Be Ye Men of Valor
A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café. She had come in from the rain and drops of water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women inside. A regiment of white-aproned waiters rushed around at tempo, serving the needs of the Münchner at leisure—coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before—a permed, platinum blonde with heavy makeup—an actress by the look of her. The blond lit a cigarette, making a phallic performance out of it. Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and whole-some, Bavarian preferably. All those dirndls and knee-socks, God help us.
The table was laden. Bienenstich, Gugelhupf, Käsekuchen. He was eating a slice of Kirschtorte. He loved his cakes. No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed for public view. Not a manly man. He smiled when he caught sight of her and half rose, saying, “Guten Tag, gnädiges Fräulein,” indicating the chair next to him. The bootlicker who was currently occupying it jumped up and moved away.
“Unsere Englische Freundin,” he said to the blonde, who blew cigarette smoke out slowly and examined her without any interest before eventually saying, “Guten Tag.” A Berliner.
She placed her handbag, heavy with its cargo, on the floor next to her chair and ordered Schokolade. He insisted that she try the Pflaumen Streusel.
“Es regnet,” she said by way of conversation. “It’s raining.”
“Yes, it’s raining,” he said with a heavy accent. He laughed, pleased at his attempt. Everyone else at the table laughed as well. “Bravo,” someone said. “Sehr gutes Englisch.” He was in a good mood, tapping the back of his index finger against his lips with an amused smile as if he was listening to a tune in his head.
The Streusel was delicious.
“Entschuldigung,” she murmured, reaching down into her bag and delving for a handkerchief. Lace corners, monogrammed with her initials, “UBT”—a birthday present from Pammy. She dabbed politely at the Streusel flakes on her lips and then bent down again to put the handkerchief back in her bag and retrieve the weighty object nesting there. Her father’s old service revolver from the Great War, a Webley Mark V.
A move rehearsed a hundred times. One shot. Swiftness was all, yet there was a moment, a bubble suspended in time after she had drawn the gun and levelled it at his heart when everything seemed to stop.
“Führer,” she said, breaking the spell. “Für Sie.“
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
11 February 1910
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
“Dr. Fellowes should have been here,” Sylvie moaned. “Why isn’t he here yet? Where is he?” Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship’s furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.
“Yer man’ll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma’am. It’s sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed.”
Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chasing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truffling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant-major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.
“Oh, ma’am,” Bridget cried suddenly, “she’s all blue, so she is.”
“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.”
“Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?”
“Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma’am, she’s gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I’m awful, awful sorry. She’ll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I’m awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?”
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
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