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Chapter 26

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« on: March 09, 2023, 06:31:51 am »

HIDING in daylight, riding from dusk to dawn, it was the fourth night since they left the Inn valley before they reached the Schloss of Gräfin Ödön Bezzeghy, in the Burgenland, twenty miles from the frontier. Their clothes had never been dry, their nerves never off the stretch since they started, but they had managed to arrive towards the end of their journey in a state of astonishing mutual harmony. There had been occasional breaks in their accord, when hiding in the drifting woods or taking refuge behind barns in imminent danger of arrest, each had taken a different view of the moment’s emergency; and had expected the other to give way to it. But each had been secretly surprised and pleased at a certain willingness in the other, to make light of differences of opinion, and to adjust to what they found he or she could not overcome. Both had sound nerves and excellent manners and neither wished to override the will of the other.

When danger was actively upon them they had acted with surprising unanimity. Ida had a quicker wit, Mark the more imperturbable serenity.

“Ours has been a good combination,” Ida told him as they approached the small white village beneath the little hill upon which Schloss Bezzeghy had perched for several hundred years, ugly, solid and unchangeable. “But now we shall have to share a new way of looking at things together. We must become genuine Nazis! My cousin, Bezzeghy Ödön, is Gauleiter of this district, my cousin Fritz is a general in the Wehrmacht, mountaineering on leave. My youngest cousin Rudolf is in the Luftwaffe and we shall, I hope, escape seeing him altogether for he is the most obstreperous Nazi of the three. My aunt Elisabetta is a masterpiece of the old school---that is to say she knows perfectly the very little the women of her day were supposed to know. We can relax under her roof completely since there is no safety so great at present as in hiding from the Nazis in a Nazi stronghold. Besides the Bezzeghy are half Hungarian and therefore consider it a crime, even in a Nazi, to destroy a good horse! My aunt has brought up her family on the strictest sixteenth-century morals. She has taught them to believe that their honour consists in fighting for their privileges as if they were virtues, and that their sole duties lie in protecting their families, and standing by their class. A limpet and his rock are interchangeable in my aunt’s mind and this should be the family crest. Of course at the top of their class they place God and the Emperor. Now since we have no Emperor the Bezzeghy have put Hitler in his place---and God toes the same line as Hitler.

“My mother’s relations are what you might call natural Nazis. You will like them very much, they are all good sportsmen and have beautiful manners.

“They, too, will like you, but I think you must become a doctor of excellent Carinthian descent—Christian von Steiner is a good enough name---who has lived for a long time in America. They would not believe in you as a groom; and they would dislike you as a lunatic! But as a doctor of good family---on a brief holiday---you will do very well for the time being. But I am afraid you must be prepared for them to be a little pleasant about our relationship. It cannot be helped, for unless you were my lover they would think there might be something fishy about the whole performance. A little love affair---a little horse swindle, and all will be quite in order---do you agree to support this illusion?”

Mark put out his hand and laid it on Sapphire’s bridle, bringing both horses to a sudden standstill.

“I think you must know by now that I rather more than agree,” Mark said quietly, “and that there is---on my part---no illusion about it!”

Their eyes met and lingered on each other for a long significant moment. The laughter died out of Ida’s eyes; they changed to a deep, almost panic-stricken, gravity. “No! No!” she said at last beneath her breath. “Mark, my dear friend, we must not make this childish blunder! Believe me, this is a time for discomfort---danger, terror---perhaps even for death---but not a time for love!”

“How can we help loving when we are sure of each other?” Mark asked. “When you are cold, ugly and ferocious I am still quite sure of you---and when I am all the things you hate most---and want to kick up your heels at---you are still quite sure of me---aren’t you? It isn’t only the mountains or only the horses---it’s something a lot deeper in both of us---that has somehow got us together, and we can’t help it!”

“Oh, yes! I am sure of you,” Ida agreed ironically, “and I am equally sure that I am cold, wet and hungry not to mention dirty, and now I can think of nothing but a hot bath---my horses at rest in a good stable---and my next meal! To-night we shall sleep sound and without dreams; and I hope that to-morrow you will have the good sense to wake without them.”

Mark relinquished his hold on Sapphire’s bridle. “As long as you understand,” he said firmly, “that I meant what I said and that I only agree to postpone your answer! But I do not promise to wait for long. Our lives are likely to be both short and lived in danger; and that seems no very good reason for denying ourselves what we both want.”

“What we both want most!” Ida said grimly, “is to destroy the Nazis!” She turned from Mark to her horse. “Sapphire,” she said, “a good horse always finishes in the same style and in the same spirit with which he started. I therefore suggest that we canter gently up this rise into my family’s courtyard---whether our bones ache or not!”

The barking of dogs, bobbing lanthorns, and welcoming voices broke out all round them, as the great iron gates swung back. Hermann grinned reassuringly, springing from the darkness to Sapphire’s stirrup. “Diamond is safe,” he informed them in a low voice. “With the money you gave me---lies and a little luck---all went well! I see you have ridden your horses hard---but they will be well cared for---let me take them away at once!”

The Bezzeghys welcomed Mark as if he were a new and delightful kind of relation.

It was obvious that they were all extremely fond of Ida and entertained by her adventure. They took the problem of their visitors and their horses with equal sympathy and good nature.

Blankets and bran mashes already awaited the horses in well-prepared stalls. Rooms were in the process of being hastily got ready for their riders. Gigantic fires roared in stoves newly lit between passage and bedrooms.

Everything inside the Schloss smelled of old age and apples. It was a rough and ancient building, that had been lived in without fundamental changes for hundreds of years by the same kind of people.

The Bezzeghys themselves were like their castle, solid, primitive people, incapable of more than trivial adjustments. They lived in simple rather austere comfort, worked very hard themselves, and were worked for by a dozen peasants for whom their will was law. There was always plenty of food for everybody to eat of a home-grown kind accompanied by indefinite amounts of sour cider.

All the furniture and utensils of the castle had once been the best of their kind and were now long out of date, shabby, chipped or inconvenient, but often of some real intrinsic beauty or value.

These sifted layers of bygone tastes and wishes had a haunting quality as if they retained like a secret cipher, passed on from generation to generation, a message only understood by the Bezzeghys themselves.

Mark felt himself instantly at home with the castle and its owners. He liked the small round tower-room, more than half of which appeared to be fireplace, which the Gräfin used as her boudoir and where the family all sat about her after dinner. Here the Gräfin received them, regaling them with hot Glühwein and ham-breads, while she regarded them over her knitting, with kind, exploratory eyes.

“Yes, we still have our pigs and our geese,” she explained to Mark, who commented on the luxury of the thin sliced ham and liver sausage, “it is true we can only offer our guests now simple things to eat---just what the animals and fields provide---but after all we are at war, and we cannot expect more than our good soldiers themselves are given. This wool you see me working with now is extremely coarse, but if it keeps a man warm, I can put up with the effect on my fingers. Soon, with all Europe under our feet, we shall be able to provide something better. There will be no blockade then except what we choose to make for our stubborn enemies. Ah! What times we live in! What heroes surround us! What a comfort it is to think that decadent France has been brought to its knees, and that in a few months---weeks perhaps---those repulsive British and their fantastic empire will be no more! Such a race!” the Gräfin placidly murmured to Mark with ingratiating fervour. “Are they not so arrogant, so inhuman, so endlessly stupid! More stupid, I believe, than even those childish Americans, who are at least rich, and who will now soon be able to help us spend all their money! My sons tell me America will fall more rapidly than the British empire as soon as that gives way. Only I am afraid we shall then have to deal with the Japanese who will be sure to have taken it first---never mind---those wicked Russians will soon cease to be our allies; but not, we hope, before they have cleared away the Japanese. Our great Hitler is so far-sighted, is he not? I have always felt we should possess the Ukraine---it seems as if God had meant it to belong to the Greater Germany! Ida, my dear child, some more liver sausage I beg! You have grown annoyingly thin! Your face is as hollow as a last year’s egg and it seems to hold nothing in it but your eyes! You should take better care of her, my dear Herr Doktor von Steiner---that is a Carinthian name, is it not? I think I may even have been at school with one of your aunts---Isabella von Steiner? a charming brunette---which they all say nowadays is such a pity! But I can’t think why---for the dear Empress Elizabeth---after whom I am named---was also a brunette! So convenient, dear Ida, for you to have a friend who is also a Doktor. Thus no doktor’s bills! And also no inconveniences that cannot be dealt with as need arises! Ah, here are my two eldest sons, the Gauleiter you have already met, and my Fritz too, I think? A general in the Wehrmacht as perhaps Ida has told you! Funny to think of a Hungarian fighting in the German army, is it not? But really as long as the Nazis understand who we are, we may as well fight for them, as sit back on our haunches and make cheeses and chocolate like the Swiss!”

“That is very true Mama!” observed the General, when the vigorous old lady paused for breath. While she had been talking, he had already contrived to make two or three stiffly perfect bows, kiss Ida’s hand and shake Mark’s, as well as pour himself out, and drink with long, contented gulps, a huge mug full of Glühwein. “And now, dear Ida,” he remarked, smacking his full red lips, and cheerfully rolling a roguish eye from his cousin to Mark, “what is this that I hear about running away with the Spanish horses! Ha! Ha! We got your telephone message just in time to know what to say to the authorities when they rang us up. You had arrived, we told them, by the Blue train at Budapest and were already with us. No one will examine our stables, so no fresh horses will be discovered there. No servant of ours says anything they are not told to say to those without the Schloss. I do not say they always say what they are told to say to those inside it---the blockheads! But that is a minor matter! A man deals mildly with his own household---when they once know their places. To-morrow when you are less tired we will make a plan! It is agreed---and who knows there may even be a little money to be made by it! It was very naughty of you, Ida, of course, to disobey the Nazis! But I have already examined the horses. Naturally they are sadly over-ridden, but I can see they are the cream of the earth! I am sorry we cannot retain them here permanently, but Ödön says in his position everything has to be accounted for in the long run. No! No! to kill those horses---with all due respect to our dear German brothers---that would have been a crime! I always say no man in his senses abuses a good horse, kicks a good dog, or beats a good mistress! Hein---von Steiner? We may have our faults we border people---but thank God we have all the instincts of a gentleman.”

“Thank God indeed,” Ida agreed with a twinkle in her eyes. “But my dear cousins, I knew I could rely on you! Still you must not put yourselves to any danger or inconvenience for us! To-morrow, as you say---after a night’s rest we will discuss our plans. Doktor von Steiner has a few days’ leave, you understand he has lived so long out of his country, poor fellow, that he has half-forgotten our ways! A little trip like this will be just the thing to make him feel more at home again!”

Both cousins nodded sympathetically and smiled at Mark with so much meaning that he found himself not daring to look at Ida for the rest of the evening.

The old Gräfin nodded and patted Ida’s hand with great sympathy and satisfaction. This was the way, she thought, that a beloved niece of more than marriageable age, who was nevertheless unfortunately prevented from marriage, should behave. It was only natural and right that she should have a lover and as her father was a black Catholic, wholly Austrian, whose mother had actually been suspected of Jewish blood, he was naturally bourgeois in his moral standards. The only possible thing for Ida to do therefore was to bring her lover to the home of her nearest relations on her mother’s better-born Hungarian side---where there was a little more knowledge of the world.

The Gräfin privately considered that Ida had done very well for herself. This von Steiner was younger and far better-looking than Ida herself was. He had the air of knowing, there could be no mistake about him, whatever clothes he wore---or however trampish he looked. “Ödön, my dear,” she said to her eldest son, “show Herr Doktor von Steiner to his room; and I will take dear Ida to hers. Your clothes shall be cleaned and pressed for you both to-morrow; and your breakfast sent up to your rooms. You will understand there is no hurry at all to come down---and no one will disturb you before lunch-time!”

Ödön nodded; his manner to Mark, while no less kind and welcoming than his mother’s, was considerably more guarded. He took his position under the Nazi régime much more seriously than the rest of the family took theirs. “This escapade of Ida’s,” he said when they had reached the guest room, “is of course much too lighthearted for the times we live in! I understand you have been away in America for many years; and only lately, as was but right when war called you, returned to the Fatherland---that explains why you have not yet fully realized what belonging to the Greater Germany involves. We easy-going Austrians and Hungarians must learn stricter ways! But mind you we shall not suffer from this---quite the contrary---we shall improve! The red pestilence which threatened both our countries will now be stamped out. Once dispose of all our Jews and Bolsheviks and our people will have learned their lesson. You agree with me?” He asked this question sharply, and was obviously relieved by Mark’s quick nod of assent.

“But do you not sometimes regret,” Mark ventured to ask him, “that we must use these mediaeval methods of Gestapo and concentration camps?”

The Gauleiter frowned reflectively. “No!” he said at last, “on the whole I do not regret them! Tramps---criminals---these red Intelligentzia---are they not all better locked up and made of some practical use in the world? A little roughly handled too I admit---but how else teach the hardened than by hardness? Here and there,” he added, looking about the vast bare room to see if anything was missing which could reasonably be expected by a guest, “we might relax a little of our rigour---among friends---and people of our own class. We understand Ida’s situation, for instance, very well---and we will do our best to help you both over this little incident of the horses. Often things can safely be hushed up, if one goes the right way about it! Poor girl! Well---hers was a sad story and no one in this house fails to give her the greatest respect and affection. She is one of us, and had things been otherwise her position would have been very creditable---very creditable indeed! You are sure there is nothing else you want?”

Mark assured him there was nothing. The vast shadowy room had no boundaries to Mark’s tired eyes. A great four-poster bed stood out from the wall, a lovely piece of Gobelin tapestry hung near it. The light from the hidden stove flickered over its silken figures as if they were still moving in the chase they had long ago started upon. In one corner there was a painted Tirolean cupboard so large that an entire group of people as well as their clothes could have been lodged in it; and in another a small tin washstand paid its service to modernity. The rest of the room was given up to space and shadows.

Mark would have liked to find out why the Gauleiter thought Ida’s situation so particularly creditable. Did they like her being unmarried? Who had been this lover of hers, whom they must have known since he had taken up ten years of her life? And why had there been no marriage? But he could ask no questions about Ida, nor did he even wish anyone else to tell him what he did not know. He was in a strange glow of happiness and relaxation.

Perhaps never in his life had he felt a greater sense of relief and joy than when the warmth of this great room poured into his fastidious and lonely senses.

He knew that Ida’s “No” had not been her real answer. If she had not loved him, she would have been neither frightened nor evasive; and she would have made herself perfectly plain. As for himself he knew that he loved Ida with his whole complicated repressed and fastidious nature set free into comradeship. He did not love her swiftly and lightly with his senses alone as he had loved Lisa; nor with the incompleteness of frustrated passion as he had loved Mary.

This new emotion that he felt for Ida at once possessed and released him. Only death itself could end it, for Ida had done for him what he had never been able to do for himself, she had changed and enriched the texture of his life.

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