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Chapter 39

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« on: March 10, 2023, 05:21:03 am »

THE wind roared and rollicked about the sky, driving the fleecy shining clouds in flocks like sheep that a friendly shepherd dog chases in play from field to field.

The storm was over, and winter, reborn in deep and dazzling snow, shone under a sky of spring.

Inside the Schloss scared attendants and uneasy patients crept along the passage, as if the very ground might sink beneath their feet.

Everyone moved as if he were trying to avoid an enemy he could not see. Nobody had been told anything; but everyone, who had any outer consciousness at all, knew that evil was impending.

In the centre of the long entrance hall Ida stood in her long white coat surrounded by a group of men in uniform. She must have heard the tap of Mark’s crutches, as he and Johann crossed the hall to reach the further wing: but she kept her head steadily turned away from them. Her lips were close shut and her eyes had an empty look like the eyes of a statue. In spite of the group surrounding her, her small erect figure made a space round itself, as if she were alone in a desert. A wave of passionate love and longing swept Mark’s heart. It was as if all that he had loved in her country incarnated itself in Ida---the skill, the charm, the dauntless wit---and the helplessness. Mark could not reach her. If she were to be saved at all he knew that she must save herself. Johann opened the door, and helped Mark through it into the corridor. “There they all are,” he said in a grumbling undertone, “but you don’t want to go showing them who you are! That’s not the way to treat the Gestapo! They’ll find out soon enough for themselves---and make the worst of it! I tell you what it is, Herr Pirschl, the old doctor and even that crow Wolf, and that pig-dog Lauterbach from Innsbruck---by themselves they don’t amount to much; and the Frau Doktor she can get the better of all of them put together; but when the Gestapo’s behind them---well then Our Lady Herself couldn’t turn that corner! I was ordered to wash out the hall at six o’clock this morning! I, who am supposed only to attend to persons like yourself---and if there is any washing to be done---see that they do it! But to-day everything has to be in exact order and can’t be left to half-wits. Germans think life depends upon everybody being made uncomfortable but themselves. Herr Müller has just had one of his worst fits; and this morning at breakfast Herr Steinbosch threw everything off the table, and stamped on the butter!

“If fractious patients have to be made uncomfortable that’s all that comes of it! But I warn you, Herr Pirschl, that the next patient who cuts up rough is to be taken out into the yard and beaten unconscious with a rubber truncheon---an order from the Gestapo that Fritz is pining to carry out! Why not play chess with the Herr General till dinner-time---it will keep you both quiet!”

Nothing had changed in the fractious ward since Mark last saw it, except that for the moment immaculate cleanliness and order had been forcibly thrust upon it by its caretakers. The general recognized Mark by a courteous nod, but none of the others seemed aware of him. They were absorbed by their inner turmoil, and each in turn contributed some ungovernable impulse to counteract the restraint placed on the inanimate objects surrounding them, by the new reign of order. Herr Putznagel took off all his clothes. Steinbosch tore his mattress, Herr Müller, just recovering from his prolonged fit, managed to upset a mug of boiling milk over Herr Winkel. An old man in the corner swiftly excelled himself in making everything as dirty as he could all round him.

It was a long and most disturbing morning and yet Mark found himself feeling curiously interested and even sorry for each of these piteous exhibitionists. The patients had become suddenly human to him now that he knew these were their last activities, and he found that he understood what it was that they were trying so awkwardly to achieve. Even the worst of them seemed to want to communicate something to the world around them; and it was this communication that the Gestapo was going finally to stop.

At last dinner was brought in and even the most roused and aggressive of the patients became soothed by its Sunday richness. They had roast pork, Sauerkraut and creamed potatoes followed by Apfelstrudel.

Shut away from the outer world as if it did not exist, they mercifully forgot for an hour at least, that it existed. They ate and drank with satisfaction, and took their accustomed after-dinner rest; and then Johann turned on the radio. The patients knew that music meant they were not to have any Sunday walk. The wind had risen to the force of a gale and howled and shrieked about the Schloss. But Beethoven’s Symphony rose above the sounds of the storm. The great chords swelled and thundered, while through them beat the heart of a lonely desperate man, besieged by hopeless love; darkened by suspicion; isolated by deafness, but indomitably struggling on towards Light. Perhaps Beethoven too had felt the same trapped and agonized longing to help another soul, from whom he was locked away, as Mark felt now with Ida in the hands of the Gestapo. Perhaps nothing but this ultimate agony could carry the unwilling stubborn spirit out of his self-made rigidity into the changing sea. Now Beethoven’s spirit, loosed from all its moorings, alone but at one with the elements, became part of the law that rules the Universe. In the trough of these tremendous waves of hope and fear, he was at last aware of the depth of his own love. Nothing else counted but the blinding certainty of his passion. The symphony swelled to its majestic height, the stubborn soul knew where it was moving at last. The violins poured their penetrating light into the last recesses of human darkness.

It was impossible to say how many of the patients listened or, if they listened, what the music meant to their disordered minds; but on the whole Mark noticed they were less mischievous and noisy with it than without it. The icy air, the remote unpleasantly orderly stars, the interminable song of the pines, the unknown forces of the storm, the fear that had walked the passages of the hospital all day long were shut away from them by the music; and forgotten.

The ward door opened from without at six o’clock. Ida came in, followed by two officers in black uniforms with silver badges. Behind them came old Dr. Eichhorn looking very majestic and fatherly, but a little severe since he was never certain that in the fractious ward, the inmates would take his dignity as seriously as he took it himself. Dr. Wolf and Dr. Lauterbach also looked aware that their self-valuation was threatened in rather an unpleasant manner. Still they were young and strong, and had taken the precaution of having two extra attendants brought in with them.

The patients stared suspiciously at this half strange, and half familiar procession. Were the strangers also doctors? They were not patients. They came from outside. All prisoners, sane or insane, know instinctively who is acting on his own initiative, or is, like themselves, controlled by locks and keys. Strangers rarely came into the fractious ward; and they were never welcome. The two men in uniform began at once barking out idiotic questions from their shut faces. “What is your occupation in this hospital?” they demanded from Herr Steinbosch who merely spat at them, by way of answer. “Are you feeling better or worse since you came here?” they asked Herr Winkel who immediately burst into tears. “Do you wish to become well in order to go out into the good German world, and help your Führer?” they asked Herr Heinel the pervert, who grinned with wicked zest but preferred not otherwise to commit himself.

“How long do you---a pure Nordic---expect to stay here in safety while your Fatherland is in danger?” they finally put to Herr Müller, who was still in the lethargy caused by his fit, but who now roused out of it by the aggressive note of their voices, rapidly began preparing for another. Ida stood attentively and submissively beside the interlopers; but her eyes were more alive than they had been a few hours earlier. Some power had come back into her hands out of the surrounding emptiness.

Owing to the precautions taken by Fritz and Johann in pinioning the arms of Herr Steinbosch and Müller, before they had time to react to the bad impression made upon them by their visitors, the ordeal passed off quite pleasantly. Attention was only once drawn directly to Mark, by Dr. Lauterbach, who stood at a safe distance from him, and explained to the others rather like a showman exhibiting a trick lion, “That is the one I told you about---brother of Pirschl the artist---unfortunately very violent---but at present as you see crippled by an accident on the mountainside.” Before any further comments could be made, Herr Müller, who had by now roused himself sufficiently to produce another fit, gave a loud premonitory yell. Dr. Lauterbach hastily clicked his heels, kissed Ida’s hand, and led his colleagues from the ward just in time to avoid the worst of it. Ida stayed till Herr Müller’s unearthly shrieks had died into uneasy mutterings and he was comfortably back in bed, then she gave low-voiced orders to Johann and Fritz; and, without looking again at Mark, joined her colleagues.

It was a restless evening. The patients were sent to bed earlier than usual and resented it. For some unexplained reason, screens were placed round some of the beds. Mark and the general shared this privilege; and fortunately for the peace of the ward, Steinbosch and Müller were also granted the same distinction.

No one knew what arrangements were being made in the other wards; but such arrangements, if there were any, couldn’t, it was agreed, be bad, because there was no sound throughout the hospital of any protest. The whole Schloss was, if anything, quieter than usual; and enjoyed an extremely good and copious Sunday night’s supper.

Mark and the general had been left in peace with their chess, while the others went to bed. “Let them finish their game,” Johann had said to Fritz with a wink. “It’s always something even to a looney, to know whether he’s lost or won!”

“You always pamper those two,” Fritz replied, “but seeing how it is---all right! We won’t hurry them! But get them in bed by nine o’clock, or you’ll have the doctors back on us.”

The two attendants went about their work; and left them undisturbed. The general leant forward, and said to Mark in an undertone, “I have a feeling that this game is meant to be our last; you understand that to be deprived of life by others is humiliating to a man in my position? What I wish is to deprive myself of life. Will you, my friend, assist me?”

Mark hesitated, he glanced at the general and then across the ward, to the screens around his bed. Why should he not help him towards his one desire? What might once have been a crime suddenly appeared to Mark more like a virtue. “How can I help you?” he asked guardedly. “You know that they leave us nothing we can use as a weapon?”

“We can use our wits,” the general replied grimly. “To-day they have been careless---they have left the outer door into the yard unlocked. Create a diversion for me; and I will profit by it. Those new attendants have gone; and both the others will go to your assistance. I know very well how to do what I want. I owe God a life. But I wish to pay it myself. I do not wish to have the price extorted by others.”

“I will do what I can to help you,” Mark answered, “while I can. I too think as you do. We owe God a life---and I too wish to choose not to be chosen for.”

“You think very reasonably,” the general told him. “What did you do to bring yourself here? I killed my wife. I felt it necessary for my honour; but I have not been allowed to follow her. Now you will set me free; and I can go to her.”

“I came here,” Mark said half to himself and half to the general, “because I thought I was better than others. I see now that was a mistake.”

“Than some we are better---than some less good,” the general said consideringly. “But perhaps the real mistake is to think that it matters, since what really matters is, to give what we have.”

Mark nodded. He saw that both Johann and Fritz had their backs turned to the corner near the outer door by which they sat. “Ready?” he murmured.

“Ready!” the general answered. Mark swung himself onto his crutches, upsetting the table with a crash.

The chessmen rolled about the floor. The two attendants turned and rushed towards Mark. He stood swaying backwards and forwards, shouting loudly, till they reached him, then he staggered into their arms, gasping, a dead weight between them, while his crutches slipped to the floor.

It was some minutes before they were free to discover that the yard door was unlocked, and the general gone.

The storm had swallowed him. The wind and the dark were his willing accomplices. They did not even find his body till the morning. The general had hanged himself from a pinetree that he had long ago decided on for that purpose. Nothing much was made of the affair. The general had only ante-dated by an hour or so the end destined for him, and no-one suspected Mark of having intentionally aided him. The news of his suicide was carefully concealed from the Gestapo agents, who left before he was found next morning, since they would not have liked to hear that their orders had been carried out in such an irregular manner.

At ten o’clock Ida entered on her night round accompanied by Dr. Wolf. She spoke first to the screened patients, looking down at each in turn, with her slightly mocking and yet somehow deeply reassuring eyes. “Perhaps,” she said, “you would like to sleep a little sounder to-night than usual after your good supper? If I didn’t give you something special to help you---you might sleep less well---or have bad dreams. Now I promise you a long sleep---and no dreams at all!”

To each of the screen patients, she gave an injection, while Dr. Wolf rather ostentatiously stood over her. Mark watched how neatly and with what steady hands Ida carried out this final office. It was obvious that even Herr Steinbosch was pleased by the extra attention, although he had been very shaken by having both his arms pinioned behind him during the visit of the strangers, when he had wanted to use them like flails; he even responded to Ida’s good night, without trying to hit her.

She patted his shoulder very kindly after she had given him his injection and said, “Angenehme Ruhe, Herr Steinbosch!” before she left him.

Mark’s was the last of the screened beds. Perhaps Ida was a little tired by the time she came to him, for she dropped her last ampoule on the floor and had to ask Dr. Wolf to fetch her another one. The moment he was gone she bent over Mark. “Mark!” she murmured, “Mein Lieber! You see I am a murderess again in spite of myself! But this way it is easier for them. They feel no fear and die easily. It was a great concession the Gestapo granted me, that I might kill my own patients!”

“You are all right?” Mark whispered. “Ida, they won’t do anything to you?”

“To me---nothing,” said Ida soothingly. “This little affair of yours goes smoothly---only sleep deeply now. This I give you will help you---and you will wake among friends! Ah! Dr. Wolf how prompt and kind you are! After all I found I had one undamaged ampoule left so I have given it to Herr Pirschl. You will now sleep well, I trust! Pleasant dreams, Herr Pirschl---if dream you must!”

Mark shut his eyes so that Herr Wolf might not see the look he could not keep out of them.

Sleep came more quickly than usual to the fractious ward. Herr Steinbosch muttered and shouted a little at first; and Herr Heinel gave a loud silly laugh before he slipped into the last of his vicious dreams. One by one their sleep grew deeper and more silent, until at last the only sound that Mark could hear was his own unquiet breathing.

Two hours later, Herr Wolf came in like a frightened thief. He crept from bed to bed, bending double, to listen to each silent chest in turn. He muttered uneasily over Mark; but in the end he decided that there was nothing to be done about this obstinate heart, except to take Mark last. Even if his heart still beat by then, it would not be for long. A few minutes later the stretcher-bearers came in, and took away, very quietly and methodically, what lay behind the screens.

As soon as they had gone, Johann and Fritz removed the screens; and made up the beds as if no one had slept in them.

Time seemed endless in the lonely ward, before the stretcher-bearers returned for Mark.

It was almost a relief to feel their rough warm hands on his body. They swung him swiftly through the long hygienic passage under a dim blue light; and after a time Mark recognized that they were taking him upstairs not down. They reached the loggia at last, and put him down gently on the parquet floor. “Es geht, mein Herr! Stehen sie auf!” Wolfgang’s friendly voice rang in his ears. Steady hands helped Mark up, and he stood blinking in the immense lighted loggia without his crutches.

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