Read Fallen Sparrow Online

Authors: Dorothy B. Hughes

Fallen Sparrow

The Fallen Sparrow
Dorothy B. Hughes


Eric Ambler

2nd Lieutenant, Royal Artillery,

somewhere in England,

because he has no book this year.












. There was the darkness. Beyond these boundaries there was nothing but sound.

His eyes had learned to see in the dark, this dark lifted from blindness only by the small iron grille, high in the wall, too high for fingertips to reach. His eyes could distinguish the marks his broken nails grooved in the earthen walls, the marks which told him the day but not the month or year. The long groove for Sunday, the day of church bells. That the war was over, he knew; church bells were rung again in Spain.

There was always sound.

The heat he could not overcome. It was a moist black sponge enveloping him. His quivering hands brushed at the dank swarm of it, tore it away from him, but it resettled persistently, a stolid unaware weight. There wasn’t enough water. A warm cup twice a day. Sometimes the weak tears dribbled his cheeks and the taste of wet grime and salt was lifegiving to his cracked lips. Sometimes he wasn’t asleep but his mind went away and he and Louie were splashing barefoot, two ragged boys with summer-shaven heads, in the blissful wake of a sprinkling truck on the New York streets. Sometimes his mind was clear and there was a greater thirst, for Barby, for the cool cleanness of Barby.

There was always sound.

He couldn’t stand it again. Not even to return to her. She was waiting for him; how long she’d waited now, he didn’t know. He could only tally days. She waited. She was cool and clean as a birch and her eyes were like rain. But he couldn’t stand it another time. He couldn’t. He’d have to tell. When that sound came again, he’d tell.

Let them win. They’d won anyway. He was too small to halt the juggernaut. He was too tired, too hot, too parched, his body too agonized, to dare any longer. Even the changeless truths that had sent him with gay heart and arrogant passion to join the International Brigade had gone in heat and dark and bestiality. He couldn’t defend these longer.

They wouldn’t drag him from this open grave again to vent their sadism. They wouldn’t fling his remnant into this underground tomb again, cajole it back to life with crusts and a warm tin of water, only to further their cruelties. He would tell them what they wanted to know.

After he told, he would die. They had no use for him when they obtained his secret; they’d kept the small flare of life in him only because he knew what they would know, and what no other man knew. Better never to drink cold water than to endure it again. Better death than to go through what they would repeat.

There was always sound. Somewhere a rusted creak, footsteps. Only the barefoot pad of the peasant guard. He waited listlessly. Once long ago when there was strength in him, he had tried to break through that iron door when the guard opened it. He lay quiet while the hinges creaked and the crusts, the water, were set on the floor. He waited warily. In darkness his ears had attained animal hearing. Something had fallen when the man stooped over, something that made no audible sound on the earth. He waited until there was no soft pad … pad … pad … receding into silence. He crawled without breath. His hands felt nervously over the ground, clutched on something. His fingers moved over it; it was too small to see in the dark. A pencil stub; he caressed the unbroken lead. He jerked back to the wall. They wouldn’t take it away from him. He’d bury it.

His fingers bled into the earth. Deep—not deep enough—deeper. His lips were crafty, pulling away from his teeth. They hadn’t found out about the piece of paper. It had blown in through the grille—how long ago?—days. It too was buried.

There would come a time. Perhaps through the other guard who exchanged
buenas noches
with him. If he could get word to Louie. He didn’t know where he was but there was a landing field near, and heat. And he knew where he’d been taken prisoner. Not more than a day’s journey away, Louie would surmount the unsurmountable. Louie would come for him. Louie didn’t care about the odds.

He would save the water. He didn’t need it now. He’d have cold water again. He gnawed without tasting. He’d go home again. To cleanness; to his mother and Geoffrey who thought him dead; to Barby waiting, to the remembered bravery of her eyes lifted to him, her words, “I don’t want you to go. But it is a fine thing, I know, and it is the right thing.” It had been right; it had been what his father would have done, not just sit and think about it, but get into action to help the oppressed. It had been more right to refuse to let them win even when he had been beaten to earth. They couldn’t win now. He’d never tell them. He could endure; he was going home.

His mouth was quiet. He didn’t move. He thought he’d heard them again—those wobbling steps! The heat was sudden grisly cold. Not so soon.
Oh God, not this soon!
His fingers fumbled the scar on the wall. It hadn’t been a week. He crouched, his ears lifted in listening.

He chewed. It was too soon for the man he’d never seen, only heard, to return. He listened. … It was too soon. He couldn’t stand it again this soon. They knew it. They didn’t want him to die. They didn’t dare let him die. The little man who gave orders to them would punish them if he died before he gave up the secret. Listen! The thump of his heart. The hiss of his breath.

He swallowed without chewing. Cautiously, as if someone in Berchtesgaden, countless miles away, were aware, he raised the acrid water. A thud—a minute silence—the slavering drag of a wasted foot. The cup fell from his nerveless hands; the water spilled, untasted, upon the ground. It was the Wobblefoot!

Quivering, he scuttled to the far corner, pressed frenziedly against the dirt wall. The deformed steps pounded against his eardrums. He thirsted. Remembering the wasted water he began to weep. He couldn’t endure it. He’d have to tell. But he couldn’t tell.

He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live.


the treadmill of windows and the grimy windows stared right back at him. They weren’t saying welcome, nor was he giving back any of that welcome stuff. It shouldn’t have been that way. He’d been so sick for New York every day and night of those five months on the God-forsaken ranch, his very muscles had ached. Now he was here and all he had to give it was a grimy look multiplied mirrorwise on the rear walls of brick tenement. It wasn’t the way he’d thought New York would welcome his return when he’d left it last September. But Louie wasn’t dead then.

In the tunnel. That was the way you came into the city of shining towers, through a tunnel. That was the way you ought to come into Manhattan. See the black heart before you were dazzled by the chromium-plated wings and turrets. He smooshed his nose against the cold Pullman pane. It felt good.

There was a moment when the lights failed, there in the narrow corridor where he stood to be first on the platform when the train pulled in. It didn’t often happen that way—tunnels weren’t any sport on efficient American trains—but this time it did. In that moment of dark, something little bumped against his sleeve, not very hard, and someone’s small husky voice murmured, “I beg your pardon.”

The dim orange came feebly to light then and Kit saw her hurrying into the Pullman, his Pullman. But she hadn’t had a berth in that car on the run in from Chicago. She hadn’t been in the diner or the bar or the lounge. If she had he’d have seen her, even feeling as he did. Probably some movie starlet with a snotty keep-out compartment. Even feeling as he did, he leaned backwards from the window now to see her rear view disappearing through his Pullman. He wasn’t interested. She had narrow hips under that black dress and her sheer legs were matched beauties. There was only one thing wrong with that picture. He leaned his head against the cold glass. She was a dame. And it was a dame that got Louie.

Louie didn’t leap or fall out of any hotel window. Not Louie. Someone pushed him. It had to be a dame. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be dead. He wouldn’t let any man get the jump on him. He was dead because he was a gentleman. He was a funny guy that way, a gentleman like in old-time books. That was why dames could take him and did take him. He wouldn’t hit back. There was a dame in it or Louie wouldn’t have been pushed out of a twelfth story window on to Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.

They were in with a little jerk. The porter passed him. Kit picked up the bag between his feet. He was right behind the navy coat and cap, first on the vestibule, first to step into the gray steam of the lower level. He held to his bag as if it had something besides dirty shirts and shaving tackle in it. He wasn’t having any wait for the red caps. The cold steamy air slapped his face. He breathed it in and liked its clammy bite. Coldness gave you starch. He’d felt better about things ever since he waked in the February blizzard of Chicago. He hadn’t been able to think on the damn ranch; summer in January was cloyingly false. That had been the trouble in Spain, too damn hot. He shut his teeth on Spain.

He had long legs and they took long strides. He was in a hurry now; he’d wasted five weeks as it was. That was how he happened to see the girl again. She went through the gate ahead of him. He wouldn’t have known her but he recognized the legs. They were as good as he’d thought. She had a sable coat now, the color of money, and a blob of sable on her head. He saw her legs and the sable and the cloudy black hair on her shoulders. He didn’t see her face. She wasn’t a big movie star; nobody was taking pictures of her. She didn’t have any red cap in tow either and the bag she carried didn’t look big enough to hold a nightgown. He wondered why she’d bumped him there in the dark; there’d been plenty of room for the porter to pass him later and the porter would have made three of her. If it was a pickup, she’d changed her mind quickly enough; or he was the wrong guy. A few years ago he might have played follow the leader but not today. He didn’t see her after he passed through the gate, and he moved his legs faster now, as if even wondering about a girl had delayed him.

He went through the main terminal like a football player through a weak line, without slowing speed and without being touched. Up the ramp and out to 42nd Street. He stood there only for a breath, catching the lights of New York and the even sharper cold air against him, and he moved again. Ignoring the terminal cabs he walked towards Madison to catch a familiar cruiser.

He said, “Seventeenth precinct headquarters.”

The cabbie clinked the meter and eyed him with some doubt. That was Geoffrey’s tailor, Geoffrey’s college, Geoffrey’s clubs. He didn’t resemble a policeman’s son any more. He didn’t even resemble the son of a policeman who’d made the grade of Tammany tycoon.

He pushed open the doors at 163 East 51st and he stood there, his feet spraddled, his chin hard. He asked, “Where’s Tobin?”

The cop at the desk eyed him as if he were kind of crazy. He was, at the moment, but the cop shouldn’t have known it. He asked back, “Who?”

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