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Chapter 29

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« on: March 09, 2023, 09:19:04 am »

THEY skirted Kroisbach once more, which lay in a patch of deeper darkness across the blanketing fog, walking in silence, until on the verge of the Neuseidlersee they reached a small isolated grove. Mark had been following in Ida’s footsteps like a sleep-walker. He could see nothing, but he felt her suddenly whirl round and face him.

“Mark!” she said urgently, “I can’t go back! Not to that torture house! I am afraid, Mark, afraid! I could have borne it! I meant to bear it when it was only me, but now we’ve been together---I can’t bear it! You must see I can’t! We needn’t go back! We’re strong---we’re skilled people with something to give. Let’s get out into the new world---beyond Hungary into Russia! It can’t be a worse prison than the one we’ve left! After all they’re making something new in Russia---they’re not destroying life itself! And if they don’t want us---well, we can but die, and what a mercy to be dead---in such a world as this!”

Mark put out his hands and found hers in the dark. They were ice-cold and trembling. In a moment she was in his arms, her heart hammering against his heart.

Mark tried to steady himself as well as her. He too had thought of escape, but the thought of it had been beyond the region of his will. He had seen it as a man, bewildered, but not yet mastered by thirst, sees a lake upon the desert sands, and knows it for a mirage. That Ida could be controlled by her wishes had not occurred to him. He thought of her as invulnerable as Joan of Arc---frozen into a magic armour of courage.

Her voice crying out to him in frantic terror shook his whole being.

“Haven’t we done enough?” Ida sobbed. “It’s so senseless! So senseless, Mark, against them! They can break down anyone. We can’t keep out of their hands! They tear a man’s self-respect to pieces, and women---you know what they do to women? They throw them out to their young guards to play with! We can only destroy other people by our courage Mark, we can’t help ourselves.”

Mark tried to think about courage, but he couldn’t. There was only the automatic response to those dangers which he had always practised; and this no longer seemed to him like courage because these new dangers were unimaginable dangers. The only thing that came into Mark’s mind when he thought of courage was Father Martin saying to him that to-day there had to be a new kind. But Father Martin hadn’t told him what the new kind was. At last Mark said desperately to Ida.

“There’s Father Martin. Wouldn’t we feel rather as if we were letting him down, if we didn’t go back? And Pirschl---and the man in the railway I work with---and that surgeon?”

“They’d be safer without us,” Ida whispered. But she couldn’t say that they would want to be safer. “Father Martin has his God,” she murmured after a pause. “We’ve nothing but ourselves! Oh, Mark, let’s stay together!”

Her hard sobbing checked for his answer. The white silence of the fog pressed down upon them like an unbearable load. Even the reeds were still. They were utterly alone. All round them a world of water birds slept securely in their misty paradise. Nothing human breathed near them. Two miles away the fishermen waited for their return; but they would not wait after the sun was up. They would go home without hurt or anxiety. The Bezzeghys would make inquiries but not for long. The Màlnàssys had their horses safely; they were not responsible for the invisible messengers who had brought them---and vanished.

Anything might have happened to such adventurers. They might have been drowned in the lake---strangled by the reeds---carried off by frontier guards to an unknown doom. Who would be the wiser if they disappeared? Who would be the loser if they gave up the fight? Mark had always supposed that men took their precautions against temptations by knowing how to face them. But this masked temptation seemed to have no face. Never had his home---that small vulnerable island and all it stood for---its decencies and its strange freedoms and taboos---felt further away from Mark. It was as if he had suddenly lost England in space, and would never find it again. The flat lands of Hungary stretched away endlessly, in boundless meadows, under solemn, close-pressed skies. They might have reached already the vast steppes of Russia. A featureless, profound land, untamed and inhuman, surrounded them.

Since Mark was already suspected, was not his task accomplished? To stop before the whole thing blew up---and both he and his fellow-workers were caught---would surely be wisdom? What was a small island off the coast of Europe? What were the imponderable substances of codes and principles compared to Ida’s exhausted body in his arms? Hadn’t they done enough? Suffered enough? Her incredible courage was spent at last, because she had no more strength with which to keep it alive. When he thought of driving her back into the shambles of the Gestapo the mist tasted like death on his lips. Still he had got to be sure their choice was right and to be sure for both of them. If they turned as fugitives towards semi-hostile countries, they must give up their own. They would be deserters. They would even betray the cause they had fought for---since to desert is to betray. How would they bear the thought of this irrevocable failure if they were allowed to live their lives out in a strange land?

“I’m so tired, Mark,” Ida whispered. “I’m so tired! I’m so afraid!” She began to sob again, tearlessly and without a sound.

He could feel her sobs at his heart, as if it were a wall between them and safety which Ida was pulling to pieces. He felt himself invaded and swayed by her fear; yet suddenly he heard himself saying drily, as if something within the core of his being had at last been reached and was different from what he had hoped and expected:

“I think we’ve rather got to go back, Ida, haven’t we?” Mark spoke in English; he had forgotten to be an Austrian.

Ida stopped sobbing. She even gave a little shaky laugh, as if she were secretly relieved by Mark’s decision. “Oh,” she said, “you think that, do you? Just without any sense at all. Because you are an Englishman? Then I suppose I’ll have to go back too, Mark. It would be unfair of me to try to make you come with me, by going on alone.”

“Yes,” Mark said heavily, “that would be unfair.” It didn’t occur to him that it was equally unfair to take her with him; because perhaps he knew that her choice as a woman was more conditioned than his own. Ida would not have wished to spare herself, except to spare him. The point of her escape was gone unless he escaped with her.

Mark wondered if he ought not to explain his decision; but he was not sure that he had any reasons left; nor did Ida seem to expect any. She gave a curious little sigh---like a disappointed child who accepts the end of a hope which he always knew was too dazzling to be carried into execution.

“If we all got out,” Mark said at last, rather awkwardly and stiffly, “they might win!”

Ida laughed again, mockingly now, and as if her self-respect had been restored to her.

“Why, you idiot!” she said, turning back towards the path, “you incredible British idiot. They might win! Haven’t you ever thought of a map? Don’t you know yet that your mere speck of an island is against the whole world? Oh, of course most of the world would like you to win---but they aren’t going to help you to---they daren’t---or can’t---or won’t! Never mind, we’ll go on fighting. Perhaps no one is ever beaten who goes on fighting! He just dies winning something nobody else has got!”

Mark heard the sound of a new courage in her voice---it was the last desperate courage of the hopeless brave. Ida would never give in now---and never even want to---because she had ceased to want. He had driven her into the last ditch of despair. It was a strange and terrible thing to have done to another human soul, and the more terrible because in a sense Mark didn’t share her certainty of defeat. He still didn’t believe that in the end the Nazis would win. He could not give Ida a reason for it; but he had suddenly realized when her fear had reached the core of his heart that it couldn’t go any further. It must turn back, because he couldn’t stop fighting. Some of Mark wanted to run away; but not enough; not enough---even for Ida. There was a sense in which he was more afraid than she, for by going back he might be throwing her to the wolves. It wasn’t much use saying, even if it were true, that if they went to Russia they might never forgive themselves; and that a bad conscience would be worse than torture, because perhaps a bad conscience wouldn’t be worse than torture. None of these incalculable consolations were any good in advance, since by the time the blow fell there would be no use in calculating any more. You went on or stopped according to what you found you actually were doing. They were advancing, approaching the lake, against all reason, against all the common sense and tenderness of love. They were going back to the Nazis. The ground beneath their feet was not only wet now, it had become unsteady. Every now and then Ida stopped to shine her flash lamp on their uncertain way; and then all round them the startled birds stirred and called out, until the familiar darkness resettled over them; and the world was once more swallowed up in mist and silence.

“It is as well that I used to play over every inch of these shores as a child,” Ida said to Mark over her shoulder. “My feet seem to know the way as one’s fingers do on the piano when one has been learning a piece by heart. I can see nothing on the ground or in my mind; but I’m quite sure we’re getting close to Aladar and Franz.”

A chill dawn wind slanted across the reeds. They shivered and clashed together, breaking the edge of silence. The sound spread further and further in ever widening circles and increasing volume until all the world of water weeds and rushes quivered and sang together. A bird cried out, hard and shrill, as if at the approach of an enemy. Another and another bird stirred from its sleep and called, but now less fearfully, as if each cry gave the next bird more courage.

The mist thinned into a desolate featureless greyness. As suddenly as the chorus had risen, the birds’ voices sank into silence, but now the silence pressed less heavily upon the earth, as if it were thinned out by some unseen presence behind it; as the driving mist was thinned out by the light of the rising sun.

“The false dawn,” Ida murmured.

Water sprang up between tufts of thick grasses, dragging at their reluctant feet. They could hear the faint lapping of the lake against the reeds.

Ida lifted her torch three times, calling each time with the shrill cry of a water bird. A voice answered them directing them towards where a boat lay in the weeds. At last Mark made out its firm black shadow a few feet away from him. He lifted Ida bodily, and carried her over the mud and icy water now reaching to his chest. She lay huddled at the bottom of the boat without a sign of life. Mark couldn’t help thinking, as he clambered over the side of the boat after Ida, how much simpler it would be if she were really dead. Then he would have had nothing to fear. But he knew she was not dead. People can be without food or warmth---hope or kindness---without any sort of security; they can have forgotten comfort; and beauty can have become an idle word to them---and yet they go on living. Time indeed has very little to do with living except at its beginning or near its end. Mark had a curious lightheaded feeling that Time might lift dramatically as the mist was actually lifting, and show an unimaginable world. The past---the present---the future---spread round him as a static thing---not to be divided; and yet he had divided it by his decision to return. He had moved his future and Ida’s---as the dawn wind was moving the mist away from the land.

“You were gone a long while,” Aladar said to Mark when they had negotiated the difficult passage between the reeds and were safely out on the wide empty lake. “We said to each other---Franz and I---a rare joke, wouldn’t it be, if they never came back?”

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