“The last time I saw the old girl in such tip top condition was the day father gave her to me. It was the same day I enlisted, did you know? Yes, joining the service was very fashionable in those days. One thing that will never change I suppose.”
But Sir Averill, I’ve heard that the new planes are much more advanced. Would it not be prudent for you to fly one of them?”
The old knight gave Madam Belfort a fatherly glare.
“Nonsense,” he responded. “The Queen needs every plane in the air and able bodies pilots to fly them. Let the young fly their new toys I say. My girl shoots Germans just as well today as she did in ’18.”
“That’s enough about the war,” interjected Lady Collingwood. “All of London is buzzing about it. I won’t have such vulgarities at my party.”
“Apologies Lady,” Sir Averill answered with a bow. “We had begun in discussing the refurbishments to my plane. Manors do have a way of drowning in the seas of conversation.”
“In future try to stay afloat.”
“To float you need liquid and I’m afraid I’ve run dry. Excuse me.”
Sir Averill hated such parties ever since he was a boy. In truth he had never wanted to be anything except a soldier for as long as he could remember.
He joined his wife and daughter in speaking with a group of Navy men. As a rule, he didn’t trust the company of sailors. To his surprise, his nephew was among them.
“Curtis!” Sir Averill shouted, pulling his hand in for a vigorous shaking. “How’ve you been m’boy?”
“I’ve been well uncle. I was just catching up with Mary and Aunty Clara. And how’ve you been? You don’t look well. Have you been getting enough rest?”
“Not for twenty years but it does me well to see you, even if it is in Navy colors.”
Curtis smirked with confidence reserved for handsome young men.
“The Germans have boats to sink as well.”
“Good lad,” said Sir Averill, slapping his nephew on the back with a dull thud before downing the rest of his drink. “Come with me, I need to find a fountain. Damn thing keeps going dry.”
The soldiers crossed the ballroom, separated not by and inch but in their years. The knight refilled his nephews glass before his own. Sitting together, they watched as a windswept Navy youth asked Mary to dance.
“How are your parents?” Sir Averill asked.
“Mother’s still ill. Father’s here in London. I think he meant to surprise you. He’s reenlisting as well. He didn’t want you to show him up.”
“Is he? That scoundrel! Don’t tell him I told you this, but Charles was twice the pilot I was in the Great War. Never would have made it home without him. Maybe this time around I can return the favor, eh?”
“Can I tell you a secret uncle?”
“anything m’boy.”
“I’m scared. The boys, my crewmen that is, are all eager to get out there but I’ve been to the post uncle. I’ve seen the pile of telegrams.”
“Curtis.. I”
“What if one of those telegrams came for mother? What if she got two? Do you think her heart could take it? She isn’t well. I just, I don’t want to die. Is that so terrible?”
Sir Averill looked long at his nephew who seemed, for all the world, like a child dressed as a soldier.
“What should I do then?”
The old man swirled the dry red in his cup, watching the cyclone appear and settle.
All at once the ballroom felt rudely loud. He could feel heat on his cheeks and a vague numbness of the tongue but more than anything the march of blood drumming it’s way through his temples.
“There is a secret you know, to being a soldier.”
“What’s that?”
The band stopped playing. An abrupt silence was penetrated by the slow whine of the alarm.
Somewhere a glass shattered and the silence was ended in a cacophony of violence. The ground shook with the tremors of modern war and the civil elite turned to scared apes. Curtis was shouting something but Sir Averill couldn’t hear anything beyond the pounding of drums.
The boy shook him and the knight’s attention snapped back.
“What?” he asked.
“You need to get to the airfield. You need to help fight them off.”
The explosions were drawing nearer. The old man’s palms were trembling so violently the wine spilt everywhere.
“I can’t,” he murmured.
“I can’t,” he said again. The boy looked at him with hopeless pleading. Shame crept down Sir Averill’s spine and nested in his belly, wriggling like a fish. “I can’t until everyone here has gotten to safety.” The knight pulled himself up on shaky legs and raised his voice to a thunderous volume, his one true gift.
“Enough!” he shouted, drowning the Earth shaking bombs with his timbre. “Where’s the Lady Collingwood?”
“I’m here Sir,” answered a pained voice. Her gown was torn, which accommodated the limp she’d gained since their last exchange.
“Everyone follow the Lady in single file down to the cellar! The party will continue amongst the reserves! I know you’re thirsty but there will be no shoving else you’ll spend the evening with the Germans.
A murmur bubbled about the crowd but the one by one the followed the limping Lady down to the wine cellar.
The horn still blared even after the lords, soldiers and servants had safely made it below.
Sir Averill searched the entire estate, making sure he missed no one. The horn blared on. He went out to the street to make sure there were no stragglers. The horn blared on.
Sir Averill never did make it to the airfield. His brother died in the sky that night. The old man was awarded the medal of bravery.