IF JAN had stopped to think, everything would have seemed hopeless. He was alone, in uniform, on a small bare island, hunted by about fifty Germans. He left a deep track, as he waded through the snow, which anyone could follow. He was wet through and had one bare foot, which was wounded, and it was freezing hard. The island was separated from the mainland by two sounds, each several miles wide, which were patrolled by the enemy, and all his money and papers had been blown up in the boat.
But when a man’s mind is numbed by sudden disaster, he acts less by reason than by reflex. In military affairs, it is at moments like those that training is most important. The crew’s training had been nautical, the sea was their element, and when their ship disappeared before their eyes and they were cast ashore without time to recover themselves and begin to think, their reaction was to lose hope and to surrender. But Jan had been trained to regard that barren hostile country as a place where he could live and work for years. He had expected to go ashore and to live off the land, and so, when the crisis came, he turned without any conscious reason to the land as a refuge, and began to fight his way out. If his companions had not been wounded or overcome by the icy water, no doubt they would have done the same thing, although none of them knew then, as they learned later, that any risks and any sufferings were better than surrender.
For the moment, his thoughts did not extend beyond the next few minutes. He thought no more than a hunted fox with a baying pack behind it, and he acted with the instinctive cunning of a fox. It served him better, in that primitive situation, than the complicated processes of reason. On the southern slopes of the island there was less snow. Here and there, where the rocks were steep, he found bare patches, and he hobbled towards them and crossed them, leaving no track, laying false trails, doubling back on the way he had come, jumping from stone to stone to leave the snow untrodden in between. But there was no cover. Wherever he went, he could be seen from one part of the island or another; and as the shock of the battle faded and his heart and lungs began to recover from the effort of his climb, he began to believe that although he had escaped, it could be only minutes before the Germans ran him down.
Running blindly here and there among the hills, hampered by his wounded foot, he had no idea how far he had come from Toftefjord, and before he expected it he found himself facing the sea again. Below him on the shore there were some houses and a jetty, and from Eskeland’s description he recognised the shop. He had crossed the island already. He remembered that the shopkeeper had a boat, and he thought of trying to steal it. But the water in front of him was wide and clear, and the Germans would be over the hill behind him at any moment. He knew he could not get out of sight in a boat before they came.
He went on, down to the shore a little way from the jetty. There at least was a narrow strip of beach which was free of snow, and he could walk along it, slowly and painfully, without leaving any tracks at all. He turned to the left, away from the shop, back towards Toftefjord. He felt intolerably lonely.
There were two little haysheds by the shore. He wanted to creep into one and hide there and burrow in the hay and get warm and go to sleep. They were obvious hiding places. But even as he began to think of it, he knew they were too obvious. They were isolated. He pictured himself hidden there in the dark, hearing the Germans coming along the beach, and their expectant shouts when they saw the sheds, and himself trapped in there while they surrounded him. The very uselessness of the haysheds impressed upon him that there really was no hiding place for him in that dreadful island. If he stayed on the island, wherever he hid he would be found.
As he scrambled along the beach he was coming nearer, though he did not know it, to the sound which Eskeland and the others had passed through on their way to the shop. It is called Vargesund, and it is full of rocks, in contrast to the wide open waters to the north and south. The largest of the rocks is about half an acre in extent. As soon as Jan saw this little island, he knew what he had to do, and for the first time he saw a gleam of hope. He hurried to the edge of the water, and waded in, and began to swim again.
It was only fifty yards to the rock, and in spite of his clothes and his pistol and his one sea-boot, he had no difficulty in swimming across. But when he dragged himself out of the mixture of ice and water, and climbed over to the far side of the rock, the effect of this second swim began to tell on him. He had to begin to reckon with the prospect of freezing to death.
There was a minute patch of peat on top of the islet, and someone had been cutting it. He got down below the peatbank and started to do exercises, keeping an eye on the hills of the main land. His bare foot was quite numb, although running had made an unpleasant mess of the raw end of his toe. He took off his sea-boot and moved his one sock from his left foot to his right. It seemed a good idea to have a boot on one foot and a sock on the other. He stamped his feet, crouching down below the bank, to start the circulation and try to ward off frostbite.
It was only a very short time before the Germans came in sight, and for the next two hours he watched them, at first with apprehension, and then with a growing sense of his own advantage. They came slowly, in straggling line abreast, pausing to challenge every stone, with a medley of shouts and orders and counter-orders; and Jan, watching them critically in the light of his own field training, remembered one of the many things he had been told and had only half believed: that the garrisons of that remote part of Norway were low-grade troops whose morale was softened by isolation and long inactivity. Gradually, as he watched their fumbling search, he began to despise them, and to recognize beneath that formidable uniform the signs of fallibility and even fear. They were probably clerks and cooks and batmen, dragged out unwillingly at a moment’s notice from comfortable headquarters billets in the town. He could guess very well what they would think of having to hunt a desperate armed bandit among ice and rocks and snow.
It was dusk when the first party of them came along the beach, but he could see them clearly because they were using torches which they flashed into dark crevices. They passed his island without a glance behind them out to sea. So far, it seemed not to have crossed their minds that he might have swum away.
When it was dark, the confusion increased. They were scattered in small groups all over the hills. Each group was signalling to others with its torches. Men were shouting their own names, afraid that their friends would mistake them for the bandit. Now and then a single shot echoed from hill to hill. That could only mean that nervous men were firing at fancied movements in the dark. Slowly it dawned on Jan, with a feeling of intense elation which gave him new strength and courage, that for all their numbers, they were afraid of him.
That opportunity to study the German army at its worst was worth months of military training, because after it he never again had the slightest doubt that he could outwit them till the end.
At the same time, he was becoming more aware of the dangers of his natural surroundings. A human enemy, however relentless and malevolent he may be, has human weaknesses; but nobody can trifle with the Arctic. In immediate terms, Jan knew that if he stayed where he was in his wet clothes, he would be dead before the morning.
Of course, there was only one alternative: to swim again. He could swim back to Ribbenesöy, among the Germans, or he might conceivably swim across the sound, to Hersöy, the next island to the eastward. One way or the other, he had to find a house where he could go in and get dry and warm. He had only seen two houses on Ribbenesöy, the shopkeeper’s and the one in Toftefjord, and both of them were out of the question. He knew from the chart that there were others farther west, but by that time they were probably full of Germans. Across the sound, on Hersöy, he had seen a single lonely house, but he had no idea who lived there.
He looked at Vargesund, and wondered if it was possible. In fact, it is 220 yards across, but it was difficult for him to guess its width in the darkness. The far shore was only a shadow between the shining water and the shining hills. The surface of the sound was broken here and there by eddies: the tide had begun to set. In health and strength he could easily swim the distance; but he could not judge the effects of the tide and the cold and his own exhaustion. He stood for a long time before he made up his mind. He did not want to die either way, but to drown seemed better than to freeze. He took a last look behind him at the flashing torches of the soldiers, and stumbled down the rocks and waded in and launched himself into the sea again.
It is a mercy that the ultimate extremes of physical distress often get blurred in memory. Jan hardly remembered anything of that third and longest swim, excepting an agony of cramp, and excepting the dreadful belief that he was just about to die; an experience most people encounter once or twice in a lifetime, but one he had had to face so many times on that single day. It was after he had given up any conscious struggle, and admitted his defeat, and was ready to welcome his release from pain, that some chance eddy swept him ashore on the farther side and rolled his limp body among the stones, and left him lying there on his face, groaning and twisted with cramp, and not able to move or to think of moving.
Seconds or minutes later, in the mists of half-consciousness, there were voices. There were footsteps on the beach, and the clink of stones turning. He wondered with a mild curiosity whether the words he could hear were German or Norwegian, and from somewhere outside himself he looked down with pity on the man who lay beaten on the shore and the people who approached him; because if they were German, the man was too weak to get away. But slowly his dim enfeebled brain began to accept a fact which was unforeseen and strange on that day of death and violence. They were children’s voices. There were children, coming along the beach and chattering in Norwegian. And suddenly they stopped, and he knew they had seen him.
He lifted his head, and there they were, two little girls, holding hands, wide-eyed with horror, too frightened to run away. He smiled and said: “Hullo. You needn’t be afraid.” He managed to turn round and sit up. “I’ve had an accident,” he said. “I do wish you could help me.” They did not answer, but he saw them relax a little, and he realised that when they had seen him, they had thought that he was dead.
Jan loved children; he had looked after his own young brother and sister after his mother died. Perhaps nothing in the world could have given him strength of mind just then, except compassion: the urgent need to soothe the children’s fear and make up for the shock which he had given them. He talked to them calmly. His own self-pity and despair had gone. He showed them how wet he was, and made a joke of it, and they came nearer as their fright gave way to interest and wonder. He asked them their names. They were Dona and Olaug. After a while he asked if their home was near, and whether they would take him there, and at the idea of bringing him home and showing their parents what they had discovered they brightened up and helped him to his feet. The house was not far away.
Two women were there, and the rest of their children. They exclaimed in horrified amazement at the frozen, limping, wild dishevelled man whom the little girls led in. But the moment he spoke to them in Norwegian their horror changed to motherly concern and they hurried him into the kitchen, and took him to the fire and brought him towels and put the kettle on.
Of all the series of acts of shining charity which attended Jan in the months which were to come, the help which these two women gave him on the first night of his journey was most noble, because they knew what had happened just across the sound, and they knew that at any moment, certainly by the morning, the Germans would be pounding on their door. They knew that their own lives and the lives of all their children would hang on a chance word when they came to face their questioning. Yet they opened their door at once to the stranger in such desperate distress, and cared for him and saved his life and sent him on his way, with no thought or hope of any reward except the knowledge that, whatever price they paid, they had done their Christian duty. Their names are Fru Pedersen and Fru Idrupsen.
The first thing Jan did was to warn them all that the Germans were after him, and that when they were questioned they must say that he came in carrying a pistol and demanded their help by force. He brought out his pistol to emphasise what he said. As soon as he had made quite sure that they understood this, and that even the children had a clear idea of what they should do and say, he sent two of them out as sentries, and told them to warn him at once if they saw a boat coming into the sound.
Fru Idrupsen, it turned out, was the woman from Toftefjord. She had run to the hills with her children when the shooting started, and she had seen most of what happened from the top of the island. She had rowed across the sound to take refuge with her neighbours. Fru Pedersen had a grownup son and daughter and two young children. Her son was out fishing, but she expected him back at any minute. Her husband, like Fru Idrupsen’s, was away for the Lofoten fishing season and would not be home till it ended.
All the time Jan was talking, the two women were busy with the practical help which he needed so badly. They gave him food and a hot drink, and helped him to take off his sodden clothes. They found him new dry underclothes and socks and a sea-boot Herr Pedersen had left behind, and they hung up his uniform to dry, and rubbed his feet and legs till the feeling began to come back to them, and bandaged the stump of his wounded toe.
Twice while they worked to revive him, the sentries came running in to say that a boat was coming. Each time Jan pulled on his steaming jacket and trousers and the sea-boots, one his own and one Herr Pedersen’s, and gathered together everything which belonged to him and ran out of the house and up into the hills. But each time the boat passed by.
Between these alarms, he rested and relaxed. That humble Norwegian kitchen, with the children gathered round him speaking his native tongue, was more homely than any place he had seen in the three years he had been abroad. The warmth, and the sense of homecoming, and the contrast of family life after the fearful tension of the day, made him drowsy. It was difficult to remember that outside in the darkness there still were ruthless men who would shoot him on sight, and wreck that home if they found him there, and carry the children off to captivity and the mothers to unmentionable torment. Such violence had the quality of a dream. And when he dragged his mind back to grapple with reality, Jan found himself faced with a doubt which often came back to him later: ought he to let such people help him? Was his own life worth it? Was he right as a soldier, to let women and children put their lives in such terrible danger? To save them from the consequence of their own goodness, ought he not go out, and fight his own battle alone? But for the moment, these questions went unanswered, because he was not fit to make any such decision. Fru Pedersen and Fru Idrupsen had taken him in hand, and they treated him as an extra child.
When he had been there half an hour or so, the eldest son of the Pedersen family came home. He had heard the explosion in Toftefjord, but did not know what had happened. They told him the story, and as soon as he had heard it he took it as a matter of course that a wounded survivor should be sitting in his mother’s kitchen while the Germans scoured the islands round about. As his father was not at home, it was up to him to get Jan away to safety. He began to debate the question of how to do it.
The first thing was to rest. For one thing, there was no knowing when Jan might get another chance, and for another it would be madness to go out in a boat while the Germans were still there. And after that, the boy said, when he had rested, he ought to get away from the islands altogether, to the mainland. Any island, however big it was, might be a trap, not only because you might find your retreat cut off, but also because everyone on an island knew everyone else’s business. If he stayed another day in Hersöy, everyone would know he was there. But on the mainland, if they did come after you, you could always go on a stage farther; and gossip did not spread there quite so fast. Altogether, he would be safer there. Besides, that was the way to Sweden.
This was the first time Jan had paused to think of an ultimate escape. Up till then, it had only been a matter of dodging for the next few hours, and he had still thought of north Norway as his destination. That was where he had set out for, and he had arrived; and although he had lost his companions and all his equipment, he had not admitted to himself that the whole expedition was a failure. He still hoped to do part of his job there, at least, as soon as he had got his strength back and shaken off the Germans. But the people who lived there, as he now began to see, all thought at once of Sweden for a man in such serious trouble. It was a difficult journey, but not a very long one; about eighty miles, in a straight line; if you could travel in straight lines.
The trouble was, the boy went on, he only had a rowing-boat himself, and they could never row to the mainland. Just south of them was the sound called Skagösund, which was two miles wide. On the other side of that was Ringvassöy, an island about twenty miles square, and south of that again you had to cross Grötsund itself, which was the main channel into Tromsö from the north and was four miles wide and full of patrol boats. The best he could do himself was to row Jan across to Ringvassöy before the morning. But he knew a man there called Jensen who was all right, and he had a motor-boat and was meaning to go into Tromsö some day soon. His wife was the midwife over there, and he had a permit and was always moving about with his boat. He could easily put Jan ashore on the mainland.
Jan listened gratefully as this plan unfolded. He was glad for the moment to have everything thought out for him, and was ready to fall in with any idea which would take him away from Toftefjord.
When it was all decided, and he was resting, the eldest son of the Toftefjord family went out in his boat to see what had happened to his home, and to find out for Jan if there was any sight of the rest of his party. He was away for a couple of hours. When he came back, Jan knew for certain that of all the twelve men, he was the only one who was not either killed or captured. Toftefjord itself was quiet. There were still parties of Germans searching the distant hills. The slopes of the fjord were littered with scraps of planking. The boy had found the remains of a petrol barrel, and seen an ammunition belt hanging in a tree. But there was no one, alive or dead, on the beaches. The German ship had left. It was steaming slowly up the north side of the island, using a searchlight. Jan’s friends, or their bodies, must have been taken aboard it. Eskeland and Per Blindheim and all the others were gone, and he could never expect to see them again. There was nothing he could do except to go on alone.
He left the house on Hersöy very early in the morning, well before it was light. Fru Pedersen and Fru Idrupsen watched him go and brushed aside his thanks, which could certainly not have been adequate for what they had done. The boy took him down to his boat and they got aboard and pushed her off into the sound. Jan felt fit again and ready for anything. They turned to the southward and began to row, past the place where he had landed from his swim, past the shop, and then out across the open water, heading for Ringvassöy, with Toftefjord astern. Everything was peaceful.
4. SEA-BOOTS IN THE SNOW
IN MOMENTS of calm, Jan often thought about his family, as all soldiers of all armies think in war. So far as he knew, they were still in Oslo: his father, and his young brother Nils, and his sister. His sister’s name was Julie, but none of them ever called her that because they thought it was old-fashioned; they had always gone on calling her Bitten, which was the nickname he had invented for her when he was eight and she was a baby. When his mother died, he had been sixteen, Nils ten, and Bitten only eight; and so he had suddenly had to be very much more grown up than he really was; he had had to take care of the children when his father was at work, and even shop and cook and wash for them for a time till his aunt could come to the rescue.
They had always been a closely united family, both before and after that disaster, until the morning just after the invasion when his orders had come and he had left home on an hour’s notice. But somehow a special affection had grown up through the years between himself and Bitten. Young Nils was a boy and an independent spirit who had always been able to stand on his own feet; but Bitten had turned to him more and more for advice, and he had become very fond of her, and proud of her, and deeply interested in her growing-up.
Perhaps this big-brotherly affection had been the deepest emotion of Jan’s life, when fortune landed him in Toftefjord when he was twenty-six. At any rate, leaving Bitten had hurt more than anything when the time came. He had tried to make the break as quick and painless as it could be when he knew he had to do it. He had waited around that morning till he knew she would be coming home from school, and he had met her in the street on his way to the station just to tell her he was going. She was fifteen then, and he had never seen her since. For the first few months, while he was in Norway and Sweden, he had been able to write to her sometimes, using a false name so that if the letters got into the wrong hands she would not get into trouble for having a brother who was still opposing the Germans after the capitulation. In his letters he had begged her to stay on at high school, not to be in a hurry to get a job; but he had never known if she had taken that advice. While he was in prison in Sweden he had a few letters from her, sending him press cuttings about netball games she had played in. It had made him smile to think that she wanted him to be interested in netball when he was just beginning a prison sentence; but it had also made him very homesick. Since he had left Sweden and started his journey to England, he had never heard of her at all. That was nearly three years ago. She would be eighteen now: grown up, he supposed. He sorely wished that he knew if she was happy.
Sitting in the boat that early morning, as the boy from Hersöy rowed him across the sound, Jan had every reason to think of his family. It had always been on his mind since he started to train as an agent that he would have to be careful to protect them from reprisals if anything went wrong. Now that capture and death were so close to him, he had to remind himself of the one and only way he could protect them: to refuse to be captured, and to die, if he had to die, anonymously. He had nothing on him to identify him or his body as Jan Baalsrud, and that was as it should be: if the worst came to the worst, the Germans would throw him into a grave without a name. His father and Nils and Bitten would never know what had happened to him. He would have liked them to know he had done his best; but to leave them in ignorance was the price of their safety.
Something the boy said brought this forcibly to his mind. The boy meant to take him to Jensen’s house and introduce him and make sure that he was safe; but Jan had to ask him to put him ashore out of sight of the house and leave him. He explained the first principle of any illegal plan: that nobody should know more than he needs. It was a pity that the boy and his family knew Jan was going to Jensen, but there was no need for Jensen to know where he came from. You might trust a man like your brother, he said, but it was no kindness to burden him with unnecessary secrets, because no man alive could be certain he would not talk if he was caught and questioned. What your tongue said when your brain was paralysed by drugs or torture was not a mere matter of courage; it was unpredictable, and beyond any self-control. Jan himself would be the only one who knew everyone who helped him; but he had his pistol, and he solemnly promised this boy, as he promised more people later, that he would not let them catch him alive. So the two of them parted on the shore of Ringvassöy, and the boy backed his boat off and turned away into the darkness, leaving Jan alone.
Jan owned nothing in the world just then except the clothes he was wearing, and a handkerchief and a knife and some bits of rubbish in his pockets, and his pistol. He had navy blue trousers and a sweater and Herr Pedersen’s underclothes, and a Norwegian naval jacket, a warm double-breasted one with brass buttons and a seaman’s badges, though he had never been a seaman, and was not even very sure if he could row. The jacket had the Norwegian flag sewn on its shoulders, with the word NORWAY in English above it. He had lost his hat. He was amused at the odd footprints which his two rubber boots left in the snow, one English and one Norwegian. There was something symbolic there, if you cared about symbols.
There were a dozen houses in that part of Ringvassöy, but he easily picked out Jensen’s. The lights were on, and there were voices inside. He hoped that might mean that Jensen was making an early start on his trip to Tromsö. He went to the back door, and hesitated a moment, and knocked. A woman opened the door at once, and he asked if Jensen was at home. No, she said, he had left for Tromsö the morning before, and would not be back for two or three days.
At this disappointing news Jan paused for a moment uncertainly, because he did not want to show himself to people who could not help him. He would have liked to make an excuse and go away; but he saw surprise and alarm in her face as she noticed his uniform in the light of the lamp from the doorway.
“I’m in a bit of trouble with the Germans,” he said. “Have you got people in the house?”
“Why, of course,” she said. “I have my patients. But they’re upstairs. You’d better come inside.”
That explained the lights and the voices so early in the morning. He had not made allowances for what a midwife’s life involves. He went in, and began to tell her a little of what had happened, and what he wanted, and of the danger of helping him.
Fru Jensen was not in the least deterred by danger. She had heard the explosion in Toftefjord, and already rumours had sprung up in Ringvassöy. The only question she asked was who had sent Jan to her house, and when he refused to tell her and explained the reason why, she saw the point at once. She said he was welcome to stay. She was very sorry her husband was away, and she herself could not leave the house at present, even for a moment. But there was plenty of room, and they were used to people coming and going. He could stay till the evening, or wait till Jensen came home if he liked. He would be glad to take him to the mainland. But she could not be sure how long he would be away, and perhaps it would be risky to try to ring him up in Tromosö and tell him to hurry back.
“But you must be hungry,” she said. “Just excuse me a moment, and then I’ll make your breakfast.” And she hurried upstairs to attend to a woman in labour.
Jan felt sure he would be as safe in her hands as anyone’s. He could even imagine her dealing firmly and capably with Germans who wanted to search her house. If you were trying to think of a hiding-place, there could hardly be anywhere better than a labour ward, because even the Germans might hesitate to search there. And yet it would be so impossibly shameful to use it. It might fail; it might not deter the Germans. Jan had all a young bachelor’s awe and ignorance of childbirth; but he had a clear enough vision of German soldiers storming through that house, and himself forced to fight them there, and failing perhaps, and having to blow out his brains. If it came to that, he was ready to face it himself; one always knew it might happen, one could think of it calmly. But to involve a woman in something like that at the very moment of the birth of her baby, or perhaps to see a new-born infant shot or trampled underfoot—that was too appallingly incongruous; it could not bear to be thought about at all.
Besides this, there was another practical, strategic consideration. He was still much too close to Toftefjord. If the Germans really wanted to get him, it would not take them long to turn Ribbenesöy inside out: they had probably finished that already. And the obvious place for them to look, when they were sure he had left the island, was where he was now, on the shore of Ringvassöy which faced it. Their search would gradually widen, like a ripple on a pond, until they admitted they had lost him; and until then, at all costs, he must travel faster than the ripple.
When Fru Jensen came back and began to lay the table, he told her he had decided to move on. She did not express any feeling about it, except to repeat that he was welcome to stay if he wanted to; if not, she would give him some food to take with him. She began to tell him about useful and dangerous people all over her island. There were several ways he could go: either by sea, if he happened to find a boat, or along either shore of the island, or up a valley which divides it in the middle. But if he went up the valley, she warned him, he would have to be careful. People in those remote and isolated places were inclined to take their politics from the clergyman or the justice of the peace, or the chairman of the local council, or some other such leader in their own community; they had too little knowledge of the outside world to form opinions of their own. In the valley there happened to be one man who was a Nazi, or so she had heard; and she was afraid a lot of people might have come under his influence. If a stranger was seen there, he was certain to hear of it; and although she could not be sure, she thought he might tell the police. Of course, most of Ringvassöy, she said, was quite all right. He could go into almost any house and be sure of a welcome. And she told him the names of a lot of people who she knew would be happy to help him.
It was still early when Jan left the midwife, fortified by a good breakfast and by her friendliness and fearless common sense. He wanted to get away from the houses before too many people were about; but it was daylight, and it was more than likely someone would see him from a window. It was a good opportunity to be misleading. He started along the shore towards the west. In that direction, he might have gone up the valley or followed the coastline round the west side of the island. But when he was out of sight of the last of the houses, he changed his direction and struck off into the hills, and made a detour behind the houses to reach the shore again farther east. He had made his plans now a little way ahead. The next lap was to walk thirty miles to the south end of the island.
It looked simple. He remembered it pretty clearly from the map, and during his training it would have been an easy day. He knew that maps of mountains are often misleading, because even the best of them do not show whether a hill can be climbed or not; but he was not prepared for quite such a misleading map as the one of that part of Norway. In the normal course of events, nobody ever walks far in the northern islands. The natural route from one place to another is by sea. The sea charts are therefore perfect; but the most detailed land map which existed then was on a scale of about a quarter of an inch to a mile, and it made Ringvassöy look green and smoothly rounded. No heights were marked on it. There were contours, but they had a vague appearance, as if there had been more hope than science in their drawing. One might have deduced something from the facts that the only houses shown were clustered along the shores, and that there was no sign of a single road; but nothing on the map suggested one tenth of the difficulty of walking across the island in the winter.
Jan had arrived there in the dark, and if he had ever seen the island at all, it was only in that momentary glimpse when he had come over the hill from Toftefjord with the Germans close behind him. So he set off full of optimism in his rubber boots; but it took him four days to cover thirty miles.
He was never in any immediate danger during that walk. The only dangers were the sort that a competent mountaineer can overcome. Once he had disappeared into the trackless interior of the island he was perfectly safe from the Germans until he emerged again. But it was an exasperating journey. It had new discomfort and frustration in every mile, and the most annoying things about it were the boots. Jan was a good skier; like most Norwegians, he had been used to skiing ever since he could walk: and to cross Ringvassöy on skis might have been a pleasure. Certainly it would have been quick and easy. But of course his skis had been blown to pieces like everything else; and there can hardly be anything less suitable for deep snow than rubber boots.
He had started with the idea of following the shore, where the snow would be shallower and harder and he would have the alternative of going along the beach below the tidemark. But on the very morning he found it was not so easy as it looked. He soon came to a place where a ridge ran out and ended in a cliff. He tried the beach below the cliff, but it got narrower and narrower until he scrambled round a rock and saw that the cliff face ahead of him fell sheer into the sea. He had to go back a mile and climb the ridge. It was not very steep, but it gave him a hint of what he had undertaken. The wet rubber slipped at every step. Sometimes, where the snow was hard, the climb would have been simple if he could have kicked steps; but the boots were soft, and to kick with his right foot was too painful for his toe. He had to creep up slowly, one foot foremost, like a child going upstairs. But when the snow was soft and he sank in it up to his middle, the boots got full of it, and came off, and he had to grovel and scrape with his hands to find them.
At the top of the right, when he paused to take his breath, he could see far ahead along the coastline to the eastward; and there was ridge after ridge, each like the one he was on, and each ending in a cliff too steep to climb.
He started to go down the other side, and even that was painful and tedious. Down slopes which would have been a glorious run on skis, he plodded slowly, stubbing his toe against the end of the boot, and sometimes falling when the pain of it made him wince and lose his balance.
But still, all these things were no more than annoyances, and it would have been absurd to have felt annoyed, whatever happened, so long as he was free. He felt it would have been disloyal, too. He though a lot about his friends as he floundered on, especially of Per and Eskeland. He missed them terribly. Of course he had been trained to look after himself, and make up his own mind what to do. In theory he could stand on his own feet and was not dependent on a leader to make decisions for him. But that was not the same thing as suddenly losing Eskeland, whom he admired tremendously and had always regarded as a bit wiser and more capable than himself, someone he could always rely on for good advice and understanding. And still less, in a way, did his training take the place of Per, who had shared everything with him so long. Jan knew his job, but all the same it was awful not to have anyone to talk it over with. As for what was happening to his friends, he could not bear to think about it. He would have welcomed more suffering to bring himself nearer to them in spirit.
In this mood, he forced himself on to make marches of great duration: 24 hours, 13 hours, 28 hours without rest. But the distances he covered were very short, because he so often found himself faced with impassable rocks and had to go back on his tracks, and because of the weather.
The weather changed from one moment to another. When the nights were clear, the aurora glimmered and danced in the sky above the sea. By day in sunshine, the sea was blue and the sky had a milky radiance, and the gleaming peaks of other islands seemed light and insubstantial and unearthly. The sun was warm, and the glitter of snow and water hurt his eyes, though the shadows of the hills were dark and cold. Then suddenly the skyline to his right would lose its clarity as a flurry of snow came over it, and in a minute or two the light faded and the warmth was gone and the sea below went grey. Gusts of wind came whipping down the slopes, and clouds streamed across the summits; and then snow began to fall, and frozen mist came down, in grey columns which eddied in the squalls and stung his face and hands and soaked him through, and blotted out the sea and sky so that the world which he could see contracted to a few feet of whirling whiteness in which his own body and his own tracks were the only things of substance.
In the daytime, he kept going in these storms, not so much for the sake of making progress as to keep himself warm; but when they struck him at night, there was no question of keeping a sense of direction, and one night he turned back to take shelter in a cowshed which he had passed four hours before.
He stopped at two houses along the north shore of the island, and was taken in and allowed to sleep; and oddly enough it was the wounded toe that served him as a passport to people’s help and trust. Rumours had gone before him all the way. It was being said that the Germans had started a new search of every house, looking for radio sets, which nobody was allowed to own. Everyone had already guessed that this search had something to do with what they had heard about Toftefjord, and as soon as they learned that Jan was a fugitive, they jumped to the conclusion that the Germans were searching for him. And indeed, if the search was a fact and not only a rumour, they were probably right. This made some of them nervous at first. Like the shopkeeper, they were frightened of agents provocateurs, and Jan’s uniform did not reassure them; it was only to be expected that a German agent would be dressed for his part. But the toe was different. The Germans were thorough, but their agents would not go so far as to shoot off their toes. When he took off his boot and his sock and showed them his toe, it convinced them; and he slept soundly between his marches, protected by men who set faithful watches to warn him if Germans were coming.
Always they asked who had sent him to them, and some of them were suspicious when he would not tell them. But he insisted, because he was haunted by the thought of leaving a traceable series of links which the Germans might “roll up” if they found even one of the people who helped him. Such things had happened before, and men on the run had left trails of disaster behind them. To prevent that was only a matter of care. He never told anyone where he had come from, and when he asked people to recommend others for later stages of his journey, he made sure that they gave him a number of names, and did not tell them which one he had chosen. Thus nobody could ever tell, because nobody knew, where he had come from or where he was going.
The last stretch of the journey was the longest. Everyone he had met had mentioned the name of Einar Sörensen, who ran the telephone exchange at a place called Bjorneskar on the south side of the island. All of them knew him, as everybody knows the telephone operator in a country district, and they all spoke of him with respect. Bjorneskar is opposite the mainland, and if anyone could get Jan out of the island, Einar Sörensen seemed the most likely man. But if he refused, on the other hand, or if he was not at home, it would be more than awkward, because the south end of the island was infested with Germans, in coastal batteries and searchlight positions and patrol boat bases, defending the entrance to Tromsö, Bjorneskar was a kind of cul-de-sac. The shore on each side of it was well populated and defended, and Jan could only reach it by striking inland and going over the mountains. It would be a long walk, and there was no house or shelter of any kind that way; if there was no help when he got to the other end, it was very unlikely that he could get back again. But some risks are attractive, and he like the idea of descending from desolate mountains into the heart of the enemy’s defences.
It was this stretch of the march which cost him twenty-eight hours of continuous struggle against the wind and snow. Up till then, he had never been far from the coast, and he had never been able to see more than the foothills of the island. The sea had always been there on his left to guide him. But now he entered a long deep valley, into the barren wilderness of peaks which the map had dismissed so glibly. Above him, especially on the right, there were hanging valleys and glimpses of couloirs, inscrutable and dark and silent, and of snow cornices on their crests. To the left was the range of crags called Soltinder, among which he somehow had to find the col which would lead him to Bjorneskar.
Into these grim surroundings he advanced slowly and painfully. Here and there in the valley bottom were frozen lakes where the going was hard and smooth; but between them the snow lay very deep, and it covered a mass of boulders, and there he could not tell as he took each step whether his foot would fall upon rock or ice, or a snow crust which would support him, or whether it would plunge down hip deep into the crevices below. Sometimes a single yard of progress was an exhausting effort in itself, and he would have to pause and rest for a minute after dragging himself out of a hidden hole, and look back at the ridiculously little distance he had won. When he paused, he was aware of his solitude. The whole valley was utterly deserted. For mile upon mile there was no trace of life whatever, no sign that a man had ever been there before him, no track of animals, no movement or sound of birds.
Through this solemn and awful place he walked for the whole of a night and the whole of a day, and at dusk on the third of April he came to the top of the col in the Soltinder, four days after Toftefjord. Below him he saw three houses, which he knew must be Bjorneskar, and beyond them the final sound; and on the other side, at last, the mainland. He staggered down the final slope to throw himself on the kindness of Einar Sörensen.
He need never have had any doubt of his reception. Einar and his wife and his two little boys all made him welcome, as if he were an old friend and an honoured guest. Their slender rations were brought out and laid before him, and it was not till he had eaten all he could that Einar took him aside to another room to talk.
To Einar’s inevitable question, Jan answered without thinking that he had heard of his name in England, though he had really only heard it the day before. At this, Einar said with excitement, “Did they really get through to England?” Jan knew then that this was not the first time escapers had been to that house. He said he did not know whether they had reached England or only got to Sweden, but at least their report had got through.
After this, there was no limit to what Einar was willing to do. Jan felt ashamed, when he came to think of it later, to have deceived this man on even so small a point. But the fact is that a secret agent’s existence, whenever he is at work, is a lie from beginning to end; whatever he says is said as a means to an end, and the truth is a thing he can seldom tell. The better the agent is, the more thorough are his lies. He is trained with such care to shut away truth in a dark corner of his mind that he loses his natural instinct to tell the truth, for its own sake, on the few occasions when it can do no harm. Yet when, through habit, he had told an unnecessary lie to a friend, it would often involve impossible explanations to put the thing right. So Jan left Einar with the belief that whoever it was he had helped had got somewhere through to safety.
They sat for an hour that night and talked things over. Einar thought Jan should move at once. He house was the telegraph office as well as the telephone exchange, and people were in and out of it all day; and there were German camps within a mile in two directions. As for crossing the sound, there was no time better than the present. It was a dirty night, which was all to the good. The patrol boats ran for shelter whenever the weather was bad, and falling snow played havoc with the searchlights. The wind was rising, and it might be worse before morning.
About midnight, Einar went to fetch his old father who lived in the house next door; he thought it would take two of them to row over the sound that night. Before he went out, he took Jan to the kitchen to wait. The two boys were still there with their mother, though they should surely have been in bed. They asked Jan to tell them a story, and he sat down by the fire and the younger one climbed on his knee. He was deadly tired, and he was sick at heart because the boys’ father had just told him the terrible story of what had happened to Per and Eskeland and all his other companions. He put out of his mind this story of murder and treachery, and put his arm round the boy to support him, and tried to think back to his own childhood.
“Well, once upon a time,” he began slowly, “in a far away country, long ago . . .”