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Chapter 1

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« on: March 06, 2023, 03:03:28 am »

MARK Chalmers was, as far as he knew, exactly the kind of man he wanted to be. He earned enough money for his tasks; he had done nothing discreditable; women admired him; boys obeyed him; and men of his own age definitely disliked him, unless they had been more successful still; and then they thought that he was a very nice fellow and might go far. But he would not go too far because he was already thirty-six.

The kind of job Mark was on was not greatly to his taste; but his friend Reggie at the Foreign Office was urgent about it, and had offered to pay his holiday expenses if he would undertake it. After all, it was only to take a message quite quietly and unobtrusively, to a man who lived in Innsbruck and then---the message given---Mark would be free to go on with his usual summer climbing in the Dolomites. Still if Mark had not decided to take the message he would not have gone to Austria at all, in the summer of 1938; because nothing outside his own personal life had ever so upset him as the occupation by Germany of his favourite country, stamping out, as far as spiritual values can be stamped out, its charm, its culture and its kindness.

Now there was only Switzerland left, for his favourite summer pastime, and Mark had never liked the Swiss as he liked the Austrians.

The Tiroler Hof, where he was of course staying, was a good hotel, but only Germans and Italians, with an occasional British tourist like himself, now stayed there---no Austrians. The waiters too, were either German or Italian---a curiously helpful, conversational staff, full of praise for the new Nazi regime.

Mark stayed there a week before attempting to give his message. He had his head screwed on the right way, or Reggie would never have hit on him as a messenger; and he wanted to get the pleasant hotel staff quite used to his harmless habits before he paid his visit; then he would feel certain that no footsteps behind him were intentional.

So for a week Mark was up at eight o’clock, and out all day long, with his food in a rucksack swung on his back, looking what he was, the usual British upper-class type---expensive, arrogant, active and harmless. His clothes, his papers, everything he possessed were no doubt duly examined in his absence but betrayed no interesting features.

Nor was it astonishing, though no doubt a pity, that he refused point blank the pleasant company of a fellow mountaineer---a German---who offered to join him on his excursions.

“Sorry,” Mark said with his clipped Hanover accent, “but I prefer climbing by myself.” Saying “No” politely but firmly was no difficulty to Mark. He was accustomed to saying it to eager boys at intervals, all day long; and he almost always said it pleasantly and without explanations. But the boys saw that he meant it---and so did the German mountaineer.

Mark chose Sunday night at dusk, on his return from a day’s climb, to go to the address Reggie had given him.

He slouched along the empty streets, a little hungry and thirsty, dusty and tired, looking like any other Tiroler on his way home from a day’s hard exertion. The house he wanted was in a narrow street of high old houses, behind the Goldene Dächl. The street rambled crookedly backwards like the movements of a crab, towards the river Inn. The ancient houses leaned across it, so that two long arms stretching from opposite windows might almost have met. The number Mark stopped at had one distinguishing feature---a little statue of St. Florian set across the doorway holding a remarkably large watering-can with which to put out a solid sheet of flame enveloping a toy church.

Mark rang twice and knocked once as he had been directed to do. There was a long silence, and then he saw eyes looking at him through a grille, on a level with his own. “Herr Martin, ist er zu Hause?” Mark demanded. No motion was made to open the door although the street behind him was quite empty. “I am a friend from England,” Mark added in a low voice. The door opened softly inwards.

There was very little light in the hall, but enough to show to Mark’s astonishment that he was in a monastery, and speaking to a black-cassocked monk.

The door he entered by was shut and bolted before the monk spoke again. “This way,” he said briefly. Mark followed him into the usual visiting parlour of a monastery. No room in the world, except the visiting room of a prison, looks less lived in.

The four square walls contained a few stiff chairs, a dusty desk, and a crucifix. The silence after the monk went out, closing the door behind him, was absolute.

For a moment Mark had the wish---almost the intention---of getting up and rushing out before anyone came back. He did not like professionally religious people, and it seemed to make nonsense of his message to have to give it to one. But the silence itself hemmed him in. The whole house was without the flicker of a sound, as if whoever was in it, had no need to be noticed---even by himself. It made Mark feel strangely aggressive and uncontrolled---two qualities which were highly unnatural and indeed antipathetic to him.

The door opened as noiselessly as it had shut; a tall vigorous figure of a man stood in front of him. A very virile figure for a habit, Mark thought to himself. The tall young monk had a handsome, innocent boy’s face, but with a quality of absolute remoteness unknown to Mark’s experience of men. Every boy Mark had known had something or other in common with every other boy; but this young man’s clear, colourless face looked withdrawn from the common circulation of mankind.

Yet even Mark, who hated priests and thought them generally frustrated, timid or tyrannical, had to admit to himself that this man on coming into the room brought something extra with him. “I am Father Martin,” the priest said, holding out his hand to Mark, and giving his a quick warm clasp. “Do sit down, you look tired.”

“I am not tired,” Mark said, “but I am just off the Habig.”

“Then you must surely have something to eat and drink before we begin to talk,” Father Martin said, turning swiftly towards the door. “I will bring you something in a moment!” Almost immediately he returned, carrying a tray with a tall slender bottle of Vöslauer and a plate of bread and cheese. Father Martin made no apology to Mark for the simplicity of the meal, but waited on him with an eager deftness. “Our own vineyards,” he said with a pleased air. “We have a house in the wine district. We are Jesuits. Perhaps you are a Catholic as your friend Mr. Wintringham is?”

“No,” Mark told him, “I’m afraid I’m not even a Protestant---I’m nothing. You are the first Jesuit---in fact the first monk---whom I have ever met.” Father Martin had greeted Mark with the gravity of a strange child. Now as he smiled for the first time, his face shone as if a lantern had been suddenly lit behind his dark wide-open eyes.

“We have a bad reputation with those who do not know us,” he murmured, “but eat! but eat! I have been up the Habig myself! He is a deceptive fellow and takes all one’s strength. We shall soon know each other better---for your friends are ours. We have the same aim.”

Mark frowned slightly. He had no wish to be rushed into any fellowship with a bunch of strange fanatics; nor did he think of himself as a person with any particular aim; he was only a person with a message.

The monk sat down opposite him, with his hands clasped loosely in front of him, long firm artist’s hands, Mark thought to himself, and he was pleased to notice that they were clean and well cared-for.

“The same aim?” he questioned, meeting the monk’s friendly but speculative eyes.

“Well yes---haven’t we?” Father Martin answered. “We know evil when we see it and we both see it in the Nazis. That is why you have come to us, is it not---so that together, we may do something to stop it?”

“Politically,” Mark said cautiously, because he thought that politics limited him to the safe field of inaction, “I do think the Nazi system bad, but this question of being prepared to stop it---well, that’s rather a different and much more serious thing, isn’t it? My friend Reggie Wintringham simply wanted me to tell you that our Government is anxious---extremely anxious---about the way Hitler’s policy seems expanding, and that if you should know of any way in which one of our agents could be more or less securely assisted to remain in this country, so as to study the situation at first hand---well we should be much obliged for any help you could give us!”

Father Martin went on looking at him, with eyes that had ceased to smile. “Reggie told me he knew you very well,” Mark went on after a pause, “and that I was to tell you he could send you someone you could use and trust as an agent. He would know the language like his own, and if he could be fitted into the situation before Hitler declared war against us---if he really means to have a war, or forces us to by further aggressions---he could remain here during the war, and perhaps send us out messages from time to time. Reggie simply wishes to be---well, rather beforehand with the situation; and I am only his messenger---to bring back any suggestions as to the placing of this person---when and where and how---that you have to offer. Reggie did not want to put anything in writing, and as I have often been here for my holidays, he thought I should be a suitable and unsuspected medium.”

“You have often been here?” Father Martin said slowly, after rather a long pause. “It means something to you then---Austria?”

“Well yes,” Mark admitted a little warily, because emotion always made him feel wary, and he really felt the loss of Austria deeply. “I am bound to say I am attached to this country. This sudden occupation of Hitler’s is like seeing a friend strangled by some ghastly thug! Yes, I do dislike the Nazis very much---I think---I may as well say---that we as a people think this whole absurd set-up here, or in Italy, an atrocious nuisance.”

“They are very well trained,” Father Martin observed, letting his eyes drop towards the floor. “You have taken account of that---perhaps in your country, besides disliking them?”

Mark pushed away his plate. He suddenly felt less hungry. “Yes,” he said uneasily, “yes, of course we realize that! But in a sense, it’s easier to train any set of people in a Dictatorship rather than in a Democratic country.”

“It is not easy to train any people under any system,” the monk said gently, “but by force it is quicker.”

“It’s strange,” Mark said after a pause which Father Martin left unbroken, “how this chap Hitler got his power over a whole nation, and he’s not even a German!”

“In spirit he is a German,” Father Martin said gently, “and it is not strange that he has got this power over the German people. You see, he has had a vision, and it is a vision that they are anxious to share. The Germans are a mystical timid people---what they want is to know that there is something Invincible upon their side. They have never had---for many centuries---the one invincible Power they might have had---God. Now Hitler offers them an army, that is invincible---an army against God. This is a very powerful thing to have to fight, Herr Chalmers---unless you have God upon your own side!”

The silence deepened in the hot little room. It seemed almost to jostle Mark, sitting upon his small cane chair, as if there was no room for him and his unprotected civilized certainties. “When there is no very strong conviction,” Father Martin added quietly after a pause, “there is not the strength or even in some cases, the desire to be trained. The Nazis will overrun the whole world---unless there are enough people left who have an opposite conviction! To fight passion you must have as strong---even a stronger passion.”

Mark said nothing. He did not like talking about passion. It seemed to him an indecent word, and as applied to English activities an indecent subject. Naturally he disliked the Nazis---he specially disliked Hitler---they were a nuisance upsetting Europe---threatening an unwanted war upon more or less comfortably seated victors.

Something had to be done about it---but what---and by whom? The speculative eyes fastened upon his own had a strange uncanny power of suggestion; without any words at all, they seemed to prompt in Mark a sudden, absurd flurrying idea---an idea that he might have to do something about it himself. Something more active and personally involving than just carrying a message from Reggie about another man’s job. He put this idea hastily behind him. “I didn’t know,” he said hesitatingly, almost defensively, “that---er---religious people got mixed up in these things.”

“We take no part in politics,” Father Martin answered gravely, “so long as those who govern the land we live in do not interfere with the laws of God. The Nazis are interfering with the laws of God---so they have, you see, become automatically our concern. We are the soldiers of God and so they have become our enemies. As to stopping them---well, naturally since they are against the laws of God, we believe they will be stopped. But we have a certain responsibility ourselves as instruments. We too, like the Nazis, must be trained to serve what we believe.”

Mark dismissed the idea of any Divine interposition as childish; the idea of training was more sensible; but he believed himself to be already trained. He was an Eton master, and the Public School code was one he believed in, and had always practised. Father Martin was like a child, Mark thought, in his unexpected, rather drastic way of looking at things. He took a starting point that would be unobtainable to grown-up persons, as if his eyes were raw to objective fact; stripped clean of any personal pretensions. It was as if convention, good form, and above all the opinions and safeguards of interested persons, had not sullied the crystal clarity of his imagination. His consciousness of a fact---and the fact itself---stood alone, in the cleared space of his intelligence. “I suppose you think that the Nazis mean to attack England,” Mark said crisply, with the intention of coming back into a world of maturity---that was at least his own, “and if they do, there are things that it would vitally concern us to know. I do not know what Reggie told you about me. I am a schoolmaster by profession---and of course I have never acted as a spy; and would not be in the least fitted for any such activities.”

“One of God’s spies perhaps,” Father Martin said, smiling his slow enchanting smile. “Children too need finding out! We must see what their opinion of themselves is---in case it is a wrong one, and needs changing. But perhaps children discover more in us than we ever succeed in discovering in them; and perhaps too, sometimes there is more in us that needs changing! I too am untrained in this particular field of political spying---but I have friends, who are wiser than I---and with two of them I propose to put you in touch. The placing of agents---and I may say the choice of such agents is a vital one---it cannot be decided on the spur of the moment, between ourselves as it were. Nor do I think your friend Reggie expected us to make any quick decision---he said, ‘You will find Mark Chalmers an excellent person with whom to consult about our plans!’ ” His eyes rested on Mark with a new watchfulness. He was not trying to find out anything against him; only to make sure that Mark had something in himself that he would need.

To his dismay Mark found himself blushing, slowly and painfully. He could not remember having blushed since he was a small boy, and had lied to his father, who had---most disconcertingly---believed him. He had now the same unbearable consciousness of shame, as if he had lied favourably---about himself to Father Martin, who would also believe him---and Mark suddenly knew that the favourable version of himself was not true; and that he did not wish to deceive Father Martin into believing it.

Father Martin continued to observe him without comment. “The Nazis will not strike again yet,” Father Martin said at last quietly, “you will have some time---perhaps even a year, to make ready. It depends of course upon how your country treats the Czechs. If you have decided not to stand by them any more than you have stood by us, you will have a few months longer. But you will also lose the Skoda works---the Rumanian oilfields---the route to Baghdad, and of course the finest small army and air force in Europe.”

“But Hitler won’t try to take Czechoslovakia too, will he?” Mark demanded incredulously. “The Czechs aren’t Germans---he has no excuse!”

“He will need no excuse. Nor are Austrians Germans, though they belong to the oldest and most cultured part of the Germanic race,” Father Martin said quietly but with firmness. “They are Austrians---but this country is also the threshold of Czechoslovakia. The Nazis stand in the doorway now---the German army on the borders is prepared, and nearly ready to strike. And you think they will not strike? If a girl puts on her ball dress---is it not to go to a ball? Nevertheless you, presumably, Herr Chalmers, can take your holiday in peace. You will be safe---until war is declared. But you will remember---will you not—that no Austrian will ever be safe again, until Germany has been pushed back into her own borders? Our people are now slaves and without any security whatever. Neither of person, nor property, nor what Calderon calls ‘the patrimony of a man’s soul; for the soul belongs to God’. It is this that the Nazis dispute with us!”

“A man must keep his honour by his courage,” Mark said firmly, although as he said it he began to wonder how. Had his own honour been infringed by what the Nazis were doing to Austria, for instance?---or would that only occur if they started the same plan with his own small island; and in any case how was he going to use his courage to defend it?

“Something quite new is happening,” Father Martin said slowly, looking away from Martin, out of the dusty window, into the darkening summer air. “There used to be that way of keeping honour by courage. But courage has ceased now, to be by itself, a virtue. It has to be connected up with other qualities to-day! You do not---if I may say so---have to pay alone. You have to pay collectively---universally---for others, as well as for yourself. You see, it is not you alone---it is your nearest and dearest---or it is innocent unknown people, perhaps by the hundred, whom the Nazis will torture and kill---for one man’s act of courage. You will have to remember that it might be dangerous for these others, for you to be a hero. Courage is still courage---one has only to interpret it differently. It is, you see, what we use it for, that matters now! If it is better for the good of our cause that you should seem a coward, then you must seem a coward---and only if courage is required of you, for the sake of our cause can you afford to be a hero. It is required of us now to readjust the armour of our virtues, and sometimes even to fight without any armour at all.”

Far off in the distant body of the house, the silence broke under the harsh jangle of a bell.

Father Martin rose to his feet. “To-morrow,” he said, “we will meet again. I will telephone my friends this evening so that they will join us. Please take a train at the Mittenwald Bahn to Seefeld. You will find me at the village post office. But do not greet me---only when I move, follow me. It is enough that you keep me in sight, until we reach some place where I can safely stop for you to catch up with me. Do not expect either to see me in a habit!

“We will go out now---another way if you will follow me. If you have friends here---as I believe you have---remember what I have told you---no Austrians are safe! See them as carefully, as seldom and as secretly as possible. Never use any but public telephone boxes and do not mention names or addresses. We have no army but we are a people at war nevertheless!”

At the end of a long passage, Mark saw a procession of black habited figures passing two by two, into an open doorway. He caught a glimpse of a dim chapel, with red lamps lit before a faintly gleaming altar. Father Martin took him swiftly past the chapel door, but though they passed close to the silent procession, none of the monks looked back at them. They turned down a second, and then a third passage, before Father Martin opened a door that led directly into the street. Mark found himself standing alone close by the river. He felt strangely perturbed and irritated by this interview. He had thought that once he had given his message, he would be free and need trouble no more about the matter. But Reggie seemed to have involved him further than he had intended. It was as if, from his static, intelligent twentieth-century life, he had fallen into a dark, fantastic, swiftly moving mediæval stream.

Were the Nazis really going to go on body-snatching small countries all over Europe, or were the Jesuits for purposes of their own exaggerating and cooking up the whole tiresome business? Of course, war was probable, or Reggie wouldn’t have sent him on any such errand. But this secret business---this curious sense of a suffocating masked horror about to spring again---was it actual? Had he got to take the priest’s word for it? And if it were true---then what part had he---Mark---to play in it? His holiday seemed to have shrunk away from him, into a child’s toy. He couldn’t just purposelessly climb, in the clean mountain air---for the fun of the thing---with the whole of Europe rocking beneath him---and if Europe, then sooner or later, that small island off it for which he was, as its citizen, personally responsible---“the envy of less happier lands”. Mark was tired now, more tired than he had admitted, and with a deeper, spiritual fatigue. The Habig he told himself impatiently, had taken all he had; but something, not the Habig, had also robbed him. It was late. To-morrow everything would look differently. Suddenly he heard a shrill cry---and then another---and another---the road he was on seemed to palpitate and shake with the cruel sound. Mark had barely time to flatten himself against the wall of a house, before a large armoured car shot past him. The blaze of the car’s lights showed him a row of machine-guns, and beyond them, the stiff faces of a party of young Nazis---between them they held a stout little man, very neatly dressed, who wore spectacles. Mark caught the gleam on them from the reflected lights. Someone slugged the fat little man. The car vanished, and the dust blew back blinding and suffocating, against Mark’s face. The exhaust barked itself out, and there was no other sound but the swift flowing little river chuckling at his feet. He turned left sharply, into the lit town. The streets were very quiet, very empty. But there was a tension in the peaceful summer evening. Nobody strolled by, as if they were relaxed or aimless. Each passer-by moved quickly, and with the evident intention of getting home as soon as possible.

The hall porter at the Tiroler Hof was full of kindly concern for Mark. They had begun to be anxious. The manager had inquired. Mountaineers usually got back well before dark. His dinner too, where had the Gnädiger Herr had his dinner? A poor one no doubt! Would he like anything more? Had he seen the evening papers. Such a catastrophe, the sinking of a new French submarine. The loss of life too---terrible! Mark had not seen the evening paper.

He thanked the German porter, refused food, gave no information as to his own movements, and took the paper up to his room to read. A French submarine lost on its trial trip. With a sudden sense of cold actuality Mark saw Father Martin’s intent, unsmiling eyes again fixed upon his own. “Something quite new is happening.” Again he heard the deep quiet voice saying: “It is required of each one of us now to readjust the armour of his virtues, and sometimes even to fight without any armour at all.”

A little man in spectacles. A French submarine sunk. A message which had been delivered but which seemed still to be going on inside his own unquiet mind! What was the link between them? “Oh Lord!” Mark said impatiently, “oh Lord!” It was not a prayer---it was an expletive, and not even a very satisfactory expletive. Nor was it with any feeling of satisfaction that the self-contained, and usually self-complacent, young schoolmaster sank at last into a troubled sleep.

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