Military history

12. THE PLATEAU

THE WAR had not had very much effect upon Mandal before Herr Legland’s urgent message was delivered. The place had had no interest for the Germans and they had left it alone, so that its placid and rather primitive and impoverished life went on much the same as usual. It is quite difficult for a stranger to see how the Mandal people can manage to make a living and feed and bring up families in such a forlorn and isolated home. There are millions of people, of course, even in Europe, who live happily enough without any road to connect them with civilisation, and a good many of them even prefer it. But the situation of Mandal seems to have nothing in its favour. The men go fishing, but their jetty is far away from either the fishing grounds or the open sea or the markets. They also farm, but their land is snow-covered and frozen for eight months of the year and the valley faces north: on every other side it is so steeply hemmed in by hills that the sun only shines into it when it is high. Only a little distance to the west, the Lyngen Alps attract tourists who provide a rich annual harvest; but Mandal has no spectacular allurements to offer to visitors, and so any stranger who comes there is a nine-days’ wonder.

But in spite of all this, between six and seven hundred people do live there, and they do not want to live anywhere else. They are far from rich, but their houses and farms are neat and tidy, and they themselves are not by any means lacking in self-respect. Their houses are scattered all up the valley for a distance of about ten miles from the jetty and shop at the seaward end. There is a road which connects them, and at least one motor truck which runs up and down it in summer but can never go farther afield. A mile and a half up from the jetty is the school; and it was this school which became the headquarters of Mandal’s efforts in rescuing Jan.

The schoolmaster, Herr Nordnes, was a local man himself and he had lived there all his life. He was another disciple in learning of Herr Legland, which no doubt was the reason why Legland chose him to organise the rescue. He knew everybody who lived in the valley, and almost everything that went on there, and practically all the young men in the place had received the whole of their education from him and regarded him still as their teacher. He himself was in middle age, but there could not have been a better choice for a job which called for the mobilisation of the valley’s youth.

When he got Legland’s message and had given himself time to think it over, he went to call on a few of his recent pupils and told them what he had heard and what was needed. They responded eagerly. In spite of the isolation of Mandal, and the fact that most Mandal people had not seen a German soldier or a German ship or even an aircraft, and had heard no authentic news of the world outside for years, there was much of the same feeling there as on the west side of Lyngenfjord: that nobody had had a chance so far to show what he could do to help the war. Nordnes had no lack of volunteers. His only embarrassment, in fact, was to prevent the news spreading too quickly, and to avoid having too many people who wanted to take some part in this novel adventure. Yet their enthusiasm was surprising, because the appeal for help, as it reached them, was quite impersonal. They did not have the incentive of having seen Jan, and had no idea what kind of person he was. The whole story was third or fourth hand. Not even Legland had seen him, and nor had the messenger. The only reason for thinking that he deserved their help at all was that Legland had said so, and had told Nordnes that the man who was in trouble had come all the way from England.

The Mandal men would have been more than human, in these circumstances, if they had not pointed out, as their first reaction, that to take an injured man to Sweden was not so easy as it looked. The people in Tromsö and Lyngseidet, they thought, probably had no real idea of the difficulties of what they were asking Mandal to do. They might have looked at a map and seen the frontier on it, twenty-five miles away, and imagined some kind of fence with Swedish frontier guards who would take care of Jan on the spot. They probably did not realise that there was nothing there whatever, except cairns at intervals of miles, so that you could cross the border without ever knowing you had done it, and plunge down into endless forests on the Swedish side where you might be lost for weeks without seeing a house or a road. There were no defences on the frontier simply because it was so difficult to cross that no defences were needed.

Having registered their protest, and suggested quite rightly that Lapps were better qualified to make the actual journey, they were perfectly willing to try it themselves if it was really necessary; and they were willing in any case to meet the Furuflaten men at the rendezvous they suggested, and to look after the injured man when he was handed over. They almost certainly felt some satisfaction at being asked to pull chestnuts out of the fire on behalf of a place like Furuflaten, which had always affected to despise Mandal because it was not on the road.

During the week which elapsed after the first message from Legland, while the gale was blowing which imprisoned Jan in Revdal, the Mandal people heard nothing more about what was happening. They went on with the ordinary chores of early spring, and probably their first enthusiasm faded. The whole story only existed for them in the form of a single sudden visit by a messenger. It began to seem likely that the organisation had found some other way of moving their man, or that he had died or been captured, and that they were not going to be asked to do anything after all. It was disappointing, and made them feel a little foolish.

This was the situation when the second urgent message arrived by telephone. It was very obscure: the parcel Herr Nordnes was expecting was being sent at once. It told them nothing of what was happening in Furuflaten, whether the Germans were hot on the trail, or whether the man they were expected to look after was seriously ill or not. They understood, of course, that it was impossible to say more on the telephone, but it did leave them entirely in the dark. The only shade of meaning it conveyed was one of urgency; and urgency, in that context, suggested that the Germans were suspicious.

However, what it asked them to do was clear enough, and Herr Nordnes rounded up his first party of volunteers and told them the job was on again. They were all men in their early twenties, whom he had chosen because they had been intelligent and resourceful at school, and because they were fit and strong. There had never been any question of him climbing up to the plateau himself, partly because he was a generation older than the climbers he had chosen and would only have held them back, and more especially because he was one of the very few people in Mandal who had to be at work exactly on time in the morning. But his volunteers were still willing, and all said they could make the climb that night. There was still no news of the Lapps from the ski-runner who had set off from Kaafjord to find them; but at least they could take charge of Furuflaten’s stranger till they heard if the Lapps were coming. Each of them went off to make his preparations: to change his clothes and wax his skis and pack a rucksack, and perhaps to get a little sleep before he started.

It was at this precise moment that a strange boat was sighted approaching Mandal. This was a very rare event, and plenty of people watched the boat, some with telescopes and binoculars, from the houses near the bottom of the valley. As it approached the jetty, they saw something which was to put the whole valley in a state of turmoil and apprehension: there was a party of German soldiers on board it. The boat reached the jetty, and the Germans came ashore; and a number of people who were in the know put on their skis and pelted up to the schoolhouse to warn Herr Nordnes. As the news spread up the valley, all the people he had consulted began to converge on the school to talk about this sinister development.

They all took it for granted that it had something to do with the plot which was afoot. It seemed certain that the organisation in Furuflaten had been broken up, and that the Germans knew that Mandal was involved in it; or else that somebody higher in the organisation, in Tromsö perhaps, had been arrested and that the Germans were planning a simultaneous raid both sides of the mountain. At all events, it would have been crazy to make the climb that night, before the Germans had shown some sign of what they meant to do. Herr Nordnes himself knew that his own name was the only one in Mandal so far which anyone outside could connect with the affair, and he did the only thing he could do: he told all the others to stay at home and say nothing; and for himself, he resolved that if he was arrested he would try not to give them away whatever was done to him.

That evening, the people of Mandal watched every move which the Germans made; but they seemed to be in no hurry to do anything at all. The second wave of news which spread up the valley reported that there were only six soldiers and an n.c.o. This seemed to suggest that they had come to arrest one single individual. But later rumour said that they were taking over a house as a billet, down by the jetty. Nobody knew whether it was for one night or for good, but obviously if there was going to be an arrest, it was not going to happen before nightfall. That night while Marius and his party were hauling the sledge up Revdal and searching the plateau, nobody was sleeping soundly in Mandal, except perhaps the Germans. When Amandus looked down from the top of the buttress in the early morning, the silent houses he saw far down below him were kept silent by anxiety and fear.

But during the night nothing happened at all. The Germans stayed in their billet, and in the morning they sallied forth and began a house-to-house check of all the inhabitants of Mandal. On the whole this relieved the tension. It pointed to a general vague suspicion of Mandal as a whole, rather than something definite against a particular person. But it meant that nobody could go away from home until the check of his own house had been completed, and to judge by the desultory way the Germans went to work, this would put a stop to any journey to the frontier for several days. It also made it impossible for the present for anyone to go over to Lyngseidet by boat to find out what had happened; and even to ring up Herr Legland would be asking for trouble, in case he had been arrested.

The whole thing remained a mystery all that day. Whatever way Nordnes and the other conspirators looked at it, it was hard to believe that after years without a garrison, the sudden arrival of even a section of Germans on the very evening when the ascent of the plateau was planned could be simply a coincidence. Yet nothing the Germans did, once they had landed, seemed to have any bearing on the plot, or to suggest in any way that they knew what was going on.

This particular mystery, as it happened, was never solved. To this day it still seems incredible that the Germans arrived there by chance; yet there is no reason to think they had any suspicion, at that particular moment, that Jan had been taken across to the east side of Lyngenfjord. The last time they had seen him was when he was ski-ing through Lyngseidet, and that was nearly three weeks earlier. But perhaps the fact that he had slipped through their grasp and disappeared had brought it home to somebody in the local command that the routes to the frontier were not very well controlled. Perhaps somebody else had had a rap on the knuckles. The somewhat pathetic little garrison sent to Mandal, as well as the motor-boats which suddenly appeared on Lyngenfjord, may have been part of a general tightening of the grip on the frontier, an indirect result of Jan’s journey rather than a deliberate search for him. If anyone knows the answer to this, it can only be some German officer.

However, the immediate mystery for Herr Nordnes was cleared up to some extent by an urgent message which arrived that night. It had come by a devious route, but it had originated from Marius, and it told Nordnes that Jan had been left at the meeting-place on the plateau and begged him to have him collected without delay. It also told him, by the mere fact that it had been sent, that there was nothing wrong in the rest of the organisation and that they did not even know that the Germans had come to Mandal. He went out to round up his team again, and to see whether they thought it was safe to start at once. But before the point was decided, it began to snow.

Standing outside the schoolhouse in Mandal, one can see almost the whole of the route to the plateau which they intended to use. As Marius and Amandus had expected, it lies up the side valley which leads out of Mandal on its southern side. This lesser valley is called Kjerringdal, the wordkjerring meaning an old woman or hag, to correspond with the man of Mandal. Kjerringdal rises steeply, in a series of gleaming curved terraces of snow, and in spring almost the whole of it is swept by avalanches; but there is one route up it clear of the avalanche tracks which is known to the local men. It ends in a wide couloir. From Mandal the rim of the couloir stands against the sky, three thousand feet above; and two miles beyond the rim is the place where Jan was lying.

That night, the snow clouds gathered first above the head of Mandal, and then, even as Nordnes and his men were watching them and debating the weather, the clouds swept up from the south across the plateau, and poured over the edge of the couloir and down into Kjerringdal. Minute by minute they grew thicker and nearer, blotting out the high terraces one by one, till the clouds from Kjerringdal joined with the ones from Mandal and swirled round the vertical crag which divides the two valleys. A few moments later they were overhead, and the snow began to fall, softly and thickly, on the floor of the valley where the men were standing. Soon there was nothing but snowflakes to be seen.

None of them liked to think of a man lying ill and unprotected and helpless up there in the heart of the clouds; but falling snow put an end to whatever hopes they had of reaching him for the present. The German garrison might have been avoided, and even in snow the ascent of Kjerringdal might not have been impossible; but to find the meeting-place would have been out of the question. Nobody in Mandal knew exactly where it was. They would have to depend on seeing the steep bluff which the Furuflaten message had described, and to begin to search for it when they could not see more than a few yards in front of them would be futile and suicidal. There was noting for it but to wait till the snowstorm ended.

It went on snowing all night, and all the morning. Going about their business in the valley the following day none of them had much hope for the man on the top of the mountain. Perhaps they regretted then they had not gone up on the night that the Germans came. As it turned out, they could have done it without being caught; but nobody could have known that at the time. Now, everything depended on the snow. They were ready to go the moment it showed the first sign of easing. It was simply a question of whether the man would survive till then.

The chance came on the third night after Marius had left Jan up there. There were breaks in the cloud that evening, and the local men, with their knowledge of Mandal weather, believed it would be clear before the morning. The party of four volunteers assembled. The Germans had been watched and counted to make sure they were all out of sight in the billet at the foot of the valley. Everything seemed auspicious.

The ascent of Kjerringdal went off without any serious trouble, though under the best of conditions it is not a safe or easy climb at that time of year. From time to time Nordnes caught sight of the men foiling on up the valley, picking their course to avoid the avalanche tracks. After four hours, on skis all the way, they got to the rim of the plateau. The snow had stopped by then, as they had hoped, and they struck off right-handed to make the level trek across the watershed and then down towards Revdal.

They saw the steep bluff well ahead of them. A series of gentle gullies and frozen lakes led down to the foot of it, and they ran down into the shallow valley which Marius and his party had reached three nights before. The fresh snow which had fallen lay thick over everything. The valley seemed just as deserted and still as the rest of the plateau. There were no tracks and no sign whatever that anyone had ever been there. They searched the foot of the bluff, and the whole of the valley bed above it and below, but they could not find anything at all. They scoured the plateau round about, shouting, but there was no answer. For two hours they hunted far and wide; but then they had to give it up and make back for the head of Kjerringdal again, in order to be at home before the Germans began their day’s work of checking the houses. The ski-run down Kjerringdal was very fast, and they were back in Mandal by the time the place was stirring.

When they all talked over this night’s expedition with Nordnes, the only conclusion they could come to was that the man who had been left up there had gone off somewhere by himself. They still knew very little about him. They had heard he was crippled, but for all they could tell, he might still have been able to drag himself along. It seemed most likely that when the snow had started, he had tried to get down again on the Revdal side to look for shelter. It had also crossed their minds, of course, that he might have died and been buried by the snow. In fact, they thought anyone who had stayed on the plateau for the past three days would almost certainly be dead; but they dismissed the idea that he had died anywhere near the rendezvous, because they thought they would have found his body. There had not been any avalanche up there, and there was very little drifting, and they would have expected a dead man’s body to show as a visible mound on the snowfield. Even if he had dug himself in and then been buried, there should have been something to show where he had done it. But there was nothing at all. He had simply disappeared.

For all practical purposes, Mandal just then was entirely cut off from the outside world. The Germans had been making strict inquiries about anyone they found was not at home, and they expected an explanation of where every man was and what he was doing. Until they had finished their slow and laborious progress from house to house up the whole of the valley, it was obvious that they would not let anyone leave it; and Nordnes could not send a messenger over the fjord to tell Herr Legland what had happened. He could not use the telephone, either. It had always been tapped on and off, and it was sure to be tapped, or simply cut off, while the German search was going on; and the whole mystery was too complicated to discuss in disguised language without any prearranged code. If Nordnes had been able to have five minutes’ conversation with Marius, everything would have been easy, but they might as well have been on different continents; and besides, at that time neither of them knew who was the organiser of the other village’s part in the affair. The only way of communication between them was through Legland, and for the present that way was blocked.

Without any help or advice from outside, the only thing the Mandal men could do was to try again. A second party therefore made the long climb on the following night, the fourth since Jan had been abandoned on the plateau. They regarded it as almost a hopeless effort; but Mandal, in the person of Herr Nordnes, had promised it would do its best, and besides, while there was any chance at all that there was a man alive up there, none of them could have slept easily in their beds.

This time, when they got to the valley below the bluff, it was still covered with the ski-tracks from the night before. They extended the search father down towards the edge of the drop into Revdal, and inland across the plateau. Every few yards they broke the oppressive silence of the plateau with a shout, and listened while it died again to silence.

Somebody had decided on a password which had been given both to Jan and the Mandal men. Presumably as a tribute to Jan’s English training, the Mandal men were to identify themselves to him by saying “Hallo, gentleman.” People in Norway often suppose that the word gentleman can be used as a form of address in the singular, as indeed it could if there were any logic in the English language. That night the plateau rang with this repeated cry but nobody in either Mandal or Furuflaten spoke any English at all, and so there was nobody there who would have thought it odd or ludicrous; except Jan, and he could not hear it. Towards morning, the party retreated again by way of Kjerringdal without finding anything. As they went down, the weather was worsening.

This second sortie had made it clear that it was no use to search any more without some kind of consultation with Furuflaten. To put a final end to any thought of another expedition, the snow began again, and during the day the wind got up and increased to a blizzard. This was far worse than the calm snowfall of two days before. In the sheltered valley, the temperature fell abruptly and visibility was restricted, and any outside work became impossible. On the plateau, as the Mandal people knew from generations of experience, no search party would have a hope of finding anything; it would be all they could do to move at all against the wind, or in fact, after a very short time, even to keep themselves alive.

But the blizzard did have one helpful consequence, in that it hampered the German troops as much as anyone. They could not keep their eye any longer on the whole of the foot of the valley, even if they did venture out into the blinding snow; and under the unexpected cover of this storm, a skier slipped out of the valley and brought the news of Mandal’s plight to friends in Kaafjord. From there, after a day’s delay in which a boat was found which could cross the fjord in such wild weather, the news reached Herr Legland, and he sent a message at once to Marius.

This message undoubtedly was a terrible shock to Marius. It reached him in Furuflaten when the blizzard was still at its height and had already been blowing for days. It meant only one thing to him: that after all Jan had suffered, and all that had been risked for him, that he was dead. It was exactly a week since Marius had said good-bye to him when he put him in the snow-grave on the plateau. All that time, as he had not heard any more, he had taken it for granted that the Mandal men had found him and he had even thought of him safe already in a Swedish hospital. It was dreadful for Marius to think that nobody had ever come to take him out of the hole again. His own knowledge of the arctic mountains, and the wisdom he had learned from older people, all made him certain that nobody had ever survived, or ever could survive, a week of snow and storm on the plateau, under the open sky. He could have wept to think of that pitifully inadequate protection Jan had had: two blankets, and a canvas bag which was not even waterproof, and not more than a day’s supply of food. He hated to think what Jan must have thought of him when he knew his end was coming.

Marius’s imagination would not let him rest on the day when he got the message. He took the news round to all the people he could tell, those who had helped in different ways. They were all of the same opinion: that it was a pity it had to end that way, but after all, everyone had done his best. Nobody even suggested that Jan might still be alive. Yet Marius knew all the time, in the back of his mind, that he would have to go up to the plateau again that night, whatever the weather, and whatever the risk of being seen and arrested by the Germans when it was really too late to matter. Of course he had not forgotten the solemn promise he had made to Jan; and assuming that Jan was dead, the promise had been broken. He had to go, if only to see for himself. He disliked the idea of leaving Jan’s body up there where it lay, till the spring thaw exposed the last remains of it. He wondered if Jan would have left him a message, written on paper perhaps, which the thaw would destroy. Perhaps he had some idea, as people do when the death of a friend leaves them remorseful, of making his peace with Jan by going to look at his body. At any rate, whether it was rational or not, and whether it was suicidally dangerous or not, he knew he was going.

It was a question who would come with him. To go alone would have added a lot to the danger: two people on a mountain in a blizzard are always more than twice as safe as one.

But of the three men who had been with him before, Alvin Larsen and Olaf Lanes were away again fishing, and probably storm-stayed somewhere down the coast, and Amandus Lillevoll was having such pain with his broken ribs that it was foolish to think of him making the climb again. There were no other men in the village in the know, only women: his own sisters and his mother, and families of the men who had come with him.

Olaf Lanes had several sisters, and one of them was called Agnethe. Agnethe knew Marius well, and she was fond of him, and so was he of her. When she heard that he was determined to go that night, she knew quite well that if nobody else would go with him, he would go alone; and rather than let him do that, she went and told him firmly that she was coming too. Probably if any other girl had said the same thing, he would have refused her offer without a second thought. It was certainly not an expedition for a girl. But Agnethe was as good as any man on skis, and she was strong as well as pretty; and, perhaps even more important, she was the only person that day who really understood the whole depth of what he was feeling, and agreed with him that it was right to go. He possibly needed sympathy just then even more than physical help. She offered him both, and he was grateful; and because there was really no sensible alternative, he agreed to let her come.

At dusk, which was all that was left by then of the vanishing nights, these two embarked on what was to be the last crossing of Lyngenfjord to Revdal. Amandus had come with them to help them to handle the boat and to look after it at Revdal. The crossing was wet and wild, and the small boat under sail was beaten down by heavy squalls from the mountains. But at least it was hidden from German eyes as long as the snow went on falling. They reached the other shore drenched and cold but safe, and beached the boat about half a mile south of Revdal. Agnethe and Marius landed.

They took a new route up the mountain. It looked easier for unladen climbers than the one which Marius had taken with the sledge, but it included some pitches of simple rock climbing, in narrow chimneys, on which the sledge would have been a hopeless hindrance. Marius looked after Agnethe with affection and admiration, but she needed no help from him. On rock she was more agile than he was, and perhaps she was even more anxious to reach the plateau and see the worst, so that his mind would be set at rest.

They climbed the first steep two thousand feet very quickly. But on the steep face they were more or less in shelter. When they had almost got up to the rim of the plateau, they began to hear a new note in the wind above them, and when they looked up through the murk they could see the snow blowing over the edge. It looked like hard grey pellets, and it shot over in jets with a power and speed which warned them that the dangerous part of the climb was only beginning.

When they crossed the rim and stood up on the level surface beyond it, the wind snatched at their clothes and threw them off their balance and drowned their voices. The air was so full of whirling particles of snow that it took their breath away and they felt as if they were suffocating. Both of them, of course, were properly dressed, in windproof trousers and anuraks with hoods; but the snow lashed the exposed parts of their faces with such violent pain that they could not bear to turn unprotected into the wind. Marius shouted to Agnethe, half-persuaded himself that what they were doing was madness; but she was already untying her skis, which had been bound together for carrying. She dropped them on the shifting surface, and bent down to buckle on the bindings.

The way for the last three miles from there to the rendezvous was against the wind. If it had not been so, it certainly would have been more than foolish to go on, because of the danger of over-reaching themselves and being unable to return. They pulled their hoods down as far as they would go, and covered their mouths with their hands to ward off the snow and make breathing possible. Marius set off in the lead, because he knew the way, and marched on with his head bent low, snatching a painful glance ahead of him now and then. Agnethe followed close after him in his tracks. Neither of them could see normally or hear anything but the howling of the wind, and their sense of touch was numbed by cold. When the senses are numbed, a mental numbness cannot be avoided. In this state they went on and on, yard by yard into the wilderness, thinking no farther ahead than the next step and the one after that. They climbed with that thoughtless stubbornness, against all reason, which is often the mainspring of great deeds: Marius driven on by his own compelling conscience, and Agnethe by her sympathy and love.

When they came to the bluff they could see the loom of it above them through the snow-mist; but even Marius had to hesitate before he could find the boulder where Jan had been laid. Everything was changed. The fresh snowfall and the high wind had made new drifts, exposed new rocks and hidden others. The boulder which had stood conspicuously clear of the surface was almost buried, and in the lee of it, where the open hole had been, there was not a smooth windswept surface. The puzzle of why the Mandal men had found nothing there was solved: there was nothing whatever to be seen. Yet Marius felt certain of his bearings. He was sure he had found the right boulder, and that Jan could not have moved, and that therefore, his body was buried far down below that virgin surface. He took off his skis and went down on his knees in the soft snow and began to dig. He scratched the snow away with his hands. Agnethe crouched beside him in an agony of cold. She was exhausted.

When Marius had dug away three feet of snow, the rest collapsed into a cavity underneath, and he knew he was right. He cleared it away, and saw Jan’s ghastly waxen face below him. The eyes were shut, and the head was covered with rime.

“Don’t look,” he said to Agnethe. “He’s dead.”

At the sound of his voice, Jan stirred.

“I’m not dead, damn you,” he said, in a feeble voice but with every sign of indignation.

Then he opened his eyes, and saw the astounded face of Marius peering down at him, and he grinned.

“You can’t kill an old fox,” he said.

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