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Our Library => Phyllis Bottome - The Lifeline (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on March 10, 2023, 02:51:19 am



Title: Chapter 37
Post by: Admin on March 10, 2023, 02:51:19 am
THE days slipped past slowly into weeks before Mark realized that he was mending outwardly but not inwardly. His broken body had knit; his bruises had healed; physically he could be a man, though never a strong man again; but his heart would not heal. Every day when Ida came he locked her out of it. He did not want her to find the hollowness within. It was easy to shut her out, for she demanded nothing from him. She was his doctor, his friend, his fellow conspirator; and beyond these warm activities she waited. Perhaps Ida guessed what was holding back Mark’s love; but Mark himself did not. He simply felt that he had nothing more to offer. The Gestapo had cleared him out. At the very core of his being there was nothing now but panic and emptiness. He was without courage, and without dignity. When he woke every morning it was to see with horror that he was not so much a physical cripple as a moral wreck---a man without faith in himself or life. He could not bear to tell Ida of this inner failure, instead he wanted to prove to her that it was she who had failed him. He found fault with all she did for him, and made difficulties, little silly difficulties to account for his displeasure, all day long.

Ida was patient with him, without being weak. One day she said to him, when he had been particularly antagonistic, “Come, you have a right to your complaints on a small scale. I have seldom seen a human being so knocked about as you have been by those friendly young thugs who ‘rescued’ you on the mountainside, but still it was those thugs, not I, who made your injuries! What is it that you have against me?”

Mark hesitated. “It is unbearable,” he said at last bitterly, “how you never tell me anything! We are friends---we might be lovers---yet I know nothing of the past that belonged to you! I am haunted by that portrait in your room for instance and---the Bezzeghys’ hints. I asked no questions but you must know they would drop hints, and that though I should not let them tell me anything, I might well expect you to tell me about your old lover! Lying here all day long I am as conscious of him as if he were in the next room.”

Ida raised her eyebrows and looked quizzically at Mark, yet she drew a chair close to the open window, and sitting down shook a cigarette into the palm of her hand. “He’s not in the next room,” she said quietly at last. “But he is not, as it happens, very far away from you. I suppose it was natural that you should have wondered over the Bezzeghys’ hints though you had only to ask me. I have no secrets from you, Mark. But what is in the past is for me so utterly over, that I supposed it could hardly reach you. You are right, however, in what you have guessed---that Michel Salvator---the original of the portrait in my room---was once my lover. Do you wish to look at him again? I can do better than the portrait for you. To-night I will show you the original. We must wait till the house is quiet; and we are safely cut off from the activities of our Nazi friends. I will come for you then; and you shall see my Bluebeard’s chamber before another night is past!” She rose, and left him quickly before he had time to ask her any more questions. Some of the wretchedness in his heart receded. Perhaps he had really been jealous all the time of this image in her mind of her dead love. If Michel Salvator were not dead, he must be mad and Mark could not feel jealousy of a madman. He could begin to pity her now and if he pitied her for her mistaken loving, she would not be so far away from him any more. Mark began for the first time to notice the world outside his window. He heard the incessant chuckling of fresh waterfalls, and watched the activities of the farm; and the slow movements of men at work over the sodden earth. The great thaw had begun---but although it was March, the snow still lay thick in the woods; and on the slopes of the hillside. It was four months since the Gestapo had caught him. Mark could walk now; but until to-day he had not wanted to walk. He had wanted to think himself worse than he was. Now he began to practise walking up and down his room with the help of the furniture, and without his crutches.

Lately Ida had spoken to him of trying to get him back to England; but Mark could not see his work in England any more. How could he go back to Eton and teach the boys what he had not learned? What was the use of saying to them, “All that we try to teach you here is true. You must learn how to wield power for your own sake and for others---you must learn how to be so strong---so self-contained, so completely in control of your every emotion that nothing can break you. When you have learned this you will be able to meet any emergency---neither death nor torture can shake you. Here---you learn all the answers!” When Mark knew that he himself had not learned them. He had been shaken once and for all out of his inner security. He had not had what he needed to face the Gestapo. His strength of body had answered his demands on it, better than his spirit. He had felt his spirit faint under their blows before his body had stopped fighting. Now Mark feared everything---he feared what might happen to him, before he could escape; and every emotion that might be roused in him and might make him take, or want to take, a fresh risk. Above all he feared love. He would not let Ida pass the barriers of his injured vanity. The hours stood still till darkness. At last he heard Ida’s brisk, short rap on the door. For a moment as she stood still looking at him, he hardly recognized her. She wore a close-fitting black velvet dress, high in the neck and flat across the shoulders. Large pearl ear-rings dangled from her ears, and a double string of luminous, delicately shaded pearls, hung about her slender throat. She had reddened her lips, darkened her arched eyebrows, and faintly coloured her pale cheeks. “You see,” she said, smiling at Mark’s astonished stare, “I can look like a lady quite easily, but please remember that I am not one; or at least only one by accident, not by choice! Come slowly after me, with your crutches. It does not matter how much noise you make for the doors are safely locked between us and the hospital. Nor will you have to walk very far since from my library there is a lift that takes us up to Michel Salvator’s apartments.”

When they entered the library, a pine fire blazed on the hearth, as it had done on the night of Mark’s first arrival. The beauty and luxury of the past flowed through the room, as if a secret spring had been set free. Above the mantelpiece, the splendid figure of Michel Salvator in his hunting clothes gazed down at them arrogantly with vivid, enigmatic eyes. They were the intruders, his glance seemed to tell them, the Schloss and all that was in it still belonged to him. “I will make you some coffee, while I talk,” Ida said to Mark. “Sit here and try to be comfortable---it is not your confession; but let me walk about partly because I am impatient by nature and partly because I cannot bear to think I had so little sense as to make such a foolish barrier between myself and you! We have wasted a great deal of time, Mark, because you as an Englishman have not learned how to speak what you feel---and because I---as an Austrian---did not believe a lost lover worth speaking about! Look well at Michel Salvator. He was exactly like his portrait when I first knew him. That is my excuse. You see---he was the best specimen our old aristocracy could make! But those eyes are not trustworthy, that mouth is cruel. I can see now in his whole figure the deadly lack there always was in him---the lack of ever having imagined that the wishes of others had the slightest importance, unless they helped to carry out his own. He took what he liked; and never paid for it. When I was sixteen I was what he liked. Perhaps I could have got over my hero-worship of him as a perfect sportsman if he had not been a prince. We had begun to think rather less of our archdukes by 1920 but the myth of their aristocracy was still in my blood. As for my father, he was brought up in it---made by it. He had been Michel’s friend and doctor before I was born. Even as a child I was always Michel’s passionate plaything. Later I developed as he wished the passion of a girl for her lover. But I was of a younger generation than he, so I also developed a passion for my profession; and for the birth of our new Republic. Red---white---red---that meant something to me! I need not say that it meant less than nothing to Michel. Nevertheless he had a queer respect for me, and he believed that by not breaking my spirit he could control and keep my calf love---and up to a point he was right. I loved him; so he made concessions. I was allowed to study medicine. Nor did he care what I thought of politics. I shared everything in his physical life---riding, shooting, mountaineering, swimming, dancing---and nothing else. All these things he had taught me, and they were all things that the young love in each other; and respect in their elders. It was true Michel was twenty-four years older than I, but physically at forty, he had the strength and beauty of a young man. He could not marry me, because he was vowed to celibacy---a convention among the Habsburgs for one of their archdukes in each generation; but he settled this Schloss on me for life; and the farm upon my father. My mother had been, before her marriage to my father, the mistress of one of Michel’s uncles---so the whole thing was, as you might say, a family affair! Michel Salvator was never faithful to me; but I was at first too innocent, and then too proud to make much of a fuss at having my heart broken by him. Nor do I think it hurt me so much as when he was unfaithful to Austria. You see I loved our young Republic. I was one of its children; and Michel betrayed it. He pitted his wits against it; and used his money and his position for its overthrow. He betrayed us to the Italians whom we despised. He backed Dollfuss and Schuschnigg in their crime against the work-people of Wien. He vowed to me that he had taken no part in the massacre of 1934; and I found out that he had taken a large part. Twice this Habsburg---this man whose family for hundreds of years had been served by Austria---visited that mountebank Mussolini at Riccione to sell him our country as if it were a cow or a dog! Later on he became Hitler’s man and double-crossed Dollfuss who had been his faithful tool against our people. I tore myself away from him then---for in a sense I still loved him physically. I am---as well he knew I was---one of those unfortunate women who are faithful by nature as well as by expediency. I have never had another lover.

“What made it harder to let him go---though perhaps others might think it would have made it less hard---was that I had already discovered he had a disease of the mind. This discovery we hid for as long as we could---my father and I. It came on only occasionally and at first the attacks were short---but they grew more frequent and longer; and when we could hide it no longer---he disappeared.

“He disappeared you understand here---in the Schloss---where what is left of him now lives. I can do nothing for him; but I feel responsible for him still.”

Ida neither moved nor looked at Mark as she finished speaking. She seemed to have slipped so far away from him into the past, that he dared not touch her. It was strange that what Mark felt, looking from Ida to the portrait, was a queer pang of grief for the man who had lost her, rather than for Ida herself. Ida had lost nothing worth keeping, but those wild eyes in the portrait were looking for something that they had never found.

“He worshipped himself,” Ida said, with a little gesture of the hand, as if to push the man in the portrait further away from her, “that is why I learned to despise him.” She brought Mark his coffee, and drank her own, standing with her back to the portrait.

“You did not have to despise yourself,” Mark said at last after a long pause.

Ida shrugged her shoulders. “Oh yes,” she said, “I could easily despise myself. I was romantic. Yet what I had learned in 1920 was quite at variance with sentimentality. The old régime was utterly corrupt. Bertchhold had brought himself and his masters into ruin. Even as a child I tasted the result of their futile arrogance. Why should I have let myself be deceived by that beautiful tiger with his fantastic claims? I must myself have been a little like a tiger---I must myself have had some false claims to superiority! You see I have learned now that whatever we do---or whatever is done to us by others---in the end we damage only ourselves! We think ourselves of vast importance---and so we are to ourselves. What we do has certainly this much importance that it is a proof of what we are. I gave myself to Michel Salvator---and I cannot be surprised that his claims left their traces on me! Now let us come and have a look at him. Behind this tapestry is the door to the lift that takes us up into his apartments.”

The great room in which they found themselves was furnished as it had always been, in a sort of shabby grandeur, full of ornate and heavy pieces of furniture and endless trophies of the chase. Bear, lion and tiger skins stretched out over the parquet floor. Every size and kind of stag’s head decorated the walls. Cases of stuffed animals and birds grouped in a semblance of their old attitudes gazed uncannily out at them, from its vast sad emptiness. At the further end of the hall there was a gigantic cage and in this cage, Michel Salvator ran to and fro on all fours, very nimbly and tirelessly in spite of his age, as if he were the wolf he now thought that he was. The further end of his cage was darkened and stuffed with straw; and as the lights of the big room went on, the great, shaggy, hair-grown figure shambled back swiftly into its dark security.

“He cannot hear or understand anything that we say,” Ida told Mark. “But he feels perhaps a little startled and interrupted by our presence. Still if we remain here for a time he will probably come out, to take a look at us. Wolfgang and Helmuth sleep within call, but we need not, I think, disturb them.”

“But what---does he think he is?” Mark stammered, horrified and almost uncertain what he had actually seen.

“He thinks himself a werewolf,” Ida explained. “It is a fancy some of his race have suffered from before. Perhaps it comes from his long, curious semi-fellowship with animals. He has all his life preferred them to human beings, though he loved killing them. I suppose to kill is really a form of intimacy if you have never been trained how to live.”

“For how long,” Mark asked, “has he been like this?”

“If you mean,” Ida said with dispassionate directness, “how long has he been mad, I think I should have to admit that Michel has probably never been sane. He was actually practising his werewolf fantasy long before I left him. He once killed a peasant’s child in the mountains. At least one was found dead---terribly torn and mangled---where it was known he had been hunting. But for many years he only had an occasional short attack; and fully realized that he had them. My father knew of this fancy before my relationship with Michel---but he thought it controllable and a mere outburst of disguised cruelty not uncommon in carefree princes. We did not have to lock him up, except at stated intervals, till the war began, when Hitler demanded it for security reasons. Hitler has a most sympathetic feeling for him. Michel was one of his earliest Austrian supporters; and this has granted us a great deal of protection and immunity. You can imagine how much I enjoy it! Still, it has made us useful to you, Mark, and I hope to England!”

“Yes! it has,” Mark answered, “and was there ever any chance---any hope of his recovery?”

“Never any,” Ida said. “You see he cannot listen. Nor does he wish to change. To change anything or everything else---for that he was always ready---and incapable of fear---but to change himself---that never! He was like Hitler, whom in his smaller fashion he greatly resembles, certain that what he wanted was right. Unconsciously Michel envied the beasts their freedom from certain physical restraints. The range of their appetite---particularly that of murder---enchanted him. He was of course not always a werewolf---there is in reality no such thing---but he trained himself into becoming what he wanted to believe in, which was a werewolf! It is a considerably less harmful form of mania than Hitler’s---but both have the same origin---to rule omnipotently by getting rid of all moral restraints.”

“But, Ida---living with such a man---for ten years---what was it like---how did you survive it?” Mark cried incredulously.

Ida shrugged her shoulders. “Remember what he looked like!” she said dryly, “and also what his accomplishments were! Of course it was disconcerting to discover in intimacy that he very seldom took in anything that I said unless I agreed with him. Conversation with Michel was always composed of his own ideas; or of his orders, arising from his ideas. He never expected, and he was quite unprepared for anything, that he did not like. If I tried to present a new idea to him, he simply refused to listen, till a day came when his control shifted and he could not listen. He became then---and is now---completely inaccessible.”

“Doesn’t he know you?” Mark demanded.

“He never did know me,” Ida said with a twisted smile. “He sometimes has flashes of physical recognition; and at those moments he would of course pull me to pieces with his hands—if he could get hold of me. But he is quite safe where he is and most of the time wholly indifferent to anything but his meals and his imaginings. He very seldom tries to attack Wolfgang and Helmuth; but they take every precaution of course; and are sincerely attached to him. My father also visits him weekly. There were until lately long periods during which Michel was well enough to go to the farm. He and my father lived, during those periods, their old hunting-lodge lives together. But sooner or later the sports he followed roused Michel to some terrible excess or outbreak, so in time my father had to give up the attempt. But we always keep everything in readiness for any momentary return to his old habits. His bedroom is made up for him to sleep in, his gun is always oiled, his dogs who are rightly terrified to go near him now, would leap to meet him, were he to make even a partial recovery. The way back is open---it is the wayfarer who is missing!”

Both were silent. Ida stood nearest the heavy bars of the cage; and as she looked towards it, very slowly, blinking his great dark eyes, and turning his head stiffly from side to side as if the light hurt him, the tall figure shambled out uncertainly from its hiding-place; and pulled itself erect against the bars. Michel Salvator was incredibly tall; and he had kept much of his youthful slenderness. Standing against the bars, with his large claw-like hands fastened upon them, he looked as a beast might look, who stood on its hind legs and resembled a man; not like a man looks, who resembles a beast.

It was impossible to trace the extreme and lively beauty of the portrait in the thickened, blotched dullness of the face under its dishevelled thatch of hair. Nor was there any memory in the staring eyes. The wildness was there without the key to it. The creature he now was made uncouth and savage sounds, but they were not speech. He stared at Ida and Mark; but Mark doubted if he saw what he stared at. Whatever he saw was within his own darkened imagination.

“I think,” Ida said compassionately, “that he is always in the woods hunting! It is where he would like to be! I am always sorry that I cannot arrange a forest large enough---to hold him safely.”

As she turned away from the cage and its incredible occupant, the light fell on her hair. Perhaps Michel Salvator remembered the red gold tinge of it, for suddenly he gave a queer fierce cry, unlike any of the meaningless sounds he had made before. A cry that expressed both rage and longing. A door opened quietly and one of the keepers stood blinking sleepily at them. “It is only me,” Ida said quietly, “your master is as usual. I am sorry we should have disturbed you, Wolfgang!”

“It is of no consequence, Gnädigste,” the man said eagerly. “The Ertzherzog has been a little restless all day---because of the wind. But I had not thought there was any change in his condition or we would have telephoned you!”

“No, I think there is no change,” Ida said kindly. “I do not doubt your care of him. I only wanted this gentleman, who is one of my helpers, to see him; but Wolfgang, I am not allowed this gentleman’s help by those who now interfere with us---you understand, it is better that you should not have seen him!”

Wolfgang promptly answered, “I have not seen any gentleman, Gnädigste.”

Ida did not speak again until they were back in her room, nor could Mark break the silence between them. Ida gave a little bitter sigh, as she looked at Mark’s grave face. “Now,” she said, “you need not be jealous any more, need you?”

“Was I jealous?” Mark asked her. “If I was, Ida---it was because of what I have never had---not of any person who had had it! It was your dreams I wanted.”

“Ah!” said Ida, with a sharp nod of her head. “Well then, I hope you are cured of any tenderness for dreams! They are incurably dangerous. You see when I was young I thought I could have plain science and honest politics with romantic grandeur, and you see what I got for being so unreasonably greedy! Since I have grown up there is no room in my life for fairy princes and now I infinitely prefer men. But you can well understand that I have a special personal grudge against the Nazis. Poor Michel’s head---perhaps never very strong---was turned by too much power. No man dare wield power over another human being---why should he? He may have great powers put into his hands to keep order---for some common purpose---but what goes beyond this rots the brain! I keep this portrait of Michel Salvator not because I love to remember him as he was in all his terrible beauty---his beauty itself became hateful to me long before we parted, since it was an instrument of the power he used to subdue others---but because I wanted never to forget the cheat his beauty stood for!”

“You are hard on him,” murmured Mark. “You are hard on---on beauty, Ida!”

“Only if it exploits others am I hard on it,” Ida answered quickly. “I love innocent beauty---beauty that is unconscious of its own spell---and can be used at will to strengthen the heart of the beholder; but all these things, Mark, the jewels I am wearing to-night---the luxury of this room---the padded miserable boredom of privileged lives like ours together here---it is this that gave the Nazis their power---it is this they fight and dupe the world for---it is their logic that made Michel Salvator turn from a man into a beast!”

Mark’s eyes fell away from the fierce coldness of Ida’s. He did not want to believe that what she said was true. Some sympathy in him still ranged itself upon the side of Michel Salvator.

Ida waited for a moment as if she had expected something further from Mark; and then she shrugged her shoulders and turned away from him, as if she had ceased expecting it; but she spoke gently and without bitterness. “Go back to bed now,” she told him, “and do not torture yourself any more. I am too old to be in any hurry for your love---or for my own. It is hard for a man whose body has been broken to keep his spirit intact!”

Mark followed her in silence into the lift and down into the library. Once more he looked at the portrait of Michel Salvator as if to wring from it the secret of the cruel change he had witnessed. But there was no degradation in the portrait, nor was there any understanding of it. “I am glad I have seen him,” Mark said at last groping for his crutches. Ida did not try to help him. She did not even look at Mark as if she wanted to help him.

He turned and went out of the library by himself, up the short staircase and along the corridor that separated his room from her own.