grant appeared thoughtful, his kind countenance bearing a worried expression. "Thank you for being so forthright about it," he said. "I think Dick will be glad to know exactly where he stands, too. If it helps, he said very similar things about you when he got out of solitary four days ago."
"Really? I'm glad."
"Yes, I think you are. Well, I'll be here if you need me - either of you. And whatever you say will be treated in strictest confidence."
"Yeah, I know that. Thanks, Pat."
The escape officer was smiling now, that reassuring smile that had made him such a good choice for his difficult role. Pat Grant's smile somehow made men believe that the impossible was possible; it was necessary to obtain his approval of their plans before escaping, and by extension it was felt that whatsoever Captain Grant approved of was a good thing in itself. His approval of Carrington would set the seal on the man's acceptance by the Colditz inmates.
Grant held out his hand, and to his slight astonishment Carrington found himself accepting a genuine British handshake which was somehow more affectionate than any hearty American embrace.
"Welcome back, Phil," Pat Grant said, warmly.
Refreshed and ready to face the world again, Carrington wandered back into the dormitory half an hour later to find a small assembly of British officers lounging on bunks or sitting by windows, reading. As he entered the room, Brent was brandishing a cricket bat and taking his guard in front of a wicket chalked on the inside of the door. Player, clutching a grubby tennis ball, was going through a furious fast-bowling warm-up less than twenty feet away. A narrow space between bunks had been designated as the playing area.
Simon Carter caught sight of Carrington's amused expression. "It's the cricket season," he said, by way of explanation.
"The traditional English rain-making ceremony? Yeah, I've read about it in the National Geographic."
"Phil!" Player had rounded on him with a huge grin lighting his boyish features, which met a sardonically cautious response.
"Hullo, Carrington" Several of the other residents of the room crowded round, their earlier suspicions of Carrington dispelled by his valiant attempt to smuggle strategic information to his American publisher.
"You guys all play cricket?" he asked, as he was surrounded by former enemies all anxious to compensate for their treatment of him on his first sojourn with them.
"Of course." It was Captain Tim Downing who spoke; over six feet in height, with blond hair and a heavy moustache, he would have been most Americans' idea of a typical Englishman. His manner was languid and aristocratic. "It's the only game for a gentleman. Some of us used to be pretty good, too. Dick played for Dartmouth."
"The town or the college?"
The laughter was immediate and appreciative. That an American knew the difference was enough of a surprise to win over Carrington's audience.
"The college," Player told him, dismissively.
"Hey, Phil, catch!" From the other side of the room Carter, who had been rummaging in his secret store under the floorboards, threw a small wrapped package at Carrington. The American took a neat two-handed catch just above his head.
"Solitary rations," he explained. "Anybody want a share?"
He had several eager volunteers, and for a minute or so the nougat bar was passed around, each man taking just enough to taste.
"You know, you caught that pretty well," Brent said, thoughtfully.
"Uh-huh. Think I ought to try out for the team?" asked Carrington, with a sideways smile.
"That's ridiculous. Americans don't play cricket." Downing's scorn was intended solely to provoke a reaction.
"True. But I played baseball for Michigan State U. Whether that's as good as playing cricket for Dartmouth I don't know, but I can catch and throw. I can hit a ball, too."
"I bet you can," Player told him, in the tone of voice that suggested that Carrington could probably walk on water if only he tried hard enough. "But there's a difference. Baseball's just a game. Cricket's more of an art form. I don't suppose there's a lot of poetry written about baseball, is there?"
"Well, there's some. Not much you can repeat in polite company," Carrington conceded. "Why, is there poetry about cricket?"
"Ever hear of Francis Thompson?"
"Then you must know 'At Lord's'?"
The American shook his head. "I don't believe I do. How does it go?"
The blue intensity of the gaze was enough to fluster Player. He was breathless and pink in the face as he launched into his recitation in a schoolboy sing-song:
"It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!"
Aware of Carrington's amused gaze on him Player stopped suddenly, his face flushing bright red.
"if there's any more," he said, "I can't remember it. I had to learn it for prep."
The American nodded, slowly. "You're right," he admitted. "It's good poetry. So who are these Hornby and Barlow guys?"
"Before my time, I'm afraid. Lancastrians, I presume - hence the red roses."
"An American interested in cricket," Downing said, shaking his head in pantomime disbelief as the little group broke up. "Got to be a first time for everything, I suppose. "
"Hey, don't knock it," Carrington advised him, cheerfully. "Some of us have hidden depths."
He wandered back towards his own small section of the room, to discover Pat Grant once more leaning nonchalantly against the empty upper bunk with an amused expression on his face.
"Some of us," he said, softly, "don't hide them well enough. 'I plan to keep it under control' was what you said."
"Yeah? So what?"
Grant chuckled, bending closer to keep his words private. "So stop looking at Dick the way Clark Gable looks at Vivien Leigh, that's all," he said, before straightening up and walking away.
Bemused, Carrington could only follow Grant's departure with his eyes, his mind seething and his feelings once again in turmoil.
"Close the door, Pat, will you?"
Colonel John Preston glanced across briefly at his visitor, then returned to pouring ersatz coffee into two tin mugs. A small spoonful of honey took the place of sugar, the former being easier to obtain in a wartime economy.
"Please sit down," the Senior British Officer invited, somewhat gruffly, thrusting a mug towards Grant as he obeyed. Their meetings were often awkward, characterised by indecision as to whether they were officers of different rank who should therefore preserve a certain formality or two friends who found themselves in a shared predicament. Preston usually side-stepped the problem by beginning quite formally, then allowing himself to relax a little. It was a technique that served to remind the officers under his command that he was always to be considered their superior, but that he was also human. This time, however, it seemed he intended to keep the formalities to a minimum.
"How's the new man getting along?"
"Bentinct-Boyle?" Grant smiled, taking a cautious sip of the coffee. "I don't mind admitting, sir, we had our suspicions. He seemed ... well, too good to be true. He could have been a Nazi stool-pigeon. However we got Brent to check him out; they were both Wykehamists. He's sound enough, just a bit of a caricature."
The Colonel took the seat opposite Grant's, across a bare wooden table. Preston's quarters were as stark as any others in the Castle, with the additional disadvantage of not having a stove. Although he had privacy, therefore, he paid for it with discomfort throughout the winter months. Even in the summer this room, with its south-facing window looking out over the Kommandantur, got very little in the way of sunlight or warmth, so that it offered a cool and vaguely hostile setting for their discussion.
"How's he settling in?"
"Well enough. He's got the bunk above Carrington's. I think they've hit it off"
'Yes. No doubt. As a matter of fact, Pat, it was Carrington I wanted to talk to you about. Or, more accurately, Carrington and Player. I don't know your views on the subject, Pat, and perhaps we should have discussed it before this, but I need you to be completely honest with me. Is there anything going on I should know about?"
Grant paused, looking into the coffee mug as though it contained some sort of answer.
"Sir, if I said I didn't know what you meant I'd be lying," he concluded, reluctantly. "But it's really too early to tell."
"Hmmm." Preston had wrapped his mug tightly in both hands and was looking not at it but through it. "As I see it," he said, "Dick's always been perfectly honest about himself - at least to you and me."
'Yes, sir. As you know he has the bunk below mine and he confided in me more or less immediately. "I admit I was a little ... surprised ... but I think he did the right thing. Better that it doesn't have to be a secret from absolutely everybody. And he agreed that you should know as well."
'Yes, I always thought that was a wise decision," Preston admitted. "I won't pretend I've had a lot of experience of dealing with this kind of problem, Pat; I've had soldiers under my command who disgraced themselves with boys, of course, that sort of thing happens fairly frequently in the Army and even more frequently in the Navy - or so I'm told. But I've never before met an officer in any service who could so calmly accept himself as queer and didn't seem in the least bit ashamed of it."
"Obviously before he was captured it wasn't really an issue," the Colonel went on, punctuating his words with sips of coffee. "He wasn't in any other camp before this, was he?"
"No. He's one of the few who came straight here," Grant supplied, glad to be on solid ground. "He was picked up out of the sea and escaped from his hospital room. When he was recaptured they took him to Berlin and tried to get him to work for Germany. I understand … "
The irresolute pause caught Colonel Preston's attention and he glanced up sharply. "What?"
The other man grimaced. "Well, Dick's father was a diplomat in Berlin before the war. Dick still has contacts there. One of them was an aristocrat of some kind who took the opportunity to try and seduce him. Dick refused, and I gather the man cut up rough."
"Ah. Then he's here not so much as a seasoned escaper but because he rejected this German fellow's advances?"
"More or less, sir, yes."
"Which implies in turn that the High Command probably knows all about Dick's preferences from this ... rejected suitor."
The old-fashioned phrase was enough to make Grant smile, despite the seriousness of the subject under discussion.
"Yes, sir, I'd agree. Hence the lectures from every quarter when we arrived - the Stabsarzt, the Doc, the padre ... "
"Even me, yes, I know. Well, these things have to be done, Pat; it's a matter of form. And the Kommandant made a point of mentioning it to me when we first met."
"That settles it, then. The Germans are well aware of Dick. They're probably keeping a special eye on him."
Preston's head lifted, his jaw jutting sternly. "Yes, probably," he conceded. "I'm doing the same thing myself, which is why I want to know about Carrington. Is there some sort of situation developing there that could give either the Kommandant or myself cause for concern?"
"In all honesty, sir," Grant sighed, returning his empty mug to the table, "I just can't give you an answer. I've spoken to Carrington and he admits he's had affairs with men in the past and that he's attracted to Player, but I get the impression he's determined not to give in to the temptation. That being said, though ..."
"Well?" A mild reproof for Grant's hesitancy.
"It's only a feeling, sir. A 'gut reaction', if you like. I don't think he's going to manage it. Not in a place like Colditz. They're thrown together all the time; short of having one or other of them transferred - and I don't see how you could talk the Germans into that - it's probably only a matter of time."
"Inevitable, you mean?"
"Yes, sir. Look, as far as I can see they're doing their level best to stay apart - but it's obviously not working. I don't know whether anyone else has noticed anything yet, but if they do ... when they do ... well, yes, then I think we'll have problems."
Colonel Preston grunted agreement. "Better to nip it in the bud, then, you think? Try and get one of them out of here?"
Grant nodded assent. "Carrington hasn't been here long enough to warrant an escape attempt," he said, leaning back in the chair and watching as the Colonel rose and turned towards the window, "but Dick's pretty close to the top of the list. I'll make sure he's ready in case we get a blitz opportunity at any time."
Grant rose, judging that the interview was over. However just as he was about to leave, Preston spoke again.
"Pat, I have the welfare of the entire British contingent to consider," he said, turning back. His expression was as bleak as the room in which he lived.
"I know, sir."
"Fifty officers," the Colonel emphasised. "I can't allow myself to be drawn into any sort of favouritism or partiality. I may wish," he went on, "that this wasn't always the case. I like Carrington, and I like Dick Player. Ordinarily their relationship would be none of my business. However, these are not ordinary circumstances. Giving Player an early chance to escape seems to me the only sensible solution." He turned back to the window. "Get him out of harm's way, Pat," he said, with a sigh.
Resignedly, Grant accepted the decision. "Yes, sir," he agreed, and let himself out of the room.
A depressing autumn was metamorphosing into a terrible winter. Days of sharp frost had already occurred, occasionally punctuated by golden days of sunshine. In the park greatcoats had been discarded and half-hearted cricket matches played, to the accompaniment of a great deal of amusement at the antics of what Downing persisted in describing as the World's Only American Cricketer. Even Downing, however, had to admit that Carrington had started to learn the game; now that he had stopped trying to pitch under-arm he might eventually make a useful bowler and he could, as he had said, catch and throw.
Not even the determination of the camp inmates, though, could keep the leaves on the trees; Autumn had set in with violent storms which made them all secretly grateful for the protection of the Castle's high walls. Colditz in winter could never be a paradise, but compared to the bleakness of the German countryside it still had a great deal to offer.
Winter was not the ideal season for escape attempts. Carrington and Carter were, in fact, working on a rooftop escape at this very moment, but the early frosts had set their plans back considerably. Inching across steep roofs ninety feet from the ground was a difficult enough proposition to start with; those same roofs covered in a layer of frost or black ice would be deadly.
The delay had, however, provided Carrington with an opportunity to deal with unfinished business. Dick Player and Edward Bentinct-Boyle had gone out on a blitz back in August; Bentinct-Boyle had been recaptured immediately and brought back to Colditz to serve his time in solitary and then return to the ordinary life of the camp, but Player had had a far rougher time. On the run for two weeks during the wettest weather of the year, he'd contracted pneumonia. He had been brought back to Colditz looking like death warmed over and spent three weeks in the hospital before being sent into solitary. This had pushed his re-integration into the camp back to the beginning of October, and by all calculations it should certainly be today or tomorrow.
Returning from the park, frost-nipped hands stuffed deep into greatcoat pockets, Carrington had remarked as much to Simon Carter. Carter's eyebrows rose. Although not a party to Pat Grant's certainty about Carrington, he was observant enough to understand that there was a tone present in Carrington's voice when he mentioned Player that was not present otherwise.
"Yeah," he said. "Today, probably. Look, when we get back, George and I are going to set up a stoolball match in the courtyard. It'll warm us all up. Last year," he added, sadly, "we didn't get any park privileges and we had to play stoolball all winter. Even in the snow."
The British-devised game was something between rugby and wrestling, possibly the fastest and most violent pursuit ever invented. It was a very good way of breaking bones and pulling muscles, especially in colder weather. Carrington had been known to play, but had given it as his opinion that being torn apart by a pack of ravening wolves would probably be more fun.
"I'll give that a miss, thanks. I owe Downing a couple of hours on document faking. Unless he's playing stoolball too?"
"Probably. He and Peter Muir are still trying to observe that sentry in the courtyard, so he'll be out there anyway. By the time we've got the game set up he'll probably be only too glad to run around for half an hour."
Carrington gave him a sideways grin. "You mean throw himself about in a frenzy for half an hour and then collapse in a sweating heap, don't you?" he asked, mildly.
Carter chortled. "Yeah, I suppose I do."
Seeking out Tim Downing as soon as they returned to the Castle, Carrington found him leaning against the delousing shed with his eyes firmly on the retreating back of the Goon sentry in question.
"l owe you a couple of hours," he said, by way of an opening. Downing had assisted him in timing some German patrols a couple of evenings earlier in preparation for the still-intended rooftop bid.
Downing shrugged minutely.
"Not just now, old boy," he said, his eyes never turning in Carrington's direction. "This afternoon. You can mix some ink for me, if you don't mind."
"Sure." The American knew his penmanship wasn't up to the actual business of forgery, but he had come to understand the whole process of mixing dyes and inks intimately. It was a useful attribute to possess.
Pilot Officer Peter Muir, a few feet away, drifted closer. He seemed little more than an overgrown schoolboy, full of wild enthusiasm for every adventure, an unruly lock of mid-brown hair falling over his forehead. "Shouldn't Dick Player be out of solitary today?" he asked.
"That's what I figured," Carrington confirmed.
"Already seen him," Downing rejoined lazily. "Just heading for our quarters when we came back from the park Couldn't have been anybody else - I expect he's getting cleaned up."
The need for an all-over wash on returning from solitary was familiar to them all. Sanitary facilities throughout the camp were extremely limited, but in solitary even more so. A bucket of warm water every second day was the extent of the washing facilities, and stripping off in a cell to wash in the contents of the bucket was something one only contemplated in the summer months.
"How does he look?" Carrington asked, sounding calmer than he felt.
"Like' anyone would look after a combination of pneumonia and solitary," Downing drawled. "Worn out."
"Yeah? Well, he'll be glad to get back to the camp for a rest cure, then."
Brent and Carter were emerging from the doorway at the foot of the British staircase carrying three-legged stools. With them was Bentinct-Boyle, carrying a rather mangled-looking football and looking for all the world like a sports master about to preside over rugger with the Lower Fifth. In a few moments the courtyard would be enveloped in the kind of mayhem that would make Passchendaele look like the vicar's croquet party.
Carrington nodded thoughtfully. "Uh-huh. Well, I guess I'll go see how he's getting along. Thanks, Tim."
Downing's eyebrows lifted. "Don't mention it."
Turning, Carrington threaded his way back through the small crowd in the courtyard with some caution. The sentry Downing had been watching was now at the far end of his beat and had turned to watch the prisoners preparing for one of their extraordinary games. Carrington passed the German just before he reached the British doorway and disappeared. Muir looked over at Downing, wearing an expression of mild enquiry.
"Something the matter with Phil?"
"Don't ask me, old boy," Downing told him. "There are some things I try not to know anything about - and that particular situation is one of them. Better not to get involved in any way.
"Situation?" Muir echoed the word without comprehension. "You're not serious? I mean, I know about Dick, but surely Phil … ?"
Downing's languid, aristocratic eyes studied Muir's bewildered features.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I haven't the faintest idea. Ignorance is bliss, old boy. Take my advice and keep well out of it."
Muir, absorbing the words only slowly, shook his head. If Downing knew anything that he didn't - and it was far from certain by the vague way he had answered Muir's question - he obviously had no intention of parting with it. Intrigued, but accepting the waning at face value, Muir allowed his mind to dwell freely on the subject whilst Downing's attention was given over entirely to the forthcoming stoolball match.
The dozens of stone steps up to the British quarters were unusually quiet. Most people had gone out either to participate in or to watch the stoolball. Since watching was fully as dangerous as joining in - and sometimes ended up being the same thing - those who did so took their lives in their hands. In addition, for those of a quieter disposition, other groups were meeting throughout the Castle; the linguists, the literary set, the Church of England padre's small choral group. There was almost enough to keep one's mind occupied; almost so much to do that there was no time to think of escape. Even in Colditz there were officers who, from time to time and for a variety of reasons, preferred to resign themselves to their captivity. That was the way the Germans liked it, and for some people it was plenty. It would never be enough for Carrington - nor, he knew, for Dick Player.
Entering the dormitory, he removed his greatcoat and threw it on his bunk. There was no-one else in the room, but from the washroom came the sound of running water.
"Dick?" he called out.
"Here," was the equally brisk response.
He took a few steps to the washroom and leaned against the doorjamb. On the far side of the wash-trough Player, completely naked, was soaping himself down.
"How're you doin'?" Carrington asked him.
Player, with soap in his eyes as well as everywhere else, merely inclined his head in the American's direction.
"Fine. Simon's saved a jar of honey for me - solitary rations. Want to share it later?"
"No. You earned it the hard way. I hear you got to Vienna?"
"Yes. I'm afraid the American Consulate refused to help me."
"Yeah, so I hear."
"I can't exactly blame them," Player went on. He splashed a quantity of clean, cold water into his face and removed the last of the soap from his eyes with the corner of the towel. His hair was soaking wet, streaming trails of water down over his neck and shoulders. "I was a disgusting object," he added. "Well, you know. Pneumonia isn't exactly pretty."
"I know. But you're feeling okay now?"
"I'm flue." Player was towelling his hair, the pale blond strands sent into wayward confusion above brilliant blue eyes that now fastened on Carrington. "So what do you want?"
Carrington sighed, folding his arms as he surveyed the younger man's nakedness without embarrassment "Good question," he said, thoughtfully. "Reckon you could manage to stay out of the cooler for a month or two? Maybe then we could see whether or not we have anything in common."
"You mean, apart from the fact that I fancy you and you can't make your mind up whether or not you fancy me?" was the arch response.
"No, I don't mean that. And I don't remember saying I was undecided, either - just that I didn't know how to go about it. Or whether we should. You were the one who said it was impossible - and we've both done enough solitary for a while."
Player, towelling his lower body, sighed. "True. But I'd rather take the risk of being caught than have to go on indefinitely like this. It's like a prison within a prison, Phil."
Carrington nodded, his chin sunk on his chest in thought. "Okay. Only we minimise the risks. Any ideas?"
"No, but Ill think of something - if you're sure you want to?"
The American groaned. "The reason I'm way over here with my arms folded is it's the only way to stop myself pawing you all over," he said, the words stumbling out awkwardly. "For God's sake get some clothes on before I lose control altogether, will you? If I lay a finger on you here in broad daylight it's even money some guy who's supposed to be on our side'll turn us in to the Krauts. The place is full of repressed puritans as it is; all they need is an excuse."
Struggling to force his still-damp body into underwear and khaki trousers, Player paused long enough to grin up at Carrington, one lock of blond hair breaking loose and falling over his brow to make him look more than ever like a recalcitrant schoolboy.
"All right," he said, happily. "As long as I know you want me, I can put up with the rest."
"What, even sleeping twenty feet apart and sharing our bedroom with fourteen other guys?"
"It won't be forever," Player assured him.
"Yeah? I wish I was as certain of that as you are," was Carrington's somewhat jaundiced reply.
Colonel Preston was standing, hands in pockets, staring out of the window of his quarters when Captain Grant appeared in the doorway.
"You wanted to talk to me, sir?"
"Yes, Pat. In confidence."
Without further consultation, Grant closed the door. The message he had received had been sufficiently oblique and urgent to bring Grant here at speed, yet without arousing the suspicions of his fellow British officers. There were always enough administrative details to be discussed - the distribution of Red Cross parcels, the rota for Officer of the Day, the welfare of the officers - to make Grant a fairly regular guest in the SBO's quarters. Usually when Preston wanted to see him he detailed the nearest available officer to ask Pat to step in for a few words. The message, however, had made it all seem rather more mysterious than that.
"How's Dick Player?" Turning towards Grant, who was making some attempt to stand at attention, Preston signalled to him to relax. His expression suggested that the enquiry might not be as innocuous as it had seemed.
"I think he be fine, sir. The German hospital did a good job on his pneumonia; as far as I can tell he isn't even short of breath."
Preston produced and lit a cigarette, then tossed the pack to Grant who did likewise. "Thank you, sir."
Inhaling deeply, the Colonel expelled the smoke from his lungs as though he was thereby also expelling demons. When he returned his attention to his visitor, he seemed less agitated than previously - although with a man of Preston's monumental calm agitation was a matter of degree.
"Pat, as you know you're not, technically, my second-in-command here," he said, thoughtfully. "I suppose that would be Captain Brent. However as a liaison officer between myself and the others you fulfil most of the functions of that post. In short, I rely on you for a clear picture of what is happening in the camp - what tensions exist, what difficulties may present themselves. Do you follow me?"
"Yes, sir, thank you."
"You're the kind of officer people feel they can confide in," Preston went on. "Especially those who for one reason or another feel exempt from the kind of consolation religion has to offer."
"Player and Carrington, you mean?"
"Specifically, yes. But in this instance, also ... myself. I would like to discuss something with you that I feel unable to mention to the padre - and to do so as a fellow officer rather than as your CO. However I have no wish to burden you with what is essentially a personal matter. It must be your decision."
"I'll help in any way I can, sir. You know you can rely on me.
The Colonel cleared his throat, gratified to notice the expression of concern on Grant's pleasant features. Suddenly he felt reassured.
"As you know, Pat, I served during the previous War. I was very young, of course, but it was - literally - a bloody, awful time. Being pretty naive about such matters, it took me rather a long time to catch on to the fact that some officers were closer to other men than was generally considered suitable. When I did understand ... well, I was shocked and, I think, disgusted. That was all right, you see, because queers were something to be laughed at. Something unnatural. Something... against all natural laws. They were legitimate targets. There were some in the Ambulance Brigade, conscientious objectors. They came in for a lot of ridicule, as you can imagine."
"Yes, sir," Grant said, neutrally, aware that Preston had probably never discussed this with anyone before.
"I had a brother," the Colonel went on, dragging the words from some grim depth of memory. "He was five years older than me. On one occasion at the end of 1917 we somehow managed to get leave at the same time, and we met up in Paris. My brother was in a pretty poor state; we tried to go out and have a good time, find a couple of girls, get drunk, but Giles couldn't seem to shake off whatever was troubling him I assumed it was simply what troubled us all - the horror of war, the things he'd seen - but there was more to it than that. When we were alone and he was so drunk he couldn't hold himself together any longer, he told me about a man - a friend of his - who had been killed in an explosion. In nearly twenty-five years since I've considered his words time and time again, but I can still come to no other conclusion than that my brother was homosexually involved with the man who was killed."
He glanced up, reading the expression on Grant's face carefully. It had not altered by a fraction, was still the same sympathetic and reassuring look that offered no hint of criticism.
"Well," Preston went on, "Giles went back to his unit, and only a few weeks later he was himself dead. As far as I am aware, no-one else had any knowledge of the attachment between him and his friend - and I have certainly tried to make myself believe I was mistaken. However the business of Player and Carrington has forced me to reconsider; Player's openness is something that in those days would not have been understood, but I can't help wishing it had been possible for Giles to be rather more like him. More... confident. It would all have been a lot less tragic, don't you think?"
Grant, being made aware that he must express an opinion, cleared his throat cautiously. "Sir, your brother and his friend would very possibly still have been killed."
"Yes, I'm aware of that. But neither of them would have had to live with a burden of guilt about their affection for one another. You know King's Regulations don't give me the option of condoning any such thing between Carrington and Player, but for my brother's sake... and as long as you keep me informed of all developments ... I'm prepared to develop a case of Nelsonian blindness towards them. You informed me before that you doubted we'd be able to prevent an affair developing; now that Player's been out of solitary a few days, I would assume the situation has already drifted beyond our control?"
"if you mean have they consummated it, sir, then the answer's no. But they're both determined to. I think it's just a question of where and when, really. If I knew I wouldn't have your active disapproval, I could probably arrange something for them."
"You will have neither my approval nor my disapproval. And I want you to continue making every effort to get one or other - or both, if possible - out of here. An acknowledged homosexual in a small community like this is a dangerous man; I'm sure in Player's case we can take his word that he is interested only in Carrington, and since Carrington returns that interest I'll presume no-one else is affected - but I wouldn't want to create a precedent. You know how violently the Germans disapprove of queers, Pat; I don't want them making an example of them."
"No, sir. I can quite understand that."
"Good. Now you see why I couldn't mention any of this to the padre. He is rather naive in many ways, and I think it would shock him to know that I was considering allowing such a situation to develop. You, on the other hand, are rather more down4o-earth. Knowing both the men involved as well as you do, I suspect your own inclination is also to be sympathetic."
"Yes, sir. I think in this particular case it would do more harm to try and separate them than it would to let the affair run its course."
Preston laughed, a self-conscious sound in the austere room. "Let nothing stand in the path of true love, eh?" The Colonel drew in and exhaled another lungfull of smoke, then gave his final verdict on Player and Carrington. "This is a bloody uncomfortable subject, Pat."
The sentiment struck Grant as being indisputable. "Yes, sir," he agreed, sympathetically.
Returning to the British quarters, Grant found the inevitable card-game in progress. Captain Brent - a thin-faced, dark-haired young man whose perpetually sad expression concealed a genial good nature - had initiated everybody into the mysteries of an unbelievably complicated game called 'Russian Railway', designed to while away the days on long train journeys across Siberia, and which combined several hands of different types of games with a storytelling element that Brent himself was the only person to have mastered. At Player's left shoulder sat Phil Carrington, smoking a cigarette and being consulted occasionally by the blond man on which card should be played next. Grant watched them for a while, noting the good4empered insults hurled by the others whenever Carrington's assistance was sought or offered.
"Stay out of this, Phil," Brent muttered with mock-indignation. "Can't you see he's wining enough already?"
"Fourteen pfennigs?" Player asked, with a laugh. "That isn't even enough for a bottle of beer!"
"You carry on, old man," Bentinct-Boyle said lazily, from around a cigarette. "Win enough to buy the bloody Castle, and then we can all go home."
"Good heavens, why didn't we think of that before?" Peter Muir's dry delivery brought smiles all round. "Hear that, Pat? Dick's going to make a fortune at cards and buy up all Hitler's shares in the War."
"Not a bad idea," Grant chuckled. Observing Player and Carrington's easy closeness, he suddenly had the feeling he was watching a young man and his girl together. Not that there was anything especially feminine about Dick Player; it was more a matter of the way they were together - a hundred times at card-parties or in lounge bars Grant had seen young women deferring to their escorts before they played their cards, in just the way Player was doing now. "Phil, could I have a word with you?"
"Sure." Carrington pushed back his chair, and as he stood up he leaned over Player's shoulder. "Play the nine of hearts," he said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "Brent doesn't have anything to beat that."
Player shot him an affectionate look and followed his advice, resulting in a loud groan from Brent followed by a barrage of abuse.
"Sixteen pfennigs!" Player called to the departing Carrington. "I can buy the Kommandantur as well!"
"Great. We¶ be home for Christmas. You know, Pat, Brent's never gonna win anything until he's learned to cultivate a poker face. He gets a couple of decent cards in his hand and he lights up like a kid at Christmas."
Grant took the American's arm and ushered him towards the quieter part of the room. "Just seen the SBO," he said.
"About you and Dick, I mean."
"Yes, that He's worried about the Germans making an example of you both - but he's not making any objections. if I can find you somewhere quiet and private where you can be together occasionally, will you do your best not to inflict it on the rest of us? Apart from anything else, where people are separated from their wives and girlfriends it could cause jealousy. You know the sort of thing I mean."
"Yeah yeah. Why should Dick and I have each other when most of the guys in here are alone. Makes sense." Carrington shuffled his feet and stuffed his hands into his pockets, feeling slightly awkward.
"Right. That said, and assuming you can keep the whole business away from the Germans, you've got the go-ahead Only you're both still top priority on escape attempts and Ill expect you to put escaping before your personal relationship. Understood?"
"Understood, Pat. And thanks."
Grant nodded, moving away. The card-game had broken up, and Muir had apparently challenged Bentinct-Boyle to a game of draughts. Brent, his sketching-pad and pencil in hand, had stationed himself by the window and was observing a small group of pigeons on a ledge close by - his thoughts, however, running more to pigeon pie than to artistic endeavour. Player, clutching the lagermarken that represented sixteen pfennigs, was crossing the room to where Carrington stood.
"C'mon, Phil, how about a night on the town on my winnings?"
"Great," Carrington responded, laconically. "That'll get us about half a bar of soap or three sheets of writing paper; we can have a pretty wild time with those!"
As the two men left the room, Player did not link his arm with Carrington's. It was all that was missing from the familiarly affectionate exchange. Grant, watching them go, shook his head thoughtfully, a bemused expression on his face.
"Young love, eh?" Bentinct-Boyle said, sharply, intruding on his thoughts.
Pat spun round. "I beg your pardon?"
Edward Bentinct-Boyle's knowing expression did nothing whatever for Grant's equilibrium "Oh, nothing, old man. Just thinking aloud. Must be nice to be young and in love, what?"
"Must be," was Grant's bewildered reply. "if I ever was, it's so long ago I've forgotten all about it.
"Me too, old thing. Me too."
Shrugging into greatcoats on their way downstairs, Player and Carrington emerged into the cold afternoon light in the courtyard warmly wrapped and in an elevated mood. The scene that met their eyes was nothing out of the ordinary, yet as practised escapers both automatically catalogued the two Frenchmen dismantling the handball net, the German Security Officer Hauptmann Ulmann exchanging a greeting with the sentry at the gate, prison's two chaplains engaged in theological discussion whilst staring up at the façade of the chapel, and a lone athletic type pounding his way round the courtyard perimeter in the quest for some illusory fitness.
There were still a few neglected chairs in the last corner the sun had touched, where men muffled up to the eyebrows had sat trying to absorb the thin autumn gleam through skin already beginning to take on its winter pallor. Dropping into two of them, side by side, the two watched Hauptmann Ulmann cross the courtyard purposefully but without urgency, share a polite exchange of greetings with the two padres, and enter the theatre block. The courtyard sentry was covertly observing the French. Colditz was going about its daily business without fuss, which meant that someone somewhere was chipping stone by the thimbleful from a tunnel face, someone was labouring over the Gothic script of an Ausweis, someone was dreaming of border crossings and co-operative guards.
"Y'know," Carrington said, meditatively, "you're an outrageous flirt, Richard."
Despite the setting, Player found himself laughing. "I do not flirt, "he said.
"You do. With me."
"I don't need to flirt with you. You're the one person in this place who understands me."
"Okay, so you don't need to do it - but you do it anyway. Hey, Fm not complaining, I like it. Only Pat Grant thinks some of the other guys could get jealous."
"Jealous!" Player's opinion of the suggestion was eloquent in his tone. "I wasn't exactly fighting men off before you arrived, Phil."
The half-smile on Carrington's normally serious features was a welcome sight. "I didn't mean that, exactly," he conceded. "He feels that if we're too open with each other guys who are separated from their wives and girlfriends will start to resent us. He could have a point, you know."
"So 'stop flirting'? I would, but I don't know when Fm doing it. Besides, being with you ... Sometimes I can forget where we are and why we're here. You're my escape route."
A hand gripping his arm, squeezing it reassuringly, was Carrington's first and most instinctive reply. Then, after a pause; "Still and all... Colonel Preston's withdrawn his objections to us being together. Pat's going to find us a bit of privacy. I guess I never asked how you want to do it?"
"God, are all you Americans so bloody clinical about sex? I don't care how we do it as long as we do it. We'll do it however you want to do it - up against the wall, all fours on the floor, swinging from the chandelier - 'your call' I think is the expression."
"Okaaaaayyy. Swinging from the chandelier it is, then. Better tell Pat to make sure the honeymoon suite has a chandelier."
A good-natured chuckle from his would-be lover, and then Player said softly; "Illustrates something else, though, doesn't it? I don't know the first thing about you and men. When did you first do it?"
Carrington groaned. "Well, not in the States," he said, thoughtfully. "Back home it never would've occurred to me - not even in college. It was when I first came to Europe I guess I decided to try it. I'll be honest, Dick, it was really only out of curiosity. Well, you know, in Berlin a few years ago you could get whatever you wanted if you had the money; one night in a club I picked up what I thought was a beautiful girl - only when I got her home and she got her clothes off ... "
"'She' was a 'he'?"
"Yeah. And I'd never really thought about it before, but it didn't seem to matter. Her name was Mitzi, and we dated for quite a while after that. Then I was sent to Spain and when I got back I couldn't find her."
"You say 'her'."
Carrington met the enquiring blue gaze frankly. "Mitzi wanted to be a girl," he said, gently. "That's how I try to remember her."
The sincerity of the American's affection for his lost lover was only too apparent. A gesture of comfort would have been difficult - almost impossible - but Player compensated for the lack of one with the tone of his voice and the expression in his eyes.
"Do you think she survived?"
Carrington shrugged. "In a way, I kinda hope not. You know how the Nazis are about queers. I'd be a lot happier thinking she was safely dead - where they couldn't hurt her." A long, reflective silence, then; "So, that's me. After Mitzi I was never worried about going with guys. There were a couple of others, mostly in Spain, but it was mainly physical, you know. Scratching an itch. I'd get horny and there'd be some cute kid and we'd screw in the back of a truck or something and then we wouldn't meet again. Before I joined the RAF. I'd more or less given up the whole deal; I'm supposed to be engaged to a girl in Long Island."
"Supposed to be? You've never mentioned her before."
"No, well, I guess I'd already decided it was a mistake. She's a nice girl, but intellectually she ranks a little lower than Donald Duck Besides, one look at you and I knew I wasn't gonna be giving up sex for the duration - even before your pal Brent told me you were queer."
The blond man groaned wearily. "It was George, was it? I might have guessed. He's terrified of queers. It took him weeks to stop flinching whenever we had to pass one another in the corridor. He's better now, though; I think he's begun to see me as myself and not just as the camp's resident poof."
"Oh, Brent's a good man," the deep, warm voice told him. "He's just led a sheltered life. Can't blame a guy for his upbringing. Besides, people are always afraid of what they don't understand."
"True." A thoughtful silence descended, and then Player said wistfully; "When are you and Simon going out?"
"End of the week, if the better weather keeps up."
"Then we haven't a lot of time. Do you suppose Pat's thought of that?"
A mirthless laugh. "Pat thinks of everything - though I guess he might not have thought about a chandelier."
"Think you'll make it?"
Carrington considered the question. "If I thought we wouldn't, I wouldn't waste my time trying. On the other hand, we've just had three escapes blown right here in the Castle. Either UImann's clairvoyant or someone's been talking out of turn. If this one falls apart, we could be looking for a Nazi stool-pigeon."
Player nodded. "Well, be careful. Much as I enjoy your company, I'd rather you were on your way to Switzerland."
"I'd be a lot happier if you were going with us, but I guess you're just not fit enough for crawling about on rooftops yet."
"I haven't got much head for heights, either. That's why I'm in the submarine service and not the RAF!"
"Uh-huh." lifting his head, Carrington glanced around the higher windows idly. George Brent was still staring out of one of the casements of the British quarters, his eyes turned towards then, his thoughts turned inward. "It's getting cold; you wanna go back inside?"
"Yes, I suppose so. We don't get a lot of time to ourselves, do we? It would be nice to be able to touch you without a hundred pairs of eyes looking on."
"I wanna do a hell of a lot more than just touch you," was the pained response. "I wish to Christ they'd put bromide in the tea or something, because I'm losin' a lot of sleep thinking about all the things I want to do to you. I don't wanna leave this place without having you."
Meeting the tortured gaze equally, Player said; "It would take more than bromide to stop me wanting you. I'm not sure even cyanide would do it."
"Yeah." Player got to his feet, shrugging deeper into his Navy greatcoat. "Come on, we've caused enough gossip for one day."
He was several feet away before Carrington had managed to haul himself upright and follow.
"Is that so? Well, if I catch up to you, Player, I'm gonna cause a little more."
Hurrying after him across the courtyard, the American finally drew level at the entrance to the British quarters. There, at the base of the spiral stone staircase, was an odd curved space permanently in shadow and out of the line of sight of the courtyard sentry. If there was no-one on the staircase it was one of the few private places in the camp and was occasionally used for the exchange of contraband. Player had one foot on the bottom step when Carrington caught up to him, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into the pool of shadow, pressing him up against the wall and capturing his mouth urgently and without gentleness. Startled hands lifted to Carrington's chest and bunched in the lapels of his greatcoat, drawing him in tighter as Player responded with every ounce of energy and will he possessed. Then the sound of footsteps on the stone spiral above broke them apart, and Dick found himself leaning against the wall trying to recapture his breath whilst Carrington stood, hands in pockets, a few feet away with a look of distress on his face. He looked as guilty as a schoolboy discovered smoking.
Edward Bentinct-Boyle, the Wykehamist and Player's fellow-escaper of a few weeks previously, strolled down the stairs and passed between them serenely, shooting an amused grin in Carrington's direction.
"Gently does it, old boy, gently does it," he said, enigmatically - and sauntered on, out into the courtyard.
Carrington and Carter's rooftop escape attempt had ended in an undignified scuffle with Hauptmann Ulmann and two other guards during which, to his astonishment, Carrington was on the receiving end of a blow from Ulmann, normally the most civilised of their captors. He had spent much of the ensuing twenty-eight days' solitary confinement thinking wistfully of Dick Player, and of the intimacy they had promised themselves, but fortunately he had had unlimited privacy to deal with the ensuing case of frustration.
Nor had Carrington's return to general circulation been an unqualified success. He had found the British contingent disturbed by the antics of Wing-Commander Marsh, a prisoner whose mental state had been deteriorating rapidly.
Marsh's condition created tensions and frustrations of a unique sort. Those who lived in close proximity to him - the inhabitants of the same British dormitory Player, Carrington, Grant and the others also called home - had been driven to extreme reactions by his irrational behaviour, and especially by his predilection for a particularly lugubrious piece of piano music which he played over and over again on the gramophone. Over the next few months, as the prospects of his repatriation on medical grounds advanced and retreated, Marsh's compatriots made elaborate plans for avoiding his company and found themselves driven towards the contemplation of escape schemes which hitherto would have seemed either too risky or too time-consumingly elaborate.
Player and Downing, fleeing a spectacular outburst which included a stream of four-letter invective that impressed them both by the breadth of its scope, found themselves standing idly in front of a north-facing window at the end of the corridor that passed between Sickbay and the Stabsarzt's tiny office, in which prisoners' medical records were housed. The view was not especially inspiring, comprising as it did a terrace some forty feet in length, a lean-to building used for storing spare clothing - prisoners' own, and German uniform issue - and a flight of steps that led down to a lower-level pathway and a sentry's beat. Anyone who could get into the clothing store undetected just before a change of sentry could, in theory, emerge from the store wearing German uniform and, posing as part of a work detail, march past the sentry and get out through a gate on the eastern flank of the Castle close to the Kommandantur building. It was a plan that had been examined from many angles but rejected in the past because it would require excellent forged passes, superbly manufactured disguises and the services of a talented locksmith to open the clothing store. Previously these commodities had not been available; now, with the support services for escapers well in place and organised to perfection, it was again possible to contemplate the clothing store route.
However they still needed to discover a way from the Stabsarzt's office into the clothing store itself and to that end the two officers ghosted themselves into the office late one night courtesy of the British doctor and spent some considerable time investigating their options. They were able to report back to Pat Grant that an excavation started underneath the carpet on which the Stabsarzt's desk stood would, with the requisite combination of caution, hard work and good fortune that attended all escapes, eventually yield a tunnel emerging half-way up the wall of the clothing store at a point which, their calculations suggested, should be concealed by piles of uniforms racked on wooden shelving.
Affected like everyone else by the nerve-jangling antics of Marsh, Grant willingly accepted the idea as proposed to him. Downing's activities as master-forger and his uncharacteristically dogged work timing sentries and mapping floodlight positions for other attempts in the past had given him a high priority on the escape rota, and Colonel Preston's expressed concern for Dick Player's safety guaranteed him the right to accompany Downing. Muir and Bentinct-Boyle were swiftly added to the group, with Grant himself agreeing to act as locksmith and close up the route behind them. Tunnelling began in earnest shortly after Christmas, and by the beginning of February the diggers were attacking the eight-foot thick outer wall of the Castle, each night's shift yielding only a depressingly small amount of distance covered and scarcely enough debris to tax their ingenuity in disposing of it.
At roughly the same time, Carter and Carrington became absorbed in the notion of forcing the Germans to help them escape. They were starting to consider the possibility of engineering a court martial for one of them in Leipzig, which would involve a train journey and hopefully a chance to slip away from their guards amidst the usual busy comings and goings of the courthouse. Officers who had already been to Leipzig for court martial or other legal proceedings were able to describe the layout of the court building, and the plan was beginning to develop nicely when a snap inspection called by Hauptmann Ulmann - convinced that Marsh's unruly behaviour was a façade for some illicit activity - caught Carter with a concealed compass and Carrington with a civilian cap and jacket hidden in his bunk. For once their usually efficient stooging system had let them down - sabotaged, as it later transpired, by a piece of inspired mania from Marsh - and the two were sentenced to fourteen-day periods of solitary confinement for being in possession of contraband. Their plans for the court martial escape were, therefore, set back considerably.
Player and Muir spent every other night hacking away at the masonry beneath the Stabsarzt's office, alternating with Bentinct-Boyle and Downing. Despite the cold weather the work was warm enough and they often found themselves stripped down to their underwear and wreathed with sweat as they fought against the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the ancient stonework.
Player, in particular, brought to the task an aggression born of frustration; the knowledge that Phil was once more locked away in a solitary cell and that it would be several days before they saw one another again infuriated him and he took out his feelings on the unyielding stone. Throwing himself into his task with insane enthusiasm, he would emerge from the digging at the end of a two-hour spell pink-faced, covered in dust and short of breath. In the mornings, weary beyond measure, he would snatch a couple of hours' sleep in a cot in sickbay before it was time to slip back into the British quarters where his coughing became almost as much of a trial to his fellow officers as Marsh's eccentricity.
One Saturday morning, Grant found Player in the washroom of the British quarters leaning weakly against the partition of a lavatory cubicle and coughing up discoloured sputum. The colour of the blond man's lace was an unhealthy rose pink, his eyes bright and distracted, his skin clammy.
"Dick? What on Earth's the matter? Are you feeling ill?"
"Just a bit off-colour," Player wheezed, uncomfortably. "Nothing serious. I think it's the dust in that bloody tunnel, Pat."
"You're covering your nose and mouth while you work, aren't you?"
Player shrugged. "Not always. It's too uncomfortable."
Sympathetically, Grant smiled. "Well, look, get the MO to examine you, Dick. Come on, I'II go with you."
"Do you really think that's necessary?" The reluctance in Player's tone was not entirely masked by a bout of coughing that followed this remark, but his obstinacy remained unaffected.
"You've had pneumonia once," Grant reminded him, gently. "It's not something you take chances with. I could order you to report sick, you know; I am Officer of the Day."
Belatedly Player realised that was quite true. It didn't seem as if he would have a great deal of choice. However what strength he had had when he was in the tunnel working under the Stabsarzt's office had deserted him and he sat down on the edge of the lavatory pan with a weary sigh.
"Look, Pat," he said, wistfully, "I know what's the matter with me."
"Yes. Only the tunnel's going so slowly with four of us working the shifts; what's going to happen if I'm in sickbay?"
"Is that why you haven't reported sick?"
"Partly. The other thing is, I don't see what good it would do. Merriman's hardly got any drugs to work with; I don't know how much he could help. I thought I might just as well stay here and try to be of some use."
Grant shook his head. "No," he said, firmly. "Sickbay. I'll walk you over there as soon as you've got your breath back. It'll make Merriman feel useful if he can keep an eye on you. I'll take your place on the night shift, if it makes you feel any better."
"No, Pat, I couldn't ... "
"Would you like me to make than an order, Dick?" Grant's tone was dangerously.
"No," Player said, wearily. "No need."
His capitulation earned him a hearty thump on the shoulder. "Good man. Now get up off the bog and lean on me; it's time we let the Doc see what you've done to yourself."
Some days afterwards, late in the afternoon the British MO, Merriman, was sitting at a small table near the sickbay window making notes on his patient's condition when he became aware of a silent presence across the room. A polite cough alerted him to the arrival of Hauptmann Ulmann. Merriman caught himself in a wry acknowledgement of Ulmann's suitability as Security Officer; any man who could move about so quietly wearing jackboots was a natural choice for the job.
"I hope I am not disturbing you, Doctor?"
Merriman stood up. "Not at all, Hauptmann Ulmann. I was just making some notes about Lieutenant Player."
Ulmann stepped over into the window alcove. Six-foot-four and leanly built, he had a meticulous courtesy about him that would have done justice to any old-fashioned English butler. It was well-known that he did not consider it necessary to raise his voice to the prisoners, and his policy of treating them like gentlemen and expecting only the best in return had gained him considerable respect among his enemies. "Yes. It was about Mr Player that I wished to speak to you. The Kommandant has asked me to enquire about his condition."
"Ah." Tired, Merriman rubbed a hand across his eyes, then faced the German officer squarely. "Well, to be perfectly frank, Hauptmann, I'm not at all sure I can do much for him. Isn't there any possibility you can get him into one of your hospitals?"
The expression on the German's face was far from encouraging. "I have made enquiries as you requested," he said, a note of genuine concern in his voice, "but General von Kirscht considers him a high-risk prisoner. He has refused permission to transfer him to a hospital. The Stabsarzt has promised to do everything he can to help you with the treatment, but as you know he is currently responsible not only for the garrison and the prisoners but for the town of Colditz as well."
"Meaning he's got his hands full already and I'm on my own, eh?" An ironic inflection entered the British MO's tone as he contemplated the prospect. "You know, Hauptmann, so far I haven't lost a patient here in Colditz, although it's been a close thing on occasion. It's a record I'm very proud of. Player could well be the first, though. In the absence of proper facilities or even drugs I'm reduced to keeping him warm and praying - and that's not what I spent six years in medical school training for."
"No." Ulmann was staring past Merriman and out of the window. The sickbay looked out onto the terrace beside the guard house; a sentry patrolled slowly along it, glancing up occasionally towards the windows on the western elevation of the castle. "Doctor Hoffner tells me that the drug you require is unavailable."
"Felton's serum? Yes. You see, Hauptmann, in pneumonia the most important thing is to keep the patient's heart going. Felton's serum is basically a cardiac stimulant. Anything that would increase his heart-rate would do just as well; in the past it would probably have been brandy or champagne, for example. The problem is, in here they're as difficult to come by as the serum."
The expression on the German's face had altered to register quickened interest. "Indeed. We have both in the Officers' Mess. If you will undertake to use it only for medical purposes, Doctor, I will ask the Kommandant to allow me to bring you whatever you require."
The offer took Merriman by surprise. "Would you, Hauptmann? I must say that would be pretty decent of you."
"Not at all. As a professional man, I can appreciate the importance of your unblemished record. Besides, it is my duty to make certain that no prisoners are 'lost' ... under any circumstances."
Merriman looked at him askance. He knew he was tired, but it seemed to him that Ulmann of all people had just made something very close to a joke - and in English, at that. There was no hint, however, that Ulmann was aware of any such thing, and the very notion of it confused Merriman out of any reply he might have made.
'Yes," he said, dubiously. "I would appreciate anything at all you can do, Hauptmann Ulmann. Player's a very sick man, and I must admit I'm gravely concerned about his chances of survival."
Ulmann nodded sharply, bringing an end to the conversation. "Very well. I will refer the matter to the Kommandant. If there is anything else you need, please inform me. Good evening."
"Good evening, Hauptmann. Thank you." Somewhat to his own surprise Merriman found that he was smiling slightly as the Security Officer moved away, reflecting that Ulmann would have been a halfway human sort of chap if not for the handicap of having been born German. It was a dangerous train of thought, he decided. After all, respect - even grudging respect - for a German officer could prove to be a very hazardous commodity in a prisoner of war camp.
Dismissing the thought, he returned his attention to his most problematic patient.
Grant emerged from the clothing store tunnel at the end of his first night shift shivering and weary. He and Muir closed up the tunnel entrance with its ingenious hatch - a deep wooden box half-filled with earth and designed to withstand the kind of inspection that involved lifting the floorboards - and exited from the Stabsarzt's office to clean themselves up before morning Appell.
"Bloody hard work, eh, Pat?" Muir sympathised tiredly.
"You can say that again. Look, Peter, I've been thinking."
"Yes?" Muir's tone was wary; he was not expecting anything good.
"We aren't getting far, are we? It's no wonder Dick's ill; what's surprising is that you and Tim and Ted aren't all in sickbay along with him. This tunnel's a widow-maker."
The melodramatic expression drew a sheepish smile from Muir. "I think we can make it work," he said, almost apologetically. "I know it doesn't seem very promising, Pat, but it has to be a chance."
Grant shrugged. "Oh, I agree it's a chance," he admitted. "But just at the moment I don't think it's our best chance. I'm going to recommend closing it down. Temporarily."
"Temporarily? How long is 'temporarily'?"
"A few weeks. Look, when Dick's better we can all discuss it again and come to a definite decision. For the time being, especially with Ulmann being so sharp at the moment, I think it would be safer to suspend operations. I suggest we turn it into a contraband hide for anything we're really worried about; lay it down in that hole like wine in a cellar and let it all sleep a while. There's nothing to be gained by rushing."
Muir groaned. "I don't know, Pat. I can't say I'm happy about the idea."
"No. I understand that, Peter. I'm not suggesting you should abandon the whole scheme, just suspend digging until Dick recovers."
"And if he doesn't?"
The bleakness of Muir's tone was a shock. Turning to look at him, Grant realised that he had simply assumed Player would recover. Judging by Muir's expression, this was not the universal belief.
"You really think it's that serious?" he asked, aware that Muir had not one iota of medical knowledge and that his response would be emotional rather than informed.
"I don't know, Pat. I don't think the Doc knows, either. What do you think would happen to Phil?"
"If Player died?"
Grant considered a moment. Marsh's descent into insanity was still very much in his mind; in these conditions, it would not take much to tip the balance of a man's mind and send him spiralling into despair. It was a chilling prospect.
"Peter," he said sadly, "I don't want to think about it."
"Good morning, Doctor. No, don't get up."
Merriman lifted his head as the Senior British Officer approached, but his attempt to get to his feet was forestalled by Preston's words. It would have been apparent to even the least intelligent observer that Merriman was rapidly reaching the end of his tether; dark circles had formed under his eyes, and his skin had a pale grey tinge. Apart from the fact that he was capable of walking upright and holding at least a semi-coherent conversation, there would have been little to choose between his condition and that of his patient.
"Who's with Player at the moment?"
"Brent, sir; he's going to call me if there's any change. I just ... well, I needed a bit of a break."
Preston squatted down beside the other man on the steps to the French quarters. The sun would not touch this part of the courtyard for another couple of hours yet, but the temperature of the air was pleasantly warm and both men were in the Colditz equivalent of shirtsleeve order. Merriman was smoking thoughtfully, and dragged a paper packet of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket to offer to the Colonel. After a moment's hesitation the senior man accepted, lighting the cigarette from Merriman's.
"I can well understand that," he said, at length. "I haven't much experience of pneumonia but as far as I can recall it's a pretty tedious business for all concerned. How is Player today?"
Merriman shrugged. "Stable," he said. "Ulmann came up to scratch with the alcohol - found us a bottle of decent brandy, God knows where he got it from. Smells wonderful," he added, wistfully.
"You haven't tried it, then?" Aware of the MO's promise to Ulmann, Colonel Preston was nevertheless amused to learn that he'd been so rigid to his word as not to have sampled the liquor.
"Not likely; apart from anything else, we've got to make it last! I've been giving him a couple of mouthfuls every two hours, just to be on the safe side, and it certainly seems to be doing the trick - but there's a long way to go yet." Merriman contemplated the curling smoke that rose from the tip of his cigarette, then drew on it briefly. "Player's been in my hands for five days. Judging by what Pat Grant and the others tell me, the first symptoms started appearing about a day and a half before that. The crisis is normally round about the eighth day, so I should think it would be either tomorrow or the day after."
"Hmmm." Preston watched without seeing as a couple of Dutch officers and a Frenchman crossed the courtyard towards them, eased aside to allow them to pass and listened to the diminishing sound of their footsteps on the spiral staircase above. "He pulled through all right last time, though," he remarked, trying for a reassuring tone and to his own annoyance hearing a banal platitude.
"That was eight months ago, and he was in a proper hospital." A hard realism inflected Merriman's words. "Since then the rations have deteriorated; he may not be strong enough to fight it this time."
"Can you save him?"
The bluntness of the question met with Merriman's approval. Matters of life and death were too often wrapped up in emotional obscurities; he liked a plain and honest approach.
"I don't know," he admitted, with a shrug. "I just wish there was something I could do to make him more comfortable. He keeps asking for Carrington."
Preston's eyebrows lifted in mild speculation. Did the MO, after all, know how matters stood between Player and Carrington? As a secret it was disintegrating rapidly, but Preston had assumed that Merriman would rather not know about it. Still, the man had said that Player was not always lucid. Maybe in his delirious ramblings he'd let slip more about his feelings for Carrington than either they or the Colonel would have wished; yet Merriman seemed to regard that sort of thing in much the same way the Roman Catholic padre would have regarded a confession. Preston wasn't as well versed in the Hippocratic Oath as he might have been, but a general impression of its wording seemed to suggest he was right.
"Well, he's still in solitary," he responded, briskly. "Not due out until ... ah, Tuesday. Nearly another week."
"Could be too late."
For a moment Preston stared at Merriman, alarmed by his tone. "Do you, ah, feel that Carrington could be of any help?" he asked, cautiously. "If you thought a visit from him would be beneficial in any way, I could always suggest it to the Kommandant. From what you tell me of your conversation with Ulmann, it sounds as if they're not exactly keen to lose a prisoner in these particular circumstances. I should imagine we could expect a certain amount of co-operation from them."
The correlation between Carrington's presence and Player's will to live remained unacknowledged. Merriman contented himself with nodding his acceptance of the Colonel's offer.
"If you think there's any chance at all, sir, then I'd be very grateful. I could do with another pair of hands in the sickbay, as well; he really needs round-the-clock nursing. I must see if can persuade the Stabsarzt to lend me one of their medical orderlies for a day or two."
Preston rubbed at his eyes thoughtfully. It was not so much a gesture of tiredness as of focussing on some problem that was beyond immediate solution.
"Well, I'll mention that to the Kommandant at the same time," he said, slowly. "I'll try and impress on him how concerned you are. I think I'd better try and see him today, don't you?"
'Yes, sir, if you can. After today, I don't suppose it would make much difference to Player."
Shortly after midnight the sound of the courtyard door being unlocked roused Merriman from a fitful slumber. Late-night inspections were not unheard-of although they were usually accompanied by an Appell for at least part of the camp; he had known the whole prisoner contingent turned out of their beds three times between lights-out and Fruhstück. Usually, however, these excursions did not include the inhabitants of the sickbay who paraded separately under the supervision of a medical officer or orderly.
The sounds of quiet movement from without, however, betokened something a little out of the ordinary. The guards who roused prisoners from their beds at 1 a.m. usually did so with the self-righteous glee of those who have to work while others sleep.
A moment later the door opened and Hauptmann Ulmann stepped inside, towing a rather bemused-looking Flight Lieutenant Carrington in his wake.
"Good morning, Doctor. I have brought you an assistant to help with nursing your pneumonia patient. He is a volunteer."
"Carrington? Good God!"
Unshaven and decidedly rumpled in appearance, Carrington still managed a bewildered grin.
"'Morning, Doc. How's Lieutenant Player?"
Torn between a reply to Carrington's question and some polite expression of thanks to Ulmann, the doctor could only stand with his mouth open staring from one to the other. It was the last piece of evidence he needed that he himself was exhausted well beyond usefulness.
"Over there, Carrington; see for yourself" he gestured, eventually. "Hauptmann, how on Earth did you manage it?"
"Colonel Preston made representations to the Kommandant," was the mild response. "As I had already reported to him that you felt the need of some assistance, it was thought that Lieutenant Carrington might be willing to volunteer. Where an infectious disease is present it is sometimes possible to use volunteer prisoners as nursing auxiliaries to avoid exposing valuable German personnel to the risk of contagion."
Merriman could not quite restrain the incredulity with which he regarded Ulmann.
"Hauptmann, you realise that pneumonia is not infectious in the way you describe?"
Ulmann pursed his lips, a slight twist of amusement rigidly suppressed.
"Yes, Doctor, but in the circumstances I feel we must consider the possibility of a mistaken diagnosis; Flight Lieutenant Carrington has undertaken to give you all the assistance you require until your patient is recovered, and then he will return to serve the balance of his sentence in solitary confinement. It will also satisfy the requirements of the quarantine period, I think."
"But there is no quarantine period with pneumonia, Hauptmann."
Merriman could have sworn he saw an expression of sympathetic concern pass rapidly across the German's face.
"No? Nevertheless one will be observed. Should you not rest, Doctor? Flight Lieutenant Carrington will call you if you are needed, and I myself will return to see that everything is in order."
The persuasive tone was more than he could withstand. With a shrug in Carrington's direction, Merriman withdrew to the curtained-off alcove in which he slept while on night duty. If he awoke in the morning and discovered that all this had been an exceptionally peculiar nightmare he would not be in the least surprised; in his experience German officers who visited one in the middle of the night were not in the habit of supplying solutions to problems. Quite the opposite, in fact. However the need of sleep far outweighed any curiosity about Ulmann's motives, and he stretched himself out on top of the bed fully-clothed and took no further interest in the proceedings.
Three hours later, Ulmann's patrol again brought him to the sickbay. Merriman was still sleeping - covered now, he noticed, with a blanket presumably put there by Carrington. The American had possessed himself of Merriman's notes on Player's case and was sitting beside Player's bed with these and a very elderly medical reference book to hand. He stood up as Ulmann approached, nearly bringing himself to attention out of respect for the German.
"Hauptmann. in all the excitement, I haven't thanked you for arranging this," he said uneasily.
Ulmann's eyebrows rose. "I have merely obeyed the orders of my superior officer," was the somewhat stilted response.
Carrington's dark gaze dissected the argument like a scalpel cutting through flesh. "Having first made damned sure you knew what those orders would be," he said, knowingly. "Oh, don't worry Hauptmann, I won't tell anyone you've got a heart. It's appreciated, you know."
Relaxing slightly, Ulmann removed his uniform cap and ran a hand through his dark-blond hair, declining Carrington's gestured offer to be seated.
"The German Army," he said cautiously, "respects the camaraderie of fellow-officers. The desire of an officer to nurse a sick or injured comrade is not unknown in the Wehrmacht."
Carrington nodded, a crooked half-smile turning in the German's direction. "Yeah, I understand," he said, feeling that some response was called for. "Even if there's nothing you can do to help, you just don't want the poor guy to die alone - so you sit up all night with him, whether he knows you're there or not."
Ulmann followed his glance down towards Player's sleeping face. The man looked so pale he was almost transparent, his face composed like that of an alabaster figure gracing a cathedral tomb. Only the laboured breathing and spots of high colour on the cheeks denoted that this was a living man and not some sculptor's creation.
"I .... " Ulmann began, incautiously, then stopped himself in mid-sentence.
An uncharacteristic hesitation seized Ulmann, but he decided to express the feeling that had occurred to him.
"I think," he said, with more emphasis, "that whatever Fate has in store for Lieutenant Player it is not likely to be a death from pneumonia. It would be a waste, and a brave man deserves better."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Hauptmann," Carrington said, thoughtfully. "Maybe if enough of us believe it, that's what'll happen. Did you ever ... " He paused, not knowing how to frame the question, but continued immediately in a more solicitous tone; "Did you ever have anyone you sat up all night for?"
Startled by the frankness of the enquiry Ulmann caught himself considering the complete impropriety of this whole conversation before deciding that if challenged he could always dismiss it as a figment of Carrington's imagination.
"Not a comrade … " A sudden change of heart seemed to halt the sentence in its tracks; whatever the German officer had been about to confide in his prisoner was bitten back as his military training took over. "Well, it is not important now. As you say, one does not wish to let a loved one die alone. I will leave you in peace, Lieutenant," Ulmann added, a feeling of panic rising in him as he resumed his cap. "Good night."
Carrington let him get all the way to the door and then called out, unregarding of the sleepers in the room.
"Gute nacht Herr Ulmann. Danke."
"Bitte, Herr Carrington," Ulmann responded automatically, aware on some subliminal level of the compliment Carrington's sudden transition from English to German signified. "Gute nacht."
The door opened and closed, was locked behind the departing officer, and remained so until the following morning.
Another forty-eight hours had passed before Merriman could feel justified in allowing his vigilance to relax even a fraction. Carrington had proved the ideal nurse, making no objection to the least pleasant of tasks and obeying the MO's orders intelligently and without comment. He had taken the burden of the night shift from Merriman's shoulders, and there had been a steady stream of volunteers during the daylight hours to sit beside Player and attempt to get a little fortifying nourishment into him at intervals. Gradually the semi-conscious ramblings of the invalid resolved themselves into a coherent pattern of sleeping and waking, with a little breathless conversation possible as Player's temperature decreased and a normal colour began to return to his cheeks.
Despite these encouraging signs Merriman was cautious in pronouncing his patient out of immediate danger. When he did so, he found himself overwhelmed by requests from British officers all intent on visiting the invalid to bring him such comforts as Colditz afforded. Firmly he insisted that they must wait; Colonel Preston's request undoubtedly took priority over all others.
When the Colonel arrived the see him the following afternoon Player was propped on three pillows and wearing a grey sweater over his pyjamas. His normally shining hair was dull and had been slicked back with water by someone other than himself - the parting was in entirely the wrong place and it looked like a hasty job. Preston smiled inwardly at this evidence of the preparations for his visit; he wished they hadn't felt it necessary to make such an effort, but on the other hand was glad they had come so far from the life-and-death struggles of the previous few days even to consider it.
"Good morning, Player," he said, pasting on what he liked to think of as his 'official' smile - the one demanded for the sake of morale in difficult circumstances.
"Sir." The voice was only a whisper of its former self but its confidence was still there beneath the weakness.
"You gave us all a bit of a fright," Preston told him, severely. "I'm told that you're not to consider tunnelling in the future. I'll veto any escape plan that involves you with tunnelling; is that clear?"
Player nodded. "Yes, sir. " He barely mouthed the words.
"Good. I - " The vague sounds of footsteps he had heard behind him resolved into the figure of Carrington, insinuating himself around the obstacle course of screen and chair that separated Player's bed from the rest of the ward. "Ah, Phil ... ?"
"Sorry to interrupt, Colonel, but Hauptmann Ulmann's sent a man to take me back to solitary. Seems I've got to go right this minute. I just thought I'd say 'goodbye'."
Momentarily disconcerted, Preston shoved his hands into his pockets in a most un-military gesture. "Oh, of course. Want me to leave?"
Carrington glanced back towards the sentry, waiting at the entrance to the sickbay. "No, sir, thank you. You take care of yourself, Richard," he added, turning in Player's direction. He did not move any closer to the bed, but remained standing some feet away half-obscured behind Colonel Preston.
Player seemed to understand this apparent defection, responding with a smile that had only a hint more warmth than Preston would have expected between any other two officers under his command.
"Thanks, Phil," he said, softly, a weight of additional meaning in the words.
Carrington gave him a mock-salute. "Any time. Colonel, sir."
Before either British officer had time to respond, Carrington had turned away and was retracing his steps towards his waiting guard. As a leave-taking it had been brief and businesslike, but not lacking in affection for all that.
Preston let his eyes dwell on the retreating figure for a moment, allowing Player a decent interval in which to deal with his emotions in his own way, and then he turned back to resume the conversation. The blond man's face displayed a mixture of signals - concern and pride seemed at war in him, leaving a confusing set of traces quite unlike anything Preston had witnessed before. There was none of Giles' abject, horrified despair in the way Player regarded his presumed lover; for Giles' brother, the realisation brought the glimmerings of a new understanding.
"Good chap, Carrington," he observed, thoughtfully, the words spilling from him almost without his volition.
"Yes, sir." Player's reply was not precisely unexpected, a foregone conclusion reached by the shortest possible route.
"Well - " Preston began again, more brightly - and proceeded to dispose of his momentary confusion in a complete and radical change of subject.
The bell for morning Appell brought the British officers shuffling down the spiral staircase in a slow and ungainly procession. Dick Player, as Officer of the Day, was in more or less full uniform; the rest were in whatever they had managed to assemble from the supplies provided by the Germans and whatever had turned up in parcels from home. George Brent had been living in his cricket sweater for months, to the extent that it was probably capable of attending Appell on its own account. Phil Carrington had thrown an RAF greatcoat over khaki trousers, white shirt and black sweater. Other officers had acquired rag-bag oddments of French, Polish, Dutch or Belgian uniform by barter, bribery or even less pleasant means when their own wore out.
Men had lost weight, become gaunter and greyer in the face. The winter had been a trial to them all. Bad weather had hampered escape plans, and their energies had been devoted to preparing documents, making civilian clothing, hiding contraband and generally daydreaming themselves as far away from Colditz as possible. It had been a tedious winter followed by a sickly spring, with summer scarcely warmer and rations scarcely more plentiful.
Pat Grant was standing next to Carrington, with Brent next to Grant. They were in the middle file for Appell, with Downing and Bentinct-Boyle in the row in front of them. In the narrow gap between the two officers, Carrington could see the slender figure of Dick Player; smarter than most in what was admittedly the smartest uniform of the bunch anyway, he might have been parading with cadets at Dartmouth or dressing ship in Pompey harbour. Dick's tales of naval life before the war had worked on Carrington's imagination until he could close his eyes and see the other man as an elegant figure in dress-whites propping up a bar in some Caribbean paradise. It was an appealing spectacle, but to his ravaged senses the reality was hardly less appealing. Despite himself he shuddered.
"Something the matter, Phil?" Grant asked, softly. Hauptmann Ulmann had not yet appeared on parade, and as he was rarely if ever late that would seem to indicate that Appell had been sounded early.
"Not unless you count a terminal case of bachelor's balls," Carrington whispered. "Pat, when are you gonna do something for us?"
"I've tried," was the subdued reply. "Unless you want to spend the night down a tunnel working, there's really not much available. If we stop work on a tunnel just so you two can have a honeymoon, you won't be very popular. Besides, you know Merriman virtually ordered Dick not to go within a dozen yards of any tunnel."
Carrington grunted acknowledgement. Dick's recovery from that frightening bout of pneumonia had been slow, but mercifully complete. In fact, paradoxically, he was one of the fittest men in the camp at the moment; additional rations furnished by the Stabsarzt had fuelled his return to health, and his complete exclusion from all escape preparations for the period of his convalescence had allowed him the relaxation he needed. Apart from being slimmer than ever, he seemed untouched by the ordeal.
"Isn't there anything else?"
Grant winced. "Well, I suppose we could try asking Colonel Preston to turn out of his room for a night or two," he said, sharply. "For God's sake, Phil, I understand why you're so anxious, but it's a pretty low priority matter just at the moment."
"For you, maybe. Not for us."
Grant turned. There was sympathy in his expression as he read the haunted look in the American's eyes. His obdurate mood vanished as he allowed himself to understand what Carrington was feeling. It must, indeed, be torture of a cruel and unnatural kind to be in close proximity with someone, to desire them and be desired in turn, but be unable to satisfy that desire. He smiled bleakly.
"All right," was his very mild response. "You've made your point. I've been preoccupied with things I thought were more urgent, and probably that was a mistake. Don't want you two ending up like poor old Marsh, after all. Give me twenty-four hours and I promise you I'll arrange something."
Carrington did not respond immediately, but George Brent's heartfelt "Oh my God!" reached both him and Grant in the same moment that the straight-backed figure of Hauptmann Ulmann appeared from the guard room. Colonel Preston's cultured tones could be heard requesting Player to call the British contingent to order, and then they were responding to Dick's commands like the well-disciplined fighting men they had once been, all other thoughts driven from their minds.
After the Appell had been dismissed the officers made their way back upstairs to their quarters, where the orderlies were just delivering breakfast. Player, stopping behind in the courtyard to receive his orders as Officer of the Day from the SBO, arrived in the dormitory only after the others had taken their places. Accepting a tin mug of ersatz coffee, he squeezed into a space next to Grant.
"Listen, Pat ... on parade this morning, I suddenly got a brilliant idea. Will you walk round the courtyard with me later and discuss it?"
"As long as it isn't the same as Phil's idea," Grant teased, gently. He knew his bunk-mate well enough by this time to be able to make such remarks without his intentions being misinterpreted.
Frowning, Player glanced across at the American who wriggled his shoulders in a shrug of helplessness.
"Oh, God, not again," Downing interrupted, his tone full of aristocratic disgust. "Somebody really ought to throw a bucket of cold water over you two. Most chaps in this place have forgotten what it's for, you know."
Player's expression froze somewhere between a blush and a scowl. "As a matter of fact," he said, coldly, "I was thinking of an escape idea. I realise most of you think I'm probably enjoying my stay here, but I can assure you I don't find your company that attractive. I'd quite like to get out, actually." He set his coffee mug down on the table and stood up. "I know you all know about me and Phil," he went on, the other officers in the room petrified to silence by the calm purposefulness of his words, "but perhaps there's something you don't realise about queers. Contrary to popular belief we're not always thinking about sex. Just like you, we have other priorities. Besides," he finished, with devastating logic, "we've waited in the queue and tried not to rock the boat and worked on all your escape plans - done whatever you asked us to. What we're asking in exchange is just a chance to be ourselves for a few hours. If that embarrasses any of you - you included, Phil - then I'm sorry, but I think it's important. Pat, if you want to talk about escape plans I'll be in the courtyard."
Picking up his uniform cap he turned his back on the open-mouthed officers, and moments later came the sound of his footsteps as he descended the stairs. In the shocked silence thereafter, no-one could look in Phil Carrington's direction. The American got slowly to his feet, walked to the far end of the room and lit a cigarette, keeping his back to the other men.
"Something I said?" Downing asked, cynically.
There was a general clearing of throats, an embarrassed coughing.
"Yes, old boy," the Wykehamist replied. "Matter of fact, I think it probably was. Bloody tactless, really."
"Well I like that! Why should I have to guard my tongue around a couple of queers?" Downing's righteous anger had purpled his face behind his sandy moustache; he looked in imminent danger of a seizure.
"That's exactly what Dick was trying to say," Pat Grant put in, reasonably. "If what you see when you look at him is just 'a queer', you're stuck with all sorts of preconceived notions about who he is and what he wants."
"We all know what he wants!"
"Do we?" Bentinct-Boyle rejoined the argument. "Seems to me, Downing old thing, that one of the reasons we're fighting this bally war is personal freedom. I may not be totally in sympathy with Player, but he's got his rights the same as everybody else. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what?"
"That's Americans," Carter reminded him.
"True. But I don't think they're more advanced than we are - do you?" Carter conceded the point with a weak smile.
"No, but look," Brent joined in, the look on his face both sceptical and bemused, "isn't it wrong, what they want to do?"
Bentinct-Boyle shrugged. "I don't know."
"It's against the law, though, surely?"
Grant glanced at him "Technically, George, that's an entirely separate matter. Escaping from here's against the law - against German law, anyway - yet we're convinced it's right. Out there - in Germany, in the rest of the world - people are breaking all sorts of laws for all sorts of reasons. Surely there are more important things to worry about than whether a couple of queers spend the night together? What can it possibly matter to the rest of us, as long as they keep it to themselves?"
"You're on their side, then, Pat?" Downing's question was framed in civilised tones but carried a hint of hidden danger.
"Insofar as there are sides in an issue like this - yes, I am. I don't think anyone else can possibly get hurt, and I think Dick's right. They've waited in the queue long enough, and they deserve some time together. I'm going to do whatever I can to arrange it for them."
Bentinct-Boyle cleared his throat. "Count on me, old boy," he said, casually. "I'm all for happy endings."
Surveying the faces clustered around the table, Grant came to the conclusion that a sort of bemused resignation had set in. Only Brent still looked disconcerted.
"I don't understand," he admitted. "You're planning to aid and abet something I've always thought was ... unnatural."
"No," Grant told him, with genuine sympathy for his bewilderment. "But I don't see any reason for refusing to help and support people who've always helped and supported us. If we let them down it puts us on a par with the Germans, who just hate whatever they don't understand. It's a simple enough philosophy, but look what it leads to."
Carter pushed back his chair and got to his feet. "Look," he said, bluntly, "I'm a simple bloke. Phil and Dick have never done me any harm, and I don't really understand what the problem is. But what I can't take is all this 'philosophy' over breakfast. I'm going down to look at the parcels list; Peter, you coming with me?"
"Be along in a moment, Simon," Muir said, forcing a hunk of dry German bread into his mouth and swilling it down with coffee.
Downing found himself looking across at Grant, digesting what had been said.
"What about the Germans?" he asked, in a more civil tone.
The escape officer shrugged. "Up to the rest of us to make sure they don't find out, isn't it? Whatever you think about queers, Tim, the Germans have some pretty unpleasant ways of dealing with them. I wouldn't like to think of Phil or Dick being shot. Or worse."
"You know Jerry, old thing," Bentinct-Boyle returned, lowering his voice. "Got a thing about making the punishment fit the crime. I should think it would probably be castration."
Brent had gone a pale shade of green, and his breakfast seemed to hold no further attraction for him. He pushed his plate away disgustedly, and surveyed the last of his coffee without enthusiasm.
"I ... wouldn't want anything like that to happen to them," he said, uncomfortably.
"No." Grant, the soul of wisdom, leaned forward. "Look, what do you say we all leave our prejudices aside for the duration?" he asked, with a slight smile. "We need to work together in order to get out of here, and when we get home we'll still need to work together to defeat the Germans. Frankly I don't care whether a man's queer or not, as long as he does his job - and no-one's questioning the courage of either of them, are they?"
"Of course not."
"Right. So let's just forget some of the opinions we held before we arrived at Colditz and be grateful that somebody is capable of getting a little happiness out of this situation, shall we?" Finishing his meal, and delivering what he felt to be the last word on the subject, Grant rose and left the table. He reached for his greatcoat, and moments later had followed in Player's footsteps towards the courtyard.
Bentinct-Boyle was left, with Brent and Downing. He gave them a reassuring smile, then hauled himself to his feet and wandered down the dormitory to where Carrington stood looking out of a window. He joined him in time to watch Grant cross the courtyard to where Player was standing and strike up a conversation with him.
"Bit embarrassing, what?" he said, sympathetically.
Carrington shrugged. "Maybe. Took a hell of a lot of guts, though, didn't it?"
"Unquestionably. You know, Carrington, I'm beginning to suspect young Richard's rather fallen in love with you. He's certainly willing enough to fight for what he wants, isn't he?"
"Yes. Yes, he is."
Lightening the mood, Bentinct-Boyle slapped him on the back. "Go on," he said, sharply. "Time you found out what this wonderful escape idea's all about. Give my regards to Dick."
Carrington turned and looked at him with sceptical eyes, but saw only good humour and reassurance. A few more men persuaded to Bentinct-Boyle's tolerant way of thinking, and life here in Colditz would become a lot less hostile.
Without a word he accepted the advice, nodding his thanks, and passed Downing and Brent without so much as glancing in their direction as he made his way towards the door.
Later that same day Grant found Carrington siting alone in the camp library, a tattered volume of poems open in front of him.
"Hullo, Phil. What's that you're reading?"
"Huh? Oh, poetry. Francis Thompson."
"The 'Hound of Heaven' man? Bit of a God-botherer, wasn't he?"
Carrington nodded. "Some of this is real heavy going," he admitted. "Something I can do for you, Pat?"
Grant seemed to recollect his errand. "Matter of fact," he said, easily, "I've got some good news for you."
"Yes. I've booked the honeymoon suite. No chandelier, though; Dick said you wanted one, but he wouldn't say why."
Carrington grimaced. "Private joke. "
"Hmmm. I'd rather not know. Anyway, you remember that room where the Germans store the bed-frames and palliasses?"
"At the end of the French corridor, right. Oh, hey, Pat, you can't mean that room? I thought that was out of bounds?"
"It is. The Frogs have got a big contraband store in there and they don't want to risk drawing attention to it. However the French escape officer owes me a favour, so I talked him into lending us the room for one night. It's going to be cold, I'm afraid, but it shouldn't be any worse than the solitary cells and there are some blankets stored there, too. Think it'll do?"
"Sure it'll do, Pat. Have you told Dick?"
"No. Thought I'd leave you that pleasure. Now, listen; two French officers will come across and sleep in our dormitory tonight, so after evening Appell you two will go back with the French. They think they're helping with an escape plan, but Captain Sardou knows the truth. For God's sake play the whole thing down in front of the French. If there's an Appell in the middle of the night, Etienne'll come and get you out - just do what he tells you. Otherwise, have a good time."
"And afterwards stop bugging you about it, huh?"
The Englishman smiled. "It would be appreciated," he conceded.
"Okay. I won't forget this, Pat. Thanks."
A conspiratorial grin. "Believe it or not," Grant said, cheerfully, "you're welcome."
The palliasse room was a windowless store some fifteen feet across, an isolated space left behind during the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century alterations to the Castle when some long-dead architect had decreed that the rooms on either side of it should be made smaller. The metal bedsteads allocated for the use of Allied officers of the rank of Major or above were kept there in dismantled form, and other oddments of furniture - wardrobes, tables, folding chairs - were stacked around the walls. In addition there were several straw-filled palliasses, with or without the blue and white checked covers that provided so much of the raw material for escaping kit, and a couple of dozen rough grey blankets folded on a shelf above the door. It was from this room that the palliasses had been taken by the French orderlies on the day almost a year earlier when Player and Bentinct-Boyle had been spirited out of the Castle inside them and carried away to an attic in Colditz village, from which Player had succeeded in making his way as far as Vienna.
The memory of that failed attempt, however, was not the only thing that served to make the room depressing. Despite being surrounded by living quarters it was, by virtue of its thick stone walls, cold; it smelled damp; it was on French territory, and being there made it as dangerous for the two British officers as being in the Kommandantur or on the platform of Colditz railway station. Nothing about it felt comfortable or safe, and when Etienne Sardou closed and locked the door behind them they stood, for a long time, inhaling the darkly malignant air of the room and watching the flame of the fat-lamp gutter.
"Oh, shit," Carrington said, miserably. "What a dump."
Player said nothing, merely took a few steps into the room and stood, hands in pockets, brooding.
"You going to be warm enough?" the American asked at length, the awful prospect of Player collapsing from a further recurrence of pneumonia briefly crossing his mind.
A slow nodding of the head. "Yes. But I'm wondering what all the fuss was about."
"No room at the inn," was the irreverent reply. "There never is."
The fair man sat down awkwardly on the one assembled bed-frame in the place. It creaked and groaned abysmally.
"I don't think we'll be using that, somehow," he mused. "Better pile up the palliasses on the floor and hope the rats don't get to hear about us."
"I can cope with the rats," Carrington told him cynically, "but I don't like the idea of a Frenchman - any Frenchman, even a pal of Pat Grant's - locking us in and keeping the key. I feel vulnerable, you know; suppose Ulmann decides to do one of his spot-checks?"
Player wiped a weary hand across his face. "Let's hope the French stooging system is as good as it's cracked up to be," he said. "Look, Phil, I know this isn't exactly the Ritz, but we can make it a nicer place just by being here together. Besides," he added, with the same flourish with which he so often played the winning hand in card games, "we've got some booze."
"We've got ... what?"
"Booze. Half a bottle of brandy, to be exact. Tim Downing's started up some kind of exchange deal with one of the guards who pinches it from the German Officers' Mess and smuggles it in."
"Oh, great. So if we're caught that's something else to add to the rap sheet." Carrington perched himself next to Player on the protesting edge of the metal bed.
"Have you changed your mind about all this, Phil? I mean, tell me it wasn't just all talk."
"Richard ... "
"Hush. You only call me that when you're angry with me."
" ... I haven't changed my mind, okay? It's just that I'm kinda scared that it could all go wrong. This isn't … It isn't like those kids in Spain that I could forget about. We've been sashaying around one another for the best part of a year, and I'd rather go on wanting you and not having you than have it all fall apart tonight."
Player grimaced. "I know what you mean," he conceded. "But this was never going to be - what did you call it? - 'scratching an itch'. The time and the place make it a lot different. Phil..."
"Well ... just that if I don't get through the war … I don't know, I think there might be some comfort in knowing that you were my last lover."
An awed silence. "God, you really mean that."
"God, I really do."
Turning, Phil Carrington lilted his hand until broad fingertips rested on the sculptured line of Player's high cheekbone. The face beneath his fingers was sensitive and intelligent, almost feminine in its beauty but certainly not weak. He had fallen in love with the face before he had known the man who wore it, although he was still engaged in a private war within himself about that love. Out in the real world he had obligations and duties and a life into which Dick Player could not be made to fit; here, hidden away behind the barbed-wire barricades, the machine-guns, the guards, Player had become the person who mattered to him most. It was as though he had divided himself in two, and only by escaping could he ever become whole again.
"Listen," he said, softly, "I know you feel I didn't back you up this morning."
"No, I ... "
The fingertips stopped Player's incipient protest.
"I said 'listen'," Carrington reminded him, a dangerous note beneath the husky whisper. "I didn't fink on you, Richard. You didn't embarrass me. I was pretty proud of you, if you want to know. I just didn't think it would help if I joined in. It's no good those guys thinking that just because you're queer you have to be weak as well and they can walk all over you. Thanks to you, I think they've got it figured out now. You said it for both of us. It was just what I would have said."
A long, measuring glance. "No. You'd have said it better."
"I'd just have told them that a queer isn't some kind of a three-headed monster out of a horror comic" was the calm response. "He's the guy next door. D'you seriously think we're the only two in this Castle? Out of how many - three hundred prisoners? Three hundred more Germans?"
"Germans ... ?"
"You telling me it couldn't happen?"
Player thought about it a moment. "No," he said at length.
The pale eyes engaged with Carrington's darker blue. Months of relentless self-denial suddenly at an end, Player found himself so overwhelmed by the perilous situation they were in that he was almost unable to relax and enjoy their closeness.
"I'm scared, Phil," he confided, urgently. "I want to ... to ... "
"To get laid?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so. But I can't shut out the war. It's in here with us, isn't it?"
Lips touched his cool cheek "Uh-huh. If there wasn't a war, you'd still be breaking hearts in the south of France and I'd still be going after my Pulitzer Prize. If there wasn't a War, we wouldn't have met."
"Never thought I'd have reason to be grateful to Hitler."
"Don't even think about it."
Carrington drew Player in, kissed him with all the languor and tenderness their previous snatched moments together had denied him if the last few months had taught him anything, it was that Dick was right; this was not merely the answer to an uncontainable urge. It was a moment to be savoured, an act of defiance against their captors, a rededication to their own individuality.
The mouth beneath his opened sweetly, invited him in, welcomed him. He explored it with reined-back urgency, deliberately not giving way to the voracious impulse to tear at Player's clothes and indulge himself in a feast of carnality. The mental image - himself as ravisher, Dick as willing victim - was so persuasive it almost won out over the will to control and he found himself deepening the kiss cruelly, biting at the soft lips, hearing quiet moans of acceptance.
Breaking away, he could not meet Dick's eyes.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to get carried away."
Player's grip on him tightened, fingers like steel bars digging into his arm through layers of greatcoat and the clothing beneath.
"Phil, you can't possibly hurt me," was the uneven reply. "If you do anything I don't like, I'm quite capable of fighting you off. What do you think you're dealing with here, some kind of shy, retiring virgin?"
Carrington looked up, his look of smouldering ardour a revelation to his companion.
"No, I don't think so," he conceded, with a smile. "Listen, let's get comfortable and have some of that brandy, shall we?"
Shakily, Player reached deep into his greatcoat pocket. The Castle's resident escape tailor had fitted most of the greatcoats with poachers' pockets for the better transportation of contraband, and from one such hidden recess Player drew forth a small, flat bottle containing tawny liquid which gleamed in the lamplight. He handed it to Carrington, then stood up and pulled two straw palliasses down onto the floor.
Carrington unscrewed the top of the bottle and sniffed the contents.
"This is good stuff;" he said. "How come Downing parted with it?"
"Conscience money," was the unexpected response. "He was feeling guilty about what he said this morning. Pat suggested to him that we might appreciate a drink."
Player had removed his greatcoat and sat down on the palliasses. The floor beneath was uncompromisingly hard and cold, but the palliasses would help.
Carrington slipped down to join him, handing him the open bottle.
"You first," he offered.
Dick accepted the bottle, took a hearty swallow of the contents and then wiped his lips contentedly. The brandy burned all the way down; throat, gullet, stomach all suddenly warmed, and the warmth spread outwards to face and fingertips and down towards his groin. The effect was instantaneous, long deprivation from alcohol bringing about a sudden flush throughout his body and enhancing the desire he already felt.
Wordlessly he handed the bottle over and Carrington, now kneeling beside him, repeated the action.
"Ye gods," he whispered, hoarsely, as the spirit scorched its way around him "We're gonna get drunk as lords on half a bottle of brandy."
"We've been without it too long," Player told him, unconscious of the double-meaning of his words until it was too late.
"You can say that again," Carrington chuckled, delightedly. Then the look in his eyes altered, became infinitely more gentle, and he reached out for the fastenings of the other man's clothing. "C'mon, let's freeze to death," he suggested.
Player shrugged out of the greatcoat he wore, but let Phil undo the buttons of his uniform tunic. At the same time he freed the American of his own greatcoat and the black sweater, and through the thin shirt beneath ran his hands across sharply-sculpted collar-bones.
"I love to watch you," he confessed, the sound of his own voice disturbing to him. "When you're around, I can't take my eyes off you. Do you remember in the park, the first time we spoke to each other?"
"You told me to work off my frustrations by hitting the punching-bag."
"You looked fabulous. I fancied you even then. But I was afraid you were a Nazi."
"Yeah? I thought you were just a spoiled rich kid. We were both wrong."
"And then you got beaten up … "
" ... and you rescued me. Jeezus, Richard, if I'd had my wits about me I'd have made you right there and then and not waited all this time!" The sudden explosion of uncontrollable emotion took them both by surprise, Carrington drawing the other man in again and devouring his mouth hungrily while his warm broad hands moved over shirt and skin, parting cloth and freeing the smoothly elegant body beneath.
"You could have had me," Player conceded, returning his kisses and caresses. "I wanted you to."
"Yeah, I know, I know. It wasn't as simple as that, though, was it? I couldn't've raised a smile, the state I was in."
"It's never simple."
A trail of hot kisses down cheek, throat and shoulder left Player gasping, the sound an odd incongruity in the hideous room. The dichotomy between feelings and surroundings became intrusive, increasing desire for Phil suddenly muted by the immediate ugliness of their circumstances. Carrington, sensing the problem, leaned over and blew out the light.
"We're in my hotel room," he said, softly. "What's the best hotel in London?"
"Okay. We ate dinner. We drank champagne. Afterwards you came back to my room and we drank a little brandy. Now we're in bed and the sheets are silk and you know I'm gonna make love to you all night and again in the morning. How's that?"
The magic was beginning to work. In the complete darkness the world could be whatever they wanted it to be. Player's mind made the transition; he could picture the Phil Carrington of the fantasy, the suave dinner-jacketed host grinning at him across champagne and candlelight and acres of heavy damask tablecloth, his smile full of the promise of the night to follow. Phil Carrington, the socialite, the seducer, the sophisticate, the lover, all that formidable charm directed only at him. A thrill passed through him, and he found himself clinging to the other man in a kind of unfocussed desperation as his starved body slowly began to catch up to the wild imaginings of his mind.
"Phil, I want ... "
"You can have anything. Anything." It wasn't strictly true, but it would do for now.
"I want to forget. Make me forget."
It was what they both wanted, Carrington realised. A few blissful moments of amnesia while the world outside got along without them.
"Don't worry, Richard," he whispered, pressing Player back down onto the straw mattresses beneath. "I'm gonna make you forget everything. Gonna make you forget your name. Just let it happen, okay?"
"Whatever you want, Phil. Just do it."
Carrington's mouth covered his hungrily, a resurgence of the old aggression, the old dominance.
"I thought you'd never ask," he whispered, crushing Player with his larger, stronger body.
Held captive beneath Carrington, Player ran his hand down over the cold, bare shoulder. Under their two spread greatcoats, and three of the blankets, they were naked. It was fearfully cold; whoever had suggested that Hell was an inferno had obviously never spent a chilly spring night in the heart of the fortress of Colditz. Nevertheless the sheer outrageous pleasure of being able to sleep pressed together, skin against skin, was more important than any possibility of discomfort.
Carrington was by no means as starved-looking as many of the prisoners had become. Losing a few pounds had made him seem younger, his build now that of a wiry young athlete. Those anecdotes of his about college baseball had begun to ring true; his present physique would not have disgraced a swimmer, a runner, a tennis champion. Muscular arms and legs, deep chest, strong thighs, a light covering of dark brown body hair; these Player had dreamed of for the last year, and had now experienced for himself. In loving him Phil had been both positive and caring, taking the lead without an excess either of arrogance or force. It had been unbelievably pleasant to be made love to, and if the circumstances hadn't been right to allow him the luxury of being possessed completely that was only a minor disappointment. He could hope that, one day, it might be possible.
Making love face to face was just as satisfying. More so, in many ways, because although he could not see Phil's face in the utter darkness he could taste his kisses and return them with interest. They had been so completely wrapped up in one another, so lost to all outside influences, that he doubted he would have noticed if the Abwehr officer and a troop of armed guards had marched into the room filled with all the self-righteous indignation of the conqueror.
The head on his shoulder moved slightly, Carrington's face turning towards his. The American had been drifting between sleep and waking for some time; there was no telling what hour it was, but he was determined not to waste a minute of it.
"Wanna have you again," Phil whispered, still not completely awake.
Player's hand slipped underneath the greatcoat, down the warm back and buttock, caressing sensuously.
"You're an animal," he teased.
"Sure. That's why you want me."
"It's more than that."
"Yeah, I know. I'm your escape route."
"More than that," Player told him, as the sleep-stale mouth began to move on his. "You're my freedom."
Morning Appell was all horror. Shuffling downstairs surrounded by Frenchmen and wearing a French uniform cap above his Navy greatcoat, Player felt more light-headed than light-hearted. He'd lost track of time completely, sleep eluding him in the labyrinth of the night. By the time the French escape officer had come to remove them from the palliasse room they had both been exhausted, scarcely rational, indulging in rambling conversations without point. They had at least been dressed when the door swung open - and in the right clothes - but Player was aware from glancing at his companion that neither of them was a pretty sight. The combination of beard-shadow and dark rings under the eyes with their customary prison pallor did not make either of them more attractive.
In the melee in the courtyard before the senior officers appeared, Player and Carrington managed to change places with the two Frenchmen. Simon Carter was Officer of the Day, and he wandered over with a vague smile on his face.
"You look as if you didn't get a lot of sleep, Dick," he said, without criticism. Player had little enough energy to deal with such a naïve remark.
"That was rather the object of the exercise," he reminded the other man.
Immediately repentant, Player shrugged. "Look, Simon, Pat says I can approach you over my escape idea. Come and have a look at it with me later on, will you?"
"Yeah, okay. But why me? Why not Phil?"
The expression was suddenly hard and almost hostile. "Phil's my lover," Player said, softly. "I'm asking you to be my partner in an escape. The two aren't necessarily interchangeable."
Carter paused. "Well, I expect you've got a good reason. Have to be mid-morning, though; I'm on the parcels list and I want to make sure I'm first in the queue this morning. It's going to be a bit of a rugby scrum."
"Good enough. Anybody else down for parcels?" After the winter they'd had a few home comforts wouldn't go amiss, and Player's mother often sent little luxuries like good soap or real cigarettes.
"Yeah, but not you I'm afraid. Phil's name's on the list. A couple of others and the padre."
"Only five? What the hell's happened to the rest?"
Carter shrugged, spying Colonel Preston emerging from the direction of the Saalhaus block. "Mostly Poles and French this time, I gather. Should be another parcels delivery in about three days' time, maybe you'll be lucky then."
By now, the motley parade of British, French, Dutch, Polish and Belgians - the 'Community of Nations' of Colditz inmates - had begun to form itself into coherent order. Carter, eyebrows raised in something like half a smile, took his leave of Player.
"Flight-Lieutenant Carter, please," the SBO called out, a note of weary repetition in his voice. Perhaps it had been a sleepless night for everyone in the Castle.
Simon moved forward, took his place at the front of the British contingent, and called the officers to order. Standing in the front row, trying not to meet the curiously critical gaze of Captain Sardou, Player was left to reflect that although he had now spent the night with Phil Carrington, the day that followed would be a perfectly ordinary day - and so would the next one, and the one after that.
Phil looked positively haggard this morning, as though weighed down by cares Dick would never have wished on him. The situation, far from being remedied by their brief excursion into another and gentler life, had become even less tolerable than before. Instead of fretting for his own freedom, Player was now left fretting for his lover's as well. He recalled a grimly pragmatic saying about true love being defined by one's ability to set the beloved free; he had only succeeded in trapping Carrington in another cage. The closer they became to one another the more their options would decrease, until being together became preferable to being free.
The escape plan he had outlined to Pat Grant the previous day had just darned well better work, because he could feel the metaphorical shades of the prison-house beginning to close around him. A few more weeks of devotion to Phil Carrington, and he would lose all desire for freedom.
It was time, he thought, for them both to do something really serious about getting out of Colditz.
The morning after Carrington and Player's first and only full night together had gone from bad to worse with the discovery of the dead body of a German soldier in the parcels office. Far from being the occasion for rejoicing, as might have been expected, this had raised the spectre of reprisals against the prisoners and all thoughts of escape were set firmly aside until the mystery was solved.
The conduct of the Wehrmacht officers during this crisis had been a revelation. Imperceptibly a chasm had been bridged; for one brief moment captives and captors had worked together towards a unified aim - that of at all costs keeping the Gestapo out of the Castle. Those who recognised the significance of this - and who knew about the Security Officer's quiet intervention on Player's behalf some months earlier - found grounds for optimism in it; it was a crumb of comfort for the future.
No sooner had this emergency been dealt with than another had arisen, putting Player's escape plan into the 'pending' tray for a further few weeks. The necessity of arranging a quick escape for an officer whose wife had sent him a 'Dear John' letter, had swept all other considerations aside. Whilst Phil Carrington had been deeply sympathetic towards the man, and an active campaigner towards and helper in his eventual escape, Player had spent a great deal of time in quiet corners reading every book he could get his hands on and establishing a relationship of trust with one of the Castle's two resident cats. Only the subsequent news that the officer had been shot while trying to escape had brought him out of his torpor, and then it was simply to hold Phil's hand while the American repeated over and over again his expressions of grief and inadequacy at this tragedy.
The late summer of 1942 had been the low point for both of them. They had clung together for comfort out of habit and because the alternative was unthinkable, but had been in such reduced spirits following these calamities that neither sex nor escaping had seemed as important as the moral support they could give one another. Indeed, tempers all around had shortened and morale had sunk towards basement level. What was needed to rejuvenate the spirits of the prisoners, it was generally agreed, was a successful escape. That was all very well, but plans likely to lead to success were rather thin on the ground that autumn and the situation was not a hopeful one.
Eventually, when the shock-waves of the two deaths had lessened and thoughts once again turned to matters of escape, Player was able to explain his idea to Carter. A cold afternoon at the end of September found them side-by-side at the window of Colonel Preston's room in the Saalhaus block - its regular occupant having withdrawn to the library for a game of chess with the padre - looking down over the corner of the German kitchens towards the right-angle of the Kommandantur building on the side of the Castle that was unquestionably German.
"I see it," Carter said, dully, in answer to Player's enthusiastic enquiry. "The pit. Just a hole in the ground. So what?"
The response had not been quite what Player was hoping for. "Yes, but Simon," he said, patiently, "why is it there?"
"Well, how should I know? It could be anything - a mediaeval lavatory, a rubbish pit, subsidence … "
"We're on solid rock," was the stubborn rebuttal. "And that part of the Castle's nineteenth century; they were a bit past digging pits by then. No, Simon, I'm pretty sure there's a way out through that pit."
Carter was unconvinced. "I don't understand why," he said, frankly. "You've got no real evidence to back it up, have you? I mean, have you ever seen anybody actually going down into the pit?"
"No. But that only means it isn't in use and we stand less chance of being detected that way. I reckon it leads under the Kommandantur somewhere and out into the moat. From there we could get over the wall into the park ... and away."
The other man shook his head. "I don't know, Dick. Tell me about the rest of it. The first part."
Player sat down on the end of Colonel Preston's bed, heedless of the breach of discipline involved. Carter remained, hands in pockets, staring out of the window.
"Okay. We get into the kitchens on our side of the building, cut through the bars on the window overlooking the Kommandantur, drop down over the roof into that big pool of shadow and sprint across the courtyard into the pit."
"Across the beat of the sentry, whose movements can't be predicted."
"Yes, well, we'll need some kind of stooging arrangement."
"Where, for heaven's sake? This is the only window in the camp that gives any sort of view of the sentry's beat; you can't even see him from the kitchens!"
Player glared up at Carter, annoyed by his stubborn refusal to see any positive aspects whatsoever in this scheme.
"Then Colonel Preston will just have to help," he said, firmly. "Damn it, Simon, if he really wants me out of here he's going to have to do something towards it."
"He wants you out of here? Why you, particularly?"
Player's tone became bitter. "Can't you guess? He's afraid homosexuality is catching and sooner or later I'll infect the whole camp. It's the military mind, Simon. I ought to know, I've seen it before. Pat's under orders to get me out of here before I do any more damage."
The look on Carter's lace mellowed. He turned back and examined Player's unhappy expression, then shook his head slowly.
"I wouldn't have thought he was that ... short-sighted," he said.
"He's a senior officer. Their attitudes and opinions are all laid down in King's Regs. Besides, he's Army. Things are different in the Navy."
"You sound pretty upset. I'd have thought you'd be used to it by now."
"I am used to it. That's part of the problem. Most of the chaps have realised I'm not the predatory type and they're all perfectly safe around me - I think even George is beginning to get the message - but officially I'm still a problem to be disposed of. Well, this is my solution; through the kitchens, out over the low roof, across the courtyard and into the pit. What d'you think?"
Carter examined the small patch of shadow in the distant comer of the Kommandantur courtyard one more time before turning again to look at Player and inventory the set line of his jaw and the fierce determination in his eyes.
"Okay. I'm in. And you keep doing what you're doing, Dick; don't let anybody make you ashamed of yourself."
The scowl broke suddenly into a bemused smile. "Right. let's get this worked up into a proper plan and get Pat to take it to Colonel Preston."
'Yeah," Carter conceded. "And you'd better smooth his bed down before we leave - otherwise he might not be quite so sympathetic!"
It was a week before they were able to present their case to the SBO, and when they did both men were disconcerted to find it being received without enthusiasm. Colonel Preston listened sympathetically while Dick rehearsed the details of his scheme, and then turned to Pat Grant for an opinion.
"You're not in favour of this, Pat?" he asked.
"No, sir. Oh, I think it's fine as far as the pit - but after that the whole thing just falls apart. We don't know what to expect after that. Too many variables, sir; I can't recommend it, I'm sorry."
Player was outraged. "Look, sir, we appeal to you; can't you over-rule Pat on this? We need an escape; morale's at rock-bottom."
One eyebrow raised in an expression of mild understanding, Preston let Player vent his disappointment for only a short time before calmly restoring order.
"No, gentlemen, I'm sorry, but I will not over-rule the escape officer."
The tone of finality in his voice set the seal on the meeting. Reluctantly, Player and Carter took formal leave of the senior officer.
Grant was about to follow them when Preston called him back.
"Just a moment, Pat. I'd like a word."
The escape officer closed the door again.
Colonel Preston grimaced. "Well, he's fight, isn't he? For the sake of morale, we do need an escape - and preferably a home-run."
"Yes, sir, I know. But we can't go giving approval to every half-baked scheme. Oh, it's not the most bizarre that's been suggested by any means, but it's nowhere near thorough enough. They'll have to come up with a foolproof method of getting past that guard in the Kommandantur courtyard for a start - and I'm still not convinced about that pit."
"No. I do take your point, Pat. However I have a lot of respect for Player's attitude; he's been the soul of discretion and he's certainly co-operated with our wishes on the matter. Is there anything you can do to - er - facilitate this escape plan of his?"
A weariness had entered Grant's expression, as though he had been over this same argument time and time again.
"Short of having the courtyard sentry re-deployed, sir, there isn't much. We've got a few friendly guards, but it's not easy to ask them questions about the layout of the place without drawing attention to the fact that there's something being planned. The only way to find out exactly where that pit leads is for someone to get into it, and from then on there's no way back. Even if he could re-cross the sentry's path, he'd never get back in through the kitchen window; it's swept by searchlight every few seconds."
"Well, look, Pat, I know it's not much of a scheme but I'd like you to encourage them to polish it a bit, see if they can find a way round their difficulties. Make sure they keep working on their false papers and civilian clothing. Don't let this rejection lower their morale."
"I'll do what I can, sir." The tone was less than optimistic.
Preston nodded. "Thank you, Pat. That'll be all."
Player and Carter arrived back in the British quarters to a scene of chaos unparalleled in their long occupation of the room. In the centre of the floor stood a random pile of belongings - tennis rackets, games, books and clothing - to which various items were being added at the direction of Hauptmann Ulmann. George Brent was watching in horror as his beloved cricket bat, in the hands of the German officer, was con signed to the pile.
"Even the British, Captain Brent, do not play cricket in the winter."
"It's not winter, Hauptmann, it's only September."
"Don't provoke him, George," Peter Muir advised. "You know as well as I do that in this place winter starts on the first of July and ends on the thirtieth of June. That's why they don't play cricket in Germany - isn't that right, Hauptmann Ulmann?"
"No, Mr Muir; the reason is that we have better things to do with our time. I will send some tea-chests over; you will pack away these surplus items and I will arrange for them to be stored in the attics."
Player was busy retrieving a couple of his cherished paperbacks from the pile as Ulmann exited from the room. He followed the German, protesting loudly.
"That's no good. The roof leaks."
Ulmann bit back the obvious remark. It had been apparent for a long time that the prisoners moved freely around the Castle and through areas that were supposedly locked and bolted; he was under no illusions about that. Besides, Player's comment had been accurate.
Carrington stepped forward. "Hauptmann, there must be someplace in this Castle where our belongings will be safe and dry. Couldn't you arrange for them to be stored there?"
This direct appeal, and the tone in which it was uttered, had some effect on the Security Officer. An austere man completely devoted to his duty, Ulmann was no-one's dupe. However he would always at least consider a reasonable request, particularly if it was put to him by Carrington with whom, despite his studied impartiality, he had developed the first glimmerings of a rapport. It was as if he had long ago decided that those who were officially his enemies were not necessarily inferior beings, no matter what the High Command decreed.
"Very well," he said, neutrally, "since it is of such importance to you, gentlemen, I will arrange for your belongings to be stored in the attics of the Kommandantur. They will be dry there, and safe."
Without another word he turned away and left Muir, Player, Brent and Carrington standing in the corridor outside the British quarters. As the other three re-entered the room Carrington remained behind, staring after the retreating figure of Hauptmann Ulmann, his mind churning through a myriad of possibilities. Then, seized by a sudden inspiration, he turned back into the room.
"Okay," he said, briskly, "you guys all drink tea. How big's a tea-chest?"
It was not even so much as a plan, just the mere notion that a man - if small enough - could be got into a tea-chest and carried as far as the Kommandantur attics by the Germans. From there, if he had the right equipment with him, he could break out of the building on the side nearest the village and get away. Grant arrived back in the dormitory just as Carrington was putting the idea forward, and the look on his face was enough to convince the inhabitants of the room that he was less than impressed by the whole business.
"It's not a plan. It's not even a thumbnail sketch." His dismissive, openly hostile tone was a shock; the normally good-humoured Pat Grant seemed to be in full retreat, replaced by a bitter stranger.
"It's a chance," Carrington insisted. "One man, in one tea-chest. The Germans do all the hard work. There has to be a way out, that whole side of the Castle is wide open."
"'Has to be'? Like there 'has to be' an exit from the pit? You chaps are getting wire-happy," Grant protested. "We've sweated and slaved over really good schemes that have been turned down, and now you're talking about risking a man's life on some half-baked idea?"
"Isn't it better than just sitting around waiting for something to happen?" Carrington demanded. It was the first open challenge to Grant's authority as escape officer, the first gauntlet thrown down; that it should come from Phil Carrington, of all people, was a shock, but it was a situation that had been brewing for months. Men frustrated by the failure or rejection of their escape plans were spoiling for some expression of their disquiet, some small act of mutiny, and suddenly there was Carrington opposing Pat Grant and half-a-dozen British officers found themselves on the American's side.
"It's a preposterous idea, and it won't work," Grant told him without warmth.
"Yeah, well I want to try it."
"No." The dismissal was brisk and flat, Grant taking his leave with the precise timing of an actor in some black comedy. After he had gone, the other officers clustered around Carrington.
"What the hell," he said, sourly. "If we don't take chances when they come along, nobody's ever gonna get away. Whoever fits into the box gets outta here, right?"
Into the discomfort produced by Grant's departure, George Brent's voice intruded a note of almost childlike humour.
"Just like Cinderella," he said. "'The maiden whose foot fits this tiny slipper shall be my bride'. Cinderella .. in a packing case."
"Yes," Player told him, catching the note of whimsy perfectly. "Only in this case Cinderella's trying to get out of the Castle."
When the tea-chests were brought it was the work of a few minutes to decide that only Carter was capable of fitting inside one. There was a scurry of frantic activity while his documents were dated and items of escape kit produced from their hiding-places, and he was provided with a hammer, chisel and a quantity of blue-and-white woven rope. When Hauptmann Ulmann and his working party returned for the tea-chests at the end of the allotted time, Carter was ready in one with a folded blanket concealing him from view and the other chests were packed to the brim with heavy items to make their weight equal to that of his. There were a few bad moments when Ulmann ordered the lids of the tea-chests to be nailed in place, but Carrington had made such a commotion about the possibility of pilferage of their belongings that it was only to be expected. Then, with more misgivings than they had felt about the scheme before, the British officers watched as the Germans carried the tea-chests one by one down the steep spiral staircase and out into the prisoners' courtyard. The die was cast; there was little they could do now but wait.
"I won't say 'I told you so'," Grant said, wearily. "But, by God, I feel like it."
Fresh from a meeting with Colonel Preston during which he had tendered his resignation as escape officer, Pat was in one of his less sunny moods.
Carrington groaned. "All right, Pat," he said, a note of regret in his voice, "you were right and I was wrong. The point is, what are we going to do about Simon?"
Player, consulting his watch, was making some rapid mental calculations. "From my experience in submarines, I'd give him ... about an hour before he suffocates."
Painfully aware that his own hasty actions could be the cause of a friend's death, Carrington had gravitated to the only source of comfort in the room and was standing as close to Player as he could. The look they exchanged was eloquent to all; a mistake had been made, but Dick would not let Phil carry the burden alone.
"Right," Grant said, decisively. "I'll give him fifty minutes, and then I'm going to Ulmann."
In the end that proved not to be necessary, but for the most unfortunate of reasons. Just as Grant and Carrington were on their way to find the Security Officer alarm bells began to sound throughout the Castle and search parties were mobilised to scour the surrounding area for an escaped prisoner. It later emerged that Ulmann himself had been among the group to discover the rope left dangling from the window of the Kommandantur attic; he had been accompanying the Kommandant and the Area Commander, General von Kirscht, on a tour of inspection at the time. The embarrassment factor among the Germans was high, and superhuman efforts were made to recover the missing man. Thus, within the hour, Carter was being escorted back towards the Castle, limping painfully on an ankle that had been broken in his descent. The tea-chest escape was a failure, but indirectly it was to have important repercussions on the lives of everyone - prisoners and Germans alike - in the Castle over the years to come.
Colonel Preston's reaction to the debacle was predictable. Seething with annoyance he made his way to the British quarters, accompanied by Merriman. The SBO lost no time in expressing his feelings about the unplanned and hazardous escape idea, but having unburdened himself of some rather pithy sentiments on the subject he had an unexpected development to report to the prisoners.
"The Doc here managed to get a few words with Simon before Ulmann and the Stabsarzt turned up," he said, turning to the medic. "Perhaps you'd like to give them the details?"
"Yes, sir." For a moment the unassuming man held centre stage, and he paused to express his disapproval of their half-witted heroics in an eloquent stare before proceeding. "Carter gave me a message about something he called the 'pit escape'," he went on, clearly uninterested in knowing anything further about the scheme. "He says that if you can get through the door into the Kommandantur just next to the main gate you can get up into the attics without being seen; there's no guard inside. He also mentioned that his rope wasn't long enough - that's why he fell. And there's a guard at the top of the moat. That's all.
Preston stepped forward. "Thank you, Doctor," he said, by way of dismissal. Waiting until the other man had left, he continued in slow and deliberate tones. "All this being said, gentlemen, I am now prepared to give the go-ahead for the pit escape - but with a few stipulations. First, the planning is to be very thorough; Pat, you'll see to that. Second, this will be a four man escape - not two as originally planned. Captain Grant will be one of the second pair and will be relieved of his duty as escape officer on the day of the escape itself. Third, as we'll want to use this route again I'll require you to take every possible precaution to safeguard it for the future. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir." Subdued murmurs of agreement came from the group of men clustered around him.
"Very well, carry on. Pat, please keep me advised."
At Grant's acknowledgement, the SBO nodded briskly in the direction of his men and left the room at a military pace and with a set to his shoulders that betokened no light mood. The senior officer's displeasure was exhibited so rarely that such a forthright manifestation of it had shocked them all, made them realise more clearly than anything else the folly of what they had so carelessly undertaken.
The memory of the earlier antagonism between Grant and Carrington seemed to have evaporated in their mutual concern over Carter. As the door closed behind Colonel Preston, Grant was seen to relax. Lines vanished from his face, and it was possible for his fellow-prisoners to begin to understand exactly what the role of escape officer had cost him.
"Well, Dick," he said, urbanely, "it was your scheme. Obviously Simon's ruled out of it so who're you going to take with you now?"
Player had been reviewing the possibilities even while the Colonel was speaking. It would have to be someone reliable and quiet and whose company he could stand for anything up to a week under the most stressful conditions imaginable. He did not dare look in Phil Carrington's direction.
"Peter?" he said, uncertain as to whether Muir would be interested.
The response was an expression of bemused gratitude and a silent nod of acceptance, and in that moment Player knew he had chosen well. "What about you, Pat? Who will you take?"
"What?" As though the choice was a matter of the most supreme unimportance to him, Grant dismissed it with a shrug. "Phil, of course."
There had been no 'of course' about it. As Grant began to issue orders about the preparations he wanted made - a model of the building, documents stamped and made ready, civilian clothing assembled - Player found that for a moment his gaze was caught and held by that of Phil Carrington. Not only had the tea-chest escape been rescued from the status of a total disaster, but also the pit scheme was now considered viable. On top of this, they were both to go; it was the same escape, but once out of the Castle they would be travelling separately and without responsibility for one another's safety. It was the best of all possible worlds, and briefly they allowed themselves to contemplate the glorious possibility of success before returning once more to the reality of the sheer hard work they had let themselves in for. Carrington's reassuring glance was all the moral support Player needed. With a sudden access of renewed enthusiasm, he felt the cares of the last few months lift from his shoulders as he threw himself delightedly into the preparations.
"Kinda hard to believe, isn't it?"
The recessed stone window-ledge set in the thickness of the turret wall was not the warmest place in the camp but at least it was relatively quiet. In better weather it was often the resort of those in introspective mood, with books to finish or letters from home to contemplate. At this time of the year with what little heat there was in the building leaking away through cracked glass and rotting window-frames it was a cheerless refuge, its main attraction being that it was off the beaten track for British officers. Carrington, greatcoated and wearing two sweaters in addition to his usual collection of uniform oddments, was sitting on a folded blanket in the depths of the recess nearest the glass, feet drawn up and arms wrapped around his knees. Player was lounging back against the wall, his feet still on one tread of the spiral staircase. He was smoking his last decent cigarette.
"What, that we'll be out of here in a few days? Actually, do you believe it?"
"I don't know. A lot of people are pretty keen to make sure it happens. What about that Colonel Preston, for example? You know he's actually agreed to let the band practice in his room so he can give us the signal himself?"
"Yes, I know. I told you he was in a hurry to be rid of me." The assertion carried no hint of malice or self-pity.
Carrington smiled benignly. "Don't you think it could just be that he's worried about you?"
The suggestion was not a novel one. Although in more cynical moments Player was inclined to favour a different view, he was well aware that the SBO was concerned about his welfare.
"Yes," he admitted. "I do really. He's been pretty decent about the whole business, hasn't he?"
"Uh-huh. I've known senior officers who would have cut us up and fed us to the wolves a long time ago. You know in some camps queers are in permanent solitary. If you get a halfway human MO he puts you down as a psychiatric case for repatriation, but I never heard of it doing any good."
"Where did you get that?"
"Captain Sardou. We got talking. He doesn't approve of us, but he makes a point of doing anything he can that could upset the Germans."
Player nodded, blowing lazy smoke-rings towards the locked attic door away to his right.
"You know, Phil," he said, thoughtfully, "if we both get out of here safely we may not see each other again for years ... if at all. I think we ought to try and make a few decisions, don't you?"
"You mean, is this a love affair or just a matter of convenience?"
"That's exactly what I mean."
There was a long silence, and then Carrington said; "Nobody can make any long-term plans with the whole god-damned world fighting. How do we know whether the war's gonna last six months or another sixty years? I care about you, Richard, you know that ... but I don't trust what I feel. In here everything's different; outside ... "
"It couldn't last?"
"I don't think so."
Silence fell while Player took the last drag on his cigarette, then threw down the stub and crushed it under his heel. "Then we'll put it behind us. The moment we leave the Castle, it never happened. Call it ... some kind of hothouse plant that couldn't live in the cold air outside."
Another contemplative silence, and then Carrington said gently; "Dick, I couldn't have survived in this place without you. You kept me sane enough to keep on trying to get out. Whatever happens, you've been one of the most important people in my life. If, maybe, we don't see each other again, I wanted you to know that."
"Thank you. I ... feel much the same way about you. I've never really had anyone before who was ... always there to lean on. I think you've made me stronger."
"Yeah, well maybe we leaned on each other. And I think maybe we taught some of these guys in here something about queers," Carrington added, with a burst of cynicism.
"Well, George Brent at least. He's not a bad sort. I could almost believe Pat picked him to help us deliberately."
"Listen, Brent's got enough of a cross to bear already," Phil chuckled, one hand dropping affectionately onto Dick's shoulder and gripping tightly. "If he hadn't warned me you were queer, I'd probably just've gone on beating off and thinking about you. It was Brent telling me that made me think you might be interested."
"So it's all George's fault?"
"I'd say that."
"Hmmm. Better not tell him."
Leaning back, Player let himself be pulled into an ungainly embrace in which his mouth and Carrington's blindly found one another, caught and held briefly, more affection than passion in the kiss. It had been so easy to get used to one another's company, so comfortable to be together, that the prospect of being apart for any length of time was colder and more terrible than anything they had endured so far. Yet Phil was right; like a shipboard romance, their closeness had depended very much on the time and the place that had brought them together. Whether it could survive in the altogether harsher conditions of the world outside was a question neither of them could answer.
"Phil? Dick? Are you there?"
Below them on the staircase were footsteps which had paused at least one spiral below, and the voice was that of Peter Muir.
The kiss ended, and for a moment Player relaxed against Carrington before the American's deep voice called out; "Yeah, Peter, come on up."
The footsteps resumed, and a moment later Muir - slightly red in the face, though whether from hurry or embarrassment was impossible to tell - swung around the staircase's central pillar and grinned up at them.
"Pat wants us all in the dormitory," he said, crisply. "Meeting of the whole pit escape team. I think ... "
Player levered himself off the windowsill and stood up, smoothing down his uniform "Has something gone wrong?"
"No. Far from it. I think he's going to tell us when we're going."
Downing and Brent were the only people in the British dormitory when Muir, Carrington and Player reached it, although Bentinct-Boyle was keeping cavey outside and smiled amiably at them as they passed. They had barely had time to remove their greatcoats when the door opened again and Colonel Preston entered, with Pat Grant close behind. Most incredibly of all, Preston was carrying a wine-bottle which by the look of it contained some Colditz brewed 'rotgut' or other. Brewing and distilling activities throughout the Castle had been pursued with great enthusiasm and every nationality had come up with its own recipe for something that tasted like battery acid and had a kick like a discontented camel.
"Could someone please get out the crystal goblets?" the SBO asked mildly. "We have something to celebrate."
"It's tonight." The sudden conviction struck them all at the same time, but it was Carrington who put it into words.
"It was always going to be tonight," Grant informed him, with a wry smile. "I just didn't tell you. Didn't want anybody getting stage-fright."
"But we're not ready!"
Brent's protest and expression of alarm only served to confirm Grant's sound judgement of the situation.
"We're ready," he said, calmly.
Colonel Preston was busy pouring the spirit into enamel mugs. As soon as everyone had a drink in his hand he glanced around at the other six officers and said smoothly; "Right, down in one. Your very good health, gentlemen."
Solemnly they all swigged back the stinging liquid, each man dealing in his own way with the effects of such raw alcohol on a nervous system debilitated by long captivity. Even the Colonel seemed momentarily stunned by it, grimacing and glancing back into the bottom of the mug as though he had serious doubts about its contents.
As a comment on the quality of the liquor, it just about covered the situation.
"Well, goodbye, Phil ... Peter ... Dick." He shook hands with each one in turn, wishing them luck as he did so. Finally he glanced across the table towards Captain Grant. "Good luck, Pat. It's been a privilege serving with you. All of you."
That was, it seemed, all he was prepared to say on the subject. Never an emotional man, anything approaching a lingering farewell would have been foreign to his nature. Besides, the business end of escaping - the planning, the organisation, the scrounging and most of all the individual insomniac heart-searching - was something that by virtue of his position he had to delegate to others. Whilst intellectually involved in every escape attempt, therefore, he had long guarded against any great emotional investment in his officers' schemes. The six other men in the room all understood this; it was the price both he and they paid for having a senior officer who was in control not only of his men but also of his feelings. Their respect and affection for him was not altered one iota by his occasional displays of coldness.
Nodding to the assembled company, Preston turned briskly and made his way out of the room. In the hiatus that followed his departure, Downing and Brent once again raised their 'glasses' in the direction of the four potential escapers.
"Good luck," Downing said, softly.
"And don't come back," added Brent. "Any of you."
There were five men sitting quietly in the kitchen, waiting for darkness to fall and the sounds of activity to die away. After Abendessen and evening Appell the mood usually became more relaxed and contemplative, with people forming small groups for hobbies or lectures or escape-directed activities of one sort or another. The camp's musicians often took this opportunity to rehearse, only this evening - as for several previous evenings - they had been invited to do so in Colonel Preston's room in the Saalhaus. As this was separated from the main British quarters it could be argued that fewer people would be disturbed by the noise, a suggestion that the escapers hoped would carry some weight with Hauptmann Ulmann should he decide to investigate.
Player, Muir, Carrington, Grant and Brent were waiting for the musical cue from the SBO's room. They knew that Colonel Preston himself would be standing at the window and signalling to the band's conductor whenever the sentry's back was turned. Musical offerings from that direction so far had been limited to the sounds of tuning-up and the occasional solo improvisation - a very theatrical overture to the evening's proceedings. The kitchen was really the start of it - or the end, depending on how one looked at it. After they left the kitchen they would be escapers on their way out of Germany. After they left the kitchen they would be forced to rely on their own wits, as no other help would be forthcoming.
Their farewells from George Brent, there to clean up all traces of their departure and leave by mingling with the orderlies the following morning, were not protracted. Grant and Carrington both shook hands briefly with the man, then returned to the window and without further ceremony slipped out through it and down onto the projecting kitchen roof below. Almost at the same moment the band in Colonel Preston's quarters struck up an up-tempo version of 'A Room With A View', the inspired choice of some humorist which Grant and Carrington scarcely had time to appreciate. They dropped from the roof into the pool of shadow in the angle of the building, and there paused and waited for their cue.
Above them the music was relentless, churning along frantically without a break. Grant edged forward, peeked cautiously round the angle of the building - a small store attached to the kitchen complex - then withdrew quickly as the gaunt figure of the Abwehr officer came into view. Ulmann was standing in the Kommandantur courtyard looking around and seeming almost to detect the scent of deception on the cold night breeze. A musical rehearsal in senior officers' quarters was somewhat unusual, and what was unusual attracted the Hauptmann's attention and required his investigation. He strode off towards the gateway through to the prisoners' courtyard, a polite enquiry of Colonel Preston his obvious intention.
Retreating, Grant grabbed Carrington by the arm and hustled him back into the shadows. As they stood there, tense and alert for every sound, the music disintegrated into unmelodious chaos.
"Ulmann?" Carrington asked, in a whisper.
Hearts thudding they retreated still further, opening the unlocked door of the store-room and easing inside. For a moment all was quiet, and then a sudden shrieking from the darkness rooted them both to the spot. The cat - the one Dick had befriended - which had settled down for the night in the store-room had leaped several feet into the air and come back down to earth with a clatter.
Automatically Carrington caught hold of the animal, fully in sympathy with the exaggerated beat of its small heart under his hands. Carefully he cradled it, soothed it with soft whispers, stroked its head with clumsy gloved fingers.
"Hush, kitten, hush. It's okay."
The cat, because it knew him, calmed down considerably and dug its claws into the sleeve of his greatcoat which Dick had always insisted was a sign of affection. If a cat didn't like you, it wouldn't be trying to hold on to you; it would be making its way somewhere else, fast.
Carrington opened the door again, bent low to release the cat at ground level, and kissed the top of its furry head reassuringly before he let it go. When he closed the door again, he was the recipient of a very old-fashioned look from Pat Grant.
"I've thrown in my lot with someone who stops in the middle of an escape to kiss a bloody cat," the Englishman said, with some amusement.
Carrington shrugged self-deprecatingly. "You never can tell," was his mild reply.
"What's gone wrong with the music?" Brent whispered anxiously.
Player grimaced. "How should I know? There's nothing happening out there," he said, indicating the courtyard.
Muir slapped Brent on the back consolingly. "Never mind, George," he advised. "No news is good news."
"Not in this case, it isn't." Player deliberately misunderstood Muir's intention of easing Brent's nervousness. "Wait a minute, there's something ... Yes, a figure crossing the sentry's beat. God, we're going to have to do this without the bloody music. Peter, are you ready?"
"When you are."
"Right. Let's get on with it."
He did not pause to exchange farewells with Brent, but eased himself out of the window and down onto the sloping roof. Muir, following, remained behind long enough to grin in Brent's direction.
"I'll send you a postcard from Switzerland," he promised.
Brent smiled weakly, and then the searchlight swung back in their direction and he had to shrink away from the window. When the glare had gone so had Peter Muir, hunched now in the shadow of the ventilator on the kitchen roof and as far away in practical terms as if he had been on the moon. Brent closed the window quietly and began the business of clearing up.
Muir, flattened against the roof tiles, found himself face to face with the cat. Having been ejected from the store by one of its favourite humans, it had very soon discovered the presence of another - Dick Player. It was sitting on the slates observing his antics with the lofty detachment of cats, as though it would - if it could - deliver itself of a lecture on deportment and decorum.
Muir waited in the deep shadow, listening fearfully as the sentry drew near - and then to his profound relief heard soothing and affectionate words directed at the cat. Moments later the German soldier was walking across the courtyard with the creature snuggled in his arms; it was obvious to Muir that the cat, like all cats, was on neither side in the war between humans. Or, more likely, both.
By the time Player and Muir reached the pit, Carrington and Grant were safely installed out of the sentry's view. Grant, armed with a selection of skeleton keys, made off towards the door into the Kommandantur Carter had recommended, but after an agonising interval in which he tried every key several times to no avail he returned to the pit.
"No dice, I'm afraid," he said, bleakly. "The lock's a completely different type."
"Then we're finished?" Muir's question did not hold the note of finality his words might have merited.
"Not yet," was Player's determined response. "Come on, let's take a look down here. I'll bet you anything you like there's a cellar that runs right under the Kommandantur."
That had been his original contention, the one both Grant and Colonel Preston had characterised as insane optimism. If it should prove to be correct now, there would be no-one more delighted with the taste of humble pie than Grant himself.
Squeezing through the low brick arch they found themselves - after a short crawl - in a dank and unpleasant cellar full of rotting leaves, lumber and, as they found out the hard way, an open sewerage pit. Following the welcome scent of fresh air from the opposite side of the enclosure brought them to a narrow ventilation shaft, barred at the far end, through which if they removed most of their clothes they might just manage to escape.
Player as the slenderest of the four was boosted into the opening to tussle with the bars, whose ageing mortar gave way to his urgent tugging. The refreshing air of freedom washed over him as he worked; he had dreamed of this for so long, planned for it, even prayed for it when he was so desperate he could think of nothing else that would help. Even if freedom meant leaving Phil Carrington - and all that Phil Carrington meant to him - behind in the escape-proof prison of the past, freedom was what he must have. It was within his grasp.
The bar gave way, soft metal bending like putty, and there was nothing between the four escapers and the outside world but the minor inconveniences of a sentry with a dog, a twelve foot wall, the German barracks and a couple of hundred miles of Germany.
Piece of cake, Phil Carrington had called it.
"Piece of cake," Dick Player echoed softly.
"You know, Pat, I don't like the idea of hangin' around here. It could be kinda dangerous."
Carrington stooped down to where Pat Grant was propped up against the gigantic gnarled roots of an ancient tree. In the forest every sound was blanketed by the snow that had fallen in the last few hours, but he kept his voice low and his tone confidential so that the words barely reached his fellow-escaper.
"I agree," Grant told him, leaning back against the trunk of the tree. "But if we don't rest now, we probably won't get another chance later. Twenty minutes, and a bite of something to eat. We're making good time, and with any luck we should be over the border before dark."
"A bite of something to eat?" Carrington echoed. "You mean to say we've got some supplies left?"
Grant smiled cheerfully. "A little something in reserve," he said, tapping the side of his nose with a gloved finger. "A couple of pieces of German bread and some of that ersatz blackcurrant jam."
"Oh, you mean 'one blackcurrant to a peck of turnips'?"
"Cynic. Just pretend it's Swiss chocolate. There's a mouthful of Downing's brandy left, too," the Englishman added, in the tone of a nanny trying to tempt a recalcitrant child to eat up its greens.
"Downing's brandy? Good God." Carrington's expression changed. No longer merely pensive and preoccupied, he seemed downright haggard.
"Did I say something?"
Carrington shook his head suddenly. "Nah. It's just that last time I tasted any of Downing's brandy was that night in the palliasse room."
"Oh." The Englishman managed a sheepish smile, no longer sure he had enough blood left to blush with. "That night. Well, Tim's hoarded this brandy like drops of his own blood. This is the very last of it, though."
"Good of him to hand it over," the other man said, vaguely. "You know, Pat ... "
He trailed off; but Grant's expression reassured him "What?"
"Well, it's just that I never told any of you guys how much that night meant to me, did I?"
Grant's hand gripped the American's shoulder. "Yes you did. Maybe not in words, but we knew. Even Colonel Preston knew," he added, mischievously.
A bitter chuckle escaped the other man. "Hell, Pat," he said, sharply, "I wouldn't be surprised if you told me Ulmann knew."
Grant nodded. "As a matter of fact, Phil, I wouldn't be surprised if he did. But I suppose we'll never find out now."
"I hope not."
Carrington accepted the stale bread crust with its smear of purple-stained jam substitute and closed his eyes as he ate it - not out of ecstasy, but simply in order to try and imagine that it was anything other than what it was. Beside him, Grant was facing similar difficulty forcing down the last miserable scraps of their escapers' food ration. Four days out from Colditz they were hungry, cold, living on their nerves and within a hair's breadth of freedom; it was difficult to concentrate on anything quite so ordinary as eating when there was such an enormous prize within their grasp, but Grant's words had made perfect sense. They must take this last opportunity to rest and eat before pushing on with the final stage of their journey.
The bread and jam having been consumed somehow, Grant offered the medicine bottle with its minuscule measure of brandy to Carrington first.
The American took a cautious mouthful, wiped the neck of the bottle, and handed it back to Grant who swiftly disposed of the rest. He then excavated a little hole at the base of the tree and buried the bottle in the snow.
"Taste as good as you remembered?" Grant asked, one eyebrow lifting in gentle mockery.
"Nope. But then the company's not as good, either."
"Touché." A brief, contemplative silence, and then Grant said gently; "What are you and Dick planning to do after the war?"
"Richard Roxburgh Player. Remember him?"
Carrington's expression was unreadable. "Yeah, I remember. I don't know, Pat. We both have to get out of Germany first, though. I haven't thought any further ahead than that."
"Mmm. Well, what would you like to do?"
The American shrugged. "I'm a foreign correspondent. I go where the news is. Wherever my Editor sends me. The last few years, that's usually been the middle of a war zone. I think maybe he's trying to tell me something." The words were accompanied by a humourless smile.
Grant nodded. "What about Dick?"
"Dick's regular Navy. He could end up anywhere in the world. Besides, you're rather assuming we're both gonna get through the war."
"I'm a born optimist." Grant levered himself up onto his feet, stamped up and down a couple of times to get his circulation moving, and stared around at the deserted forest with a jaded look in his eyes. "So you're telling me that afterwards - assuming you survive - you and Dick will both be dashing around the world on separate courses?"
"Leave it, Pat."
"You haven't made any plans to meet?"
Further questions sprang to the forefront of Grant's mind, but his companion's attitude was distinctly discouraging. What, he would have liked to ask, about the Great Love Affair which kept us entertained this last year? But Carrington was already several steps away, ahead of him on the side of the hill. Obviously the American had decided their brief rest break was over. Picking up his cardboard suitcase, Grant made tracks after him through the ankle-deep snow.
As he caught up, Carrington paused and turned to address him. "Pat, we're carrying enough luggage on this trip already," he said, quietly, nodding in the direction of one of the cardboard suitcases Grant had insisted on bringing with them. "Dick and I ... well, that was something we agreed to leave behind in the Castle. Call it just a kids' thing. That's not the real world back there, you know. In the real world people feel uncomfortable around queers." He paused, evaluating what he had said. "Even worse than some of the guys back there. Besides that," he added, sadly, "people are different when they're in prison. When they're free, they want different things."
Grant nodded. "Yes. Right now, I want a hot bath and a cup of tea - not necessarily in that order."
The mood lightened considerably. Carrington accepted the change of subject with gratitude and allowed himself the merest hint of a chuckle.
"Well, I don't think you'll get either of those in Germany," laughed. "Guess we'll just have to get across the border, then."
Had it really only been four days since that interminable wait in the prisoners' kitchen? Those days had been a patchwork of long, crowded train journeys, worrying encounters with German patrols, avoiding vehicles on the roads, trudging through knee-deep snow and sleeping in barns and outhouses. At first the novelty of every opening vista had been bewildering; after the claustrophobic confines of the Castle, unchanging except with the seasons, the constant bombardment of new information on their senses had been almost too much to bear. After four days, cold and tired, nerves stretched and vibrating like fiddle-strings, they were like jaded sightseers who bustled through the glorious countryside as if they could not wait to be away from it. In some respects this was a good thing, as any manifestation of awe or delight would only have drawn attention to them.
It was not that they had lost the power to feel, however; in one of the villages they had passed through on the train, a child's snowman on a small plot of wasteland near the railway line had almost reduced Grant to tears. He did not dare speak, to ask whether Carrington had seen it too, but the sympathetic expression on the man's face suggested that perhaps he had. It was refreshing to know that innocence was still alive and well in the middle of enemy territory; that, despite the war, some child still had enough spirit and enterprise to build something which would not outlast the winter. With the world around them engaged in attempting either to build or destroy something that was intended to last a thousand years, the very impermanence of the child's creation was its greatest virtue.
Grant could not have explained any of this to Carrington, even if he had been at liberty to speak at the time. It came back to him later on the snow-bound mountainside as a metaphor for what Phil had said about Dick Player.
Call it just a kids' thing.
Was the impermanence of that relationship what had made them both so committed to it in the first place? The thought made him shudder; he hadn't seen either of them as the superficial type, yet perhaps that too was a façade adopted for one another's protection. If they pretended that it was not important, that it had never been important, wouldn't that set them both free?
A meditation on the nature of freedom was exactly what Grant's soul demanded of him. He hated himself for the introspective turn his mind had taken over the years of captivity, and for the brooding dark thoughts he so often found there. Outwardly he had always found it necessary to be strong and capable, because other people relied on him for that. Inwardly bitter speculations often overwhelmed him. He had not been able to discuss these with anyone for fear it would be viewed as weakness - nor had he heard anyone else giving voice to similar feelings. It seemed to him that it was a precursor of madness, and that the walls had crept a little closer and grown a little higher until at last he, too, had been counted among the desperate men crying to get out. Perhaps only Colonel Preston had been aware how close to breaking he was; perhaps that was why he had virtually ordered him to escape. Prison had less effect on those with limited imagination; Grant, whose creative imagination was virtually limitless, had found the barriers around his mind fully as irksome as those around his body.
Waking slowly from confusing dreams of escape, Carrington could hear the footsteps of the German guards in the corridor and the revving of a lorry engine a long way below in the courtyard. He passed a weary hand over his unshaven face. Mornings in Colditz always came around before he was ready for them; some directive of High Command, presumably.
The flushing of a lavatory nearby intruded on his struggle with consciousness. It was never possible to sleep late when one had the bunk nearest the washroom - a constant parade of officers from the dormitory to the facilities wended its way past within inches of his face, and a pretty unimpressive spectacle it was too. Then there were the fit types whose physical jerks seemed to shake the foundations of the Castle; one or other of them would ordinarily start putting himself through a routine suitable only for an Olympic athlete before Carrington had removed the sleep from his eyes. He was a poor starter in the mornings, and the enforced proximity of his fellow officers in the dormitory hadn't improved him.
Groaning loudly, he held a hand over his eyes in a theatrical expression of annoyance.
"Hold it down, fellers, can't you?" he demanded.
The expected fusillade of thrown objects and caustic comments did not follow immediately, and Carrington opened his eyes in bewilderment to discover only the gently-smiling figure of Pat Grant leaning against a door-jamb a dozen feet away, a towel slung over his shoulder.
"I was wrong," Grant said, cheerfully. "I wanted a hot bath, a cup of tea and a shave - all three of which I've now had. If you don't get out of bed soon, you'll miss dinner."
"Dinner?" The surroundings of the little Swiss police-station gradually coalesced out of the ether that filled Carrington's mind; the footsteps of the police officers and the revving of their vehicles lost their threatening association. "Jeezus, Pat I'm kinda disorientated. I was dreaming about squeezing out through that grating. Y'know I kept feeling the Castle was trying to hang on to me, trying to pull me back. Like it had a mouth and teeth and it was trying to swallow me."
Grant sat down on the foot of the other bunk and smiled at him sympathetically.
"I know what you mean. In that sense, I don't suppose we'll ever leave. I imagine Colditz will be sitting there in our nightmares for years to come, just waiting for us to close our eyes. I don't think even in peacetime it would be a very pleasant place."
Carrington yawned. "No," he agreed. "Personally, I'd rather not find out." He sat up, stretching weary limbs. "What was that about 'dinner'? Don't you mean breakfast?"
"It's early evening," he was told, mildly. "You've slept about twelve hours."
"Any news of Dick and Peter?"
The question was automatic, but even as he asked it Carrington knew there was very little prospect of an answer. They had parted from Muir and Player in the village of Colditz itself, each pair taking a different route towards this same border crossing. The thought of that parting corroded in him like acid; low-key and cheerful, he and Dick smiling into each other's eyes like casual chums who would see one another tomorrow or the day after. They had not parted like lovers in a war zone should part, with tears and regrets and promises of forever. Did that mean they didn't care? Or had he lived among the British too long and inherited too many of their stoical qualities? There were times when he purely hated being sensible, doing the right thing for the sake of others, and that parting in the village of Colditz had unquestionably been one of those times.
If all went well, the first news they would have of the other two would be news of their arrival - and that, Carrington knew, would have been the very first thing on Grant's mind.
"Not yet," the Englishman told him. "We made good time, you know; we can hardly expect them here until tomorrow morning at the earliest."
Carrington hauled himself off the bunk, testing shaky legs before standing upright like some new-born calf struggling to its feet. He was thinking of the steep, gloomy pine-forest with its thick carpet of snow, and of frozen nights under hostile German stars. Strange how a few feet of well-trodden earth, a few strands of wire, a few searchlights could make the difference between a land that was free and a land that was not.
"Do you suppose they're okay?" he asked, worriedly.
"They'll be fine. They'll be here by morning." Grant sounded so certain that Carrington was suddenly ashamed of ever having doubted it. "Hadn't you better get cleaned up, Phil? Can't greet the love of your life looking like something the cat dragged in, can you?"
"Did I say he was the love of my life?" was the mild rejoinder.
'Didn't need to," Pat Grant told him, with a grin. "But personally I wouldn't want to be seen dead looking like that. Why don't you take a look in the mirror?"
Mirror? Come to think of it, this wasn't so much like the provincial police-station cell Carrington had expected to spend the night in. Ushered to it in a state of exhausted collapse, he hadn't had time to do much more than remove his boots and his sodden greatcoat and throw himself into bed before the urgent need for sleep overcame him. Now he surveyed the room in more detail, it resembled nothing so much as a cheap hotel bedroom with two narrow bunks taking up most of the floor space. The door was an iron grid but it stood wide open, and a smell of food cooking was apparent in the air.
"Tell the officer you want a bath and a shave," Grant suggested. "He'll take you over to the sergeant's house. The sergeant's wife will probably make you a cup of coffee, if you ask her nicely."
"Coffee? Real coffee?" Carrington echoed, his mind functioning only intermittently. "Are you sure you don't mean that filthy ersatz stuff made out of burned acorns? If I never see a cup of that again, it'll be too soon."
"Go on, hurry up," he was told, briskly. "The sooner you get back, the sooner we can both have something to eat. That heavenly aroma of roasting meat," Grant added, with a laugh, "is coming from our supper."
Some hours later, bathed, shaved and fed and basking in the afterglow of a bottle of schnapps produced by the sergeant, Carrington lay drowsing on the bunk in the darkened police cell. Grant, too, was drifting between sleep and waking, as his uneven breathing and intermittent coughing testified. They had both been seen by a Swiss doctor during the evening, whose verdict was that although undernourished and exhausted they were in good condition despite their adventures. With decent food and sufficient rest they would soon shake off whatever minor ailments beset them and be fit to return to duty.
He rolled onto his back, hands folding behind his head.
"Pat?" The darkness was suddenly oppressive, the myriad possibilities inherent in freedom a greater challenge than escaping had ever been.
"I was thinking … " Carrington's tone was philosophical, almost languid.
"You'll go back to your unit?"
A rueful laugh. "There wasn't much of my unit left when I was captured," Grant told him. "I'll probably be posted to a similar unit doing the same sort of job, though. What about you?"
"Well, I'm still in the RAF. What I'm thinking is ... in a couple of month's time, I could be flying another mission over Germany. Say I get shot down again; what happens then?"
Grant sat up, looking through the darkness towards his companion. "I'd say you'd be likely to find your way back to Colditz eventually," he said. "At which point you can link up with Simon or whoever is acting as escape officer and start looking for a way out. We might both go through the whole process half a dozen times before the war's over."
"Yeah, that's what I figured. And suppose I'm inside and Dick's outside. Suppose he's free and I'm not?"
"That's a lot of supposing, Phil. Suppose it's the other way round - you're free and he's not?"
"I've thought about it. I'd have a lot of trouble forgiving myself."
"Don't you think Dick would feel the same way? He does ..." Grant cursed himself for the hesitation, then plunged onward despite his own discomfort. "He does love you, doesn't he?"
There was a long, thoughtful silence, and at last Carrington said; "Uh-huh. Just like I love him."
"So all that stuff about leaving it behind in the Castle was just a convenient fiction, was it?" Grant surmised. "Just you and Dick trying to protect one another's feelings?"
Grant lay down again, tucking his hands beneath his head in unconscious imitation of Carrington.
"If I was you," he advised, "I wouldn't worry about it. Dick'll be here in a couple of hours; you'll have plenty of time to discuss it with him then."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
"I know I'm right. But there's something else you ought to consider, Phil. This war could see us all out. It could go on for another thirty or forty years. If I was in love with someone and didn't think we had much chance of a future together, I'd want to make the most of it while I could. Don't miss your chance with Dick next time you see him, there's a good chap."
It was good advice. Carrington knew that, the little adventure in the palliasse room notwithstanding, he had been guilty of too much caution in his relationship with Dick Player. Colditz did that to one; sixteen hours a day timing patrols and observing the movements of the Germans, long months of disguise and document preparation, night-shifts spent down some tunnel that pushed the heading a few inches into solid rock - they generated an unwillingness to commit to anything quickly, a suspicion of the sudden decision. Not only that, but Grant was one of those who only a few months before had been urging him to try and sublimate his feelings, not to give in to something that would cause difficulties and conscience-searching for everyone in the camp.
I wonder if Ulmann really did know? Carrington mused, idly, recollecting his conversation with Grant just before they had crossed the border. The German had been unusually perceptive and sometimes had appeared almost sympathetic to their imprisoned state. Certainly he'd never even been suspected of any of the vicious unpleasantness the Nazis sometimes inflicted on POWs; a German officer to the core, doing his duty and doing it well, Ulmann had nevertheless somehow managed to be a gentleman as well. A gentle man, even. Maybe I can put in a good word for him after the war - assuming we win it. The Kommandant, too. If they were our prisoners we couldn't have done things much differently.
Lightly, his mind sketched a fictitious Colditz in the kinder British landscape with Colonel Preston in command and the Herr Oberst as Senior German Officer. Simon, Dick, Tim Downing, George Brent and Carrington himself were all among the officers. Pat Grant was in charge of Security; Ulmann ... escape officer, of course. The positions reversed, Ulmann was trying his level best to get as many of his people out of the Castle as he could by any means available - and Grant, Carrington, Player and the whole boiling of them were trying to stop him.
His daydream took him as far as the entertaining question of how a British Commandant would have reacted to a disruptive love-affair between two German prisoners. He could visualise the Herr Oberst instructing Ulmann to get them out of the camp at all costs before the contagion spread. The German military mind was not, as a rule, particularly sympathetic towards homosexuality; odd, when you considered some of the things that had gone on in their military academies and cadet schools in the not-too-distant past. There were rumours ... But there were always rumours.
"D'you figure the Germans knew about Dick and me?" he asked, softly. Grant, who had been drifting off to sleep, took a moment to respond.
"What, Ulmann, you mean."
"I guess so. He has more brains than the rest of them put together; he'd be the one to figure it out if anybody did. You know when Dick had pneumonia Ulmann was awful keen to get me out of solitary to take care of him - and he said a lot of things about comradeship and ... and marriage ... and courage." The details of that conversation came back to him now only sparsely, but he remembered the unthreatening nature of Ulmann's presence with great clarity. It seemed almost as if the concept of being on opposite sides had become something of a formality - an observance carried on for its own sake, not because they still believed in it. Ulmann would be a good man in a crisis; if Fate ever placed them on the same side, they could easily end up friends.
Carrington wasn't sure they hadn't.
"That's interesting," Grant mused, taking his time to digest Carrington's words. "You think he might have been sympathetic, then?"
"What? Oh, hell, Pat, I don't know. Maybe."
"Well, that's good, isn't it? I mean, if Dick doesn't get out this time … "
" … which he will."
"But if he doesn't ... At least you know he'll be safe back at Colditz."
Carrington sat up sharply, his eyes holding a haunted expression. "Dick's tough," he said. "If he didn't make it this time he'll go right back and start again. I would and you would, and so would Peter."
So would Ulmann. He wouldn't give up.
"He'll get out, Phil. Sooner or later."
"Yeah," was the wistful reply. "It's 'later' that worries me."
Click here for THE FIRST DUTY - Part Two