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Chapter 35

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« on: March 09, 2023, 11:07:08 pm »

MARK said good-bye to Karl at dawn. The day was cold and grey. Snow clouds massed themselves in the pale sky; and a white staring light brooded over the valley of the Inn.

Looking down from the precipitous heights of St. Martin’s Wand, Mark could see Innsbruck stretched out on a white counterpane of snow, like a child’s scattered toy. The valley looked as if he could have thrown a stone into it, yet he knew that he had before him a difficult and arduous day’s ski-ing between himself and even the outskirts of the city. Far nearer, on the other side of the Wand, lay Schloss Salvator in a fold of the foothills, hidden securely in its pinetrees; but he dared not go to Ida yet before he knew from Father Martin what the exact situation was, and how to make his return plausible.

Skirting the big drop of the precipice he began to negotiate the long zigzag series of slopes which led to the valley. A Föhn wind had disturbed and altered the dry powdery snow, so that it had become soft and sticky, and in some places massed itself dangerously, threatening to break away in a series of miniature avalanches. Draughts of cold moist air drove down upon Mark between the peaks. The hard, false light altered landmarks and made distance difficult to measure. It was the skier’s nightmare, tricky snow, bad visibility, constant alteration of temperature and wind-drive.

Hour by hour Mark plodded on, with infrequent moments of swift flight, down rare and unencumbered slopes. His eyes grew tired with intensive watching of snow surfaces, and when at last the snow began to fall in large persistent flakes, it seemed as if his very muscles slowed themselves, under the oppressive lifeless air.

All day long he had met no living creature. Now, towards three o’clock in the afternoon, he could hardly see a yard or two before his face. He must get off the mountains before dark; and yet to hurry over the deceptive snow was to risk an avalanche.

It was a relief, though it added to his immediate danger, when the open snowfield began to contract into a deep ravine, until suddenly the pinetrees swallowed him. To and fro he dodged them, with swift jump-turns. The pinetrees moved like men, pressing on him, to cut him off; and Mark’s tired eyes registered no difference, when what should have been a motionless group of trees, broke up suddenly into living men who rushed at him kicking his skis from under him. Mark found himself writhing face downwards in the snow, while his captors bound his wrists and ankles, and tore off his skis.

The posse of savage young Nazis did not take the trouble to find out who he was, or what he was doing. He was alone, on the slope of a mountain; and he might be a harmless peasant on his way home from a day’s work, or a dangerous spy. It did not worry them which he was, since it was worth their while after an empty day, to find something or someone unaccounted for as meat for the Gestapo.

They were only a few miles out of Innsbruck and had a lorry waiting for them on a nearby road. They half-dragged, half carried Mark towards it, throwing him in, as if he were a bale of some inanimate substance, incapable of sensation.

Mark had no doubt whatever of what lay before him. He remembered what the British agent in Italy had told him, that few men ever escaped from the Gestapo. They just could not afford to be caught; and if caught must expect the worst. Mark had often lain awake sweating with the fear of physical torture. No matter how brave an agent is, such fear must assail him from time to time. Perhaps the braver men were the more they realized what they might be obliged to suffer before they gave in---or if they never gave in, through what inconceivable torments they must find their way towards a pitiless end. With his hands tied securely behind him Mark could not reach the poison pill he had been given for such emergencies. But a pang of relief shot through him when he remembered that he had somewhat unwillingly given Karl all the notes he had taken. Karl had said before they parted, “Better give them to me to forward. Innsbruck is a dangerous place. I shall avoid it and go back by Mittenwald where I know a shoemaker, who passes on messages. A German schoolmaster on a holiday is not so likely to be searched as an Austrian runaway mental patient, who may not be so very mental after all!”

Even if he were lost now, what Mark had done, he told himself, was not lost.

He had time, too, jogging along at the bottom of the lorry, to think out a plan. He had at least one identity paper on him---with the name of Pirschl’s brother. There was nothing to prove he was not mad. They must find out for themselves what he was. He would explain nothing; and look either senseless or furious. He would not open his lips.

The moment Mark began to make a plan, the cold panic of his fear receded. What was the Gestapo after all, he asked himself. It was only men---stupid, cruel, formalized men, not, as they thought they were---supermen. He himself was a man; and what they could do to him was going to be more unpleasant than his worst fears, nevertheless it was going to be done to him by men, who were less rather than more intelligent than himself. There might yet be some way out. If there was not, then his death would be exactly what long ago the Duchess of Malfi had foreseen hers as “a hideous storm of terror”. But storms however terrible---pass. There was still the final mercy of oblivion. Funny how the great Elizabethan poets stirred in him of their own accord, as if their dead voices were alive again in his very blood, to help him meet his hour. It was how you looked at terror that mattered, not the terror itself. The great thing was to get the better of his own nerves. Fortunately he had had a week of mental relaxation combined with plenty of hard exercise, good food and sleep.

The young brutes round him sang “Lily Marlene” at the top of their voices, all the way into Innsbruck. The harsh coarse song acted like a stimulant to their blood.

A hotel where Mark had once spent a climbing holiday near the station, was now being used by the Gestapo. In the same old dining-room, where Mark had eaten his pleasant meals to music, surrounded by flowers, he was now dragged before a middle-aged man with bilious eyes behind large horn-rimmed spectacles. He was in uniform but did not look either intelligent or formidable. This officer examined Mark’s papers and remarked in a grumpy voice to his young captors, who stood as if carved, on each side of their prisoner, “Probably you have made a mistake again---and this will turn out to be another harmless peasant. He seems to have nothing to say for himself though---which is always suspicious! Take him away and search him! What were you about---on those unvisited slopes---near no farm---on your way to nowhere?” he demanded suddenly, turning his small yellowish eyes on Mark. Mark gave him a ferocious scowl; and then smiled a triumphant secretive smile at the ceiling. “Ah!” said the officer, “he pretends to be mad, does he? Many do that---but it is quite useless here! If you won’t speak,” he told Mark, “you will be handed over to those who will make you speak. They will be quite rough with you---do you understand?” Mark continued to regard the ceiling with a pleasant stare. He was conscious that the very fact that he wouldn’t speak to them, wouldn’t look at them, wouldn’t recognize their existence, did something to them that they wouldn’t have liked to admit even to themselves. It hurt their vanity and made all their ferocious posturing look a little silly. His guards had already loosened Mark’s ankles; but his hands remained firmly fastened behind his back. They now frog-marched him roughly away; but not before he had noticed with a secret pleasure that the wallpaper was still the same little bunches of pink roses tied with blue ribbons. He could not think why but it reassured him to see that innocent pattern again.

To Mark’s relief they searched him without discovering his poison pill fixed in a piece of natural wax in his left ear.

When the search was over they flung Mark into a small cupboard which contained half a dozen other men. There was hardly any room to move, and very little air to breathe. The room smelt of fear.

Mark passed a long unpleasant hour while the torturers were having their afternoon coffee with Schlagobers in the nearest café. His fellow prisoners were broken with pain and terror and could keep neither still nor silent. A boy of seventeen cried heartbrokenly for his mother. Mark concentrated upon loosening the cord round his wrists. He had practised this particular exercise for long hours in security; but he found it harder now that he was given so little room---and so little freedom in which to succeed. It took him the whole of a long hour to get the cords loose enough not to appear loose, but so that, by sufficient force he could in a moment free himself.

Fortunately he had his back to the wall and was in semi-darkness; a small blue light fixed far above him just showed the prisoners each other’s outlines.

At last, the door was flung open into a sea of blazing light. “Let’s have the lunatic first,” a voice cried. “We’ll soon show him it isn’t worth his while to play being mad with us!”

For a moment Mark thought, “I was a fool not to have taken poison while I had the chance!” Then his fear suddenly passed into the energy of performance.

He was in a huge room, prepared now for the work before them. A row of heavy rubber truncheons lay on a table. Four men with white linen masks concealing their features, dressed in gym suits, had come in together. At one end of the room was a bath, with hooks above it to hang men upside down with their heads in the water. There was also an electrical machine and a chair near the open stove. No wonder the executioners wore masks, Mark thought to himself. It must have given them a sense of security, and at the same time eased their consciences, to escape their own identities.

Mark let his eyes have time to get used to the light; his body hung passively between two of his tormentors. He let them feel how inert and at their mercy he was before---like a piece of live wire---he flung out both his hands, leapt away from his captors, seized a rubber truncheon in each hand; and turning, flung himself upon his astounded executioners. He moved with such sudden and silent ferocity, that for thirty seconds he did just what he liked with them. It was as if a mouse had suddenly flown at an expectant cat and torn off all its whiskers.

Then pandemonium broke loose; but Mark controlled and added to the pandemonium. He shrieked higher and higher till the room rang with his maniacal laughter.

Leaping from floor to table and back again, rushing between his opponents’ legs, flying across their backs, hurling them backwards against the guards who had rushed in to reinforce them, Mark managed by sheer virtuosity of movement to prevent their cornering him. He dashed at them and leapt away from them by turn with such appalling fury that they lost their heads in spite of their numbers. He had not watched Steinbosch in the fractious ward going off the deep end for nothing. Mark added to the cunning of sanity the far more ruthless cunning of a madman. To his own secret astonishment he even felt mad and enjoyed the feeling. A wild glee, like that of the high mountains, filled his racing pulses. These men, accustomed to their weaponed ease, sure of their physical mastery of fear-racked, hunted, unarmed victims, were terrified of the acrobatic fiend, beating them with their own truncheons.

But though they were terrified, there were twelve of them; in time they could overpower even this incredible maniac. Mark’s bones cracked under their blows, his pulses began to fail; the glee in him died down and was replaced by panic; his wits clouded. He heard a high whimpering voice that reminded him of Hans of the drei Schlimme Räuber—and knew it was his own. His pride, his dignity, his manhood faltered. Oblivion evaded him, his physical degradation mounted with his pain. Suddenly a voice he knew called out urgently, “You’ve made a mistake! Stop! Stop! You’ve made a great mistake!” but still the blows rained down on him; and then he became conscious that no one was hitting him any more. “I know this man,” an agitated voice shouted, “and it is quite true that he is mad---very dangerously mad---as you must have found out for yourselves! It would have been much wiser of you boys to let me have a look at him before you set to work. He comes from the Nervenheilanstalt at Schloss Salvator. I myself signed his certificate. He even attacked me once---but I got the better of him because I knew how. You have treated him very ignorantly. Besides you don’t realize who he is! He’s the artist Pirschl’s brother. The man who died the other day and the Führer himself went to his funeral. Yes! This is actually the brother of Hitler’s favourite artist whom you’ve set upon in such a clumsy manner. You’ve broken a leg---his left arm’s fractured, one shoulder out---look at his face---his jaw’s broken---another inch and you’d have had his eye out! What a spectacle you’ve made of him. I don’t say anything about his internal organs---he’ll have to be examined under chloroform for that! Dummköpfe!” The young Nazi thugs stood abashed looking down at their victim, as young sport dogs might do who had forgotten their orders and mangled the bird they should have retrieved whole. Mark could only see through a red blur the enormous familiar face of Lauterbach bending over him, before a shot of morphia eased his pain. He felt himself tenderly borne away under expert instruction.

Air and darkness swallowed him, nor had he recovered consciousness when, after a swift journey through the night, in an ambulance, he lay under Ida’s guarded eyes, once more on his own bed in Schloss Salvator.
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