Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 27

Peacetime in Hawaii

The Home of Captain R. E. L. Westmacott USN, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 3 PM, August 10, 1941

Despite her southern family's incorrigible habit of christening girls with family names, Stanhope Westmacott was decidedly female. At the present moment, as on many previous moments, she couldn't decide whether or not she liked Lt. Erich Stuhlenkamp of the Army Air Force.

As the wife of Captain Robert E. Lee Westmacott, chief of staff to the commandant of the 14th Naval District, Stanhope was used to entertaining officers, most often naval officers. On many posts the undeclared war between army and navy would have precluded more than the barest welcome for an army officer in a naval home.

In Hawaii, due in large part to the efforts of the army commander, Lt. General Short, army-navy relations were much more amicable than usual. It had thus been possible for Erich to meet Captain and Mrs. Westmacott, and their daughter Joan, at a party. Mrs. Westmacott had invited him to visit, albeit in a sufficiently vague way that she was surprised when he actually did turn up on her doorstep.

In the months since, Erich had often driven down from Wheeler Field in his sports car. He came sometimes when Captain Westmacott was present, often when he wasn't likely to be present, and sometimes, as now, when Joan was also present.

Erich was certainly different from the other young officers. Much more intelligent and well-read, he sometimes made Stanhope feel as if she were conducting a salon. Unlike so many of the other wives, she hadn't come from a military or naval family. She also hadn't realized what she was getting into until it was too late. Now, in her late forties, she took what diversions she could. Erich, of course, was a thoroughly respectable diversion. While he flattered, sometimes to the point of shamelessness, there hadn't been a single improper word, even when they had been alone. Mrs. West, as he called her, fancied that this reserve was due less to moral restraint than to the fact that she was almost old enough to be his mother.

What was so irritating and frustrating was that Erich made so few advances to Joan, a daughter who, if not married soon, probably wouldn't marry later. He obviously found mother more interesting than daughter, and, in the circumstances, Stanhope found this at best a bittersweet pleasure. Even now, Erich looked at Joan only often enough to be polite while he talked, as so often, about himself.

It would have been hard to make out that Joan was pretty, though no one thought her ugly. To her mother she looked fresh, vigorous, and cheerful. And, of course, she came from a good family. That should have been enough. One didn't have to be a beauty to marry.

Not only that, Stanhope was quite aware that, while there were some things that she hadn't been able to teach her daughter, Joan had certain other virtues, such as sincerity and consistency, in somewhat greater measure than her mother. Joan talked in a sensible matter-of-fact way, and a good college education had reinforced her native tendency to speak only when she knew what she was talking about. Unfortunately, the things she said didn't seem to be the ones Erich wanted to hear.

It did seem unfair to Stanhope that some of Joan's rather discerning remarks about local and world affairs went unheeded simply because there was no admixture of gossip, scandal, or literary allusion. At such times, Stanhope almost concluded that Erich was a pretentious bore. But, even at those times, she would quickly recall how much worse the unpretentious bores were.

By this time, Stanhope had discovered something else about Erich. He was basically and utterly obedient. If she told him to marry Joan, he might well do it. Unfortunately, even she didn't have the gall to utter such a command in so many words. But she sensed that she could blatantly throw Erich together with Joan in ways that might have infuriated other young men. Stanhope accordingly invented an appointment and rose. When Erich showed signs of wanting to accompany her part-way, she good-naturedly told him to stay for another cup of tea.

As she went to her car, Stanhope was concerned that she might be putting too much pressure on Joan. In one of their little late-night chats, when she had been trying to build up Joan's confidence with men, Joan had said to her,

"You assume that I have your charm and insight into people. But I don't. You have that unafraid open look that invites confidences, but I've been told that I have a defensive calculating look about the eyes. Where you advance gaily, knowing that you're welcome, I follow warily, wondering if I'm included in the invitation."

It was an extraordinary thing for a girl to say to her mother, and Stanhope had, of course, dismissed it as absurd. But now she wondered. Could there be some truth to it?

Left alone with Erich, apart from a maid who was serving, Joan set to work. Financially, it wasn't necessary that she marry. Her father, like so many southern officers, had money of his own. But it was unthinkable that she stay permanently attached to her parents' household.

The only alternative to marriage was what was called "a career." She had, in fact, worked for a publisher in New York the year after her graduation from Wellesley College. The work had been hard and not glamorous. That was to be expected at the beginning. However, if she were being apprenticed to a master craft, she thought she should at least be getting some instruction. Instead, she found herself being treated more and more as a secretary.

The women's magazines all said that career girls met lots of men. That was true. However, many of the men were irritable and demanding, and those who weren't seldom noticed Joan at all. She wound up spending most of her free time with some college friends who were also working in New York.

About six months into her stint in New York, Joan spent a memorable evening with her three best friends. They had started at a nice restaurant, had a little white wine, and then gone on to the apartment of Jill, Joan's oldest friend. They there had some more wine, red this time.

It was important that all four were similar in certain important respects. None were very pretty, and none were noticeably unattractive. All came from families in which money had never been a problem. None had been considered intellectuals, but all had done at least respectably in college. As a result of these similarities, they had, with minor variations, had the same experience in New York.

There had been some "beaux," as they called them, but the men were either not serious or married, or both. The decision not to have an affair with a married man had been virtually a group one. There had been temptations, both in general and in particular. It did seem that the married men who were available were, on the whole, much more interesting and attractive than the unmarried ones. After all, the best ones had already been taken. Moreover, the loss of "reputation," that great bogeyman of their youths, seemed less dangerous in New York. It wasn't a small place, and a prominently placed married man was likely to be extremely discreet. But, still, they had refrained. As one of their number put it, it would have been an admission of failure.

It was generally agreed that they were headed for a new kind of spinsterhood. It would be easier to disguise it in the excitement and turmoil of New York. One could avoid a certain measure of humiliation by pretending to have chosen a career over marriage. But who would that really fool? Particularly if one were only a glorified secretary, as one might well end up. Alternatively, one could paint one's face like a gypsy and dress in immodest and tasteless clothing. It was quite possible that some man, even a vaguely respectable one, would be caught. But no one wanted to do that.

It was Jill who had put her finger on the problem.

"Here in New York, we're throwing away our best asset, our families. No one knows who we are."

There had been a momentary hush, and then assent. The girls had the money and taste to dress well, but no one cared. Men might have been impressed by their backgrounds and connections if they had come close enough to find out about them, but they seldom did. Besides, none of the four came from the sort of frankly rich family which would make an impact in New York. Joan herself had added,

"As a daughter of the house, we can all command the kind of respect and attention we'll never have as single girls in New York."

They had stuck things out in the great city for a few more months, but, as soon as Jill returned to her home, the others quickly followed her example.

Joan now had the feeling that Erich was looking at her, almost for the first time. She, knowing that she looked better when her face wasn't fully exposed, walked to the tea table. She there stood in her new dress and pumps, her shoulder length brown hair concealing almost everything but the tip of her nose and her eyelashes. Since she had a decent figure, and was confident of her clothing, she stood fiddling with the tea as long as possible.

When she did move, she made a point of doing so proudly and gracefully, approaching Erich directly with a smile. Unfortunately, having been brought up mainly on naval bases, she had little of the rich South Carolina accent of her parents. She therefore emphasized the traces of that accent that she could produce without undue affectation, and spoke sparingly. Erich talked about himself, his career, and his flying. It took only sympathetic nods and noises to encourage him.

Joan noticed quickly that Erich made less effort with her than with her mother. He didn't ask questions, and his conversation became something of a monologue. Knowing that her mother wouldn't have permitted that, Joan broke in with her staple, talk about world affairs.

She supposed that an intelligent officer would want a wife who was also intelligent and well-informed. After all, if he should reach high rank, she'd have to fulfill a good many of the functions of a diplomat's wife. Erich reacted almost violently. He ridiculed the idea that they might soon be at war. He very nearly implied that Joan was a fool for believing in the possibility of a sudden Japanese attack.

Joan was puzzled and irritated. Then she remembered that Erich might well lie directly in the path of such an attack. His nerves could hardly be expected to be comfortable with that subject. She therefore tried some others. They failed too, but not so disastrously. It seemed, among other things, that Erich had a very short span of attention. He wanted serious subjects, apart from war, to be mentioned, but anything like a thorough discussion of anything bored him. Stanhope had apparently realized that from the beginning.

Joan, almost in desperation, now tried to emulate her. The only gossip she could think of concerned the impending divorce of a wealthy former classmate. Since Erich didn't know the people, it was pointless. However, Joan was at the end of her conversational tether.

Erich, who seemingly had been on the point of leaving, was delighted. He wanted to hear more. In fact, he seemed greedy for almost any tidbit concerning any wealthy person. Joan had known a good many. The next time she brought Erich tea, he looked at her in a much more appreciative way.

That evening, when Joan finally got her mother alone in her dressing room, there were many questions on both sides. Stanhope naturally wondered how things had gone. Joan replied,

"I'm not sure. He got positively angry when I mentioned the war and the possibility of our being drawn into it. I suppose that wasn't very tactful in front of someone in his position."

"It's not just that. Haven't you noticed that none of the men want us to talk about politics and world affairs? We're supposed to stick to things that don't matter."

"I guess I'm still used to New York. Anyway, things went better afterwards. He seems to enjoy gossip even about people he doesn't know."

Stanhope asked who those people were. When told, she nodded positively.

"He's almost pathetic at times. He's grown up around the fringes of a wealthy family. Like many such people, he has a truly desperate need to belong. He'll go around repeating the stories you gave him, and he'll let it be assumed that he knows the people involved."

Joan fell silent for a moment. In the many times that she had thought about being married, it had never occurred to her that a prime wifely function might consist in making it possible for her husband to drop names. It wasn't a terribly encouraging prospect, and, if repeated often, as she was sure it would be, it could lead to ridicule. On the other hand, it would be the sort of ridicule which would attach only to the husband. She could almost hear people saying, "Erich can be a bit of a fool at times, but Joan's very nice." There were worse things than that. She consequently asked her mother how Erich was regarded by the other officers.

It was one of Stanhope's many virtues that everyone told her everything about everyone. She remembered these remarks almost verbatim, and then catalogued them conveniently. She now responded,

"I'm having quite a time finding out. If he were a young naval officer, I'd know without having to ask. If he were ordinary army, I could find out easily enough from Colonel Bicknell. But Erich's in the army air force."

Stanhope paused, as if that in itself were an explanation. Seeing that it wasn't, she seated herself in front of her dressing table and continued,

"I forgot that you've been away so much. In Hawaii the usual unpleasantness between army and navy is eclipsed by a rather violent confrontation between the army air force and the rest of the army. Many of them don't even speak to each other, and most of the navy tends to side with the ground forces. So it's not easy to find out what Erich's peers and immediate superiors think of him. However, Colonel Bicknell is going to try to find out. Everyone talks to him."

"He's very nice. I wish he were a little younger or not married."

Stanhope laughed and answered,

"You're about the fiftieth woman I've heard say that. George is one of the smartest men on the island, but he's also one of the most relaxed and humorous. When General Herron left, he recommended to General Short that he make George his chief intelligence officer. Herron had a good eye for men, but Short doesn't. So Short appointed that silly man, Colonel Fielder, and made George his assistant. I'd mind if I were George, but he doesn't seem to."

Joan stood behind her mother, and helped her take the pins out of her hair. She asked casually,

"Does that leave Colonel Bicknell much to do?"

"Not a great deal. Apart from spying on the Japanese consulate, there isn't a great deal you can learn about Japanese intentions in Hawaii. You can find out more from the New York Times. George spends half his time trying to convince his superiors that the Japs might attack the fleet here. He spends the other half trying to improve relations with the air force."

"Why are they so bad? I've heard that General Short is rather pleasant and accommodating."

"He is, but he's also an infantryman. He thinks any air attack will be in support of an invasion. He assumes that our air force will lose its planes in the first assault. He then wants to use the air personnel, both pilots and mechanics, to defend a sector of the beach."

"I can't imagine Erich doing that."

"Well, Short had an exercise in May when they had to practice beach defense. And he insists that they keep on training for it. That means digging holes and things like that. You can't imagine how much they hate it. It doesn't seem so terrible to me. I dig holes when I garden."

"They probably interpret it as an attempt to turn pilots into foot soldiers."

"I don't think it is, at least on Short's part. He just wants to prepare for an emergency. Of course, that awful Colonel Phillips of his would have put it in the most tactless way to the air force. Anyhow, in the course of trying to defuse some of this, George will probably find out something about Erich."

The Home of Captain Westmacott, August 13, 4 PM.

When Lt. Colonel Bicknell entered a room, everyone noticed. It wasn't just that, at six foot four and two hundred and twenty pounds, he was invariably the largest person in the room. He had a way of standing, head slightly back, which suggested that, while aware of a joke or irony shared by all those present, he was trying not to be the first person to laugh.

One wouldn't have expected a man with this orientation toward the world to work very hard. Indeed, Colonel Bicknell seldom moved quickly, except on the tennis or squash courts. On the other hand, he was never really off duty. As he weaved his way effortlessly through the peculiar complex society of the islands, Bicknell left behind him a trail of solid accomplishments.

Alone among the intelligence officers, military, naval, and civilian, Colonel Bicknell knew what to expect from the large Japanese community. Some four years previously, when Colonel George S. Patton had been head of army intelligence in Hawaii, there had been a feeling that the Japanese- American community would rise in open revolt at the outbreak of war. Patton had conceived a plan to arrest some hundred leaders of the community in the middle of the night and hold them hostage against the behavior of the others.

Bicknell had managed to get that scheme shelved. He had argued that the only source of subversion was the Japanese consulate itself. While he didn't convince a great many people of this view, he was able to temper the general hysteria.

While almost the entire Japanese-American population was much more anti-Japanese than other Americans, the consulate, staffed by Japanese citizens, really was the spearhead of a network which reported on the movements of the American fleet and other armed forces. Colonel Bicknell was the only American fully capable of matching wits with the clever men who ran the consulate while drinking their champagne.

Bicknell had discovered to his chagrin, but not his surprise, that stupidity on his own side was more difficult to deal with than intelligence on the other. He could see what his opposite numbers in the Japanese consulate were up to, and he could often defeat them. On the other hand, relations between his own army and air force were bedevilled by suspicions so absurd that it was difficult to come to grips with them. It should have been sufficient to merely point out their existence. Unfortunately, it wasn't. The colonel sometimes felt as if he were arguing with people who had perfect confidence in the proposition that two plus two equals five.

However, even as he now discussed these problems, there was still playfulness in his tone. Relaxing his large frame in a chair and balancing a ridiculously diminutive tea cup in his bear's paw, he observed,

"One trouble is that we're dealing with two different ideologies. The army is sports crazy. The egos of most officers are bound up with their baseball teams or boxing teams. An enlisted man who's a good athlete is given every possible privilege. As you get toward the highest ranks, sports madness fades gradually into a fanaticism with infantry training, the digging of foxholes, and so on. However, it's still physical activity, and sports and training are seen to be consistent at all levels. The air force, on the other hand, despises any activity at all that's performed on the ground. They particularly don't want to dig holes."

Stanhope replied,

"It sounds like the distinction between pedestrians and equestrians in ancient Rome elevated a few thousand feet."

"Not quite. That was a social distinction, and this isn't in the same way. The air force isn't usually more patrician than the ground forces, often less so. It's a new kind of aristocracy founded on things like being up to date and being part of the future."

"You've explained something to me, at least as far as the ordinary kind of army officer is concerned. I've never understood why they don't seem to be bored with their lives, and why they so often have that gleam in their eyes. The next time I meet General Short, I'll just keep it in mind that he's frantic to get off by himself somewhere in order to dig a really satisfactory hole."

Knowing that the colonel couldn't take more than a passive role in making light of the officer commanding the Hawaiian army, Stanhope motioned to Joan and continued,

"We've been seeing a good deal of that young pilot I mentioned to you. He doesn't seem to want to dig holes. Have you ever heard him speak of sports, Joan?"

"I think he might possibly claim to be a tennis champion if pressed, but he'd always have an excuse if you tried to get him to play."

Bicknell laughed and placed his cup and saucer gingerly on the table as he replied,

"Lt. Stuhlenkamp seems to be rather an original. All I've discovered, really, is that the others have ambivalent feelings about him."

"He seems rather interested in Joan, so ...."

The latter broke in,

"I think his interest is largely in conversing with mother."

As Colonel Bicknell made the appropriate noises, Joan laughed, without bitterness, and replied,

"My situation is obviously a little awkward. If I were beautiful, I'd only need to decorate my parents' home until being stolen away by some dashing young officer. As it is, we have to be a little more active, and the services of an intelligence officer are appreciated."

Bicknell reacted strongly enough to rattle some tea into his saucer.

"That's crazy Joan. You're an attractive girl. I was noticing particularly just now as you were standing in front of the window. It's just that most of these young fools want something frilly and silly."

With an air of decision, Colonel Bicknell removed the lace covering from the arm of a chair. He then strode up to Joan and arranged it over her head as a mantilla. The ends hung down, really rather prettily, on her dress of cool blue silk. Regaining his seat as Joan and her mother laughed, he commanded.

"Now stand up, place your hands behind your neck, put a silly smile on your face, and spin around."

Joan smiled in a way she thought absurd. When she put her hands behind her head, her dress lifted, probably showing her knees and the lace at the hem of her slip. She then twisted gracefully in her high heels and took a few little steps. Aware of blushing with embarrassment, she was also enjoying herself. Her mother appeared to be awe-struck. The colonel chuckled quietly.

"You should know about these things, Stanhope. It really shouldn't be necessary for an officer in military intelligence to show you about them."

"I've never seen Joan look so pretty. It's extraordinary."

"No it isn't. She's good looking to begin with. It takes only the sorts of feminine wiles that you and she don't usually stoop to. Or even know about, apparently."

Joan replaced her mantilla on the chair and sat down with a sigh.

"I don't know how long I could keep that up, but I guess it works. You're sure I didn't just look like a fool."

Colonel Bicknell replied,

"Anyone who's successful with the opposite sex would look a bit like a fool if photographed at certain critical moments. Men only marry fools. Sometimes, as in the case of my wife and your mother, the women afterward turn out not to be fools."

Stanhope spoke deliberately,

"Joan does need some new clothes, ones that are suitable for her age, not mine. I also think that Erich is likely to appreciate her increasingly. It's certainly nice to have him drop in occasionally, but the question is whether one would want to have him on some more permanent basis."

The colonel replied,

"I don't really know since I haven't met him, but I did find out a little. His fellow pilots think he toadies up to superior officers. Does that sound possible?"

Joan and Stanhope agreed with one voice. Their informant continued,

"That's not always a damning description. If someone is a bit smarter than the others, and talks well, he's likely to get into conversations with senior officers. Then, if he's anything less than hail-fellow-well-met with his peers, he'll be resented. Stuhlenkamp is also supposed to be a poor flier, and everyone expected him to take the first ground job he was eligible for. To their surprise, he didn't."

Stanhope responded,

"That surprises me, too. I'm sure he's sensible enough to be afraid of being killed if there's a war."

She then looked at Joan, who said,

"He gets an awful lot of mileage out of being a pilot. And he has a very great need to have something to show off. He'll probably keep flying as long as its peacetime. The trouble is, once war breaks out, it'll look like cowardice if he tries to get out of it then."

Colonel Bicknell concluded,

"He doesn't sound like any fighter pilot I've ever known. Most of them are itching for combat. They're very self- confident and convinced that they're much too good to be shot down. They equate war with glory for themselves."

Stanhope shrugged,

"He may be miscast as a fighter pilot, but he might be a better husband than the others."

Joan smoothed her dress over her legs and spoke quietly.

"He won't do anyone any good if he gets killed in the first week of war."

August 18, 1941

The picnic had been organized by Mrs. Westmacott. In addition to her husband and Joan, there were Colonel and Mrs. Bicknell, and Lt. Erich Stuhlenkamp. The day was a standard Hawaiian one, beautiful by any other standards. The site was a little hidden cove, seemingly known only to Colonel Bicknell. Since it was sheltered from both the wind and the heavy surf, the atmosphere was less that of an ordinary picnic than of a garden party in a secluded part of a great estate. In consonance with that image, the gentlemen had on elegant casual clothes and the ladies dresses. One of the chauffeurs had set up the table and chairs, and the maids served the food.

Captain Westmacott and Colonel Bicknell were both far enough removed from the normal run of officers to be able to avoid service topics of conversation. The captain's interests ranged from sailboat racing and touring the pampas of Argentina to Charlie Chaplin's movie parody of Hitler and Mussollini. Colonel Bicknell found in each topic something amusing, but did so without making light of the whole subject.

The others fell into conversational line. It was, after all, a service group, no matter how hard it might try to appear otherwise. Captain Westmacott, as the senior officer, set the topics of conversation. Lt. Colonel Bicknell, in terms of army-navy translation a rank lower, amplified and extended the captain's comments. Lt. Stuhlenkamp, three ranks below the one and four, by conversion, below the other, spoke when spoken to.

Since it was a social occasion, the ladies had definite and fixed roles. Mrs. Westmacott was automatically the hostess, and her role was to make the others feel comfortable, particularly the most junior ranks. She could, and should, be personal in respects in which her husband must always be at least a little austere and distant. She was therefore the one to speak to Erich so that he, in turn, could comment on the Chaplin movie, which he had seen.

Mrs. Bicknell, as the middle-ranking wife, had a much less pressing obligation to provide aid and comfort to the junior ranks. Her special mission was to pay particular attention to the senior officer present, even to the extent of hanging on his words if that seemed necessary. In the case of Captain Westmacott, these extremes weren't required. Mrs. Bicknell could therefore enjoy a measure of conversational freedom.

These roles were so ingrained that all concerned played them out happily without any self-consciousness. It was only with Joan that there was some ambiguity. To the extent that she was paired with Erich, which she obviously was, her role was to pay attention to all her seniors and respond graciously, but not at great length, when addressed. However, as the daughter of the senior officer, she had a status comparable to that of Mrs. Bicknell, with whom she could converse as an equal. More important, she was supposed to be a bit of a mother's helper and do what she could to calm the nerves of any fidgeting junior officers. It was also allowable for her, in the latter role, but not the former one, to be the belle of the ball.

Joan was, in fact, dressed in a way that was unusual, even unprecedented, for her. She had on a full gypsy skirt, which would have been far beyond the means of any gypsy, and an elaborately embroidered little white blouse with a low scooped neck. She seemed, if not actually a gypsy, something rather more exotic than was ordinarily encountered on military or naval bases. To complete her outfit, she had a little string purse, a lace mantilla over her head, and sandals with the highest heels she had ever worn. In fact, to negotiate the grassy hillocks just above the beach, she required the arm of Lt. Stuhlenkamp. As if by calculation, her height, including her heels, was just a little less than his.

After dinner, there was talk of swimming. The original invitation had mentioned it, and there was a clump of bushes behind which those so inclined could don their bathing suits. Protocol now determined that Erich should go first. Assaults are led by gallant junior officers. Once Erich was in the water, Colonel Bicknell followed him. The middle-level commander advances to the forward position once it has been taken. The senior officer remains at the base to exercise command. It having now been demonstrated that the land and sea were clear of snakes and sharks respectively, it was time for the ladies. Mrs. Bicknell and Joan headed for the bushes together, and helped each other change.

Since there were military standards to be upheld, there was no screaming as toes were dipped into cool water. Even under her new regime, Joan didn't attempt any girlish silliness in the water, nor was it necessary for Erich to save her from drowning. There were, after all, certain limits. Stanhope noticed, however, that Joan looked very nice in the new bathing suit that had just been acquired. Moreover, there was a private, and, in its outward appearance, rather intimate conversation between Joan and Erich as they stood waist deep in the low waves. It wasn't lost on Stanhope that Erich rather unnecessarily caught Joan around the waist a couple of times to steady her.

After swimming, the drinks appeared. The party then became a good deal less formal and more convivial. Erich flirted with the good-looking Mrs. Bicknell, who responded to a degree. But he wasn't obnoxious, and he also paid much more attention to Joan than he ever had before.

It was rather late when the party got back to the Westmacott home. Erich returned to Wheeler Field while Captain Westmacott and Joan, who both had to get up early the next morning, made apologies and went to bed. Stanhope overcame the protests of the Bicknells and got them to stay for a last drink. The topic of conversation was, of course, Erich.

Muriel Bicknell was a tall dark woman. While entirely American, she looked as if she might have come from northern Italy. One might, at first, have supposed that she would have difficulty fitting in to military life. But, after seeing how easily she did, one might wonder if she had some special trick unknown to the others. She also seemed an entirely different type from her husband, and they did go separate ways to an unusual degree. On the other hand, their marriage, despite having produced no children, seemed stronger and more stable than most of the others. If there were strains, neither separately nor together did they give any hint of it. Muriel now spoke of Erich with a touch of disdain.

"He certainly is a sexy little man. Would Joan mind sharing her husband with other women? Perhaps even with male lovers."

Stanhope asked,

"Is it that obvious that he'd stray?"

"I'm sure it's partly an act. But, even so, I can't imagine him actually being faithful to any woman. He's attractive and engaging enough so that he'll have opportunities. Would he really refuse if the other woman is pretty and she makes her availability obvious?"

Mrs. Bicknell cocked her head a little on one side and looked questioningly from Stanhope to her husband. The latter said,

"I'm inclined to agree with Muriel. But, of course, service spouses aren't terribly faithful anyway. I think that, as your son-in-law, he'd be discreet. In a vague sort of way that I can't define I was rather impressed with Erich. Whether he's suitable for Joan I don't know, but he's much better than I had expected him to be."

Stanhope laughed,

"In a situation like this I always try to imagine what the person would be like over bacon and eggs in the morning. Would he be grumpy and hide behind a newspaper, or would he try to make conversation?"

Mrs. Bicknell replied immediately,

"He'd talk, I'm sure of it. No matter what he'd been up to the night before, he'd try to carry on as normal, probably overdoing it a bit. And then he'd try to get his wife to talk, so as to estimate how much she might guess as to the goings-on of the previous night."

Colonel Bicknell almost roared with amusement.

"There you go, Stanhope. By your definition he'd be a good husband, no matter what else he might have gotten up to."

Stanhope smiled gently.

"I didn't realize quite how clearly I'd revealed the superficiality of my values. However, it does begin to look as if it may be Erich or no one. He's intelligent and presentable. He can also be good company."

Colonel Bicknell demurred,

"I can't believe it's either Erich or no one. Joan was charming tonight. She looked terrific. Almost any man would want her."

"Thank you. She did look nice, mostly as a result of your suggestions the other day. But you're a man. You don't realize the extent to which all the decent men are taken. Muriel can tell you ..."

Stanhope waved toward Mrs. Bicknell, who enlightened her husband,

"There are, as you say, many men who'd want Joan. The great majority of them are, like yourself, married. Most of the others are unsuitable. We may be egalitarian to an extent, but Joan has to have someone who's reasonably well educated for a start. The trouble is that she has so few ways of meeting men who are truly eligible. College is the best place. Afterwards, the opportunities thin out very quickly. But, George, before we forget, tell Stanhope about your talk with General Davidson."

"Oh yes, I did almost forget. I've known Davidson for some time, and he's in command of the 14th Pursuit Wing, Erich's unit. He confirmed what I'd heard, that Erich's about as bad a flyer as you can be and still get where he is. He may, for example, be the worst pilot in the whole wing of some eighty strong."

Stanhope reacted with some dismay, but said nothing. Colonel Bickness then continued,

"Erich has been given, not one, but several chances for a ground job, including some fairly responsible ones. He's refused them all. He wants to stay in the air and be given command of a squadron. The only explanation seems to be that he's an honorable man. He's been trained to do a job, and he insists on doing it."

Stanhope now responded,

"It sounds as if Joan's right. He will be killed when war breaks out. Does he think there won't be a war?"

Colonel Bicknell shook his head.

"No one could think that. But it turns out that he'll be safe. His superiors are unwilling to let him fly in combat. He'd endanger others besides himself. As soon as war breaks out, he's going to be made a ground controller without the option to refuse. So everything will work out well."

Stanhope nodded and smiled as she lifted her glass.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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