Military history

9. THE DESERTED FARM

WHAT JAN came to know as the Savoy Hotel, Revdal, was not very commodious, but the first two days he spent there were the happiest and most peaceful of the whole of his journey, a short fool’s paradise: if one can use the word happy about his state of mind, or the word paradise about a place like Revdal. The hut was ten feet long and seven feet wide, and you could stand upright under the ridge of the roof. It was built of logs, and it had a door but no window. The only light inside it when the door was shut came through chinks in the wall and the roof, which was covered with growing turf. On one side, it had a wooden bunk, and the rest of the space in it was filled with odds and ends which seemed to have been salvaged, long before, from the ruins of the burnt-out farm. There was a small, roughly hewn table, and some pieces of a wooden plough, and some other wooden instruments which Jan could not imagine any use for, and an elaborate carved picture frame without any glass or picture. Everything was made of wood, unpainted, even the latch and hinges on the door, and it was all worn with years of use, and white and brittle with age.

As they carried him up there from the boat, he had had a glimpse of its surroundings. It stands about ten yards back from the shore, in a small clearing which slopes up to the forest of little twisted trees which clings to the side of the mountain. He had seen posts and wires in the clearing, which looked as if someone still came there to cut and dry the crop of hay, which is a precious harvest in the north. But there was no sign that anyone had been there for the past eight months of winter, and it was very unlikely that anyone would come for another three months, until July. Under the towering masses of snow and rock the solitary deserted little hut looked insignificant and forlorn, and even smaller than it really was. From a distance one would have taken it for a boulder, three-quarters covered by snow. There was no landing-place to draw attention to it, only the lonely beach. A stranger might have sailed along the fjord ten times and never seen it.

They put Jan in the bunk, and put the food and the paraffin stove on the table within his reach. Marius hesitated a little while, as if there should have been something else he could do for Jan, but there was nothing. He promised to come back two or three nights later to see him, and Jan thanked him, and then he went out and shut the door and left Jan alone there in the dark. For a few minutes Jan listened, hoping to hear the crunch of the boat on the beach as they pushed it off; but inside the hut it was absolutely silent. When he was sure they had gone away, he spread out his meagre belongings round him, and settled down on the hard boards of the ancient bunk. He was as contented as he could be. He had everything he wanted: time, and a little food, and solitude. He could lie there as long as he liked, not much of a burden to anyone, until his feet got all right again. Very soon he drifted off to sleep.

He had had a capacity for sleep, ever since the avalanche, which seemed to have no limit, and there was nothing to wake for in Revdal except to eat. Sometimes when hunger did wake him there was daylight shining through the holes in the roof: sometimes there was not, and he groped for his matches and ate by the dim blue gleam of the paraffin cooker. But whether it was day or night outside no longer had any interest for him.

When he was awake, he daydreamed, about Oslo before the war, his family, his football club at home where he had been president, the adventures which he had packed into the three years since he left home, and about his friends in the training camp in Scotland, and about his own ambitions and hopes for the time when the war was over. It had been a long journey and a very strange one all the way from his home and his father’s instrument makers’ workshop to this bunk and this hut and this desolate arctic shore; but he never thought then that it would end there. Some time, he would get up and go out of the door and begin all over again. And meanwhile, time was passing, and that was all that mattered; because time, he believed, was the only thing which could cure his feet and give him the strength to tackle the last twenty-five miles to Sweden.

But Marius, back in Furuflaten, was not so optimistic. He felt troubled in his mind at having left Jan all alone: he would much rather have hidden him somewhere where he could have kept an eye on him day and night. But he consoled himself by thinking that he had done it more for his family’s sake than for his own, and also that it was in Jan’s own interest to be in a place which the Germans were very unlikely to search. He believed, just as Jan did, that in time he would get fit again, but he thought it might be a very long time; and he knew, although Jan did not, how difficult it was going to be to keep him supplied with even the barest necessities of life across at Revdal. He would never have grudged him anything, neither time nor danger, nor money while his savings lasted out; but he was very much afraid that keeping things secret, which was so difficult already, would become impossible if it had to go on very long. If people noticed him going off two or three nights a week in a boat towards the uninhabited side of the fjord, there was no credible explanation he could give; and besides, there was always the chance that the Germans might yet make some sudden swoop which would prevent him from crossing at all. They might come and arrest him, and in case they did, he would have to find somebody who could not be connected with the affair but who could take over his responsibilities when he was gone. Otherwise, Jan would be left there till he starved. What it came to, in fact, was that there might be a crisis at any time; and therefore there ought to be a plan to get Jan over the frontier if the crisis came before he could go on his own feet.

Marius went to Herr Legland again, and they had a long discussion. They agreed that apart from being safer in Revdal, Jan was better placed there for an attempt on the frontier. If he had tried to go straight from Furuflaten, there would have been valleys to cross, and the main road; but from Revdal one only had to climb straight up for 3000 feet and one was right on the plateau. Once one was up there, there was no road or habitation whatever before the frontier, and the skiing was straightforward. But if Jan needed help on the journey, it would have to come from one of the settlements on the other side of the fjord.

Marius may have felt disappointed at the idea that he might have to hand Jan over to somebody else, but he had to agree that if it came to a dash for the frontier, he could not be of any help. For one thing, he had never been up on the plateau; and besides, there was no knowing how long the journey might take. It would certainly not be less than four days, and if he was away from home for as long as that, everybody would know it. But on the other hand, there was at least one settlement on the other side where there was no German garrison at all. The men from there would know the plateau, or at least the part of it near at hand, and it would be much easier for them to disappear for a few days.

When Marius had reluctantly agreed with this conclusion, Herr Legland undertook to send a warning to people he knew on the other side that an escort might be needed for the frontier. He meant to arrange a meeting place and a code-word for the operation in case it had to be undertaken in a hurry.

The name of the settlement they had in mind is Mandal. It lies in a deep valley which penetrates for twenty miles into the plateau, and it has a population of six or seven hundred. It is much more cut off from the world than Lyngseidet or Furuflaten. There is no road to it, and not a single pass through the mountains to give access to it by land. It can only be reached by climbs which are always dangerous in winter, or else by a sea voyage of ten miles from Lyngseidet. But even there the organisation had its contacts.

As soon as they began to think about Mandal, it brought them up against a problem of money. If Mandal had to come into it, the whole business of rescuing Jan was going to coast more than Herr Legland or Marius could possibly find out of their own pockets or their neighbours’. One is apt to forget that this sort of activity needs money, but it does: or at least, it did in north Norway. People like Marius were glad to stretch their own rations to feed Jan, and to sleep with a blanket less on their own beds, and to give him their clothes; but sooner or later he was sure to need something which neither of them possessed themselves. Then there would be only one option: either to go to somebody who could supply it, and let him into the secret so that he would give it for nothing, or else to buy it. The things Jan was most likely to need, the simple necessities of life, were rationed, and a lot of things he might possibly need could not be bought at all except at black market prices; and of course a man who was willing to sell on the black market was the last sort of person one would want to know about Jan. The only safe way to get what was needed would be to pay the price which was asked, however high it was, and not tell anybody. Jan had already had the last of all the brandy and cigarettes that Marius could lay his hands on, and he needed more; or to be accurate, he needed brandy, to keep him going in the cold, and cigarettes were the only luxury he could enjoy. If Mandal came into it too, there was going to be the question of diesel oil for boats. There was a telephone in Mandal, but all telephones were tapped. The only way to tell the Mandal men what was happening would be to get a motor-boat and go there, and if the owner of the boat could not give a proper reason for the journey, the fuel would have to come from the black market too.

There was also the question of paying people for the time they spent on a job of this kind. Marius was his own master and could afford to take time off to look after Jan, and so could the other Furuflaten people. But a lot of men around there, especially in a place like Mandal, lived from hand to mouth, and if they lost a few days’ work it really meant less to eat for their wives and children. That might not prevent them from helping, but the organisation’s principle was that nobody ought to suffer real financial hardship for anything he was asked to do. The state paid its soldiers, and the organisation expected to do the same. Certainly if anyone had to be asked to take Jan across to Sweden, he would have to have his income made up for the days he was away. One way and another, the whole operation might coast much more than the resources of Lyngseidet and Furuflaten could afford.

Luckily, Herr Legland had to go into Tromsö, and he promised Marius he would take care of this question of finance. Thus for the second time news reached the city of what was happening in Lyngenfjord. Legland went to Sverre Larsen, whose father, the dismissed owner of the newspaper, was an old friend of his. He arrived on a Saturday evening, and told Larsen the whole story from beginning to end, except that he left out all the names of people and places. He had reckoned that he must have a fund of £150 for urgent expenses which he could already foresee. Without it, or the certainty of being able to get it quickly, he would not feel he could ask anyone to go to the frontier.

Larsen accepted the request without any question. It was the kind of thing which the Tromsö merchants expected to pay for. But it was a stern test of his organisation to find the money in cash on a Saturday night. If Legland had come at a time when the banks and offices were open, it would only have taken a few minutes. As it was, Larsen himself put in all the money which he happened to have in the house, and then went the rounds of his friends in the organisation. By Sunday morning he had collected it all, in varying sums from a lot of different people, and Herr Legland took it home, with his money worries set at rest for the time being. But as things turned out, this was only the very beginning of the expense of saving Jan’s life. Before the end, it cost £1650 in cash, besides the labour and goods which were given freely by hundreds of people; and the whole of this sum was contributed by business houses and individuals in Tromsö who regarded him as a symbol of the battle against the Germans.

Marius kept his promise to go back and visit Jan. Two nights after he had left him at Revdal, he set off again and rowed across the fjord, taking a new stock of food and some bottles of milk. Jan was still in the bunk, exactly as he had left him. He was cheerful, and the rest was doing him good. He had been amusing himself by pulling out the moss which had been used to caulk the joints between the logs of the wall of the hut, and rolling it in newspaper to make cigarettes. Marius swore that before next time he would find something better to smoke than that. Meanwhile, he cooked up some fish for him, and when he had eaten it they both had a look at his feet. They seemed to be getting on all right, and they talked things over in the hope that Jan would be able to put on skis again before very long.

They had already agreed that Jan ought not to know anything about the organisation. Although his prospects looked a little brighter than they had a week before, both he and Marius knew in their heart of hearts that so long as he could not walk his chance of avoiding being captured in the end was really very small. So Marius still called himself Hans Jensen, and Jan did not know any names at all for the other people he had seen, or anything about the activities in Lyngseidet or Tromsö. He had to be content not to know who was helping him, but just to be grateful for the help when it arrived.

However, Marius did tell him that night, in order to keep his spirits up, that people in Mandal were being asked to stand by in case their help was needed; and he explained the geography of the surrounding mountains and the plateau, so that Jan would have it clear in his head if they had to take sudden action. It is not very far across the mountains from the hut at Revdal into the valley of Mandal; only about five miles on the map, though it involves the climb of 3000 feet up to the plateau level and down again. If Jan needed help when the time came, Marius meant to come to Revdal and lead him up the climb; and he would arrange for the Mandal men to come up from the other side and meet them on top, so that they could take over there and escort Jan southwards across the plateau till he came to the frontier.

It was encouraging for Jan to know that some positive plans had been made to get him away, and Marius left him that night in good humour, and quite contentedly resigned to another two days of solitude and darkness.

It was soon after Marius left, not more than a few hours, that Jan’s feet began to hurt. It was nothing much as first, only a slight increase in the pain which had been going on ever since they were thawed. It came and went, and sometimes, that early morning, he thought it was imagination. But by the time when sunlight began to come through the holes in the roof, he was sure that something was happening. He struggled out of his blankets, when it was as light as it ever got in the hut, and unwrapped his feet. The sight of them alarmed him. They had changed visibly since the night before when Marius was with him. Now, his toes seemed to be grey, and although his feet as a whole were more painful than they had been, the ends of his toes were numb and cold, as if he had pins and needles. He rubbed them, but it only made them hurt more, and the skin began to peel off them. The toe which had been wounded had begun to heal, but the scar had a dark unhealthy look.

He rolled himself up again in the blankets and lay there uneasily, wondering what it meant. He did not know what had gone wrong, or what he ought to do to try to stop it. For the first time since he had met Marius, he began to feel lonely. It had seemed so easy to say he would wait for another two days alone, but now he regretted it. He wanted very much to have someone to talk to about his feet. He knew that the thirty-six hours he still had to wait before he could hope to see Marius were going to pass very slowly.

They turned out to be infinitely worse than he expected. The pain grew with appalling quickness, hour by hour. It grew so that sleep became out of the question and he could only lie there staring into the darkness and counting every minute till Marius might arrive, moving his legs in hopeless attempts to find a position which would ease them. The pain spread up his legs in waves, and sometimes seemed to fill his whole body like a flame so that when it receded it left him sweating and trembling and breathless.

In the second dawn, when the light was strong enough, he unwrapped his feet again. After the night he had just survived, what he saw then did not surprise him. His toes were black and swollen, and a foul-smelling fluid was oozing out of them, and he could not move them at all any more.

He was shocked and bewildered, with nobody to appeal to for advice or comfort. When the pain was at its worse, he could hardly think at all. When it eased, he lay there, wondering what Marius would do: whether he would take him back to Furuflaten, or whether there was any doctor who would take the risk of coming to Revdal. He wondered whether there was anything a doctor could do, without taking him to hospital. He thought he had either got blood poisoning or gangrene. Either of them, he imagined, would spread farther and farther up his legs. If he had been in hospital, he thought, they would have given him injections and stopped it before it got too far; but there in Revdal, without any kind of medical equipment, he could not think of anything to do. He wondered whether he ought to agree to go to hospital if he got the chance, and soon made up his mind that he should not. In hospital, the Germans would certainly get him in the end, and all kinds of people might get themselves into trouble on his behalf. He knew it might be tempting to agree if the pain went on, so he took a firm and final decision there and then, in case he was not in a fit condition to decide when the moment came; he would not go to hospital whatever happened. He tried to think of the worst that could possibly happen, so that this resolve would never weaken, and after all, the worst was only death. He put all his faith in Marius. Marius would know what to do: he would either take him to a doctor or bring a doctor to Revdal; or if he could not do either of those things, he would get advice and borrow medicine and come and doctor him himself. This thought kept him going all through the second day.

At long last the evening came. The little shafts of light inside the hut began to fade, and the darkness he had longed for all day set in. Marius could not begin to row across till it was dark, so that an hour and a half of night must pass before he could be expected. But long before that, Jan lay and listened for the footsteps outside the door, and the cheerful greetings which Marius always gave him before he came in, so that he would know it was a friend who was coming. The minutes of the night dragged on and on till the first light of the dawn, and Marius did not come.

A period of time began then which Jan remembered, after it ended, with the utmost horror. It was the first time that he sank into absolute despair of coming through alive, and he had not really resigned himself yet to dying; at least, not to dying the lingering, lonely agonising death which seemed to be all he could expect. At first, he waited for each night with the hope of hearing Marius; but as each night passed and nothing happened the hope slowly died within him. After five days, he could only believe that Marius and everyone who knew he was there had been arrested and shot, and that he was quite forgotten by the world, condemned to lie in the desolate hut till the poisoning killed him, or till he wasted away through starvation. Revdal, which they had chosen because it seemed safe, had turned into a trap. He was walled in by the barren mountain which hung over him, and by the sea and the miles of lonely shore on either side. He could not believe any more that he would go out into the fresh air to start on his journey again. He knew his own feet would never carry him to the nearest friendly house, and he knew that so much of his strength had ebbed away that he would never be able to swim or even to crawl there.

In his loneliness, he wished he was able to pray, and lying there waiting to die he tried to set his religious beliefs in order. But like so many young men of his generation, he had grown up without the habit of saying prayers. It was not any fault of his. He had been given a technical, scientific education, and there had not been much room in it for religion. It had given him, at the age of twenty-six, a materialistic view of life. He had done his best to live in accordance with Christian ethics, but nothing he had ever been taught could help him to believe in a personal God who watched over him in Revdal. He did not despise that kind of belief, and he knew to the full what a comfort it would be to him; but nobody of a clear and serious turn of mind can change his beliefs to suit his circumstances. After living without prayers, he thought that to pray when he was in such desperate straits would be hypocritical, and an offence to any God he could believe in. Neither did he believe at that time in a future life. He believed he was already forgotten or assumed to be dead by everyone who knew him, except his father and brother and sister, and that when the last painful tenuous thread was broken he would not exist any more, except as a rotten corpse in the bunk where he was lying.

So day followed day, each merged into another by the mists of pain. On one day, he was aware of the sound of wind, and of snow sifting through the holes in the walls and beneath the door. On another, when he put out his hand to feel for the food on the table, he found it was all gone. On all of them, when he fell into a doze, even after the last of all reasonable hope had gone, he dreamed or imagined that he could hear Marius outside the door, and he started awake with a clutch at his heart. But nobody came.

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