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Our Library => Phyllis Bottome - The Lifeline (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 03:45:34 am

Title: Chapter 24
Post by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 03:45:34 am
THE battle of Britain was over. The sharp exhilaration of the October air triumphed in Mark’s heart with his own amazed relief. The high meadows were still full of pink and mauve crocus lifting their transparent cups towards the sun. Groups of ghost-larches stood above them, yellow and wan like candles in daylight. The first snow sugared the Hohe Mund and his sister peaks, stretching far down the valley. A few tired Davids had withstood innumerable prepared Goliaths; and England had survived. The charred skeleton airfields still functioned. The cockpit of the Island still reeled under its daily holocaust of bombs; but the men of the shires went about their imperturbable business of living with their old resilient skill.

“It’s going to hold,” Mark found himself saying triumphantly to Felix as they walked through the pines towards the riding school, “till the United States comes in. Now I can believe that we shall win the war.”

“And you think those far distant, so happy cousins of yours will really come in?” Felix asked incredulously, for he could not understand how even an Englishman could believe in so many miracles---all as it were placed upon the same plate.

Mark nodded, tight-lipped but still exultant; he tried to speak casually as if his heart was not behind his thoughts, but his joy broke through his words. It seemed to him as if he had never before known what happiness was. “They’ve thought---perhaps not surprisingly---that we didn’t mean business,” he explained to Felix. “Those six years’ submission and semi-chumming with dictators made the Americans think that we were tarred with the same brush; and helped to drive them into isolation. Yet what we were trying to avoid after all was---War.”

“You were naturally right in wishing to avoid this war, and surprisingly wrong psychologically in supposing that you had chosen the right method by which to avoid it. Also your timing was not up to date,” Felix said with an amused smile. “Nevertheless when history sets to work to show us how the event came about---if she is ever free enough to show us the truth---I think we shall find a place for your Mr. Chamberlain after all. A small man---who could not match his dreadful Hour, but with something to admire in him since at the last he resigned when he could have remained in power. To feel his own smallness---and to have the courage to act upon it---was not despicable. Remember that he worked nobly until he died under his successor. The magnanimity of Churchill, that is comparatively easy to understand, for he is a great man, and the victor; but the magnanimity of Chamberlain---a defeated small man---has a great merit!”

“You are so tolerant, you would find an excuse for your worst enemy,” Mark said laughing. “Have you any of your whitewash left for Rennenkampf? I must say that in spite of his record I find something in him that impresses me.”

Felix stopped short and gave Mark a sharp, grave look. “No! I find him atrocious!” he said, walking on, as if he had finished with the subject.

“Seriously?” Mark asked, looking at his companion with new interest. “It’s really rather funny your saying that. Surely he has mastered his killer disease and made a notable recovery. I should have thought you would have admired him.”

Felix recovered his good humour, but he remained unusually serious. “He is a Nazi!” he explained, “that is what I find atrocious about him. I am not happy unless I am free to be unhappy. I do not believe in morality unless it is within my power to be immoral. I like horses that can dance; women who can say ‘No’ when they do not mean ‘Yes’; and books that are dangerous. I do not become strong because I am ordered to be joyful. You like Rennenkampf because to you he is still incredible. You do not believe in a world that will be run by him on the lines which have made him what he is. I wish I could share your belief.”

Mark was silent. The image of Rennenkampf---naive---sincere, disciplined---was still strong in his mind. He could not help sometimes comparing him favourably with his easy-going companion. Felix was the best company in the world, but he appeared to think, that nobody need do anything else but be good company. He never played games, nor took any sport seriously. It was true he could ride; but Mark found him disturbingly slack in his management of Emerald. He studied that impatient horse’s every nerve only to give way to it. The horse, Mark considered, would never learn to behave properly when he didn’t want to behave properly, while Felix rode him. All that he learned from Felix was how to conduct himself when, in an excess of zeal that would have queered his own pitch, he wished to be a model of good behaviour. “You are no disciplinarian,” Mark said laughingly as they reached the barn. “I suppose that is what attracts me in Rennenkampf. He has conquered frightful impulses---and put them in harness for a cause that he considers good. I am surprised you can’t at least admire his self-control.”

“He has used force upon himself as well as upon others,” Felix said drily, “that is what I do not believe in---the use of force. I do not say I should never practise it---one has to use force to control force---but somehow or other it always ends badly.”

Mark noticed the shadow on Felix’s face and wished he had not started the subject on such a happy day.

They were a little late and the horses were standing impatiently, with plunges and jerks of their great shapely bodies. The sharp frosty air had put an edge to their spirits.

On this bright and lovely Sunday morning the horses moved with greater skill and élan than Mark had ever seen in them. Ida and Hermann had already mounted Sapphire and Pearl; and were nearly as impatient as their horses.

The general had not been able to attend the school for several weeks, for during the autumn he always suffered most from his suicidal impulses; so that Mark had been allowed to take his place on Diamond.

He quickly mounted the strong black charger and rode him into the ring. The music had a thrilling resonance in the big empty barn, as if the spirits of those who had once heard it still lingered and enlivened its old cadences.

The four horsemen rode delicately to the tireless rhythm, like riders in a dream.

None of them heard the faint sound of a scuffle outside the barn, or noticed that the door had swung open. They were utterly unprepared for the menacing figure that sprang suddenly into the ring and broke up the dance.

Rennenkampf, brandishing a heavy stick, stared at them with lowered head like a charging bull. He overturned the gramophone, striking it into silence. “How dare you play this forbidden game?” he shouted. “Such a dance with horses is an obscenity! It is a sin against the Reich---you---our teachers---you, my comrade---you turn a beast into a ballet dancer! These animals are for work in the field! I shall expose you! I shall report you all!”

The three horsemen instinctively moved between the madman and the door; but Ida rode straight at him. “What are you doing here, Herr Rennenkampf?” she demanded in her clear cool voice. “I do not remember ever to have invited you?” Her eyes met his unwaveringly, as she drove the full force of his discourtesy home at him. Rennenkampf moved sullenly backwards—no man likes to be accused of rudeness by a woman before other men. In the midst of his fanatical rage he felt a moment of uncertainty.

“Report us if you like!” Felix added scornfully. “What will be thought of your evidence?”

“I am a lunatic, am I?” Rennenkampf shouted back at him with relieved and renewed fury. “Well, you will soon see if you and your toy animals can come between me and the Reich!

He swung his stick upwards as if to strike, glaring at each of the three men in turn, but Ida pushed Sapphire between him and the others. “Gentlemen,” she said, “draw back your horses! Leave the door free for Herr Rennenkampf. Let him make what report he wishes. What is it you can say to the authorities, Herr Rennenkampf? You have seen the Spanish horses dance? Well, do you really suppose that is news to the Gestapo? To be sure we have not advertised the fact! We too realize that we have disobeyed a regulation, and we have too much respect for the Nazis to ask them to overlook it. To whom do these horses belong? Well---when you have found that out---you will perhaps realize that the Führer will not be best pleased at notice being drawn to them! I do not think you are still a lunatic, Herr Rennenkampf, nor shall I discredit what you may choose to report by saying so---but I think you are a fool!”

For a moment Mark thought that the bubble of Rennenkampf’s rage had been successfully pricked and that all danger was over. Rennenkampf turned towards the open door, but Emerald chose that moment---confused and excited by the shouts and perhaps conscious of the antagonism in his rider’s heart, to plunge against Rennenkampf, crowding him backwards. Rennenkampf slipped, recovered himself, and turning struck at the horse’s head, with all his force. Felix wheeled Emerald to one side and caught Rennenkampf a stinging blow across the face with his riding crop. No one could stop what followed; it came too quickly. The great giant flung his stick away, dragged Felix off his maddened horse and lifting him like a rag doll above his head dashed him down with all his force. Felix fell against an iron bar and broke his neck.

Mark was the first to reach the motionless, limp body of his friend and see his twisted neck; but he could not believe that the little heap lying in the dust and sunshine was lifeless. He could hear the uneasy trampling of the horses close to him---the barn door banged; and then Ida knelt down by Mark’s side.

“It is hopeless,” she murmured, “see---he fell in such an awkward way! Help me to carry him to Hermann’s room. Rennenkampf has gone. Even though this murder makes his report valueless, it will be used against us. We must act first! Hermann, what is the damage to Emerald?”

“It was a hard blow!” Hermann said bitterly. “I have got him into the nearest stall. You can hear him there, threshing and plunging in his pain! The others are still here, quiet but afraid. A fine end to their music! Is there no hope for our good Herr Felix?”

“None,” said Ida. “Hermann, give the horses a breathing space and then take Diamond and ride on to Hungary. Go by the mountain roads behind Wörgl to Lofer; and then through the Salzkammergut. Herr Pirschl and I will follow later with Sapphire and Pearl. We must take the horses to the Bezzeghy Ödöns. We cannot take Emerald. He is too frightened and injured for such a journey. Ride carefully, I will give you a note to take with you to show if you are questioned. But avoid the main roads. Now go; attend to the other horses! There is nothing more you can do for Herr Felix!”

Hermann took the other two horses to their stalls, while Mark lifted Felix in his arms and with Ida’s help carried him on to Hermann’s bed. It was extraordinary how light the slender figure was to carry, and how unlike death he looked when he lay there. Ida closed his eyes with steady hands but though she helped Mark straighten his limbs and even smoothed back his hair, she did not once look at his face. It was as if what she touched was a Thing. Nor was her mind on Felix, for when she had finished, she turned to Mark and said quickly, “Mark, I want you to do something for me! You must shoot Emerald---I cannot! But I will not have him suffer any more without his master. If we leave him behind the Nazis will get him.”

“But,” stammered Mark, “think if he could recover---he is so fine a horse!”

“He will recover,” Hermann’s voice said from the doorway. “Forgive me Gnädigste, but can no one else take Diamond? I should stay here, for Emerald needs my care! You could lead one of the others---you and Herr Pirschl if it is too dangerous to take another rider!”

“Finer things than horses have to suffer under the Nazis,” Ida said incisively, “and yet we must not let a horse suffer if we can avoid it. We cannot take him with us---or leave him behind, Hermann. Go, and go quickly, with Diamond. Where is our roof-watcher---bribed or broken should you suppose? Ah, here he is outside the door! He is only knocked out and will soon recover. I must go to the Schloss and make a few arrangements. Here is your note! Mark---you will do what I asked? Hermann, you have a revolver somewhere? Herr Pirschl must shoot Emerald.”

“Yes, Gnädigste,” Hermann said, speaking between the pauses of his breath, as if he had been running. “I have my service rifle---it is always in order. But to shoot Emerald! Well---it is perhaps safer---and if it is better for him---I would shoot him myself---but he is my child, that horse---I made him what he is---you cannot unmake a child---better the Gnädiger Herr should do it, after all.”

“Yes, it is better,” Ida agreed. Without looking at either of them she turned quickly away, till the pines closed after her. Mark went to Emerald’s stall. It was a long time before he could persuade the distracted horse to let himself be led out to the lakeside.

The shadows of the early afternoon crept like fugitives out of the wood, across the broken valley floor. The golden leaves of the silver birches in the meadows shone as if the whole light of the dying day had taken refuge among their slender branches.

Hermann came with Mark leading Emerald, his rifle hidden in his coat, until they reached the lakeside. “I must go back now,” he told Mark. “If I had had time I could have cured Emerald of this blow. It has not blinded him. His master saw it coming in time to turn his head so that the full force of the blow fell on his shoulder. Ah! he was a good horseman, Herr Felix! One would say he rode a horse by getting under its skin! Well---no Nazi has done that---or ever can. To kill, is easy---any fool can murder a man or a horse! But to make such a horse---or such a horseman---takes skill. That skill cannot be found among the Nazis!”

Mark held out his hand and Hermann grasped it. “I don’t hold it against you,” he said brokenly, “shooting my horse. Do it as to a comrade---quick and sure between the eyes. Blindfold him first, here is my handkerchief---and do not let him see the gun! These ones are not horses merely---they are Intelligences!”

The lake had grown black, and the air from the fresh snowfields struck with icy fingers. Hermann went back into the barn, leaving Mark alone with the horse. The dying day closed down over the little valley like the lid of a coffin.

Emerald did not like having his eyes bound, or his bruised forehead touched, but by now he had grown used to Mark’s voice and the gentleness of his fingers. He only shuddered and moved impatiently, pawing at the earth as if to make sure it was still there. He had never, until Rennenkampf struck him, received an injury from a man; and this one monstrous act, so quick and so extravagant, though it had shaken him to the core, had not shattered his habit of confidence. He stood close to Mark without constraint for the sake of his voice and his company.

Mark measured off the space from which he meant to shoot. The light was gone. He steadied himself and took careful aim; he had only to shoot once. Emerald flung back his head; shuddered throughout his great body; and crashed. An echo caught the shot and brought it back against Mark’s listening senses, like a reproach.

He felt as if this was the real death of Felix. In the barn everything had taken place so quickly, that it had seemed without meaning or significance. But this act was slowly taken; and had been meant. It seemed to finish Felix. All his kindness, his good humour, his wisdom---the beauty of the feeling he had had for the horse and for all living things---was gone like the day’s short loveliness. Mark turned bitterly away from the black lake; and the dead horse. He felt as if he had helped to kill Felix, because he had admired Rennenkampf.