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Chapter 30

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« on: March 09, 2023, 09:51:46 am »

MARK had never been to Berlin before. He had never wanted to go there, even before the Nazis laid their spell upon the city. Now that it rose up all round him, bustling, self-determined, ordered, slumless, with that formidable strength which comes from a will unsustained by imagination, he found himself disliking it even more than he had expected to dislike it.

No exquisite churches expressed worship for something unseen; no civic or private architecture revealed a love of human beings and their homes. In all Berlin there were no secret pockets of beauty. The men who lived in these featureless strong houses had never felt sufficient pride and admiration for the human spirit to give it a fitting home. No poet of theirs had cried aloud, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!” Rather the men who had been their leaders in thought and action had flogged the Berliners on, with a desperate sense of ambition to become something other than man---something dominating, and of such cruel strength that those with a greater power of creative activity might be driven into slavery by them.

The Nazis had done very little to change Berlin outwardly; but they had sucked it dry of what spiritual liveliness it had once had.

The people who pushed forcefully past Mark in the streets were resolute, but subdued. It seemed to Mark that they were determined to do---but did not like doing---the jobs forced upon them by their Leader.

Victory after victory had made them surer of themselves than they had ever been, and yet had left them even more joyless.

It was as if they already knew that nothing in their inner lives could be enriched or released by victory over their brother man.

Mark found Pirschl’s flat without difficulty; it was in an old house on the Schieffedam, more picturesque than anything he had yet seen. When he told a shifty-eyed concierge through a grille that he was Herr Pirschl’s brother, the door was opened for him hurriedly, and shut hurriedly behind him.

“Third floor back!” the concierge told him in a surly tone, speaking over his shoulder.

There was not, Mark gathered, quite so much honour in being Pirschl’s brother as he had expected.

He knocked several times on the door, waiting in vain for an answer; tried the latch, found the door unlocked and walked in. He found himself in a big untidy studio, with traces of luxury, but no comforts. It was not empty. Sitting hunched up in a corner by an unlit stove, was a self-absorbed, derelict-looking creature, whom Mark could not at first believe to be Pirschl. Yet he knew, after a moment or two, that it could be no one else. Pirschl looked like one of those buildings that has received a direct hit---and yet kept its outside walls. The hollowness was within. His piercing myopic eyes were veiled and dull. He looked as if he no longer saw or heard or felt anything in the whole world. He stared up at Mark for a long time, giving him no sign of recognition. At last, brushing his forehead with a wavering hand, as if to recapture a vanished memory, he said slowly beneath his breath:

“I know you. You are Anton? My brother Anton---aren’t you?”

Mark nodded and sat down on an upturned box beside Pirschl. Mark said nothing for a moment or two, partly because he saw that this Pirschl was too weak and exhausted to take in anything quickly, and because he suddenly knew that he must reverse their roles. Mark had expected support, sympathy, an intense and lively interest and above all guidance in this unknown and perilous city ruled by mysterious monsters. Now these things, if they were to come at all, must come from Mark himself.

Pirschl went on looking at him with his dimmed eyes. “Yes, yes,” he said hesitatingly, “it all comes back to me now---on the mountains that day---how we chose it! They had not struck then, not at you, not at France, nor at me! I remember now---my brother Anton! Only then you were to be mad---and I was to be sane! Now it’s the other way round, brother Anton, you must be sane---for if I’m anything at all, and I’m almost nothing now, why then I hope I’m mad! Yes, I hope I’m mad! Only I still fear I’m sane!”

“What has happened to you?” Mark asked him in a low voice.

The studio was empty---the windows were all shut, the roof on which they opened showed nothing but chimney pots. Yet Pirschl looked round the room carefully before he spoke, as if the very dust and the shadows might have ears.

“They took Anna,” Pirschl said after a long pause. Slowly he struggled to his feet, and crawled from canvas to canvas, each one with its face to the wall, until he produced the one he wanted. He set the portrait on an empty easel with unfumbling practised hands, where it could catch the best light. A gaunt, angular, middle-aged woman looked out of the picture, with powerful, well-made hands lying open in her lap.

Even if the artist had wanted the slickness of beauty, there was none of it in his model. Yet Pirschl had got something into the portrait which must have been in the woman herself---something true and strong. Gazing at its strange unlovely pattern, Mark thought to himself---“That ugly woman must have been a good sort.”

“That’s Anna,” Pirschl explained briefly, crawling back to his seat. “She was my friend. She did a lot for me one way and another. I was used to her. I could paint while she was in the room. You know, it’s funny, but most women are too present---you can’t work in their company. They get in your way. They have to be looked at, or catered for, one way or another. But most of the time I forgot Anna was there. I made her sit to me sometimes; she had good bones and had once been a figure model. I saw her that way---the way she is in my picture---you’d say she was good, wouldn’t you? Well, she was good, and when a woman is like that---she’s paintable.

“We ran across each other when we were both down and out, so we just tramped off together a little drunk, and with our pockets empty. That began it. We’d been together two years when they took her.”

“Why did they take her?” Mark questioned.

Pirschl shrugged his massive shoulders. “It’s a long story,” he said at last, “and I’ve forgotten most of it, sitting here and going over it so often. Have you noticed that, Anton, the oftener you go over things the more you forget? Oh, you make up a lot sometimes, I know instead, you plaster it over and embroider it with wish dreams---all that you might have said or done---and didn’t---but the thing in itself fades out---you forget the way it really happened, while it was happening, and the way you couldn’t do anything---but let it come! The slap of the wave before it rolls you over and over---you forget that!”

“But I thought---we all thought---the Nazis were such friends of yours,” Mark expostulated. “Why did they want to do you such a bad turn---what harm had Anna done?”

Pirschl gave a curious mirthless sound---half sob, half laugh. “Harm---friends----!” he said. “What rot you snivelling democrats talk! This is a Dictator country---German or Russian---there are no friends left when man can torture man! They took Anna to find out what I was up to. I don’t see Hitler now---but he may have given the order. He’s not a bad sort in his way---but he’d skin his own grandmother alive to find out which way a carrier pigeon flew if he wanted the message. Anyhow, I’ve lost the right of access to him for a long time now---he’s been too busy with all his victories. He’s got all the world on his back now. Then the Picture Censor, I told you before, he’s always been against me---he visits artists to see if they’re painting the kind of picture Hitler and the Gang call ‘art’. He told me some time ago that I could only paint if I didn’t paint what I see. At first I didn’t care. I painted for the Nazis what they wanted---and for decent human intelligences on the sly, what they wanted. Those are the canvases you see stacked with their faces to the wall. They’re pictures. The rest I sold were just the paint thrown on to the canvas---with my knack of catching a likeness if I wanted to catch it. I daresay you won’t believe me, but I’ve lost the knack. I haven’t anything left now, my eye’s stopped seeing. It isn’t as you might suppose because I did pot-boilers. I did them with my tongue in my cheek for ages and the moment I took it out again, I could paint my real pictures better than ever. I never lied to myself, I always knew exactly which were pot-boilers. It was when I found there wasn’t anyone who wanted real pictures any more, that I suddenly couldn’t paint real or unreal ones---my eyes can’t see! It’s a complete black-out. Not a soul dared sit for me or look at my real stuff---the whole of Berlin has gone picture blind---then Munich---then at last, the last of all the Rhineland---where I took my pictures secretly and knew there were people who knew---and now there aren’t any. Not enough of a person to go out and weep bitterly---because he’s denied his Lord! It’s not that my pictures were so damned good, but they were the way things looked to me. They were honest pictures.”

“Not even other artists?” Mark asked incredulously.

“That’s just it,” Pirschl muttered, “there are no other artists! We’ve got to paint the way Hitler sees things or not at all. No one can create anything except Hitler; and he’s not an artist! He doesn’t create---he destroys! There mustn’t be an idea in the whole world that isn’t born out of that little louse’s uneducated mind. So I’ve gone blind. Something’s happened to me, I can’t explain, but my curiosity’s gone. In a sense I see you---I know what I’ve taught myself to see and think about you---but I can’t draw you, something stops me. There’s a clutch. Not for love or money can I put paint to canvas, and that’s made me suspect. They think I’m obstructing art. ‘Non-co-operative’ is the word. That’s why they took Anna. They took her to find out why I’d stopped painting!”

There was a long silence. Pirschl looked as wooden as the chair he sat on; Mark too felt a curiously lifeless, dispossessed feeling. It was as if only Anna, looking straight at them out of Pirschl’s luminous canvas, held any life. She was so alive in her simplicity in the way she held her generous hard-worked hands---that Mark, gazing forlornly at her, almost felt as if she would get up in a minute or two, out of the canvas, and begin getting them their supper.

By and by Pirschl stood up and shuffled towards the canvas, picking the portrait up and once more setting it with its face to the wall.

“I don’t like looking at her,” he explained shamefacedly. “I always see her. They tortured her to death. I know just how because I’ve watched them do it to other people. I don’t suppose she died soon, either, because Anna was tough. She never opened her mouth from the time they took her---except to scream of course---and they got no good by it. One of the torturers is a friend of mine. He told me---he said they’d never had such a case, and that I might well be proud of her. But of course I knew already that she hadn’t told, or I wouldn’t be here; or you either. She knew all my secrets.”

“But---but----” Mark protested, “wouldn’t any of them help you---if Hitler didn’t? Would none of the others? Why, I thought---I thought you knew all of them so well and could always get protection!”

“Protection,” said Pirschl, “you ought to learn the language! Protection exists only as long as you’re of use to the Reich and not one instant longer. I was their artist---yes, but if I’m not doing my bit---for whatever reason---why should they do theirs? Now I shall starve to death. I shan’t bother about killing myself, though I shall, if they come to question me---I’ve got my pill. But suicide isn’t necessary; and it gives them satisfaction. Suicide does their work for them, so I won’t do that if I can avoid it! A man starved to death, who’s a friend of Hitler’s, once his favourite painter---that won’t look so good, will it? You see, I’ve thought it all out. It’s all I can do against them now that I’m suspect.”

“Oh, no! No!” Mark urged. “There is Father Martin---Ida---and me---you needn’t starve to death, Pirschl---we can surely manage something between us!”

“That wouldn’t do at all,” Pirschl exclaimed with sudden energy. “Because I’m now useless, should I make you useless? For perhaps two or three nights you’re safe here, because I’ve already accounted for you---you’re my mad brother allowed out on a trial visit; but I daren’t do anything more to help you, since I’m suspect. Passively till I’m dead---I still help our cause a little because there is a good roof behind me to escape from. Men come through this room even now---but very seldom and the next may be the last. I just sit here with the door open---I don’t say anything, and I’ve never been told to lock my door. If they can get into this room without the concierge catching them, then they are welcome to get out of it. I shan’t starve to death in a hurry. I’ll last your time.”

“I’m going out now to get some food,” Mark told him resolutely, “and I shall leave money here with you when I go, and contrive to send more somehow later on. There’s no need for you to starve, Pirschl! Any day something fresh might happen---any day your gift might come back!”

Pirschl shook his head with a mirthless grin. “You Island optimists!” he said. “Any day you think you can stub your toe against the Kingdom of Heaven lying on your doorstep. But the Kingdom of Heaven lies on no man’s doorstep---it’s only to be got by violence---and very few have the strength to get it. I’m an artist and arts are alive---and can be starved to death. My art is starved to death, and if you think I mind starving without it---you’re a fool. Why should I live if I can’t paint? There’s no one to paint for---that’s what’s killed my painting! Besides, take the practical side of it---you can’t send me money! All my letters are opened. If I go out I am followed. Everyone who comes into this house is watched. Some of our Runners bribe the concierge to get in---but he’ll betray them one of these days if the Nazis offer him a higher bribe. Remember you and I have got to be frugal---there’s only one thing to live on---and one thing to live for---to kill Nazis. We destroy them, or they destroy us! But go out and buy your food---but don’t bring back too much or it will look suspicious. You’re a kindly young man, and in return I promise not to start dying again till I get rid of you!”

Pirschl laughed again, this time it was a real laugh more like his old laughter; even his blank eyes had a fugitive smile in them.

Mark went cautiously downstairs and into the street. At one end of it there was a kiosk where men bought newspapers. The man who sold them watched the street. He watched Mark go in and out of little shops. He watched his return to Pirschl’s home. If Mark had gone further afield another watchman would have appeared at his heels, and followed him.

The steady, slow-moving water of the canal accompanied Mark like a friendly animal. No one could leap at him out of its inert but unthreatening element. It held no eyes like the houses looking down on Mark, and no ambushes. Men could not walk on it, behind other men, to betray them.

Every noise in the street, and every silence between the noises, spoke to Mark now of danger.

The faces at every corner, the possible traps in every doorway; the chances and opportunities of each corner of the deadly city, were solid with threats. Perhaps Mark had never really feared the Nazis personally before. They had always seemed to him the figures in a nightmare dreamed by others. He had had his moments of panic, but his fears had never controlled him. His inner self had been as it were still an Eton master in an English school. He had always felt that there was some way out of the difficulties that surrounded him. His pleasant schoolboy code had provided him support enough against every evil hitherto through which he valorously struggled. But now he suddenly felt as well as knew that he was in a country where men tortured women to death in order to find out the secrets of the men they loved. He knew that his own clean, fastidious and hitherto private soul, could be torn apart, and stared at by the eyes of Public Torturers, and that not one thought behind his eyes was safe from such blasphemous intrusions. Mark had watched Pirschl’s twitching face when he spoke of Anna; and he found himself believing in Anna as he had believed in Lisa.

It seemed to Mark that Anna’s silent ghost was with him as he walked the crowded streets, warning him not against danger---that she took for granted---but against thinking that there was any ultimate escape, other than in the courage of his own soul. Had he enough courage, Mark asked himself, as he turned back into the blind pale street, where every footstep he took was being watched and noted down---to risk what Anna had taken?

Where had Anna’s courage come from---where had Lisa’s? It had not come from hate---though to hate was so spectacular; and so hard. Lisa had died for Mark---Anna had died for Pirschl---simply for love.

For love---Felix, too, had risked all he had---and at last his life. For love Pirschl had let his art go blind; and Ida had gone back to slavery. For love---Mark knew that he must go back to Pirschl’s house and meet whatever came of it.
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