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Our Library => Phyllis Bottome - The Lifeline (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on March 10, 2023, 04:11:22 am

Title: Chapter 38
Post by: Admin on March 10, 2023, 04:11:22 am
IT was not for Ida that Mark’s thoughts and feelings were roused and tormented. He could not get the shambling figure of Michel Salvator out of his mind. How could it be possible to sink from such splendour into such pitiful bestiality? What rotten spot could spread so deep as to change the very stuff of pride and manhood into such a spectacle of degradation? Ida must have suffered, and suffered horribly, but she had escaped. Her sufferings had even been of value to her. Perhaps she could not have had so much courage nor seen so deeply into the human heart, nor have foiled with so much skill and courage the traps of the Gestapo, had she not already passed through years of fearful physical and spiritual self-discipline. But what had Michel Salvator created out of all his splendour and his skill, his pride and his beauty? Nothing but ugliness and cruelty. He had betrayed the woman he loved; and the country he might have saved; but worst of all because more irretrievably, he had betrayed himself. What was the secret of his giddy fall from such a height? From where had this hidden weakness sprung?

Mark threw open his window and looked out into the night. The motionless sharp air cleaned every breath he drew. The mountains were invisible, but Mark could feel their great presences gathered into a more solid darkness. Even the hidden pines were still. The splendid solitary stars were not more beautiful than Michel Salvator had been in his youth. What fault in him had killed his beauty? Is not every man a selective artist free to take life upon his own terms? Was it not right for a man to wish to be greater and stronger than other men? Must life be looked on as a low door, through which those who enter must always bow their heads? Had Mark himself not bowed his head low enough? He could say that he had not lived selfishly. He had wanted to share his knowledge---his specialized creed---with his pupils. Many teachers ignore the needs of the children they teach. They narrow their duties into building up the set examination pattern they are forced, for commercial reasons, to accept as each child’s goal. But Mark had never belonged to the commercial or careerist type of teacher. He had honestly tried to bring out the best of every boy under his care. He himself had lived austerely, abstemiously and intelligently, so that those keen-sighted eyes of youth should find nothing unhealthy or untrained in him to put them off their course. Why then should he find himself moving under this cloud of self-depreciation? Why should he compare himself with a man who had sunk to the level of a beast and ran about on all fours? The bright distant stars and the lightly frozen air gave him no answer.

If he felt insecure and depressed, he told himself, it was a mere hang-over from convalescence---yet all night long he remained awake, tossing restlessly upon his bed, and asking himself questions. Why was this sense of guilt and insecurity in some men and not in others? Felix had not had it though he had every reason to feel baffled and insecure. Pirschl’s Anna had gone unstumblingly to death without it. Karl and Gerda were curiously and vigilantly secure. Above all, in their strange simplicity Lisa and Father Martin, so unlike each other in every other way, had obviously shared this deep untroubled integrity. They could be destroyed but Mark knew that they could never be changed. He was not so sure about himself. In his own mind he wavered like a minnow in a stream carried here and there by fickle eddies he could not control. He loved---and felt without the power of loving. He had courage and yet he knew that he might lose his courage.

The darkness grew thinner as the hours passed. Through his window he could watch the great round head of the Hohe Mund lift itself out of the darkness. Slowly the shapes of the grey world slipped into his sight. Beneath the black shadow of the pines, the valley floor lay shrouded in a thick white mist. The air above the mist became gradually flushed with apricot from the still invisible sun. A star or two gleamed a clear primrose in the colourless sky. Little trees on the skyline sprang one by one into sudden flame. The whole outline of the Hohe Mund burned slowly into gold; one by one his sister peaks caught the first light, until the gorgeous empty day held itself out to man to fill with his poor dreams.

“To-day the Gestapo comes again to visit the hospital,” Johann told Mark when he brought him his early breakfast. “The Frau Doktor says, she’s very sorry but she thinks it best for you to come down into your old ward. The Gestapo object to private rooms; and it is no good having their attention drawn to any particular patient. The Frau Doktor cannot come to see you this morning, but Father Martin, who turned up at an ungodly hour last night---I had to get a bed ready for him though I wasn’t on night work---will come instead! These holy fathers do very well without sleep or food themselves, but they should sometimes remember that the less godly prefer their bodily comforts to anything they might get later on, in the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t know what is the matter with the Frau Doktor this morning---if she were a woman like other women one would say she had been crying her eyes out. No one knows what for---but for certain something bad is about to happen! Perhaps those Nazi devils will stop us from keeping pigs although as it is---they get the best of the bacon! However whatever is to come about, just get up and get your clothes on, so as to be ready to come down when I’m sent to fetch you---and for God’s sake don’t sling any of your tantrums about---on the top of everything else! Steinbosch broke a chamber pot over Müller’s head this morning!”

Mark had hardly finished his breakfast before there was a light tap on his door. Father Martin came in unhurriedly. He looked older, and was much thinner in the face, but he had the same expression, as if unlike everyone else in the prison of Austria, he was not threatened.

Before he sat down by Mark’s bed, he glanced appreciatively out of the open window to the tops of the pines, spreading like a carpet beneath them. The hot March sun was pouring down upon their swaying floor. “I am glad to hear you are stronger now,” Father Martin said after a moment’s silence. “I could not come to see you before since I was away in Italy on a mission. You know we have a house in Venice. Ida told me also that for some months at least you would be unable to take messages. You feel yourself fit now?”

Mark, meeting his eyes, looked at him a little defiantly. “I can walk,” he said grudgingly, “like a cripple. There is nothing else the matter with me. What is it you think I should do now---with what is left of me?”

“I think,” Father Martin said reflectively, “that you should go back to England. You know now, what few if any agents know of what is going on inside Germany. Your life as a runner from Berlin was of great service, but it may be that your face became known. It is time to go back with your knowledge before you are prevented. Things are happening all the time which make it more difficult to keep any agent safe for any length of time, and I think as the war goes on, it will become more difficult. We shall have to send whatever messages we can get out through swiftly moving agents. Such agents can take what each one comes for---scraps of definite technical information, but they will not be able to give what you can now give to the authorities in England, a whole picture of the Reich. You have lived and travelled, and been yourself a part of this strange prison life we lead. Your country should learn not only what the Nazis can do, but what they are---and how people become Nazis! For a long while I did not know that you could teach them this---but now I think that you can!”

“That is funny,” Mark said grimly. “It is precisely now, that I know I can’t. Something happened to me when those brutes beat me up. It wasn’t physical---that wouldn’t have mattered---they cleaned me out of my self-confidence! I can’t explain---but I knew when I woke up here---and saw Ida looking down at me---that I hadn’t got any self-respect left. If you’ve got to teach anybody anything you must have self-respect.”

“Yes,” agreed Father Martin. “One must have respect for all human beings—even oneself. It is this that the Nazis do not understand. It is what you can now, better than most men, explain to your people. Because in every country there are some---often in positions of authority---who forget this respect that is due to all other human beings.”

“You say I can tell my people what the Nazis are like,” objected Mark. “Well---I daresay you think that fairly easy---but what are they like? They are like men, who are no longer men—you can explain a man to a man, but not a man who isn’t one!”

Father Martin was silent for a moment, then he said almost apologetically, “It is true what you say---or almost true---it was part of my mission lately to be in a concentration camp for some weeks as a prisoner; but it was easy for me since I knew I was to be released in a short time. I had to find out certain information I could get in no other way. But to me it seemed more as if those men who ran the camp, were still men, but men who had lost their way home. You know how savage a lost dog can get---well they were like that! You see a human being has no home but God. He must, if he is to keep sane, be always moving towards that Home; and there is only one path that reaches it---the love of his brother man. It is why I have never been able to disregard what the Russians are doing, though I have greatly feared their false dictatorship methods---nor could I defend Franco, though many priests did. Always I saw that the path of Communism and of Republican Spain---was the one that led to God. The Democracies have still to learn this! They have not yet decided for one thing or the other---God or Mammon. The Nazis have lost all sense of direction, but the Democracies have not yet found the road to what they believe. You can do more---now that you understand this---to show your people the right way.”

“That’s not the kind of message you can give to the Foreign Office,” Mark said ironically. “You believe in God and it makes you feel fixed and safe whatever happens to you. But I’ve never felt any real conviction as to religion. Yet I have believed in a world where common sense and decency could prevail, and in a sense I’ve tried to help them prevail. Well now I know, they simply don’t any more! and I can’t see any sense in going on living!”

“Evil is as individual as good,” Father Martin objected, “as long as there is a less bitter way can you not take it? It is a man’s choice that proves life good or evil. You must by now---even here in this country---have seen many people who have chosen not to be Nazis? What surprises me after living four years under their sway is to discover the Nazi limitations, so many such simple people get the better of them. Even in the camp---these same people created kindness. I know many are tortured and die in agony. The Nazis degrade women and darken children’s lives. Beyond all expression what they do is horrible. Such evil is still, for those in more fortunate lands, unimaginable. Yet even in days when there were no Nazis---such evils existed; and men would not believe it, because they did not care to alter what was evil. It cost too much. What we see now---because the Nazis have so plainly shown it to us on a large scale---is the cause of this evil. Evil is made out of the refusal to love our neighbour as ourselves. You have looked at the naked Face of Hate---for it is hate Hitler has taught the whole of the German nation; and it is not surprising that you are shaken by it. You would not be human if you had not been shaken. But the naked face of love is stronger. When we have learned how to drive emotion into the science of loving---even as Hitler has taught the Nazis how to drive emotion into the science of hate---then man will once more find himself on his way home.”

Mark made no answer, but he looked at Father Martin. He knew that he was a young man; and he saw that the concentration camp had broken his youth to pieces. Yet he sat, still as a tree on a windless day---grown in the cleft of a rock. Nothing that had happened to him had changed him. He looked unconcerned with the flight of time, or the threatening events of the day. He even seemed unconcerned as to whether Mark was impressed by what he had said or not. At last Mark spoke as if the words were dragged out of him. “Have you ever seen Michel Salvator?”

Father Martin’s eyes turned on Mark speculatively, but without surprise. “Oh, yes,” he said, “many times. But he is inaccessible. Man cannot reach him any more.”

“Well then,” Mark said triumphantly almost as if he had found an argument stronger than Father Martin’s, “you see what I mean. Something in him has died, and I believe he valued it---as I value what the Nazis beat out of me. I came here to do what I thought was my duty---I couldn’t, if you know what I mean, not come! Well, you look at his portrait, he had just the same special sort of self-respect in his face that I believe in! He had a right to be proud of something that he had! Can you tell me what happened to it---and why?”

Father Martin looked at Mark wonderingly. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, “Michel Salvator thought that he had a dignity belonging to himself alone. If he did---it was a mistake---dignity is common to all. There is no such special right. Perhaps too he counted upon a security that is no man’s property. I cannot tell you what he was like before he turned away from all communication with his brothers. But I have been told, and I can believe that he was always hunting and destroying life. So that we cannot be surprised if in the end life hunted and destroyed him. Ida tried hard to save him---but love is a task for two. She could not save him in spite of himself---only as it were with himself---for that he was too proud. There is no safety beyond the safety of loving. Such safe love I have often seen in mothers; sometimes in men of science; even in artists for what they make. These lovers die easily for what they love. Nor---if you beat them to death---would you be able to kill the thing for which they died. Knowing this---they would prefer death---to keeping alive without what they loved.”

“As Pirschl did,” Mark muttered.

“Yes, I think, as Pirschl did,” agreed Father Martin, “only he was afraid---he must have forgotten that the Nazis could not kill the vision that he could no longer paint.”

“I am afraid,” Mark said in a low voice, “that is what I cannot forgive myself. I am afraid.”

“But surely,” Father Martin urged, “even the best and strongest of us must fear sometimes? In fact not to be afraid when there is good reason for fear is foolishness. It is how we behave when we are afraid that proves whether a man is a hero or a coward. I have heard that when in danger---you were the very opposite of a coward.”

“It is not what I feel---not now,” Mark told him. “What makes a man a coward?”

“The coward,” Father Martin said consideringly, “is a man who feels only for himself---he lives for himself---he dies for himself---or for something that he believes expresses himself. The hero thinks only of others; and while he is afraid he still acts for others; and in this act may die for them. The Nazis have a strange willingness to face death, because on the whole they are more afraid of life---but I should not call this heroism. It is when you love life so much that you must risk everything you possess to save it for others---that you have a right to speak of courage! That is indeed the new kind of courage I once mentioned to you. You have sometimes to sacrifice the life of those you love---for the sake of life itself. We must free life for loving; at any and every cost.”

“But to be afraid,” Mark said after a pause, “when you have believed in your power of always overcoming fear---how can you teach anything after that?”

“Fear is not final,” Father Martin said firmly. “What is final is always what we love.”

Mark was silent. Outside his window he could hear the life of the farmhouse begin, cocks crew, cow-bells rang, men shouted to each other. “What is happening to Ida?” he asked impatiently. “Why can’t I see her? I’ve been such a fool---and now it seems too late not to be! You don’t know what a man feels like, locked in a room all day long---while the woman he loves is exposed to any and every danger!”

Father Martin rose. “I am glad you have asked me about her,” he said with a friendly smile, “because it is part of what I came here to tell you, and to ask your help for her. She was very much concerned that she could not come to you herself. She wanted you to realize that she could not consult you as she would have wished. There was no time. I could not get here to give her warning as soon as I had hoped. She had to make her arrangements. The Gestapo will be here by eleven o’clock; and to-night you and I must leave. They come to make what they call a ‘mercy killing’. Not all of Ida’s patients must die---but many of them. You know that she has feared this for a long time. They have made concessions for her---and even to-day this last concession that she begged for---they will let her kill her patients herself. You, too, will receive an injection like the others---but yours will be harmless, and you will be carried to the Prince’s wing when it is over---where I shall await you. I have brought a habit with me and proper papers. When you leave here you must travel with me to Venice as a fellow monk. There is nothing for you to do but to lend yourself to what happens.”

“There always seems nothing for me to do but to be pushed about by others!” Mark said bitterly.

“You will have to make great efforts,” Father Martin assured him gently. “You are not yet strong. Much will be required of you before this journey is over. Ida needs your help. She is very unhappy that this has come---and so quickly!”

“All right,” Mark said, after a moment’s pause. “I’m ready.”

“Then I will leave you,” Father Martin said, turning to look back at Mark from the doorway. “You remember that when you first came to us I wondered how much you were going to give Austria. But now I know that you will give all.”