Vincent doesn’t feel anything. But then again Vincent doesn’t exist, and Joseph Arthur Reynolds is better off this way – dead, cold, unfeeling. He ought to be dead; that’s how he lives, with that fact in his mind.
He especially feels nothing about his father, or his death. What use is the luxury of grieving over a man dying for beliefs and values that were never worth it? They aren’t even worth living for; Vincent’s learned that lesson by now.
And yet he dreams of it in the night; his sleeping mind putting together the various accounts he’s heard, the accounts he couldn’t stop himself seeking out. His father, the proud aristocrat. Taken out, jeered at, shot.
His father, the collaborator.
The weight of the label falls from father to son. After all, it’s not as if Vincent didn’t once blindly follow where his father led. He remembers – Father, never more English than at this moment, packing his son off to his old public school, surveying him in the uniform.
Make me proud, my son, Father says that day, putting a hand to Vincent’s shoulder. You will, I think, eh?
And, God, thinks Vincent, he did; how he did. Until he learned better.
Vincent very carefully feels nothing at all. And yet, under the deadness of his being, somehow it all still hurts.
Paul was a mistake, he knows that now. Back in the day, Vincent laughed at Paul’s intensity, hadn’t fully seen how deep it went, how far Paul would go.
Joseph Arthur Reynolds meets Paul Menard at Oxford, two French students (or one French, one half-French – Vincent’s always only half-something) hanging onto each other against all the over-confident English around them. Paul’s friendship, his love, seem nothing out of the ordinary to Vincent. He’s used to public school, to being in an almost entirely male world of academia. These things happen, it’s part of growing up until eventually, one moves on. Paul’s promises are merely the hyperbole of youth – extravagant, brought on by wine and kisses, the excitement of a cause – everything at the time, and meaningless in the end. So Vincent believes.
In his mind that time is all gold and green, even though he knows it can’t have been. Paul and his ideals are part of that – a glorious part of that. They are young, aristocratic, wealthy, clever, Aryan, and what is the harm in celebrating it?
The answer to that question is one Vincent knows far too well now. The war rages all around them; a hundred thousand shots being fired in consequence of that kind of thinking. A hundred thousand men and women die, and that’s only the start. The war, it seems, takes and twists everything, even the deepest of friendships.
Paul still believes in everything he used to, back in Oxford: he sacrifices lives for his cause daily. When it comes to collaboration and siding with the enemy, he makes Father look like the amateur he was. Paul knows exactly what he’s doing, piling souls onto the altar for a fiercely-held illusion. And he still loves Vincent better than life, still keeps every word of his promises.
I’d die for you. You know that I would, Paul says one day at Oxford, and now, here in this holiday home, in the middle of the wintry woods, he does; quite simply and without protest. If he and Vincent are enemies and one of them must die, then Paul chooses to die. So he says. So he demonstrates, with his last breath.
Vincent will not, cannot, do what he must and pull the trigger in the face of love and friendship, even from such a man. After it’s done, he has to work to hide the shake in his voice and hands as he moves his charges on, away from the scene of the killings. And he won’t look at Nina; Nina, who pulled the trigger and shot his first love, even though honesty makes Vincent admit the execution was deserved.
Vincent casts the memory out into the snow and ice, to let it freeze, and allows the chill wind to numb his soul again, but still he wonders why being loved is, for him, only ever a matter of shame.
It’s funny, but torture is almost simple. The SS HQ has its routines. Vincent can still measure out the passing of time through them, despite their efforts to disorientate. The art of not feeling is something he’s been cultivating a long time; now it’s the only way he can fight them and win.
To instead be comforted by a friend is so much more complex and painful.
He thinks now, inevitably, of Oxford again, this time of being with Egon, of arguing for hours over interpretations of art and history, as if they were all that mattered in the world. Egon was never a Fascist, like Paul (like Vincent) – and yet, here he is, an officer in one of their most damnable secret organisations, trying now to break Vincent with friendship. With love.
They called us a couple of pansies, Egon says, his thin face alight briefly with amusement at the memory. But we drank them under the table.
And what then? wonders Vincent. It’s a memory that’s inevitably unclear, but he always had the feeling they did their best to justify the insult, if they weren’t too drunk to get that far.
Must everything he’s ever had or known be taken and tainted, made vile, by this all-encompassing war? When he’d thought of Egon, he’d never pictured this: that his friend would steal his secrets with sympathy and betray him with love, like Judas, only to survive. Egon frees a chosen few; those he helps his debtors, paying in gratitude. It’s despicable – somehow so much worse than the straight-forward brutality of people like Lutzig. Vincent is sick to the stomach again at something – someone – he once held dear.
But war is love, it’s true. Love is war.
It’s only much later, when Egon’s help has at least proved not to be a lie, and Vincent is free again, that it occurs to him to wonder if in consequence perhaps Egon has also given his life for him.
Vincent laughs at the irony of it all, and the only thing he lets himself feel is the pain in his fingers, the irritation of wearing gloves, and if he thinks of Egon, he’s merely nauseated at the memory. And he does not feel hope rising from its grave at the idea that he might yet see Nina again.
He lies to himself. He feels everything.
IV. Wolfgang Amadeus Gratz
Vincent has come through to a place of understanding, or something like it, and he feels now; he knows that he does. There’s determination, hope, even love. (Hello, Nina; hello, Vincent.) He feels enough to fight for what he’s gained, and what he’s lost, but not enough to kill.
He and Gratz have been two students at the same school, learning from the same teacher, from Nina, from the War, but now they’ve reached two opposite conclusions. Vincent knows, as he fights for his life, that he is damned well right this time, and Gratz is wrong, even as he falls. And for all the irony, he thinks, he was loved; he is loved.
It’s not enough, though. It’s not enough to get to the top of the stairs; it’s only enough to prove Gratz lies.
You obviously detest violence and killing as much as I do, Gratz says, preying on the very humane quality he affects to praise, but there’s a difference: Vincent can’t bring himself to fire in the face of love and human frailty.
Gratz can. Gratz does.
Wolfgang Amadeus Gratz is nearer now, his touch like that of yet another fatal lover, laying Vincent out. He weeps over him, adds himself to the list of war criminals he carries in his devious mind. Sorry, he says, but Vincent fails to hear.
Vincent no longer feels anything at all.