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INVASION BY NIGHT
WE stood about in the blackness of Stanko's yard beside the water's edge at Neshtin, fidgeting and impatient. The sky was overcast and there was no moon. The tall roof of Stanko's house spread an even closer darkness over us and over what we were doing. Down by the willows they were pumping up the rubber boat and whispering to each other. Stanko's wife caught me by the arm and whispered something to me. It seemed that they would never get the rubber boat pumped up, so slow they were. The signal from the watchers on the farther bank had winked out a full fifteen minutes ago; and still we were not ready. Juritsa was laughing.
"Maiku! " he said, coming up close to us in the darkness and whispering shrilly into Stanko's wife's face. "This blessed rubber boat. I didn't reckon on that, you know. Partisans in a rubber boat. My God, we'll be flying next."
"Sh-h...." someone said in the darkness, loudly. "Maikul" Juritsa said again, hitching up his trousers. "It leaks anyway. It leaks and I'll have to pump it up. Me crossing the Danube and pumping my boat as I go—they'd think me mad in Palanka."
"Juritsa, d'you ever stop talking?" "Who, me? No, I talk all the time. Keeps me cheerful." "Well, don't go talking to those girls in Palanka." "Maiku! I wouldn't think of it." And he fidgeted up and down, continually hitching at his trousers, laughing to himself.
Black George came up to our little group, peering hard through the darkness and smiling. He was above all a man of action, used to taking any risks, a good man to cross with, but he went quickly to pieces in conditions of security and boredom. He needed the screw of danger to bring out the best in him. Several months before he had been trapped in the Bachka in a baza which had been betrayed and had fought his way out of it with grenades, throwing one after the other in front of him as he came out of the hole and ran for the nearby maize. He needed discipline, and without it would quickly have become a hero in his own eyes: and that, in partisan reckoning, would be a sufficient reason for removal from command. As it was, he later got himself entangled with a woman from Vukovar and had to be sent elsewhere. But his courage was never in question.
"We're ready," he said. "You come with me in the boat. That'll make four. And you'll have to sit in the rubber one, Juritsa: you and Milovan. It leaks a bit, but it's safe enough."
"Maiku! Did I ask to be safe?"
The boat with its two paddlers was held in close to the bank by Stanko and another. We shook hands and pushed off. The last I saw of them was Stanko's wife's pale face shrouded in the darkness and the wave of her hand as she bade us farewell. Her face and her hand, pale in the darkness, disappeared in the night as the boat slid through the water. The boat was a flat-bottomed punt with pointed ends, and rocked wildly as we moved in it. The two paddlers had waited for hours and were nervous, angry, anxious to get the thing over for one more night.
Juritsa was chattering away.
The boat slipped away from the bank and slid out into the water. The men dipped their paddles, turning the blades silently, driving the boat firmly through the water with a low chuckle of waves at the bow. Silvery ripples shivered away from us on either side.
It should have been a solemn occasion. The enemy had bunkers at half-mile intervals along the northern bank; he knew in general that we crossed at night although he did not know exactly where;
and he would have us in range for over half an hour. I knew all this perfectly well and was as scared as usual on such occasions, for thirty minutes will come to seem a long time when one moves over water at a maximum speed of two miles an hour; but that night everything went a little lunatic.
It began with the rubber boat. It leaked, as Juritsa had said, so that he and Milovan, sitting up absurdly high in the water, had to make constant use of the small hand-bellows provided with the boat. Base had sent it to us months before; it had been dropped in Bosnia and transported across the Sava and Srem to the Frushka Gora as far as Neshtin, so that there was small wonder that it leaked. It was remarkable only that it held air at all. Apart from that, it would not steer. Being a large five-man rubber boat as supplied to the R.A.F. for emergency landings in the sea, it was circular in shape and hopelessly impractical when floating free. And on the Danube we could not float it free. Never was a boat less well modelled for conspiracy. There were two paddles provided with it, but as Juritsa had to pump only Milovan could paddle, and the enormity sawed and circled round about on its tow-line, overshot us, held us back. Altogether it was like the bloated carcass of a whale; and it wheezed with the inflations of the pump.
We crossed like that. Our two paddlers were hard put to take us far enough upstream before turning out across the river; and they swore at Juritsa and Juritsa swore at them, and the pump wheezed, and the rubber boat sawed about like an uncontrollable balloon, and Milovan and I laughed in spite of being scared.
"Maiku! We're far enough," one of the paddlers whispered. ''No, a little farther. Otherwise we'll float down on to the bunker."
''Where t's the bunker?"
"Just over there. Right across from us now. You can see a faint hump: that's it. You'll have to take us farther upstream." 'Maiku, it's leaking," Juritsa called softly. -'Ssh-h...."
"Hoo-phew, hoo-phew," the pump sighed. "Hoo-phew ..." Little waves chuckled under our bows. The sky now was clear above our heads; starlight shone pallidly in the water. To the left of us rose the south bank and dark mass of the Frushka Gora; across the river was the low outline of the Hungarian shore, somewhere on its flat embankment the half-seen bunker; and inside the bunker two or three drowsy hatarvadasz would be blinking out into the darkness, anxious to see nothing, pleased to avoid trouble at almost any price, but willing enough to shoot at sitting targets like ourselves. They were at the other end of our revolutionary scale, as yet scarcely awakened, aware only that the war was for them a nonsense, and determined to make it for themselves as cheap a nonsense as they could.
I thought of all the famous water crossings of history. Darius had crossed the Bosphorus, Caesar the Rubicon, Prince Charlie the Minch ...
Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing—— We were barely moving.
"Hoo-phew, hoo-phew," sighed the enormity behind us, sawing and circling and bobbing high in the water for any to see who cared to look.
"Maiku! Good thing I can swim," Juritsa said in a loud whisper.
"Hoo-phew, hoo-phew," the enormity interrupted like a sad expiring whale.
That is how we made our crossing, an occasion of unrivalled romance ruined by what was clearly ridiculous. How would history see us?"And silently, skilfully, this little band of heroes would slide like ghosts across the river, carrying the brand of resistance into Hungarian lands...."
"Hoo-phew, hoo-phew," the rubber boat sighed.
It was too bad. Even Black George was depressed about it. And to make matters worse I was caught in midstream by a cruel bout of diarrhoea, the result of recurrent dysentery there was no means then of curing; and although I was conscious at the time of the fearfully inappropriate nature of such symptoms on this romantic and extraordinary occasion, still I must admit that I ceased to be conscious of the Danube and its little silver waves, of the pale night sky and the clear cold light of the stars, of our tiny cockleshell dark upon the water, of the nearness of that hostile bunker and the sitting target that we were, so that six well-aimed shots would have finished us off: all this, and the dark threatening night, was lost on me as I tried to control what those who have experienced dysentery know to be uncontrollable.
Black George groaned. He had not experienced dysentery. The paddlers looked alarmed. Juritsa began to laugh. "Hoo-phew, hoo-phew," the rubber boat sighed, as if in disgust.
On the other bank, one hundred and fifty paces from the bunker, now large and humped beside us, three men were waiting for us to land. We saw them as dark shadows when we came under the overhang of the bank. They swore quietly and deliberately at us.
"Are you visiting the bunker, or the Bachka?" they enquired in angry whispers. We climbed out, the boat grating a little on the bank. I collapsed.
Behind me they lifted the rubber boat out of the water. The punt disappeared again into the darkness, its paddlers glad to be gone. George came up to me.
"Can you go on?"
"Yes, wait a minute."
"Maiku!" he whispered. "Be quick."
We walked over the mushy grass, our feet slurring in the moisture of it; four of us carried the rubber boat, leaking unheeded now, and quiet like a fish that is taken from the water and can no longer
breathe. In a little we were out of effective range of the bunker and could stand for a moment's rest. Far behind us the Frushka Gora was black in the distance, blacker than the black of the sky; it was easy to see why the Hungarians, fearful of partisans as of everything which might come out of Serbia, looked anxiously across the Danube and redoubled their riverside patrols. They could—and they did— imagine great armies poised for invasion of the land they had taken, hard, ruthless men, who would launch themselves across the black frontier of the Danube and come unseen into their midst. They could magnify our twenty-four men and one girl into several thousands. Only a week ago a deserter from the Hungarian army, a Magyar of the Great Plain, had come across the Danube with tales that in the Bachka the hatarvadasz had been warned of four thousand men massed in the Frushka Gora for invasion northwards across the river.
We stood together and whispered to each other in relief at being across. Juritsa was swearing amiably at the rubber boat.
"Maiku! you old cow," he said, slapping its rotundity, "you old cow, you: you'd have sunk like a stone if we'd let you."
A little farther on we came to the broad canal of water for the crossing of which we had brought the mbber boat. At times of low water this canal was dry; but the Danube was now at its fullest water and the canal ten feet or more in depth, and we had no heart for swimming. Once more the grave impression of romance in this crossing of the greatest waterway in Europe at floodwater vanished in our efforts to get over this canal. We sat in the rubber boat, all seven of us, and Black George and Juritsa tried to paddle us across. The distance was not above fifty paces and yet it took them a full ten minutes. Nothing could be so unhandy as that circular rubber boat. It simply would not steer. "Maiku! "said George, "don't the Allies have any other sort of boat than this?"
The bank was slippery with mud and everyone cursed roundly;
and the rubber boat, that enormity, came slithering out of the water with a squeal of tensed rubber.
"Ah, you old cow," Juritsa said, "you're going to die all right now."
"No, Juritsa, we'll let the air out at Stalingrad."
"What, and carry this old bitch there?"
"Yes, anyway across the road. Take too long to do it here." George fidgeted about in his restless, contemptuous way. "Here, Juritsa, you and Milovan carry the boat. We'll go ahead and see if the road's clear."
After the Danube it was necessary to cross the main road which ran along the north bank from Palanka, a few miles to our left, to the provincial capital of Novi Sad, forty miles away. The enemy patrolled this road as a check on illegal traffic over the Danube. Two weeks later Juritsa was to be shot through the lung by an enemy ambush at this point; but to-night there was nothing. We waited in the long wet grass a hundred paces from the road until George whistled from the shadow of the roadside trees, and then we ran across with the rubber boat bouncing between us.
"Maiku! you old cow," Juritsa swore. Our feet scrunched on the shingle of the road surface.
Once across the road we could walk more easily, moving over fields of wheat and maize and fallow, taking care to walk always along the fringe of the sown so that our track would be hard to see or to follow.
We were over the first hurdle alive: the problem now was to remain alive.
Within half an hour we made the outline of a clump of tall trees. Here we stopped.
"Juritsa: you and Milovan go with Patch to Stalingrad. Take the rubber boat. Nikola and I'll go up there."
"What, to Palermo?"
"They used Palermo last night," Patch said.
"Why, Ucho and the others. They were all there."
"Maiku! What the devil do they mean by crowding in there like that! How many were there?"
"My God, I daresay seven or eight."
"Ah, they've no sense of responsibility! I'll talk to Ucho."
"Wasn't Ucho's fault," Patch ventured. He was a serious young man with a wide pale face and a legendary appetite for good food. When he had joined the Odred three months before he had previously lain so long in his mother's baza that he was so fat he could scarcely walk. "Just like a jelly, he was," Juritsa had said. Stalingrad was his parents' sallash, as farms are called in the BacnKa, and the nearest baza to the river that we could use on the crossing from Neshtin. "Where else could they go? Mother had three from Palanka last night, too."
George was furious. "From Palanka? Who from Palanka?
Maiku! These legaltsi——"
"Why, three that Baba'd sent out. She's got more legaltsi in Palanka than she knows what to do with. She's worried to death."
By this time we were all shivering. We were wet through to the thighs.
"Come on, George, for Christ's sake make up your mind." "My God, Juritsa, I've told you what to do. Take the boat and Milovan and Patch'll go with you to Stalingrad. I can't help it if they used Palermo when I told them not to. Here, look, we'll meet to-morrow. You and Milovan and Patch come after dark. No, better still, you come alone——" "To Palermo?"
"Yes. I'll tell them to keep the dog in until we've all gone." "Maiku! that dog," Juritsa grumbled. "Last time I was there you could hear it all the way to Palanka."
"It barked all last night," Patch said. "They say in Palanka that the gendarmes were out in the ploughland this morning asking whose dog it was that barked. The gendarmes said it was a sure sign of partisans."
We left them bending over the boat. It was half-past two in the morning.
Then we walked for three more miles until we had come within reach of the woods of Chib. Formerly the Odred had used these woods, which came down to the river bank, as cover for crossing;
but the disaster of last month, when a whole boat's crew had been ambushed and killed after information had been wrung by the hatarvadasz from a prisoner they had taken, had meant that these woods were now closely patrolled by night as well as by day. Accordingly we had crossed where the woods did not exist; and the enemy, as usual, was fooled. Palermo was a small sallash on the edge of the woods of Chib.
George left me under the shadow of a tree and tiptoed past the outlying barns towards the house. This was the most delicate moment of approach, our whole purpose now to prevent the dog from sensing our presence and waking the echoes of the plain, and all the dogs for miles around, and the gendarmes in Palanka—a sleepy gendarme drowsing beside his telephone, his duty to warn the hatarvadasz of "partisan danger"—and to get ourselves inside the sallash door in silence. But the dog heard George before he could get to the window beyond which the people of Palermo were sleeping, and shattered the night silence with his snarling and howling.
Immediately there came from nearby farms the echo of more dogs howling, awakened in the night and doubly alarmed, and their barking was taken up again and again by dogs farther and farther away, like sound waves infinitely magnified, colliding one against the other and setting them off in series, until the whole flat countryside seemed alive with barking dogs. Five miles away in Palanka the duty gendarme would nod drowsily and listen for a moment to this sudden onrush of sound, and then pull the antiquated telephone box towards him, unhook its receiver and ring up hatarvadasz headquarters. "Alarm towards Chib," he would grunt. "More of those bleeding Serbs, I suppose. Thought I'd better tell you." And a sleepy voice would come back angrily over the wire: "Fat lot of good you are. Why, you nit-wit, they're over the river and the road long ago. What d'you think we can do? Bark at them?"
"Ah, go and —— yourself," the gendarme would suggest, and ring-off. It was always happening: and there was nothing to be done but a thorough search of all farms the next morning. And that meant at least two thousand men, and was the business of the hatarvadasz anyway.
In all this noise there was no more point in keeping silent. George made a msh for the window, fending off the snarling dog, and knocked loudly on it. A moment late the door on the other side of the farm clattered open and a woman screamed hoarsely at the dog. Suddenly there was silence again. The woman peered nervously at us, and laughed. She was a jolly, red-faced girl in her nightshirt, her hair in curling pins and papers.
"George, is that you?"
She laughed again and caught our hands.
"My God, I'm glad to see you. Here, come in quickly."
Inside the cottage was in darkness and we could see nothing. Hands clutched at us and guided us to chairs. Then the girl struck a match and lit the paraffin lamp on the stove. Its yellow light showed us a narrow little room, a bed with a man and woman asleep in it, the girl in her nightshirt, white and reaching to her knees; she was laughing still. She looked wonderingly at me when George said who I was; and at first she would not believe it.
Soon there were food and drink on the table, rashers of ham and white bread and wine. "Eat, eat," she insisted, "it's hungry weather."
"Ucho and the others were here last night?"
"Yes, they were. My God, wasn't it exciting! Mother'd never seen partisans before. My, how she was scared at first. I said to her: 'Mother, there's some partisans at the window and they want to come in.' And she said: 'Jesus and Mary, then let them in, girl; let's have a look at them.' And there was Ucho and several I didn't know. My ..."
"Baba hasn't been here?"
George plucked restlessly at his moustache. Contacts were everything to him now.
"No, not for a week. Here, eat some more ham, for God's sake. No, she hasn't. We were only saying this evening: 'What's become of Baba? Mara saw her two days ago in Palanka—but they didn't speak, of course." She bustled round us. George was worried.
"Where's your Radovan?"
"Still in Budapest. They say they're going to let some of the Serbs go. And then they say they need more and more for work in the factories. You don't know what to believe. He was home to see us last month, though."
"Pity he doesn't come over to us," George said, grinning.
There was embarrassed silence for a moment. The old woman in the bed sat up and blinked at us.
"My God, who's this?"
"Partisans, Mother. Yes, and this is an Allied one. An officer. George says it's an Englishman."
"My God, looks young enough. Here, let me see," suddenly excited. "Well now, young man, and when's the war going to end? My God," she croaked, interested now, "we've suffered enough from these Magyars. There's Radovan up in Budapest, and God knows when they'll let him home again. It's a crime."
"George says it's a pity Radovan doesn't go over to the Frushka Gora with the partisans, Mother," the girl suggested, obviously liking the idea.
"And what would he be doing over there? That's a nice thing for a wife to say! Fighting and drinking and wasting his time with those Srem people.... Hm, but look here," she struggled out of bed, throwing back the quilt and pulling the nightshirt she wore over her old knees, "but tell me, now, George: you know these things —are there really partisans in Srem? And who's this man Tito they talk about?"
George was more excited than ever. He was accustomed to meeting this argument in the Bachka, where people knew little or nothing of what went on south of the Danube, and had struggled with it scores of times: "I always say there's half a million of us. Probably there is. They're very backward, you know: they're not like the people in Srem," he admitted to me once. Now he said all this over again, reaching back into his memory for facts to conquer their disbelief.
One of the main purposes of my coming was to help him to convince these peasants of the Bachka that the Allies supported the partisans, and that the partisans were a real force in Jugoslavia. By strengthening the movement in the Bachka we could hope to rebound on Hungarian opinion and attract towards us any opposition elements in Budapest that needed our support. George wrestled with them, spluttering nervously and moving his hands. He was not an easy talker. They listened to him as if he were all part of the entertainment. The real issues of the struggle had not yet come home to them, for they had suffered too little and were still disposed to treat our coming as mere excitement in the dull routine of their farming life.
They listened greedily to him, discounting his enthusiasm, relating what he said to their hard standards of profit and loss. The yellow lamp cast an air or weariness over us all. Our clothes were damp and we shivered.
"And you've come over from Srem now?"
"Yes, from the other side."
"Have you been in Neshtin?"
"Hm—the other day."
The girl broke in impatiently: "Here, Mother, they won't say what way they came!"
"Well, and what's the harm in an old woman like me asking?" She wanted better value for her risk than she was getting.
George said: "Look here, can we sleep here to-day?"
They were silent for a moment.
"We can't have you in the house. You understand: we never know who's coming. But there's the pig-sty——"
"Or the loft. That sow'll never let them rest. Mother. You know what she's like. They can go in the loft. There's room there above the hens."
"Yes, yes. But"—the old woman smiled suddenly—"they'll have to lie quiet all day."
"Of course," George said. "We won't stir a muscle until sundown. Only bring us water to drink at mid-day."
They doused the lamp and the girl took us round the cottage to where the poultry barn stood. Inside the sty we heard an old sow grunting in her sleep. A slow rain was falling. The dog crept at the girl's heels, cowed, its tail wagging. We climbed on to the top of a fence and crawled into the dark hole of a thatched loft stuffed full with stooks of maize. The girl stood below us in the darkness and whispered: "I'm sorry about this. Mother's afraid, you see. But I'll bring you breakfast at eight o'clock."
George lent out of the dark hole and whispered good-night. The girl lingered for a moment as if unwilling to leave us. "Good-night, " she whispered at last. "Sleep well."
We lay back on the yielding bed of maize and went to sleep. At intervals through the night I remember that we woke up and saw through chinks in the thatch the pale night sky; and the slow rain came seeping through the thatch and settled on us in a clammy vapour which made us sneeze and wake up and turn over in the maize with groans and a great noise of rustling. And then the hens roosting on rafters below us would stir in response and flutter their feathers and cluck to each other and slowly relapse again into silence. At midnight the cock crew from a perch immediately underneath our heads and awoke us with a sudden feeling of danger and alarm; we cursed the cock and threw down on it lumps of mud from our boots through partings in the maize stalks on which we lay. The cock crew his fill and then was quiet, and we lay listening to the far-off crowing of other cocks in neighbouring farms: the night was dark and wet, and we groaned as we lay in our sodden clothing and hoped for the heat of the morning sun.
Long after dawn the girl brought us breakfast of boiled eggs and white bread and hot milk, so that we thawed gradually from the rigor mortis of the night. We felt our legs and pulled the wet cloth away from our knees and rubbed them as they ached; and we ate our breakfast and felt better. The sky was clear and the day would be fine. We parted the maize stalks and made a hole in the floor of the loft and relieved ourselves. It was now a question only of waiting until ten o'clock this evening, fourteen hours, when we could meet Juritsa and go into Palanka as we had planned.
"They're good people," George said. "They'd never have us until last month. But now they see what we're like and they help us."
The day wore on. Twice during the morning there were visitors from Palanka; and then we lay without stirring, listening to their chatter, wondering how the family would behave.
"That's right," they shouted cheerily to each other whilst we in the loft dared only whisper; "Dogs barking all night. Out your way, too. Suppose you didn't see anything?"
"Not we. And what'd we see, now, at that time o' night?"
"Aie, aie! Why, those from the other side——"
"Yes, partisans." And instinctively they lowered their voices.
"No, we've never seen any of those. Perhaps there aren't any: and it's all a lie invented by the Magyars to frighten us peasants."
At last the visitors went away in their cart, calling noisily to their horses, making a great clatter.
The girl came to reassure us after each lot of visitors had gone away. "It's nothing," she whispered. "Two Schvabs from Palanka. One of them married a Serb, though, so don't worry." And her face would appear in the aperture of the loft door, a cheerful red face, smiling and winking at us in embarrassment. We would pretend to be asleep.
In the hour after twilight Juritsa came, alone this time. We climbed down from the loft and stretched ourselves; at first we could barely walk.
"My God," George said, "I slept well, you know: but somehow I don't feel fresh at all."
We sat inside the house and had supper together. They looked after us more thoughtfully now, almost possessively, as if they had adopted us and were on our side in a way that they had not been before. That was always the way with them. At first they would see us as potential enemies, or at least as profitless friends, and their calculation would scale against us: and then, afterwards, when they had sheltered us and shared our secret and seen themselves as our benefactors upon whom we were dependent, they would cherish us and protect us as if we had been of their own family. Only peasants would argue like that.
The old woman plied us with her good Bachka wine and said:
"And look here, George, supposing my Radovan's in trouble—he's a quiet chap, but you never can tell—you'll take him over to the other side?"
"Oh, Mother, think of that," the girl interrupted. "And I'll go with Radovan, too."
"There you are, you see, " the old woman said. "That's what we Bachka people are like. Just as good as those Srem people——"
"Of course," George said. "Wouldn't I know that, seeing I'm from Palanka myself."
"My God, then you're really that Black George from Palanka? There's a big poster up on the Town Hall, you know, with a picture of George-from-Palanka, and a reward of 80,000 pengoe, and that's you! Dead or alive, it says."
"It wouldn't be alive."
"We burnt their hemp warehouse last summer. Juritsa and me and two others. Stuffed full of hemp for Germany, it was."
"My yes! We saw the fire. Oh, my God, just think of that. My God, if only Radovan were here. I say, you'll come back, though?"
The old woman said: "Yes, now that we know you, you'll come back. Only don't leave footsteps in the mud. This morning we found footsteps with a horseshoe iron mark on the heel like we never have in the Bachka."
"Here, Nikola, put your foot up."
"Yes, that's it. Right across the plough into the edge of the maize it was."
"Nikola, you'll have to wear opantsi."
"They'll cost you three hundred pengoe a pair."
"Never mind, Baba'll get them for us."
We stood up to say good-bye. George said: "Look here, if Ucho or the others come, say they can find us through Stalingrad——"
"What's that, Stalingrad? Whose farm's that? Miloshevitch's?"
"Never mind whose it is. We don't say where we're going. Other people we stay with won't know we've been with you. It's safer that way for everyone. Especially for you. Tell them to ask at Stalingrad. Then, if Rile comes——"
"We don't know Rile. Which is Rile?"
"Maiku! He'll tell you his name. A little man with a Bachka voice. Tell Rile to go straight to Lazar's baza. Lazar's baza—got it?"
We turned to go. George said: "Yes, and if Baba comes, tell her ... tell her ... tell her we're trying to meet her every night at the agreed place. The agreed place. Understand?"
"Yes, yes, Baba at the usual place. We'll tell her."
Juritsa opened the door. Outside it was already dark and we could go. We said good-bye and crossed the ploughland into the maize, and followed the edge of the maize until we were half a mile along the road; then we crossed the road, walking backwards, then walked for another half a mile in a ditch, and finally came out boldly on the road, a mere mud-laden cart track, and walked hard for Palanka.
Half an hour later the first bombers came over, their mission here to drop parachute mines in the Danube. This they had done for weeks past, from Galatz near the Black Sea right up into Austria, with great toll of enemy river shipping. The Germans had made frantic efforts to sweep these mines, both with de-gaussed tugs and with cruising aircraft, for the mines were mainly of the magnetic type; but tugs and barges continued to blow up with the most satisfactory regularity. To-night the R.A.F. had chosen our sector again; as we walked towards Palanka a four-engined bomber swept low overhead in preparation for the run-in to drop its mines. We stood and watched it go, a black and lovely shape against the sky. We wondered what the crew would have thought to know us down there in the darkness, watching them; only the other day a party of ours crossing the Danube had been all but sunk by a chance machine-gun burst from one of these aircraft; and we looked at aircraft now with new respect.
Before we came to Palanka we turned off the road and took to the plough again, because German or Hungarian patrols would make a habit of marching a hundred yards or so beyond the last house. We turned off and crossed the plough into a wide strip of standing corn, and this we breasted in line so that no great track should give us away the following day. The corn swished against us as we went through it, water heavy in the ripening ears and wetting our clothes again; and the whole field of it gleamed a little in the weak moonlight that was misty with the rainwater and the dew. It was as if a pale and gleaming mist hung low above the cornfield; and we moved through it like three black crows hovering across the level of the corn, and the corn went swish-swish, swish-swish, as we passed.
Beyond the cornfield we came into a waste of broken ground, pitted with holes, uncultivable.
"If they're not here," George said, "we'll go on in and wake up Baba. We can sleep at her place."
"D'you know how the patrols go?" Juritsa asked.
"We'll have to risk them."
"Ach, it's no risk! Weren't we born and bred here? To hell with the patrols."
"Don't talk so loud."
"Come on, let's go in."
From the last houses, now near us, there was not a sound. They were shrouded in darkness. Although it was not yet midnight, Palanka was like a town of the dead. No dogs barked; no cocks crew. There was absolute silence. It was almost as if they were waiting for us. We whispered hoarsely to each other.
"All right. Listen. If we run into a patrol we open up on them at once and run back through the cover of the duda-trees. Nikola, the duda-trees line each side of the street in Palanka. Agree?"
We regained the road at the entrance to the town, going warily in case we met a patrol in the act of turning on its beat. Palanka was important to the Hungarians in that it was a principal town of the Bachka, with some sixty thousand inhabitants. Really it was an overgrown village with mud streets and single-storey cottages; but in the Bachka it ranked as a town of some dignity and importance, and as such contained a permanent garrison which was then several thousand strong. The mud road deadened our footsteps. We held our tommy-guns under our long peasant jackets, cocked. After a little the road surface hardened and we could not walk silently. George and Juritsa had opantsi and made scarcely any sound: but no care in walking could muffle the thud of my ammunition boots.
"Nikola, for Christ's sake stop thumping like that!"
Thud, thud, thud, went my boots as if they would waken the dead. George made me walk behind himself and Juritsa; and we went in single-file along the line of duda-trees, deep in shadow. At the first crossroads there was nothing. We went over it swiftly. "Oh, Christ, those boots!" George said.
Thud, thud, thud, went my boots.
A mile later we stopped in the shadow of the duda-trees. I stood in the frame of a doorway and George crossed the road on tiptoe, very black and obvious in the weak moonlight. I stood in the doorway hearing only how my heart was thumping now that my boots were still. Juritsa stood up against a tree and relieved himself, the hissing of his water against the tree suddenly loud in the silence. George was still crossing the road, a moving shadow in that pool of light, one foot moving carefully after the other, soundless. My heart beat against my ribs and Juritsa pissed against a tree and George went soundlessly over the road. There were the three of us.
Then George reached the other side of the road and merged for a moment into the shadow of the second line of duda-trees. Now we were quite silent. Then we saw him again, walking now very slowly; and he reached the window at last and held up his hand, looked carefully both ways up and down the street, and then tapped on the pane. We could hear the tapping on the pane.
At first he tapped quietly, and there was no reply. Then he tapped more loudly and called softly; and still there was no reply. We could not afford to wait much longer. We saw him looking quickly to right and left, up and down the street, and heard him tapping. There was no other sound. We might have been the only living beings in that place.
I stood in the doorway and heard nothing but his tapping and his voice calling softly. This was the last possible antenna of resistance, the ultimate, questing, sensitive antenna that sounded for response where hitherto there had never been response. This was enemy territory in the sense that Srem and Bosnia were not. It seemed a foreign land as we stood in the shadows there that night and waited for them to open the door and let us into concealment again. Within a two-mile radius of where we stood there would be not less than three thousand enemy troops. Then I heard another sound, at first only a vibration far away, indistinct, directionless. I could see that Juritsa had heard it, too, for he turned his head toward the sound and looked upwards.
It was an aeroplane. A few moments later the deep humming of a four-engined bomber passed far overhead towards the north, disembodied in the darkness. The warm vibrations of its engines reached down into Palanka and found us in the street, waiting and straining our ears. It was like a sign, a handshake, a signal of friendship.
Juritsa whispered: "My God, that's ours."
The vibrations died away and, as if the two phenomena were inter-related, the window across the street swung open. We saw George push his head inside. But after a while we saw him turn away and the window close again. He came slowly back across the street.
"She won't let us in because Jury isn't there. It's the old woman."
"Wait. We'll go back to the agreed place. She says Jury went out two hours ago. That means they're waiting for us somewhere. Perhaps we missed them."
We moved off again down along the line of duda-trees. After a little we heard quick footsteps on the other side of the street. "That sounds like him," George said, and whistled. The footsteps only went more quickly than before, on a level with us now and passing us. "Jury!" he called. The footsteps faltered, stopped.
"Who is it?"
"Come over here."
"No, who is it?" And the footsteps began to walk on again.
George ran across the street, caution forgotten. We went more slowly after him, looking both ways up and down the silent moonlit street.
The pale-faced boy looked nervously at us and our guns and said: "Who is it?" His voice was husky.
"Jury, it's George. Black George, you know. And Juritsa. Where's the others? Baba, Lazar?"
He stood for a moment and said nothing. "I don't know you," he said at last.
"Maiku! George. Lala——"
The boy suddenly brightened, overjoyed, and said in a falsetto whisper: "Ah-h! George—is it you, George? I——" and then he remembered himself and the tone of distrust came back into his voice. "How do I know who you are?"
"Look here. You've got a sister, haven't you? Well, her name's Saya. And your mother's been waiting at home all evening, and she's wearing a black shawl. We've just been there."
At last he was convinced. "Come on," he said. "We've been waiting two hours for you."
"That's all right. We'll talk later."
Outside the village we found them at last. There were Baba and Lazar and several legaltsi who were waiting for the next convoy into Srem. One tall man came up to me, and clasped my hand, and said: "Do you promise I can go? But when—that's the question, when!" He gripped me nervously. "I've been in gaol in Pest for two years—in the gaol in the Horthy Miklos Street; they beat me, but I wouldn't talk; they called me dirty Bolshevist scum, but I wouldn't let them get a whimper out of me." He leaned closely against me, shivering a little. His breath stank foully. "They jumped up and down on my stomach with hob-nailed boots. All that—and for two years. I've kept my word. You must help me to go. You must, you must, you must!"
Baba laid a hand on his shoulder: "Look here, old fellow, you'll go as soon as we can send you. Everything's going to be all right now that we've found these comrades."
"Yes, but how long can we go on like this in Palanka? You know I've no documents. I'm not really a legalats at all——"
"Don't worry. We'll arrange everything quickly now."
Out here in the broken ground we could talk freely. For better concealment Baba had arranged a conference hide-out in the cover of some bushes and tall weed. We crowded in and sat down in a circle on the damp ground. They talked in whispers, tremendously pleased. Baba sat next to me and argued fiercely with George. The last time we had been together was a late December morning in Srem when we had chanced to sleep in the same house in Remetits and were all but caught by a chance onfall of Domobrani from Jazak. We had run out of the village together, black figures against the snow, with the Domobrani potting away at us from the hillside beyond the village. After that Baba, who was a peasant girl from a village near Palanka, of which she would never tell me the name, had gone over into the Bachka and now was terrainats of Palanka and district, in charge of local partisan administration, propaganda, and recruiting. She was a sort of travel agency for people who went to Srem, and formed the final link in the chain of terraintsi who recruited and despatched volunteers for Srem from all parts of the Bachka. Since the New Year Baba had arranged with the Odred, who worked the actual crossing, for the passage into Srem of several hundred volunteers. It was impossible to form and maintain large units in the Bachka; the next best thing was that volunteers should go over into Srem for transfer to the divisions in Bosnia. Many hundreds thus went to fight at least a hundred and fifty miles away from home, a revolution by itself in their peasant lives.
The immediate problem now was to arrange with George for the crossing of thirty-five volunteers, some of whom were already waiting in Palanka—."legaltsi" in partisan language because they lived at least semi-legally—and others were due from the eastern Bachka within a few days. They argued fervently on ways and means. They settled and resettled and then settled all over again their problems of clandestine organization, when to meet, and where, and how, and by what signal. At last they were agreed amongst themselves. The legaltsi sat and listened as if their lives depended on it; and in a way their lives did depend on it. The alternatives for them were imprisonment, torture, or death. Baba and George had a clear view of what was needed; the others tended to confuse the issue. Matters here were not decided with the clarity, precision, and discipline of Srem: here everything was to be begun, and everyone's opinion had to be heard. It took hours.
Towards four o'clock Baba said: "That's enough. We've agreed on all that, Lazar, there's no need to say any more. Now, what about to-night?"
"I'd go back into Palanka," George said.
"No, that's absurd. You can't go traipsing about in Palanka like that."
"Hm. Well, then, to Palermo." Lazar said: "No, that's not correct, George." In the end they decided that we should go back to Palermo. Then Juritsa said: "But the others may be at Palermo, Ucho and the others. We'd better go to Baba Matsa's." They agreed on that. We walked back less carefully than we had come, for gendarmes would not patrol the open ploughland except rarely. They talked incessantly as we went. There was the news from Bosnia, the news from Srem, the news from the Allied and Russian fronts, the news from the Bachka, from Palanka....
We came to Baba Matsa's sallash at the first break of dawn. It lay within the shadows of the woods of Chib, a small cottage partitioned into a living room and a stable. Baba Matsa's two horses kicked repeatedly on the partition; partisans tapped on the window, and the dog howled; what with one thing and another neither Baba Matsa nor her buxom daughter seemed ever to sleep. To-night her daughter let us in, and we found the old woman stretched out on her bed with her tired face set in sleep, and her long thin legs poking out from under the quilt. George put the quilt straight and we crowded together on the bench next to the stove. Mara began putting food on the table.
"Poor Mother," she said, "she's tired out."
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