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Authors: Hammond Innes

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BOOK: The Angry Mountain
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It wasn't so bad in the big ward. But when we were moved into the little room overlooking the lake, it had been torture
to me. I could feel the silence still. It would grow and grow until suddenly Shirer would break it, going out of his way to talk to me. He had made a little chess set and we played by the hour. But all this time I was conscious of Alec Reece's presence, knowing that sooner or later he would inform his sister of what had happened.

The memory of those days was so vivid that even the sounds of the plane and the sight of the Alps standing white along the horizon couldn't blot out their memory. Then, thank God, the two of them had gone. Sansevino had arranged it. I was up and about then, getting my stump accustomed to the pain of bearing my weight on the cup of the wooden leg they'd given me. But I couldn't go. And I was glad I couldn't go.

They left on the 21st April. Sansevino had given them civilian clothes and all the necessary documents. They left just after midnight—first Shirer, then Reece. They were to rendezvous at the vehicle park, take an ambulance and drive to Milan where they would be looked after by Sansevino's friends.

I thought at the time that Sansevino had been relying on the document we had all signed to save him from being arrested for war crimes when the war was over. It never occurred to me that in arranging their escape he was trying to come to terms with his conscience. Yet that must have been the reason for his sudden act of generosity, for next morning he was dead at his desk. His orderly had been instructed to bring me to him first thing in the morning, at 7 o'clock. It was we who found him. He was in full uniform with all his Fascist decorations, slumped in his chair, his head lolling back and a black bloodstain on his shoulder. The little Beretta with which he'd shot himself was still clenched in his hand. Oddly enough his dark glasses still covered his eyes, though the force of the explosion had driven them almost to the end of his nose. Some queer sense of justice must have induced him to arrange it so that I should actually be one of those to see him after he'd taken his life.

As for Reece and Shirer, something had gone wrong. I heard afterwards that they'd been stopped at an unexpected road block and had been killed whilst attempting to climb to the Swiss frontier. That's what I had been told and I had never doubted the truth of it. Certainly I had made no attempt to check up on it. Why should I? The very last thing Reece had said to me was, “I have written to Alice telling her everything. That letter may not reach her and I may not come through. But God's curse rest on you, Farrell, if you ever try to see her again. You understand?” And I had nodded, too emotionally destroyed to say anything. His letter, however, had got through. Her reply was waiting for me when I rejoined my unit at Foggia. Maxwell himself had handed it to me.

God! I could remember it all so clearly. And here I was, flying through the Po valley to see Reece again. Ahead of us I could see Lake Maggiore, like a piece of lead laid flat in the brown fold of the hills. And beyond, in a golden shimmer of sunshine, the Plain of Lombardy was rolled out like a map. I wiped the sweat off my brow and picked up the paper. My eyes drifted aimlessly over the headlines until they were caught and held by a story headed: ISAAC RINKSTEIN CONFESSES. One paragraph stood out from the rest:
Rinkstein has admitted to making heavy sales of diamonds and other precious stones to certain industrialists, the chief among them being Jan Tu
č
ek, chairman and managing director of the Tu
č
kovy ocelárny. This is regarded as indicating that he has been active against the State. Men who convert their fortunes into such easily portable goods as precious stones usually have a guilty conscience. Twtek is believed to have been selling vital industrial and military information to the Western Powers
.

I put the paper down and stared out of the window. We were over Verona now and the road from Venice to Milan cut like a grey ribbon through the green sheet of Lombardy. I was hoping that if Tu
č
ek had crashed, as Max feared, he had crashed beyond the Czech frontier. At least he'd have
a chance then. But through the farther window I could see the jagged molars of the Alps grinding against the black vault of a storm. I knew what it was like to crash—the tearing, shattering impact and then the sudden stillness of intense pain and the smell of petrol and the fear of fire. That's how it had been when I'd crashed in the Futa Pass. But there I'd managed to find an open stretch of moorland. Up here in the Alps it would be into a snow-covered peak or against some pine-clad slope they'd crash. There was all the difference in the world.

Thinking about Tu
č
ek, I forgot myself, and it was not until the sound of the engines slackened and the port wing dipped that I looked out of my window again. Milan lay along the horizon, sunlight glittering on long streamers of smoke blown by the wind from the tall factory chimneys on the outskirts. The solid bulk of a gasometer came up to meet us. Then we were skimming the spire of a church and running in towards a line of pylons. The lights came on in the indicator ordering safety belts to be fixed. The door to the cockpit slid back and one of the crew repeated the order. The sun-baked flat of the airfield came up to meet us and in a moment the concrete of the runways was streaming by and we had landed in Milan.

The main hall of Milan Airport looked very much as it had done when I passed through it on my way down to Foggia in May, 1945, after the German capitulation. The same air maps sprawled across the walls publicising Mussolini's empire. But now the sun shone through the tall frosted windows on to the motley of civilian dress and the public address system announced the flights in Italian and French as well as English.

I checked baggage and passports and was just going out towards the waiting bus when I saw Reece. He was over near the airfield entrance talking to a small, bearded Italian. Our eyes met across the heads of the crowd. I saw sudden recognition and the shock of surprise in his eyes. Then he deliberately turned away and continued his conversation with the Italian.

I hesitated. I had a message to give him and the sooner he got it the better. But somehow I couldn't face it. The blankness that followed that sudden glance of recognition seemed to block me out. I found I was trembling and I knew then I must have a drink before I faced him. I went quickly out to the bus and climbed in. “
Dove, signore?
– The attendant stared at me suspiciously.


Excelsior
,” I answered.


Excelsior?
Bene.”

A few minutes later the bus moved off. I knew then that I ought to have gone over to Reece and given him Maxwell's message. I cursed myself for letting my nerves get the better of me. After all it was a long time ago and … But all I remembered was the blank look that had followed recognition. It had taken me straight back to that little room in the Villa d'Este. He didn't seem to have changed at all. A bit fuller in the face perhaps, but the same broad, stocky figure and determined set of mouth and chin. Well, I'd got to face it sooner or later. I'd have a drink or two and wait for him at the hotel.

The Excelsior is in the Piazzale Duca d'Aosta, facing the Stazione Centrale, that exuberant monument to Fascist ideals that looks more like a colossal war memorial than a railway station. A porter took my two suitcases and I climbed the steps and entered the marble-pillared entrance hall of the hotel. At the reception desk the clerk said, “Your name, please, signore?”

“Farrell,” I answered. “I have accommodation booked.”


Si si, signore
. Will you sign please.
Numero cento venti
” He called a page. “
Accompagnate il signore al cento venti

The room was small, but comfortable. It looked out across the Piazzale to the railway station. I had a bath and changed and then went down to the lounge to wait for Reece. I ordered tea and sent a page for my mail. There wasn't much; a letter from my mother, a bill for a suit I'd bought before leaving England and the usual packet from my firm. The
last included a letter from the managing director.
We expect big things of you in Italy…. When you have been in Milan a week send me a report on the advisability of establishing a permanent agency…. You have my permission to take a holiday there as and when you please and trust you will be able to combine business with pleasure by making social contact with potential customers for our machine tools.
It was signed Harry Evans. I folded the letter and put it away in my brief-case. Then I sat back, thinking of the possibilities of a holiday in Italy, and as I did so my eyes strayed over the room and riveted themselves on the far corner.

Seated alone at a small table by the window was Alice Reece. The sight of her hit me like a blow below the belt. As though drawn by my gaze, she turned her head and saw me. Her eyes brightened momentarily as they met mine across that dimly-lit lounge. Then they seemed to go cold and dead, the way her brother's had done, and she turned away her head.

I think if I'd hesitated I'd have fled to my room. But I was gripped by some strange urge to justify myself. I got to my feet and walked across the room towards her table. She saw me coming. The green of her eyes was caught in the sunlight from the window. She looked into my face and then her gaze fell to my leg. I saw her frown and she turned away towards the window again. I was at her table now, standing over her, seeing the sunlight colouring the soft gold of her hair and the way her hands were clenched on her bag.

“Do you mind if I sit down for a minute?” I asked, and my voice was trembling.

She didn't stop me, but as I pulled out the chair opposite her, she said, “It's no good, Dick.” She had spoken in a tone of pity.

I sat down. Her face was in profile now and I saw she was older, more mature. There were lines in her forehead and at the corners of her mouth that hadn't been there before. “Eight years is a long time,” I said.

She nodded, but said nothing.

Now that I was here, sitting opposite her, I didn't know what to say. No words could bridge the gulf between us. I knew that. And yet there were things I wanted to say, things that couldn't have been written. “I hope you're well,” I said inanely.

“Yes,” she answered quietly.

“And happy?”

She didn't answer and I thought she hadn't heard. But then she said, “You had all there was of happiness in me, Dick.” She turned and looked at me suddenly. “I didn't know about the leg. When did that happen?”

I told her.

She looked away again, out of the window. “Alec never told me about that. It would have made it easier—to understand.”

“Perhaps he didn't want to make it easier for you to understand.”

“Perhaps.”

An awkward silence fell between us. It grew so that I felt at any moment our nerves would snap and we'd cry or laugh out loud or something equally stupid.

“What are you doing in Milan?” I asked.

“A holiday,” she replied. “And you?”

“Business,” I answered.

Silence again. I think both of us knew that small talk was no good between us. “Will you be here long?” I asked. “I mean—couldn't we meet some—”

She stopped me with an angry movement of her hand. “Don't make it more difficult, Dick,” she said and I noticed a trembling in her voice.

Her words took us over the edge of small talk, back into the past that we'd shared; a holiday in Wales, the Braemar Games where we'd first met, her fair hair blown by the wind on a yacht on the Broads. I could see her slim body cutting the water as she dived, see her face laughing up at me as we
lay under the shade of an old oak in the woods above Solva. Memories flooded through me bringing with them the bitter thought of what might have been between us—a home, children, life. Then her hands were on the table, moving blindly among the tea things, and I knew she had not married.

“Can't we go back—” I began. But the look in her eyes stopped me. She hadn't married, but there was no going back. The eyes that met mine were full of sadness. “Please go now, Dick,” she said. “Alec will be back soon and—”

But suddenly I didn't care about Alec. “I'll wait,” I said. “I've a message for him—from Maxwell in Czechoslovakia.”

Her eyes tensed and I knew then that she had some idea what her brother was doing. “Are you in this, too?” she asked. “I thought—” Her voice stopped there.

“I got drawn into this by chance,” I said quickly.

Her eyes were searching my face now as though she expected to see some change there. Suddenly she said, “Tell me about your leg. Was it very bad? Did you have a good surgeon?”

I laughed. Then I told her what had happened. I kept nothing back. I wallowed in self-destruction, explaining how it felt to have the bone sawn through without any anaesthetic, knowing that it would happen again and again. I saw that I was hurting her. But she didn't stop me and I went on. “You see, I don't remember anything. All I know is I went under again, screaming and half delirious and when I came round I was told there would be no more operations, that they had got all—”

I stopped suddenly for I was conscious of a figure standing over us. I looked up. It was Alec Reece. I saw the muscles in his throat tighten and the blood come up into his face as anger gripped him. “I told you once, Farrell, that I'd break your neck if you ever tried to speak to my sister again.” I had risen to my feet. “I suppose you thought I was safely
out at the airfield.” His inference was obvious and I felt my anger rising to match his.

“Sit down, both of you.” Alice's voice was calm. I saw her hand catch her brother by the arm. “Dick has a message for you from Max.”

There was a baffled look in his eyes as he said, “Where did you see Maxwell?”

“In Pilsen yesterday,” I said. I turned to Alice. “Excuse us a minute.” He followed me over to the window. “Has Tu
č
ek arrived?” I asked.

BOOK: The Angry Mountain
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