Pride and Prejudice
(for the short story speedwriting challenge)
"'They were waiting for him to come out'? 'A whisper of snow touched the cold window'? Kommandant, you got to be kidding! Why can't we make up our own opening lines?"
Klink leaned back in his chair. "Colonel Hogan, may I remind you that you are a prisoner here? Now you come to me to ask permission for a story writing contest, and I granted you that permission. I am well aware that with the current weather, the prisoners get restless. Why, this past week alone I've had to put no less than twenty-six prisoners in the cooler for fighting."
Hogan sighed. "It's that blasted rain. Being confined to these cramped barracks for nearly two weeks now is getting on the men's nerves. I'm sure it'll pass as soon as the weather gets back to normal and the men can be outside again."
"I'm sure. But the meteorological report is not promising. More rainstorms on the way." Klink heaved a private sigh. The rain lashing at the windows 24/7 was beginning to get on his nerves, too. "So I give you permission to have this story writing contest in order to divert the prisoners' thoughts. But I am the Kommandant here, and especially since you asked me to be the judge, I will be the one to set the rules. And rule number one is: the stories have to start with one of these lines. Is that clear?"
Hogan spluttered. "Yeah, but... Kommandant, have you actually looked at these lines? They aren't going to do much good diverting the men's thoughts! I mean, 'He was sitting on his bunk polishing his combat boots, wondering if he hadn't made a mistake when he passed up the chance for an exemption.' Lines like that are only going to get them gloomier!"
"These lines happen to be the opening lines of some great literary works," Klink announced pompously. "I must say I'm surprised you don't recognize them."
Hogan snorted. "Even if I could read German, do you really think I'd bother to read your lousy literature?"
"The works of the greatest German literators have all been translated to English." Only his raised eyebrow showed that the Kommandant was indeed affronted by Hogan's disdain for his country's literary heritage. "But for your information: the lines I have given you for the contest happen to come from English and American classics."
Hogan grinned. "No wonder I hate classic literature so much. Personally, I prefer pulp novels, with lots of girls and lots of action."
"I can't say I'm surprised." Klink placed his fingertips together in an almost aristocratic manner. "However, such stories are not likely to calm down the prisoners and prevent further fighting. Rather the opposite, I suspect. Therefore, I intend to give them something more... substantial to brood on for a few days."
"In a literary story writing contest." Hogan's face contorted in disgust as he glanced at the eligible opening lines again. "But really, Kommandant, these opening lines are a disaster! Listen to this. 'In the hall he put down his suitcase.' Utterly boring. Or this one. 'They caught him after he had killed the second man.' Now that last one might catch the men's interest, were it not that it's already a given that the guy is going to get caught! What fun is writing a story – or reading a story – if you already know how it's going to end?"
Klink raised an eyebrow. "Colonel Hogan, what good would it do to have a contest that has the men scribbling away for half an hour, and then it's back to business as usual? Let them brood on it, use their imagination. If we make this too easy, the actual purpose of diverting their thoughts will never be achieved."
Hogan sighed. He knew he was outmanoeuvered. What was it with Klink today that he was so logical, so cunning? Better give it one last try to make this scheme a bit easier on his men. "Alright, alright. But I would appreciate it on behalf of my men if you'd give us one free entry – on the provision that the line comes from a classical literary piece of course." Surely Newkirk would be able to come up with some hilarious Shakespearean quote. Anything was better than this drab.
But, "Denied," the Kommandant said flatly. "We do it my way, or there is not going to be a story writing contest at all."
Hogan put the list of opening lines in his pocket and turned to go – only to suddenly face the Kommandant again. "But if this is to be a contest, there ought to be prizes." The familiar gleam appeared in his eye. "How about your umbrella? It would be nice for the winner not to get soaked at every roll call anymore."
Klink snatched up his black umbrella and cradled it to his chest. "Never!" he gasped.
"How about an extra hour of electricity in the barracks then?"
"Two extra slices of white bread for a month?"
"For a week. And only for the winner."
"That's too harsh. Three winners then."
"Alright. The three winners will get two extra slices of white bread for a week. And I want to see the entries no later than Friday. Now get out of here, Colonel Hogan. I've got work to do. Dismissed!"
"Aye sir!" Hogan gave him one of his sloppier salutes and headed for the door. Only to turn back to his jailor once more. "Kommandant?"
Klink looked up from his eternal paperwork. "Yes, Colonel Hogan, what is it now?"
"Could you perhaps spare some paper for the contest? We don't have anything to write on."
Klink threw up his arms. "By all means! Fräulein Hilda!" he raised his voice.
The door behind Hogan opened, and Hogan flashed the Kommandant's pretty secretary a winning smile.
"Jawohl, Herr Kommandant?"
"Get Colonel Hogan all the paper he needs. And then make sure no one is to disturb me anymore today. Is that clear?"
"Jawohl, Herr Kommandant."
"Now get out of here both of you and let me get on with this paperwork. And if anyone comes to see me, tell them to come back tomorrow."
Hogan grinned. "Even General Burkhalter?"
"Yes, even General Burkha... No, not General Burkhalter. Of course not General Burkhalter! I mean..." The closed door shut out the rest of Klink's confused rant.
The door of barracks 2 already opened ajar as Hogan came zigzagging back to avoid the worst of the mudbath more commonly known as the compound. He had draped his jacket over something big he was carrying in both hands, and in his bare shirt the torrential rain had him soaked to the bone even in the mere twenty seconds it took to get from the Kommandantur to the barracks. He was quickly pulled inside, and the men happily took his load from him.
"Good work, Colonel," Kinch said as he pulled back the sopping wet jacket and fingered the stack of paper underneath. "Just the kind of paper we need."
Hogan shook himself like a poodle – the drops went flying everywhere, and the men couldn't back off quickly enough to avoid getting wet again today.
"Right," Hogan said as he gratefully accepted the towel LeBeau handed him. "Now get that stuff downstairs and get the boys printing on the double!"
"I still can't believe they did this to us," Carter pouted. "Who do they think they are to call in all existing banknotes, and issuing new ones?"
"Because they're bloody Germans, that's why." Newkirk took another puff at his cigarette.
Hogan began to pull off his wet shirt. "Well, it doesn't matter now. We'll burn the old money in the stove for some heat, and now that we got paper, we can print up millions of marks in a few days' time. Only – there's one catch."
The men looked up; Kinch raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"We're going to have to have a story writing contest this week. That's how I convinced Klink to give us the paper. Unfortunately..." He pulled the hated paper with the given opening lines from his pocket. "Unfortunately, our beloved Kommandant insists that we begin our stories with one of these lines."
Newkirk took the paper from his hands, and he and Carter skimmed through its contents. "Bloody hell – these are terrible!" he muttered.
Hogan chuckled. "My idea. But according to Klink, these are the opening lines of some of the greatest literary works in American and English history."
"Well, it certainly ain't Shakespeare." Newkirk shook his head. "Why couldn't he include something more promising, like the good old 'It was a dark and stormy night'?"
"Yeah!" Carter's eyes instantly gleamed. "Then you could have a robbery! Or a haunted house, with vampires! Or some thrilling adventure at sea, with pirates – and a hidden treasure!"
"Or a lovely girl in your arms in a secret hiding place." LeBeau closed his eyes at the heavenly thought. "Now that would be some story..."
"Exactly." Hogan took back the offending paper, opened the door and dropped it in the giant puddle they had had to jump for the past two weeks every time they entered or exited the barracks. "Oh! Look what happened! The storm blew it out of my hands!"
The men snickered; Carter looked confused. "But, Colonel...?"
Hogan fished up the dripping wet paper and wrung it out as if it were a piece of laundry. "Let's hope we can save this precious piece of paper." He put the blob of paper on the table and started smoothing it out. It only ripped at every touch.
"Ah..." Hogan sadly shook his head. "I'm afraid we can't make heads or tails from this anymore."
LeBeau grinned. "So no story writing contest."
"Wrong. How else are we going to explain to Klink what we did with all this paper?" Hogan finally finished buttoning his dry shirt, and ordered, "Everyone grab a pen or pencil and one sheet of paper. Garlotti, you take the rest down to the printing room and you guys start printing that money on the double. We need 100,000 marks in the new currency by tomorrow evening!"
"But what are we going to write about now?" Carter asked.
Hogan took Newkirk's shoulder in a friendly grasp. "Seeing that the Kommandant insists on having our opening line taken from a classical literary work, I'm sure our resident Brit here will be able to oblige us."
Newkirk grinned from ear to ear. "I'd be honoured to acquaint you barbarian Yanks with some of the more memorable lines in history. After all, who else but the British invented the art of literature?"
LeBeau bristled. "How about the French, huh? France has produced some of the most magnifique treasures of literature, too!"
Newkirk sniffed with disdain. "Pitiful upstart critters – the lot of them."
LeBeau jumped to his feet, but Kinch's calm voice admonished him to cool it. "It's not worth fighting over, Louis. Every country has its masterful authors. We just are so seldom truly acquainted with the ones who write in another language than our own."
LeBeau sat down again, muttering, with a heated glower in Newkirk's direction. "And they fancy themselves the 'inventors of literature', just because they once had this one famous playwright..."
Newkirk smirked. "Not just one – a whole lot of others, too. As a matter of fact, I think I've got just the opening line to set off anyone's imagination."
Carter looked up. "Shakespeare? Mind you, I never was very good at that weird English of his."
"No, no, not Shakespeare. Didn't I just say that we Brits have more to be proud of than just Shakespeare? No, this is another one. From an absolutely classic piece of good English literature."
"Let's have it then." Hogan sat down and picked up a pencil, too.
"Alright. Pencils at the ready?" Newkirk bent closer over the table. "Here it comes..."
Hogan didn't even look up from the chessboard. "What is it, Schultz?"
Schultz came all the way in now. "Colonel Hogan, Kommandant Klink wants to see you in his office. You and der Engländer."
Newkirk did look up from his cardgame. "Me, Schultz? What did I do?"
"I do not know, Newkirk. But please come with me right away. The Kommandant looks very angry."
Newkirk and Hogan exchanged a glance, shrugged simultaneously, and went to get their jackets from where they hung to dry by the stove. But once they stepped outside...
"Hey, look at that!" Newkirk stretched out his hand. "It's stopped raining!"
Of course, he promptly got an icy drop in his neck, courtesy from the still dripping roof. But at least it was an improvement compared to getting thoroughly soaked the moment you set foot outdoors.
They followed Schultz in the now familiar "marginally less muddy" zigzag route to the Kommandant's office, with Schultz happily prattling on about a little patch of blue he saw this morning. "Perhaps finally these terrible rainfronts will be past. Oh, how I long for a bit of sunshine... It is not good to be cooped up inside for so long. Humans need sunlight – just as badly as they need food."
A moment later they were ushered into Klink's office, with Klink looking up from a pile of scruffy papers that Hogan easily recognized as the entries in the story writing contest.
"Yes, Kommandant? Have you picked the winners?"
"Certainly not!" Klink slammed his fist on the pile of paper. "Colonel Hogan, I distinctly recall giving you seven worthy opening lines from which you and your men were to choose to start their story with. And what do I get? Not one of these stories begins with the classical lines I chose for you – not one!"
"Well, you see, Kommandant..." Hogan turned his crush cap over and over in his hands, as if he were a nervous student who had been caught smoking in the lavatories. "When I walked back from your office to the barracks that day, with the pile of paper Hilda had given me, the wind blew this paper out of my hands, and it landed in a muddy puddle. We tried to save it of course, but the ink got all smudged, and we couldn't make heads or tails of those lines anymore."
"You could have come back to ask for a new list," Klink suggested, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"No, Kommandant, I could not. You had given strict orders not to be disturbed anymore, remember? So we solved the problem ourselves."
"Yes, so I noticed." Klink picked up one of the papers with disgust. "By picking the opening line of some sentimental Mills & Boon novel..."
Newkirk straightened in defiance. "Begging your pardon, Kommandant, but this happens to be the opening line of one of the most famous works of literature England has ever produced!"
Klink wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Yes, I thought it was you. Well, I suppose there is no point in arguing about a country's taste. But I assure you, in Germany, such romantic drooling would not be considered literature."
Hogan's face lit up. "So you actually read it yourself, too? How else would you know enough about it to pass such judgement? Kommandant, I'm impressed!"
"Of course I did not read it," Klink huffed. "Our teachers know the difference between art and trash."
"Well, then perhaps you should read it." Hogan placed a calming hand on Newkirk's arm. "You know, you could learn a lot from that story. It's all about different techniques on how to repel the woman you really don't want to marry. Might come in handy the next time Frau Linkmeyer is on the hunt again, eh?"
Klink instantly cowered away in the corner. "Frau Linkmeyer? Have you heard something? Is she coming?"
A grin from Hogan. "Well, you never know, do you? Better make sure you finish judging the stories for the contest, so you can get a start on that famous manual on how to lose a woman in about three hundred and fifty pages."
"Never." Klink pulled himself up to his full height. "I have my standards. And nothing can make me condescend myself to reading some romantic fluff – and certainly not Frau Linkmeyer! Colonel Hogan, tonight at roll call I will announce the winners of the story writing contest. Until then, you and your romantically disposed corporal are dismissed."
As Hogan ushered the fuming Newkirk out of the office, Klink sat down again and sifted through the papers on his desk. Now which one should he pronounce to be the best? He didn't want to judge solely on writing style; the story had to be somewhat original, too.
That pretty much meant he could put aside two-thirds of the pile – a guy wanting a girl, or girls in the plural, or even an entire harem... All along the well-trodden path. No way.
He sighed, and began by putting to the side every story focussing on girls (in any form). That narrowed it down a fair bit. "Now let me see," he mumbled. "The man wanting an umbrella? A drink? The dog, or the monkey? The son? The elephant? A home? A time machine? Adventure? A security squad? Something to do? A motorbike? A rabbit? A gun? No, not the gun story. I can't condone them killing off the Führer – even if it's only a story." Once more he glanced through the left over stories on his desk, putting them aside one by one, until finally...
He nodded. "Yes. This is a worthy winner."
The sky was still clouded, but it hadn't rained all day. A miracle!
Consequently, the mood at evening roll call that day was quite boisterous, and Schultz had some trouble getting the men to stand to attention quietly enough for the Kommandant to be able to make himself heard.
"Prisoners, I am sure you are eager to hear the result of the story writing contest I so graciously allowed you to have during the past rainy days."
A few soft 'boo's' were heard, but Klink continued undeterred, "Three stories have been chosen as the best, and their authors will be awarded with two extra slices of white bread for a whole week. Now the winners are..." He fumbled in his pocket to pull out the papers. "First runner-up: Sergeant Joseph Wilson, for his elaboration on the topic of a man longing for the joys of fatherhood!"
Applause all around, and Wilson got to endure some teasing jabs from his barracks' mates, which he bore with an equitable grin.
"Second runner-up," Kommandant Klink announced. "Private John Johnson, for his humorous tale about a man wanting an elephant for a pet."
Another round of applause and laughter. And only when it died down did Klink continue. "And then the winner." He cleared his throat; the men fidgeted. "A story that truly touched my heart right from the start." He glanced at the paper in his hands, and LeBeau rolled his eyes.
"The story is quite long, and quite complicated," Klink went on. "Too long to read to you here. But I do want to tell you what it's about. It starts out with, 'It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a friend.'" He looked up again. "It is the story of a rich young man with many friends. But he has some doubts as to why these people call themselves his friends, so he sets up an elaborate ruse to convince the world that he's lost all his money – just to see who'll stick by him and who won't. Only to discover that all his so-called friends don't want to have anything to do with him anymore. Unfortunately, his ruse of having lost everything turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and within a month he finds himself starving in the streets for real. And the only person to take notice of him there, to take him into his home and care for him, is the German guy living next door – a man he had always avoided and shunned for being the enemy, because he served as a campguard in the same POW camp where the young man had been detained during the war."
The compound was silent for a moment – then LeBeau broke the contemplative mood by snickering, "Now who would that be?"
"I like it," Carter spoke up. "It's so true. People whom you think of as the enemy might under different circumstances very well turn out to be your best friends."
"Hey Kommandant, who's the author?" Newkirk demanded.
Klink looked up, in the direction of...
"Sacré chat! Mon Colonel, not you...!"
But Hogan looked utterly taken aback. "Me? Kommandant, you must be mistaken! I wrote a story about the guy wanting girls!"
Newkirk chuckled. "So what else is new?"
But Kommandant Klink shook his head. "Not you, Colonel Hogan. The man behind you, Sergeant Kinchloe, is the author."
As they all turned to stare at their thoroughly embarrassed comrade, suddenly a ray of warm evening sunlight broke through the clouds in the west, caressing each and every man where they stood – Germans and prisoners alike...
That night, long after lights out, a lone figure sneaked across the shadows of the soppy compound. It disappeared between the barracks, awkwardly dodged a searchlight, and finally halted at the door of the rec hall. There was some tinkering with the lock, and it was but a few seconds later that the figure slinked inside, firmly closing the door behind him.
A flashlight was turned on, and guided the nocturnal visitor to the rickety bookshelf in the back. The light played over the titles.
There! There it was!
The book was pulled out of the row, and eagerly, the sneak visitor thumbed it open and leafed to the first page.
'It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of...'
All thought screeched to a halt. The book dropped to the floor as if the person holding it suddenly felt it burn in his hands. A powerless fist was formed as the dark figure growled under his breath. "Lessons in how to repel a woman indeed, huh? Hogannnn...!"