I said nothing.
“Do you believe, Mr. Tanner, that Montenegro ought to be free and independent?”
“For many of the reasons advanced in your book.”
“And for others?”
“Perhaps.” I prefer not to go into detail regarding my political beliefs. Too many persons would see my loyalties as being at odds with each other. While I myself do not find this inconsistency bothersome, explanations tend to be tedious.
“You enjoyed my book, Mr. Tanner?”
“And approved of its contents?”
“So much so that I would be honored to translate it.”
“It is you who would honor me. But, Mr. Tanner, did it occur to you to wonder why I wrote this book?”
“Out of conviction, I would guess. And to further the cause of separate republics in place of the Yugoslav Federation and-”
He interrupted me with a shake of his head. “Greater reasons than those, Mr. Tanner,” he said. “And lesser ones also. But the most important reason of all, I would say, is that I do not care for war. I have been in war. I have killed men, I have seen men die around me. I do not care for war at all.”
He took a small sip of brandy. “But war has always been with us, and I would suspect it will always continue to be. I know what war has been in the past. I have studied history all my life, Mr. Tanner, and I know the growing patterns of war, with ever larger countries pitting ever larger armies against one another. You know the poem ‘ Dover Beach ’? An English poet, Matthew Arnold. I recall one line. ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ All armies are ignorant, Mr. Tanner, and all warfare takes place in the night of the soul.
“Now we have a world of huge countries, do we not? China, Russia, the United States, the Common Market of Western Europe, the Socialist nations of Eastern Europe. Large nations and combinations of nations. Years ago when two small countries fought a war, a man of peace could go fifty miles away and be in another country entirely and then he would not have to concern himself over the war. Little countries fought little wars, and little armies fought little battles, and the world went on. But imagine a war today between America and Russia, or America and China, or Russia and China. Where would a man go? Where would a man hide? And what would become of the world?”
I plucked a handful of grapes and munched them thoughtfully. It was time to move on, time to head for the border. But he was speaking well, and I wanted to hear him out without spoiling the mood.
“It is easy to imagine Yugoslavia divided into five or six republics. But now imagine China divided into two dozen provinces, and imagine your own country separated into fifty independent states, and the Soviet Union carved up in similar fashion. Then there could be no large wars, Mr. Tanner. Then there could be no men in positions of great power, and when a man of peace saw a war coming, he could move from one village to another and be untouched by the little war.” He sighed heavily, then sat up. “So this is why I wrote my book, you see. Not because I expect the Yugoslav Federation to dissolve itself, but because I am an old man tired of war who is, when all is said and done, a native of Savnik who would like to die decently in Savnik, away from the cares of the world.”
Milan Butec got to his feet. “But that is far too philosophical a speech for a sturdy Slavic peasant, is it not? And it is time that I returned to the role of the peasant. Let us go.”
And we walked, he and I, like happy peasants, through the rows of grapevines toward the Hungarian border.
The fence on the Yugoslav side of the border stood eight feet tall, the bottom seven feet composed of dense steel mesh, the top foot a menacing weave of barbed wire. Some thirty yards beyond this fence was its Hungarian counterpart, perhaps a foot or so taller. Between them was a gravel-laden stretch of no-man’s-land marked by the tire tracks of patrolling sentries. The fence was not electrified, which was about all that could be said in its favor. The mesh afforded little in the way of a toehold, and as far as I could see in either direction, there were no trees anywhere near the fence. The great expanse of vineyard offered nothing upon which to stand in order to scale the fence.
“You have a plan, Evan?”
We had progressed to first names. We had made inestimable progress generally, until this damned fence had come along. No, I told him, I did not have a plan.
“Could we cut our way through the mesh?”
“I don’t have a wire-cutter with me. Besides, it would take hours. I could boost you over, Milan.”
“But how would you get over?”
I didn’t answer him. I thought about cutting back to the road and trying to bluff our way through the border station. I might have tried it alone, but I didn’t dare with Butec along for company. The stakes were too high, and he was too new at the game.
“A ladder,” I said. “Stakes.”
“These vines are staked, aren’t they? Let’s see what the stakes look like.” I went to one of the grapevines, tugged it loose from its supporting stake, then yanked the stake free of the soil. It was about four feet long, two inches wide, and an inch thick. I carried it over to the fence and wedged it into the mesh. Angled slightly, it went in rather nicely.
“We’ll need a dozen of these,” I said. “They’ll get us over.”
He didn’t ask unnecessary questions. We worked quickly, ripping hell out of some poor farmer’s well-tended vines. When we had twelve of them, I wedged each one halfway through the mesh fence, spacing them evenly from top to bottom.
“Steps,” I said.
“But will they hold one’s weight?”
“They will if they’re counterbalanced. I’ll show you.”
I stooped down, and Butec clambered up onto my shoulders. He balanced precariously there while I straightened up. “Now,” I said, “can you step over the barbed wire and onto the top stake? Don’t do it yet, just tell me if you can.”
“Good.” I gripped the top stake on my side of the fence and put all my weight on it. “Now go ahead,” I said.
One of his feet left my shoulders and moved over the wire to the stake. I used all my strength to keep the stake balanced, and then his other foot left my shoulder and cleared the barbed wire.
“Where do I put the other foot?”
“I don’t know,” I said foolishly. “Can you jump the rest of the way?”
“Perhaps,” he said. And, abruptly, he did just that. As soon as his weight left the stake I was leaning on, I rather foolishly sprawled forward against the fence.
Butec landed on the other side in a catlike crouch. His cap dropped off in the course of his descent, and his wig, the adhesive tape loosened by perspiration, was flapping a bit oddly. But he spun around to face me, a triumphant smile on his round white face. “Are you all right, Evan?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said. It was I who should have been asking the question – after all, he was the one who had just jumped seven feet to the ground. “And you?”
“Quite well. But now how will you scale the fence?”
I showed him how. It was his turn to lean his weight upon each of the stakes in turn while I climbed them one by one to the top of the fence. When I reached the top, I swung my right leg over and stood with one foot on either side of the highest stake. It was an odd feeling, like that which a child experiences when manipulating a teeter-totter all by himself. I poised to jump, then sprang with both feet at once, just clearing the topmost strand of barbed wire with my left foot. My landing was not precisely catlike. My feet hit the ground, then my hands, and then I did a neat, if unplanned, little somersault and wound up standing on my own two feet. If I’d tried to do just that, I couldn’t have managed it in a thousand years, but in spite of myself I’d done a bit of tumbling that Sofija and her band of Latvian gymnasts might have been proud of.
Milan congratulated me warmly. “One can see you have had much practice at this sort of thing, Evan.”
“A bit,” I said. I had in fact fallen out of a tree in crossing from Italy into Yugoslavia and another time I fell off a train in Czechoslovakia, but this was the first time I’d ever acquitted myself so acrobatically.
“We move the stakes,” I said, “and play the same game again to get into Hungary.”
Some of the stakes didn’t want to move. They were wedged quite tightly into the steel mesh and seemed content to remain there forever. Milan and I wrestled them out one by one and scurried across the wide gravel path with them. On the Hungarian side was another vineyard that looked startlingly like the one we had just passed through except that the vines were set a bit farther apart. It is always jarring to discover that crossing a border does not entail a great change of terrain. One almost expects the ground itself to change color, as on a map, and one has to remind oneself that the ground was there long before there were countries and long before the various portions of the ground had been awarded names and dimensions.
We wedged our stakes into the Hungarian fence. I dropped to my knees, and once again Milan mounted my shoulders. Either he had gained weight in the past few minutes or I was growing weaker; whatever the case, it was not so easy to straighten up this time. But I did, and used one hand to support a stake from beneath, and Butec, cap and wig once again fixed neatly in place, took a little leap and flapped like a bird and landed again like a cat, spinning around at once to beam at me with triumph.
“And now you, Evan!”
I readied myself for the climb. This fence was a shade higher than the other, and I wasn’t sure whether Butec would be able to reach the higher stakes. I told him to climb with me, he on his side and I on mine, so that our weights would balance one another off. We both stepped onto the bottom stake, and as we stood there I heard in the west the unmistakable sound of an approaching patrol car.
I dropped to the ground so abruptly that Milan was sent sprawling on the other side. “Border patrol,” I said. “Get back and out of sight. I’ll try to bluff my way through. If I don’t manage it, work your way through to Budapest. Go to a man named Ferenc Mihalyi. Mention my name, tell him as much as you have to. He can arrange passage to the West. He-”
“But my manuscript, Evan!”
“I’ll try to get it through. If I fail, you can recreate it in London or America. But hurry!”
The patrol vehicle was already in sight. It resembled a jeep of World War II vintage. One man bent over the wheel. The other knelt on the seat with the barrel of his rifle resting on the top of the windshield. The rifle was pointed at me.
I stepped quickly away from the fence and moved toward the middle of the road. I threw my arms high in the air and began waving them about frantically in a sort of hectic semaphore. The jeep approached and pulled to a stop a few yards from me. The rifle remained trained upon me. The driver swung his lean body out of the jeep and advanced, pistol drawn. The rifleman hesitated for a moment, then got out of the jeep himself.