Military history

17. REINDEER

WHEN HE opened his eyes there was a man standing looking at him.

Jan had never seen a Lapp before, except in pictures. The man stood there on skis, silent and perfectly motionless, leaning on his ski-sticks. He was very small. He had a lean swarthy face and narrow eyes with a slant. He was wearing a long tunic of dark blue embroidered with red and yellow, and leather leggings, and embroidered boots of hairy reindeer skin with turned-up pointed toes. He had a wide leather belt with two sheath-knives hanging from it. He was wearing it loosely round his hips, not round his waist, so that he looked all body and no legs, like a gnome. Jan had not heard him coming. He was simply there.

They stared at each other for a long time before Jan could speak. His brain was slow to readjust itself, and his memory was muddled. Had someone told him this man was coming? Had he dreamed it was all over? Was this a dream? At last, with supreme inadequacy, he said: “Good morning.” The Lapp did not more or answer, but he gave a grunt, and Jan dimly remembered then that he probably could not understand a word he said. He shut his eyes again because he was too tired to make an effort to think what to say or do.

He had an uneasy feeling that he ought to know who the man was and where he had come from. There had been a lot of talk about Lapps coming to help him, he could remember that; but it had all been a long time ago, and it had all come to nothing in the end. They had given it up as a bad job. He could not think of any sense or reason in a Lapp being there on the plateau all alone. He looked again to make sure if he had seen what he thought he had seen, and the man was still standing there just the same, with his ski-sticks tucked under his armpits and no expression whatever on his face.

Jan could not rest with the feeling whenever he shut his eyes that someone was silently staring at him. He could not even tell if the stare was friendly or hostile, if the extraordinary creature he had seen was wanting to help him or fingering the long knives at the belt. He wished he would go away. It seemed to him that the man stood there for hours and did not move or speak or change his curious stooped position. But then, without any sound the man had gone. Jan was relieved, and sank back into the daze which this sudden apparition had disturbed.

In fact, this was one of the Lapps whom the ski-runner from Kaafjord had gone to see on his journey a month before. He had just arrived with his herds and his tents and family in the mountains at the head of Kaafjord, and he must have been thinking over the message all that time. When he had first been asked, the whole matter was in a vague imponderable future. Now it was in the present, and the first thing he had done when he got to Kaafjord had been to find out where Jan was lying, and then to go himself to see whether the story was true. He did stand looking at Jan for three or four hours. He was making up his mind. As soon as he had done so, he went down into the valley and announced that he was going to the frontier. Immediately the gifts which had been prepared for the Lapps who had defaulted were pressed upon him; the blankets, coffee, brandy, and tobacco which had been bought here and there at enormous prices and carefully hoarded for this purpose.

The next thing that brought Jan to his senses was a sound of snorting and shuffling, unlike anything he had ever heard before, hoarse shouts, the clanging of bells and a peculiar acrid animal smell, and when he opened his eyes the barren snow-field round him which had been empty for weeks was teeming with hundreds upon hundreds of reindeer milling round him in an unending horde, and he was lying flat on the ground among all their trampling feet. Then two Lapps were standing over him talking their strange incomprehensible tongue. They both bent down and picked him bodily up, talking all the time, but not to him. For a moment he could not imagine what they were going to do; but then he understood he was being moved from his own sledge to a larger one. They muffled him up to his eyes in blankets and skins, and stowed packages and bundles on top of him and around him and lashed him and everything down with thongs of reindeer hide and sinew. There was a jerk, and the sledge began to move.

This had all happened so fast that Jan was bewildered. A few minutes before he had been lying torpid and alone; now he was being dragged feet first at increasing speed in the middle of a wild tumult, and nobody had given him a word of explanation. He squinted along his body, and saw the hindquarters of a deer which was harnessed to the sledge. A Lapp on skis was leading it. It was one of the bell deer of the herd, and as it snorted and pawed the snow and the sledge got under way and the bell on its neck began a rhythmic clang, the herd fell in behind it, five hundred strong, anxiously padding along in its wake. From the corner of his eye he could see a few dozen of the leaders, jostling for position. The mass of deer flowed on behind; it streamed out in a hurrying narrow column when the sledge flew fast on the level snow, and when the sledge was checked the herd surged round it and also halted. Sometimes in these involuntary halts Jan found himself looking up from where he lay on his back a foot above the ground at the ungainly heads and large mournful eyes and snuffling nostrils immediately above him. But when this happened, one or the other of the two Lapps appeared, urging on the draught deer which pulled the sledge, and sometimes giving the sledge a heave himself till the obstacle was passed and the rumble of hoofs began again, and the snow-hiss beneath the runners.

All day the enormous mass of beasts swept on across the plateau, cutting a wide swath of trampled snow which hid the tracks of the sledge which carried Jan: the most strange and majestic escort ever offered to a fugitive in war. Jan lay on the sledge feeling that events had got beyond him; but he was content to let them take their course, because he had seen the position of the sun and knew that at last, whatever happened next, he was on his way towards the south and towards the border.

Some time in the evening they halted. The two Lapps gave him some dried reindeer meet and some reindeer milk to drink, and then he saw them pitching a little tent made of skins. The reindeer were wandering aimlessly round and digging in the snow with their forelegs to look for the moss on the rocks far down below. Jan was left lying on the sledge. On the whole he was glad for this, because the tent was certainly only made for two; but when he was left alone among the deer he still found them alarming. They came and sniffed at him, most obviously wondering whether he was fit to eat, and Jan, who knew very little about the tastes of reindeer, was not sure if he was or not. If ever he shut his eyes, hot breath and wet hairy muzzles woke him.

After the Lapps had disappeared inside the tent, a most peculiar noise began to come out of it: a monotonous kind of chant which rose to howls and died away to moaning. When the first eerie shrieks rolled out across the plateau Jan thought they must be fighting, and when one of them burst out of the tent after a little while and staggered through the snow towards him with the knives dangling at his belt, he thought an entirely unexpected death was in store for him. But the Lap stooped over him and a waft of his breath explained the whole fearsome interlude. The Lapps were drunk, and they were singing. They had been getting to work on the brandy which had been given to them as a reward, and one had come reeling forth on his short bow legs with no more evil intention than to offer Jan a swig at the bottle. It came back to Jan then that years before he had either read or been told about Lappish singing. It is called yoicking. It is said to be a kind of ballad which tells stories of heroic Lappish deeds, but it is not in the least like the usual conception of music, and to people who have not been instructed in its arts it is apt to seem no more than a mournful wail, like a dog’s howling at the moon, but somewhat sadder.

The day’s sudden journey had revived Jan’s interest in life, and when the Lapp thrust the brandy bottle at him he laughed: for a moment, with the wry humour which never left him except on the verge of death, he had had a glimpse of the ludicrous indignity, after all that had happened before, of being slaughtered by a drunken Lapp on the very last stage of the way to the frontier. He took a small sip from the bottle and was glad of it, but the Lapp began to talk. Not a single word he said conveyed anything to Jan, but the general meaning was clear enough. He was pressing Jan to drink more, with the embarrassing hospitality of drunk people of any nation, and he was going to be offended if Jan refused. But Jan knew from the experience of the last few weeks that one sip was enough to make him feel better, and that two might make him a great deal worse. So he smiled and shut his eyes and shammed unconscious, and after a while the Lapp finished the bottle himself and wandered back to the tent to start yoicking again.

It was a good thing to be relieved of the expectation of being murdered, but the situation was alarming still. As the lugubrious sounds of revelry rolled out again, Jan thought of the German voices he had heard in the night, and of the ski patrols which were said to be out on the frontier, but the dreadful noise in the quiet frosty air sounded as if a patrol might hear it miles away. It made him nervous and there was no possible way he could hope to persuade them to stop it.

From time to time the Lapps made further sorties to offer him drinks or merely to look at him. Sometimes the bottles they brought were full, and sometimes nearly empty. He wondered how many bottles the organisation had bought, and how long it would be before the two men got over this rare and splendid orgy and were fit to go on with the journey again. He was so helplessly in their hands. He felt as a passenger in an aeroplane might feel if he discovered the pilot and crew were very far from sober. All in all, he spent an anxious night.

But during the night the singing slowly flagged and gave a place to a blessed silence, and some time in the morning the tent shook and the Lapps emerged, apparently none the worse, and immediately set about striking the tent and harnessing the reindeer. They seemed as brisk as ever. He thought they must have remarkable constitutions. Soon the heard was rounded up, the sledge started, and the headlong rush of hoofs began again.

On this second day Jan lost the last of his sense of position and direction. He did not know where he was being taken, and he could not ask what plans the Lapps had made, or try to change them whatever they might be. But simply because there was something happening, some positive action going on at last, he had roused himself out of his mental apathy, and even felt physically better than he had when all hope had seemed to have come to an end. The lurching and swaying of the sledge and its sudden stops and starts were sickening and tiring, but he summoned up every bit of strength which he still possessed, inspired if not by hope, at least by curiosity. He wanted to see what was going to happen next. This wish in itself must have helped him to keep alive.

Everything happened, very quickly. The sledge lurched to a halt, perhaps for the hundredth time. The herd, swept on by its own momentum, came milling all round him again. Then he found that both the Lapps were trying to tell him something. They were pointing with their ski-sticks. He tried to look in the direction they showed him but he could not see very much between the hundreds of legs of deer. He listened to what they were saying, but it meant nothing to him at all. And then he caught a single word, the first word they had ever said which he understood. It was “Kilpisjarvi,” and he remembered it. It is the name of a lake. He looked again, with a sudden uncontrollable excitement, and caught a glimpse of a steep slope which fell away from where the herd was standing, and down below, at the foot of the slope, an enormous expanse of smooth unsullied snow. It was the frozen lake, in sight; and he had remembered that the frontier runs across the middle of it. The low banks of snow on the other side were Sweden. Slowly there dawned the wild incredible hope that he was going to win.

The Lapps were still talking. He shut his mind to that blinding blaze of hope, and tried to attend to them. They picked up handfuls of sodden snow and squeezed it so that the water ran down, pointed again to the lake and shook their heads. That was it: they were trying to tell him that the thaw had gone too far and the ice of the lake was rotten and unsafe. He looked down at the lake again, and then he saw here and there the greenish translucent patches which showed where the ice was melting.

He remembered Kilpisjarvi on the map. It was miles long, seven or eight at least, and the head of it was near the summer road, where there was sure to be a guard post. At the other end there must be a river. It came back to him: there was a river, and the frontier ran down it. But if the lake was melting, the river ice would surely be broken up and the river in spate and uncrossable. They must cross the lake: they must chance it: he had to make them try. Stop the herd, let him try it alone on the sledge: one man on skis, one deer and the sledge. But he could not explain it. He started to say it in Norwegian but their faces were blank and he stopped in an agony of frustration, and began again to try to control his impatience and to think of a way to make it all clear to them by dumb show. If only he had a pencil and paper to draw maps and pictures—

There was a crack, the unmistakable lash of a bullet overhead and then the report of a rifle. The deer froze where they stood and raised their heads, scenting danger. The Lapps froze, silent and staring. Jan struggled to raise his head. There were six skiers on the crest of another hill. One of them was kneeling with a rifle, and in the split second while Jan glanced at them another shot went over and he saw three of the men turn down off the crest and come fast towards the herd.

After seconds of stunned silence the Lapps started talking in shrill excited voices. Jan found he was shouting, “Get on, Get on! Across the lake!” The deer moved nervously, running together in groups, stopping to sniff the wind. The Lapps glanced at him and back at the patrol, the picture of indecision. The patrol was down off the hill, racing across the flats. In an access of frenzied strength Jan half raised his head and shoulders from the sledge, forgetting that words were useless, shouting, “They’re out of range! For God’s sake move! Move!” One of the Lapps shouted back a quick meaningless answer. The other waved both hands towards the rifleman as if he was begging him not to shoot. In an inspiration Jan fumbled in his jacket and drew his useless automatic and brandished it at the Lapps. They stared at it aghast: heaven knows what they thought, whether Jan was meaning to threaten them or defend them. With a final glance at the skiers approaching, one jumped to the head of the deer which pulled the sledge. The other shouted and suddenly, like a flood released, the herd poured over the edge of the hill and down the steep slope towards the lake, the sledge rocking and careering down among them, snow flying from the pounding hoofs, rifle shots whining past and over, across the frozen beach, out in a mad stampede on to the slushy groaning ice and away full tilt towards the Swedish shore.

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