Military history

10. AFTER THE STORM

IN FACT, there was nothing wrong with Marius. The Germans had not made any new move, and everything was quiet in Furuflaten. What had stopped him coming to see Jan was simply another storm. Just after his previous visit, it had started to blow up from the south, and before the night when he had meant to cross the fjord again there was such a sea running that the crossing was quite impossible.

While Jan was lying groaning in the hut on the eastern side, Marius was fretting impatiently on the west, and between them four miles of furious sea made an impassable barrier. Nobody could get to Revdal. Every day, Marius watched the grey scudding water which was streaked with spindrift, and every evening at dusk he went down to the beach at Furuflaten to make sure that there was really no chance of going; but it was hopeless even to try to launch a boat. At night he lay and listened for any easing of the shrieks of wind.

But he was not really worried. There was no reason why he should be. When he had left Jan, his health had been improving. He had not been able to leave as much food as he would have liked, but he reckoned that if Jan could spin it out, there was enough to keep him from starving for some time yet. He knew Jan would be disappointed and would be wondering what had happened, but he was sure that he would guess it was the storm. He did not realise that inside the log walls of the hut, with the snow banked up all round them. Jan could not hear the howling of the wind. Also, he still thought Jan was some kind of seaman and would imagine for himself the fearsome effect of a southerly gale in those narrow waters with a clear fetch of twenty miles to windward.

So although Marius was naturally upset by the feeling that he was letting Jan down, he had no immediate anxiety, and what worried him most during the storm was the increasing menace of the daylight. So far as his own help was still concerned, the rescue of Jan was becoming a race against the midnight sun. It was the beginning of the last week in April, and already it was twilight all night. While the storm lasted, the nights were dark enough, but when the sky cleared there would not be more than a couple of hours in which he could sneak away from the Furuflaten beach without being seen by the sentry; and if he left the beach at the time when the twilight was deepest, he would have to run the risk of landing again in broad daylight. In a fortnight’s time it would be so light all night that anyone with binoculars would be able to watch him the whole way across the fjord, and if the German motor-boat was still patrolling it would be able to pick him up from miles away. Before then, whatever happened, Jan would have to move on from Revdal.

It was exactly a week after Marius’s second visit to the hut when the storm began to show signs of ending. During that day, when he and his family could see that the evening might bring a chance of crossing, he collected everything he had to offer Jan and packed it in his rucksack: food, and paraffin, and bottles of milk, and a few cigarettes. At nightfall he put on his skis and went down to the beach again. Two of his friends were there to meet him. There was still some sea running, but not enough to make the passage dangerous; when the wind drops in that landlocked water, the sea calms very quickly. They quietly launched the boat, and began to row away. During the storm, nothing had been seen of the motor-boat, but that made it seem all the more likely that it would be out on patrol again that night.

However, the crossing was peaceful. Marius himself was happy because he had some good news to bring to Jan. He had just heard that Herr Legland had sent a message to the schoolmaster in Mandal, and that a favourable answer had come back. There had evidently been some kind of a meeting in Mandal, and there had been plenty of volunteers who would stand by to come up to a rendezvous on top of the range between Mandal and Revdal where they would take delivery of Jan. Mandal was willing to take over the responsibility of looking after him, and the schoolmaster thought they would be able to escort him to the frontier. Marius imagined, in that brief moment of optimism while he crossed the fjord, that Jan might be in Sweden before a week had passed.

The shock when he got to Revdal was all the worse. Before he opened the door of the hut, he called “Hullo there!” But there was no answer. He went in. It was pitch dark inside, and it stank of decay. In alarm, he called Jan by his name, and stooped over the bunk as the thought flashed through his mind that the Germans had been there and taken Jan away. But he felt the bundle of blankets and then, to his relief, he heard a faint sound as Jan turned his head.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “What’s happened?”

“There’s the hell of a pain,” Jan said.

Marius hastily shut the door and lit a lantern. The sight which he saw appalled him. Jan’s face was as white as the face of a corpse beneath the dirt and the straggling beard. He slowly and wearily opened his eyes when the light fell on them, and made a feeble movement. The blankets round his legs were dark with blood.

Jan was too far gone to be pleased that Marius had arrived. It had happened to him so often before in dreams. For a few moments he was even unwilling to be dragged up out of his coma and forced to make the effort to live again. But when Marius boiled some water and made him take a hot drink he revived a little. He said that he had not had anything to eat or drink in several days. This puzzled Marius, who thought he had left enough; but the fact was that three or four days before, what was left of the food had fallen off the table, and Jan had been too bemused to realise what had happened. Since then, he had lain there growing weak with hunger, while bread and dried fish were lying on the floor beside him, just out of his sight below the bunk board.

When Jan had come to himself enough to be able to talk coherently, Marius set himself to the unpleasant job of looking at his feet. Even before he saw them, he knew that it was gangrene. It was perfectly obvious that although Jan was alive, the toes of both of his feet had been dead for some time. Most of the blood on the blankets had come from cuts which Jan had made himself. Some days before, while he still had the strength to do it, he had started to operate on his feet with his pocket-knife. In the belief that it might be blood poisoning, he had reasoned that the only thing he could do was to draw off the blood, as people used to do with snake bites; and so he had pulled up his legs in the bunk, one by one, and stabbed his feet with the knife and let them bleed.

Marius washed them as best he could and bound them up again. Both he and Jan knew, without having to say it, that Jan would never walk or ski to Sweden. Marius privately thought there was nothing to be done except to amputate both feet. He did not say so to Jan, for fear of depressing him; but Jan had also come to the same conclusion.

Marius could not stay long that night because of the daylight, but before he left he promised Jan that he would either get a doctor, or else arrange somehow for him to be carried to Sweden, and that in any case he would come back in two or three days. Then he left him again to his solitude. But now that Jan knew that he still had active friends who were trying to help him, he felt he could face another few days in that abominable hut with equanimity. The mere sight of Marius had brought back his will to live. During the days that followed, between the bouts of pain, he began to come to terms with the idea of living as a cripple. At first he dwelt morbidly on all the active pursuits which he would lose, but by and by he began to look forward to the simple pleasures he would still be able to enjoy. The height of his ambition at that time was to get back to London and go into Kensington Gardens in a wheel-chair on a sunny day and watch the children playing.

Marius, rowing back across the fjord in the light of dawn, knew he had just made promises to Jan without any idea of how he could fulfil them; but he had great faith in the idea that if you are ready to give up everything to the solution of any problem, you will always find an answer. He did not know of any doctor who he was sure would risk his life to go to Revdal, and he did not really believe that a doctor could do much without taking Jan to hospital, which Jan had refused to hear of. Still less did he know, at that moment, how Jan could be carried bodily across the mountains to the frontier. But one or other of these alternatives had got to be arranged, not only because he promised it, but also because without either of them, Jan was obviously going to die.

As soon as he got home, he told all his friends in the organisation about the new and apparently insuperable difficulty that Jan was absolutely helpless. Herr Legland and the three Furuflaten men who had carried Jan over to Revdal all discussed it with him. Bit by bit they pieced together a not impossible plan. Messengers were sent to Tromsö and to Mandal and to a valley called Kaafjord even farther east. The news of the problem spread far and wide, whispered from one to another of the trusted people who might have help to offer. The dormant patriotic club went into action, inspired at last by a situation which was going to test its efficiency to the utmost. During the following evening, the messengers began to return, one by one, bringing criticisms and new suggestions and new offers of help back to the main conspirators. The plan took shape.

The man who had been to Tromsö brought back a message from Sverre Larsen simply promising financial support, without any qualifications. The one who had been to Mandal had a more complicated message, but it was almost equally welcome. A party of four of the Mandal men was ready to make the climb to the plateau at any moment and to take the responsibility of keeping Jan alive. If Marius and the Furuflaten men could get Jan up there and bring a sledge, they were also willing to try to haul it to the frontier. But this they regarded as a last resort. None of them had ever tried to haul a sledge across the plateau. It might take a long time, and if the weather broke again it might end in disaster. Furthermore, none of them knew the Swedish side of the mountains, and they had to point out that although the frontier was only twenty-five miles away, a man who did not know the country might easily have to go another hundred miles down into the forests towards the Baltic before he found any human habitation. If that happened, the journey would take so long that their absence could not possibly pass unnoticed, and that would mean that none of them could come back. They would have to go into exile, and this they were most unwilling to do because all of them had dependents. But they had a better proposal: to get the Lapps to make the journey.

The advantage of getting Lapps to go, rather than Norwegians, was obvious at once to Marius and Herr Legland, as it would be to anyone who knew the Lapps and the country. The only surprising thing was that anyone in Kaafjord or Mandal should know any Lapps well enough to have any hope of persuading them to make the journey. The Lapps are very peculiar people at any time, a small primitive race entirely distinct from anyone else in Europe; and during the war they were more peculiar than usual. The kind of Lapps they had in mind are nomads who live by breeding reindeer, and since the beginning of history they have made the same migrations with the reindeer every year. The same families of Lapps come every spring with their herds to Kaafjord and Lyngseidet, always arriving within a day or two of the fifth of May. They spend the summer there, in Norway, and the winter in Finland or Sweden. National frontiers mean nothing to them, because they have been making their journeys since long before the frontiers existed. To stop them would mean that their race would die out, because the reindeer cannot survive without a seasonal change of feeding-ground, and the Lapps cannot survive without their reindeer. Probably the Germans would have liked to stop them, if only for the sake of tidiness, but they wisely never tried; and all through the World War the Lapps wandered unconcerned between Finland, which was fighting on the side of Germany, and Norway, which was fighting as best it could on the Allied side, and Sweden, which was neutral.

One result of this unique situation was that the Lapps themselves naturally had no interest in the war at all. Probably none of them had any idea of what it was all about. It was no good appealing to them on any grounds of patriotism or ideology. They were no more attached to one of the three countries than another, and they would never have heard of politics. Neither would the humanitarian grounds for helping Jan have meant very much to them, because they do not set a high value on human life. If a Lapp lost the use of his feet, like Jan, he would know he was useless and expect his family to leave him alone to die.

All the same, if any Lapps could be persuaded to take Jan to the frontier, they were much more likely to succeed than any Norwegian party could possibly be. For one thing, nobody could check their movements; there was no limit to the time they could be away. Also, although they knew nothing about compasses or maps, they knew that uncharted country far better than anyone else. They were able to survive even the worst of winter weather in the open; and finally, they had reindeer trained to draw sledges, and could cover much more ground in a day than a party of men drawing a sledge themselves. Therefore Marius, Herr Legland and the rest of the conspirators welcomed this suggestion. The first wave of the migration of reindeer was due to arrive within a week. They would already be somewhere on their way across the mountains. The message from Mandal had said that the best ski-runner in Kaafjord was ready to set off, along the migration tracks towards the Lapp settlement of Kautokeino, a hundred miles away, to try to locate the herds. A message was sent back, welcoming the idea and asking him to go at once.

Meanwhile, the main problem for Marius and the Furuflaten men was to get Jan up to the plateau. The place for meeting the party from Mandal had already been agreed. It was in a shallow depression on the plateau, half-way between Revdal and Mandal. To get there from the Revdal side was a steep climb for the first two thousand feet, and then a more gentle upward slope across about three miles of the open snowfield. The meeting place itself was at a height of about 2700 feet. Something of the nature of a stretcher which would be carried would be needed to get him up the first part of the climb, and a sledge would be easiest for the last part. They decided to try to combine both functions by building the lightest possible sledge.

All these discussions and the coming and going of messengers had been happening in the midst of the German garrison areas in Furuflaten and Lyngseidet. For building the sledge, the plot was carried even farther into the German camp. The best joiner anyone could think of was the caretaker of Herr Legland’s school. The school buildings had been requisitioned and the pupils turned out to make room for the German district headquarters staff, but the caretaker still worked there and still had access to what had been the school workshop. He undertook to build the sledge; and he did so, inside the German headquarters itself. The impertinence of this filled everyone who knew of it with a kind of schoolboyish glee; and the only disadvantage of such an attractive arrangement was that the joiner could not take the risk of putting the sledge together, because the Germans who came in and out while he was working would have been certain to ask what it was for. However, he made each piece to careful measurements, and was willing to guarantee that when the time came to assemble it, everything would fit. It was built on a pair of ordinary skis, and it had a slatted platform about a foot high, eighteen inches wide and six feet long. Events proved that his workmanship was good. The sledge not only fitted together, but stood up to week after week of the hardest possible treatment.

It was ready on the third day after Marius had last been to Revdal, and all the plans were completed on that day too, except that the ski-runner from Kaafjord had not come back from his search for the reindeer. Marius’s three neighbours, Alvin Larsen, Olaf Lanes and Amandus Lillevoll, were prepared to go over with him to Revdal that night to make the attempt to haul Jan up the mountain. Herr Legland telephoned to the schoolmaster in Mandal to say in cautiously chosen words, in case the line was tapped, that the parcel he was expecting was being sent at once. Alvin Larsen was going that afternoon to fetch the sledge from Lyngseidet; but that very morning an avalanche blocked the road between Lyngseidet and Furuflaten.

Luckily, the avalanche did not delay him much, and on the whole it was probably an advantage to their plans. It was also the indirect cause of an incident which appealed to what might be called the occupation sense of humour. The local people had been expecting it to happen. The road just north of Furuflaten runs along the shore of the fjord below a cliff a thousand feet high, the same cliff which Jan had been trying to skirt when he got lost in the mountains; and the snow from the gullies in the cliff always falls and blocks the road about the last week in April. It happens with such regularity that a jetty has been built at Furuflaten for a car ferry which provides a way through for traffic till the danger is past in May. Alvin Larsen had already arranged to go to Lyngseidet by boat if the avalanche started before the sledge was ready; but the Germans were not so well prepared for it, and the sudden blocking of the main road diverted their attention at that crucial moment from everything else that was happening.

Alvin got to Lyngseidet without any trouble, and tied up his boat at the pier. There was a German sentry on the pier who took no notice of him at all. He went up to the school and collected the bits of the sledge from the caretaker, together with a bag of bolts and screws, and minute instructions for putting it all together. The bundles of pieces of wood tied together with string and the pair of skis looked reasonably harmless. He carried them down through the village to the pier. But when he got there the tide was very low, and his boat was a long way down. He was afraid to throw the wood down into the boat in case it broke, and if he got down into the boat he could not reach up again to the level of the pier. So he called to the sentry to give him a hand. The sentry came over, and put down his rifle, and kindly handed the skis and the bundles down to Alvin one by one. Alvin thanked him gravely in Norwegian, and started his engine and steamed away.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!