by Winfred S. Jones, Jr.
When the plane started disintegrating I didn't have a very original comment. All I could say was, "Oh, Shit!" The flight had been uneventful until those last moments. The pre-op check was flawless and the plane had been handling well within its designed flight parameters. I had taken her down to the deck barely a hundred feet above the dark green canopy of the jungle to check out her terrain hugging features. At that low an altitude I knew that my base's radar had lost me and wouldn't pick me up again until I'd climbed several hundred feet higher, but that was a planned part of the flight plan. I was to maneuver the craft on my own for a while, pop up in some unexpected quarter and make a mad dash towards the radar site. In this manner we would test the stealth capabilities of the aircraft and, additionally, see if it could simulate knocking out the radar in what the Americans often referred to as a "Wild Weasel" attack. In practice, if the foe's anti-aircraft missile sites are taken out early, the slower and more vulnerable ground attack aircraft can follow to do their dirty work with relative impunity.
I had circled around to the left perhaps forty or fifty miles and was preparing to pop up for the radar run when I glimpsed something rising from a group of towering trees just before me. It was a huge bird, either an eagle or buzzard of some sort. I'm still not sure because events occurred so quickly. I attempted a vicious turn to the left but there simply wasn't enough time with the aircraft tearing along at over five hundred knots. The plane gave a tremendous shudder as the bird hit and was promptly sucked into the right intake. The engine must have torn itself apart immediately. The bird, I'm sure, was not any happier with this turn of events than I. The plane snap rolled even further to the left just as I was pulling the ejection handle and, instead of popping out up above the aircraft, I was propelled out sideways. The parachute opened barely enough that I only vaguely felt its braking action just a moment before I crashed into the top layer of tree limbs.
It was the instant prior to the ejection that I said, "Oh, Shit!" Rather forcefully, I'm afraid. I was informed that it was the last comment recorded on the "black box" when they finally fished it out from the crash site nearly three years later. I've also been told that this unimaginative expletive is the last comment recorded on the vast majority of recovered black boxes. So much for my originality quotient.
Both the aircraft and my tumbling form were swallowed up whole into the jungle. And, though by chance a number of search planes and helicopters flew directly over the site, there was no indication to be seen from the air that any craft had ever crashed. Since the aircraft was on its side when it hit, apparently the upper canopy of branches and leaves had been swept aside, only to spring back into place once it had passed through them like a knife on its edge. The massive destruction that happened on the lower levels was then completely concealed by the higher foliage. The natural wetness of the jungle and torrential rains that had come down later that afternoon coupled with the fact that the engine was dead before impact had effectively doused any fires that the crash might have caused. In my case, the parachute had only partially deployed and, as I plummeted through the maze of branches and leaves, the chute fluttered ribbon like along behind me and didn't catch on a branch sturdy enough to halt my fall until far below the upper canopy of the rainforest. Somewhere during that passage I lost the aircraft seat which had been ejected with me and, which I was told later, probably saved me from critical injuries as I tore madly through the web of limbs and branches.
I remember waking, God knows how much later, to find myself hanging in my harness some thirty feet above the jungle floor. My left arm and leg were broken. The thigh bone was sticking out rather dramatically from my flight suit, and several ribs were causing me agony with every breath. My helmet had a deep gash in it, also on the left side, and I had no idea of who the hell I was or how the hell I had gotten there. I was soaked and not all of it was water. Rain came down in torrents.
The harness creaked as I swung slowly back and forth in a ragged wind accompanied only by the sound of rain splashing off millions of leaves. And my groans. On the bright side the latter didn't last too long. Darkness reached for me again through a red haze of pain and it didn't miss.
The next time I woke I was on my back and, not surprisingly, there were branches and leaves above my head. Surprisingly they appeared to be woven together with small vines. I managed to turn my head a bit. There was a nearly nude man sitting next to me. His skin was very brown and much wrinkled. He had several bits of what appeared to be bones stuck through his cheeks and below his lower lip. He immediately blew a combination of smoke and some sort of ungodly smelling liquid spray over me.
"You don't look a thing like Emma." I said. "And your bedside manner is atrocious." Then I realized I couldn't remember who Emma was. But I was none the less sure that he didn't look a thing like her.
I tried to turn and realized that my left side was totally immobile. My left arm and leg were tightly bound between rough cut branches. Thick leaves were wound tightly around my chest. Something else seemed not quite right. I thought a moment and realized, with considerable wonder, that nothing was really hurting. I also realized that I was quite nude and, while I am normally rather modest, I found that I didn't care in this instance. I heard an odd croaking noise and the little man beside me held up a small cage that had, of all things, a bright yellow frog in it. He took a long, thin reed and scraped it from side to side across the frog's back. With great care he then ran the reed through a brownish mush that a second man, whose presence I had not noticed before, was holding in a large leaf. The mush was stirred up and applied to my left leg. I had been able to raise my head high enough to note a rather impressive gash that tore down the side of my thigh. I remembered that was where the bone had been sticking out. Blood was oozing unpleasantly from the wound. They carefully filled the gap with the mush. It felt like molten fire. Then it got hotter. I screamed. I'm sure most impressively. Then I fainted. That was probably not as impressive. The darkness of unconsciousness and I were getting to be far too chummy.
This cycle repeated itself for longer than I can rationally remember. The only differences were just where the mush was applied to my body and those times that I was given something to eat and to drink before the mush was applied. On the positive side, those torn areas that were being administered to seemed to be growing smaller and smaller at an impressive rate.
To shorten what is already too long a story, they healed me. Six months later when I finally began to hobble around the camp there was scarcely a scar left. Except, that is, for my mind. I could not remember who or what I was. There had been papers on me that the tribe had saved, but most were rotting and mildewed by the time I could read them and, even though I recognized many of the words, they didn't mean anything to me. I didn't know who "Peter Peel" was or what "RAF" meant beyond knowing that one was a "who" and the other a "what." When I could get about fairly well they took me to see the remains of the crash. Already vegetation was thickly encasing the broken aircraft, absorbing it into the rain forest. Parts of the wreckage seemed familiar and words like "elevator" and "fuselage" popped into my head. I knew what they were in a nebulous way but what I was seeing now, half buried in the vegetation, didn't "fit" my memories.
I stayed with my rescuers for a good two years. The first man I'd seen turned out to be their witch doctor, the second, his assistant. These two had warded off the spirits that they assured me had been trying to steal my soul. And they had healed me using a mixture liberally laced with one of the most virulent poisons known to man scraped off the little frog's back. Something mixed in the mush kept it from killing me while it was utterly destroying the germs in my wounds.
As I learned their language they kept asking me what one word was that they said I kept repeating while I was fading in and out of consciousness. "Eeemmmaa", they asked. What was "Eeemmmaa?" I couldn't hazard a guess beyond the fact that the sound of it made me hurt deeply inside with a pain much more intense than any brought on by the many applications of their healing mush. And yet, at the same time, there was an unmistakable feeling of warmth and belonging interwoven with the pain. It remained a mystery to me until the day my memory came back.
It happened nearly two and a half years after my crash. Physically I was completely healed. I had learned their language and was permitted to hunt with the other men and tried to generally make myself useful. The witch doctor had taken me in since he had saved my life. Technically, I was his responsibility now and had to stay close to him to keep the spirits that he had driven away from me from attacking him. A couple of elders had been eyeing me as a potential mate for their unwed daughters, so you could safely say they had pretty well accepted me. That I had found both the idea and the ladies of more than passing interest is, in itself, evidence of the extent of my physical recovery.
I still suffered from an occasional blinding headache and some deep aching in my left leg and arm that seemed to always portend a downpour within a matter of hours. It was assumed that some of the witch doctor's talents had rubbed off on me. I also still had dreams of the crash intermixed with visions of a beautiful, slender woman with auburn hair that invariably ended with my waking half the village in the middle of the night with my shouts. They accepted this with surprising good grace however as they felt that so long as I was fighting with the spirits in my dreams they would not have to meet them in their dreams.
Several of us had just returned from a successful boar hunt late one afternoon. I was carrying the boar's thighs over my shoulders as I remember. Someone, I think it was the witch doctor who had saved me, handed me a small package wrapped in a clear plastic covering. Another group of hunters had stumbled across the ejection seat deep in the rain forest and this small packet was still attached to it. I handed over the bloody meat, opened the plastic container and my memory flooded back in a rush that nearly blinded me. Inside was a photograph, saved from the elements by the container I had purchased for it so many years ago. The face smiled up at me. The auburn hair swept around her head like the sun's corona during a solar eclipse. Mrs. Emma Knight Peel. My wife. My love.
I had only thought I'd experienced pain before.
The return to civilization took several more difficult months that I don't need to go into detail about in this journal. Suffice it to say that when I finally rang up my old superior in the RAF he didn't believe it was Peter Peel on the line until I reminded him of an incident with a certain barmaid in Suffolk. After that things went very quickly indeed. Within a week I was secreted in a hospital in south London. They refused to let me contact Emma or anyone in my family until they had verified beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was who I claimed to be. Unsaid was that they also wanted to verify that I hadn't spent the last few years in "undesirable" company, giving the "other side" access to all the secret information I had about one of our newest aircraft. At the time I thought these were the only reasons why I was being held incommunicado, and I ranted and raved with futile fury at the incredible stupidity of the Official Secrets Act. I was told they had to completely debrief me since I had been gone for so long and that much about the aircraft I had been flying was still considered top secret. The untimely introduction of family, they hastened to assure me, would only extend the interrogation period. Utter nonsense of course. Later I found out the truth.
Someone contacted Emma for me - someone very, very high up. They didn't tell me how she reacted to the news. I only know that one morning some ten days after my secret return I woke and she was standing at the door leaning against the jam. Her arms were folded the way she always did when she was deep in thought, wrestling with some convoluted problem that she simply had to solve. She wasn't just looking at me. She was studying me.
My heart stopped. I had forgotten how incredibly beautiful she was. Her hair was a trifle longer, flipped up casually at the ends, glowing with the early morning light. She was wearing a mini-skirt that showed off her athletic yet totally feminine legs to perfection and a form-fitting jacket that few other women could have donned with such unconscious, feline grace.
I heard a voice croak, "Emma." And realized it was mine.
The noise seemed to shake her from her deep trance and she smiled. I would have killed for that smile. More, I would have gladly died for it.
"Peter," She whispered and my name had never sounded so ethereal.
She came to me, reached one arm over my body, leaned over, and kissed me ever so gently on the lips. The little frog's poison couldn't have burned through me more intensely. Passion I hadn't known for more than two years surged through my blood and I wanted her more than I'd ever wanted anything before in my life. I wanted her even more than I had on our wedding night. I wanted to feel the soft flow of her flesh, feel the heat of her skin, and bury myself in her moistness until I was no more. Until there was only the two of us joined in passion and love unspeakable.
As my arms went around her, she pulled back and looked at me with eyes full of more tenderness than I thought could exist. There were tears pooling in the corners. I thought they were for me and was immediately embarrassed at my base lust for her.
We talked, but I don't really remember all the details of what we said that morning. I was so incredibly overjoyed at just being in her presence again that I never realized the distance that was between us, even in those first hours.
She informed me that they were releasing me the following morning although the doctors wanted to run more tests on me to try to comprehend how my wounds had been so thoroughly healed in such primitive conditions.
The newspapers would be notified of my return that afternoon.
Casually she added that she had been working, unofficially, for the last two years, starting six months or so after my disappearance. The job was terribly "hush hush" and paid absolutely nothing, but she had found it quite stimulating. I was pleased, I told her, that she had found something to do to keep her from dwelling excessively on my disappearance and supposed death. That she might have assisted our beloved England in some small way made me doubly proud.
She had worked with a true English gentleman, she said, and talked to me at some length about the man named John Steed. There were many things he and I had in common I discovered. We both liked to wear smartly tailored clothes and found a brolly and bowler were indispensable accessories, particularly about town. He loved vintage cars, vintage wines, vintage champagne, and gourmet meals just as I did. He was some times impulsive, yet thoroughly dependable. In all, he sounded like just the sort of chap I would love to have over at the club, smoking cigars and sharing a stiff brandy with over a friendly game of poker. I could sense her warmness and admiration as she spoke of him and I was honestly glad that she had been in the care, if you will, of such a consummate gentleman, particularly as some of the adventures they had shared had not been without a measure of risk.
At any rate she wished to break the news of my return to him on the morrow. And she wanted to personally let him know that she would no longer be able to assist him in any of his investigations. Would I be so kind as to pick her up at his apartment? I agreed without a thought. She kissed me another gentle kiss goodbye and left. I convinced myself that, after being apart for so long, one more night wouldn't make that much difference. My desire for her was richer than ever and I made a vow to myself that I would love her with all the gentleness and patience I could possibly muster. It had been so long that I would best show the depth of my love for her by treating her as gently as if she were still virgin. The incredible passion could flower later, as we rediscovered each other's bodies.
Content, I slept the best sleep I'd had in nearly three years. I woke, eager with anticipation, and hoping she had slept half as well. She had left me one of my favorite suits with a matching overcoat, bowler, and brolly. She had taken the liberty of having them retailored to my now somewhat thinner form and they fit perfectly.
Happily, I strode out of the hospital after shaking hands all around and thanking the doctors and staff. The grand old car was parked just outside the exit and started immediately. It purred as I pulled away from the hospital. I found it was almost a sensual pleasure to be driving old Bessie again.
I found the correct street, 3 Stable Mews, I believe it was, and pulled briskly to the curb. After a few moments a stunning brunette with an unbelievable figure walked past and entered. "Lucky devil that Steed." I thought to myself. Only a few seconds later Emma appeared. I took the strained look on her face to be the natural regret over having to end a mutually beneficial relationship. I'd felt something akin, I thought, when I left the tribe that had rescued me. Anyhow, I jumped out, opened the door for her, closed it behind her, walked around and got back behind the wheel. As we pulled away I felt her hand on my shoulder. I glanced at her and she was looking back at the upstairs window with a smile on her face. Jolly good, I thought. Leaving with a smile and a wave.
She was quiet for the rest of the trip. I was wrapped in my own thoughts, mostly looking forward to the weeks and months that lay so gloriously ahead, and making a vow to myself to never leave her again. No matter how much I loved to fly or what they would offer to let me test, I would refuse. She was what mattered most in my life now. I would never hurt her again like I had these last few years. Glancing at her perfect profile I wondered that I had ever been able to leave her for a moment. What a colossal fool I had been!
It seemed to take forever to reach the cottage. We had decided to stay there rather than the manor house for an undetermined time. It would be more private (no servants and the like buzzing around) and we could take our time getting to know one another again without needless interruption. The gravel drive crunched delightfully under the tires and they slid slightly as I pulled up to the door.
Calm down, I instructed myself. Even though you feel like you're twenty-one again you don't have to act it! I couldn't help myself however. Just being alone with her was electric and I fairly tingled with excitement and anticipation of the hours ahead.
I don't recall much of that evening prior to our retiring. We unpacked. There was a small dinner that she insisted she prepare by herself. She could have fed me charcoal briquettes and I would have eaten them with gusto and probably asked for seconds. She asked me throughout the evening about my lost years and I babbled on for hours about everything that had happened after my plane struck the bird. It was so easy to talk with her. She seemed to listen intently to each word, only interrupting at the precise moment to ask the precise question that would send me off spewing details that I thought I had forgotten. I hadn't realized how late it was until I caught myself yawning.
She looked at me with concern. "You must be exhausted." She said. "Let's get you to bed."
I hadn't realized how tired I was. All the same memories of the perfection of her body were pouring through my mind as we mounted the stairs to the bedroom. She insisted that I utilize the bathroom first and I must admit that the shower cleared my head quite a bit to the point where I had to refrain from the impulse to ask her to join me. I stumbled out in my bathrobe, surprised at how sheepish I felt and gave her a little bow and flourish of my hand as she entered the still steamy bath. I couldn't help but note the way her body moved under the silk robe she had donned in my absence.
I tossed my bathrobe over a chair and slipped quite nude into the king-sized bed. The shower came on and I leaned back with my hands behind my head, shut my eyes and reveled in remembering how the water used to splash and flow over her exquisite body when we showered together before my accident.
The water shut off. I forced myself to remain patient. She deserved only the best from me. After nearly three lonely years apart we were almost strangers in spite of being legally husband and wife. I had sworn many times in this last week that the passion of our lovemaking on this first night would be hers to decide. Regardless of how desperately I wanted her I would be gentler, more patient, and more loving than I ever had in the past.
The door opened and I caught a brief view of her silhouette through the thin, silk robe she wore as she switched off the light. With only moonlight filtering through the single window in the room she walked, ghostlike, to the side of the bed. Her hands moved and, with incredible grace, she shrugged out of the robe. I could hear the sound of the silk slithering down her body. For a moment she stood with the moonlight poured like milk over her torso, her face still hidden in shadow. Then she slid into bed and under the covers beside me.
Her flesh was even more smooth and soft than I had remembered. I pulled her to me and caressed her slowly and gently. My hands rediscovered each curve, each smooth plain, while my nostrils drank in the scent of her hair and the soft apricot powder she had lightly applied to her body. My lips traced the curve of her shoulders then up her neck to her ear for a moment only to turn down the perfect line of her chin and up to finally find her mouth. In spite of my promises to myself, I rolled on top of her and took her. My blood burned with desire I hadn't realized I could have and I found myself with her thighs pinned beneath my arms and my manhood buried in her incredible warmth. Dimly I heard her gasp, I thought at the time with pleasure, as I pushed my hardness into her clutching depths. Then I was moaning her name and moving up and down inside her faster and faster until my entire body arched and shook in the throes of an orgasm more powerful than any I'd ever had.
Time lost all meaning and I only know that I found myself collapsed on her body trying to remember how to breathe. She was still curled beneath me. I released her and fell to one side, astonished in the aftermath at the intensity of my reactions.
"Emma," I said. "Forgive me my darling, forgive me. I didn't mean ."
Her hand reached over and her fingers touched my mouth.
"Shhh," she whispered. "It's all right. It's been so long for you it's all right."
At the time I believed her.
For some months more I believed her. She was very good at being believable. She was very good period. She went with me back to the hospital for several more visits. The staff approved my staying at the cottage and encouraged me to continue so for the foreseeable future. Emma comforted and stood by me and generally cared for me. In every imaginable way she was the perfect, loving wife. I should have been the most contented man on the earth. Even the RAF started sending out feelers about my possible interest in flying again, which I immediately refused. But ever so slowly I began to realize that something just wasn't right.
I'd wake up in the night and she would be standing by a window just staring out into the darkness. We'd be sitting in a restaurant and her face would go blank, her eyes looking far beyond me. We'd be driving through the countryside and she would become totally quiet, just staring out at the roadside as if remembering other trips along the same road. She'd smile at me and the smile would never reach her eyes. She was far more subdued than the Emma I remembered from the years before my crash, both in loving and in just living. It was as if the zest had gone out of her and she was play acting the role of dutiful wife. I found myself growing more and more uncomfortable around her as if I were intruding into her life rather than being a partner in it.
Cautiously I'd tried several times to draw out of her just what was behind her distance. She'd just smile that marvelous smile and pooh, pooh my concerns and be the perfect companion again for a week or so. But within a fortnight she'd be the subdued stranger again. I tried everything I could think of trying. Unexpected flowers. Impulsive trips to Paris or Rome with her. Earrings. Necklaces. Even poems of how much I loved her. There'd be the occasional tear in her eye and the warm hug and kiss, but no real depth of emotion from her other than an ephemeral sadness that she would try valiantly to hide. Try as I might, I could not reach her.
I spoke with the doctors on one of my many subsequent checkups about the psychological effects of such a prolonged separation on couples. They politely talked mumbo jumbo and tried to reassure me that time was all that was necessary to rebuild the relationship.
Time, however, seemed only to widen the distance between Emma and myself.
I finally decided that my best course of action was to find out more about how she had coped with my disappearance and presumed death. She had spent six months trying to find out more about my disappearance. She had traveled to South America and generally been a pest to several of those governments and to the British government as well. She had used her substantial funds and the not inconsiderable political pull of Knight Industries to further every possible attempt to find me. It was only with the greatest reluctance that she had, at last, reconciled herself that I was gone and that my body would probably never be found. I was touched, to say the least, by her determined and prolonged efforts on my behalf.
She had decided, naturally, not to play the role of the grieving wife, but had thrown herself into a wide variety of projects and work. She had indulged her love of painting and sculpture as well as heading up Knight Industries and doing the odd charity work. She took Kung Fu lessons, fencing lessons and generally got herself into the best shape, physically, of her life. In other words, knowing her as I did, she had tried everything possible to escape boredom, but without much success.
All that changed on the afternoon she picked up her new powder blue Lotus Elan and promptly ran it into the back of a stately green Bentley owned by one Mr. John Steed, Esq., who was employed (though I'm not sure that is the correct term to use in his case) for some shadowy government agency simply called "The Ministry". Somehow she had ended up assisting him in one of his investigations and she found the adventure and excitement irresistible. She had never formally joined "The Ministry" but, apparently, this Steed fellow had such influence with and such confidence from his superiors that they allowed him to utilize her talents in a purely amateur status.
I used my also not inconsiderable contacts via the RAF and was politely told that there was no information to be found about any such department as "The Ministry". And furthermore, I was equally politely notified that I was to immediately cease my inquiries about this non-existent branch of the government. The several-times-over top-secret clearance I had long been privy to was no where near high enough for me to be privy to the goings on of this shadowy department.
Since my discrete inquiries were firmly and absolutely rebuffed I decided early one November afternoon to go directly to the one person who could tell me the most about Emma's doings during the time I was missing. The day was chilled and cloudy when I told Emma that I would be gone to London for the afternoon on some minor business. I think she assumed I was going to do a bit of Christmas shopping as she bade me take care during the drive to London.
My memory actually served me well for once and I found my way to the apartment with relative ease. With bowler and brolly in hand I somewhat nervously pressed the doorbell. A tall, debonair, and very handsome man answered the door. His eyebrows rose for the briefest of moments then he smiled warmly and, to my surprise, greeted me by name.
"Mr. Peel! How delightful to see you! I do hope you've fully recovered from your harrowing experiences in the Amazonian jungles. Please come in!"
He was just as Emma had described him, the perfect gentleman in every way imaginable. He took my bowler, brolly, and overcoat as if we had been friends for years. The brolly he placed in a brass topped umbrella holder beside several remarkably similar umbrellas, all with beautifully crafted bamboo handles. The overcoat and bowler he placed on a rack that already held a couple of his overcoats along with perfectly matching bowlers. The thought briefly flitted through my mind as his elegantly clad form beckoned me to sit, that I must ask him the name of his tailor.
I took a seat on a rich, dark red, leather couch while he rounded us up a couple of quite excellent brandies. He dropped casually into a matching regency chair and politely asked how he might be of assistance to me. Somehow he managed to make me feel so at ease that I found myself opening up to him to a far greater degree than I had planned. He was as easy to talk with as Emma. He would lean forward rubbing the brandy snifter between his hands and listen intently; offering the odd comment or question that always seemed to come at just the appropriate time. Then he would sit back, take a healthy drink, and reflect a moment before responding to my queries.
The afternoon passed with surprising quickness perhaps aided somewhat by a second brandy. Oddly enough, I found myself envying this Steed fellow. He was cultured, refined, professional, obviously intelligent, sympathetic, and genuine while being quite off-handed about his own abilities. He had the knack of not telling me details in a way that neither offended nor condescended. He was effusive in his praise of my wife's abilities and her invaluable assistance but elusive, to say the least, about particulars. I could sense his deep respect and admiration for her, and his profound regret at losing her assistance. He was very, very believable. As much so as Emma. But, as the afternoon lengthened, I began to sense more.
Behind his politeness and charm there were immense depths that he hid very well indeed. His eyes were his only weakness. I noted how they lit up when he spoke of "Mrs. Peel", even though he always referred to her in that term, and never as "Emma". And there were a couple of brief moments when he seemed to have the same distance to him that I had come to recognize in Emma. He would look beyond me as if remembering some past event then force himself back to the present. He always tried to downplay those lapses and usually managed to change the subject in such a manner that I ended up talking instead of him. All in all, his handling of the situation would have been flawless had I not been so keenly aware of my wife's inner turmoil over the preceding long months. It enabled me to become aware of, to sense on an almost unconscious level, his equal inner turmoil.
By the end of the afternoon, when we were sitting in a shadowy twilight and the last sip of brandy was a warm memory, I felt I had my answer. Somehow I think I'd known for some time. I would never dream of broaching the subject to him. Both of us were far too much the gentlemen to speak what we had come to grips with over the course of the afternoon. Oddly enough there was no sinking feeling in my stomach. There was no feeling of betrayal either, simply because there had been no betrayal. I honestly felt fortunate as Steed ("Please call me 'Steed', not 'Mr. Steed'", he had asked) helped me on with my coat and handed both brolly and bowler to me. His handshake was firm and hinted at strength far beyond his appearance.
"Steed," I said as I left, "Thank you."
I meant it from the bottom of my heart.
He smiled and held my handshake a moment longer.
"Are you sure?" He asked with genuine concern in his voice.
I knew then that he had an idea of what I would have to do. And he was concerned about me. After our long talk and, with what Emma had told me of him, I had expected nothing less. He was remarkable.
"Yes, I am." I paused a moment. "Have a very merry Christmas, Steed. A very merry Christmas."
I turned and walked away from the better man.
One thing being a test pilot will give you is a strong sense of reality and a deep understanding of yourself, your abilities, and your limitations. I felt no rancor toward him. He was the better man. It was no fault of my own or manipulation on his part. It was simple reality. My wife had loved me. She had loved me deeply and honestly. She had not let me go easily. But she had finally done so. And she had found a more profound, a deeper love. All the little things I had not understood over the last six months suddenly were crystal clear. Strangely enough, I found that I loved her even more - so much, in fact, that I knew unquestionably what I must to do. I had to release her from vows that she had never broken, that she had fought so hard to maintain, that she had tried and would continue to try with all her might to honor.
I came home that evening and said nothing about my afternoon chat or my new understanding. She looked somewhat askance at my puttering about until I realized that I had, unconsciously, been whistling to myself. I smiled at her. I'm afraid that smile didn't help things a bit. She wasn't sure why I suddenly seemed a happier man. I thought she might be wondering if my head injuries were acting up.
The next morning from the privacy of the study, I rang up the RAF and requested that I be put back on flight status. They were elated to say the least. Then I made a couple of more calls to London.
Emma looked askance at me again as I gave her a warm kiss on the cheek accompanied by a hearty hug before dashing off to London once more two days later. I promised her to be back in time for lunch.
I made it with ten minutes to spare.
During lunch I fended off all her questions. After lunch I helped her with the dishes.
Finally in the kitchen she placed her hands on her hips and gave me that "I will have some answers from you!" look. I grinned and said, "After we're done here, my dear. After we're done here, all will be revealed."
"My dear Mrs. Peel," I said drying my hands as she followed me to the living room, "I wish to give you some early Christmas presents."
"Please -" I gestured in the general direction of the couch. She sat uneasily and looked every inch confused.
I reached into my trousers pocket, then removed and tossed her the set of keys to her old apartment. Getting that had taken some doing but had been worth every effort. The look on her face was impossible to describe.
"Peter what ?"
I smiled, walked over, leaned down, and kissed her. On the lips this time, not the cheek. A pure, warm, and loving kiss from my heart.
Then I looked her in the eye and said, "I know."
"You're starting to repeat yourself, my dear. This is the other present."
I took the papers I'd had drawn up that morning out from my jacket's inner pocket and handed them to her.
"All you'll need to do is sign at the highlighted spots. The official nonsense will take a few months, but, as of the moment you sign, you are a free woman."
She looked with astonishment at the divorce papers. Then she looked with absolute wonder at me.
I knelt on the floor beside her chair and took her hands.
"I had a long talk the other afternoon with someone who I think is a mutual friend of ours. In fact, I'm sure he's a mutual friend. I spoke with Steed."
Her eyes widened quite satisfactorily.
"He is, indeed, a perfect gentleman. All you said and more. He only spoke of you in the most respectful and genteel of terms. I can't fault you for loving him."
I raised my hand and put my fingers over her lips before she could protest.
"Shh. Don't try to deny it. I know you've always been and always would be faithful to me. But you cannot help it if, in your heart, you love him. It wasn't your fault, his fault, or my fault. It simply is. To deny it would be folly on all our parts. And to go on as we have the past months would be worse than folly."
Tears gathered quickly in her eyes. One spilled out and I gently wiped it away with my thumb.
"I love you." She whispered.
"I know," I replied. "And I will always love you."
She kissed me the first real kiss since my return, a kiss filled with her thanks not only for what I was giving her now, but for all the years before as well.
"Now," I smiled, noting that her face was suddenly blurry to my eyes. "Sign those papers and let's go pack you up. We'll have you moved in before the weekend is out."
She smiled that marvelous smile and it reached all the way to her wet eyes.
"By the way," I said as I rose and pulled her to her feet, "I'd bet a stable of polo ponies that he's never said it to you."
She looked at me with surprise.
"But, my dear, believe me. He loves you. With all his heart, he loves you."
I slept unbelievably well again that night even though I was quite alone in the bed. The real Mrs. Peel, I knew, was back. There would be no more of the heartbroken stranger staring out the window in the middle of the night. Also, my old commander had called. They had a new plane he wanted me to wring out after the New Year, though I made it clear that there would be no more flights over the Amazonian jungles for me. The days ahead would be full ones with new challenges to keep me happily occupied. And Christmas was just over the horizon as well. That it would be a real Christmas filled with real love I had no doubt of now.
I had also resolved to stop by and question Steed about the young woman I had seen going into his apartment half a year earlier. He was, indeed, one lucky chap. I felt he, at the very least, owed me her telephone number, since she would undoubtedly be available now. Besides, he had some marvelous brandy that begged to be used for another toast. And I knew exactly what that toast would be.
"To you, Steed. And to our Mrs. Peel."
© W.S. Jones, Jr.
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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