Military history

16. THE SANDS RUN OUT

WHEN JAN came to this mental crisis, the men who came up to see him noticed the difference. Up to then, he had always seemed cheerful, and none of them knew what this appearance had sometimes cost him. But now there was no humour left in him, and he would hardly speak to them. In fact, up to then the occasional visits of strangers had been all he had had to look forward to, but now he was almost resentful when he heard “Hallo, gentleman,” because it meant that he had to make an effort when he wanted to lie in peace. He did not tell them till later about the conclusion he had come to. It simply seemed to them that he had lost heart. They went down and told Herr Nordnes that he was dying at last.

It had never occurred to them, as it had to Jan, that what they were doing might not be worth the risk, and if he had died up there on the plateau, after all the effort they had put into trying to save him, they would have been very much disappointed and almost angry with him. But they were certainly right in their fears. The weeks of exposure had really worn him down to the point when his life might quietly end without any further warning. Only one course was left to them, since they never considered just letting him die in peace. They would have to carry him down to the valley again, and try to fatten him up and build up his strength till he was fit for another attempt on Sweden.

There were the Germans to think of. No house in the place was free of the risk of a sudden search. At night, by that time, there was no darkness left at all, and it would have been taking too much of a chance to have carried him all the way down to the inhabited part of the valley in broad daylight. But the valley extends for ten miles beyond the last of the houses, and all of it is more sheltered than the open plateau, and a few degrees warmer. Somebody remembered a cave right up at the head of the valley. There was a meeting in the schoolhouse, and it was agreed that the only hope of spinning out his life was to cut their losses, bring him down and install him in the cave, and begin all over again.

This was a hard decision for them all, and especially for Jan when they told him what they thought. It meant going back to the stage of the journey he had reached when he was first carried into the hut at Revdal nearly six weeks before. It meant that everything he had suffered since then had been wasted. And it also meant, above all, that before he could ever hope to reach Sweden he would have to go through the ordeal of being hauled up the mountain again.

However, he was too far gone to care, and the Mandal men assured him there was nothing else for it; so he let himself be pulled out of the paper tent and lashed yet again to the sledge. Six men lowered him laboriously down to the bed of the valley, throwing away the height and the distance which the past weeks had so painfully won.

While this party was bringing him down, another was preparing the cave, by laying a bed of birch branches and grass inside it. When they got him there and pushed him inside and finally left him, he was in a state of luxury which he had not enjoyed since Marius’s barn. They had taken him off the sledge, and after its wooden slats the birch bed was wonderfully soft. He slowly got dry, for the first time in a month; and when his clothes had dried out even began to get warm, a sensation which seemed an entirely novel experience; and when he was warm he fell at long last into a dreamless sleep.

He lay in the cave for four days, sleeping most of the time. When he did wake he lay staring at the roof which was only a couple of feet above his head, enjoying the gloom after the snow-glare of the plateau. The roof was damp, and there were sometimes drips on it. He found them fascinating to watch and study. When one of them was just about to fall, he would draw a trail with his finger on the slimy rock so that the drop slid down it and fell clear of his body. When he rolled a cigarette he prepared for it by laying trails for all the ripening drops which he could see, so that he could be sure to have his smoke in peace. During those days, he discovered anew the pleasures of the very simplest things; the delight of sleep, the joy of anticipating eating, the unutterable luxury of yawning.

The mouth of the cave was often darkened as a visitor crawled in beside him to feed him with the best Mandal could afford and to attend so far as possible to any wish that he expressed. The visitors sat and gossiped when he was awake, and left him alone when he was sleepy. One day, they brought him news that one of the German soldiers in their garrison had run away to Sweden, which gave them all a quite disproportionate happiness. Every day, whoever had come to him talked about the Lapps, who were now arriving in great numbers in Kaafjord and the other neighbouring valleys and were being coaxed and offered rewards by the local members of the organisation in the hope that sooner or later one of them would make up his mind to help. But Jan had stopped pinning much faith in Lapps. The only plan he had was to sleep till he really felt he had slept enough. By then, he thought, he would be stronger, and that would be soon enough to think about the future. Then he would decide whether to go on leaning on the kindness of the Mandal folk still longer, right through the summer perhaps, or whether to put an end to it all as soon as his fingers could cock the pistol.

But suddenly, on his fourth or fifth day in the cave, a whole deputation arrived in excitement, to say that at last a Lapp had made a firm promise. He had demanded brandy, blankets, coffee and tobacco, which were all the most difficult and expensive things to get, but the organisation was sure to be able to find enough to satisfy him, and people who knew him said he was a reliable character who would not change his mind. But his reindeer were still up on the plateau, and he did not want to bring them down and then have to take them up again. So to make sure of not missing the chance, Jan would have to be moved straight away and hauled up to the plateau to meet the Lapp and his herd.

Jan was not really ready to leave the comfortable cave. A little more rest would have made him fitter to start the struggle again. But he could not refuse to fall in with a plan which had raised the hopes of the Mandal men so high; and although he had been disappointed too often, it did seem that this might be the opportunity they had all been waiting for. He tried to show more enthusiasm than he felt, and they pulled him out into the glaring daylight and tied him down to the familiar slats of the sledge again.

A large party of men assembled for the climb out of the valley. Eight actually took part in it. In many ways this ascent was less arduous, at least for Jan, than the earlier one from Revdal. There were twice as many men to handle the sledge; and by then Jan was much less of a load to carry. His weight ultimately fell to 78 pounds, which was less than half what he weighed when he left the Shetland Islands.

The eight men were therefore able to carry him bodily for a lot of the way, and he was not so often left hanging feet downwards or upside down. But the ascent lasted no less than thirteen hours, and by the time they got him to the top Jan was exhausted, and the good effect of his rest in the cave had been undone. After these hours of rough handling, he got angry for the first time in all those weeks, and in his weakness he forgot that he owed absolutely everything to the men who were carrying him. One of them had promised to bring tobacco for him, and in the excitement it had been forgotten. When Jan heard of this, it seemed for some reason the last straw. The prospect of even a day or two on the plateau without a cigarette was too much for him, and he snapped irritably: “You would go and forget the most important thing of the lot.” It was an absurdly ungrateful thing to say, especially when tobacco was so rare and expensive that almost everyone in Mandal had had to give up smoking. But none of them took any notice, because they could see he had been pushed almost beyond endurance and was not really aware any more of what he was saying.

As a matter of fact, the organisation in Mandal and Kaafjord was being remarkably thoughtful and efficient, as it had been throughout the operation. When the climbing party got Jan to the new rendezvous on the plateau where he was to meet the Lapp, two men from Kaafjord had already arrived there. They had been detailed to relieve the climbers by taking over Jan and looking after him until the Lapp arrived, and they had been chosen as Lapp interpreters. The Lappish language is said to have no relation to any other language in the world except Hungarian, and there are very few people except the Lapps who understand it. Most of the Lapps themselves can also speak one or another of the languages of the countries they live in, either Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish, but the man who was expected that night was Finnish Lapp, and so he and Jan would not have a single word in common.

The men who had brought him up were tired out when they got to the meeting place, so they handed Jan over to the Kaafjord men and retreated to the valley without any further delay. These two stayed with him to keep him company all through the following night. But events began to take a course which was terribly familiar. Jan lay passively on the sledge while the chill of the night froze the dampness of the day in his clothes. The men who were guarding him watched the snow-bound horizon patiently hour by hour. But no sign of the Lapp was seen, and nothing stirred. In the early morning, the men had to go down to their daily work, and Jan was abandoned again to his solitude.

The vigil began again with all its rigour and discomfort and the same hopeless dreariness. He was in a different place on the plateau, but it looked almost exactly the same. There was no rock with icicles to fill his cup, and there was no snow wall or paper tent. The snow immediately round him was clean and fresh, and not stained and foul by weeks of improvised existence. But the low hills and the dead shallow valleys within his vision could hardly be distinguished from any others, and the familiar numbing cold, the snow-glare and the silence made the days in the cave appear like a half-remembered dream which had done nothing but give a fleeting glimpse of comfort and so emphasise the misery of the plateau. He lay dazed, floating into and out of coma, and he began to listen again. The thin wind sighed on a distant hill, and stirred the loose snow in feeble eddies with an infinitesimal rustle, and died to silence again. In his moments of clarity he knew these soft sibilant sounds threatened another blizzard. When his mind lost its grip on reality, he heard the wolves again padding secretively round him. He began once more the start into wakefulness when he imagined voices or the hiss of skis.

The next night two more interpreters came to stand by him. One speaks of night and day, but by then the midnight sun was up. It was broad daylight all the time, and night only meant that the shadows on the plateau were longer and that when they lengthened the air became more chill. Throughout this brilliant, glaring, frosty night the men watched over him. But nobody came. Jan had made up his mind that the Lapp would never come. The sun passed across the north horizon and climbed again in the east. The men had to give up waiting, and went away, and left him to face another glaring day.

Four days and nights dragged by before they broke it to him that this Lapp had also changed his mind and made the excuse that he was ill. It was no surprise. Jan knew it before they told him. This time, nobody could think of any alternative. To take Jan down to the valley again in the quickly melting snow was a final admission of defeat, because they could never get him up again over naked rock. Down in the valley, there was nothing they could do except feed him till the Germans found him and took them all. To leave him where he was only condemned him to a quicker, kinder death. It seemed to them all, and to Jan too, that they had reached the end. For the first time, they had no plans whatever for the future, no hopes to offer him, nothing to say which would encourage him. The only thing they could have done in mercy would have been to deny him the food which had served to spin out his existence, and to let him fade out as quickly as possible and in peace. Whatever they did, they knew it would not be long. It was useless even to promise to come to see him again. When they left him they gave him food, but they made him no promise. They expected to come again, twice: once to find his body and protect it from the birds and wolves, and again, when the snow was gone and the earth was thawed, to bury him.

When their voices had faded and the last of them had gone, Jan lay quite still. The doleful wind ruffled his hair and sifted a little snow across his face. His mind was at rest in the peace which sometimes follows the final acceptance of death.

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