Ex-Commander of a Bombing ’Plane
von Zellern had flown Gothas over London during the war—this is the story of a peace-time sequel to one of his air raids, a denouement which struck iron into his soul.
G. APPLEBY TERRILL
CAPTAIN’ Baron von Zellern was visiting London. He intended to stay two months. The visit was not his first. His previous visits, however, nocturnal affairs, had lasted only a brief while apiece; and what with the bedazzling effect of searchlight rays and bursting shells between him and the earth, and the modest obscurity in which the city itself lay wrapped, he really could not be said to have seen very much of London—so he had laughingly explained to various friends in Hanover. Captain Baron von Zellern, boyish faced, and thirty-six years of age. was as a rule a light-hearted person.
Those London visits, made as commander of a Gotha bombing ’plane, belonged to some years ago. The present year was 19'J3. von Zellern had come unhurt through the war: he had retired into civilian life when Germany’s forces were curtailed, and had found occupation, even absorption, in developing his Hanoverian estate for the betterment of his shrunken income. Engrossed with details of timber felling, ploughing, and stock raising, with a sense of being in a new chapter of life from which the war chapter seemed curiously remote, he did not give a great deal of time to thinking of his air-raiding experiences.
There were occasions, though, when memories of them came vividly to the forefront of his mind. Such occasions were when he dined with old comrades of the air. men who had flown their Gothas to London with him. Towards the end of dinner, with pleasantly effervescing glasses, with reflective smiles, with courteous little arguments and affirmative nods, with a gust of laughter at the recalling—in humorous phrases—of some "close shave” which one or another of them had had. von Zellern and his comrades would reconstruct the thrilling voyages to London—reconstruct with intense enjoyment, intense enthusiasm.
Other occasions of vivid recollection were calm, moonlit nights, now and again, when, with no companionship save that of his two hounds and his mother’s terrier, von Zellern strolled after supper from his house to the edge of the forest,
?ee,ng the x alleys far below him very misty in the moonlight, exactly as the x alleys of Kent had appeared when, speeding for London, he had turned his binoculars on them.
On these occasions, alone with the dogs, with the black forest at his elbow silent, with the silvery, hazy world stretching away belowhim silent as death, von Zellern's recollections did not gix-e him complete enjoyment. The magnificent excitement of war was dead. The kind of gay fury with which one bombed London
London aaxagely spitting back with her shrapnel and ? iteras ’ was dead. The wonderful voyages were indeed but memories. Splendid memories, when reinforced bj the bright faces of comrades. Without those faces, they seemed with the passing of years—to be losing something of their glamor. That is, they allowed one to think occasionally of that phase of bombing cities about which one cared not a single snap of the fingers while war was in being—they allowed one to think of the women and children w-ho had the misfortune to be inx-olx'ed in the business.
It would certainly be a rather dreadful thing—von Zellern would muse, standing at the edge of the forest—to look upon the face of a woman or a child that one’s bomb had slain. It was not nice to knowthat, almost bexond doubt, one had slain such . . . He would raise his head impatiently, and his lips, cigar between them, would tighten in annoyance at his morbid train of thought. He was ordered to bomb London ; therefore he was obliged to do it. But the brain behind those keen, practical, blue eyes of his which were surveying the mist would not accept that reasoning. His uncle, General von Ewald, would hax-e kept him permanently on the French front, injuring only men, if he had made the request. He knew that. He had revelled in those London expeditions—and now, apparently, he was to pay a price of sorts—-these morbid reflections. There might have been women—it
would cross his mind—who had something of the gentle lovableness of his own mother, now going to bed in the house behind him.
He would cant his cigar, knitting his brows at the silvery landscape. Did Providence intend, he wondered, that this should be the lot of all airmen who bombed cities—eventual thoughts of the women and children, thoughts that perhaps would increase and increase as the years took one farther from the bright flame of war? Certainly he hoped not. And invariably at this stage he would strive to call up the full glamor of the raiding to oust the unwanted thoughts.
\ NIGHT which he always turned to for help was that of February twentieth, 1918. Two nights before he had been in the wild, abortive fight, when the London air defence simply excelled itself and no one could get over the city. Lu-Wu (his pet name for his favorite Gotha) had received several hits in that tussle, had strained herself also, and had journeyed home very lamely. But, with a little quiet bribery, he kept the repairers working fex-erishly at her, and by the afternoon of the twentieth she passed as fit for service. As a matter of fact she was not fit, whereby she added considerably
to the “fun” of a voyage that nothing could beat for excitement.
Soon after hauling herself into the sky, which she did smoothly enough, she developed slight troubles in each of her engines. Presently the odds were that she would drop into the Straits of Dover, but her mechanics procured satisfactory running in the nick of time—though she passed just east of Dover, which—as ever on these nights -—was spouting shells into the sky, at a perilous lowness. By a marvel she passed untouched except for a handful of spent shrapnel which tapped her as though sticks were tapping her. Then it was a smooth, ascending rush Londonward—with London’s searchlights soon discernible; a forest of faint, white stalks protruding into the sky, becoming very active after a minute, interspersed with shell-flickers, as von Zellern’s comrades arrived at the scene. Von Zellern arrived, and soon discovered that the night was likely to prove another abortixre one. The London air defence was excelling itself again; no one could get through the outer edge of it. Half an hour of vain manoeuvring passed; a humiliating, general retreat seemed a certain prospect. By now von Zellern was not disinclined to make for home; Lu-Wu's engines were exhibiting symptoms of more trouble, and the idea of being compelled to land in England in no way appealed to him. The moment of general retreat came, with not a bomb dropped—for the night’s orders were to waste none upon the fringe of the suburbs; the general swerving off from London had actúa ly commenced, when von Zellern saw a possible opening in the defence.
For a second he hesitated, weighing the chances of Lu-Wu's engines suddenly collapsing from the strain of the quick manoeuvres which would be involved; then, with gay fury taking full possession of him, he went headlong for the opening; and—it afterwards transpired—two of his fellow commanders, incited by his action, followed him. Searchlight beams and shell bursts made kaleidoscopic light displays about Lu-Wu, but right over the city she got—the two following Gothas also.
von Zellern made gay signals to Sergeant Max, who was in charge of Lu-Wu's bombs; and, obedient to the signals, Sergeant Max unclutched them. Down had gone the last—then round in a wide sweep with Lu-Wu,-—and presently the quiet Kentish fields were below them, with Lu-Wu now clanking in one of her engines like a decrepit locomotive. But over the Channel she succeeded in clanking, and every mile of the way home to her base—and soon there resulted a decoration, and compliments from high quarters for x-on Zellern, but for whom London would have received no bomb on that night of February twentieth; and the tale of Lu-Wu's clanking engine, which he recounted merrily to his comrades, became a joke, permeated with great admiration for von Zellern, which somebody always brought up at those reunions of comrades. The memory of that x-oyage. so full of credit to himself, so really touched with humor somehow, because of Lu-Wu's engines, would reassure and cheer von Zellern, there in the moonlight at the edge of the forest—would dispel, almost at once, morbid thoughts. He had done his duty brilliantly. He would be a queer fool if he allowed these thoughts really to get hold of him—to increase with the passing of years. Fou if! —taking his cigar from his lips and spinning the ash from it with a flick of his finger—what a x-ery silly idea that was—that these thoughts might increase! They were not going to worry him. He had done with them!
And pondering on—of that rush through the dazzle of the air defence, of that struggle homeward, with Lu-Wu clanking in her engine, von Zellern would smile in the moonlight—and for a month after, probably, he would be untroubled by morbid thoughts.
And now he was visiting London. He had come for no reasons save holiday reasons. He had wanted an excursion to somewhere, and the project of seeing what London actually was like had occurred to him. He had journeyed by train, boat, and train this time. For a week he had stayed at a big hotel; then, a certain economy being necessary, he had moved into apartments —a bedroom and sitting-room—in a quiet street near Hyde Park. In the matter of finding apartments that suited him, and of discussing details with his landlady, he had experienced no difficulty; for, having been attached in his early days to the Embassy at Washington, he spoke English fluently.
They were very comfortable apartments. The big, soft armchair beside the sitting-room fireplace was delightful to lie in, after hours spent in the streets and in museum galleries. In this chair von Zellern would settle after dinner, and converse with Mrs. May, his landlady, as she cleared the table—converse at such length that often it took Mrs. May half an hour to clear the table, von Zellern liked Mrs. May; and—so lenient are the hearts of some women—Mrs. May liked von Zellern, though he had told her of his previous visits. And so they would chat, the close-cropped, fair-haired, boyish-faced German lying back in the chair; Mrs. May, hair between black and grey, thin-faced, bony-handed, at the table, probably resting the edge of a partly filled tray upon the white cloth.
“Oh, sir, how could you!” had been Mrs. May’s reproach to von Zellern when he confessed those visits of his. Her eyes unhesitatingly reproached him as, under somewhat quizzically lifted brows, he regarded her, having lazily turned his head on the cushion of the chair. But there was no stirred anger, no assertive ill-feeling; in her manner. She reproached mournfully, earnestly; that was all, except that there was a trace of fascinated interest interwoven with the reproach. For to Mrs. May, as to many others, the air raids possessed a wonderful side.
She had been in London—in this house—throughout the raids. She had already told von Zellern this. The complete absence of assertive anger from her reproach was a thing that was much responsible for von Zellern’s liking for her.
“Oh, sir, how could you!” she had said, drawing a breath; and he had replied:— “Well, it was part of the war, you know. It had to be done.”
“But folk like us, sir— me and my daughter, that never wanted to hurt anybody!”
This was leading rather strongly in the direction of certain thoughts which sometimes had troubled von Zellern. He essayed to give a cheery turn to matters—by deliberate, laughing insincerity.
“If I had known you were here, I wouldn’t have come, Mrs. May,” he said.
Mrs. May, in spite of herself, was won into a smile by those laughing, untruthful, blue eyes. “I am afraid I couldn’t believe that, sir,” she said, firmly.
It was she who revived the subject of the raids next evening, von Zellern really had no particular taste for it: To scan Mrs. May’s thin face, lined and wan from a life of slaving housework, yet kindly in its expression to him; to scan her dark-veined, thin hands at the edges of the tray, and to ponder that he had—so to speak—tried to kill this poor wisp of toiling humanity, whose heart so unmistakably, so readily, had responded to his present affability by going out to him in respectful kindness—to scan and ponder thus, very much dimmed the glamor of those nights of fine adventure.
But he let Mrs. May tell him her memories, which was her present intent—tell him how she and her daughter, with Mrs. Higgin, of number ten (the house opposite,) and Mrs. Best, of num-
ber eighteen, “who always ran in” to them, would sit in the kitchen during the raids, trembling too much to be able to stand, generally. The house would shake and rattle from the tremendous reports. They would not know whether the reports were of guns or bombs; and then some deafening report would sound quite near them, and they would say, nearly unconscious with terror: “That was one,” meaning a bomb.
Her face noticeably lost color as she recalled these things; her hands quivered a little.
“I’m sorry you had such a bad time,” von Zellern said, quite sincerely.
Mrs. May, glancing at the dinner things on the tray, nodded pensively.
“Yes, sir, it was very bad,” she answered. “But I’ve true cause to be thankful, seeing that we were spared, me and my daughter ... To hear of some poor souls who—” And she would have told him about them, but he said: “No, no, Mrs. May. Let us keep from that.”
Another evening, with diffidence, Mrs. May gave rein to her curiosity. “I wonder what it seemed like to you up there, sir?”
von Zellern did not object to that part of the subject. He treated Mrs. May to an excellent description, taking trouble to be graphic as he saw how the interest sparkled in her ordinarily tired-looking eyes. With her imagination roused, she forgot the terrible things which resulted underneath; and von Zellern mentioned no dates, which might remind her of particular incidents. Finally he made her smile very much by a ludicrous description oiLu-Wu with her clanking engine one night.
It was late on this evening that cutting through the lid of an airtight tin of cigarettes, he gashed his finger. He went to Mrs. May, whom he found alone in the kitchen, for some plaster; and she insisted upon washing and plastering the cut for him. “You’ve got to be careful— anything tin, sir,” she said; “and you can’t manage this as well as I can.”
During the ministration von Zellern naturally looked at times at, and considered, Mrs. May’s bent head of dull,
greying hair, and 1er work-roughened but very gentle fingers which weie doing their best for his own finger. He found h'mself move to say:-—
T m very som I gave you such a bad time, Mrs. May. I’m delighted that you got through all right.”
Tc which Mrs. May, though much occupied in making the i laster adhere, answered conversationally: “Yes, sir, we can thankfully say we’ve come through all right, me and my daughter. But—do you know, sir—she still feels it in her nerves, like, sometimes —my daughter. That v, culd be because she was young when you was raiding us —only three-and-twenty now . . . Edith is her name, sir.”
“Her nerves will recover,” said von Zellern. “She does not live with you still—Miss Edith?” he added. “I have not seen her.”
“She has only gone for a country holiday, sir—to my brother, in Cambridgeshire. She will be home next week . . . There, sir; I think that will stick.”
TT WAS the night after—a little before midnight—that von Zellern discovered the photograph. The discovery, in a way, was opportune; for von Zellern had been experiencing a decided moodiness of spirit. Those thoughts anent women and children, which hitherto had practically been confined to the moonlit nights at the edge of the forest in Hanover, had suddenly descended quite heavily upon him. Mrs. May had caused them to do this. Several times previously she had, of course, nearly rendered them active; but London of 1923, with its streets so full of happy, laughter-lit, female faces, had proved queerly antagonistic to such thoughts. You could scarcely believe that your bombs had scattered death about these streets but five years before; none of the women, gazing blithely at the shop windows, seemed to remember such a thing. Their bearing diverted you from remembering. It was only toil-marked, kind-hearted Mrs. May, with her talk of the air raids—in this quiet house in a quiet street— who caused passing thoughts of certain work that the bombs had wrought in London.
To-night the thoughts had not passed. Mrs. May had replastered von Zellern’s finger, very gently—and, being led by some mental process to resume a subject of their conversation at the previous plastering, had spoken again of the occasional nerve trouble which Edith, her daughter, suffered.
“Sometimes, you know, sir—” said Mrs. May, busy with his finger— “she’ll start up all of a sudden in her bed—she sleeps in my room, sir— she’ll start up in the dark, and scream out: ‘Guns, mother! Oh, they’ve come!’ meaning your aeroplanes, sir. And she’ll slip out of bed before she knows where she is; and I’ll go to her and put my arm round her —and find her shaking, sir, so she can hardly stand, and breathing words that she’s going to be killed. And though I bring her to her right senses at once, sir, it’s a long time before she can stop from shaking.” That little picture of Edith’s terror had made the thoughts stay with von Zellern instead of pass. It had set him imagining the terror of other young girls, of children — some years ago, who perhaps had not escaped as Edith had.
Lying back in the big chair, with the residential streets roundabout his street very quiet, with the distant drone and jar of traffic in a main street scarcely affecting the sense of stillness, von Zellern, as midnight approached, had found the thoughts Continued on page 63 Ex-Commander of a Bombing’Plane
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weighing very heavily. With them, in a far more forbidding shape han ever before—in the shape almost of intuition, intuition that was instilling dread in him —was the old question: Would these wretched thoughts increase as the years took him farther from the bright flame of war? They were thoughts which, if they became potent, insistent, might so darken his life as to ruin it completely.
There was a small bookcase beside the chair. It held a miscellaneous collection of volumes—novels, guide books, cheap editions of classic essays. Most of the books—one deduced—had been turned over to Mrs. May by various lodgers when leaving, von Zellern, an eager reader, had dipped into nearly all of these books. To-night one lay upon his lap; but, in his sombre preoccupation, he had hardly looked at it.
A length of ash from the cigar in his hand fell upon the open book, which he lifted, blowing the ash from it. Then, realizing that this book could in no degree distract his mind, he stared at the backs of those in the case, hoping to see a title that might promise relief from his thoughts. He seemed to have read every book worth reading. It struck him that the only volume he had not pulled from the case was one which was not a book really —a small, heavily bound album labelled “Portraits.” Portraits, presumably, of Mrs. May and her relatives, at different periods of their lives, could not at all interest him. Yet now, in apathy, he put a finger and thumb to the album and drew it an inch forth. He hesitated, then pulled it right out and rested it on the book which was upon his lap.
THE album had a tendency to gape open at a place where there was an accumulation of loose photographs, von Zellern, lifting his head a little and putting his cigar between his lips, opened it at this place, and turned over some of the loose photographs. The first half-dozen, of elderly, rustic-looking folk in their best clothes, two or three of the pictures signed affectionately by “John” or “Sarah,” were, of course, utterly uninteresting to him. Then came a recent portrait of Mrs. May, in her best apparel—pleasant to glance at, but not of itself interesting; then another rustic portrait. And then von Zellern turned a postcard (clean, unposted) and saw the face upon the other side of it—and saw the written inscription, in a pretty, young girl’s handwriting: “Yours, With Love—Edith May.” And von Zellern, taking the cigar from his mouth quickly, whistled under his breath. Then, separating his lips more, he inhaled a long breath—of intense surprise at his discovery, of intense pleasure. With the surprise and pleasure was mingled, half consciously, swift gratitude to Edith May; for even in these first seconds it seemed to von Zellern that she, whose face in the grey tones of the photograph he was looking at, would rescue him, would guard him, from such thoughts as had been troubling him.
Captain Baron von Zellern had been singularly free from tender passages with women during his career. He had never been in love. Despite the ease with which laughing insincerity would come into his eyes, he rarely had played the frivolous game of pretending to be in love. Women, in fact, so far as love was concerned, had been in the category of those matters which interested him scarcely at all. Now, the picture of a face which appealed incredibly to him had changed things.
The face of Edith May, though rendered only by the grey tones of a cheap, postcard photograph, such as a girl of humble means indulges in, had simply jerked von Zellern out of the path along which his life was proceeding, and had set him on a path that would lead to his loving her dearly. He realized, actually knew, this— in those amazing first seconds. He was seeing the one woman.
A minute or more passed. The cigar, held carelessly, forgotten, between two of his fingers, suddenly burnt the side of one finger with a little, excruciating pain. He released the cigar into the fender, without looking away from the photograph. Presently, in a whisper, he spoke to the face—in German, admiringly, earnestly, gently.
It was not an essentially aristocratic face, of course—not the chiselled, emotionless face of a lady unmistakably of birth. But von Zellern did not mind that.
It was rather the type of face that you would expect Mrs. May’s daughter to possess—except that Mrs. May, though kindly of face and, conceivably, pretty once, had left you utterly unprepared for this sweet beauty of countenance, this sweet beauty of expression.
Though not chiselled, it was a daintily cut face, above a perfect throat, and shoulders of perfect contour. A thin blouse encased the shoulders. A necklace, with a charm pendant, was around the neck—and was very unworthy of it. For it was quite a cheap necklace, von Zellern could tell somehow—the kind of necklace, of course, that a girl with little money, and no jewels, might be expected to buy. But she was sensible. He could see that as plainly as he could see her great qualities of sympathy and kindness. Her mouth, compassionate, beautiful, was smiling a shade. Her eyes, looking straight at von Zellern, had been the first part of her to jerk his heart.
They were dark eyes, of which one instantly thought: “How pityingly, how tenderly, would these look upon anyone who was suffering!” Because of their dormant great pity, they were almost mournful. But even the cheap photograph showed a bright light in the irises, which told how these eyes could sparkle with laughter—with blithe love.
The forehead was broad, low. She was not wearing a hat. Her dark hair, parted about midway between the centre and the left side of her head, went in a smooth sweep past each temple. Her age was not easy to decide. She might be eighteen or nineteen ; she might be twenty-three—her present age, had not Mrs. May said? The inscription was no guide to von Zellern. It had been swiftly, neatly, dried by blotting paper, when written. You could not tell from the appearance of the ink whether it had been written a month or a year, or more ago.
After all, it made no difference—her age when this photograph was taken. She could grow only more compassionatelooking as she grew older; she could lose nothing of her beauty for many years to come; rather, her beauty would increase.
von Zellern lay studying the faceSometimes he held the postcard in the air at varying distances from his eyes; sometimes he rested it against the books upon his lap. An ornate little clock on the mantelpiece tinkled midnight. It faintly struck the quarter past before von Zelle-m interrupted his study and got out of his chair. He put the photograph on the mantelpiece, against the edge of the clock, and turned and put the album and the other volume into the book-case. Then he lit a cigarette, and stood contemplating the photograph anew. His boyish face was grave, gentle—nice to see. One would not have associated it with the gay bombing of cities.
He smoked cigarettes, quietly pacing the room at times and then returning to stand before the photograph, until all sound ol traffic except, now and then, the soft drone of some light vehicle, had died from the distant main streets —until, in fact, the ornate, little clock indicated twenty minutes to threa Then he laid the photograph in his wallet and went to bed.
He had an anxious question to ask Mrs. May some hours later—but he put it with complete nonchalance.
“Your daughter—Miss Edith, is she affianced to be married?” he asked.
“No, sir,” said Mrs. May, who was clearing the breakfast table. “She’s had chances, sir,” she added, resting her tray in the usual manner upon the table; “but she’s one of those that aren’t in any hurry, sir.”
von Zellern nodded.
“When is she coming home?” he asked. “The end of this week, sir—Saturday.” He nodded again, and—much less talkative than ordinarily—opened a newspaper.
HE READ a book by snatches in the evening—though the process could scarcely be called reading. He had placed the photograph upon a shelf of the bookcase; and whenever he had glanced through a paragraph or so he would look at the photograph, and would let minutes drift by whilst he pondered, looking at the eyes which seemed to look at him— conscious of the pretty curves of the hair, of the graceful contour of the shoulders, but thinking chiefly of the eyes and of the compassionate mouth which would grow sweetly motherly with the passing of many years.
“You will forgive me that I have killed people here in London—perhaps women, perhaps children?” he asked—asked confidently. “You will not forgive so quickly as your mother, because your soul is so great; it will be full of sorrow for the dead. But you will be merciful—I know. In a little time you will forgive me. You will softly tell me not to think—of things. You will not let me think. You will make my life so happy!”
Soon after midnight he got out of his chair and—being a person of routine— placed the photograph on the mantelpiece and, as twenty-four hours previously, paced the room, returning to stand before the photograph.
This was Monday night (or rather the first hour of Tuesday morning). For the four succeeding nights his programme was quite the same. Between Friday midnight and one a.m. of Saturday—the day when he was to see her actual self—standing before the photograph, cigarette between fingers, he felt strangely impressed by the hint of mournfulness which the latent compassion of her eyes gave to them. He could imagine that the eyes were looking really mournfully at him; he allowed himself to imagine this.
“It is because you think I was cruel,” he said to her quietly. “It is because I did kill people around you. But you will forgive me, my dear! . . . Perhaps it is a little because I might have slain you—-because you suffer still in the night? It is not much because of that— for you are so unselfish! . . . I am very, very sorry that I brought danger to you, and suffering. I—” and now he whispered very slowly, very firmly-“I would wish instead th&tLu-Wu—she was my machine for a year—had fallen down and killed me, if it were not that I am going to meet you.”
He nodded slowly, solemnly to her; and presently, without taking his eyes from her, flipped his cigarette end into the grate. Then he did one of his pacings of the room, halting a moment to take up his coffee cup and drink the remnant of coffee in it, cold by this hour. He came to the photograph again. Really, her eyes were looking mournfully at him. An explanation flicked into his mind; he spoke well-nigh indignantly, yet with utter tenderness.
“You think I do not mean to marry you!” he said. “You think I mean to fool you, because you are a lodging-woman’s daughter and I am noble. Why, I love you! And I say you must marry me! . . . I have read your nature—and I will not be without-you! I cannot be without you! You are the only one that will do—with your face and your nature . . . You will not refuse me?” he whispered with sudden apprehension, with a sense of sudden, black chill. Then with relief, he declared softly: “No ; you will say you will marry me. You will say it even before you quite love me—because I shall have told you the truth: that I was afraid that I should think, and that I know you can always protect me from thinking—you, with your nature. And you will be compassionate to me and say that you will marry me.”
. Eventually he laid the photograph in his wallet, and went to bed.
AT WHAT time do you expect your daughter?’’ he asked Mrs. May, when he came into his sitting-room for breakfast.
“About seven to-night, sir.”
Then, by a slip, he practically made a disclosure.
“Her face shows no sign of her nerve distress—Miss Edith’s,” he said.
Mrs. May looked surprised; then she accepted the remark as a question.
“Oh, no, sir. Her nerves are not that bad. It’s only once in a while that she wakes up frightened.”
“I shall ask her pardon,” said von Zellern soberly, sitting down. “Perhaps I shall see her this evening?”
“Thank you, sir; I will bring her up,” said Mrs. May.
THE month was September. The evening was rainy, dark before seven. But von Zellern’s sitting-room, electric lit, with a small fire burning, was, he happened to muse, a very bright and cheerful place.
He sat in the big chair. An evening newspaper, scarcely glanced at, lay on the floor by his foot. He had taken out his wallet and looked at the photograph; then, letting the cover of the wallet sink over the picture, he had laid the wallet on his knee. The ornate, little clock marked that the time was nearly seven. Since six o’clock his ears had been alert for the sound of someone arriving; he had set the sitting-room door two inches open.
Seven o’clock was reached. The minutes after seven slipped by. von Zellern passed many of them in looking at the photograph.
At half-past seven Mrs. May knocked at the unshut door, came in with her pleasant “Good-evening, sir,” with her pleasant smile relieving her tired face, and took the white tablecloth for dinner from a drawer.
“Your daughter has come?” asked von Zellern courteously—with no other inflection.
“No, sir. I expect she waited till a later train.”
When Mrs. May withdrew temporarily he turned back the cover of the wallet, which had been lying closed on his knee.
_ “You will come to-night?” he asked the picture. “If you do not, I must go to Cambridgeshire to-morrow to see you.” At dinner he ate little. Eventually, with a glass of wine in his hand, he returned to the big chair. He set the glass on a ledge of the bookcase, and leaned back in his chair. He noted that he was tremorous from excitement.
Edith was almost certain to come tonight, he assured himself; and, unless her arrival was very late, he was destined to see her to-night. When that door moved open to let her enter—his eyes were now on the sitting-room door—it would be moving open to give him his first actual sight of his new world—Edith in the living body, her gentle, living eyes looking at him.
He heard Mrs. May mounting the stairs to take his dinner things—he knew the particular manner in which the stairs creaked here and there to her foot pressure.
“Your daughter has come?” he asked, when she was in the room.
“Not yet, sir.”
They chatted while jshe cleared the table, and for a few minutes afterwards. Then she went; and von Zellern smoked, and listened, and presently took out his wallet.
The rain was pattering fast in the street.
THE ornate .little clock tinkled nine, the hour for his coffee—and almost directly afterwards there was the faintest
clink of cup and saucer in the hall below —a light foot pressure on the stairs that was not Mrs. May’s, von Zellern stood up swiftly, his hand fumbling a little as he put the wallet into his pocket. He knew exactly what had taken place. Edith had come; and Mrs. May, as a homely little surprise for him, had sent her up with his coffee. There was a light, unfamiliar tap at the partly open door.
“Come in,” said von Zellern quietly.
The door moved open, and a girl carrying a tray with the coffee service came in —a smiling, pleasant-faced girl, but of quite uninteresting type; a girl whose photograph von Zellern had never set eyes on.
“Good-evening,” he said,inreply to her “Good-evening, sir,” which she had spoken with a kind of shy expectancy. It was plain that her mother had told her that she was to receive an apology—-it was' quite plain, somehow, that this was Mrs. May’s daughter, Edith.
Yet, after keeping silent while she placed the tray on the table, von Zellern asked, obstinately:—
“Who are you?”
“Edith May, sir.” She looked at him with some surprise.
He made a sort of gesture with his lips. Then he took out the wallet, opened it, and laid it, with the photograph thus uncovered, on the table. “Then who is this?” he asked.
He saw a quiver of great surprise about the girl’s eyelids and her mouth. Her smiling expression was gone.
“Edith Bennet, sir,” she answered, looking away from the photograph.
“That’s my photo of her,” she added.
“Yes,” said von Zellern. Then, still obstinately, he said: “She does not write ‘Edith Bennet’; she writes ‘Edith May.’ Why?”
“Only in fun, sir, when she gave me the photo—because she was called Edith May like me—Edith May Bennet, sir.”
The girl was keeping her eyes on the picture. She had answered quite readily; yet her tone had been peculiar. It had sounded stifled, absent—and, though absent, it had sounded almost as though there were curbed hostility to von Zellern in it. He felt sure that he had angered her somehow; but he was not interested in that.
“Miss Edith Bennet—where is she?” he asked.
“She isn’t alive now; she was killed in an air raid,” said the girl, raising her eyes, showing them full of shadowed anger.
von Zellern turned and, with his fingers linked behind him, walked to the fireplace. He touched a piece of coal, which was protruding from the fire, with the edge of his shoe.
“An air raid upon London?” he asked.
“Yes”—with her tone more stifled.
He said nothing.
“A bomb—in 1918,” said the girl, after seconds. “She was a chum of mine— worked in the same office ... I can tell you the night, if you like. The twentieth of February, 1918, it was.” She ended with a sob in her breath.
von Zellern stared at the fire./
“Go now,” he said.
WHEN she had left the room, shutting the door, he turned towards the table. At the angles of his forehead veins were standing out bluely, from his strain in controlling himself during the last half minute. His eyelids were puffed, the eyes watery and pinkish.
He went to the table, took up the photograph, and looked at it. Then, mechanically, he carried it to the mantelpiece and stood it against the ornate, little clock. He looked at the compassionate eyes—with the rest of the greytoned picture plain in his vision—the throat, with its humble necklace, the shoulders, perfect of contour, encased in the thin blouse. He tried to speak. He wanted to tell her aimlessly the things that were in his mind—that he had killed her; that his brilliant leadership through the air defence on that memorable night and his mirthful journey home, amounted, under their glamor, to nothing better than this—that he had managed to kill her.
He tried to speak to her, with one of his hands going to his cheek, gripping it hard, high up, the finger nails cutting into the skin. “I—” he whispered Then, turning a little, he leaned forward with his arms upon the mantelpiece, the finger nails pressing more into his face, his eyes shut.