There has been good news of a quieter sort in the hospital today. Sister Harkins's fiance has completed his tour of duty as the pilot of a night bomber over Germany. Better yet, she has persuaded him not to volunteer for a second tour. Something like one fourth of the aircrew do so volunteer, and there are all sorts of problems concerning honor and the male ego. However, having been lucky enough to survive one tour, it's obviously insane to toss the die again.
I suspect that Sister Harkins has used every possible blandishment to make him see reason, and she doesn't talk much about it. The other nurses are, however, secretly jubilant. Back to Iceland.
As daylight increased to a reasonable degree, early in March, the work on the standard guage railway rose to its highest pitch. The government hadn't yet cut off the funds, and Mac wanted to rush before they did.
The major engineering works got the highest priority. If they were completed, it would be madness not to complete the line connecting them. Our tunnellers in Buthir were set to break out in a matter of weeks. The high bridge over Hvalfjordur was ready to receive its central span, and, after that, a month or two would finish it. The smaller bridge over Borgarfjordur had been rushed by men working even in darkness and bad weather, and was due to be completed in June. As Mac said,
"The bridges should, in themselves, guarantee the railway. But, of course, there's always the chance that they might give up and turn them into road bridges."
It was for that reason that we also had our crews out on the line, in a dozen places between Olafsvik, Buthir, and Reykjavik, cutting, filling, and laying track. They worked from long before dawn to long after sunset, and, by the beginning of April, there was no stretch of line which hadn't received some degree of attention beyond being surveyed and marked out.
Our line had a surprisingly flat profile. On "colonial railways," grades of three per cent or more are common, but we had nothing more than short stretches of two per cent. On the other hand, the price of following the coast closely enough to minimize grades was that we had some very sharp curves. They were too tight for anything like a turbine engine, but Iceland didn't have the industrial capacity to require such engines.
I supervised the construction of some of those curves, banking them sharply to allow a maximum speed of forty five. It would be an interesting experience to go around such a curve at forty five, but the engineers would get used to it and many of the passengers would be drunk anyway. At any rate, we would be faster and safer than the bus, which teetered alarmingly on the gravel roads as it took blind curves at almost that speed and forced oncoming cars into the ditches.
When we laid out the curve at the base of the Snaefell peninsula, I stood on the embankment with a stick in my right hand, pointing out what I wanted done. When Vignis told me that I needed only a pith helmet to look like an English engineer in India, I was actually rather flattered. I was also pleased that, having seen me as Mac's assistant, or even flunkey, for so long, she finally saw me acting in a position of authority, one in which I was more competent than Mac.
There's little that's more beautiful than a uniformly curved track. Plato may be right about circles. Anyway, when that curve was done, Vignis joined me in a walk between the gleaming steel rails.
The workers were all engaged in extending the line to meet the one from Buthir, and, when we reached the other end of the curve, the track stopped abruptly. We could see where it had been surveyed, and the cuts and fills roughed out, but we had little inclination to follow it. Vignis instead suggested climbing the hill, not quite a mountain, beside us.
This hill was more rock than gravel, and we could walk up in some places, clambering on all fours in others. Vignis, a little way ahead of me, called back,
"Let's keep going until we're above all the sheep."
I agreed. Some half dozen sheep were wandering over the rocks, nibbling at the sparse low bushes which were growing here and there. They regarded us with indifference, and none seemed inclined to compete with us for altitude. I took it that we would soon be above them.
The trouble was that, each time we reached a new ledge and looked up, there were still more sheep above us. None looked as if they had made any particular effort to get where they were, but there seemed to be no end to them. The top of the hill was elusive, and it was easy to believe that at least one sheep would be standing even there.
When we reached a still higher ridge, there was still no sign of the top, and there was a sheep looking down at us with an expression of benign contempt. Vignis gestured resignedly, and I suggested that we sit down for a rest.
We had been facing the rock all the way up, and, when we turned to sit on the ledge, we were suddenly confronted with a sunlit sea and the white mass of Snaefell sticking up above the horizon.
It was the sort of thing that was always possible in Iceland. One got used to the scenery, but then there would be a new view, and one realized that there was nothing at all like it anywhere. Such things take people in different ways. I had a sudden feeling that it would be no bad thing if I died very soon. I don't know why I thought that. The rationale, if there was one, may have been that there was nothing left to see. The effect on Vignis was quite different. Before I could say anything, she burst out,
"Sidonie and Sam weren't the only ones having affairs."
When a crisis occurs, I often become unnaturally calm. On this occasion, I started pointing out sheep on the slope below us. I concluded,
"There may be sheep above us, but I would say that, if we were sheep, we would rank in the top ten per cent with respect to elevation."
Vignis actually laughed. She continued undeterred.
"When we got here about a year and a half ago, the Starvation games continued in the cafe. Sidonie often lost, and she continued to auction off bits of her clothing, sometimes just her jewelry and various paraphernalia and sometimes more. It was aimed at Mac, of course. She already had Sam."
"Didn't you mind?"
"Not so much. Mac and I weren't getting along, and I suppose I must have signalled to her that I didn't care. Once, in the cafe, after Cadet Jonsson had gone home and we were alone, she did wind up very undressed. Then, she just got up and went into her house. Mac followed her. No one said anything."
Vignis looked at me to see how I was taking it. I shrugged and said,
"There was always a strong attraction between them."
"Yes. I don't think Mac would have acted if she hadn't already left you for Sam. It seemed hardly to matter then. Now, he's irritated with you for coming back and making it matter."
It was possible to think, or perhaps only pretend, that this was the disclosure that Vignis had in mind. I wasn't particularly upset. Sidonie had had so many men, why not Mac among them? This time, I pointed out the route the railway would take over to Borgarnes.
Vignis was having none of the line to Borgarnes, and continued,
"That left Sam and myself with the remains of the Starvation game. We both acted as if nothing unusual had happened and went on talking. After a while, I excused myself to go to bed, and told Sam that I'd leave the door open if he wanted to come in and sleep on our downstairs couch."
Mac hadn't returned until the morning, and, whatever might have passed between Sam and Mac in the latter's living room when he found Sam on the couch, it seemed to have given rise to no unpleasantness. Vignis continued,
"That set a precedent. Whenever Sidonie lost and auctioned off her clothes, she went off with Mac. On the other hand, she began playing much harder and didn't lose on most nights. She and Mac both loved the suspense and played desperately. It drove Mac crazy with frustration when she won, and I think she enjoyed that almost as much as having him for the night."
I could picture the scene. They had often dressed up in the evening, almost like English people in the jungle, and Sidonie would have been in silk. She would have gone to fetch drinks, just to be able to slither around, and she would have been near enough Mac to touch as she reached across the board to remove those of his ships she had sunk.
"And you still didn't mind?"
"Not really. It was interesting to watch, and, of course, Sam and I could partly control the situation by playing harder against Mac than Sidonie, or vice versa. One night, I was in a peculiar mood, and I drove Sidonie to the wall and made her give me almost all her clothes. She fled soon afterwards, and Mac gave me a peculiar look as he followed her. Cadet Jonsson was still there, and Mac's look was nothing to the one the cadet gave Sidonie."
Vignis laughed, and so did I. We almost dropped the subject then, and sat silently for a moment as we watched some clouds envelope Snaefell. Finally, I asked,
"What happened then?"
"I think the others talked among themselves and formed what must have seemed a harmless conspiracy against me."
I nodded coolly and sympathetically, fear lurking in my heart. She said,
"Soon after the night that I defeated Sidonie, the others started playing against me, making alliances. I had good luck and managed for quite a while, but, finally they sank most of my fleet and I couldn't feed my people."
"That couldn't have been the first time you lost."
"No. I'd lost many times, and had just sat and watched the rest of the game. But, you know, whatever other people are doing, there's a strong tendency not just to sit on the sidelines. Sidonie offered me money for my earrings, and I handed them over. I'd done that before, but we all knew that it was different this time. After my jewelry was gone, Mac got my only remaining convoy cornered. He said he'd let it go it I gave him my dress."
"Why did he do that?"
"I think that he thought he couldn't go on sleeping with Sidonie without squaring accounts with Sam. I knew it at the time, and knew that I was about to be used. Just the same, I stood up and took off my dress."
"I guess the others were all pleased."
"Oh my yes. I still had on my slip, which was more than Sidonie often ended up in, but the others acted as if I were naked."
By this time, I knew what was coming. I was very agitated, but felt profound relief that I had killed Sam. Vignis said,
"Since it was a public place and the Cadet was there and other people might come in, I didn't want to take off any more. I went into the house. Sam followed me as I had known he would."
I suddenly found myself angry. I must have been very red in the face when I half shouted at her,
"You could still have put him on the couch."
"I know James. I just didn't. That's all."
"How long did it last?"
"What was Sam like?"
"He was different from Mac in many ways. Some better and some worse."
I was beginning to calm down, and it became very important for me to hear the rest. Vignis might have preferred not to say more, but I pressed her. She explained,
"Well, Mac has always mostly pleased himself. Sam was a professional at sex. He knew exactly what to do, and he got me terribly excited. I lost my bearings entirely for a time and thought I loved him. It was only much later that I realized that it was just mechanical, and that he must have been bored most of the time.
Sam was happy to have me, just for the sake of variety, and he once said that it was a good arrangement for all of us. He didn't pretend romance that he didn't feel. I became very upset, even sort of suicidal. I couldn't stand it, and I went to Willy and explained it all."
This was a complication I hadn't bargained for, and I was frightened anew. However, Vignis said,
"Willy was good, very calm and sensible. He said we'd just carried things too far. In fact, he suggested that I invite him to play with us. I did, and he came along the next night. It had an immediate effect. Sidonie stopped taking off her clothes, and neither Mac nor Sam said boo. Willy enjoyed himself, and his innocent pleasure when he sank someone's ships seemed to deflate them completely. That put a stop to Sam and myself. Mac and Sidonie probably found other opportunities."
"Did the others know that Willy knew?"
"No. They don't know to this day. But Sidonie knew that I wanted to stop it. We decided together that Sam was no good for either of us, and we sent him away to Europe. Neither of us wanted him to come back."
After all this, we were both in something like a state of exhaustion. I asked jokingly,
"Do you think we can get back down?"
Instead of answering, Vignis threw her arms around me. We remained in that position for a long time as I held her and stroked her. We did nothing beyond that, but it was a more intense experience than I had ever had with any woman.
When we finally did make our way slowly down, we knew that our worlds had changed profoundly. But there seemed to be no hurry. We agreed to carry on normally with the others. Vignis said that only Willy would know without being told.