Lost in her thoughts she was surprised when a voice called, “Fräulein von Richthofen.”
Freiherr von Feldburg was walking beside her. He smiled, but she gasped at the sight of his face. She’d heard about how he’d bailed out and been picked up by the Kriegsmarine. Everyone was talking about how he’d stood up to to Göring. But no one had mentioned that he’d bashed up his face bailing out. Now here he stood with half his face black and blue and the white of his right eye filled with a puddle of blood.
As if in response to her expression, Christian put his right hand to his eye, covering and closing it at once. “I’d like to talk to you, if I may?”
“But of course, Freiherr von Feldburg,” Klaudia answered. Christian had never been so attractive to her as he was right now. He was dressed more casually than she had ever seen him because he’d left his tunic somewhere and was wearing only his shirt, with a cravat twisted inside his collar instead of a tie. He was wearing the forage rather than the peaked uniform cap, albeit he was still in riding boots. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up above the elbows, revealing well-muscled and tanned arms. Klaudia remembered being told once that it took tremendous strength to fly an Emil in combat. “You need to be a prize wrestler,” someone had said, “to throw one of the little beasts around the sky effectively.” When the officers were in their elegant uniforms, they didn’t look particularly athletic, but now she could sense the latent strength in the arms of the man beside her. If only he would take an interest in her….
“I expected you to ask me about Leutnant Geuke,” Christian remarked, in a tone of voice that was calm and soft and admonishing.
At once Klaudia felt guilty. “Oh, yes!” She looked over hastily, not wanting to disappoint this handsome baron by being callous towards his friend. “You went to visit him, didn’t you? I heard he was all right.”
“All right?” Christian’s eyebrows shot up. “They had to take six bullets out of him. He lost litres of blood. He’s very, very lucky to be alive.”
“I understand he has you to thank—”
“No! He flew himself home!” Christian corrected sharply. “All I did was make sure the Tommies didn’t bounce him a second time. You don’t seem to appreciate what an excellent pilot Ernst is,” Christian told her bluntly, and the look he gave her made her cringe. Christian was looking at her with only thinly disguised contempt.
“That’s not – I mean—” How could she possibly restore herself in his eyes? Blushing, she tried to defend herself. “I don’t know anything about what it takes to be a pilot. How should I?”
“That’s fair enough,” Christian conceded; but his expression remained hostile as he added, “But it can’t have escaped your notice that Ernst is well liked and respected by the rest of us. That should have told you something.”
Now that he said it, it seemed obvious, but she had never looked at it that way. After all, Lt. Geuke was just a wingman. “But he always flew wingman to you—”
“Don’t tell me you’re no better than some Roman matron eager for the sight of blood in the arena? Are kills all that interest you? Do you only like men who have blood on their hands?”
“No! I’m not like that at all! I even hate hunting innocent animals—”
“Then shouldn’t you respect the pilot who protects more than the one who kills?” He let the words sink in before adding in a different, less accusatory but more dismissive voice, “When I visited Ernst in hospital yesterday, he asked me to give you something. I admit I hesitated, and I’ll tell you why.”
He stopped walking, and Klaudia was forced to stop, too. They were in the middle of the airfield. Out of hearing in one direction were the off-duty ground crews lounging about in their deck chairs, and equally out of hearing in the opposite direction was the Mess. Scattered about were the idle Emils in their sand-bag bays. A light breeze ruffled the long grass, and the shadows of the clouds loped silently across the lush, green landscape.
“Fräulein von Richthofen, I don’t think you’re good enough for Ernst Geuke. I think he deserves someone better than you. But God knows, love is blind. And I’m a prime fool when it comes to that, so hold your fire.” He held up his hand as if he really expected her to lay into him.
In fact, Klaudia was too stunned to say anything at all. She should have been indignant. Perhaps she would have been if anyone else had dared to say this to her. But Christian was from her own class, and no one here at Crépon knew Ernst better than he did.
Christian handed her a package, which she had not noticed in his right hand until just now. It was something soft wrapped in pretty tissue paper, a leather-bound book and, dangling on the string that held the other two objects together, was a bullet. “That’s one of the bullets they extracted from his flesh,” Christian explained. “The wrapped present is something he bought for you weeks ago – but didn’t dare give you for fear you’d humiliate him by rejecting it.”
Klaudia gasped, horrified by the image. She would never have done that – even if she admitted to herself that she wasn’t exactly pleased with Ernst’s attentions….
“The diary is—” Christian shrugged. “All I know is he asked me to give it to you. I hope you treat it with the respect it deserves.” Christian thrust the package at her and then turned and strode away, leaving her standing in the middle of the airfield with the unusual package in her hands.
After she recovered from her shock, Klaudia continued towards the mess. She wanted to be utterly alone before she opened the curious present, away from all prying eyes. She hastened up to her room, closed the door and turned the key in the lock – technically against regulations, but this was no time to think of that. She sank onto her bed and started fumbling with the string holding the book and the soft package together. She couldn’t bring herself to touch the bullet. It seemed a cruel, unrelenting reminder of how callous she had been, not taking Leutnant Geuke’s wounds particularly seriously.
She started instead with the present wrapped in tissue. Although she opened the tissue carefully, it was so frail that it tore. Soon she had the silk scarf with the pictures of horses spread out on her lap. The mare and foal in the centre were touchingly sweet. It was exactly the scarf she would have wanted but would have been too ashamed to buy. Klaudia sat for a long time, her hands stroking the soft surface, touched beyond measure by the fact that Lt. Geuke understood her so well.
Then, with trepidation, she took the diary in her hands and opened it timidly. Geuke had a surprisingly legible hand. He wrote in modern rather than gothic script.
“Dear Klaudia,” the diary began. “I know that I am not worthy of you, and that is why I can never say to you all the things I feel in my heart. But I can’t just keep them bottled up inside, either. I have to let my feelings out before they burn me up. Please don’t be angry with me….” Tears started to trickle down her face as she read, and before long she was sobbing desperately. Soon she was unable to read further. Instead, she clutched the little diary to her chest and stretched herself out on her bed, overcome with shame and regret and self-hatred.
Freiherr v. Feldburg was right. She didn’t deserve the devotion of Ernst Geuke. She had slighted him and looked down on him just because he was fat and a plumber’s son. How could she have been such a snob? Such a bigoted fool? She, who had let a bastard like Jako play with her, had kept the honest Ernst at a distance. She had allowed him feel her disdain. She had hurt him over and over again. It was all in the diary, and despite it all, he avowed his admiration and affection for her, blaming only himself. “I’m sorry that I embarrassed you today by stopping you on the way to the Mess. You were annoyed. I could tell even though you tried to be polite. I promise I won’t do it again….”
Oh, God! She turned into her pillow and cried miserably into it.
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