Plummeted behind enemy lines a great hero is humbled by the greater heroism of Russia s little people



Plummeted behind enemy lines a great hero is humbled by the greater heroism of Russia s little people


REPORTS from scouts had come trickling in to the base headquarters during the night, all indicating that there was some enemy movement west of the bend in the river. Direction and size of the movement were not clear.

“Maybe they’re building a major blow,” the commanding officer said, “and then again it may be only a ruse, to divert some of our force from the south. That’s what we must determine.”

He paused for a moment and his grave manner somewhat relaxed.

“Yes, I am giving you the assignment. But I ask myself, Comrade Lieutenant, am I wise in doing so? Shouldn’t I choose someone a little older, a little cooler, a little less prone to take chances? . . . On the other hand, it’s vital to have this information as soon as possible, and somehow you are able to squeeze a bit more speed out of your plane than anyone else—”

The young Lieutenant permitted himself a smile.

“So you get it. But listen. I am not sending you out to knock down a dozen Heinkels. I’m sending you for one thing only—to get information and get back with it in a hurry. No fighting! If it’s impossible to avoid combat, all right, but don’t invite it. Understood?”

“Understood, Comrade Colonel,” said the Lieutenant warmly.

“Remember it. Here’s the map with your itinerary marked. Schastlivoy doroga and happy landings!”

Masha was waiting for him in the pale early morning light. Even on the ground she seemed to be flying, so clean and fluid were the lines of her long thin nose and tapered body; or if not exactly flying, then on tiptoe and trembling to bathe in the lifting rush of air. Every fighter plane is different, even if they come from the same designer’s board, cut, stamped and welded to the same model, born only an hour apart—just as some girls float in your arms when you dance with them and others must be pushed and tugged and sweated over.

Explain this mystery? He could not, but he knew Masha had been designed for him the moment he had first touched her controls. There was the warm instant response, so quick that it deceived you into thinking it was not so much response as a foreknowledge of what you wished, or as if she thought as you did and moved as you thought, sometimes ever before you thought. She was made as he was, for the air.

“A rotten day,” his ground mechanic said sympathetically.

There was not even the usual early morning haze. It was so clear you felt you could touch the clump of trees three miles away. For weather considered strictly as weather, it was superb. For flying over enemy terrain by yourself it was rotten—that is, when you had particular orders to avoid combat.

“Okhai,” he said, grinning, settling himself in the compact seat, and Masha’s intimate whisper, with which she had been preparing her voice for the nobler octaves and the auditorium of the sky, swelled and deepened to a shaking thunder, and she turned her nose to the light wind and ran howling over the field, an extraordinary noise for so fragile-seeming a creature. She ran as if she were intent on mowing down the underbrush at the field’s edge, but halfway to it the driven air passed under her. She lifted her feet and tucked them into her and the clump of trees three miles away shot past beneath and, as if appalled by Masha’s chest notes, changed protectively into a tiny dark green spot.

The Lieutenant allowed her three blades to chew up a few thousand feet of air and then swung into horizontal flight. He looked at the map on his knees and noted a few items for future guidance. Then he looked down at the world.

Masha was about two months old, the Lieutenant about twenty-one years. It works out at about the same. The Lieutenant was fair and slight, as fragile-seeming as Masha, without her magnificent voice but with the same resilience and ability not to lose one’s head when standing on it, which he and she often did together. He had a great deal of confidence and a total belief in his air-borne way of life, which inclined him—despite his knowledge that it should not—to impatience with people who spent their lives walking on two legs. He had a queer notion that it was a primitive use of the body, having never reflected that he flew on the seat of his pants.

From here the world was beautiful. Altitude sponged away the ugliness, and it seemed that his land lay in peace in the gathering sun. But far down in that seemingly peaceful south great armies strove and the land bled from a thousand wounds, burned-out towns and villages like bullet holes in its breast.

Perhaps his leg muscles tightened as he thought of that, or perhaps Masha turned by herself— certainly he was not conscious of turning her—but the slight turn, whoever willed it, showed him considerably offside a very clumsy bunch of trees. Too clumsy, and throwing shadows where shadows shouldn’t be. He knew therefore that they were not shadows and the trees not trees. None of it belonged to the land; it was all alien, trees and shadows and what they hid, planes on a camouflaged field.

He let Masha continue the turn and he reached for the trigger control. Then with a painful shock he recalled that he must leave the trigger control alone. This was none of his business. Masha’s guns could burn that fat smug bunch of planes into twisted junk but he must not pause even for so delectable a task. He put the temptation from him and felt proud that he was able to do so. Drawing Masha back to her course, he thought he could feel her puzzlement, hear the sob of exasperation in her voice; well, it annoyed him too.

The map on his knees did not indicate a camouflaged field here. That meant it was very new. It meant they were edging up. Those planes were waiting for the planned right moment. He marked down the location of the field and looked abroad for further evidence of a gathering enemy push.

IT WAS not long in coming. There were dust lines ahead, as clear to read as ink lines on paper, written instead by the revolving tracks of panzer columns. This was what the scouts had seen in part. Earthbound, they could only guess at size and direction; he, with the superiority of the air, could grasp it quickly and sum it all up in the few words he jotted down now.

Their direction was the bridge at the bend of the river.

So his mission was done. He had executed it very coolly and efficiently, he thought. So efficiently, so easily, that he decided he might well spare a couple of minutes more, to round out the report, see if there were any other camouflaged fields in the neighborhood. He put Masha into a wide turn.

She showed her back to the sun.

The enemy came out of the sun like flung stones, hard, straight. Their bullets lined the air where he had been an instant before, where he might still have been if not for Masha’s prescience and infinitesimal change of course. At that, the tracers seared a wingtip. The two Heinkel 113’s flashed and roared past. He went after them automatically and exultantly.

Then his mind hit the stone wall of remembrance. “Avoid combat—”

Could he avoid it?

Of course he could. He knew a Heinkel’s speed; he knew Masha’s.

“But should I?” he thought. “Wouldn’t it be taking a chance? What if one of them got in a lucky shot from behind, when I turned tail? Such things happen. There I would be on the ground, useless, report never delivered. Isn’t it safer to dispose of these sabaki rather than risk that?”

Obviously, safer.

He reached this satisfactory conclusion as he manoeuvred for position. A Heinkel hung dead ahead. It erased any lingering doubt. Masha’s guns cleared their throats and shouted as if rejoicing. He knew the line of fire was true and good. The burning weight smote the Heinkel’s wing radiators, always this breed of plane’s most vulnerable point, and Masha turned away as if in distaste from the spectacle of the Heinkel rolling over belly high, twisting in its smoke, falling off and down, the smoke its last life breath, its funeral plume.

A line of punched holes ran across Masha’s body as straight as if drawn by a draughtsman, and the Lieutenant’s leg wrenched in shock. The other Heinkel. Whoever was flying that Heinkel was good. His leg was badly hit. He knew that because the feeling was gone. It was a stick of wood, not a leg. He swore in violent disgust. Yet, somehow, even so Masha was answering him, or flying herself —flying herself she must be, for no effort of his could have brought him here, here with the Heinkel flush in his sights. He who had never known dizziness was blacking out, stupidly, stupidly, hardly crediting it as it happened, so hard was it to believe that it was happening to him. He felt the shudder of the guns, he saw flame leak from cracks in the Heinkel’s skin like juice spurting from a fat split plum. He saw the air clean of the Heinkel, and then he was sick.

Sick, with the world rolling and weaving and shaking under him, with a hot blast of noise in his head—a roar of blood, was it, or was it Masha, yelling in triumph, or perhaps hysterical, no longer feeling his guiding pressure? The world came up very fast and heavy and hard.

Gas must be shut off.

He moved as if it were lead in his veins.

If nothing else gas—

Masha came down coughing and snuffling over low trees, jammed her wing into one as if wrapping an arm around a post, lurched and fell to her belly and was still.

LIE QUIET, lie quiet,” someone said. “Don’t try to move.”

He thought that if ever Masha could speak in a human voice, this would be the sound of it. What a crazy thought! Masha yelled and shouted at the sky, she spoke cavernously, she could scream, she could bellow, she could split your eardrums. This was a voice like the sound of a stream, gentle, cool, bathing you.

And the face he saw was as if reflected in water, at first, glossed over with sun gleam, hazed by ripples. It cleared a little. He saw the smooth warm cheeks, the heavy dark hair bound in a kerchief. He felt hands moving over his leg, the soft press of a bandage.

“Come on, come on,” another voice said, a deep hoarse voice. “We must move him and get him away from here.”

The Lieutenant tried to rise, speaking unintelligibly about not wasting time. “Be still, Comrade Pilot!” the girl said, and her hands were holding him. He made a great effort to speak distinctly.

“I must get up,” he said.

“Not now. You must be quiet.”

He lay back, exhausted by the effort of thought and speech. Her face went glimmering off again and for a while he saw nothing. But he heard many sounds. He heard the sound of wind in trees and the same hoarse voice saying that they must hurry and above this he heard the cry of a bird, the clear unmistakable cry of a cuckoo.

“From Forest Lane,” the deep hoarse voice said. The cuckoo called again.

“Two of them. Come on, we’ll get him to the little hut. You stay with him and I’ll shake them off.”

The Lieutenant felt himself lifted, very gently, and carried in firm arms. He was put down. He was in cool interior shadow now, but reflected sunlight showed him the man who had carried him, an old man gnarled and brown as a root, as if dug out of the earth, this root-face heaving forth an astounding beard, a virile, imperious sort of beard. Small beards, tiny white relations of the chin beard, reared out almost angrily above the eyes, and were indeed the old man’s magnificent eyebrows.

“Be careful, grandpa,” said the girl.

He grunted and left the hut. Kneeling, the girl put her hand on the Lieutenant’s forehead. He was more rational now. “I cannot be lying here wasting time,” he told her. “I must get my plane and get back to my base.”

“Your plane will never fly again, Comrade Pilot, and as for you, you must not talk. The Nazis saw you come down. They are looking for you. Quiet.”

He closed his eyes and a slow sick wave rose in his throat as, from her words, he remembered. His mission had failed; he lay here helpless while the panzer columns moved.

“I must get back,” he muttered.

Her hand closed his mouth.

Now there were two new voices outside. They spoke urgently for a while and then broke off into one voice, as if the speakers had realized that one could ask questions better than two. This voice spoke a few words very slowly in Russian, then more quickly in what the Lieutenant recognized was German, then slowly, with irritation, in Russian again.

“A flier I say, have you seen a flier? A pilot, a man who flies an airplane? He is not in his plane. He has hidden himself somewhere.”

“Excuse me,” said the hoarse voice of the old man, “I do not hear very well. I have become very hard of hearing lately, that’s what it is.”

“A flier ! A man who flies ! Thunder, old fool, you understand that much !” “A man who flies?” said the old man wonderingly. “What would I be doing with a man who flies? These things do not interest me. I am a beekeeper.”

There was a burst of angry German and the sound of a blow. There was a choked harsh cry. The girl’s body tightened. The Lieutenant felt it through her hand on his mouth, a tautening of the palm. The palm stayed hard and tight. He shifted his head; he wished to speak, to tell her to let him go. In his mind he saw the old man stretched on the ground. He wished to go out to deal with the Germans. Her hand pressed him back.

HE HEARD exasperated German voices complaining, and there was the sound of boots kicking through underbrush. The sound came nearer. The girl’s body moved. Slowly in this dim light her right hand moved, her left hand still firm on the Lieutenant’s mouth. Her right hand came forward and he could see the black thick shape in it. Her hand and arm braced steady.

The footsteps came close and paused. The gun waited.

Then the footsteps went away. The tension on his mouth lessened and her hand dropped. He heard the long exhalation of her breath.

“They’re gone.”

“You should have fired,” he said.

She looked at him. He thought she was smiling.

“They were right in front of you, weren’t they?”

“You’re impulsive, Comrade Pilot.”

“When I have Nazis in front of my guns I don’t let them walk away.”

“In the air, perhaps it’s a good thing to be impulsive. Down here, in partisan fighting, it is not always so.”

“Well, Comrade Pilot, my dear young man!”

This was the old man. He had come back into the hut and stood looking down at the Lieutenant. There were dark flecks on the great beard and he rubbed his chingingerly. The girl rose.

“Are you all right, grandpa?” “Except that the sooloch almost broke my jaw. Give me your canteen, Natasha.”

He rinsed his mouth with water, spat it out.

“So, Natasha, you should have fired, eh?”

“Yes, grandpa,” she said mildly. “That is Comrade Pilot’s opinion. Well, I am very old, you are very young; no doubt we don’t understand these things. There is a proverb—”

Not so loud now but still plainly heard, the cuckoo called — once, twice, three times. It was as if the bird’s cry blew new air into the little hut. The girl sighed, the old man rubbed his hands together, forgetting the proverb.

“Good!” he said. “Ah, good!” He gazed almost benignly at the Lieutenant. “Now, Comrade Pilot,” he . said, “I am going to carry you. Permit me one word of advice. You will save your strength, and mine too, if you keep your mouth shut.”

He bent and lifted the Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant had what was to him the inappropriate feeling that he was six years old again and being playfully swung up by his father.

“Please don’t talk,” the girl said, at his side. “You are weaker than you think. This is best for you.”

He was staring upside down at her, ridiculously, his head bobbing with each great heaving stride the old man took.

“Where are you taking me?” he gulped. “I demand to know!”

“To where we live.”

“I tell you,” the Lieutenant said, struggling mightily to bring his head up and around into a decent talking position so that he could speak with military force and precision, “I tell you, I must get back to my base! I have an urgent report to make! I cannot afford to let time—Listen!” His voice rose despairingly. “Tell him to put me down!”

“How you squirm!” said the old . man’s cavernous voice reprovingly in his ear. “Like a carp in my arms! A regular speechmaker you are, Comrade Pilot!”

“I—I appreciate what you have done,” the Lieutenant gasped, dizzy from upside down speech, his breath failing, “but believe me, this is serious, it is a military matter. You can’t help me any more—put me down!”

“Then, I put you down !”

The old man propped him on the ground.

“Now then, will you run through the forest like a deer with your report?”

The Lieutenant swayed. He put out a hand for support, grasped the old man’s arm, strove to withdraw it, to stand erect, and the pain came through him like a blade from his leg and pierced his head with darkness. He thought he heard the girl cry. There was nothing more.

A SMELL awakened him, or seemed to. A rich steaming smell. For a while he thought just of that. It was enough to lie still and taste the smell with his nose.

He lay on a pallet, back in the shadow of a great cave. Still not wholly touching reality he saw it as a scene from a child’s story of days long ago when robber bands roved the woods, brigands with knife at belt and gun slung to back. Those were the figures he saw now, half-shadow, half-real. A cooking fire burned in the centre of the cave and its light fell across their faces and polished the metal of their guns. Not bandits, not a child’s story, but partisans, guerillas.

For a few minutes it was pleasant to lie there, smelling the smell, watching the dance of firelight, looking at the half-dozen figures. It was pleasant and exciting to think that he saw here the headquarters, the base of operations of a partisan band. He remembered the accounts he had heard of partisan fighting. Men to be worshipped, women too, children too, for the risks they so willingly took, for the blows they struck.

And as he watched the people he saw her—a figure turning from the pot over the fire, and her calm face.

A man went to her. He was a young strongly built man but in those few steps he showed a heavy limp. He put his hand on the girl’s arm as he bent to look into the pot. She smiled at him and said something and he smiled in return, looking at her obliquely, from eyes cast to the side. The Lieutenant knew very surely that this was pretense, this business of looking into the pot. The young man with the limp had not come there to see how the meal was progressing. He had come to be near the girl, to touch her arm.

Of course, a girl like that, she would have a husband, or a sweetheart.

And a sudden, uncontrollable irritation rose in the Lieutenant. Y es, his mission was unfulfilled, he had failed; but what about these people? These people who, it appeared, calmly took things into their own hands, not bothering to find out if perhaps they were not doing the correct, the militarily essential thing? They had saved his life, certainly, but what was that? What would be the difference in the present situation if they’d left him to die or to fall into the hands of the Germans? No difference. The mission was unfulfilled in any event. He had tried to tell them but they would not listen. The old man had merely told him to shut up and had brought him here. And here he lay and there they sat, having a fine time, laughing and joking, waiting for their meal.

“Well now, Natasha,” said the old man, “must we wait forever for food?"

“It’s ready,” the girl said.

The old man rose from the gloom at the far side of the cave, or rather it seemed that a beard rose, a beard so virile that it had taken life and locomotion unto itself and walked by itself, scorning human chin and legs; for at first nothing was visible of the old man but the beard, a superb hedge glowing like molten silver in the firelight. Following the beard the old man walked to the pot and helped himself mightily from it and ate. The rest of the group came and ate too.

“It was a fine thing to see him shoot down the two Hitler crows,” the old man said around his food. “No doubt he was talking all the time he fired, but still, he fired well.”

“Now, grandpa,” said the girl, “you talk a good deal yourself.”

“Compared to him I am a dumb mute. Even in his sleep he talks. Would you believe it, as I carried him on my back he babbled in my ear, five miles of babbling.”

“He’s young, grandpa,” said the girl. “Twenty, twenty-one — no more.”

Then an angry resolve welled up in him and he rolled over, to sit up and shout at these laughers and make them listen to him.

The girl was kneeling beside the pallet. “So, you’re awake. Are you feeling better?”

“I am all right,” he said shortly.

She whispered, “If you heard grandfather talking, pay no attention. It means nothing—he is like that. Now don’t talk any more until you have eaten.”

Once more he was being told not to talk. His self-irritation and dull wretchedness flamed out suddenly. “I insist on talking!” he said loudly. “Enough time has been wasted! I am absolutely going to talk!”

“Ah, talk!” came the old man’s voice. “Is it our Comrade Pilot again? He wishes to talk? By all means, Comrade Pilot—proceed!”

THE FACES around the fire turned to him, seared, weather-darkened faces, none of them young except Dmitry, who limped. Somehow those faces gave the Lieutenant pause, but then his anger came running out in quick words.

“What have you to joke about? It’s too late now, it’s all lost, but let me tell you this, old man—the next time you find a plane crashed and the pilot wounded but alive, don’t think it’s enough just to take care of him! Don’t think that finishes your job! It may just possibly be that that pilot has a mission, that you can help him finish that mission! If you will listen to him!”

The old man looked at his beard. “Well, now,” he said, “so you had a mission?”

“I had information to deliver!”

“And you are saying that we might have delivered it for you?”

“Late, it would have been, but better than this!”

“So it would have been late. Would it have done any good?”

“The mission,” cried the Lieutenant, “the mission would have been fulfilled! That is the important consideration! That is the military consideration!”

“I think there are others,” said the old man.

“You think—!”

“Please,” the girl said, “you must not talk any more.”

“Always I’m being told not to talk! Then let him talk! Let him explain!”

The old man lowered his head and seemed to speak privately to his beard, but apparently it was not to the beard, for a couple of the other men rose and said something gruffly and left the cave. Then the old man looked up at the Lieutenant.

“I think there are other considerations,” he repeated. “But I may be wrong.” He got up and came closer and squatted near the Lieutenant. “For I am a simple fellow, not a trained military man. If I have made errors you will point them out to me so I shall know better next time. Agreed, Comrade Pilot?”


“Well, for example”—he fumbled in his jacket, brought out a piece of paper—“this was found in your plane. You recognize the writing.”

The Lieutenant did; it was his.

“‘German armored force advancing in a certain direction,’ it says. That direction, I happen to know, is toward the bend in the river. Toward the bridge there. This, I thought, this must be what the young pilot wishes to tell his headquarters, so that sappers will be sent to blow up the bridge. Now this was only my reasoning, it may be wrong—”

The Lieutenant said nothing.

“—but I, an old man, knowing only this section of our great land, it was the only way I could reason. So, obviously, I reasoned, this information must be delivered—”

“Yet,” said the Lieutenant, “it was not!”

“—but it cannot be delivered in daytime. The German lines are ahead of us; we cannot get through them in daytime. Only at night can one be sure of getting through. But if we wait until night, I reasoned, then all that time the German armored force is advancing, and perhaps by the time we do get the information through it will be too late to blow up the bridge. Ah, I reflected, ah, if only we had dynamite! But we have not. And then my reason spoke to me. ‘What about the quarry?’ it said.”

“The quarry?”

“The quarry. What has that to do with a bridge, eh? A silly question. I know I don’t have to tell you the answer, Comrade Pilot. It must be obvious to a military man.”

The Lieutenant could find no answer within himself, and, searching for one, he could not even find his anger.

“But the Germans have posted guards and sentries and so on at the quarry. Well, tonight when it is good and dark, a couple of us who are fair shots take care of the sentries. Then tomorrow morning at first cockcrow we meet at the bend in the river and take care of the bridge . . . And that is that. Except, of course, for you, Comrade Pilot. We have to get you back to your base. Now, it may be that you will not approve—-”

He paused and regarded the Lieutenant quizzically.

“—but here is what I have j planned. When Dmitry is through with his work at the quarry tonight, ; he comes back here and takes you to your base. You should get there just about the time the rest of us are meeting at the bridge. Does that 1 suit you?”

“But,” the Lieutenant muttered, “but I—and Dmitry—”

“You mean, you are wounded, and Dmitry limps? True. A bullet shattered his thigh early in the war and he was sent home to help us. But he drives very well. And just a little way from here there is a German staff car with a tank full of petrol. We appropriated it a few weeks ago. We dispensed with the gentlemen who were in it but kept the car. Dmitry knows the back roads very well, even in the dark. I promise you he will get you through the German lines very rapidly. You will be at your base long before anyone could have got there by trying to walk it, even starting this morning. And you will be able to report that, in a manner of speaking, your mission has been fulfilled. That is,” said the old man, “if you approve of this plan. If you approve of our taking dynamite from the quarry with which to blow up the bridge.”

He cleared his throat.

“Doubtless,” he said, looking not at the Lieutenant but at his beard, “doubtless there are several flaws in the plan, which you, as a military man, will be able to indicate to us.”

THERE was a long silence. Now the old man was looking at him. The girl was looking at him. Dmitry, he with the limp, the shattered thigh, was looking at him. There were eyes everywhere looking at him in this great silence.

The Lieutenant bowed his head. Then he raised his burning face and looked at the old man.

“Grandfather,” he said, “don’t laugh at me.”

“Well!” said the old man. “Laugh at you? Why should I laugh at you—I a simple fellow, you a trained military man?”

“You are right to laugh at me, but don’t, grandfather, don’t any more. I hate myself enough. Perhaps I would not have been such a fool, so young, such a fool, if—if I could forget what I did this morning. I, thinking I could shoot down those two Fascist planes and not lose time, telling myself it was safest for my mission, convincing myself? And all this time thinking that I had failed, since I was in your hands —thinking you did not understand matters like this— blaming you, when I—when I—”

He could not say any more.

The old man sighed.

“Well, well,” he said, “you’re a good fellow, Comrade Pilot. I am the one to he ashamed. Yes, for thinking of you as I did—that you were a boy who knew nothing of the war as it is. In our village, you see, in our village, Comrade Pilot, there are two of our youngsters, fourteen, fifteen years old. They fought, as we fought. Now they are swinging by their necks in our village from a German gibbet. ‘What does he know of things like that,’ thought I, ‘this smart young man!’ It made me a little sour. So I—well, yes, Comrade Pilot, I tried to make a fool of you. I let you think we were numbskulls, doing nothing, in order to put you in your place later.” He grunted into his beard and gave it a mighty pull, strong enough to have torn any other beard from its roots. “Here,” he said, almost harshly, “here, this is how I really feel, when I am not being an old fool; this is how all of us down here really feel.”

Surprisingly gentle for that gnarled tree-trunk body, his arms embraced the Lieutenant.

“Sentimentality!” he snorted. “Enough time wasted! It gets dark . . . Dmitry?”

“Ready,” said the young man with the limp.

“Come on . . . Comrade Pilot, soon you’ll be in a plane again and maybe passing this way. Give us a tilt of your wings!”

He stood erect and strong, his great beard a banner, his brown hands knotted on the rifle.

“And we’ll be saying with you, ‘Death to the damned Fascist invaders!’ ”

Nodding to Dmitry he walked from the cave.

But the young man with the limp paused a moment. He did not look directly at the girl. He looked at her, as always, from the side; but the Lieutenant knew how clearly he was seeing her, and seeing him beside her, and wanting to say something. He only smiled. He smiled and saluted the Lieutenant, and then, with his limp, with surprising quickness he followed the old man.

After a while the Lieutenant said, “He speaks very little, doesn’t he?”

“Dmitry?” She smiled. “Very little. But you should hear him call like a bird—any bird in the forest. It’s wonderful!”

The Lieutenant remembered. “This morning, when that cuckoo called?” “That was Dmitry. He was on ! guard, to warn us.”

“How is it you didn’t say good-by to him, just now?”

Her dark eyes questioned him.

“I suppose that we take such things for granted.”

“Even with a sweetheart?”

“A sweetheart? Dmitry?”

“Doesn’t he wish to be?”

She touched her hair. It seemed to be a gesture a woman would never lose.

“He has never said anything.”

For the first time he felt himself to be superior to her. He was a good deal older than he had been that morning.

“Why,” he said, “you see, there are some things that even the bravest men lack courage for . . . You could catch him, couldn’t you, if you ran?”

“And if I caught him?”

“Then,” he said, “I wish you’d just take him in your arms and kiss him, yes, right on the mouth. He’s doing my work for me. I’d like that to go with him.”

For a long moment she looked at him.

“You are not so very, very young, Comrade Pilot,” she said, “are you, after all?”

The Lieutenant lay back on his pallet, listening to the sound of her running steps.