Читать онлайн "The Winds of War" автора Вук Герман - RuLit - Страница 24

 
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He had never found a European airport so busy or so noisy. Gesticulating travellers were besieging the reservation desks. Nearly everybody was either walking fast or running, and sweaty porters wheeling heaps of luggage were snarling at passengers and at each other. The loudspeaker never stopped its thunderous echoing drivel. At the first kiosk, he bought a sheaf of papers. The Italian papers shrilled that this great diplomatic coup by the Axis had ended the war danger. The headlines of the Paris and London newspapers were big, black, and frightened. The German press giggled coarse delight in tall red block letters. The front page of a Swiss newspaper caricatured Hitler and Göring in Russian blouses and fur hats, squatting and kicking out their boots, to the music of a concertina played by Stalin in an SS uniform. Across a Belgian front page, the stark headline was

1914

In a crowded, buzzing airport restaurant, while they ate a hasty lunch of cannelloni and cold white wine, Natalie astonished him by talking of going on. To proceed into a country that might soon be invaded by Germans struck Byron as almost mad.

But Natalie argued that the tourists milling in the airport were mere sheep. If a sudden political change could panic them, they had no right to be in Europe. She had stayed in Paris through the Munich crisis. Half of her American friends had fled, and later had straggled back — those who had not felt too silly. There was always less danger than most people thought. Even in a war, an American passport spelled safety. She wanted to see Poland. She wanted to see Leslie Slote and had given her promise. She would be in and out of Poland in three weeks. The world wasn’t going to end in three weeks.

It did not cheer Byron to perceive how much she wanted to rejoin Slote. Since the Palio, he had hoped that she was warming to himself. The girl had been downright affectionate during the second Palio, which they had watched without Jastrow, and at one point in the evening — when they were well into a third bottle of Soave at dinner after the race — she had remarked that it was too bad he wasn’t a few years older, and a Jew. “My mother would take to you, Briny,” she had said. “My troubles would be over. You have good manners. You must have lovely parents. Leslie Slote is nothing but an ambitious, self-centered dog. I’m not even sure he loves me. He and I just fell in a hole.”

But now she was on her way to her lover, and a political explosion that had staggered Europe made no difference to her.

By now he knew something of her rash streak. Climbing on mountainsides or ruins, Natalie Jastrow took unladylike chances. She leaped gaps, she teetered along narrow ledges, she scrambled up bare rocks, careless alike of her modesty and her neck. She was a strong, surefooted girl, and a little too pleased with herself about it.

He sat slouched in his chair, contemplating her across the red and white checked cloth, the dirty dishes, the empty wineglasses. The Alitalia plane was departing for Zagreb on the first leg of their flight in little more than an hour. She stared back, her lips pushed out in a wry pout. Her dark gray travelling suit was sharply tailored over her pretty bosom. She wore a black crushable hat and a white shirt. Her ringless fingers beat on the cloth. “Look,” she said, “I can well understand that for you it’s no longer a gay excursion. So I’ll go on by myself.”

“I suggest you telephone Slote first. Ask him if you should come.”

Natalie drummed her fingers. “Nonsense, I’ll never get a call through to Warsaw today.”

“Try.”

“All right,” she snapped. “Where are the damned telephones?”

The long-distance office was mobbed. Two switchboard girls were shouting, plugging, unplugging, scrawling, waving their hands, and wiping sweat from their brows. Byron cut through the crowd, pulling Natalie by the hand. When she gave the operator a number in Warsaw, the girl’s sad huge brown eyes widened. “Signorina — Warsaw? Why don’t you ask me to ring President Roosevelt? It’s twelve hours’ delay to Warsaw.”

“That’s the number of the American embassy there,” Byron said, smiling at her, “and it’s life and death.”

He had an odd, thin-lipped smile, half-melancholy, half-gay, and the Italian girl warmed to it as to an offered bunch of violets. “American embassy? I can try.”

She plugged, rang, argued in German and Italian, made faces at the mouthpiece, and argued some more. “Urgent, emergency,” she kept shouting. This went on for ten minutes or more, while Byron smoked and Natalie paced and kept looking at her watch. With a surprised look, the operator all at once nodded violently, pointing to a booth. Natalie stayed inside a long time, and came out red-faced and scowling. “We were cut off before we finished. I’m choking to death. Let’s get some air.” Byron brought her out into the terminal. “He got angry with me. He told me I was insane. The diplomats are burning papers… . It was an awfully good connection. He might have been around the corner.”

“I’m sorry. Natalie, but it’s what I expected.”

“He said I should get the hell out of Italy and go straight home, with or without Aaron. Is that what you’d have told me?” She turned on him. “I’m so hot! Buy me lemonade or something.”

They sat at a little table outside an airport café. She said, “Let’s see the plane tickets.”

“I’m sure we can get refunds.” He handed her the envelope.

She extracted her ticket and gave the envelope back. “You get a refund. They burned papers before Munich, too. England and France will fold up now just the way they did then. Imagine a world war over Danzig! Who the hell knows where Danzig is? Who cares?”

“Natalie. That embassy will be swamped. You won’t see much of him.”

“Well, if he’s too busy for me, I’ll do my sightseeing alone. My family lived in Warsaw for years. I still have relatives there. I want to see it. I’m on my way and I’m not turning back.” The girl looked in her pocketbook mirror and jammed her hat further down on her head. “It must be about time for me to check in.”

He held out his hand. “Give me the ticket. I’ll check both of us in while you have your lemonade.”

She brightened, but looked suspicious. “Are you sure you want to go? You needn’t, honestly. I’m releasing you. Don’t come. I don’t want you. Tell Aaron I said that.

“Oh shut up, Natalie. Let’s have the ticket.”

She gave him a playful smile, clutching the green and yellow ticket to her bosom. “Well! Listen to Briny Henry being masterful. The thing is, darling, if anything does go wrong, I don’t ever want to feel I dragged you into trouble.” This was the first time Natalie Jastrow had — however casually — used a term of endearment to him. Byron stood up and pulled the ticket from her gloved hand.

* * *

The scheduled eight-hour trip lasted a day and a half. No connections worked. Their baggage vanished. They spent the night on benches in the Budapest terminal. At Warsaw, they were the only foreigners arriving at the small field in the nearly empty, rusty, shabby LOT plane, which turned right around and took off jam-packed with people fleeing Poland. Disconsolate travellers crowded the fence and watched it go.

A beefy young Pole in an olive uniform, speaking broken French, asked the two Americans many hostile questions and seemed to regard them as spies or lunatics. He confiscated their passports, muttered with other officials, told them to wait, and disappeared. They were famished, but the throng of refugees in the canteen, mostly Germans, sitting on luggage, squatting on the floor, or crowding every bench and chair, had long since eaten up all the food. Byron pounced on a couple of seats vacated for a moment. Bottles of warm Polish beer stood in the center of the table, with an opener and some glasses, so they drank warm beer and paid the waiter who came swooping down. Then Byron found a telephone and talked the waiter into calling the embassy. Slote was shocked to hear his voice. He appeared at the airport within the hour, chewing nervously on his cold pipe, in a shiny blue Chevrolet that prompted stares. Out came not only the passports, with various entry documents badly printed in purple ink on crude paper, but their luggage too, mysteriously rescued from the Balkans. They piled into the embassy car and set off for the city.

     

 

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