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Chapter 33

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« on: March 09, 2023, 11:29:03 am »

SNOW was falling fast when Mark left the Frauenkirche. The heavy cold of dawn bit its way treacherously into his face and hands. The cold of Munich comes both from above and below the city; the valley through which it runs is flat and intersected with snow-fed streams from the mountains; and from the mountains themselves visiting blasts break through the penetrating river fogs, and edge the valley’s whole temperature with fury. It was difficult to move, or breathe, or see, against the sudden onslaught of the wind. Yet in its brief pauses Mark caught glimpses of the icy splendour the elements had poured upon the empty streets. The pompous heavy houses, copies of Italian or French Renaissance Palaces forced into Teutonic blocks of stone, were now re-shaped by a fantastic covering of snow into forms and texture more beautiful than even their stately originals.

The sky, laced with puffs of blue-grey clouds, was colourless, and so clear that Mark felt as if the earth was a chance atom of dirt flung upwards by a careless child momentarily staining the lucid air through which it would soon fall, and disappear for ever. He felt as if no material thing could long exist in this rootless light of dawn. He himself moved over the light powder snow like a soundless ghost. The city slept, and all its hideous secrets and cruel sorrows, were as silent as if they had been dropped into a grave.

Before he left the church an anxious, sleepy priest had forced into his hand the address of his next contact. Trains and trams were no longer safe for young men who were not soldiers, and might be hauled off and examined for registration at any moment. Mark must go on foot to find a man called Karl Reuss of whom the priest knew nothing except his name.

Reuss lived in a cheap flat in a suburb beyond the Siegestor---so far out that it was more like a village than a suburb. Mark must see that he was not followed, the priest urged, and on no account come near the Frauenkirche again.

From time to time Mark crouched into a doorway for shelter, and looked behind him; but the broad avenue was always empty, except for the small ice-clad trees, and the scurrying thick snowflakes which grew brighter and more transparent as the light increased. Mark passed the university, and glanced across the street through the wide gates of the English garden, where everything was wreathed and garlanded with snow. He went through the Siegestor, and at last found the short street of modern working-class flats where his new contact lived.

In answer to his muffled knocking, the door was flung wide open; and Mark found himself looking into the face of a fair young giant with a composed and friendly countenance, and remarkably steady blue eyes. “Hier—Reuss!” the young man told him, with a sudden brilliant smile. “You come from Mass at the Frauenkirche?”

Mark nodded. His cheeks were too stiff with cold for speech.

“Enter,” Karl Reuss told him, “my wife will soon have something warm ready for you to drink.”

Mark found himself in a neat tiny hall that led direct into a large living-room, one door of which opened on to a minute kitchen and bathroom; while another on the left of the hall led into a room not much larger than a cupboard which contained a divan bed for the Reusses’ only child; and a desk and books for the master of the house. The living-room was evidently where Reuss and his wife slept, ate and received their guests. It was scrupulously clean and tidy. The whole flat was in its simple way beautiful with intelligent cleanliness and order.

The sudden warmth and stillness and the relief from struggling with the elements made Mark feel dizzy and helpless. He was thankful when his host pushed him into a chair close to the stove and left him alone. He could hear the child ask her father eagerly, “Has the new Santa Klaus come?”

“Yes,” her father told her, “but he is too cold to talk just yet. I have put him by the stove to thaw; wait a little longer before you see him. When he has had his breakfast you shall go in and have yours with him!”

Apparently the little girl agreed to her father’s suggestion, and they fell to whispering Christmas jokes to each other. Mark heard a gay ringing laugh, which ran on and on in his heart with a curious beauty. This was something he had not met in all his dangerous contacts---a home where a child could be happy---a man who met his eyes with absolute serenity---and now a young woman, who, less handsome than her tall husband, but full of the same sense of pleasant welcome, entered from the kitchen carrying a daintily spread tray. A vision floated before his dazzled eyes, coffee, rolls and butter, an egg and a spray of holly. “Happy Christmas!” his hostess said to Mark, as if such a thing existed. He stood up to greet her, and tried to smile at her with his stiffened lips, but she pushed him back into his chair, and said quickly, “No! No! You are frozen and starved with cold---please do not move Mein Herr! We are so pleased to have you with us on Christmas morning! You come like a Father Christmas and we have explained to Rosa---our little one---that you are Father Christmas out of a job. Everything has been taken away from you---even your reindeer! And it is we who are to give you the presents!”

Frau Reuss put the little tray on a shining glass table beside Mark and vanished back into a kitchen very little larger than she was, closing the door carefully behind her, so that Mark could eat in peace.

The aroma of the coffee penetrated his whole being. The beauty of the simple room, the easy kindness of his young hosts brought tears to his eyes. It was odd to want to cry because he was happy; it was odder still to feel that the kindness of two perfect strangers should make him feel so happy. He had brought deadly danger into their home; every minute he stayed here he was a menace to them, yet far from wanting to get rid of him, they were as delighted to receive him as if he had brought them a fortune. Rosa, when she was allowed to appear, dressed in her best and warmest clothes, was a small unformed image of her father. She looked upon Mark as a promised treat, and had a pair of woollen gloves tied with scarlet ribbon to present to him as a Christmas offering. She and her mother were going out after breakfast to the nearest church, which had a Krippe, and after visiting the Christ Child surrounded by His sheep and oxen, and perhaps a camel, they would, she explained, return to cook Christmas dinner for themselves and Mark. Everything for this feast had been bought already; it was to be a dinner full of secrets and surprises, and Rosa, sitting on Mark’s knee, whispered the most choice of them from time to time into his ear.

“How can you live like this?” Mark asked Karl Reuss, when Rosa and his wife, accompanied by a new doll clasped to Rosa’s bosom, had gone out. “It seems incredible! I did not know anyone in Germany to-day could be so happy---no one at least who believes as you believe!”

Karl Reuss drew at his pipe without speaking, his handsome open face clouded over for a moment. “We must make our own happiness,” he said at last. “It is not ready made! It is not easy! Perhaps I could not make it at all without my wife and child. All three of us love each other. My wife Gerda and I are both teachers in the same working-class school not far from here. Rosa has already entered it. We live among our neighbours just as they do. We obey whatever we have to obey. I am perhaps older than you would suppose for I am thirty-eight. My military service is long over, and I am considered a useful teacher. We are not exceptional in any way---neither enthusiasts nor heretics under the new régime---but fortunately so unimportant that nothing about us is particularly noticeable. But behind our outer life, we keep together an inner one. We know what is true and what is false. Freedom does not change. It has been true for thousands of years---for as long as men knew that there was virtue, and that man even against his desires and his instincts must be free in order to practise it. These virtues---these thoughts we decided were true long ago when we were free to think and to decide, and we cannot change them now just because sixty-five million people suddenly decide that they are true no longer---not if they declare this change a hundred times a day at the top of their voices!”

“But does no one guess what you really think and feel?” Mark asked anxiously. “You, after all, do more than just disagree with the Nazi tenets, or I should not have been sent to you with instructions. Has no one ever discovered your secret activities?”

“We take precautions,” Karl Reuss admitted. “But not too many! We live as openly as we can. But above all we are friendly! In all the group duties which are practised in the Reich to-day---some useful, some even admirable---we play an eager part. We have no enemies. Perhaps we shall not always be as safe as we are to-day for I do not think this war---in spite of all our superficial victories, will end as the Nazis foresee it ending. God forbid that it should! Human virtue would end for ever without freedom. Well---when the defeats which I foresee begin we shall lose all our outward happiness. We shall not have gaiety or Christmas feasts, warmth or beauty for our child, perhaps not even health, certainly not safety. But though we too must join in paying the price of our cruel misadventure, we shall have that happiness we miss now---perhaps the only real one. Since we shall want this misadventure to fail! Perhaps we shall have the joy of even having helped its failure; above all we shall never for a moment forget that evil such as the Nazis practice would darken the whole earth and blot out the soul of mankind unless it did perish. Do you not think as I do?”

“I may think it,” Mark admitted, “but I doubt if I could practise it with such courage!”

Karl Reuss laughed, “And you a Runner!” he exclaimed, “and I a mere stay-at-home! Well, we must not compete over our courage since we have plans to make instead. I am having my holidays and I propose to take a week in which to help you find a little more useful information to carry out of the country. I have an extra pair of skis, and to-morrow an old schoolfellow and myself start out at dawn on an Ausflug. All my neighbours know about it---and you as that old schoolfellow will go to your home from the other side of the mountains---while I return here---when it is safely over. The snow is in the best possible condition, and there is nothing more innocent than snow. Now we study our maps!”

The hours passed like minutes. Rosa and her mother returned from their visit to the Krippe, which had fortunately contained even a camel with a black wise man thrown in, beyond Rosa’s expectations, and they prepared the Christmas feast, a few yards away, with little shrieks of joy and excitement.

The cold sun shone into the living-room, bringing out its dainty colours and the sensible contrivances of the simple wooden furniture. A great deal of it, Gerda explained, Karl had made in his spare time; and the rest had been the work of a carpenter friend; while an ironmonger friend had made all the glass and iron tables that were the pride and joy of Gerda’s heart. Her scarlet pots and pans in the little kitchen had come from a summer visit to Holland, where everything to do with food or household comfort was made as bright as tulips. After they had eaten their splendid meal, and every surprise and secret had achieved its full distinction, they went out to the Thiergarten to share Rosa’s Christmas with her favourite animals in the zoo. In the evening, when Rosa had at last fallen asleep, drunk with happiness, the three of them sat round the stove in friendly silence. Mark felt as if he had known Karl and Gerda all his life; their love and their laughter; the little family jokes and the hidden strength that bound them together had all been made his own. He did not want to leave them; still less did he want to take away with him, into danger, the main support and cause of all their happiness. He wondered that Gerda could bear to look at him with such friendly eyes.

“Look here,” he said at last desperately, “now I’ve studied the maps and have more or less got the journey in my mind, couldn’t I go alone?”

Gerda and Karl turned astonished eyes upon him. “Oh, no,” Gerda said quickly, “you see I understand what Karl must do! We have long ago agreed and decided upon it. He makes things as easy as he can for the Runners. In term time naturally he cannot go with them. But now in the holidays, he can see them across the mountains. Besides we have had our Christmas together. That would have been hard to give up! But now we need not feel too unhappy!”

Karl stood up, with his hand resting on his wife’s shoulder. He looked gravely and steadily across at Mark. “We love Germany,” he said firmly. “That may sound strange to you---our Austrian cousin---since we are now acting against our Government and playing into the hands of our enemies. But even if you were British or Russian I should act the same. To be a German is important perhaps to us still---but to be a human being is far more important. Since we love our country and because we love human beings even more, we must fight against the Nazis with all we have. We fought long before the Allies fought against Hitler and we may go on fighting long after they have finished fighting against him. We fight to be free! I was one of the moving radio stations whom the Nazis never caught. We disbanded ourselves when life became impossible, but none of us has changed or stopped fighting. We fight for what we believe is Germany’s good. We believe the worst thing that could happen for Germany as for the rest of the world would be her ultimate victory. We know that Germany was never threatened except by herself. Her only danger was that she had not the courage to be friendly with other countries. Instead, force was her religion and her one aim. But force, and the rule of force, is not only the enemy of Germany, it is also the unacknowledged enemy of mankind. Where money rules, when men compete with other men for gain, it is still the enslavement of man himself---that is the goal of such countries! This war will go on until mankind has changed its goal. Yet though all are responsible for a money aim, Germany alone is responsible for this outbreak to-day. She more thoroughly---I might say (for we are a conscientious people) more conscientiously than any other country---is responsible for training all her people towards aggression.”

“Yes,” Gerda whispered, “we are responsible! But it is terrible how Germany must suffer! All must suffer, but in the end, we shall be the worst sufferers!”

For a while all three of them were silent.

Mark had never thought he could feel sympathy for the country which had so trained itself to destroy the peace and beauty of mankind; but he found that he had begun to understand not only its guilt but its tragedy. He no longer separated Germany from the rest of the world. He could not forget the ugliness and evil in his own country---the tramps on the grass in the London parks---the mindless penal system grinding criminals down into their loveless crimes, punishing children who were the victims of a society that was itself criminal towards its uncared-for young; the base selfishness of a rich country towards those who could find no work because no one made it for them to find. He remembered France selling the freedom of her press; betrayed to her worst enemies by a handful of venal men, who ran all her banks and her chief industries. He remembered America, so great in potentiality, so blind as to world obligations. He thought of each country not as separate entities any more but as millions of small homes like the one he was in, where families could make happiness out of their personal relationships and spread their knowledge into a unity of human brotherhood. But this splendid education of natural love had been kept as a private business and not understood as the main education of a human being.

There had been no training through homes and schools and colleges for love, as Hitler had trained the young of the German Reich for hate.

Christianity had been shrivelled into a dried mummy by the churches till its blood ran no more in its veins. Nothing had taken the place of religion, nothing perhaps could. If there was a law that man should love his neighbour as himself---then the failure to keep that law must result in catastrophe and would result in eternal catastrophe unless the law was kept.

Mark’s thoughts grew misty and floated away from him; he was too tired to think them out to their end. He heard faint whisperings of gentle voices and movements, and woke up with a start to find that the divans in the sitting-room were already made into beds for himself and Karl. “Gerda will sleep with Rosa,” Karl explained. “We must be off early.”

Mark felt so safe that he knew nothing more until the chinking of coffee cups woke him at dawn.

As he stood in the little entrance hall for the last time, he held Gerda’s warm firm hand in his, in a long clasp. “I’m glad I’ve met you,” Mark said awkwardly. “I didn’t know---I didn’t understand that I could love a German as I love you---and your husband and Rosa!”

Gerda smiled at him with misty eyes. “But there are thousands like us!” she said gently. “You Austrians should know---in this---and every other country---perhaps millions, how can we count how many people are friendly with each other, and want only to be friendly with each other?”

Mark did not answer her except with his eyes. He left her to say good-bye to her husband, and stepped out into the dead coldness of the winter dawn.

The wind had fallen and the snow had stopped with its fall. The stars still cut their bright and splendid way through the dark. Mark wondered if the earth, on which he stood, made so clear and fine a pattern of its flight through space, as its kindred stars.

He stared up at the illimitable sky, and found that he had lost all fear of the great spaces through which the earth moved. He no longer shrank from its rootlessness. Instead he felt that in each living creature there was some power of direction that kept it alive, and safe enough.

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