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Chapter 27

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« on: March 09, 2023, 08:09:27 am »

THE two most remarkable things about the Bezzeghys, Mark discovered, were their sense of intrigue and the strength of their principles. They really believed and practised the Nazi system, even when they skilfully evaded the most repulsive of its personal austerities.

All day long the praises of Hitler sang in his ears. Other leaders might make mistakes, but Hitler was above all blunders; and the system he had evolved was infallible.

Besides, if there were not the Nazi system there would be the Red Peril! A thousand times rather Hitler and all his rigours than the rising tide of the Common Man’s Universe---with all its rights.

No peril was too great to avoid Bolshevism. Every country which did not see this was acting as a short-sighted criminal; and a class renegade.

All Jews, all Leftists, all insanely religious people, who took the wishy-washy ideas of religion found by the Protestant hearted, in the New Testament---must be stamped out.

All such people were sub-human, the Gauleiter explained to Mark, who might stand in need of such explanations since he had been for so long in America---and that was all there was to be said about them. The rich men in the U.S.A. would soon accept this truth if they had not already done so, the greater part of the British Plutocracy was only awaiting the right moment in order to bring a favourable end to the war, and put over the Nazi system in an English way.

Mussolini, who was a good fellow though he had to be kept in his place, was dealing in a highly successful manner, through Franco’s help, with the South American Republics. They had been trained from infancy towards Dictatorships and would give very little trouble. The United States were simply loot; and would collapse as France had collapsed, directly Japan struck them.

As for Ida, she took an enthusiastic part in all these discussions, and looked ten years younger dressed in her cousin Berta’s smartest summer clothes. She teased and flattered her cousins; petted her aunt; provoked and made eyes at Mark, as if she had been born anew as a frivolous and charming woman without a care, for whom any man would be delighted to work or take any risk in return for her bare existence.

The Bezzeghys adored her, accepted Mark as a brother; and by the time their guests had rested sufficiently for fresh activity, had arranged a plan for the transfer of the horses.

They would do anything in the world to help transfer the horses to Hungary, they told their guests, except take any personal risk of offending the Nazis. No member of the Bezzeghy family must fail to appear as innocent as at their first Communion. This of course included Ida; she must be doubly innocent, both as a Bezzeghy relation and as a woman.

Providence had already pointed the direction they might safely take, because their friend and cousin, Rudolf Màlnàssy, had already bought Jaspar four years ago; and had always wanted the other Spanish horses; and he could well afford to pay a good price for them.

There would be no risk to him in this addition to his stable for in Hungary the Nazis left the big landowners extremely free. The little matter of the price could be settled immediately by a friendly family visit. Rudolf would bribe the Hungarian guards on his side of the lake---the Gauleiter would provide for those upon his own. These were fortunately Austrian Nazis---and not wooden-heads from the Reich.

The horses must be swum across the narrowest part of the lake nearest the Màlnàssy estate during the night. German sentries could not be bribed safely to overlook anything, either by day or by night---so there was nothing for it but a cold swim.

What, Mark tentatively demanded, would happen if anything did go wrong?

A curious silence fell over the family council. Ida looked down at her extremely pretty feet, in their remarkably smart and effective Budapest shoes. Then the Bezzeghy sons looked anxiously at their mother.

The Gräfin laid down her knitting and made a masterly speech. What she wanted Mark to see, through the veil of her elaborate and enchanting phrases, was the extremely natural role he was called upon to play as a family scapegoat. Lovers, the Gräfin inferred, were always chosen for the part; and this time Mark had been well chosen. He could swim, he could ride, he looked the part of a gentlemanly adventurer. Boiled down in the plainer language of Mark’s private intelligence, he and Hermann were to be free-will offerings for Nazi vengeance. The Gräfin did not say so---but she delicately implied that this was what lovers and servants were for.

Hermann’s was to be an even simpler and more straightforward offering than Mark’s.

If the Nazis caught Hermann they would quite understand what to do with him. Indeed in the case of a dear friend of theirs, almost a next-door neighbour, the Nazis had already shown their grasp of the situation. A servant is a servant, and when an irregularity occurred, this servant had simply gone to prison for two years for his master. The servant’s family had been well looked after, and he himself compensated when he came out. Something of the same kind would no doubt be arranged for Hermann. Still it was to be hoped that nothing would go wrong.

The beautiful manners of the Bezzeghys hung in front of their rather dubious morals like a cleverly arranged smoke screen. Mark did not wish to believe it of them, but he reluctantly admitted to himself that behind this screen the Bezzeghys were greedy, dishonest and rather cruel people. They saw no other rights than their own. They were not cruel to their servants only when they were certain of their services. They were not consciously greedy---all they asked was that no one should be allowed to check their natural desires. Above all they would never have admitted their dishonesty.

This lay so deep that they felt every trick they played was a mere skilful exercise of their enlightened intelligence.

“You see,” the Gauleiter explained a trifle apologetically, as the Gräfin smiled approvingly across at Mark and took up her knitting; “my brother and I are at the moment very tied up with the Reich---very tied up indeed! He, as a general of the Wehrmacht, must be of course above suspicion, and I need not point out to you the duties and standing of a Nazi Gauleiter. I can give you and Ida the hospitality of my stables for a few days, since they would not be liable to be searched; but I should not care to expose my servants to questioning were these very fine horses to be seen and talked about as under my care. I have great confidence in my servants. Their interests are ours, and they know it. I have given my orders, and they will be carried out; but occasionally even the best of servants gets drunk---and then his tongue unlocks itself, and out pop secrets. It is best therefore that we expedite the matter. You agree?”

Mark agreed and to his astonishment Ida promptly seconded his agreement. She agreed about everything---the transfer of the horses, the price to be obtained from Rudolf under pressure; the execution of the project---the complete exclusion of herself and her cousins from all active participation in the adventure. Although careful to avoid the appearance of neglecting Mark, she nevertheless skilfully evaded being left alone with him so that he was left wholly uncertain of her actual intentions.

Ida had already explained to Mark the ritual of an accepted love affair.

In public Mark must always be at her side. She must direct her conversation at him. They must support and consider each other in every way, otherwise, Ida explained, the Bezzeghys would be extremely shocked.

Opportunities were made for them to be alone together, but they were not pressed. It was taken for granted that Mark and Ida would make the best use of such hours “off” for themselves. But only on one such occasion did Mark find himself able to speak freely to Ida. Even then Hermann and the horses were present. Hermann had accepted his orders without surprise or complaint; but he had asked if his Herrschaften would not come out to the stables in daylight, and see the horses together for the last time.

The three horses stood, splendid and impatient, in the stable yard.

They knew well they were being shown off; and added to the spectacle by swift and graceful movements full of pride. A sense of hidden drama made them prick their sensitive ears, sweep their tails and lift a hoof occasionally to paw the resistant cobbles. They were just as nervous, just as delicately naughty and free as was becoming in well-bred horses. But they did nothing to shake the perfect poise a Hollywood beauty might well have tried in vain to copy from them.

Their quarters shone with the ripple and polish of a summer sea. Saddles, girths and head harness seemed made of some gleaming substance robbed from a field at dawn.

    All in the blue, unclouded weather
    Thick jewelled shone the saddle leather.
    The helmet and the helmet feather
    Burned like one burning flame together.

Perhaps the horses were listening for a music they would never hear again; and expecting a drama in which they would never more take part.

Nothing happened to them now, except that hands they knew stroked them, and gave them sugar; and long familiar voices spoke to them in a friendly way that made them pleased and proud.

“Don’t think,” Ida said in a low tone to Mark, “that I am going to touch any of that thirty pieces of silver my good cousin will extract from Rudolf. They will themselves keep what remains over from the bribes they think it wisest to expend. Nor shall Hermann suffer if things go wrong!”

“Do not be anxious for me, Gnädigste,” Hermann begged. “For the guards on the frontier are well known to the servants here. Good men who will not open their mouths---nor notice what goes on under their noses. Besides, they are my horses---why should I not take risks for them? I made them what they are.”

“That is well said, Hermann!” Ida told him with a flash of appreciation in her eyes. “What we make is ours---and nothing else is!” She held out her hand to Hermann, and he took it and shook it warmly, as if it were the hand of another man.

Leb’ wohl!” Ida said, turning back to the house so quickly, that Mark did not see that her eyes were full of tears.

“Let me ride with you---at least to the river, to-night, as well,” Mark suggested. “This first attempt must be the hardest!”

“No, Herr, I think not,” Hermann replied; “two are not as safe as one. Besides, I already know the way, and should anything happen to me this first time, you would still be there to save the other two horses. Four years ago I took Jaspar across, hunted all the way and got a bullet in my shoulder; but the horse was saved! This time no one knows even that the horses are alive---so it should be wholly easy.”

Yet all that night Mark could not sleep. He kept thinking of men tortured; men hunted; homeless and hopeless people caught in the Nazi net and praying for death in concentration camps. He heard the grim monotonous croaking of the frogs, like the drumming of savages in his ears; and saw again and again Felix’s young dead face and limp body, falling from Rennenkampf’s terrible hands.

At dawn he rose, to haunt the stables for Hermann’s return. At last he saw a shadow slip through the iron gates and ran to meet Hermann limping back after a long twelve hours’ tramp.

“Didn’t they even send one of their own damned horses to meet you?” Mark demanded bitterly, forgetting his honour as a guest in his indignation at the Bezzeghys’ unruffled selfishness.

“A man is safer on foot, Herr,” Hermann reminded him soothingly. “I do not say I would not be glad of horses to bring us back to-night, for the way is long, and we should save time. There are posses about too, I nearly ran into one, both coming and going. They are like fleas these Nazis---they get under every man’s jacket. But Diamond---he’s steady as a rock, as you know, and he helped me to get by them. A horse like that is worth what risks one takes for him.”

A step sounded behind them on the cobbles. Ida stood there, muffled in a long fur coat over a pair of pyjamas. “There is coffee ready for you, Hermann, in the kitchen,” she said smilingly, “the servants are still asleep---but I knew where to find it! You can have a cup too Mark---since you are up so early!”

Her voice, and the old look of her, hatless and with no care at all for her appearance, warmed Mark’s heart.

This was the comrade of his adventures, and not the cousin of the Bezzeghys.
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