Chapter 17 : A better man
A Better Man
Through the half-open door of the officer’s quarters, Royal Air Force Captain Cameron Lackey was watching his former corporal with a new respect as he slept peacefully.
All the men of the barracks were enjoying their dinner, while outside the sun was slowly getting lower in the sky, bathing the stalag with golden light. Colonel Hogan had invited him to join them so he could build his strength up a bit before getting into the truck that would take him to the Underground. He had appreciated the invitation, knowing very well that the American’s sentiments towards him were far from friendly, but he didn’t feel up to sharing a meal with the men.
They were heroes. Prisoners of war who stayed here of their own accord, at the mercy of the Germans, to lead these interior sabotage operations and relay information of inestimable value along to London. They all risked their lives every day, every one of them. Peter Newkirk, the good-for-nothing, the child of the slums, was a hero. And Lackey had to admit that it put into question everything that he had ever believed thus far. He who so many times had walked so proudly, what was he really?
Not a hero; not like these men who were talking so happily around the table, not like Newkirk who had risked his life for a captain he hated. No, he himself was no hero.
The English captain gently probed the painful marks that still covered his face, proof of the corporal’s hatred. Of his anger, of his pain? Lackey didn’t know anymore. The colonel had told him what he was convinced was the truth. Newkirk had only wanted to protect the young officer Joshua Mason, and he had protected him in spite of the consequences. To learn that in spite of it all the kid had taken his own life had to have been a terrible shock, and Lackey had only now begun to understand that.
In the end, Newkirk had probably been the most faithful of his men, refusing to let any of his comrades down. No other member of his unit would have done the same for him. And that had pleased Lackey; he couldn’t deny it. He had let them beat him, day after day, until the cockney had been forced to leave…
If only he could turn back time. But the harm had been done.
Newkirk seemed to be coming out of his doze and Lackey wondered for a moment if he shouldn’t let the doctor, who was seated at the table with the other prisoners, know.
He entered the room, pushing the door closed behind him and advancing tentatively in the direction of the corporal who was starting to open his eyes. When Newkirk saw who was with him in the room, he couldn’t stop his muscles from tensing up and from backing away instinctively. That reaction, however fleeting, didn’t escape Lackey’s notice, and he thought for a moment that he should just turn around and go.
Troubled, he stayed in the middle of the room, a heavy silence hanging between the two men.
“Could I have a glass of water, Captain?” Newkirk eventually asked, all traces of concern gone from his voice.
The officer took up the carafe that was on Hogan’s desk and filled the glass which was on the bedside table, then held it out to the corporal.
Newkirk sat up, took the glass and swallowed the liquid as if he had the world’s most refined tea in his hands. His leg was really hurting, but his former instructor’s presence in the room intrigued him enough for him to forget about his injury for the moment.
Lackey waited for the pickpocket to put the glass down before asking him the burning question:
“Why did you lie to Colonel Hogan?”
“Lie?” Newkirk asked, not understanding.
He hardly remembered the last time he’d been awake, so he needed the captain to be a little more precise than that.
“Why didn’t you tell him I was the one who shot the general?”
Peter wondered for a moment if he had actually done that, and when the scene came back to his memory he winced at the stupidity of the question.
“What would that have changed?”
Surprised by the answer, Lackey remained motionless for a few seconds. What would that have changed? For Hogan or Newkirk, not much. But for him…
Hogan, who had probably been behind the door since Lackey had gone into his quarters, pushed it open to reveal his presence.
“Captain, it’s time to go.”
“All right. I’m coming.”
Lackey watched the corporal’s reaction. He was still proud in spite of the pain, and in his eyes burned a flame that neither captivity nor blows had ever been able to extinguish. And for the first time, Lackey saw Newkirk’s true value, everything he had been hiding behind his disillusioned attitude, his sleight of hand and his measured insubordination. For the first time, he felt the respect for the man that he should have accorded him all along.
And for the first time since he’d become an officer, Captain Lackey of the Royal Air Force stood at attention in front of one of his subordinates, saluting him as one would salute a superior officer. If the gesture surprised Hogan, it completely bowled over his poor corporal.
Confused, Newkirk didn’t quite know what to do, but as his captain wasn’t budging, he finally did what he was waiting for and returned his salute.
At that, the captain turned and left the room without looking back. Hogan couldn’t help but be concerned at Newkirk’s troubled expression. He didn’t understand the captain’s gesture, he didn’t understand how he merited such a show of respect; him, the good-for-nothing.
Hogan was going to have a long conversation with his corporal, because even though his physical wounds would heal, those in his heart were much deeper.
Two days later, the Gestapo had still not succeeded in getting their hands on a single Underground agent, and the major who had arrived with the reinforcements to join the search was beginning to get a little too interested in Klink. Fortunately, he had quickly come to the conclusion that such an imbecile could never have organized such a complicated thing as the death of a general and the destruction of such important documents. The Luftwaffe colonel did too much shaking in his boots as soon as he found himself in the presence of the death’s head insignia to ever dare defy the Gestapo.
The major would probably have turned next to the prisoners if he and his troops hadn’t been called back to Berlin to report to their superiors, which was a relief to poor Klink but also and most of all Hogan. He wouldn’t have wanted to have to explain Newkirk’s condition if the Gestapo had nosed around a bit too closely.
The fever had finally broken, but Newkirk was still too weak to get up, without even considering the wound on his leg which would likely keep him from walking for a while.
To avoid any suspicions from Klink, Hogan had asked him to lift the quarantine; the Englishman was no longer ‘contagious’. Becoming more cooperative after the departure of the Gestapo, the commandant hadn’t offered any argument and had even agreed that Newkirk should stay in bed until he was completely recovered. It fell to Schultz to ensure that the Englishman was still in the barracks and to report to Klink regarding the state of his recovery.
A job that perfectly suited the German sergeant. From the moment he had been assured by the prisoners that he wasn’t going to catch any fatal illness by being around the pickpocket, his visits had become longer and longer.
The health of the prisoners, and of certain ones in particular, concerned him almost as much as that of his own children. But more than anything, the longer he stayed, the more chances he had to sample the dishes that Lebeau prepared in the hopes of improving his friend’s appetite, because he wasn’t eating enough to be able to replace the blood that he’d lost.
“I made these just for you, you could at least have one,” Lebeau said indignantly while Newkirk once again refused what he had just prepared. “You won’t get your strength back by drinking tea,” the Frenchman grumbled. “Hey, Schultzie!”
The sergeant’s hand discreetly approaching the plate of small cakes hadn’t escaped him, and the cook pulled the plate away, moving it from his lap to under the night table that was on his left.
“You can always give them to Schultz.” Newkirk was beginning to get tired, and he really wasn’t in any mood to argue.
The German’s eyes lit up, but the look that came from the cook was firm.
“I hope you understand all the hard work I did to find the ingredients I needed for these things. If not to please an Englishman without any taste, believe me, I never would have mixed beef fat with flour and eggs…”
Lebeau grimaced at the memory of the preparation, which made Newkirk smile in spite of himself.
“Not things, Louis; Yorkshire puddings,” he said, exaggerating his own accent.
The Frenchman took advantage of his friend’s open mouth to promptly stick in one of the cakes… which Newkirk was then obliged to chew.
“Well?” Lebeau and Schultz both asked after a few seconds.
“It’s far from being as good as the ones I had back home,” he responded sarcastically.
The Frenchman’s face fell immediately, all traces of a smile evaporated. That had done it, he’d succeeded in hurting the cook’s feelings. And there was only one thing he could do about that:
“But I’d like another one.”
Another small cake appeared under his nose as if by magic and in spite of the fact that he really wasn’t hungry, Newkirk ate it without complaint under the little Frenchman’s satisfied gaze.
Once he’d finished the pudding, Lebeau didn’t insist that he have still another, seeing quite clearly that his friend had had enough trouble finishing the last one. He held the plate out to Schultz, who dug in with delight, as both amused prisoners watched. Apparently English food didn’t bother him in the least.
A bark too close by to have come from the kennel reached their ears, and Lebeau got to his feet immediately. He knew that bark. His certainty was confirmed when Jones opened the office door to let in a huge, almost entirely black German shepherd.
“He was in front of the door,” the Englishman said, as if that were really necessary.
“What is that dog doing here?” Schultz asked, getting to his feet and backing up against the wall when the dog, noticing his presence, started to growl and bare his teeth.
“It’s nothing, Wolfie, it’s only Schultz,” Lebeau said to reassure the German shepherd, on his knees and ruffling the dog’s ears.
The dog whined with contentment and happily licked at his face, his tail wagging back and forth.
“That’s a good dog! You waited for the Gestapo to go away before coming back home, right boy?”
“How did he get back into camp?”
Newkirk’s question earned him Wolfgang’s attention, and he jumped up on the bunk, nearly crushing the Englishman with all his weight to be in a better position to lick his face. The weight on his injured ribs wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but Newkirk let the dog have his way, enjoying the warmth of the rough tongue against his neck.
“Good dog. It looks like without you I wouldn’t be here. You’ve earned a reward,” the British corporal congratulated him, completely forgetting that Schultz was there, but, as always, he heard nothing and he saw nothing.
Newkirk was trying to pick up a cake, but his movements were a bit limited by the additional thirty kilos resting on his chest. Lebeau came to his aid, setting the plate on the ground, gesturing to the furry hero that it was all for him. One last lick for the Englishman and the dog relieved him of the weight, jumping to the ground to devour the delicious puddings under Schultz’s horrified gaze.
“It’s okay, Schultzie, I’ll make you some strudel as an apology.”
Strudel: the magic word. It was enough to make the guard forget the presence of an overly-friendly German shepherd in the barracks with the prisoners.
“I’ll be back this evening,” the German said, his eyes sparkling, as he edged along the wall to get out of the room without attracting the attention of the monster with such big teeth.
He passed Colonel Hogan on his way out and picked up his pace to be sure not to hear anything that he didn’t want to hear. An ignorant sergeant is a happy sergeant!
“What’s Wolfgang doing here?” the colonel asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer before sharing with his men the news he had just received from London. “Captain Lackey arrived safely and the British secret service has been able to contact most of the Underground agents who were on the Gestapo’s lists. They’ll be reworking the entire network in case the Gestapo still has any more evidence from the interrogations.”
“That’s great news, mon colonel!” Lebeau exclaimed.
Newkirk agreed, but said nothing. He apparently hadn’t quite finished with his demons, closing off as soon as the name of his former instructor was mentioned in his presence. Was he still afraid of a court martial? Because there was very little chance that Lackey would decide to report his attack, given everything that had happened in the interim.
“Lebeau, bring Wolf back to the kennel,” he told the corporal, not before giving a friendly caress to the dog, who, having finished his plate, was pushing gently on the colonel’s hand with his damp muzzle.
“Oui, mon colonel.”
Newkirk waited until the Frenchman had gone out the door, leading his canine companion along by the collar. He was no idiot, the colonel wanted to have a moment alone with him and that certainly wasn’t because he wanted to discuss the weather.
Once he had closed the door of his quarters, which also served to increase the Englishman’s mounting apprehension, Hogan came to sit down next to him.
“How’s the leg, Corporal?”
Newkirk hesitated. He was sure that the colonel wasn’t there to ask after his health; he had a barracks full of men who were keeping him up to date on that, at practically every minute of the day or night.
“It’ll be fine, as long as I don’t move around too much, colonel,” he replied anyway, with hesitation.
“Listen, Newkirk, I know that you don’t want to talk about it, but it’s for the best.”
And then, it didn’t take him very long…
“You shouldn’t feel responsible,” Hogan continued without being able to miss his corporal’s discomfort. “Not about the mission, and not about student officer Mason.”
Newkirk’s gaze grew dark, and Hogan thought for a moment that maybe he was about to tell him to mind his own business. Instead of that, the Englishman asked him:
“What is it that you think you know?”
Hogan looked him square in the eye, tolerating Newkirk’s cold gaze.
“Everything,” he responded.
The answer was an honest one, and Newkirk knew it.
“You can’t understand. All that’s in the past. And it’s my fault that Joshua finished up by killin’ himself; I should been able to stop him and save a life that was really worth saving.”
“Do you really think your life is worth less than someone else’s?”
Newkirk looked at him as if the question made no sense. Not only did he think it, he was convinced of it.
“Newkirk, even Captain Lackey finally realized your true value…”
The Englishman involuntarily bit down on his lip at the memory of that respectful salute that his captain had given him.
“I’m not sure I deserve it, guv’nor,” he murmured, his eyes fixed on his clasped hands.
How stubborn can you be? Hogan fumed inwardly, getting briefly to his feet to lightly tap the Englishman in the back of the head. Good God, how could he get it into that thick head that he wasn’t the cowardly nothing he thought he was? Newkirk looked at him with surprise, but said nothing.
“If Carter, Lebeau, Kinch or I were accused of a crime and all the evidence pointed to us, what would you do?” Hogan asked.
“I’d do anything I could to help you, guv’nor!” the Englishman stressed. “Even dig a tunnel underneath the prison with me fingernails!”
His reaction made Hogan smile. There, he had found his corporal again.
“You’d protect us without worrying about the evidence, like for young Mason.”
Newkirk nodded slowly, the mention of the young soldier’s name making him feel like someone had punched him right in the heart.
“Because we’re supposed to be a family, right?”
It was Hogan’s turn to nod and to add:
“Only everybody wouldn’t have done the same thing. Did the other men in your unit cover for you when Lackey accused you of that theft?”
He already knew the answer; Lackey had told him enough. Obviously, without a confession and without the money, no trial had been possible, and after his punishment Newkirk had been unwillingly returned to his unit. He knew that the captain had let his men come after Newkirk, already weakened by his incarceration, until he cracked and requested a transfer.
“I can’t really blame them,” Newkirk answered, unconsciously rubbing his chest at the memory of the blows, reliving the pain of the bruises that covered him.
“Newkirk,” Hogan said, seizing the corporal’s right hand to prevent him from hurting himself any further. “You would have protected any one of those men. You were more loyal than any of them could ever be, and yes, that makes you the better man.”
As Newkirk didn’t react, Hogan gently squeezed his shoulder and got to his feet, hoping that his words would find their way into the Englishman’s heart and that they would bring a little peace to his tormented soul.
Hogan, about to leave, turned around to listen.
“The hardest part wasn’t the box… or the beatings… I’ve survived a lot worse. No, the hardest thing was thinking I’d found my place, and then to realize that it was all a lie and that in the end, everyone is always alone.”
The Englishman had said it in a detached tone, almost cold, but Hogan knew that it had been due to the fact that it was so hard to get the words out. He had known Newkirk a long time and he knew that he dreaded solitude more than anything else, because if Man was a social animal, Newkirk certainly was the most social of all.
Paradoxically, it was to avoid finding himself alone that he had such fear of forming any ties.
He only had to think again of the time that he had arrived at the stalag and the first glimpse he’d had of the man who would become such a key member of his organization. A wolf in the fold, that was the first thing he had thought when he’d encountered that Englishman who seemed at first glance to be likely to cause him nothing but trouble.
It hadn’t taken him long to realize his mistake. Newkirk wasn’t a wolf in a fold, but a wolf in a cage, alone and terrified, that only a very few prisoners had been able to tame. Lebeau had been one of them, and it was in observing the strong friendship that existed between the only Frenchman in the camp and the pickpocket that Hogan had made his decision: he too would tame the wolf.
Hogan watched his corporal for a moment but said nothing about the Englishman’s confessions, contenting himself to remark before leaving the room:
“If you need anything, we’re all here.”
Newkirk smiled and settled under the covers. For the first time in days, he felt really good.
You’re not alone.
Comforted by that idea and by the faraway noise that was the life of the barracks, Newkirk soon fell asleep. He wasn’t afraid of anything. His family was watching over him.