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Chapter 25

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« on: March 09, 2023, 05:56:13 am »

IT was late at night before Ida returned to the barn. The lines of her chin and brow were sharp with anger, her lips set as if they would never open. She looked like the Sleeping Fury in the Terme Museum. She put food before Mark, and even forced herself to eat a few mouthfuls, but she kept her eyes turned from him as if he were one of the objects of her anger; and she feared to set it loose upon him. Nevertheless without further explanation she took for granted that Mark would accompany her on her mad journey to Hungary, with the horses. A storm had sprung up out of the mountains, and drowned even the faint light of the stars.

They rode through a hissing downpour of rain in a silence that felt as harsh and bitter as the elements. The wind whistled and ran out at them from mountain gullies with the fury of an angry dog. They could see nothing but the brawling darkness, and hear nothing but the chaotic voices of the storm.

“Why go on this senseless journey at all?” Mark asked himself. It was most unlikely that they would reach the frontier uncaught; still more unlikely that they could cross it in safety with the horses. If Ida had this mysterious influence with the Austrians, why not use it to protect them without leaving the Schloss? If she had not enough to save the horses, why not let them be destroyed?

Were even these Spanish horses worth what they had already cost---a man’s life? Or what they might still cost---Mark and Ida’s work against the Nazis? Curious people, the Austrians, Mark told himself scornfully, sentimental and yet hard as nails. Ida was typical of them; she had left her dead friend before his body was cold without a tear or a sigh; yet for the sake of these three animals she was prepared to pit her life against both the Nazis and the elements.

Branches crashed across their path; stones rolled down from the mountainside. The horses shuddered with cold and danger; yet they pushed on nobly through the uncertain dark, their strained nerves obedient to their loyalty.

Twice Mark and Ida had to dismount in order to lead them through torrents of unknown depths and swiftness. The wind dashed buckets of ice-cold rain against their faces, as if to blind them, out of personal spite. Pitiless reiterations of the scene in the Stadium drilled their way through Mark’s tired brain. Why had he ever liked that murderous oaf of a Rennenkampf? Why had he not moved quickly enough to save Felix? That stick should have been snatched from Rennenkampf’s hand before he had had time to strike Emerald. Did Ida blame Mark because he had not been quick enough? Did she think he had been the cause---however innocent---of Rennenkampf’s having found his way to the Stadium?

Mark knew that half his anger was against himself; only half of it was against Ida; but he tried to pretend that this was the greater half.

The dawn came imperceptibly, cold and colourless, a mere withdrawing of the dark. The rain still fell as if it would never stop, but the savage spitefulness of the wind had been beaten down by it.

They were on a mountain road with pine trees above and below them. Through their wet pink stems Mark could see the valley lying wrinkled and shrunken in the hard grey light. Ida rode a little ahead of Mark, a mere gaunt and sodden scarecrow, her hair plastered flat against the whiteness of her face. The horses plodded on as if their hopes had vanished with their fears, and nothing lay before them but perpetual damped-down motion.

Suddenly Ida looked back over her shoulder. “Have you got such a thing as a dry match left on you?” she asked. “I have a feeling that I could bear your stony disapproval creeping through my spine better if I were smoking! I know all that you would like to say to me---and won’t; but it makes no difference to me what you choose to think---except to my immediate comfort---that could be improved perhaps by a few whiffs of hot tobacco!”

“You never asked for my opinion,” Mark replied stiffly, “so I didn’t suppose that it mattered to you to hear that I think this flight ill-judged, and likely to be useless. At any rate I came on it. Push into the trees and I’ll light your cigarette for you.”

He was surprised but not softened to see how her hand shook as she held it towards him. The two horses stood together with hanging heads, grateful for the moment’s respite. When Mark had lit her cigarette, Ida pressed it between shaking lips, drawing long whiffs of smoke in appeased silence.

At last she flung back her head, patted Sapphire’s steaming neck, and turned him back on to the road again, saying:

“Oh, damn! You’re so stupid, Mark! Why shouldn’t I want to save something from the Nazis? These horses are all I can save---that was Austria! You were happy yesterday because your country is still alive and has fought well. But I can never be happy like that any more! My country has never fought at all---it saved nothing. Austria is dead. Yet it was beautiful, and good people were happy in it---and these horses were a part of its beauty and its happiness.”

“I’m sorry,” Mark admitted grudgingly. “I’m always stupid with you! But I still don’t see much sense in what we’re doing. Would it not have been better to stay and meet Rennenkampf’s accusations on your own ground?”

“My own ground?” Ida asked with lifted eyebrows. “I have no ground! And you think I could meet Rennenkampf’s accusations ‘sensibly’ before the Gestapo? My good idiot, have you failed to see that I am so angry that if I met a Nazi just now, I could behave like Rennenkampf---and that would not get us much further! I had to run away or bring the whole house of cards down upon our heads!”

“But isn’t it down anyhow?” Mark objected.

Ida shook her head. “Behind us,” she explained, “we have left very good cover---both for you and for me. My father may be Nazi-minded---but he is my father---and an Austrian. He will know exactly what to say to the authorities. The moment he found out that I was hiding the horses, he will say---he killed them; and sent me to my aunt’s in disgrace. As for you---you are a poor patient, an unwilling spectator of the murder---and naturally you had a complete relapse and ran away into the wood in a frenzy, where you may be found hanging on any convenient tree. You will be well searched for---and you can be found when it suits us---and not before!”

“And Hermann?” Mark objected, “and only one dead horse---what about the other three? Do you not under-estimate the Gestapo?”

“I doubt if Rennenkampf noticed Hermann sufficiently to identify him,” Ida answered, “especially as he is not there now! As for the other three horses---the lake is supposed to be as deep as the mountains are high above it. The other horses can be at the bottom of the lake---and Emerald will be found dead on the bank. The Nazis are thorough, but the quality of imagination has happily been denied them; and it has not been denied to us.”

“But Rennenkampf,” Mark went on, after a pause, “I shall never understand why you told us to let him go, and make that report! You had only to say he was mad, and then you could have retained him, as well as discredited all he said. Yet you deliberately freed him to give us away. We could have stopped him, you know, the three of us, even without your help.”

Ida gave a shudder; the horses were moving side by side now and Mark could see her face.

“Don’t!” she said. “I know we could have stopped him! And then---but how could I say it? How could I make him feel that he was mad when he wasn’t? There were the horses! The patients rely on us to tell them the truth---only the truth---about their illness. How could we ever help them back out of their lies---and lies are their illness---if we did not always tell them the truth? You see---I could not, while he was sane, lock him up as if he wasn’t! And once he made the report I knew we could not obliterate the traces of the horses’ existence in the twinkling of an eye. Something would have been found out! But I did not know---I could not tell---that he would kill Felix!” She put her hand across her eyes, as if to blot out a vision that could not be blotted out from her heart.

“And now,” Mark asked after a pause, “what will happen to Rennenkampf? If you said he was sane---I suppose he will be shot? He certainly deserves to be!”

“He came back to see me last night---that was why I was so late,” Ida said, looking between her horse’s ears, and speaking as if to herself. “Two guards brought him back at his earnest request. They show that kind of mercy---these Nazis---to each other. He wanted to find out which he really was---mad or sane. That interested him. It did not interest him that he had killed my friend. He would believe no one else but me. It seemed that he wanted me to say he was sane, even though he knew that he would be shot for it. He could not bear to have gone mad again, after he had once regained his self-control. I told him that with such a self as he had, it made very little difference what he called himself. But I gave him the certificate.”

“A certificate that he was sane?” Mark demanded.

“No! No! That he was mad!” Ida said, turning her eyes full on his. “You see, I knew he was---from the moment Felix struck him! He will never again, I think, be sane. I could not let him be shot!”

“I can’t think why you couldn’t!” Mark said incredulously. “He is highly dangerous! He is certainly a murderer. And now he may live to kill more men---like Felix! What is there so sacred about insanity?”

“There is nothing sacred about it,” Ida said quietly. “Except that the sane are responsible for the insane, as the strong are for the weak; and that it is the opposite of being a Nazi---to believe this! But he will not kill another man like Felix---there you are also wrong. There are no other men like Felix!”

“You think so much of him,” Mark said bitterly, watching her face, “and yet---he loved you, and you never returned his feelings!”

Ida frowned and turned her eyes away from his.

“Such nonsense!” she said impatiently. “This love you talk about! And you have the impertinence to be angry with me---because you think I do not care for my dead friend! Do you really suppose that I could work with a man for two years, ski with him, climb with him, think with him, dance and laugh with him---do everything but sleep with him---and not love him? How little you cold Englishmen know of women---or of love! With your pigeon-holed passions! I was not---if you will have it---in love with Felix! No! Have I not a right to choose my lovers? But I loved him. Have I not also a right to love my friends? I don’t behave as you expect a woman to behave? I am not a stick or a stone---nor even a well-brought-up lady who plays Bach, and won’t leave her husband for her lover! I am myself, Mark---and this is what I have every right to be! I have plenty of time to mourn Felix---all my life in fact---for I shall never find another such friend. But he is dead. I have the living to think of first! You---for instance! My father! My home! The future of my hospital! I must act to meet the danger from the Nazis. They could not forgive me if I cracked up under their noses in a furious temper---but if I am not there to forgive---if I am already in the disgrace which they wish me to be in---they may find it quite convenient, later on, to forgive me! As for you---I admit at the moment you are just as wet as if you were hiding in the woods round the Schloss---but in an hour I hope you will be warm and dry---which you would not be if you had to remain in the mountains till I could safely return to protect you with one of my fine stories. Now do you understand a few of my very good reasons for our journey?”

Mark laughed. Already he felt better. Wet and tired he might be, but he was no longer dispirited; and very much less angry with either Ida or himself.

“You explain so much---when once you deign to explain anything,” he told her, “that I can’t see the wood for the trees! And I don’t quite see why you should throw Mary up at me! Still, all this battery of reason fails to excuse you for moving a chap about like a pawn. Why do you arrange things over my head without consulting me? Why on earth couldn’t you have told me all this stuff last night---instead of turning up in the barn like a congealed thundercloud that won’t break! You might have tried to understand that I felt like a raw egg myself, for having made friends with that murderer; and it didn’t exactly add to my self-esteem to have you behave as if I were not much better than a murderer myself.”

“Funny,” Ida said with a flash of her old mockery; “but at the moment it was not your self-esteem that I was thinking about. But don’t let having liked Rennenkampf disturb you! He was---in his way---quite likeable. He is greatly to be pitied---sick to death with all his wicked duties! Why, he is as soft as putty beneath that cruel hide; and he has done far more damage to himself than he could ever have done to Felix. Think how little power Rennenkampf had over himself---not enough to stop murdering when he wanted to! And then think of Felix. He was never blinkered or controlled by one of his own wishes. He could do anything he liked with himself. Wherever he went---he created life! It is true that he would be alive now if he hadn’t struck Rennenkampf. But a man must protect his horse---he has to meet violence by violence. He died in a nice way for a man to die---one must not over-estimate death---it happens but once to each of us anyhow. But Rennenkampf, we may well pity him---for he is very strong---and he will live with that dreadful self of his for a long time; and now he will never be able to change himself!”

Mark was silent. The horses jogged on, the light grew stronger through the trees. Every now and then they met a peasant moving about his task slowly, in the cold dawn. The road they were on wound down into the valley, and out of it houses began to trickle towards them, on the outskirts of Wörgl.

“There is the priest’s house where we can get shelter, and give the horses a few hours’ rest,” Ida told him, pointing through the trees. “But, Mark, if you choose---you can go back now, and I will find someone else to ride Pearl into Hungary. All you have to do is to let yourself be found in the woods by the lake. Be as depressed as you can and refuse to speak---till I come back and start lying for you!”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Mark told her crossly. “I am perfectly willing to go on with you now I know there is some sense in it!”

Ida made no audible answer, but her lips twitched, and her eyes gleamed as if Mark had told her what it both amused and pleased her to know, though it had not been a tribute to her good sense, for which she had been waiting.

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