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Chapter 20

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« on: March 08, 2023, 09:23:06 pm »

THE little farm lay, like something dropped into a crystal, in the clear stillness of the dawn light. Nothing moved; nothing had changed. The green of the steep meadows shone like a back-cloth under the crop of grey rocks, out of which the Wildspitze rose in all its grandeur, storming the blue depths of the untroubled sky.

The sun had not yet risen over the peak but its light already made the dew upon the meadow cobwebs dance like jewels; the beasts were still asleep in their stalls; no smoke rose in the keen air. The shrine cast a long black shadow over the shut crocuses. Mark moved cautiously from one rock cover to another until he reached the eaves of the big barn, connecting with the chalet. Only Lisa’s and the boys’ room looked out on this side of the farm; and it was easy for Mark to climb from the roof of a shed beneath it, on to the balcony that ran the length of both their rooms. Frontier guards and visitors always occupied the front of the chalet; they even had their own staircase. Only the Planer family, and the greatly privileged Mark, ever used the boys’ rooms; or climbed the chicken ladder that led from the kitchen to the north side of the house.

Lisa’s window was unexpectedly shut; but it was not latched. Very softly Mark pushed it upwards and stepped into the little room. It was very clean and bare, and filled with light. Lisa lay on the narrow bed as if asleep, smoothly, as poured-out milk, but Mark knew before he reached her side that she was dead. Everything was in order, and with her hands clasped on her breast, dressed by her mother for the last time, Lisa awaited her burial. The little wound above her heart was hidden, nor was there any trace of shock or pain upon her serene features. But something had gone from her face; Lisa’s expression, innocent and kindly, full of spontaneous and untroubled loving, had passed with her spirit, out of sight.

Mark knelt beside the bed and pressing his head close to that cruel stillness, cried like a child. It was as if his heart would never know again anything so easy or so kind.

He had told Lisa nothing of his life; his mind full of knowledge, tied to history and filled with literature, had never had anything to do with her. Nor had his plans envisaged their future together. Lisa only understood the life of a peasant girl on a mountain farm. Without animals and the growing earth, her church and her neighbours, she would have been lost. Nor could Mark, except for a few weeks out of a full year, have borne to live her manner of life with her; yet deep, deep within him, his heart cried out against his loss. The roots of Mark’s being felt dragged out of him. With no other woman would he ever again feel the ease and lightness of a laughing child. Time and life stood still together; and he had no idea how long he had knelt till the sun grew warm on his shoulders. Perhaps a little of Lisa’s spirit reached him for suddenly remembering the old Planers, Mark pulled himself together, to go downstairs, to meet and comfort them. He tip-toed first into the boys’ room next door, expecting to find Peter, for whom he felt sure they would have sent. But the room was as empty as Mark had left it. The Edelweiss was still unfaded, its soft white flowers hung limply from the cracked blue mug where Lisa must have placed it, to greet his return. Perhaps there had been no time to reach Peter; and no one to send. “An Edelweiss is about as useful to her dead as my love would have been to her living!” Mark said bitterly to himself---yet because Lisa had smiled, when she saw it in his hand, and guessed perhaps that he had risked his life to pick it for her, Mark took the flower in to her, and laid it on her closed hands.

He crept downstairs in his stocking feet, for he did not want to wake the parents into their new sorrow if they were still asleep. “Halt! Put up your hands!” a strange voice shouted stridently, as he opened the door into the kitchen. Mark had forgotten there might be a guard. He felt much as a man might feel, moving about in the dark when what he thought was empty space becomes an unexpected piece of furniture. Now he was face to face with the first Nazi he had yet met as man to man. Mark did not put his hands above his head; he simply stared at the young stern face gazing into his own, with a faint surprise that anyone so young, with so open and pleasant a countenance, should order him to do so foolish a thing.

The flaxen-haired, blue-eyed boy could have been little more than twenty. Was it this child, Mark asked himself, this nervous, kindly-looking child, who had killed Lisa? The boy looked at him uncertainly. “Who are you?” he demanded. Mark sat down opposite him. “I am the lover of that girl upstairs,” he said quietly. “I left her living; and I find her dead. Did you kill her?”

“No! No!” the boy said quickly. “It was a terrible accident---a mistake! No one meant to kill her!”

“Where are her parents?” Mark demanded. He lit a cigarette and handed one across the table to the guard. It was curious how instantly the old habit of firm and courteous leadership had returned to Mark. He was unarmed, and without any form of protection; but the embarrassment was all on the side of his well-armed adversary. The boy hesitated for a moment, and then laid down his revolver and took the proffered cigarette. “The parents had to be taken down the mountain for questioning,” he explained. “I myself took them---to explain what had happened so that they would not be punished harshly. They will be allowed to return---probably some time to-day---even a priest and some relatives will be permitted to accompany them from the Thal. Meanwhile they sent me back here just in case anyone turned up.”

“And if anyone turned up?” Mark asked grimly, “just as I did now, for instance, what are you to do with him?”

The young man looked profoundly disturbed.

“I don’t want to do anything!” he burst out after a pause. “I am from Bayern. I, too, worked on a farm. I promised the old people I would milk the cows this morning---and I helped the old man attend to them yesterday---before they went down---while the mother---well, the mother, you understand---she was with the girl! And now I know who you are---if you didn’t kill Braun---I shan’t have to say anything! I simply shan’t report you!”

Mark shook his head. “I didn’t kill Braun,” he said curtly.

“Then that’s all right,” the boy said more easily. “If you had killed Braun---naturally I must do something! Braun was one of my comrades. The body was found yesterday, at the foot of a big drop---it was thought he had been climbing for some Edelweiss and fallen over. Then no one killed him! But what happened here was different. It was a queer-looking accident and my comrade Heiss was sent up here with me to look for Braun---well---the bull killed him! What is left of him is still in the barn waiting for an officer to come up here and examine it. I advise you not to go in there---it is schrecklich unangenehm to look at!”

“What exactly happened?” Mark asked.

“It was this way,” the boy explained, wrinkling his smooth forehead into knots. “We came up here---as I told you---Heiss and I---to look for Braun---he was overdue and directly anyone is overdue---someone is sent to find out why. In all the occupied countries we are told this will be so---for a time at any rate---even in Austria, which is of course not Austria but Greater Germany. Still a soldier’s life is a dangerous one. Heil Hitler!

As Mark made no response to this reassuring expletive, the boy went on uncertainly, after a pause, “The family here were simple people, like my own, so that I could understand them very well---but both Braun and Heiss---they came from towns---couldn’t. They were not rough---but they couldn’t understand them; and the animals got in their way; and that annoyed them. The girl went out to the further barn, where the bull is kept, to see that he was quite secure---for he was making so much noise we could hardly hear ourselves speak. It was obvious he was a wild one! Well---somehow or other---it must have been that she couldn’t manage by herself to secure him---for out he came, though without touching her. She shouted to us to look to ourselves; and there was just time to get out of his way. I jumped for the hen-house, but Karl was too proud to jump---he wanted to shoot. ‘A pity,’ I thought. ‘He doesn’t know what a good bull’s worth!’ The old people had gone back to the house by then, quicker than you would have expected, but even old people can move quick when a bull charges. Heiss was in a panic; and he isn’t too good a shot either! The girl had come right out into the meadow---maybe to entice the bull off Heiss. Maybe she thought she could stop Heiss firing---for she screamed again, that made him more in a fluster still---and somehow or other she got into the line of fire---and he shot her dead. Just clean through the heart it must have been---for she threw up her arms and fell all in a heap, and never moved again; and that did for old Heiss because before he could fire once more the bull was on him. Nothing could be done about that---not with a bull that size who’s a natural killer! We couldn’t get him off Heiss---and anyhow the old people had got to the girl by then; and couldn’t think of anything else. But you see how it was? You can’t lose two guards on the one farm, and not find out why---so I had to take the old people down for the questioning, though naturally they didn’t like leaving the girl!”

“Will they hurt the old people?” Mark demanded. “Are you sure, even after what you’ve told them, that they won’t?”

“No! No! We are very correct!” the boy replied proudly. “We do only what is right---especially when a case is clear! We have all been told, ‘The Austrian is your brother---but a younger---a weaker brother---treat him as such!’ We shall let those old people come back to their farm.”

Mark nodded, he was interested, in spite of his grief, to find out how the mind of this good enemy worked.

“I can see,” Mark said cautiously, “you are a fellow man---a true comrade---for though I am after all an Austrian---I am a peasant like yourself---and no Nazi. I don’t always know what to think of this new Reich---and of Hitler who has made it.”

The boy’s face lit, “Our Leader!” he exclaimed with reverent joy. “Well, you must know---he is always right! That he is inspired by God---there is no question! Think what he has made of Germany! Already it controls Europe---France is falling---England is a mere mouthful---we shall control the world! Much that we must do may be hard for us; but we have only to be staunch and obey. Hitler sees further than we do; he sees through pain---through torture---through the break-up of homes and countries to the peace of the whole world. If the world had only seen this, as Hitler saw it, there would have been no war---but when the war is over---then all will see it! Except perhaps the Russians,” he added after a moment’s ecstatic thought, “we are not quite sure about the Russians; but if they do not accept us---then they too will have to be fought! But if they give us the Ukraine there will be no need for any more war. Europe is ours---America and the black people have no weapons---so to-morrow we control the world!”

Mark looked at this grandiose prospect without comment. “And you yourself,” he ventured at last, “if you were told to hurt a girl---to kill a child---to torture an old man---this you would do---for Hitler and in order to control the world?”

“But we should not be told to commit such crimes,” the boy said proudly, “unless of course you mean debased people like Jews or Communists---such dangerous rebels we might have to kill---like vermin!”

“Yes,” Mark said quietly, “but you see they are not vermin! They are human beings like yourself!”

The boy shook his head obstinately. “If I am ordered by my Leaders---naturally I must obey them!” he explained. “If I disobey I should not be a good soldier; and my death would be useless to the Fatherland. Besides there is my blood. I am German.”

“But what about your life,” Mark insisted. “Can that be made useful by committing crimes? My girl upstairs---who was shot---her life was of more value to this earth than her death, do you not think so? Why, if you Germans are our brothers, must you station armed guards upon our farms, who know nothing about animals, and may kill our girls, even by mistake?”

The boy looked pained and scratched his head. It was obvious that he was not accustomed to think, and found the process both irritating and exhausting. “It is enough!” he said impatiently. “I am being very lenient with you. I could have shot you at sight! But do not think I am not sorry about your girl. I am very sorry---but it was an accident! As for our being up here on a farm---that must be for a time so close to a frontier. Things happen on frontiers---dangerous people might escape across them. There must be guards until there are no dangerous people left.”

“Well! Well!” Mark said, giving up the argument, “I hear the cows lowing to be milked! If you will let me go my way into the Innthal I shall be grateful. I have work to do, and do not want to lose time over useless questionings.”

The boy agreed eagerly. Mark watched him for a time before he left him. This lad from Bavaria knew his work well, and milked the cows as carefully as if he loved to handle animals. Before they parted, they breakfasted together on food they found in the kitchen.

“I am sorry you have to go,” the boy said, as Mark swung his rucksack over his shoulder for departure. “Staying up here all alone with these dead people, even if it is daylight, I find it unheimlich!

“Yes,” said Mark rather drily, “I can imagine that you would. Before I leave---what has happened to Franz Josef---the bull? Did you feel it your duty to kill him too?”

“No,” the boy replied, flushing uneasily, “after all I was alone after Heiss was killed. I had no orders about bulls! The farmer up here, he said, ‘Leave him to walk off his murder---and then together we will pitchfork him home---towards his stall!’ And this we did! It was difficult---but driving in the cows before him, helped us. They must decide down in the Thal what must be done with the bull!”

“I hope,” said Mark, holding out his hand to the boy, “that they will do nothing! After all he avenged my girl!”

The boy shook hands with Mark warmly. “Heiss was my comrade!” he said regretfully, “but after all---I, too, have a girl. I thought yours was a little like her somehow---I can understand your feelings! Heil Hitler!

Mark could not, for the moment, force his lips to this salute. “Grüss Gott!” he said firmly instead, turning to climb the hill behind the farm. The sun had drunk the shadows up from the shrine. The crucified figure under the penthouse was bathed in golden light. Mark stopped beside the shrine to look for a last time on the farm. It seemed suddenly very simple to Mark, looking up at the Figure on the Cross, to love enough to die for one’s friends---that was understandable to any human heart; but to hate enough to kill---to kill even friendly innocent people for the sake of hate---that could not be understood by any human being until you had destroyed his humanity.
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