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Our Library => Phyllis Bottome - The Lifeline (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 08:36:02 am



Title: Chapter 28
Post by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 08:36:02 am
THE Bezzeghys stood on the steps to see Mark off. From their point of view nothing had been left undone that could give grace to the occasion. They had given their guest a merry, even magnificent dinner, winding up with a bottle of Tokai brought up from the cellar by the Gauleiter himself. In the course of the next half hour Mark might be in the hands of the Nazis, and none of the Bezzeghys would stretch out a finger to save him, but that seemed to them no good reason why they should not make these last few minutes as pleasant as possible.

It did not even seem very hard for Ida to part with her lover. She joked up to the last moment---patted him genially on the shoulder and gave him her hand to kiss; then the darkness swallowed him. Mark waited below the courtyard gate for what seemed to him hours, under the dripping trees, before at last the silence stirred, and the dark shape of the horses loomed up suddenly close to him.

“We were detained, Herr,” Hermann explained breathlessly. “A strange fellow came into the stables, and I couldn’t bring the horses out till we were rid of him. Let Pearl lead till we pass the village. She sees better in the dark. Sapphire can take over later, when his eyes have got accustomed to it. We must ride fast.”

As Mark mounted Pearl he was conscious of her little movement of satisfied recognition. She knew her rider. The way was unfamiliar to her and she was nervous of the dark, but her whole being rested confidently in Mark’s will, and she kept all her senses sharply on the alert to fulfil any demands that he might make upon her. The feeling of being rather ill-used by Ida left Mark. Perhaps to make no suggestions was her way of showing her trust in him. Yet few women let their lovers go into danger without some fond and useless warning.

The one thing that was necessary, Mark reminded himself, was to share the whole of the responsibility with Hermann. Quite apart from what the Bezzeghys expected, Mark expected this of himself.

“Hermann,” he said under his breath, “can you hear me speak without my raising my voice?”

Sapphire drew nearer for answer.

“If anything goes wrong,” Mark said urgently, “you know very well what to say, don’t you? This is a plot between us alone! We knew the horses were to be killed. You had the order from the Gräfin’s father to kill them. And I got you to help me run away with them instead! We have never been inside the Schloss. We bribed the Bezzeghys’ groom, whom you knew well, to hide us and the horses in the stables, so that we could sell them and pocket the money, in which the groom would share. The Gräfin does not know that we are here! I am the vagabond-lunatic Pirschl, but I was always allowed---because I understood horses like a gypsy---to help you take care of them. This has to be packed so well in our minds that nothing else will come out. No matter what happens! Remember I am half a gypsy---therefore the criminal idea was mine!

A low laugh that was not Hermann’s, answered him.

“You!” Mark gasped. He felt the quiet night fill suddenly with ecstasy.

“But yes!” Ida answered, still laughing. “Did you really think I should let you go alone? My cousins think I am in bed and asleep---and that is what I hope I may be---when it next occurs to them to think of me again. I made all my arrangements with Hermann long ago; and under my cousin’s lovely Paris dress this evening I wore my battered riding breeches. Now, we had better be silent till we reach the village of Rust. That is where our friends the smuggling fishermen will meet us to guide us across the Lake.”

There was very little sound now that they had left the village behind them. What little breeze there was sang gently in the trees, with an undertone of sadness. In a distant pond frogs kept up a monotonous chanting. Sometimes all sounds stopped suddenly as if they were checked by an invisible baton; and they could only hear the faint creaking of their saddle leather and the almost noiseless clop of their horses’ hooves on the grassy path.

The late moon rose slowly over the rounded hills. Nothing seemed solid enough for earth. A white mist bathed the park-like meadows; all the crops were gathered in and the earth rested in a living pause before the winter snow froze it into the fixed immobility of death. The smell of frost was already in the air, yet the summer lingered like a late and well-loved guest who cannot bear to leave the scene of so much jollity.

Mark had to drag his mind back to danger and war; for they seemed to him unnatural, almost incredible things.

“It is too late to ask you to go back,” he said at last. “I certainly have no right to be glad you came; but now that you have come---well---whatever happens we shall have had this together!”

“Yes,” said Ida a little grimly, “and whatever happens---which matters to me a good deal more---we shall share it together. Did you really believe I intended to take advantage of my cousin’s immunity?”

Mark was silent for a moment. What had he believed? What did he know of her? He knew only that if she were there the world was beautiful.

“I don’t think,” he said at last, “that I was quite sure what you meant---or that I ever am.”

Ida gave a faint but slightly mollified laugh.

“Well,” she said, “I forgive you, but at least you might have remembered that the Schlern Witches always ride by night!”

Mark turned to look at her. The spectral moonlight shone on her small erect figure now close to his own. He could see the brown fur collarette high round her slender throat, the points of which bent downwards like the brilliant brown necklace of the mountain flower. Her thick ginger-coloured hair burned red above her pale and rather tragic face.

“Do not stare at me, Mark,” Ida told him mockingly. “Look out for rabbit holes instead. They are more worth looking at since we cannot afford a stumble. Are those men or trees standing out of the mist?”

“Only trees,” Mark said, as two shadowy posts bore down on them in a white sea. But a moment later Pearl heard a sound, and stopped dead. Mark signed to Sapphire to follow, and drew Pearl close under the shadow of a barn. The two horses stood side by side, motionless, like statues made out of darkness. Three men came down the road talking and laughing; they passed so near the horses that they could have touched them. Neither horse stirred, nor made a sound, until the men’s footsteps died away into complete silence.

“Wonderful!” Mark whispered softly, half to Pearl and half to Ida. “How did you teach them to keep so motionless at will?”

“They know what we want,” Ida said gently. “What they have been taught is to do what their friends want! It is astonishing that this can be taught so easily to animals---when men themselves find it so difficult to learn! But an animal does not lie! It knows that devotion is behaviour. Men and women do not learn this very easily!”

They rode on in silence till they reached the hills. Once an owl gave his wild predatory shriek close to them, and Ida said: “Now I know what a mouse feels like before the iron beak strikes him!” But she did not sound afraid. It was as if she too felt as Mark did, that there was no room for fear in their bedazzled hearts; yet neither forgot the need there was for fear.

“We can begin to breathe now,” Ida said at last, “and even talk a little. It is a long time before we have to become frontier conscious! Tell me---what do you think of my cousins the Bezzeghys?”

“They are your cousins,” Mark said courteously, “and you seemed happy with them.”

“Happy?” Ida exclaimed. “You give me very little credit, Mark, for my brains! I am not happy with the Bezzeghys, but I am very clever with them. If I were not---well---where would be my horses? We live in an immoral world, and to live in it at all, we must sometimes lean on immoral instruments. But we should not judge the Bezzeghys too harshly perhaps, for to be a natural Nazi is not so much a crime as a habit. Still I admit it is a habit that if we are ever to make a decent world---we shall have to learn to avoid!”

“I do not mind your avoiding the Bezzeghys,” Mark complained. “It was me---not the Bezzeghys that you appeared to be avoiding at the Schloss. In spite of the fact that you told me I was to be your lover!”

“Well, so you were,” Ida remarked complacently, “a little backward from the Bezzeghys’ point of view---more as it were like an elderly husband than an ardent lover---but still, considering such short notice, nothing was seriously out of place. I avoided you in private simply because I was afraid of you. Not for you---this time! But of you! I don’t see that I could pay you a higher compliment! I had to manage somehow to keep my head---perhaps it is less strong than you suppose. Anyhow I had to keep it!”

“And now?” asked Mark. “What are you doing with it now, Ida?”

“I am prepared to lose it!” Ida replied promptly. “But not till I’ve had a cigarette and unfolded my next plan. Please, Mark, remember what we have at stake to-night! Do not tempt me to forget it!”

Mark stopped Pearl on the crest of the hill they were climbing, and let the two horses rest. There was nothing below them but an empty sea of mist---or beyond them---but the shadowy distance stretching away towards the unseen lake they had to cross before they reached even approximate safety.

“This new plan,” said Ida, lighting a cigarette and puffing gently at it, “is for you to go at once to Berlin to Pirschl. Not to come back with me. All that business about being found in the woods---it is impracticable. Dr. Helder, whom I left in charge, is too intelligent---he would see you were not hungry and might guess you were not mad! There will be Gestapo men too about the Schloss for a time anyhow, and I do not know how much they will put me under observation or curtail my powers. Even before all this happened I was becoming a little nervous---you had gone so often with your night messages---it is so easy to become careless! You see, in the life we live there is no escape once the Nazis get you. Where to stop---to change tactics---should always come before the danger occurs---afterwards it is too late.”

“Is that why you asked me to help you save the horses?” Mark demanded, putting his hand out till it covered hers.

“It might be partly that,” Ida agreed. “I knew that it would be better to stop the messages for a time---or to change our method of sending them. It will also be better for me not to have you on my mind when I go back to the hospital---there may be other things for me to think about.”

“You know you are going into some special danger?” Mark demanded angrily, “and you don’t want to let me help you---though you are always willing to help me---is that the sort of trick you are trying to play on me?”

“I am with you in very great danger now,” Ida answered calmly, “and I asked you to share it with me, Mark---but I was really happy at the Schloss. You might have guessed! For two whole days and nights---you were there with me---and we were both safe. Of course I was happy! I found---to my surprise---that I had remembered how to be happy! For, for so many years I had forgotten how!”

“You tell me these things,” Mark said, “when I can’t make love to you---I had rather you told them to me when I could!”

Ida laughed. “You are so practical,” she said. “You English! Well, one day perhaps I shall. Be content to-night that I already see the moon over there is not just a moon---but something quite remarkable. There are the lights of Rust, and from Rust our friends the fishermen, whose century-long vocation is smuggling, will lead us to Moerbisch through the reeds. To the south of the lake across the frontier lies the town of Kroisbach. The Màlnàssys’ estate is only a short way beyond it, and except for the mosquitoes which are mortal near the lake, the ride is easy. I know every foot of it, once the lake is crossed, because I went there often as a girl to hunt or dance. It seems curious to remember those light and easy times, and a little odd of the Hungarians, I have always thought, to put themselves into the straight jackets of the Nazis. From now on distrust whatever you see. The mist is fantastic and you will not be able to tell a sheep from a ghost, a cow from a goat. Every twist of white fog is designed by a Poltergeist to delude you. Better trust Pearl, for she at any rate will guess whether she is being confronted by an animal of flesh and blood or a mist-monster. We all believe in ghosts about here. It is the ghosts who do not believe in us.” Ida’s light laughing voice died into utter silence. They held their breaths to listen, but no sound came from the endless meadows, expanding and contracting round them as the fog opened or shut them in. The white sea of fog gripped and swallowed them in an effortless stillness. Here and there the sudden spire of a tall poplar rose like a warning finger. The cry of a water bird in the distance broke the silence with a sudden clatter; it was repeated close at hand, and out of the mist a man’s figure emerged with startling solidity. “Here Aladar!” he stated. “You come from the Bezzeghys with the great horses! I am sent to guide you!”

“It is well,” said Ida. “Long ago I knew your family and helped them make the hay. I am of the Bezzeghys! May we not taste the great wines of Rust and rest our horses before we cross the lake? Is it possible for us to go by boat, or must we also swim?”

“We must wade---perhaps swim; and on the open waterways take to the boat!” Aladar explained. “We must trust in God, Frau Gräfin, for the reeds have a strength beyond that of a man and it is as if they had a covenant with the mud, to drag or suck men under. But do not be afraid, Franz and I have taken many fugitives over. For hundreds of years there has only been the one way through the reeds of the Neusiedlersee and only a few families know it. But what you live by you remember! The landlord of an inn close to the lake will serve us well with his own wine before we need to start.”

Ida and Mark dismounted, and followed Aladar into the village of Rust. There were only a few peasants about in the streets, and all passers-by, even the horses, were mere wavering shapes with indistinguishable features.

The inn before which Aladar halted was a shiftless, derelict-looking house of only one story; another man, murmuring “Hier Franz!” stepped out of the shadows and led the horses into a yard behind the Inn.

When they entered the black cavernous doorway, they found themselves at the top of a flight of stone stairs that led down into a kitchen two cellars deep. The kitchen stretched on all sides of them, piled high with wine barrels. A glowing fire threw its shifting light across the floor, the leaping shadows greeted them. The landlord stepped forward courteously out of the gloom; he too had shared in the bribes already bestowed by the Bezzeghys; and would have still more when the adventure was fully accomplished. Then the fishermen joined them; and all five of them sat round the fireside together, drinking the famous red and white wines of Rust. None of them in Rust, the landlord explained, liked the new order. “We little people have to take what comes,” the landlord explained to Ida. “It is in the big towns that these plots are hatched out with those tow-headed Germans. None of us have ever cared for it! When a Jew gets through their meshes or, maybe, a Red for Russia—or even one of our own great people, like yourself Frau Gräfin, with an idea of their own to hatch, well we guide them across the frontier gladly and pray God to protect them! No German comes into Rust without our knowing it, and our own big people who go the same way as the Germans---well---we know them! And we take our own precautions. Our cellars, too, are deep in Rust, and not only wine can be stored in those big barrels we keep roof high below stairs. A man’s body can fit into one of them, and loaded down with stones would never come up again, if it found its way into the lake. So we should deal with village traitors---if we had any! Men who have lived in the same place all their lives---well, they know their neighbours!”

A long consenting pause followed, while the three inhabitants of Rust exchanged a grim, and perhaps reminiscent smile.

“A curious thing this Hitler is---and his Nazis,” Franz at length ventured. “You would say a strange maggot eats them! They can’t let other people live! Now for my part I see no sense in killing a man I don’t know---why no animal or bird---or fish even---kills except for food---or because he has an enemy! But these Nazis---they strike and kill all over the place---for the mere fun of the thing! Do we get more food out of this war of theirs? Certainly not---we get less! and our sons get killed---without knowing who it is that kills them. I ask you what satisfaction there is in that?”

“You are right,” agreed Ida. “There is no sense in the Nazis! But what can you expect of a people who worship Hitler rather than God---it is unheimlich!

“Yes! Unheimlich!” agreed the three peasants with emphatic nods. “Lady, we see that you are wise and though you belong to the Bezzeghys---you are not one with those who push away all that we believe, to become less than men. We therefore drink to you---and to this good man---doubtless your lover!”

“We hope your journey,” added the landlord courteously, “will be a profitable one, and that your fine animals will prosper!”

Ida raised her glass. “Thank you,” she said. “May we then drink together to the horses? Since as you truly say they are fine and noble animals and my friend and I ride them to-night for the last time!” The five men lifted their glasses and drank the sound sweet wine of Rust to the health of the Spanish horses. Nor did it seem to them a strange toast since to a Hungarian fisherman a good horse is linked both to Romance and Property, and therefore worthy of the best a man can think of him. “Would it be safe to ask you for a song?” Ida begged when they had emptied their glasses. “I have heard Aladar here sing in the hayfield long ago when he was a boy---I remember he had a good voice, and doubtless you also sing well?”

“But perfectly safe,” they all three agreed promptly. “No one will hear us! Nor have any of these new people forbidden us to sing!” The three men looked at each other, and then glanced away into the shadows, and cleared their throats. Aladar began, in a high strong baritone and the others quickly caught up with him. They sang, one after the other, the sad, swift songs of Hungary. Mark could not guess the words, but the music in spite of its wild gaiety had always a tragic ring, and whether it told of love or death it moved more quickly and more fiercely than the Austrian Lieder.

At last Aladar said, “We must drink no more wine if we are to get the better of the rushes to-night! Lady, are you ready?”

When they reached the street level, the lights of Rust were out, and its little world wrapped in sleep. The invisible moon was at her height; and through the mist the lake stretched before them like a silver floor.

The horses trembled and shuddered at the feel of the water, but their riders led them gently step by anxious step down into the lake. Aladar led, carrying a lantern, and Franz dragging a flat-bottomed boat behind him, brought up the rear. For a moment the reeds, high as a man’s shoulder, swallowed them. From time to time the reeds drew apart, and a space of deep water shone before them. Then they took to the boat, and their horses swam beside them. After the first tingling shock the cold of the water, still tempered by the long summer sun, was not unbearable. Then the reeds drew in again, till without Aladar’s lanthorn, it would have been impossible to find their way by boat or on foot through the impenetrable watery forest. The thick mud, below the shallow water, sucked ominously at their feet. The occasional splash or plunge from one of the horses, set the water birds shrieking wildly with a fierce flutter of rustling wings in their faces. But as suddenly as the panic noise had broken and spread from shore to shore all sound dropped; and they were once more in a world untouched by time or man, swallowed in deep primeval silence. Their bodies shone like silver shadows, but to themselves each one felt small, vulnerable and very cold. Even the horses kept as close to their leaders as they dared; as if they feared the strange water world about them. Yet nothing happened, only the mud shifted beneath their footsteps, or reeds sharpened their sides together, like knives, when the wind reached them.

The moon sank slowly behind the blanched darkness, until the flicker of Aladar’s lanthorn was all the light that was left, to guide them through the uneasy sea of mud and water, back to the solid earth. The occasional vicious bite of a mosquito was almost a relief to Mark since it served to remind him that they were actual human beings in a real world.

The pathway narrowed until they had to push back the sharp reeds with their hands, and struggle with them as if they were enemies. “We are nearing the bank,” Aladar said at last. “The ground grows firm, be careful the reeds don’t drag you under. Step where I step. Here on the patch of open water we will await you in the boat. Take my lamp, lady, we shall need no light! Here is the thorn tree with the hollow branches shaped like a fork---it will guide you to us. From the thorn strike a straight path to Kroisbach. The frontier is already crossed---you are in Hungary! May God speed you! We will wait here till sun-up for your return.”

The horses scrambled and heaved themselves up out of the reeds on to the bank. The ground, though still marshy, no longer sucked at their feet. “We’re free!” Ida said to Mark. “Do you feel different? Or am I imagining that a hand is off my throat and I can breathe again! I think I must be warm and dry, and that the very air smells sweeter!”

“Not much sweeter,” Mark replied grimly, for he was out of sympathy with the Hungarian atmosphere, “but anyhow the horses are safe!”

“They’re safe, but they aren’t ours any more!” Ida reminded him.

Once more they mounted, and rode on. The dead level meadows they had left behind them, stretched again in front. The only difference was that the landscape was without hidden terrors. If they were discovered now, neither death nor torture awaited them.

In the darkness they skirted Kroisbach and came to the walls of the Màlnàssy estate, where Rudolf’s grooms soon joined them.

For one brief moment Mark found himself looking at Pearl by lantern light, as if she were not a horse, but a being from whose profound and deep intelligence he could draw a courage that was greater than his own. For the last time he stroked the firm velvety neck, and gazed at the proud head with its ears pricked delicately forward. The great sad eyes were fixed upon him, so full of acute intelligence that they seemed to read his heart; and to know that they would never meet again.

Ida stood talking pleasantly to the grooms---very erect and composed---her hand on Sapphire’s bridle. But when Mark joined her she moved quickly away into the merciful darkness. She made no sound, but Mark knew that she was crying bitterly.