Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Chapter Ten. Into history.

Volkoff turning, the light from the opening door flooding down and reflecting off the flat lenses of his goggles, hiding his eyes, and then turning away and vanishing, as simply as though he had stepped through a door that wasn’t there - somehow I had imagined that the process of travel would be as easy and painless as that. Perhaps for the monks, with their years of training and preparation, it was. For me it was agonising.

No one fights in the trenches for long without becoming familiar with pain, and there are two kinds; there’s the pain that’s nothing more than discomfort write large, the sensation that makes you whip your hand away from a candle flame or limp to take your weight off a blistered foot. And then there’s the deep sense of damage, the feeling from a broken bone or a penetrating wound, that parts of your body have been displaced or torn apart. Not discomfort, but something far more unsettling, as much a mental as a physical sensation, even before you look and see the bone bulge beneath the skin or the blood begin to flow.

Thus, the experience of the journey; throughout my body, for a seemingly endless time in which I could barely draw breath.

And at the end of it I landed on a stone floor, and through eyes streaming with tears I could see a winter sky.

I could hardly move - I could hardly breathe, and the sensation of the air filling my chest seemed itself new and horrible, as though a hole had been knocked in my ribs and my breath was whistling and bubbling through it.  And the images which had crowded themselves into my mind’s eye during the journey forced themselves on me again in spasms like the agonising twitches of a cramped limb.

There was Calloway, falling to his death in the valley of the Isaure; MacGillivray in the Corons trenches a year ago, hunched behind his gun, firing steadily and swearing under his breath in a constant whispered stream, and flicking his hand in a practiced gesture every few seconds to keep the belt running free, the same motion every time; the dust kicking up off the baked earth of the Rand and the crisp smack, through the air and up through the soles of my boots, of a guncotton blast below ground; a summer morning on the Laver, the year the war started, with the water moving as slowly as glass and the fish rising to the fly; the smell and sound of a storm on the Natal coast, and a clipper ship anchored offshore thrashing its empty yards into the sky.

And other images as well, less familiar; watching a fair-haired child in a blue coat wandering across a garden, intent on the bees among the spring flowers; standing on a quayside, somewhere cold, the grey sky full of snow, as an enormous warship was mooring up; walking on a long road of frozen mud in the fading light of a winter afternoon with my boots slipping on the ruts and a pack that kept slipping off my shoulder; canoeing with a small, solemn boy off a rocky coast that looked like Norway or the West Highlands; lying in a hedgerow in rain and hearing roaring engines behind me and overhead, and smelling the smoke of a burning town in the valley in front.

And some that made no sense at all and were simply horrors; a great crawling mass of metal, treetop-high, that might have a huge version of the Tanks we’d heard so much about that summer. A tremendous open-cast mine hacked into the side of a mountain, filled with crawling skeletons in ragged grey. A row of brick tenement houses swaying and melting into dust in a single blurring moment, screams of people caught inside. An armoured man, of all things, in what looked like full plate, enamelled drab green, walking through a warehouse carrying a bulky carbine rifle.

I lay on the floor of that cellar and gasped and gasped for breath. God knows how long I was there. My vision had cleared and I could focus again, and I was breathing more easily, but my arms and legs still refused to answer. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder turning me on to my back, not unkindly, and looking down at me I saw an old man’s face, brown and wrinkled and dark-eyed, with a great bristle of white moustache under a broad nose. He lifted me half into a sitting position and asked me something - I had never heard the language before, but the sound of it was vaguely Russian. I tried to get something out in German, but produced nothing more than a drunken grumble from lips that still slurred and trembled uncontrollably.

But it was his dress that startled me most - the old man was dressed like something from the Middle Ages, in sheepskin waistcoat and baggy breeches and a sort of embroidered cap, with a horn-handled knife in a sash around his waist. In a sinking moment I knew that I had been betrayed - the monks, by accident or on purpose, had sent me centuries too far back. Had they betrayed Volkoff in the same way? Or was he safe in pre-war Europe, hundreds of years into my future, proceeding calmly with his task - whatever that was - while I mouldered away in whatever grave I was destined to finish up in?

The thought made me desperate to get on my feet and I thrashed like a landed fish, but to no effect - the old man wagged a finger in my face and muttered something soothing, and then shouted to bring another younger man into the cellar. But the thrashing had turned me round and I could see the rest of the room; a couple of straw mattresses, blankets, various boxes and bundles and a wooden table.

The younger man was dressed as his elder, with a sort of woollen cap-comforter or turban on his head, and with enough resemblance in his face to make it clear they were father and son. “Marco!” said the old man, and followed it up with a rapid stream of not-quite-Russian. Marco nodded back, bent and heaved me on to his shoulders like a sack of grain and carried my twitching body up the steps out of the cellar, into the grey cold outside.

They dumped me onto a hand cart, and as my head lolled over to one side I could see a hedged enclosure filled with sheep, and a broken-down stone house above it, ivy growing on the walls and birch trees crowding in towards it - I guessed Marco and his father were shepherds driving a flock to market, and taking shelter for the night in the still-dry cellar of this ruin. The glare from the sky after the dim cellar made my eyes start to water again, and Marco, seeing this, fetched a blanket from the cellar and tucked it around me, with a fold over my face to shade it.

The bumping, swaying trip on the handcart seemed to last an age, and my mind was racing to try to make some sense of my situation -  even as my abused body was slowly regaining some of its function. At one point Marco stopped and set the handcart down, and tried to get me to take a little black bread which he unwrapped from a cloth - I mumbled and slavered over it like a toothless old dog and managed to choke down a few pieces. And then I heard something that sent a rush of warmth through every limb, and gave me the strength to shake my head clear of the blanket, lift it  up unsteadily and take a look around.

It was a train whistle.

I was back in the game, I thought to myself.

Marco and his father seemed to know where they were going, and from the rutted lane that led to the cellar house we turned onto a macadamed road, and then on to cobbles. I could hear horses and moving wheels all around - no motor cars, though - and eventually the handcart halted and I heard Marco’s feet going up stone steps, and a doorbell.

They were too distant to hear clearly, but Marco and the woman who answered the door were speaking German - another wave of warmth, as I realised that I would not be completely at sea. Sandy had tried to teach me a little Russian the year before, during the Turkish business, but it had not taken - schoolboy French and German had got me through our conversations with the Russian commanders, but I had made no headway with the clotted and mumbled language they had spoken to each other. Sandy, of course, had rattled away as though he had been born a moujik, but the man had an unerring ear for any language from Portuguese to Telegu.

Marco and his father took an arm each and lifted me forward off the cart. I tried to take some of my own weight but my legs were still trembling and nerveless, so they had to drag me through the door like a hopeless drunk being poured into his taxicab.

The hall was papered in red, and the walls were covered in framed sketches and even a few paintings, and my trailing foot knocked against the bottom of the case of a grandfather clock as the two shepherds towed me in. Then a set of stairs, and across a landing, my head still too heavy to lift up for more than a few seconds at a time - but I saw another door, a study lined with books, and finally a worn-looking couch onto which Marco and his father rolled me. The woman who had answered the door exchanged a few words with them as they left - more German, and more of the Russian-sounding language in reply from the shepherds. The study door closed.

Halas had been sitting there the whole time, but so quiet and still that I had thought the study empty. I started at the rustle as he stood up from his writing table and walked over towards me, and managed to tilt my head again until he came into view, though the effort threw my arms and legs into trembling again, and my vision seemed to flicker and recover as though the gas lighting in the room was losing pressure, and giving way to the winter afternoon outside.

He was a stocky man with short legs and a barrel chest and wiry white hair extending outwards from his head in all directions, like the branches of a thornbush, and his build and ruddy complexion made him look like a peasant farmer forced into a good suit for church on Sunday. And it was, I noticed, an excellent suit - the army had given me the eye for detail in clothing that I had never needed as a humble miner, and Halas was no scruffy eccentric but a man who took a deal of pride in his appearance.

He introduced himself in German, with the drawn-out vowels of Vienna and an overlay of something further east - Austrian of some kind, for certain, but not Viennese born. He was Arnost Halas, he was a doctor in general practice, and he wanted to know if I was in any discomfort.

I could still produce no better reply than a wordless mumble, but he seemed to divine what I was trying to ask: “Where are you? In Prague, sir. And I will be very happy to assist you in whatever has brought you here, in such a state.”

My state was indeed desperate, and remained so for some time. Halas and his two spinster sisters shifted me into a spare bedroom and fed and watered me with considerable skill, but my recovery was painfully slow. For the first couple of days I could only flail and twitch my limbs, almost without control, like a man in an epileptic fit. Halas could do little until the spasms died down, then he would patiently ease me up to a sitting position and, with infinite patience, encourage me yet again through the exercises he prescribed - simple repetitive movements of my arms, touching my hands together over my head or behind my back, lifting my legs and curling the toes, all intended to bring my mutinous nerves sinews back under the control of my brain. Thank God, my senses recovered quickly - the first day saw the end of the agonising pangs that had accompanied my arrival, and my vision returned to its former clarity. But even once I had brought the muscles of my arms and legs back into harness, the finer movements of my fingers proved frustratingly hard to control - and speech remained even further out of reach. I had feared at first that I had suffered an apoplectic stroke, but Halas reassured me that this was not the case - although he remained puzzled as to what my ailment actually was, and I could not (and would not) enlighten him on their cause, he seemed confident that he knew how to treat it.

When I had regained enough control of one arm to fumble open my money belt, I pushed a few sovereigns at my hosts and they accepted them with a nod, but it was longer before I could manage more than a few stammered words. And they in their turn largely dealt with me in silence - all three spoke both German and Czech to each other, but Halas spoke to me only when necessary for examination and treatment, and the other two not at all.

So I was therefore left undisturbed for most of my time in Halas’ house. But from the noise and conversations that drifted up to my room on the top floor, I gathered some impression of his practice, and of his character. Most of his patients spoke Czech only; a few spoke other languages that had the same vague kinship to Russian without the accent behind it (the shepherds, Marco and his father, were Serbs from the Voyevodeship, I learned); and several spoke Austrian German, with varying degrees of proficiency.

Halas and his sisters were an interesting ménage (any aged grandmother will tell you that there’s no better place to learn about people than from a sickbed, where they’ll remember your existence once a day at best and put you out of their minds the rest of the time; the sick and halt and lame aren’t deaf and dumb and feebleminded as well, no matter how much the able-bodied think they are).

The older sister - I think older than Halas; she certainly spoke to him as to a younger sibling, though both were in the late fifties at least - was a widow, and without children. And if Arnost Halas ran the surgery, Milena ran the business - and the house - and Arnost. The younger, Bozena, was quieter - she was also considerably younger, and I wondered if she was a sister from their father’s second marriage. Arnost’s examining rooms took up the ground floor of the house; on the floor above, beside the study where I had first met him, Bozena gave lessons on the piano to a parade of children, mostly of (as far as I could judge) no great talent or enthusiasm. Arnost and Milena would argue from time to time, sliding between German and Czech, and so I could only catch half of what they said at best - much of it seeming to be about money, and politics, inasmuch as those two topics differ.

Halas never talked about his patients paying their bills - he talked of them “paying their share”, and I worked out, largely from Milena’s scornful denunciations of the practice, that he charged them not a fixed sum but a fixed share of their wages. It seemed a fine way to do business to me, and I had heard of other medical men (especially in the United States) doing the same. But, as Milena pointed out forcefully, it meant in practice that his practice was made up entirely of the kind of patient for whom this represented an opportunity to save money; if he was lucky, an appointment with a junior clerk or a tradesman’s family would net him a reasonable number of crowns; more often, labourers and shepherds would bring him their sick and injured, and pay only a meagre few crowns, or even with handfuls of ten-heller pieces. The wealthier men, meanwhile, took their illnesses to doctors who charged along more conventional lines.

One evening, Milena, in particularly fine voice, challenged Halas again about his practice - and why, if he desired to help the poor, he did not simply go to work “at the Empress Elisabeth” which seemed to be some nearby free hospital or clinic. Halas’ rumbling voice was loud enough for me to hear this time: yes, he said, he knew that the Empress Elisabeth offered its physicians a steady salary, and charged its patients nothing at all. But that was not the point, he cried. He had no desire to work for a hospital that doled out care as charity, like coins flung from a window to a beggar beneath - if he believed in that, he might as well give away their house and all their parents’ money to the poor altogether, and sit back and bask in the glow of righteousness while he worked at the Empress Sisi. (A startled and thoughtful silence from Milena at this.) He charged as he did, he said (his normally chuckling voice growing hard, and rising still further) because it was the just thing to do - a platelayer should pay a day’s wages to visit his doctor, just as the railway owner should. 

It was a pity, in that case, responded Milena, rallying somewhat, that only the platelayers should be of his opinion. Did he propose to let all their money, that their parents had left them, trickle away a little bit at a time while he tried to persuade the railway owners to pay their share as well? 

No, said Halas more quietly and slowly. But he had noticed that there were very many more platelayers in this world than there were railway owners, and he would look to the platelayers themselves to make his case for him. In one way or another. 

I heard quick booted steps - Milena’s steps - across the music room floor, and the door closing. Their voices continued to rise, a little muffled, through the lath and plaster and boards of the ceiling and floor between us.

Halas should think about what he was saying, she retorted. She had no desire to pull up her roots and move to Zurich as an exile - that startled me - with her daydreaming brother. He should know perfectly well what lunacy he was suggesting. Look at what was happening in Russia, in France, in America - men who called themselves anarchists or socialists or whatever causing chaos, throwing bombs, murdering! Look what had happened to the Empress only a few years ago! Had any of that brought any relief at all to the poor? Had it made the railway owners any more likely to pay their fair share, as her brother put it? Not a bit. Tell the platelayers that it was up to them to force their masters to pay out, and the result would be chaos - Nihilism. If Halas wanted to be a Liberal, that was a decent thing to be - their father and mother had been Liberals. But Liberals were intelligent, educated men from decent families. Halas was an intelligent man as well, and he should know better than to be inciting these people into some sort of revolt.
She broke off, I think to draw breath. 

Upstairs in my room, I was fascinated. The revelation of Halas’ sympathies raised a very interesting question: how much of a coincidence was it, in fact, that I had been brought here by the two shepherds? Was Halas simply known to them as a nearby (and conveniently inexpensive) doctor, or something more - had he, perhaps, set Marco and his father to watch the cellar and wait for arrivals?

Of one thing I could be sure: Halas was not a fully-informed ally of Volkoff. Had that been the case, then, when I had arrived hot on Volkoff’s heels, Marco would have recognised me as (I flattered myself) the greatest single threat to Volkoff’s plans, and would simply have slipped a knife between my ribs.

Or, perhaps, not. I knew that the transport process was uncertain and imprecise - presumably Volkoff and the Shield Order knew it too. I had assumed that the plan was to send Volkoff through alone, but perhaps that was wrong; perhaps the rest of the Order, or some part of it, had intended to join him. And it seemed possible, given the chaos of events in the monastery during our attack, that Volkoff might have left still expecting them to do so. None had, of course; our interrogations of the prisoners had left us sure that, Volkoff aside, every monk and every Shield Order man was either dead or in our hands. But Volkoff might not know that - Marco and Halas might have been given the job of waiting around the ruin’s cellar (for days? Weeks?) to collect stragglers and return them to health.

In which case my time was running out. My papers identified me as Kormann - no one of that name was in Volkoff’s party. At some point word would reach Volkoff of another traveller’s arrival, at which point he would return to meet his presumed colleague - and then the game would be up.

And I was still crippled. The treatments and exercises Halas had given me had restored my movement, but my speech remained slurred and indistinct. And frustratingly my condition seemed to worsen every time Halas returned for another examination or to oversee another session of therapy.

And so again I would be thrown back on my own resources, and, as I tottered up and down my room to regain my ability to walk, or worked my hands back to dexterity from trembling clumsiness, I would return to the same question: how much could I trust Halas? I needed to trust him, for I knew no one else in this time - I had seen a newspaper, and it was May of 1904. Ten years later, during the Black Stone business, I would make my first acquaintance with the Secret Service - in 1904 they did not know me from Adam. Nor did I even know how to make contact with them - certainly not in an unfamiliar city. And I did not like the idea of trying to get my story across to an unsympathetic Secret Service officer. No, I was operating on my own here, for as long as I could, before the resistance of this time built up to the point where I was expelled, like a splinter from a wound, back to 1916, just as O’Hara had been.

Another thought: did I even know that Volkoff was here at all? He had disappeared from the monastery a few hours before I had persuaded the monks to send me through - he had certainly not arrived a few hours before me, for I had lain in that cellar for the best part of a night, alone, before the shepherds had found me.

Unless the Shield Order had been right with their ludicrous theories about the inevitable victory of the will! Volkoff, with the benefit of a few days’ preparation for the shock of travel  - for I was unwilling to grant this slinking malcontent any advantage over myself in the matter of native willpower - might have arrived and walked out on his own two feet, hours before I landed in a trembling heap in the cellar.

Or he might have arrived weeks before me. Or, for that matter, weeks after - he might not even be here yet! The monks had aimed to send me back to the same time as they had aimed to send Volkoff, and had missed with me - I had landed many months too early. Assuming that this was an honest error rather than sabotage - had they wanted to sabotage me, they would have sent me centuries back; and they did not honestly seem to care which of us succeeded - they could have got Volkoff’s arrival wrong as well. (Too early? Too late?)

Regardless of that, my path to success led through Halas - and, if I could, I would avoid bringing more danger on him than his politics had already brought, for he seemed a decent fellow.
First step: regain my freedom of action. I remembered what the abbot had muttered about avoiding interference in the past - if my symptoms were a result of “touching the world”, simply by talking to Halas, then the less I talked the faster I would heal.

But that also implied that I would be unable to talk freely with anyone here, without risking a return of the symptoms. Except, presumably, Volkoff. I must lead a solitary life, and ration my intercourse with the rest of humanity, or be thrown back before I had finished my work. Volkoff would of course be in the same boat - it would be touch and go for him whether he could set the world in motion in his desired direction before he was hurled back himself.  

So, second step: determine whether or not Volkoff had already arrived. From Halas, or from Marco and his father. If they had had no contact with Volkoff - presumably that meant that he had walked out of the cellar unaided. Where would he go? Into the Socialist underworld of Prague, at first. Had he lived in Prague around 1904 or had he already been in Zurich? I struggled to remember dates and places from the dossier we had seized in the police captain’s rooms in Zurich. He had definitely travelled in Bohemia at some point, and had climbed in the Tatra mountains east of Kaschau. Could he simply walk up to an old friend and introduce himself by name - eleven years older than he should be, but still recognisable? Could he, conceivably, enlist himself, or rather the younger version of himself, as an ally?  

Third step: if he has arrived, find him. Halas’ links to the Socialists would be useful here - the man seemed to trust me so far, though I doubted that his brand of woolly generosity would lead him into the same circles as the hard-headed revolutionaries whom Volkoff would seek out. But get into that milieu, as Kormann the radical-sympathetic Midwestern brewer with money to spend - I remembered the old man’s briefing back in Whitby, and felt some pleasure that the work of building up that cover would not be completely wasted - and I might get on his trail. It was possible that, even if he had walked out of the cellar apparently healthy, he might have suffered a second attack, brought on by incautious activity. Where would a patient of that kind be taken? Hospital, sanatorium… asylum? I might find myself there without much further ado on my part - possibly without even having to exaggerate my own symptoms, if my recovery did not last. A good place to search, in any case.

And then - put an end to his plans. Either arrange for his arrest, or bring him down, or simply force him into the open, where his actions would affect the world so gravely that he would be expelled back to 1916 however strong his will. And no doubt I would be expelled as well, but 1916 was my home territory. So be it.

In the little yellow-papered bedroom, alone and undisturbed except for the sound of the suburban trains and the cries of delivery men, I turned again to the tools of my recovery. My strength was returning steadily enough, and Halas had left me with various “therapeutic tools” - rubber balls to squeeze, finicky little wooden puzzles and other such toys to improve co-ordination, speech exercises to restore, as much as I could, the damage that my journey had done.

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