Authors: John Fowles
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General
For all that, I looked round. Twenty yards away there was a group of rocks with enough small shrubs to give cover. I ran silently under the trees and, forgetting my clean trousers and shirt, dropped down in a natural trough between two of the rocks. They were still warm from the sun. I watched the cleft in the skyline down which the path lay.
In a few seconds a pale movement told me I was right. The men were coming down. They were probably just a group of friendly lads from the Epirus or somewhere. But I pressed myself as flat as I could. When I could hear that they had come abreast, about thirty yards away, I sneaked a facedown look through the twigs that shielded me.
My heart jumped. They were in German uniforms. For a moment I thought that perhaps they were dressed up to be the ‘enemy’ on the manoeuvres; but it was unthinkable, after the atrocities of the Occupation, that any Greek soldier would put on a German uniform, even for an exercise; and from then on I knew. The masque had moved outside the domaine, and the old devil had not given in one bit.
The last man was carrying a much bulkier pack than the others; a pack with a thin, just visible rod rising from it. The truth flashed in on me. In an instant I knew Demetriades had a fellow-spy at the school. He was a very Turkish-looking Greek, a compact, taciturn man with a close-cropped head, one of the science masters. He never came into the common-room; lived in his laboratory. His colleagues nicknamed him
the alchemist. With a grim realization of new depths of treachery, I remembered that he was one of Patarescu’s closest cronies. But what I had remembered first was that there was a transmitter in his laboratory, since some of the boys wanted to become radio officers. The school even had a ham radio station sign. I hit the ground with my fist. It had all been so obvious. That was why they always knew I was coming. There was only the one gate; the old gatekeeper was always on duty.
The men had gone. They must have been wearing rubber-soled boots; and they must have wadded their equipment well to make so little noise. But the fact that I had walked fast had evidently upset their calculations. The flare could only have been a belated signal that I was on my way. For a moment I accused Julie, then exonerated her. Suspicion of her was far too obviously now what Conchis hoped for; but he had not allowed for the way his ‘bait’ would prove she was on the mouse’s side. I knew she must be totally innocent of this new trap; and the mouse was turned fox, not to be tricked so easily.
I was even half-tempted to follow the men down to see where they went, but I remembered old lessons from my own military training. Never patrol on a windless night if you can avoid it; remember the man nearer the moon sees you better than you see him. Already, within thirty seconds of the passing, I could hardly hear them. A stone was sent scuttering, then silence; then another, very faintly. I gave them another thirty seconds, then I pushed myself up and began to climb the path as fast as I could.
At the top of the cleft where the ridge flattened out I had to cross fifty yards or so of open space before the ground dipped down to the northern side. It was a windswept area littered with stones, a few lone bushes. On the far side lay a large patch, an acre or so, of high tamarisk. I could see the black opening in the feathery branches where my path went in. I stood and listened. Silence. I began to lope across the open space.
I had got halfway across when I heard a bang. A second later a Very flare burst open some two hundred yards to the right. It flooded the ridge with light. I dropped, my face averted. The light died down. The moment it hissed into darkness I was on my feet and racing, careless of noise, for the tamarisks. I got into them safely, stopped a moment, trying to work out what insane new trick Conchis was playing. Then I heard footsteps running along the ridge, from the direction the flare had come. I began to sprint down the path between the seven-foot bushes.
I came to a flat, wider curve in the path, where I could run faster. Then terrifyingly, without any warning, my foot was caught and I was plunging headlong forward. A searing jab as my flung-out hand hit the sharp edge of a stone. An agonizing bang in the ribs. I heard my breath blasted out of my lungs with the impact and my shocked voice saying ‘Oh Christ’. I was too dazed for a moment to realize what had happened. Then came a sharp low command from behind the tamarisks to the right. I spoke only a word or two of the language. But the voice sounded authentically German.
There were sounds all around me, on both sides of the path. I was surrounded by men dressed as German soldiers. There were seven of them.
‘What the bloody hell’s the game?’
I scrambled on to my knees, rubbing the grit off the palms of my hands. Blood covered the knuckles of one of them. Two men came behind me and seized me by the arms, jerked me up. Another man stood in the centre of the path. He was apparently in charge. He had no rifle or submachine-gun, like the others, but only a revolver. I looked sideways at the rifle the man to my left had slung over Iris shoulder. It looked real; not a stage property. He also looked really German: not Greek.
The man with the revolver, evidently some kind of N.C.O., spoke again in German. Two men bent, one on either side of the path, and fiddled by the tamarisk stems: a tripwire. The man with the revolver blew a whistle quietly. I looked at the two men beside me.
‘You speak English?
They took not the slightest notice, except to jerk my arms for silence. I thought, Christ, wait till I see Conchis again. The N.C.O. stood in the path with his back to me, and the other four men gathered beyond him. Two of them sat down.
One evidently asked if they could smoke. The N.C.O. gave permission.
They lit up, helmeted faces in matchflares, and began to talk in a low murmur of voices. They seemed all German. Not just Greeks who knew a few words of German; but Germans. I spoke to the sergeant.
‘When you’ve finished the clowning perhaps you’ll tell me what we’re waiting for.’
The man pivoted round and came up to me. He was a man of about forty-five, long-cheeked. He stood with his face about two feet from mine. He did not look particularly brutal; but he looked his part. I expected another spit routine, but he simply said quietly,
‘Oh go to hell.’
He remained staring at me, as if he did not understand, but was interested to see me at last; then expressionlessly turned away. The grip of the soldiers relaxed a little. If I had felt less battered, I might have run for it. But then I heard footsteps from the ridge above. A few seconds later the six men I had first seen came marching down the path in a loose single file. But before they came to us, they fell out by the group of smoking men.
The boy who was holding me on the right was only about twenty. He began siss-whistling under his breath; and in what had been, in spite of my remark about clowning, a pretty convincing performance until then, he struck a rather obvious note, for the tune was the most famous of all, ‘Lili Marlene’. Or was it a very bad pun? He had a huge acne-covered jaw and small eyelashless eyes; specially chosen, I suppose, because he appeared so Teutonic, with a curious machinelike indifference, as if he didn’t know why he was there, who I was; and didn’t care; just carried out orders.
I calculated: thirteen men, at least half of whom were German. Cost of getting them to Greece, from Athens to the island. Equipment. Training-rehearsing. Cost of getting them off the island, back to Germany. It couldn’t be done under five hundred pounds. And for what? To frighten – or perhaps to impress – one unimportant person. At the same time, now that the first adrenalin panic had subsided, I felt my attitude changed. This scene was so well organized, so elaborate. I fell under the spell of Conchis the magician again. Frightened, but fascinated; and then there were more footsteps.
Two more men appeared. One was short and slim. He came striding down the path with a taller man behind him. Both had the peaked hats of officers. Eagle badges. The soldiers he passed stood hurriedly, but he made a brisk movement of his hand to put them at ease. He came straight to me. He was obviously an actor who had specialized in German colonel roles; a hard face, a thin mouth; all he lacked were spectacles with oblong lenses and steel frames.
He did not answer, but looked at me rather as the sergeant, who was now standing stiffly some way behind him, had. The other officer was apparently a lieutenant, an aide. I noticed he had a slight limp; an Italian-looking face, very dark eyebrows, round tanned cheeks; handsome.
‘Where’s the producer?’
The ‘colonel’ took a cigarette case out of his inside pocket and selected a cigarette. The ‘lieutenant’ reached forward with a light. Beyond them I saw one of the soldiers cross the path with something in loose paper – food of some sort. They were eating.
‘I must say you look the part.’
He said one word, carefully pursed in his mouth, spat out like a grape pip.
He turned away; said something in German. The sergeant went up the path and came back with a hurricane lamp, which he lit, then set behind me.
The ‘colonel’ moved up the path to where the ‘sergeant’ was standing, and I was left staring at the ‘lieutenant’. There was something strange in his look, as if he would like to tell me something, but couldn’t; searching my face for some answer. His eyes flicked away, and he turned abruptly, though awkwardly, on his heel and rejoined the colonel. I heard low German voices, then the sergeant’s laconic command.
The men stood to, and for some reason I couldn’t understand lined up on both sides of the path, facing inwards, irregularly, not standing to attention, as if waiting for someone to pass. I thought they were going to take me somewhere, I had to pass through them. But I was pulled back by my two guards in line with the others. Only the sergeant and the two officers stood in the centre of the path. The lamp threw a circle of light round me. I realized it had a dramatic function.
There was a tense silence. I was cast as a spectator in some way, not as the protagonist. At last I heard more people coming. A different, unmilitary figure came into sight. For a second I thought he was drunk. But then I realized he had his hands tied behind his back; like me, a prisoner. He wore dark trousers, but was bare above the waist. Behind him came two more soldiers. One of them seemed to prod him, and he groaned. As he came closer to me I saw, with a sharp sense that the masque was running out of control, that he was barefoot. His stumbling, ginger walk was real, not acted.
He came abreast of me. A young man, evidently Greek, rather short. His face was atrociously bruised, puffed, the whole of one side covered in blood from a gash near the right eye. He appeared stunned, hardly able to walk. He didn’t notice me until the last moment, when he stopped, looked at me wildly. I had a swift stab of terror, that this really was some village boy they had got hold of and beaten up – not someone to look the part, but be the part. Without warning the soldier behind jabbed him savagely in the small of the back. I saw it, I saw his spasmic jerk forward, and the – or so it sounded – absolutely authentic gasp of pain the jab caused. He stumbled on another five or six yards. Then the colonel spat one word. The guards reached roughly out and brought him to a halt. The three men stood there in the path facing downhill. The colonel moved down to just in front of me, his lieutenant limping beside him; both backs to me.
Another silence; the panting of the man. Then almost at once came another figure, exactly the same, hands tied behind his back, two soldiers behind him. I knew by then where I was. I was back in 1943, and looking at captured resistance fighters.
The second man was obviously the
the leader – heavily built, about forty, some six feet tall. He had one naked arm in a rope sling, a rough bandage covered in blood round his upper arm. It seemed to have been made from the sleeve torn off his shirt; was too thin to staunch the blood. He came down the path towards me; a magnificent
face with a heavy black moustache, an accipitral nose. I had seen such faces one or twice in the Peloponnesus, but I knew where this man came from, because over his forehead he still wore the fringed black headband of the Cretan mountaineer. I could see him standing in some early-nineteenth-century print, in folk-costume, silver-handled yataghan and pistols in his belt, the noble brigand of the Byronic myth. He was actually wearing what looked like British Army battledress trousers, a khaki shirt. And he too was barefooted. But he seemed to refuse to stumble. He was less battered than the other man, perhaps because of the wound.
As he came up level with me, he stopped and then looked past the colonel and the lieutenant straight at me. I understood that he was meant to know me, that I had once known him. It was a look of the most violent loathing. Contempt. At the same time of a raging despair. He said nothing for a moment. Then he hissed in Greek one word.
His lips snarled on the
-sounding demotic Greek
He had great power, he was completely in his role; and in a barely conscious way, as if I sensed that I must be an actor too, I did not come out with another flip remark but took his look and his hatred in silence. For a moment, I was the traitor.
He was kicked on, but he turned and gave me one last burning look back across the ten feet of lamplight. Then again that word, as if I might not have heard it the first time.
As he did so there was a cry, an exclamation. The colonel’s rapped command:
My guards gripped me vice tight. The first man had bolted, diving headlong sideways into the tamarisks. His two guards plunged after him, then three or four of the soldiers lining the path. He can’t have got more than ten yards. There was a cry, German words, then a sickening scream of pain and another. The sound of a body being kicked, butt-ended.