Military history

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 . . .”

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