Sunday, 15 May 2016

Chapter Five. In the valley of Isaure.

Almost a day behind him, but at least we were on his trail. Better than on his trail; young men track where the quarry was; hounds chase after where the quarry is; old hunters go where they know the quarry is going to be. German efficiency or not, the deciphered message wasn’t exactly a Thomas Cook’s itinerary; Volkoff would spend much of his journey under the wing of one or other German agent, handed from one to the next like a parcel.

The original plan, it became clear, was for Volkoff to have met the Light of Sar in Constantinople and to be smuggled back to India, perhaps to the monastery (where the monks, O’Hara had reported, were expecting “guests from the North”) and thence into Russia to do the Germans’ dirty work there, though why the Germans felt the need to enlist a dissolute Asiatic monk to smuggle a Russian into Russia was still a mystery; O’Hara’s report had hinted that the Light of Sar had boasted of unnatural abilities to cross frontiers unnoticed, but surely the hard-headed men in the back rooms of the Great General Staff would not put their hopes in a degraded lama’s claims of mystical powers rather than the abilities of their own paid agents.

Be that as it may, O’Hara had made sure that plan died in flames, and the Light of Sar with it. But the Germans had not given up on smuggling Volkoff into Russia to raise his bloody standard, and it seemed that the monks of the Tolong La might still be part of the plan – Volkoff and his handler were headed south across the Alps by one of the few high passes still open, and thence by dubious and unspecified means to Calcutta. 

My first instinct was to go straight for the Tolong La. At sea, we would have the advantage of speed – where Volkoff would have to sneak from port to port in neutral shipping, and in disguise, to avoid being detected, we would have the Navy sweeping a path for us. In Calcutta, perhaps well in advance of Volkoff, the resources of the Raj would be at our disposal and we could travel post-haste to the Tolong La, to stop the earth before the fox reached it.

But Calloway and caution intervened. We didn’t know for sure, he pointed out, that Volkoff would indeed head for the monastery; the final instruction in the deciphered letter was simply to meet an Indian agent at a certain place. Why should he head for the monastery at all when the Light of Sar’s replacement could escort Volkoff across the Russian border, apparently, wherever he wanted? Especially since the trails to the Tolong La, perilous enough even in summer, were almost certainly impassable this late in the year.

Perhaps we could catch him in Calcutta, but even in wartime the port was aswarm with ships and sailors from every corner of the earth; what hope to catch one man among thousands of thousands?

“We’ll catch him in the mountains,” Calloway said in the end, and I nodded. Outside the window the rain had returned, and beneath the granite Swiss sky it was freezing to a film of ice as it hammered on the roof tiles.

Freezing rain down by the lake, sinking into our jackets as we hurried through the morning streets to the station; snow as the train climbed gradually away and the mountains loomed ahead of us to the south. “A bitter winter, and ahead of time,” Max commented as he shook our hands on the platform. “The St. Eusebius Pass will be closed before long. Perhaps you will catch your fox when the weather foils him, at the foot of the mountain road. We will alert our agents in the Piedmont, in case he makes it across the mountains after all, but there are many ways down from the St. Eusebius and we have few enough trustworthy men on the Italian side. The best of luck, Mr Kormann.”

Volkoff’s own cupboards had furnished us both with mountain gear: alpenstocks, windproof gabardine smocks with hoods, oiled-wool sweaters and woollen Norwegian shirts, caps and breeches and goggles. The younger clerk had rooted through his own rooms and emerged with a couple of pairs of hobnailed boots, two canvas knapsacks and a compass. “No need for sleeping bags,” he’d said with a wry smile, the first we’d seen on him; “if you’re still up there at night, in weather like this, you must find your way down, or find your way to the hospice at the summit of the pass, or die. The winter comes very fiercely to the Alps; the wind and the first snow will wipe the mountain clean.”

The train took us as far as Isaure, at the mouth of a valley as grey and straight as a gun barrel, with the snow blowing about it like powder smoke and lodging in the clefts and faults cut into the cliffs like rifling on each side. The summits were well out of sight above the cloud ceiling; “Surely the pass will be closed by now,” Calloway said. “There’s only one village between Isaure and the mouth of the pass, Max said; St. Vary, a tiny place. We’ll catch him there and his German handler with him.”

I didn’t ask what was to be done then. If Volkoff were very lucky, it might be possible to bring him back to France captive, where he could be kept safely out of the way for the duration; if not, we would have to ensure he and his German handler never left the valley of Isaure. A revolver from the Haertland Mathieu safe was resting in my jacket pocket; its fellow was in Calloway’s knapsack; and our alpenstocks were five feet of good solid wood, shod with steel and tipped, for winter mountaineering, with a steel spike like a Lochaber axe.

But Calloway’s easy decisiveness had begun to irk me, and what had seemed appealling simplicity and directness on the train to Whitby at the start of this affair now came to me as rudeness and overconfidence. I couldn’t disagree with his judgement - it was obvious that Volkoff must be at St Vary, and I know that we shared the unspoken conclusion about what must happen to him - but, after all, the old man had given me this operation, with Calloway as my second, and not the other way around. I stepped up to the station’s ticket window before he could move and conducted my own interview of the station-master, in German which was perhaps not as fluid as Calloway’s, but no less serviceable, and as I spoke to the old man my resentment continued to burn. 

The last train the day before had brought two men in Alpine gear, the station-master confirmed; they had hurried to hire the station taxi and driven off to St. Vary. One of them had indeed been “asiatische” - Volkoff’s high cheekbones and narrow eyes putting him in the same category as the Mikado of Japan from the point of view of this Swiss villager. No, without a doubt they would have stayed in St Vary, at the Gasthaus - it was almost dark when they arrived, no man would try to climb to the St Eusebius in darkness.

My spirits were lifted by this - we were not as far behind as we feared. While we had been wrestling with the cryptogram, Volkoff had not been hastening over the pass - he had been tucked up in bed in St Vary, and no doubt only after dawn would he have started up the road to the pass - as our train arrived at the mouth of the valley of Isaure. Even my irritation with Calloway began to dim.

The station taxi was not the rattletrap I expected: solidly built and heavy-set, in a previous life it seemed to have been a small lorry, and the benches in the back seemed more like church pews than anything belonging on wheels. But the tyres were holding to the road well enough, despite the scabs of ice crusting the verges from the night before, and we made good time down the road towards St Vary.

St Vary was built for snow. The houses reared off the ground like peel towers, the ground floors with only slit windows and stacked high with firewood, the carven eaves already bearing streaks of snow and overshadowing the windows beneath. At the entrance to the town, the lorry, which had been gradually slowing for the last mile, jerked to a halt with a hiss and squeal of brakes. He could go no further, the driver said - beyond this point the streets were too narrow to turn. We unfolded ourselves from the pews and swung out of the back of the taxi with our kit in hand. Even in the short distance from the station at Isaure, the weather had shifted - the freezing rain of the lowlands was well behind us, and the cold, heavy air was rolling down from the mountainside like an avalanche of wind, dragging ice-devils of pounded snow with it to whirl and leap around the houses.

The Gasthaus was the only building of any size in the town - the little chapel on the outskirts was scarcely bigger than a shed. Three minutes’ harrying of the grey-moustached innkeeper, the two of us huddled in his porch as he peered out from behind a half-closed door, to confirm what we had guessed: die asiatischer and his friend had gone “la-haut, vers l’abbaie” and an expressive thumb was jerked in the direction of the pass at the valley head.

St Vary sat almost in the rounded end of the valley of Isaure. Behind it, a bowl of flat ground - flood meadows in summer, trampled frozen mud and dead grass now - with the valley walls rising grey all around it. The walls of the valley were tumbled scree, cliffs and pines and frozen falling water - unclimbable for most of their extent. But at the very end of the valley, the rock wall gave way to a titanic staircase, rising in three great steps into the clouds at mountaintop level, each tread split dead centre by a river gully. The top step, invisible behind the clouds, was the pass, with the sanctuary of St Eusebius.  A track zigzagged up from the meadows to the first step. Calloway and I followed it.

After the hole-and-corner business of crossing into Switzerland, and the grubby work of blackmail and cipher that had occupied us in Zurich, it was wonderful to be out in the open again. The wind was as cold and powerful as a flowing river and though it chilled me even through my clothes, and froze my exposed face, it felt as though it was washing away the dust and soot of Zurich. I lengthened my stride as we climbed the track and the streaks of snow beside it widened and deepened and flowed together as we ascended. The first of those three great rock steps must have stood fully a thousand feet above the valley floor, but Calloway and I stormed up it in less than an hour - I pushed myself into a climbing stride even as my boots slipped on the smoothed rocks and heard Calloway’s footfalls fall behind me, until I slowed a little with an inner glow of satisfaction at taking the lead, and allowed the gasping Calloway to catch up. The going was easy - I suspect the track was a herder’s path in summer - and faced with smooth rounded stones like millstones, and the nails in our boots bit through the ice that glazed them and scraped hard into the sandstone beneath. It branched and branched again as we climbed, as generations of animals had wandered from side to side of the slope, but the main trail stayed clear.

It steepened as we neared the top of the slope, the various branches of the track drawing together again, and we were forced first to use our alpenstocks, and then our hands, to steady us on the last few paces. The edge of the slope was sharp and I had the absurd impulse to keep my head down - that if we looked over this snow-covered parapet we would be fired on. Calloway, ahead of me by this time, had no such qualms and swung up and over it.

No rifle fire, no burst of machine-gun bullets, only a blast of ice and wind. No Volkoff. The slope had given way to a shelf, in fact a great bowl scooped out of the rock, cupping a lake whose waters were already crusting over at the edges with ice, and leaden and wind-flurried in the middle. To our right the waters pounded over the edge of the slope and fell and were flayed into blown spray by the wind, falling eventually to become the river that flowed down the valley of Isaure. Around its fringe, a narrow shoreline of rock and ice and ice-clotted sand gave way to tumbled boulders and cliffs, and the track picked its way among them to the far end of the shelf, where it climbed the second step up a slope barely less than a cliff. Up that, on to a third shelf, and the pass of St Vary itself, with its hospice - and our quarry.  

Even as we watched the top of the cliff ahead of us faded into the swirling grey and white of a snow squall. The wind in the valley and during our climb to this height had been bitterly cold, snatching at our clothes and numbing our fingers and faces - but here, a thousand feet higher, it battered at us like a river in spate, it sent slivers of ice to crust our hoods and our packs, it seemed to rip through our jackets and the layers beneath them to drag the warmth from the cores of our bodies and the strength from our limbs. This is not the sort of cold you can survive for long, a voice seemed to tell me. Move quickly, or never again.

The sleepless night spent on the ciphered message was making its demands felt. Lack of sleep chills a man anyway and makes his fingers fumble - the cold was redoubling the effect. But we couldn’t hurry up the next slope - when we reached its foot, at the far end of the churning lake, we could see that the track was almost invisible under a layer of hardened snow that caked the entire hillside. We would have turned back but that a line of steps, cut into the ice with an axe or kicked with boots, marched up that curving sheet of white and into the mist overhead. The pass was not closed: Volkoff and his companion had gone through. Or, at any rate, they had climbed this slope and not returned. Alive or dead, they were above us, and our duty was to follow them.

The footholds that Volkoff had cut proved less helpful than we hoped. They were narrow, and silted with drifting snow, so we needed to scrape them clear with our boots before we could trust our weight to them. I drifted into a sort of state of mania - a hand up to grip the next hold, the alpenstock blade swung into the ice with the other hand to provide a more reliable anchor; then bring up one boot into the next step, bring up the other, rest while the legs started to tremble with fatigue - the occasional deep muscle pain warning of a cramp on the way - then grip, swing, kick, kick again and so on, Calloway behind me. The slope had risen from steep to near-vertical, The dim line of the top edge of the slope against the grey sky scarcely seemed to get closer. I started to ration myself to one glance upwards, through eyes narrowed against the ice, for every fifty steps - and told myself I could see progress. The wind seemed to pour directly down on us and slackened not at all - though I had anticipated being in the lee of the slope by now. At least the exertion of climbing was warming - I no longer noticed the chill, or much else for that matter, only the sheer blind focus on the rhythm of climbing, and the compulsion not to think of the height of the slope.

Calloway didn’t scream. Men tend not to when they know their end has come. I heard him grunt, more in surprise than anything else, like a man who has stubbed his toe, and it was such an unexpected noise to hear on that frigid hillside that my head twisted round and down just in time to see him peel away from the slope. I don’t know what happened to shake him free of the ice but I saw him fall away, one of his feet still lodged in the ice for a second so that he twisted and fell head downwards. He didn’t fall direct - the ice wasn’t vertical - he slid and bounded and landed again in a horrible tangle of limbs, sending up a shower of ice fragments, leapt again and landed a full sickening second later against the slanting ice, slid and tumbled and rolled over and over and landed among the rocks and crumpled to a halt by the very edge of the lake far below me.

The sight of the drop below me, and Calloway at the bottom of it, unmanned me completely. I clung to my handholds, not moving, and inside me a panicked voice screamed let this all be over, make this go away, make it stop, take me somewhere safe. I knew the voice - I had heard it before, in Flanders, after a failed attack, when the howitzers had searched out the position we held and hammered it for half an hour without respite, until the ground for a hundred yards in every direction was reeking with smoke, and the clamour of the shell bursts had left those of us still alive deaf but for a terrible clangour in our ears.
The only way through that is to fight down the voice - to tell the frightened child inside you you must move, if you move then this will soon be over and to force yourself to act. In that hellish redoubt the coming death had been German assault troopers forming for a counterattack to retake their share of the line. Here, no less fatal, it would be the cold and fatigue finally robbing me of my strength and sending me plunging down the slope to join Calloway.

But which way to move - climb up, or go back down? Carrying on meant abandoning Calloway. He was dead, almost certainly, after that fall - I was all but sure of it - but there was still a chance he could be saved. But climbing down meant abandoning the hunt. On the other hand, I thought, if I - and perhaps Calloway - survived, we could possibly pick up Volkoff’s trail in Italy, or in India. If I pushed on, and died as Calloway had, Volkoff would be free to continue as he wished - putting someone else on his trail would take too long. If Volkoff were to be caught it would have to be by us. By me.

But then, I wondered, was this really the rational thing to do? Or was I rationalising what my fears wanted me to do anyway - climb down that terrible ice to safety?

In the end I climbed down. I knew, really, that I would have to, as soon as I saw Calloway fall. Not only was there a very strong chance that I would not reach the top alive anyway - Calloway was ten years younger than me and had fallen, and I was nearly at the end of my tether - but I would not be able to leave him behind, for all my high-minded words to myself about doing my duty and maintaining the hunt for Volkoff. Men had died before when I led them - or, worse, sent them - into danger’s way, but in a scrap there had always been a chance that the wounded would be picked up. Here there were no other soldiers, no stretcher bearers - just the crumpled shape among the rocks, and me. To the devil with Volkoff and the old man’s doctrine of mission above all - I would return to Calloway, and trust to fate to set me to cross Volkoff’s trail again.

It was hard, very hard, to move my foot down and take the first step. I wanted very badly to cling to the ice with every hold I had - and it was even harder to work the point of the alpenstock blade out, to cling to the ice on two numb feet and one icy hand, and slide it back in a little further down to take my weight as I climbed down another step. By the time I neared the bottom I was almost running, and the relief of survival was flooding through me, warm as alcohol.

Calloway was dead, of course - already cold and dusted with ice by the time I reached him, staggering off the tail of the ice-slope onto the rocks at its foot, the blood thundering in my ears with effort and the euphoria of survival. Again the unworthy voice inside me spoke - at least now you won’t have to carry him down off the hill. I knelt at his side and gasped for air, did my best to straighten his twisted limbs and move him out of the water where his upper half lay, arms flung back above his head. The icy water had soaked into his clothing and hair and poured out in streams as his head came out of the lake, and I could feel the queasy grating even through his clothes as I moved him - he must have shattered almost every bone in his fall and tumble, and the broken ends moved and rasped against each other as I dragged him clear. The snow would cover him - and when the weather lifted I could make sure that men and ponies came up the first slope to the shelf, and took David Calloway down into the valley to be laid to rest.

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