Every one stood staring out of the great window at the distant woods and the sloping afternoon shadows upon the nearer masses of the converted convent. Two hospital attendants, small and remote, appeared on the parapet of the building and were followed by two soldiers who came and looked down towards the ravine, ducked, and disappeared again. Bolaris made two steps towards the balcony and then turned to the young officer.
“Take the prisoner downstairs,” he said.
“What can be happening?” said Catherine stupidly.
“Keep back, my dear,” said Bolaris, and went past her to the window. Ratzel and his custodians marched into the passage. From the broken country beyond the convent came the sound of a swift burst of machine-gun fire. Then suddenly at some point close at hand near the ravine an irregular crackle responded and there was a sound between a shout, a bark, and a scream as if someone had been hit. Nothing was visible in the afternoon immobility. The olive trees and aloes, the rocks and the rosetinted building against the blue mountain shapes hung like a painted curtain in front of these noises. Catherine saw Bolaris at the parapet of the balcony sniffing the air and moving his arm as though he was trying to grasp the form of the conflict that had sprung so suddenly out of the sweltering stillness of the afternoon. She went out towards him, but he motioned her back.
“Why should they try a raid now?” he asked, coming back into the room. “Can they know he’s here? I thought they’d never dream we’d keep him here.”
He sat down by the telephone. He telephoned the Black Legion for support at once, explained the urgency of the situation to the commanding officer, and then sent a man for the young subaltern.
“Lock in your prisoner,” he said, “and put every man you have at a window or out in the garden. We must hold the villa and leave the hospital to take care of itself. Bring in any men you have from the hospital. They’ll respect the Red Cross if we’ve got no soldiers there. Look! Someone is hoisting the flag. Good old Geneva!” He made his disposition with an expert rapidity. He called up the Black Legion headquarters again to give further instructions. “Tumble to it,” he said. His impression, he said, was that the Reds were in no great force and that a small detachment of the Black Legion with machineguns should push up over the spur above the hospital, outflank the raiders, and relieve the pressure on the villa. But they were to send down everyone they could. Then he returned to the balcony. The firing, he perceived, was increasing and creeping nearer, along the ravine and towards the old convent wall. A bullet came smack against the cornice overhead and brought down a square yard of plaster.
“Will you go back?” he said to Catherine with affectionate exasperation.
There was a clatter from within the house and loud voices. Orders were being given by the young officer and brusque questions asked and answered.
Handon came headlong into the room clicking cartridges into his revolver.
“Almost walked into it,” he said. “Almost walked into it. They’re all round us.” He saluted belatedly. “You ought to get away at once,” he said. “They’re three parts round us. The cars are under cover of the house — waiting. At any moment the attack may extend through those houses up beyond the hospital on the far side and block the road that way. There’s nothing to hold them there. Nothing at all.”
Handon was evidently hot, tired, surprised, and confused in his mind. He had been running, he had been lying low, he had been crawling through wet red mud. His sweaty dirty skin, usually so fair, looked darker than the streak of ruddy hair across his forehead. He had been trying to think out a situation for himself
“They must have been coming over the hills all last night. There’s no water, no supplies that way. Their own lines must be anything from a dozen to twenty miles away. They must know he is here. They must be coming for him — curse him!”
“But aren’t there outposts up the slopes beyond the ravine?”
“They’ve come round them.”
“They can’t be in strength to get by like that.”
“I don’t think they are. Four or five companies perhaps. We were all among them before we knew. They never spotted us until we fired. I’ve been crawling back ever since. We’d have shot to warn you before, but they were coming along in parallel lines and they would have cut us off.”
“The Black Legion won’t get busy down here for another forty minutes,” said Bolaris. “I don’t like it. Shall we make a bolt? What have we got here?”
“A company and one or two details,” said Handon, and Bolaris repeated his words.
“Will you check that boy’s arrangements, Handon? What ammunition has he and where’s he put it:”
“You must bolt for it straight away,” said Handon. “If you bolt at all. It’s now or never.”
Bolaris hesitated. He glanced at Catherine. He still had the Ratzel problem in mind.
“See if we can hold out here first,” he said, and Handon, after a doubtful glance at the two of them, went out of the room. He never liked leaving Bolaris with Catherine.
“If we bolt,” said Bolaris, “Handon will insist on bringing Ratzel. That complicates everything. No. We stand a siege here. Far better. It can’t last a half-hour. They seem to be easing off. Not a shot for the last three minutes. Hullo! Glurrr! That’s one of their new magazine guns. Where was that?” He returned to the balcony and surveyed the disposition of the defence. A rifle had been left out there and presently he picked it up, seemed disposed to take a shot with it at some unseen object, and thought better of it. He came into the room, shrugged his shoulders, and sat down.
“All our wonderful plans!” he said and laughed. . . . “Anyhow he’s out of the villa. . . . . He’s away by now.”
In five minutes Handon was back.
“It’s too late,” he said; “the road’s cut.”
“No possibility of a dash?”
“They’re quick workers. They’ve got some carts across the track. But they haven’t come on. It’s just sniping, that way. They can’t be in force. I’ve given our chauffeurs guns and told them to lie out by the gates. But we ought to have thought about that before.”
“Once a fight is started, Handon, the last thing you can do is to think. We were taken by surprise. How are our fellows behaving?”
“We can hold it?”
“We have to.”
“Still I’d like to hear more noise from the Black Legion. They ought to be out of their siesta now.”
He went to the telephone and clicked at it.
“Damn!” he said.
“The telephone’s cut.”
“Smart as well as quick. This was well planned.”
“We’ve just got to stand a siege here until we’re relieved. You’d better take over control, Handon.”
Handon clanked out of the room, shouting: “Hold to it, lads. There’s relief coming. They thought they’d catch us napping.”
Bolaris laughed and seemed elated, after his fashion when a situation tightened about him. He sat down in an easy-chair.
“Nothing I can do for a bit,” he said. He made a derisive gesture towards the door. “There’ll be another shock for him presently,” he remarked to Catherine. He got up, decided not to look out of the window, smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and sat down on the sofa beside Catherine.
“It’s all so absurdly unexpected,” he said. Her answer was drowned by a shot in the garden close at hand. He made no movement towards the balcony.
“No good popping out again,” he said. “We don’t want to draw their fire up here.”
“But just now,” she said. “Out there? You seemed to be going to shoot at someone?”
“I thought I saw a man down there in the gully. Then I thought better of it. It wasn’t one of the attack. It was, you see, a man climbing down through the cactus bushes away from us.”
“You think —?”
“It was possible. I couldn’t see very well because of the bushes.”
“You mean he has escaped?”
“He is escaping now. And that’s that.” He fell into thought. “Nothing to do now,” he said, “but to watch the turn of events. Funny if they do rush us and Ratzel gets me a prisoner on his hands! But I think Handon’s soldier enough to stop that rush.” There were a few shots and then a lull in the firing. The interval lengthened.
“Fantastic world,” he said; “if we were not blind and prepossessed, we should see it as absurd as it is. . . .
“Will he get away? Shall we ever make that peace? Shall we hold on until we can find our brothers — as he said? . . . Catherine, suddenly I doubt.”
He might have been a hundred miles from any fighting, she thought. She stood looking down upon him.
“Will any human brotherhood ever get together, or is that all a dream? I know what I want with the world as clearly as ever I did, but suddenly something has taken away my confidence. Am I, after all, just a wilful dreamer of a world that can never arrive? Look at the world! Always the unexpected and a new twist to events. . . . Will all the reason and desire in man be swept aside for ever by these incalculable slants? We plan. It is our nature to plan. But — but
“Is this world really a reasonable world, Catherine, reasonable as the man of science supposes, or are the ruling patterns of life something quite different? Running right across all that we think rational — some perversity?
“If I had not met my brother again, I should have been driving along quite a different line of ideas. . . .
“Suppose, Catherine, that all this lot of pigeonholes that we call words and reasoning has just a chance fit upon reality — only fitting it so far and so much. Suppose — has it ever occurred to you, Catherine:— that the real world — it must be orderly, it must be systematic, yes — but that the real world has an irrational but elaborate order that diverges more and more from the order in our minds. A pattern that overlaps our minds for a time and then goes off in other directions. A pattern which we try to rationalize. And fail. Think how much that order has nonsense in it by any human standard. Look at butterflies’ wings and sea-shells. Who can rationalize such patternings as that? Why are they — and how do they come? And if they are irrational and yet real, why should there not be other patternings as irrational and as real? Why not horoscopes and twin-destinies? That our fate should be written in the palms of our hands, and I and Ratzel live insanely linked!
“If that is so, Catherine, then all the views of life and its courses that we conceive are no more than echoes made by the patterns in our eyes and brains. We are just prisms who sort out the rays of life in our way, bent mirrors that reflect them into relevant forms. Our minds are distorting mirrors and the wonderful worlds you see in them —! Prisms and mirrors. That is all we are. Shatter the mirror and the story ends.”
He laughed at her expression.
“You think I’m talking nonsense,” he said. “And for all practical purposes I am. We can’t have it like that. We can’t endure it like that. A day will come when we will have brought the hidden loveliness of a sunlit snow-crystal, drifting and melting on the other side of the moon a million years ago, into definite relation to the eternal human mind. Yes, and then the monstrous discrepancy between the scale of our lives and the starry intervals will cease to be a disharmony. I don’t know how such things can be achieved, but we shall achieve them. And then it will no longer seem necessary for men to be identical twins before they can think after the same fashion and work for a common end. . . .
“But what’s this uproar” His expression became alert. He clapped his hand to his revolver and stood up.
“He’s gone. He’s escaped!” Handon was a breathless shouting fury in the room.
“Did they know he was here? . . . Do they know you are here? I ask you, how did they know it! . . . This raid! . . . Are we betrayed? . . . Has he been able to send messages to them? Treason! Treason, I swear there is.”
Bolaris stood beside Catherine.
“What has happened”
“He’s got down by a shaft as big as a cask that no one had the sense to stop. He’s got away — God knows where. He’s gone, I tell you.”
A ripple of fire grew to a volley.
“There’s the Black Legion coming into action up the village,” said Bolaris. Handon paid no heed to that.
“For once I was right, I tell you, Chief — for once you have misjudged. You play with snakes and this is your reward. God knows who his allies were here. He must have had spies. God knows what the plotting has been. . . . It is a planned escape. Somewhere now — in the drains and channels —” He was struck by an idea. He went towards the balcony.
“Don’t go there!” cried Bolaris. Handon stared over his shoulder at his leader.
“You’ll draw their fire.”
Handon was out on the balcony and peering down. Then he was gesticulating.
“He’s there now! That’s Ratzel, creeping down among the agaves. By that olive tree.”
Bolaris strode forward.
“Leave him!” he cried. “Leave him alone!”
Handon was shouting, trying to attract the attention of some of the defenders below, and then suddenly he discovered there was a rifle against the parapet close at hand. Before Bolaris could reach him, he had raised it and fired.
“Got him!” he said.
“Oh, you fool!” cried Bolaris. “You accursed fool!” and leapt upon his right-hand man with murder in his eyes. He gripped Handon’s shoulder and snatched at the gun. Handon woke up to the fact that Bolaris was wresting the rifle from his hands and for some inconceivable reason meant to kill him. There are limits to the loyalty even of a dog, and Handon resisted. They struggled for two seconds while the woman stood paralysed, and then the rifle cracked again and Bolaris was spinning back with a neat hole drilled through his body and through his heart. He fell at Catherine’s feet with blood pouring from his mouth and spurting from his back, and she dropped on her knees beside him, regardless of the stupefied Handon, who stood, gun in hand, staring at his dying chief.
“I’ve shot him!” he cried. “Him! I didn’t mean it. How could I have meant it? It caught against my belt.”
Catherine took no notice of him. She was staring with a stunned expression at the face of her lover. His mouth was open half-way between a smile and a laugh, and a broad band of blood widened from the lower corner. The life had vanished from his eyes. Handon bent down over her, his dirty face distorted with grief. He was trying to say some thing that she would not heed.
“I loved him, I tell you — more than you did.”
He found her inexpressiveness unendurable. He discovered the rifle in his hand and flung it across the room. Then he strode after it, picked it up and rushed out. Only slowly did Catherine’s mind revive. With a sound like tearing cloth a bullet came flying into the room and a mirror with a frame of cut-glass flew into a cloud of sparkling dust. Her eyes went to the broken fragments of glass that rolled and slid and spread and scattered on the floor. It was as if they were explaining something. Until they ceased to move.
“Prisms and mirrors,” she whispered. “Our picture vanishes as the mirror breaks! You were saying that, darling. Five minutes ago you were saying that.
“Speak to me . . .
“No. The pattern of your life! Over. And mine. And all the fine things that seemed beginning . . .
“Dreams about brotherhood . . . meaning as little as the pattern on a sea-shell.”
Outside, the guns rattled and then came a shout of “Let them have it!” and the groans, screams, retchings, rendings, and curses of a sudden bayonet fight in the garden beneath the window. She listened for a time to those hideous noises.
“No,” she whispered to the still face close to hers. “It cannot end like this. We were just the first. We were just the beginning. It was a beginning. . . . She whispered still lower, with her mouth awry: “Say it was a beginning, my dear. Speak to me, speak just once again.
“Tell me what am I to do. . . . ”
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56