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Our Library => Phyllis Bottome - The Lifeline (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 10:40:27 am



Title: Chapter 31
Post by: Admin on March 09, 2023, 10:40:27 am
SCRAPS of the old Pirschl floated back to Mark, over the unaccustomed food and talk; but they were infrequent, while for hours Pirschl sat sunk in silence, letting Mark come and go upon the errands of the day, or clean up and tidy the disordered studio. His mind seemed close shut to everything but its own bitter contents. It had ceased to move in any other direction or to react to any other stimulant. At night he lay, still fully dressed, upon a divan, fixed and silent, with wide open eyes staring sleeplessly into the dark.

It seemed to Mark as if Pirschl never stopped listening. Once he explained to Mark that since he kept poison on him, in a flash he could be safe for ever; but he could only count on this security by listening to every sound in order to select the instant of danger.

His whole life had shrunk into that of a mouse, who knows that a cat sits at the entrance of his mouse-hole. It is no good offering the mouse anything outside of his mouse-hole because he knows that the cat would get him before he could take it. Nor could Mark do anything to lighten the stubborn panic of his friend for he knew very well that the cat was really there. The Gestapo was watching Pirschl and would continue to watch him, though quite probably they would do nothing else till the end came. Perhaps they had received orders not to catch Pirschl out---unless indeed he made any real attempt to get out. Where he was, useless---hopeless, exposed and under their microscope---was exactly where they wished to have him.

To have publicly penalized him, or to have made away with him in any suspicious manner, would not have suited the Nazis’ book. This was a man who had been Hitler’s favourite. A quiet death of his own choosing, a public funeral and the opportunity for the Führer to appear again as the patron of the arts, sorrowing over his artist friend’s grave---was exactly what was wanted. They waited for Pirschl to choose the date for his own funeral; but they would do nothing to hurry it. Nevertheless on the third night of Mark’s visit something happened which brought Pirschl out of his mouse-hole.

It was dusk of a cold November day, Mark had brought fuel and food from the outer world; and had just succeeded in producing a good fire in the stove. Pirschl sat close to it, warmed, but still sunk in his panic vigilance. Suddenly they both heard a faint scratching sound at the door; and then three distinct light taps followed by a fourth. The latch lifted, and a man crept in noiselessly on stockinged feet, closing the door softly after him.

Pirschl stared intensely at him; and then motioned towards the stove.

The cold sweat of agonizing fear stood out in beads on the man’s forehead; and as he stretched his ice-cold hands towards the stove they shook and trembled.

“I’m on the run,” he said at last hardly above a whisper, “but they didn’t see me come in. I took off my boots on the stairs because last time they creaked. It’s dark outside. If I might warm myself only---and perhaps if you can spare anything---eat? I must not stay long, I have an appointment.” Pirschl nodded; and Mark obeyed his gesture, and brought in food from the tiny kitchenette. The man sat between them, eating as if famished; but he never lost control of his actions. Every few moments he stopped eating, looked round him and listened, and then went on again tearing off the food and swallowing it---without tasting.

“Is the roof way out still safe?” he asked at last, when he had eaten half of what Mark had brought him, and stowed the other half away in his rucksack. “I’d like a wash first if I dared take it. Could you give me enough warning?”

“I shall hear them enter,” Pirschl told him. “There’s no lift. You saw for yourself; and the stairs are many and steep. If they come by the roof, the window is latched this side. Also I listen both ways, always. I don’t go out any more. But I fancy the roof is still safe. From the third house left from here---you can get down by the fire escape. If you’re in trouble there’s a second floor window always open. The concierge there is one of our own men; but he’s been in camp. He mightn’t be able to stand it again---still he always keeps the window open.” The Runner nodded and slipped into the bathroom.

Pirschl motioned to Mark to keep perfectly still.

They sat without moving till every sound in the house began to come through to Mark. He heard the door open and shut in the basement; he heard a tap drip in a distant room. He heard interminable terrifying steps on the stairs. Voices began to penetrate the floor and the walls. They were without words; but in the intensity of his listening stillness Mark found he could distinguish the rooms from which they came.

Time seemed to have disappeared with the Runner; but when he came back into the room again, time went on as if it had been like the Gestapo waiting for him. He sat down between Pirschl and Mark, moved back into his chair, and relaxing suddenly, he fell fast asleep. Mark saw that he was a much younger man than he had thought, and that if he had not been half famished and unshaven he would have had a charming civilized face. Barely five minutes passed before he sprang to his feet again, roused by some inner voice; and made for the window. The black-out curtain billowed into the room for a brief moment, and swung back again, as the window closed behind him. Pirschl turned his head, and watched him go without speaking, but the roused human look that had sprung to meet this visitor, remained on his face. When Mark asked him if he knew the man well he answered in his old natural voice. “Well enough! He’s a reliable fellow that Runner of ours---from Rotterdam. All his family were wiped out so he took to the underground. He’s done a lot of work. Freedom stations; messages, helping escaped prisoners, or guiding airmen over the frontier. There’s no end to his jobs, except the one end, that hasn’t come yet. But you mustn’t stay here much longer Anton now---it won’t be safe. Why did you come? Didn’t I ask you? I forget. Since Anna died I forget everything---except not to be taken alive by them---that I never forget!”

As Mark told him the story of the Spanish horses, Pirschl leaned forward and listened with eyes that spoke at last.

“Well,” he said when Mark had finished. “I am sorry about the horses! Something was made out of them---something beautiful---between a man and a horse. The music too was part of it---but it was more than music. It was a sort of pattern of life. Well---it is broken up, as are all the other patterns civilization tried to teach our poor race, and you, brother Anton! I can see you must not at present go back to Ida and the Schloss. There are---as I see it---two courses open to you---to get back direct to Innsbruck---and report to Father Martin. That is quite possible---and it is probably the safer course---or you could also get back to Innsbruck and report to Father Martin by a longer and more dangerous route---you could for a few weeks until things have had time to take shape at the Schloss---be one of our Runners. We need new ones all the time, and we have very few who are like you, unknown and therefore not hunted. There are many friends of Freedom, connected in a loose organization, even in this country that chose the Nazis for its doom. In each town; and in many villages there is someone who passes on messages or who helps the hunted. We even try to save Jews; and some we have saved---though it gets all the time more difficult. Each of the Friends of Freedom lets the central organization here in Berlin know what he can do for us. A room a man can sleep in---or just a meal and a window as I have here. These Friends do not know each others’ names---nor the names of the Runners---but the organization can trace its workers if it is necessary. Sometimes we are betrayed by a Runner, or by one of those whom we think is a Friend---but not often---and no one person can betray much, since he does not know much. It is not necessary to take money with you. Each of us gives what he has. If you should be caught and questioned you have only to admit that you are my mad brother allowed out on a visit to me, but that finding I could not do more for you, you took to the road again and began to steal. It is really quite safe to be a common criminal in Germany to-day. Safer than anything else. They will put you in prison without torture where the Gestapo will not trouble to get at you.”

“But Ida,” Mark objected. “If a message came from her to me here, I would receive it?”

Pirschl nodded. “But she is not likely to send you a message,” he said after a pause. “She told you to come here---because she wanted to get you away from her---until she found out if she was burned too badly by her escapade. Well---when she has found out---she will consult Father Martin, who already knows that I am no longer a good cover for messages, and she will take for granted that I will have found for you some safer place than under my roof.”

“But anything might happen to her! She may not be safe,” Mark objected. “Yes---anything,” agreed Pirschl grimly, “but she will be no safer for your knowledge!”

They were both silent for a long time. Mark considered if one day upon his own heart would fall the weight of Pirschl’s silence; peopled with unendurable images. Before he talked with Pirschl Mark had believed that Fear was the worst experience of a man’s soul; but now he knew that hopeless certainty is worse than any fear. “Let me know where one of your organizers lives,” Mark said at last. “I will act as a Runner on my way back to Innsbruck.”

“Good,” Pirschl said. “To-morrow I will give you a card of appointment with my name on it. It will admit you to see the consultant of the Berliner Spital. Even if you should be recognized as my brother rather than myself, and this is unlikely, it will not be important since you are my brother; and we can easily have the same disease. It is syphilis, our disease, and although neither of us has it, the consultant will behave as if we had and could state if necessary that we were both his patients. But it will not be necessary! Our Herr Professor Hofmann is among those who have never been and are not likely to be suspect. A pure Aryan and highly useful to the Nazis, though less so than they imagine!”

In the morning Mark once more urged Pirschl to try to escape. “Couldn’t you come with me?” he argued. “Is there no way in which you could get across the frontier as other men do? You have helped so many others, why can you not help yourself?”

Pirschl shook his head. “If you are known, you will be hunted,” he said drily. “The Führer’s friend could not escape notice. Concern yourself only with what is possible. Believe me I am best exactly where I am. If you wish I will take some of your money. Even if I do not use it for food, it may come in useful for someone else. We can never have enough money for our cause---for few of the rich belong to it. Perhaps you receive enough for yourself through Father Martin?”

Mark nodded. “I can always get more,” he said, “but what will they think---Ida and Father Martin---when they know I have left you caught in this trap?”

“They will understand very well,” Pirschl said drily. “Father Martin will think God is responsible for me; and Ida will know that since I cannot paint I shall be happier dead. Perhaps it is a little unfortunate that I should have waked up again so thoroughly before dying. It is a long process at my age---and I had not meant to wake up. But on the other hand I am glad that you waked me for I was always interested in your part of our experiment. I will tell you this. Your face has improved since you lived with lunatics---it has become more serene. Now I should find you much more interesting to paint. Perhaps you have learned to feel more than you once felt. Believe me the English make a mistake about emotion, it should be visible and expressed. Taboos on the human heart are more dangerous than any risk we run by using our emotions. Sensation is the life of man; it is his actual energy. To suppress it, is to lose creative power! I should like to paint you now---not because you are more brave. I daresay you were always brave enough; but because you are more friendly!”

They parted early the next morning. Pirschl grasped Mark’s hand with a long firm pressure; but he kept his other hand close to the pocket which held his ultimate safety.

Mark stopped at the door and looked back at him; but Pirschl did not return his gaze; he had sunk into his chair by the stove; and had already begun listening.