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Chapter 21

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« on: March 08, 2023, 11:18:03 pm »

DOWN in the valley of the Inn, the streets were full of laughing barbarians. Bells rang, flags flew; children with their arms full of flowers sang and made holiday.

Mark listened incredulously to the boastful triumph of the quisling-hearted. If it was incredible that France could fall, it was still more incredible that Austria should rejoice at the defeat of Europe’s Light-bringer. “Is it true? Is it true?” Mark asked himself incredulously. “Can the Maginot Line be turned---can’t they fill this gap at Sedan? Is it really true that France is falling?”

As he climbed the steep slopes of the Wetterstein towards the plateau, above the deep ravine where the Spanish horses were hidden, the sun beat down on him with ruthless strength.

“Is it true,” Mark asked Hermann fiercely, as the small side door in the barn sprang open to admit him. “Is it true, Hermann, what they say in the valley, that France is falling?”

Hermann closed the door quietly after Mark before answering, then he said cautiously, “We have a radio here and listen in every night to London; it sounds bad even there. They are not defending Paris. I know the Gräfin is unhappy---when she is unhappy she rises every day earlier in the morning. To-morrow the horses dance as usual. Nothing has happened since you left here; but there is a bad feeling in the air. The horses feel it. Emerald forgot his figure in the dance on Saturday; he excites himself always the most, but even Pearl feels it. Twice, if you will believe me, she stumbled on our early ride this very morning---a horse as steady as that one never stumbles with a heart at rest. There are people who believe that beasts can foretell nothing and have no instincts wiser than a man’s; but they have not lived with animals as I have! They know when a storm is coming! You would grant that, I suppose? Every horse knows it; every seagull! Why then should they not know when storms in men’s hearts are coming?”

Mark nodded. He had taken his last climb too quickly, and was glad to rest in the shadowy barn, eating and talking with Hermann. He did not notice how much more quickly the time passed, nor how interested he was now in Hermann’s simple talk, whereas before he had thought it commonplace and dull.

When Hermann left him to announce his arrival at the Schloss, Mark went to each loose box in turn, to renew his acquaintance with the horses. While the three others treated Mark with wary courtesy, Pearl instantly recognized the sound of his voice and came forward to the edge of the stall, nuzzling her velvet nose against his shoulder. Her dark eyes rested on him without fear, her delicate ears pricked forward as if not to lose anything he wanted to say to her. Mark slipped into her stall, resting his head against her shoulder. The touch of her firm, sensitive body comforted him. Was it possible that in everything living, treated with respect and friendliness, there was this same element---so often overlooked; so terribly misused; but indestructible and, when used rightly, such a strength to the heart? It was fanciful to let himself be reminded of Lisa by a horse, and yet Pearl comforted him in the same way as Lisa had comforted him, when he was as full of fear for himself as he was now for his country. “You see---you see,” he whispered to the horse, “if France falls we shall be quite alone!” Pearl stirred gently; she seemed to breathe in his helpless anguish; and share it with her quiet strength. He heard the sound of quick footsteps approaching the barn, and dragged himself reluctantly away from her, to find that Ida had returned with Hermann. “Ah! so you’re here,” she said in her light cool voice. “Well---you did what you wanted? You met your friends? Your mission was O.K. as you say in England?”

Mark nodded. “Yes---but France?” he demanded wretchedly. “All day I’ve heard nothing but German ecstatic forecasts of the defeat of France; and I have heard them from the lips of Austrians!”

Ida sat down on an upturned bucket; crossed her slim, shapely legs, and lit a cigarette before answering him. “After two years of German occupation what else should you expect to hear?” she asked looking up at him with a quizzical grin. “When Austria was seized were your papers aflame in our interests? I understood that Schuschnigg’s great speech was barely referred to in France and England---not even reprinted verbatim in the Times. Oh, yes, I know people in both the great Democracies regretted the occupation exceedingly; and were even allowed to say so! Do you suppose---do you really suppose that the people of Austria do not mind the fall of France? But what to the dead is a fresh corpse? And if they mind---under the Prussian heel---how dare they say so? My friend Mark, you have not yet realized what a mere luxury it is to feel sympathy, or if you feel it---to express it!”

Mark stared out from the open door towards the distant slopes of the Hohe Mund---how freely the great peak stood alone against the summer sky---but how indifferent to those who decided their own fates; but could not change one small flower growing in the crack of a rock upon his stony side. “But,” Mark murmured, “think---what will Europe be if France goes? For a hundred---perhaps for a thousand years? And what the world without France---without Europe---shall we be human still at the end of it? What will happen to science---what to religion? Will there be a single artist or a wise man left?”

Ida smoked silently, almost carelessly, Mark thought, before she spoke at last, without carelessness.

“Heroes,” she said, “are unpredictable! They can make nonsense of almost any obstacle. Perhaps we shall get enough heroes. I find, whatever happens, that I can still believe a little in mankind. I can even believe that it will escape the fate those nervous Germans have prepared for themselves and us. Hitler, Mussolini, this Tojo in Japan---what are they? Ignorant louts that have got into a powerful machine and believe nobody can withstand them because their machine is powerful! Yes---but they have against them men such as your Churchill, Roosevelt and that clever devil---Stalin! These men are civilized, educated and energetic---it is they who are powerful---as well as the machines. I will not give up hope because France, in an evil hour, is a house divided against herself and must therefore fall! Even if I give up hope for France---I will keep it for Britain---if Britain fails---then I keep my hope at least for man! Not for ever will he let unskilled immoral tramps control all the laws of Time and space---except the most important of all laws---how man should behave himself, in time and space. I have not given up my Spanish horses. Shall I give up the spirit of man? Not if ten thousand Hitlers held down for centuries every planet in the sky!”

Mark drew a deep breath. “I feel better after that,” he said, “please go on believing in England! We shan’t give up, you know, even if France falls. But we shall need all the faith there is for the next few years!”

“Perhaps for longer,” Ida admitted. “I don’t know why I should believe in you---as a people, I mean. You’re so ridiculous---but I do! You are so hopelessly arrogant---so blind, so overwhelmingly stupid---so benevolent---so tough---so admirably independent---so defencelessly optimistic---so---on the whole whenever you stop to think about it---honest!”

Mark laughed. “If you go on criticizing England you’ll make me proud,” he said, “or angry---I don’t know which---but in either case I shall become quite cheerful---which I suppose is what you are trying to make me---I begin to see how your method works!”

“Then it is time for me to go home,” Ida said, throwing away the stub of her cigarette, and stamping it out neatly, “before you learn all my secrets! But first, go into Hermann’s room, where you will find the clothes you left in---change into them---and you will find me again, in the car outside the main door. We shall drive up to the Schloss---as if from the station. You see you are returning from the Nervenheilanstalt in Innsbruck since you could not stand the lead injections (these would have taken a month)! Nevertheless you showed improvement. Therefore you can be promoted to our general male section, where you will find we are only mad upon one subject---or I should say in one direction---the same subject always---self---but not used wrongly in all directions! You will even have a room to yourself---next door to Felix’s little apartment. There we can talk every evening, after the lights go out---and what is more interesting still at the moment we can listen, to what London says.”

Mark’s hand closed on Ida’s. “Ida!” he said urgently. “Ida!”

Ida returned the grasp of his hand with a quick warm pressure, but she pushed him away from her. “No! No!” she said. “You are an unhappy man! More unhappy than when we parted---though the world is much the same! I don’t know what this new unhappiness of yours is, but I do not believe it is altogether the deepening threat to France. Do not try to make love to me when you are unhappy! For one thing it is unfair to yourself---an ungenerous woman might take advantage of you---and accept it! Also, my friend, it is less than fair to me, for I do not wish to be used as a baby’s dummy and sucked at---just because your bottle with the real milk in it has been broken!”

Mark dropped her hand as if she had stung him. He had meant to tell Ida about Lisa; but now he knew that he would never tell her. He was so angry that he forgot how unhappy he had been before Ida had made him angry.

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