For some unaccountable reason Henry found the march back to Jennings' and Parrish's position nerve wracking. Over ground where he had almost strolled the previous night he now moved with exaggerated caution. Some of the slowness was necessary in order to keep checking the compass back bearing; most of it was due to sheer fright. Perhaps it had been easier before because of the usual burst of euphoria he felt after every successful parachute descent. Now his mind had fixed itself firmly on the fear of being discovered by the Germans and euphoria was the last word he would have chosen to describe his present emotions.
It was a rational fear but the facts didn't justify his subservience to it, as Henry well knew. No man who wanted to stay out of sight would have any reason to complain about the Commandos' present circumstances. Despite the brightness of the moon large chunks of stratocumulus reduced it for most of the time to a mere luminous patch in the blackened sky. A brisk wind was blowing at about twenty knots, still from the north, scurrying the clouds along like defaulters under punishment. Only when an occasional gap appeared in them did visibility on the ridge extend beyond a few paces, revealing only a wider area of close cropped grass and barren patches of rock.
To Henry it seemed as if he was trudging across the bottom of the sea in lead soled boots -- a dead and very cold sea. Deprived of the warmth of the parachute canopy his body was being rapidly chilled by the combination of the fresh wind and his slow movement. A few spiteful showers were still around, each one lasting only for a minute or so, yet enough to keep a man's clothes damp and sticking to his goose-pimpled skin.
Logically, Henry should have been feeling pleased about the weather conditions. Although making extra difficulties for the glider pilots they would be a great help on his approach march to the chateau. His greatest worry was KGr 100 being sent off on a bombing raid that night, leaving his mailed fist closing around an empty trap.
Of course Crampton's computer boys were sure they had the latest information from the German side. A party was organised and a party which had a Field Marshal for a guest wasn't likely to be cancelled. Especially when the Field Marshal concerned was Hugo Sperrle, the only man in the Luftwaffe with any chance of matching Herman Goering in gluttony. But surely somebody in Germany was going to have a rush of sanity to the head and start using KGr 100 soon? Only a few hundred bombs dropped under X-gerat control on critical targets and Britain would be crippled. What were the idiots waiting for? A victory parade down the Unter Der Linden in spring sunshine?
Henry had been trying to keep a count on his paces, although it was complicated by the need to avoid the patches of slippery rock. He was reluctant to remove the rubber pads from his boots yet. Whatever happened now he was already convinced that the technique of dropping scouts ahead of a raid was a good one, which meant it should be concealed from the Germans if at all possible. Leaving the countryside churned up by footprints was not the way to do it.
Eventually, after an extra thirteen paces beyond his outward count, he found a cluster of semi-buried boulders which seemed familiar. The stone he threw rattled against the rocks, followed by the quiet sound of his fingers snapping. From behind the boulders came the two double snaps in response. Then Reech crawled forward while Henry covered him with his carbine. After a few seconds, he heard their own agreed recognition signal, three single clicks. Henry crawled towards the sounds.
Parrish and Reech were huddled together in the lee of the rocks. He put his head close to theirs. "How are you feeling, Corporal?"
"Fine, sir, fine. Had ma'sel a good sleep early on, and I'm bonnie."
"Good. Where's Jennings?"
"He's away down to yon farm, sir."
Parrish took a deep breath. "It was this way, sir. Just after thirteen hundred we saw a car arrive wi' three Jerries in it. They stopped by the farm, but ne'r went into the hoose. Instead, they went into an old barn an' stayed there for two hours. Carrying bags they were, an' came out looking like they owned Sauchiehall street . Awfa' happy they were, sir, awfa' happy. Wouldna' be surprised neither, 'cause some lucky bastard has got a barnful o' bints doon there."
Henry groaned. "Shit and shankers!"
"Aye, sir. Anyhow, we couldna' quite ken the way of it. We saw three lassies doon there wi' the Jerries, but we didna see any arrive, or go awa' after the boys had been aroond. Just one of them taking a stroll a while ago, and another two fetching plates from the farm hoose, likely their suppa'. It looks as if the girls are biding in the barn the while, away out of the hoose. We dinna understand it full, because we saw the farmer and his old wifey working aroond the place today, but not a sign o' any o' they women aboot til those bluidy Germans came."
"That's odd. Alright, we can assume that some of the local ladies have set themselves up in business in the barn as floosies. We can also assume that the farmer is getting a percentage of whatever was in those bags. Booze and fags for the black market, I suppose."
Henry scratched his chin, continuing to think aloud. "It does seem odd that the women would stay inside the barn all day, though. These are country people, used to getting up early and working. Lolling around in the straw during daylight hours isn't the way of things around here, however much money is being made on the side."
"Sir, Jenning an' ma'sel are positive that the women are nae locals. City bred, we reckoned, an' comfy city at that. Smart clothes an' smoking their fags in long black holders, like that film star, Noel Coward. You ken what I mean?"
All of them caught their breath in sudden fear as a high pitched yelp came at them out of the darkness. Henry lifted his head up and stared down into the gloomy valley."It's OK," he said reassuringly. "Just a dog fox following the smell of a vixen on heat. It's their mating season."
"They all seem to be at it around here," Reech commented. Henry fought an impulse to hit him. The pressure bearing down on his shoulders had squashed his sense of humour well out of reach.
"This is great. I've got about ninety minutes before I have to send the go ahead signal if the raiding party's to land here tonight and the landing site I want to use has all these lunatics running around near it. For all I know there could be a charabanc loaded with Luftwaffe NCO's coming over tonight on another excursion trip from KGr 100. I can't even begin to guess why a bunch of smart city women should be setting themselves up in a stinking barn at the backend of nowhere: looking after staff officers in Montmartre ought to be their style. And to top it all, one of my men has decided to wander down there and do some sight seeing."
"That was ma notion, sir." Lance Corporal Parrish said stoutly. "I thought it best to try an' find out what was what, instead o' just biding til you came. Jennings is gey guid in the dark, an' one of us had to be here tae meet you. He'll find out what he can, an' meet you doon there at 1845 hours. Perhaps he'll ken something that we couldna' have found arriving later."
"You were absolutely right, Corporal Parrish," Henry admitted. He had committed the sin of speaking before thinking. "Sending Jennings ahead like that was the best way of trying to get some more information. Have you made a sketch map of the place?"
"Aye, sir. I moved ma hide back behind these rocks so we could use it."
Henry crawled halfway into the camouflaged tunnel after removing his smock and taking a small torch out of his shirt pocket, silently cursing the awkwardness of the shoulder holster locked around his upper torso and the Webley & Scott revolver inside it. Worst of all was the need to continually check that the strap around the butt was still secure. Not one of his best ideas. The PE lined holster would probably kill him by accident a lot earlier than was strictly necessary.
Parrish entered the hide from the other end, also in his shirt sleeves. They waited while Reech carefully draped their smocks over each end of the hide, tucking the bottoms carefully around their waists. "All secure, sir."
Henry switched on the torch, producing the faintest of glimmers through the red tinted glass. Holding it close to the army notebook between himself and Parrish he listened to the Lance Corporal and absorbed the details on the page. "The farm buildings are fifty yards in from the road, sir. There's a wall aboot two hundred yards ta the south, going east-west. An' a burn runs the same way as the road, mebbe three hundred yards in. That part o' the field is pretty flat, except for a pair o' old sheep pens towards the road side, eighty yards from the road, an' the same from the bottom wall. There are na trees doon that end."
"Apart from the pens, it appears clear?"
"Aye, sir. But aboot level with the farm, there's a sort o' hump in the field. It starts behind the farm, in the middle o' the field, an' comes out like a kind o' arrow-heid. The farm buildings are up against one side, an' the other carries on easterly tae the burn. Then you've another hundred yards or so of flat ground, but it's nae use to us, there's three bloody great trees right in the middle of it."
"I suppose they built the farm in the lee of the slope to keep out of this damned north wind. So you're saying we've only got one choice? We've got to land the gliders on the bottom part of the paddock?"
"Aye, and there's a dozen cows wanderin' in the field. We'll hae to move them. I'm thinking we could mebbe drive them through the gate in the bottom wall."
"Perhaps. It might be easier to herd them into a corner out of sight from the road and shoot them with the carbines. We certainly can't have them running around on the landing zone."
"Yes sir. I've a second map o' the farm buildings here, if ye want ta see it."
Henry nodded. "Let's have a look, please."
It was easy enough to understand the drawing, with all the main features and distances carefully inked in. Most of the farm buildings formed a rough rectangle. The farm house was on the northern side, the barn thirty yards to the south, with a wall connecting both buildings on the western side, and an enclosed yard between them, a row of open fronted sheds on the eastern edge facing into the yard. Outside the other buildings, fifty yards to the south, was a wooden milking shed. Between the western end of the buildings and the V road were two duck ponds, with trees around them.
"Where is Jennings planning to rendezvous with us?"
"Between the milking shed and the bottom duck pond, sir. Here, where the manure heap is."
"Very appropriate, I'm sure. Have you heard any dogs barking?"
"No, sir. Nor seen none."
"That's odd. Still, whether there's any around or not, we should be OK if we keep downwind. We'll get onto the road a couple of hundred yards south of the farm and approach it using the far side road wall as cover. By the by, did you see any telephone wires?"
"Right, I suppose we'd better get on with it."
After helping Parrish stow his hide away in his kitbag the Commandos descended the slope, Henry leading. Halfway down they entered a stretch of bracken which rustled against their legs, soaking every inch of material below the knees in water which seemed to turn into ice. The only places on Henry's calves which weren't numb itched from nettle stings. As soon as he could see the road he monkey crawled forward to the nearer wall. Hearing nothing, he raised his head over the top of the dry built stone coping and looked around. As he did so the rising moon slipped clear of the suffocating embrace of the clouds for several seconds.
The road and the surrounding countryside stood out in sharper detail, but without revealing any sign of life. It was the sort of night when a man would walk wide of a graveyard. Henry shivered and looked carefully at the farm buildings half left from his position. Old traces of white paint around the upper shutters on the house gave the building a skeletal atmosphere. Above the roof the tail of the Great Bear jutted up. The pattern of cold stars seemed to mark the edge of approaching clearer weather. Henry stared at the familiar shape of the plough and crossed his fingers in hope. Then the merest flicker of dimmed headlights loomed on the horizon, where the road from Carnoules crossed the ridge. Bad news always carries its own stamp of authenticity even when still far away. KGr 100 were sending over another pack of randy airmen.
Perhaps the ideal thing to have done would have been to wait and make sure the approaching car was indeed heading for the farm. Certainly to stay off the road until the coast was clear again. On the other hand, there was a lot of work to be done before the gliders could be bought in, with no time to waste. But the overwhelming stimulus to keep on moving was psychological. Henry was still badly frightened about what the night would bring and the only possible cure for that feeling was to get stuck in and get on with it.
He pushed his kitbag over the wall, then rolled over the top himself. As soon as the other three were behind him he slung the kitbag underneath his chest and crossed the tarmac on his hands and knees, his carbine awkwardly wedged between the bag and his body. It was easier going on the grass verge opposite but still viciously painful. Fragments of stone and strands of briars jabbed into his flesh, as always seemed to happen whenever he tried to crawl on even the most benign looking patch of grass.
Henry stopped after his first outburst of fierce energy had dulled, to glance over the wall once more and then towards the headlights again. Judging it as well as he could it seemed another seventy yards would put his party about level with the trees around the nearest duck pond. That was where he wanted to cross the wall which was on the farm side of the road, where he had some cover from line of sight from the farm house. The question was, would he have enough time to cover another seventy yards before the car arrived?
What would have been a fairly simple guess in peacetime conditions was complicated by his uncertainty about the efficacy of the blackout masks fitted to German headlights. In Britain only the faintest glimmer of light was allowable and the regulations were enforced ruthlessly and without exception. It was obvious from the fact he had seen these lights while they were still below the ridge line that the standards here were far slacker. Well, that wasn't surprising. Outside of the purely military sphere the Huns' approach to the war seemed much more relaxed than the British dedication to national mobilisation. Still, they were the ones who were winning, weren't they?
In the event his party covered the distance with time to spare. When the length of road by the farm gate was lit up by the approaching car Henry was still lying alongside the wall, but on the far side, in a ditch which ran down between the wall and the farm paddock. His men were stretched out behind him, half submerged in muddy water and staring at the buildings. To the right was the milking shed, a black hulk sixty or seventy paces away. Much closer were the grizzled old oaks which stood between the duckponds and the paddock. Indeed, the soldiers could hear the gentle groaning of the branches as they swayed in the wind.
Henry peered through the gaps between the trunks, looking at the south east corner of the barn. No signs of life. Then he took another long look at the upper story of the farmhouse visible beyond the sagging slate roof of the barn, wondering if he could make out a very dim night light burning in one of the bedrooms. Probably a hurricane lamp with the wick turned down low, the same way his father kept one handy against any night time emergency in a house without electricity.
The car's destination was made certain when it stopped by the farm entrance. Its headlights were indeed far brighter than any Henry had seen since the war started. A figure in a baggy kneed uniform with high boots and a side cap opened the gate and then conscientiously closed it again after the car had passed. The man got back into the car which drove down the access track towards the farm buildings. It sounded as if it badly needed a new exhaust muffler.
Then the vehicle turned right at the north west corner of the farmhouse and cruised very slowly along the western edge of the buildings before turning left again and stopping on the southern side of the barn. In the beams of the headlights was a wooden loading platform, set at a convenient height for rolling milk churns into a cart. A door opened above the platform and Henry glimpsed an interesting shaped female silhouette standing in the entrance. The headlights were doused and the darkness was complete again. The wind carried a babble of raucous German -- a language which seemed to Henry to be ideally suited for sounding raucous. If these sort of night time arrivals were a regular thing it wasn't surprising there were no dogs left around the place to kick up a racket every time a bunch of strangers came visiting.
After the initial burst of conversation had died down the door in the side of the barn slammed shut behind the Germans. Henry waited a few moments in case somebody was still lingering near the car. When he was reasonably sure it was safe to move he began crawling again, towards the place the manure heap should be. Wind gusts of renewed strength clawed at the mud and water soaked front of his body. It felt as if he was being lashed with an icy whip which was cutting through to the ribs of his chest. He clenched his teeth and kept an anxious watch to the left, in the direction of the ponds. Where there were ducks there might equally well be geese and they were far more effective sentries than any dog.
His nose soon told him he was close to the manure heap. Then he saw the irregular shape of it and gratefully felt the wind drop as he moved into the lee of the steaming mound. A click of his fingers brought a similar response. Jennings was lying a few yards to their right, the barrel of his carbine resting on top of his kitbag. "Here, zur."
God, but the atmosphere was ripe. Farms were the same everywhere, nothing but shit and stink. "Did you find out anything, Jennings?"
"Yes, zur. I looked into that barn. I saw four ladies in there. One be around fifty, looks like gentry. The other three be younger, perhaps her daughters, all handsome maids, especially one coppernob. They do zeem to to be sleeping in that barn, but hardly a spare stitch of clothing or kit to their names as I could see. Only one little bag between all of 'em. Looks like they came along here in a real hurry. There be a big shiny car in one of they sheds over yonder which must belong to 'ee. Tis covered with sacks, but I took a look underneath, and it has a big silver mascot on the bonnet, a flying bird with a long neck."
"Was it a swan, maybe? With the wings extended down?"
"Yes, zur. How did you know?"
"Because I know my military history. The flying stork was the badge of Guynemer, the First War French fighter ace. After the war it was adopted by the company which had made the best aero-engines for the allies, Hispano-Suiza. I also happen to know that Hispano-Suiza cars cost an absolute bloody fortune -- maybe a thousand pounds or more." Henry shook his head in bewilderment. "Why would a bunch of women who could afford a vehicle like that be peddling their arses in a filthy bloody barn? Can you make any sense out of it, Jennings?"
"Not I, zur. But you could ask the old lady, if you've a mind. She's sitting in the car now, crying to herself."
"Yes, zur. I heard her. I think her was praying as well, but I didn't understand the words. Not French, I be sure of that."
"Was it Jewish? I mean Hebrew -- or is it Yiddish?"
Jennings spread his hands wide. "I don't know anything about that sort of stuff. But we've a few who'd know in the raiding party."
"Yes, but I need somebody who can ask some questions now. If these people live in France surely to God they can speak French." Henry clicked his fingers again. "Reech."
Reech slithered closer. "Sir?"
"One of the reasons why I wanted you to be with me on this trip is because you're reputed to be able to parlevous Francais. I hope my information was correct?"
"Yes, sir. When I was a boy my family used to have a holiday every year in Roussillon. I picked the language up pretty well."
Henry nodded in approval. "OK, listen in. We've got things to do here, and the first is to make this place secure for the gliders to land. Which is not going to be easy. There are four of us, with two carbines and two pistols between us. In there are three or four Jerries, judging by the noise they made just now, and they must be carrying their sidearms. In addition we've got these women to worry about, not to mention the couple we know are living in the farmhouse. We could use all the help we can get so maybe these women will give us some. Jennings says there's a old lady sitting in a car at the back of that yard and she seems to be crying. Go over there and ask her what's the problem, and can the British Army give her a hand?".
"Yes, sir. Just me?"
"Jennings will lead the way, and I'm coming along to satisfy my curiosity. Corporal Parrish."
"Corporal, I want you to slip up as close as you think prudent to that doorway. If the Huns come out in the normal way of things, let 'em go and give them a blessing for their journey. But if you hear shooting then run over to the car, slash the tyres with your knife and put a bullet into anybody who comes through the door. All clear?"
"Which way are we going, Jennings?"
"Along this side of the milking shed, then over the wall into the yard. If you stand on the wall close to the gate, zur, you'm can peek through a ventilation slit under the barn eaves and see inside the barn."
"Hmm. . . You've taken your rubber soles off?"
"Had to, zur."
"OK, everybody else take theirs off, and then we'll move. Leave the kitbags here. Corporal Parrish, tie all the soles together and put the bundle into one of the bags. I don't want any of them left behind."
Henry found that following Jennings through the dark was hardly any easier than trying to find the way himself. The man slipped along like a ferret down a rabbit hole. Maybe that was a good simile as Jennings seemed to have all the makings of a marvellous poacher. Except that he was employed in peacetime as a bank clerk in Bodmin and nobody lucky enough to have a secure job like that would risk it by appearing in court on a poaching charge. Commando soldiers often seemed to be acting outside their normal characters -- but which role was the assumed one?
Having circled around the milking shed they stopped at the eastern end of the building, staring towards the wall ten yards away across the mud and at the closed wooden barred gate set in it. Jennings went across the gap first, crawling on the flat of his stomach through the filth. Then Henry, his carbine held in his upturned hands as he used his legs and forearms to propel himself. As always in such manoeuvres, there was a good chance of dragging your trousers off if they were less than very securely fastened. Infantry fighting was the toughest test of everything a man possessed, from his resources of courage to the strength of his braces and buttons.
Henry knelt by the side of the wall while Jennings stared into the yard. Then he took his weight on his arms while Jennings used him as a step ladder to clamber over the top. A mixture of male and female voices came faintly from the direction of the barn, although the male ones seemed to be in the majority. They also seemed to have a definite sense of pleasurable anticipation in them that the women's voices lacked.
Reech stepped onto Henry and slid down into the yard. Then Reece and Jenning helped him over the wall. To their left was the narrow side end of the barn, on the right was the row of sagging wooden roofs held up by rough hewn beams which stretched along the eastern side of the yard. There seemed to be a whole lot of indiscernible junk hidden in the almost total blackness underneath the roof but Jennings went directly towards a sleek shape draped with an assortment of old sacks. Setting their feet down with the greatest possible care the three of them came closer to the concealed car, Henry the furthest back. Even so, he could clearly hear the sobbing coming out of the darkness. It was a sound he hated, a reminder of the times his own mother had wept while he did his inadequate best to comfort her.
Reech tapped his fingers on the roof of the Hispano-Suiza. A white face turned towards his almost invisible figure. "Bonjour, la voiture. L' armee anglaise est arrivee".
There was a gasp of surprise, and a gabble of answering French. There was no chance that Henry could make any sense out of it, so he simply stayed in the shadows, staring out across the yard while the whispered conversation went back and forth. One phase was repeated on both sides, "Les Russes Blancs!", with special emphasis by the woman. Then more talk, the woman getting more and more excited, with Reech trying to calm her down. "Dame, taisez-vous, taisez-vous!"
Eventually, and not before time, Henry thought, Reech beckoned him over. "I think I've got the gist of it now, sir. Her name is Densky, Countess Densky, if you please. She's a White Russian who seems to have got out of the country after the revolution with her children and most of the family fortune, although the Count was caught and shot by the Bolsheviks. She's been living in Paris since 1920, in an apartment on the Boulevard MacDonald. She has two daughters who live with her. The block she lives in seems to be a sort of enclave of displaced Czarists -- well, for rich ones, anyway.
"Four days ago she went out on a shopping trip with her daughters, her niece and the family chauffeur. When they got back to her home they found police cars parked in front of the apartment building with several people being taken out in handcuffs, although they were too far away to recognise any of the prisoners. So they hid around the corner and sent the chauffeur to find out what was happening. He came back and told them that all the people who had been arrested were White Russians.
"Of course they asked him if he had any idea of what was happening. He said that one of the bystanders had been told by one of the flics that they had orders to round up all the Whites because Hitler wanted to send them to Stalin as a sign of good will. So the Countess decided there was nothing for it but to head into the country with only what they had with them, it being far too dangerous to risk going back home."
"Pretty impulsive action, wasn't it?" Henry asked. "Just to cut and run like that, without even trying to confirm this story about being handed over to Stalin?"
"Sir, I'm not sure we're in a position to pass judgement. Maybe if we thought we were going to be handed over to an organisation like the NKVD we'd do the same. At any event the Countess seems to think anything is better than a one way ticket to Moscow. She says she came here because the man who owns the Chateau Valbourges is engaged to her niece and she thought he could help. She knew the Luftwaffe had moved into the chateau but she had nowhere else to go to. When she arrived she tried to make contact with the fiance before showing her face and found out what she'd been afraid of had happened. The Grand Duke was placed under house arrest in the chateau at the same time as the arrests started in Paris."
"Grand Duke Peter, sir. His father was Grand Duke Kyril, first cousin to Nicholas the Second, the last Czar. They've lived here in Brittany for years, until Grand Duke Kyril died in 1938."
"Reech, cut out this family tree business, will you? All I want to know is what these women are doing in this scummy dump."
"Well, the car ran out of petrol after they'd got here, and the women had no ration coupons to get any more, nor much money either, not daring to use their cheque book."
"They asked for food at this farm. Unfortunately they were unwise enough to tell the truth as to why they'd left Paris in such a hurry. What they got was an offer to stay in the barn and be nice to some Luftwaffe NCO's with whom the farmer was already doing a side trade in black market rations. Otherwise, the farmer said, the Surete Nationale office in Rennes was going to get a phone call about the suspicious foreigners in the area."
Henry shook his head. "Who are these nasty bastards?"
"Monsieur Loridon and wife, whoever they are. It seems they bought the farm a few months ago. In any case, they're obviously experts in never giving a sucker an even break."
"Well, their luck's just taken a turn for the worse. But weren't the Luftwaffe boys worried about getting involved with people who are supposed to be on the run from the Gestapo?"
Reech spoke again to the elderly Countess, still holding forlornly onto his arm. He translated her answer: "She says that these Luftwaffe NCO's regard themselves as such important technicians that only a few special officers can give them orders. They don't think that anybody is going to bother them in a quiet place like this over a few Russian women. In a sense, the Luftwaffe is protecting them from the Gestapo and the NKVD, and she knows which she prefers."
A particularly jarring outburst of male laughter filtered through the barn walls. The Countess's white streaked hair bobbed as she winced at the sound. She must have carried quite a few extra pounds until recently, though her fine clothes seemed very loose now. The moonlight was hardly enough to see her features clearly but Henry had the impression she had been a damn good looker in her time. She spoke again in low pitched yet vehement passion.
"She wants to know what we're doing here, and if there is any chance her daughters can go back to England with us. She says she doesn't care how dangerous it is."
"Tell her we're here to make this place safe for some of our comrades to land here in an aircraft. We need to capture the Germans in the barn. The same applies to the farmer and his wife. If she and her family will help us, we'll take them all back with us."
Reech asked: "Can I tell her that as a promise from a British officer? It would convince her like nothing else could."
"Yes. My best efforts to transport them to England. Whatever happens after that will be for the United Kingdom authorities to decide. Make that clear as well."
Before Reech had got halfway through some kind of sentence about le capitaine Winfield, l'officier britannique, apres la bataille. . . ." the Countess had seized Henry's hand and began kissing it fervently. "Merci beaucoup, merci beaucoup!"
"Yes, alright, let's not get too bloody excited, we haven't done anything yet. Wait here."
Henry broke away from the woman as gently as he could, then carefully hoisted himself onto the wall where it abutted against the barn wall. It was necessary for him to twist his upper torso to the right whilst leaning against the barn in order to peer into the narrow vertical slit of the air vent let into the stonework. Inside the building an upper staging of wooden planks halfway up the white washed walls restricted his view. Most of what could have been visible was hidden in complete darkness. But in the centre of the darkened building was a circle of dim light cast by a paraffin lamp hanging, he supposed, from a rope or chain rigged across the centre of the barn.
Underneath them was a kind of square, some eight feet by eight feet, outlined by four rows of corn sacks piled up about three sacks high. It looked as if a lot of loose hay had been spread between the sacks and on top of that was a mass of yellow tinged silk, torn in several places, but undoubtedly an old parachute. It was somehow reassuring to see that the Luftwaffe had as many problems in keeping time expired canopies under lock and key as the RAF did. Parachute silk and shroud lines were becoming part of the currency of war, with every scrap utilised as comprehensively as a pig in a Chicago slaughterhouse. Some of the folds of this canopy had been thrown across the tops of the sacks. Sitting on them, side on to Henry's vantage point, was a naked man.
He was big framed, with tufts of black hair on his chest and shoulders. As was often the case the comparative hirsuteness of his body was matched by a scarcity on his head, a large patch of bare scalp being visible under the light, with the hair that was left around it mostly grey. What was less usual were the scars on the side of his neck and over his chest. It looked as if he'd been badly wounded at one time, no hair now growing where the flesh had been ripped open. At the moment his face showed only pleasure, which was not surprising under the circumstances. Kneeling in front of him were two young women who seemed to be taking it in turns to administer "La Pipe". Even Henry knew the French slang for that particular activity.
Both of the girls were still fully dressed. The nearest was a well built seventeen or eighteen old, short but strong looking, wearing a well tailored suit of grey flecked with blue, set off by a white blouse and a single brooch of silver and diamonds that glowed even in the dim light of the paraffin lamp. Her hair, jet black, was swept back and held in place by a leather strap and wooden pin. The face framed by the glossy hair was exceptionally good looking, though it still retained a hint of childish chubbiness, with a sulky pout around the full mouth. Her right hand was held out between the German's thighs, steadying his rigid cock as her companion ran her tongue over and around the top of it.
The other girl seemed taller and a little older, also wearing a smart suit, made of a dark blue material, the jacket cut in bolero style, the skirt pulled up far enough to let her kneel in front of the German and lean forward. Her hair was bobbed in tight curls around her ears and as raven wing dark as her companion's. She was wearing a blue and white sombrero hat with two notched white ribbons hanging from the back. Quite how the hat was staying in place while her head bobbed up and down so energetically was something of a mystery to Henry.
The man grunted an order and the mademoiselle in the saucy hat moved back a little to allow her partner to take her place. The face now revealed underneath the curled brim was perhaps more handsome than beautiful because of a rather too prominent nose but it seemed to indicate a strong personality. The impression that Henry got was of deep disgust at what she was being forced to do.
The younger girl was either more frightened of the consequences of not obeying or simply of a more sensual nature, because she seemed determined to swallow every centimetre of the swollen penis that she could, to the Hun's evident delight. It must have added a picaresque touch to his pleasure to have the girls perform on him while looking as if they had just stepped off Les Grand Boulevards. Then the German looked up from his lap as more newcomers crowded into the square. Three more men, all middle aged and all without their uniforms or any other kind of clothing, apart from wrist watches and boots. In between them was the last of the three younger emigre women, taller and heavier than the others, with a large bust and provocative hips, looking more like a meat and potatoes sort of girl than a skinny coffee and croissant type.
Unlike the other two her hair was golden red, cut straight across her forehead to hang loose to her shoulders and she was absolutely beautiful. There was no other way to describe the seemingly perfect symmetry of her face, although that would have been only a mask if it wasn't for the emotion in the brilliant blue of her eyes, the tautness of her carefully made up features. Not fear or shame, but savage anger. She was wearing a frock made of a floral material which looked as if it might have been heavy silk, with an eton collar, elbow length loose sleeves and a matching tie belt with an oversized knot at the front. Two blood red stones dangled from her ears inset in ostentatious earrings, a double string of the same stones around her neck. She also had a more unusual set of accessories, a pair of blued steel handcuffs which kept her wrists clasped together before her body.
The Germans forced her towards one side of the square and made her kneel on the sacks, leaning forward to rest her forearms on the bench of a chaff cutting machine. She was rewarded by having her breasts tweaked by two of the men, one standing on each side of her, whilst the other German lifted up the hem of the skirt and draped it over the small of her back. The red-head's legs were quite marvellous, at least from Henry's viewpoint. The enticing contours were enhanced by the two stocking seams which ran up from the heavy walking shoes to reach ever more interesting heights, before terminating in stocking tops held in place by a white suspender belt just visible underneath a pair of matching white briefs.
The man behind her laughed and picked up a thin cane. A single stroke which landed just below the elastic edges of the briefs made her yelp and squirm as the other two Huns apparently tightened their grip on her nipples, holding her in place. The scarred man sitting on the far side of the square chortled with glee, running his fingers deep into the hair of one of the girls attending him, simultaneously stretching his hand across the back of the other's neck to pull her towards him.
Oddly enough Henry felt more jealousy about the fact that the Germans were clearly keeping warm in the sheltered building than of the other pleasures they were enjoying: the way he felt at the moment he would have gladly traded off half a dozen females in return for a set of dry clothes and a seat by a roaring fire. Having seen all that he needed and reassured that the Jerries were likely to be distracted for some time he slowly lowered his legs back onto the ground. Reech and the Countess were waiting close by.
"Ask her if she's still got the keys to the Hispano, and whether there's any charge left in the battery?"
Reech whispered a translation. "She still has the keys, and, as far as she knows, there's no problem with the battery."
"OK, where's the main door to the barn?"
She showed it to them, two doors in fact, each five feet across, spanning an entrance wide enough for a horse and cart to pass through. Opening one of them quickly would need two strong men to deal with the weight resting on each set of sagging hinges. Although the doors were firmly closed there was no sign of any locks on them. Henry ran the blade of his fighting knife down between the middle of them, encountering no resistance. Ergo, no bar or bolts on the other side.
Having retreated back around the corner, Henry asked in a whisper: "Do the Huns ever use that entrance?"
"Is it locked or blocked in any way? Has she seen the farmer open it recently?
Reech answered carefully after the Countess had finished speaking. "One of the doors was opened yesterday, to bring in a sick cow. The doors aren't locked as far as she knows."
Satisfied, Henry issued his orders. Working as quietly as possible the Commandos took the sacks off the Hispano-Suiza and pushed the car out of the shed. A three point turn was made, Henry leaning through the side window to move the steering wheel as the other soldiers strained against the polished sides of the car. It was odd but even under the strained circumstances the same thought entered his head as it always did when he was near a car -- what would it be like to be able to afford to own one?
After some teeth gritting efforts in manoeuvring the tremendous weight of the machine its headlights were finally aligned on the centre of the right hand door and positioned six feet away from it.
Sacks were wrapped around the great silvery housings standing above the mudguards as Jennings slipped away to let Parrish know what was happening. When he returned he joined Reech in standing ready at the right hand door whilst the countess waited in the car. She turned on the ignition and showed Henry which was the light switch. When he flicked it two heavily shielded gleams appeared at the front of the car. He switched them off again, then pulled off the sacking covering the headlights. Then he made a last check with Reech.
"She understands what to do?"
"Yes, sir. She's to get her girls out of there as quickly as possible, and afterwards they're to hold the Loridons while we attend to the Jerries." Reech's voice dropped slightly. "Sir, I think there may be some very nasty work done if the Russians get their hands on that couple. They're fairly old, from what we could see of them during the day, and the Countess seems most bitter about them."
Henry shrugged. "If that was my worst problem, I'd be a happy man. Let's go." He waved the Countess forward.
The woman sidled close to the doors and began to call out in a pitiful whine as though she was in genuine agony. "Mes enfants . . . mes enfants. Mon Dieu!"
At the same time Reech and Jennings, on their knees, began to open the door in short, creaking movements. A head topped by long tousled dark hair appeared in the gap and the Countess, with surprising speed, grabbed the girl's arm and tugged it so violently that the younger woman fell forward, perhaps over one of the soldier's legs. "Merde!" The white body, still clutching a blanket to its front rolled over on the cobblestones, bare skin acquiring a patchy covering of mud and cow shit.
In the shrieks and confusion a second girl stood in the doorway, staring ahead in complete bewilderment. Then either Reech or Jennings, or both, seized her and threw her forward out of the way. She collided with the front of the Hispano Suiza, screeched in pain and doubled up, clutching one of her knees.
Henry saw and heard his men jerking the barn door open with all their strength. Then he depressed the headlight switch. The girl with the injured knee was between the car bonnet and the door, bending over, still wearing her little sombrero with the dangling ribbons and nothing else. She shrieked and jumped aside as the searchlight-like beams of the Hispano illuminated her bare derriere.
Inside the barn it was like a theatre door publicity photograph, every actor frozen into immobility, although certainly unlike any picture ever likely to be displayed in Leicester Square. Scar chest was sitting on the sacks on the far side of the square, still naked, holding a wine bottle in his hand. Directly in front of him was one of his comrades, head lifted up towards the light and eyes bulging. On either side of his chest was a well shaped female leg, the toes of the fashionable ladies' shoes now pointing outwards and upwards, with ankles and knees held widely apart by the other two Huns. Beyond that scene was a patch of bright colours on an advertising sign leaning up against a wall: 'DUBO, DUBON, DUBONNET'. Another splash of colour was the red hair hanging like a curtain beneath the upside down face of the girl being raped by the Huns. Her eyes suddenly opened and squinted at the silhouette against the headlights -- Henry thought that if his flat helmeted shape appeared odd to the Germans it must seem even stranger from her position.
On a sudden inspiration, Henry shouted "Achtung -- Feldgendarmerie!"
Dazzled, utterly bewildered, momentarily believing that they were indeed dealing with their own military police, the Germans instinctively stood to attention except for the one kneeling on top of the girl, whom had the problem of already standing to attention as it were. He was a plump sort of character and looked as if he was on the verge of an heart attack. Having managed to disentangle himself from the lady he coyly stayed on his knees behind the sacks, until Henry shoved the barrel of his carbine against his head. "Englander Kommando. On your feet, you shit!"
Henry had often heard some of his upper crust fellow officers use the old line from 'Punch' magazine about 'collapse of stout party'. This was the first time in his life when he'd really seen it happen. Fatso actually fainted and fell on top of the Russian red head. Probably a case of too much blood already being drained off to deal with the sudden shock.
"Jesus wept," Henry swore. "Jennings, get these other bastards lined up underneath the lamp. Reech, switch those bloody headlights off before somebody sees them and wonders what's going on."
He stepped over the sacks dragged out the girl from underneath the pile of blubber and pushed her off towards one of the darker corners. Parrish had appeared from behind the Germans, pistol clutched in his hand and looking eager for battle.
The headlights went off, leaving only the dim overhead light of the hurricane lamp. Scar chest snarled something that sounded like a threat. Henry reversed his carbine and whipped the steel butt plate into the man's face. The German went down in stages, onto his knees, then sideways, hands pressed against his mouth, before curling up and spitting out several teeth and assorted fragments. The other two Luftwaffe men stared at him in horror, then back towards Henry. One of them was the youngest, mid thirties probably, a skinny specimen, and the other was certainly in his forties, but small and well muscled, with a surprisingly well tanned skin. Not only was it a deep tan, it was an overall one.
Henry addressed them, uncaring of whether or not he was understood. "There seems to be an idea in your country that the rest of the world exists simply to be pushed around by Germans. It's not a theory I subscribe to. There's only one master race and you're not it. The next bastard who talks back to me is going to wish he'd kept his big mouth shut."
The woman he had picked up was back again, still handcuffed but with her crumpled silk dress now pulled back down over her legs. She stepped into the square behind Fatso, who had recovered enough to try to get up. Her shoe lashed out underneath his buttocks with venomous force, the tip of it landing directly on his dangling testicles. The Hun sucked in breath in one great gulp, then screamed as loudly as he could as he clutched his balls with both hands, pitching forward on his face. The noise he made wasn't very loud. The woman kicked him again, on the side the side of his head, tearing away part of his right ear. Her force and timing would have been a credit to Tommy Lawton at a cup final. It was obviously true what they said about red heads and their temper.
"Stop that," Henry ordered curtly. "I want somebody left in this bunch who can talk."
Reech dragged her away, still spitting fury. "Si les cons pouvaient voler, alors il serait le capitaine d'escadrille!"
"What was that she said?"
"Roughly translated, sir, it was to the effect that if cunts could fly, this one would be a squadron leader."
"Very poetical. Corporal Parrish, Reech, go and round up the people in the farmhouse. Take Jenning's carbine, Corporal, in case it's needed."
As the other two left, Henry saw a uniform jacket hanging from a hook on the wall. He took it down and stepped underneath the light to examine the shoulder tabs. "Three silver pips."
"Same as you, zur." Jenning said cheerfully, his eyes never leaving the Germans, Parrish's Colt now in his hand.
"Yeah, well, in this case it means the owner is a Stabsfeldwebel, a Staff Sergeant Major. Four bloody great eagles here on the collar tab -- more insignia than a British general, just for a pox doctor's clerk of a sergeant major. That's odd . . ."
Henry looked at the cloth badge woven onto the left forearm, six lightning bolts shooting out from a central star, then he examined the eagles again. "According to his speciality badge he's a master radioman, but the colour patch behind the eagles is light green, which means air traffic control. For a signaller it should be brown. I'd bet a month's pay that the bugger who owns this could tell us a lot about KGr 100's electronic tricks."
He held the jacket up against the backs of the two men -- it clearly fitted neither, and it was far too small to contain Fatso. Which only left Scar Chest. Henry kicked him in the ribs. "On your feet, Cinderella. The ball's over and you're the pumpkin."
He looked at the jacket again in the light. "Christ, an Iron Cross, second class. This guy's done some flying as well. He's got a Great War observer's badge." Henry snorted with laughter. "Bloody hell, it's got the Bavarian Crown on it instead of the Imperial one. This bastard was getting some service in when Richthofen was still playing with paper aeroplanes." Henry kicked him again, with enough force to make the man sob with pain. "You naughty old Grandad, you're too old . . . "
The sound of a shot came through the barn door, a deep and booming noise. "Hellfire and damnation! Watch 'em, Jennings."
Henry ran out into the yard, turning left towards the farmhouse, the back door standing open, the white paint on the interior panels showing clearly in the moonlight. A pistol shot cracked out somewhere on the far side of the building, then another, making different sounds from the first round fired. Disliking the idea of blindly entering the confined rooms Henry looked towards the high wall between the end of the barn and the end of the farmhouse. A couple of pigsties stood against it, handy for scraps from the kitchen. He jumped into one of the sties, kicked half a dozen grunting young porkers out of his way then clambered onto the roof of one of the ramshackle shelters. The moonlight was bright enough to make the water in the duck ponds glisten but there was no movement visible from his vantage position.
Henry swung his legs over the wall, hung from the top for a second, and then dropped down to the dirt road bordering the buildings. Even as he untangled the carbine from around his shoulders he saw a figure in a flowing white night dress appear on his right from the corner of the farmhouse and hobble rapidly towards the trees by the duck ponds. A scream of female rage followed the figure, the scream coming from a young woman wearing a sombrero hat and still otherwise naked, a meat cleaver held up over her head. Close on her heels was one of the soldiers, sprinting as he chased the girl. The apparition in the night dress stopped and turned around, lifting up a firearm of some kind which wavered around wildly.
Henry took aim as best he could in the indifferent light, settling the V and the notch on the ghostly figure. He hardly knew he'd fired until he felt the recoil against his shoulder and a thump like two hands smacking together. The nightdress was flat on the ground, knocked down like a cornstalk under the scythe. He ran forward to meet the girl and Reech, both already staring down at the farmer's wife. The .45 round had hit her a trifle low, but absolutely central, smashing a large piece of her spine and ripping the elderly woman's stomach open. Even the wind couldn't blow away the stench of the exposed guts. The only movement was the fluttering of a few stray locks of grey hair protruding from underneath an old fashioned nightcap.
"What happened, Reech?" Henry demanded to know angrily.
"These silly Russian bitches caught the old man in the house and started cutting him up with the kitchen cutlery. While Parrish and I were trying to stop them the old biddy pulled a shotgun out of the cupboard and shot Parrish in the back, then dashed outside. I had a couple of shots at her with the pistol, but never hit her. So then I thought I'd better get the carbine from Parrish but when I went back in it was jammed underneath him, covered in blood, and I couldn't get it out. So then I started chasing her again, with this bloodthirsty little bint having a good start on me."
"Christ, what a cock-up."
Henry picked up the old fashioned single barrelled shotgun with an exposed hammer. He opened it and took out the cartridge case inside. "Shit!" he said bitterly. "It's already been fired. She never reloaded it. She couldn't have got another shot off anyway. I killed her for nothing. The question is, has anybody heard the noise that's already been made?"
He looked around. There was no sign of life outside the farm, no lights, no shouts, simply the apparently empty countryside under the high moon and the dwindling clouds. "God, I hope nobody heard," he said fervently. "I'd better take a look at Parrish. Tell this mad bitch to fetch some sacks and weights from the yard to cover the body up, then to get back into the farm and stay there, unless she wants to meet the Gestapo in the morning."
The girl seemed to be subdued and frightened now. She turned and scurried away at Reech's command. Henry ran back to the farm buildings and re-entered the barn by the side door, passing the Germans' car. Three of them were standing in a line, the other one still kneeling down in the square and clutching himself in sobbing agony. Jennings was wisely keeping off to one side where he could cover all of them from the flank. Henry shouted the man's name as he approached the group, not wanting to risk another shooting incident.
"Everything under control?"
"Yes, zur. These baint going any place. But I think I've shit myself."
"Bloody old beast of a cow back there in a stall gave a fucking great bellow without I even knew the bastard thing was there. The Lord alone knows how I didn't shoot none of these fuckers. I'm alright now though."
"OK. Parrish has been shot by the old woman in the farmhouse. Pretty badly, I think. I've killed her. I'll be back in a minute. Reece, stay here with Jennings. Take the carbine. If any of this bunch even look sideways at you, kill one of them with it. The fat bastard would probably be happy to be put out of his misery."
Reece didn't smile and when Henry entered the farmhouse's kitchen he saw why. Shining his torch around he found it difficult to distinguish between the red hue of the lens and the copious amounts of blood spattered around. Monsieur Loridon had been a short man with a lot of extra weight on his body but the layers of fat had done little to stop the various knife thrusts and meat cleaver blows that had come his way in a concerted and deadly attack. His upper torso was lying across the table, arms underneath it with one knee jammed into a chair, giving an impression of prayer except for the head being turned sideways, white skull bone showing underneath ripped skin and flesh,
Parrish was sprawled on the ragged carpet in the front room, a paraffin lamp burning on the side-board, each red handed murderess tending the wounded soldier with strips of torn up sheet and feminine gentleness, trying to staunch the bleeding which continually soaked the makeshift bandages. As Henry stepped closer, Parrish opened his eyes, eyes set in a chalk white face, looked up at him, and said "Fuck it", very quietly. Then he closed his eyes again.
Henry shook his head sadly. It was the way with very badly wounded men. Isolated islands of desperation. No impassioned calls to any God, no crying for a mother. Just occasional muttered words of despair. It seemed to him that Parrish had only moments left to run. And if he, Captain fuckwit Winfield, had listened to Reech's warning then this would never have happened. Then again, if the German people had put Hitler into the lunatic asylum where he belonged nobody would have been hurt. The bitter truth was that you could only do your best and if it wasn't good enough it was God's fault for not making you smarter.
Anyway he could do no good here and it was his job to get the landing strip ready for the gliders. On the way out he took one more look at the farmer's remains and whispered softly: "The female of the species is always deadlier than the male." Rudyard's warning, it seemed, was especially true of Russian females.