The Evil That Men Do
The Evil That Men Do
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2. - William Shakespeare
By Fredrik Nath
“Only the nation that upholds its honour is capable of enduring as time passes. Germany will endure - Thanks to the Fuhrer.” Rudolf Hess
Rolf Schmidt was a big fellow even as a child, but it was not until he was thirteen he considered killing his father. Of all the things he recalled about his father, Max, the strongest memories were of the heavy shoes the man always wore.
Often, as an adult, late at night, when Rolf had time to muse, the sight of them came to mind. They were bible-black and shiny in his flashbacks; they oscillated like a pendulum in the barn. Rolf was very familiar with those shoes. They were sturdy, and supported Max Schmidt’s feet, as he drove his tractor, cycled into town, or kicked his wife and children. Those clean and vicious shoes made Rolf feel nauseated whenever the mental picture of them forced itself into his conscious thoughts.
Rolf sometimes questioned how the sight of such mundane articles of clothing could stir up so much fear and submerged anger without it bursting forth for the entire world to see. It was as if his rage could only appear when he was alone; the rest of the time, it remained smouldering beneath the surface. Rolf often remembered the look on Max’s face when, entering the barn, he had looked up at his father, whose heavy frame swung back and forth at the end of the rough, brown, hessian rope with which he had hanged himself. It seemed to Rolf, that it was the only time Max had not scrubbed off the mud, or blood from those shoes. At the time, he misinterpreted the expression on Max’s face as one of surprise. Much later, he understood that the wide, staring, bloodshot eyes, the open mouth and the purple tongue protruding from it, were only signs that the drop had not broken his father’s neck.
He sometimes wished he had happy memories of his father to cling to, but the man’s appetite for beer and schnapps and his violent rages when he was drunk, erased any nostalgic thoughts Rolf might have retained. Despite all of that, Rolf knew he might have forgiven his father the outbursts of violence. A boy only has one father and he understood how powerful the bond between a son and his father could be. It was the fact of his mother’s fate he found most painful, so painful that thinking about it took him to the brink of his ability to control himself. The ruminant thoughts were intrusive and seemed to appear at their own whim, beyond his control, erasing any positive thoughts about Max.
Minutes before he found his father, he had stumbled over her body, mutilated and bloodied as it lay in the kitchen, when he returned earlier than usual from school. Dumbfounded with shock, he dropped his books and stared at the body. The bruised face, the torn lips and the neck twisted at this impossible angle, testified to a brutality only Max could have inflicted. The pool of clotted blood on the tiles showed him the outcome. Hands by his sides, chin down, he knelt beside his dead mother and wept. His was no hysterical sobbing; it was a true wail of utter grief. The sound went on, until exhausted of tears, he lapsed into silent shock. Time passed.Then he calmed, as if he had expected her death, for indeed he had, or at least feared it in his adolescent imaginings. He had always guessed somehow, it would come to this. Anger replaced grief faster than he could ever have understood.
He pulled open a drawer and extracted a cook’s knife, long, shiny and he hoped, lethal. His neat fingers grasped the hardwood handle as he called for his father. If the man were there, he would kill him. Before Annika, his sister, came home, he would do it and spare her the shock of what he intended.Thirteen years old, but with the fury of a grown man, he swore death to the man who had brought him up. He searched the house. A blood-trail took him upstairs where the tangled bedclothes and the pillow on the floor, testified to some kind of struggle. A bright-green table-lamp lay vivid and broken on the floor and his mother’s two perfume bottles lay smashed in a sweet-scented heap in the corner of the bedroom. Silence.
The house was quiet now, for once. In his mind, he could hear the sound of his father shouting, screaming, and thumping those great fists on the kitchen table, with the crockery lifting inches into the air. This time however, Rolf held no fear of the big man. He had the knife, he also felt such rage it consumed him. His search took him to the barn where the sight of his father’s body brought no feelings at all at first. He stared up at the face, absorbing what he saw and he dropped the knife. The anger left him as fast as it had arisen and a deep feeling of sorrow came to him. It overwhelmed him and waves of it swept up on the shores of his mind until, forgetting his sister, forgetting everything, he lay down on the clean, straw-strewn concrete floor and wept again.
Rolf paced up and down the hallway. He was a big man, blond and muscular. His movements were economical and the battle, in which he had fought at the Maginot Line, had hardened him beyond anything he would have admitted. His skills in hand-to-hand fighting when training belied his nature and his instructor always said he had no “killer instinct”. Rolf accepted that. He had joined the army because he had to, not because of any enthusiasm for violence.
The building was silent and the echo of his footfall reverberated in his ears, as if he paced in a cathedral, not the ground floor of the apartment house, here in Nazi-occupied Paris. His unteroffizier had left him there to guard and watch over the hallway to ensure the escapee did not return. He glanced at his image in the mirror of a mahogany armoire, which stood in the hallway, forlorn and empty of accoutrements or keepsakes. He peered at the face, which looked back at him with its troubled, slate-grey eyes; the stubbly face portrayed an expression of utter weariness. He frowned. Rolf felt irritated with the sight of his too smart, too clean, green uniform and even with the efficient, oiled Mauser rifle in his hands. It was the reflection of a man he had never wanted to become; a man drawn into war with utter reluctance.
Tired of walking up and down, he seated himself in a carved wooden chair, next to the dresser. The silence around him seemed oppressive; even the street noise outside was faint and distant behind the tall, heavy, oak front doors of the house. Presently, he drew a book from his pocket and began to read. He tapped the arm of the chair with his fingernails as he read.‘The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…’
The battered white cover with its worn silver print and dog-eared pages gave him solace. Only this one keepsake connected him with the life he yearned for and missed. The first few words of the psalm were enough. He knew and understood the book. It had been a gift from his mother many years before at his confirmation, and it had never left his side. The psalm-book was as much a part of him as it had been part of her, and it was his one anchor to a reality that seemed to have passed him by, now he was part of the Third Reich - as if he could ever believe in its tight and orderly workings.
The dank smell of the faded ground-floor carpet gripped his nostrils and he looked up at the staircase leading towards the upper floors. More worn carpet adorned the stairs, held in place by its brass stair-rods. He wondered what kind of people lived here, in this tall, dilapidated building. He questioned why his unteroffizier had made him waste his time here. The fellow insisted an escaped partisan might return and Rolf would have to arrest him. And what had the man done? Printed a few anti-Nazi leaflets? It made no sense to Rolf, whose belief in freedom and the right of every man to speak his mind seemed sacrosanct. If he could be honest, he hated the cloying Nazi dogma, but it was a simple issue of pragmatism. If he had not joined the Party, he would have lost his new job and he might have been seen as an antagonist to the Nazi state. It made no sense to risk one’s life for a principle. He wanted freedom and, in the end, to go home to Dortmund; if he had to pretend to be a Nazi, he would do that to achieve his aim.
He jumped when a woman appeared in the doorway. He cursed himself for being so deep in thought he had not even heard the door open. Rolf picked up his Mauser and pointed it at the entrant. The tall oak door stood ajar for a moment and he watched as she pushed it shut with tremulous hands, entering the murky hallway.
‘Halt,’ Rolf said.
The woman jumped when she heard his voice. He realised the shadows where he sat had hidden him. She was perhaps forty, slim with auburn hair, wearing a brown crumpled suit. Her face revealed fear, and he noticed a faint glimmer of sweat on her forehead. The expression did not belong on that face. It was a beautiful face and one he thought should portray a smile of happiness instead.
‘Hello?’ she said.
She put up her hands and advanced one pace.
‘I’m sorry. I came for my case.’
‘Who are you?’
He was pointing his gun at her, so he realised why she seemed nervous. He lowered the weapon, and then shouldered it.
‘I am Francesca Pascal. I am a conservator from the Louvre. I came earlier to appraise a painting but my bag was too heavy to take upstairs.’
‘Papers?’‘In my bag. Here…’
‘Keep your hands up.’
Rolf grabbed the bag she wore slung over her shoulder. He examined the wallet with her photograph and the stamped identity document.‘In Ordnung. What are you doing here?’
‘I told you. My suitcase. I couldn’t wander round Paris with it; it’s too heavy.’
‘In the suitcase is what?’
‘My belongings.’ Tears formed in her eyes. ‘One of your generals took my apartment and I had to leave. They took everything except what I carried away.’
Rolf understood her. It was a momentary connection such as one might feel for a begging child in the street. He softened and reached forward patting her on the arm. He withdrew his hand, realising how clumsy his gesture must have seemed. He felt awkward but didn’t know why.
‘It is a bad war. I’m sorry for you. I am just an ordinary soldier, I cannot help you. I will have to check the contents and I apologise for that.’
‘There are some family pictures I painted before my daughter died and a few other belongings. Nothing which could obstruct the German war-machine.’
Even the tone of her voice made him want to help her in some way. He wanted to say to her, ‘I am a good man. I don’t believe in what the Nazi Party have done to our country. I am educated. Please forgive us.’ But it would have been nonsense. It may have been what he felt, but it had no meaning here in this hallway, here in the epicentre of the German occupation where even Rolf knew there was worse to come. Besides, it was sedition and for all he knew she would report him.He picked up the case, which he had not noticed before where it stood hidden from view behind the dresser.
‘Heavy,’ he said.
He opened it and glanced inside. His fingers probed for a few seconds, then he shrugged. Did he really care what the woman owned? The act of running his fingers over her personal possessions embarrassed him. It was a kind of voyeurism and he hated it. Rifling through her things seemed a violation to him.‘
You can go. Where will you stay? You have money?’
‘I will be alright. Do you care?’
‘Me? Not every one of my countrymen is heartless. You look a little like my sister. I often think how she would be if France had overrun Dortmund, in the Bundesländer, where we lived. There is no end to this. All I want is for it to finish so I can go home. I’m a Catholic, you see.’
‘I see,’ she said.
Rolf carried the case to the door realising it was too heavy for the woman.‘I’m afraid I cannot carry it for you. I must stay here. I wish you good luck.’
He watched as she struggled with the case down the stone steps. He knew from her papers who she was, but he wondered what would become of her. He had liked the look of her and had she been younger, he would have wanted to spend time with such a woman. But there was no time for such things now, here in Paris, in a country he had helped defeat and which he did not understand. He spoke French, but possessing the language was no key to comprehending the culture and of all people, Rolf understood that. One of his Philosophy Professors had been full of it, until they arrested him, then sent him away.