To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chapter 4-3

This section ends Chapter Four and our time with Jozef for now.


Prerau, Moravia. June 14th, 1915. “Major, I believe there’s something wrong with the tracking of the requisitions.”

The officers were milling about on Monday morning as the enlisted men from the Major’s detail got the civilians in order to begin the second day of the requisition fair.

“Eh? What’s the trouble, m’boy?” asked the major, puffing to get a new cigar lit.

“I went to the stables last night to look in on a particularly choice mount I’d requisitioned for the regiment. I remember them painting the requisition number on his flank. Yet when I found the horse with that number in the stables, it was a completely different horse. Perhaps some horses were double numbered, or the clerks are covering for some mistake, but this was definitely not the horse I had chosen.”

The major shrugged. “Easy to misremember a number, and hard to find one horse among a crowd. I wouldn’t let it trouble you. The men are very practiced in these fairs, and the horses will all arrive in the end. Best not to worry yourself and to concentrate upon finding more good horses to round out your quota today.”

Before Jozef could ask any more questions, the major turned away went to join another knot of officers. Jozef felt a moment’s wash of frustration as he watched his receding back in its crisp dress uniform which was little changed in the last fifty years since the wars against Napoleon III and Wilhelm I. It was natural enough this old man would not remember which was horse was which, would assume that everything could be smoothed over by the clerks who managed his books and thus his whole operation. Perhaps that was the explanation. Men with the poor wages of enlisted men had been given the power over hundreds of valuable horses because their commanding officer was too old to bother himself with details, and so of course the temptation might become too great to take the odd horse here or there, take his beautiful black hunter and substitute for it a common gray cart horse. Still, if the major could not be bothered to investigate the issue, there were surely others who could.

He was thus surprised that when he managed to draw Rittmeister Hofer aside during a pause in the morning’s fair, he got little more interest than from the major. “Doubtless you just confused the numbers, von Revay. A day full of horses followed up by good champagne is hardly a spur to precise memory. It’ll all sort out in the end.”

It wasn’t until lunch that Jozef found a ready audience for his concerns in Rittmeister Korzeniowski.

“How many horses do you believe are missing?”

“I don’t know. There was just the one that I was looking for. If it is indeed some scheme to make off with the better horses, we need to check more.”

The Polish officer drew a little notebook from the breast pocket of his uniform tunic. “There I think I can help you.” He turned a few pages and then held it out for Jozef’s inspection. Neatly listed out were all the horses that Korzeniowski had chosen, with a note of both the requisition number and the appearance of the animal. ‘263 Chestnut Mare, 281 Bay Gelding,’ and so forth. More than forty were listed, with a line drawn between Saturday’s choices and today’s. “The little stars mark particularly choice mounts,” Korzeniowski explained. “If there’s some sort of scheme afoot, those are the ones we should check first.”

And so after the requisition fair wound to its close for the day at three in the afternoon, while the rest of the officers returned to the hotel for some pre-dinner refreshment, Rittmeister Korzeniowski stayed behind with Jozef. The requisitioned horses now filled two of the long stable buildings.

Jozef led the way to the stable he had visited the night before, which contained the horses that had been requisitioned on the first day. It took time to find each horse listed in Korzeniowski’s book among the quietly milling herd of animals. It soon became clear that Jozef’s experience with his black hunter was by no means unique. Nine of the horses Korzeniowski had selected on the first day were gone, including all but one of the ones he had marked with a star, each replaced another horse that was older or heavier than he had chosen.

“This must truly be my lucky horse,” Korzeniowski said, rubbing the nose of the dappled mare which was the only remaining of his choice picks. “It was a farm lad leading her through. Perhaps that’s why the others didn’t give him a full look. Nothing grand about the owner, but the horse I could see was a very fine one. Even so I almost let him go. I could see the hope building in that farm boy’s eyes. He loved that horse, that much I could tell, and had seen its potential and given it every care.” He paused to drop a kiss on the horse’s forehead. “You won’t have nearly such a pleasant life in the cavalry, poor creature. But any trooper who gets you will love you. And Poland needs you.” He scratched the horse gently behind the ears and then turned it loose to mill among others. “Wretched, isn’t it, how war turns honorable men into thieves. And yet we honorable thieves must track down the common thief who is making off with the horses that we have lawfully taken.”

Jozef shrugged. This uncomfortable view of the requisition had not occurred to him prior to that moment. “It’s hardly theft. They supply service pays the owners for the horses we take.”

“And yet the ‘official value’ they receive is rather less than a really good mount is worth. Perhaps the ones who have poor horses taken come out ahead from a financial point of view. But even then, the money doesn’t make up for a beloved animal raised from birth.”

For a moment this seemed very close to putting blame on them for taking these animals away to an unhappy end, until its corollary occured. “But wait, we’re not doing anything but take the horses where we ourselves are going. If we have to go face danger and deprivation while these farmers and merchants stay safely at home, is it wrong for us to take the horses we need in our work?”

“Wrong? Of course not. We don’t ask anything of these beasts that we don’t ask of ourselves. And after all, I did pick the horse in the end, tender feelings aside. That farm boy may spend some sad days here in the peaceful countryside, but if his horse keeps a trooper alive and brings him to the place he’s needed in battle, he will have done a better thing than all the civilians here will ever do.”

Next they visited the second building in which the horses requisitioned that day were housed. Here the results were different. Every one of the animals Korzeniowski had selected was there.

“This certainly confirms your theory” he said.

Jozef nodded. “Whatever happened to the horses chosen on Saturday, nothing similar has yet occurred with today’s batch. Now perhaps it was only a one time occurance. But if not-- Well, I should think it will happen soon. And I aim to find out who is responsible if it does.”

They sought out Sergeant Egger and Jozef explained their concerns. “And so I want you to put a watch on the buildings, particularly the one in which the mounts chosen today are housed. You must find somewhere out of sight. It may be the supply Major’s men who are orchestrating this little theft, and I don’t want them to know that they are being watched.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll find a pair of observation posts and set men to two hour watches.”

“Very good, Sergeant. I’ll seek you out when I get back from the opera tonight, and you can tell me what you’ve observed.”

***

Jozef was eager to tell Zita about his afternoon’s detective work, but she declined his invitation to skip the evening’s performance of “Martha” and find a quiet place to talk instead.

“Surely you’ve seen it before,” he objected.

“Well of course, and sung it too. But I haven’t seen Sophie sing it, and if I’m to be any sort of success in the company I can’t be seen to skip others performances all the time.”

And so they spent the evening watching the adventures of Lady Harriet pretending to be a simple country maid and causing consternation among the farmers who hired her. Only at the intermission was Jozef able to draw Zita away to a quiet place and tell her about the mystery of the vanished horses.

“What do you think is happening to the horses?”

“I presume they’re being sold. Yet another form of war profiteering, but this one is being perpetrated by soldiers themselves.”

“It does seem at times that venality is the human condition.”

The tone with which she said this reminded him of the difficulties she herself had faced. “Have you had any more troubles with the company manager, or the hotel owner?”

“No. Well, not exactly. Herr Goss did say that I must remember I am a member of the company, and responsible for the company’s success and reputation. And then he said that a singer can’t afford to lay favorites unless the man is willing to support her. ‘She must make all her public feel welcome,’ he said. But he didn’t say anything about the dressing room specifically, and tomorrow night when I perform again I shall make sure that I have all my things hidden away behind the screen before I begin to change. The public may feel welcome in the theater, but not in my dressing room.”

After the second half of the performance -- with Lady Harriet restored to her rustic lover, who proved in fact to be an orphan of noble stock -- all repaired again to the hotel to toast the actors and the evening. Jozef, however, eager to discover what his men might have seen while guarding the stables, made his excuses and slipped away. Rittmeister Hofer was among the revelers, and although Jozef briefly considered confiding in him, it seemed better after the brush-off that he had received that morning to wait until he had clear proof.

Proof, however, was not something which the guards could yet offer. When Jozef spoke with Sergeant Egger he was assured that no one suspicious had entered the stables.

“Did anyone come?”

“Well, the stable hands, of course, to give the evening feed and water. And the major visited twice with some well dressed gentlemen, but I’m sure he was only checking to be sure that all was done well.”

Could the major himself be somehow involved in the scheme? The idea that a commissioned officer, even one in the supply services, would violate his honor thus was shocking. And yet, perhaps that would explain the too quick brush-off which Jozef had received in telling the major his concerns that morning.

“Should I keep the shifts of guards going through the night, sir, or shall I let them go to bed?” Sergeant Egger asked.

It would be difficult to see much once the strings of lights between the fairground buildings were turned off. And yet, surely the movement of half a dozen or more horses would be visible even on a dark night.

“Yes, keep them at it, Sergeant. Let me know in the morning if there is more to report.”

Jozef rose early in order to find out if the guards had seen any suspicious activity overnight. It was, however, a tired and frustrated Sergeant Egger who greeted him.

“Nothing, sir. I did the rounds to make sure the men weren’t falling asleep, but no one approached the stables all night. The stable hands arrived about an hour ago, but they’re just giving the animals feed and water. We’ve seen no horses led out of the buildings.”

Nothing. Perhaps the thief dared strike only once. Or perhaps the next theft would come while they were looking at today’s horses. The men might be annoyed at being kept on a seemingly pointless duty watching stables that were already guarded. On the other hand, there was only this last day and the requisition fair would be over. As pointless tasks went, this was safer than many that had been asked of them, and there were ways of compensating them.

“Keep the watches going through today and tonight,” he told the Sergeant. “However, the men may have a double liquor ration for the day, and I’ll speak to the fair manager about opening the carousel to them again tonight once the fair is over.”

“That will be most appreciated, sir. And if I may say, it does as well to give the men some activity during dull periods like this. Otherwise you’ll have half of the down with drunkenness this week and venereal disease the next.”

It was still two hours before the day’s requisition fair would begin. The morning sunlight was bright and the air still comfortably cool, and so Jozef walked towards the two long stable buildings where the requisitioned horses were housed. The stable hands the sergeant had mentioned were moving around the buildings. As Jozef watched, a wagon piled four high with bales of hay arrived. Men with pitchforks followed it through the big barn doors to unload the hay and load it into the feeding troughs for the horses.

The horse remained the most reliable form of mobility on the battlefield. Gone perhaps were the noble sabre charges beloved by painters a hundred years before, but as the Uhlans had shown time and again across the plains of Russian Poland, their mounted companies could easily cover fifty miles a day and still arrive fresh to fight a skirmish or secure a position. Trains could provide similar or even greater speed, but they were restricted to their ribbons of iron track, where were few and far between as the army approached the vast expanses of the Russian Empire. The new automobiles served a similar purpose without requiring track but were of little use on the unpaved rural roads that led eastward, much less across open country.

Yet with the horse’s speed and versatility came its need for large quantities of feed -- about ten kilos per day to keep a horse active and in good condition. A man, by comparison, needed only a single kilo of rations to march and fight. While the Uhlans could range far and fast from the rail lines thatt brought supplies to the troops, it was impossible to graze long enough or requisition enough quality feed from the local peasants to keep cavalry operational without a constant stream of carts bearing bales of hay and sacks of oats moving from the rail lines to where the regiment was deployed.

Each of the eight squadrons in the regiment had an official strength of two hundred horses and thus required two thousand kilos a day of feed. Each of these buildings contained more than that, so the provisions required were significant. But what of the missing horses? They knew of at least ten, but that was only between Rittmeister Korzeniowski’s requisitions and Jozef’s black hunter. How many other prime horses were also missing? Twenty? Perhaps even forty horses? Those horses too would need their share of food, and in all likelihood it would take enough to feed them that it would hardly be an invisible task.

Jozef watched the stable hands coming and going. There were no uniformed men among them. If the Major were indeed the one behind the missing horses, would he have used the same stable hands to care for the other horses, assuming they were even still nearby? And how carefully would he have instructed them in secrecy? If these were local laborers, perhaps to them one military uniform would look much like another. And yet he had spoken of the missing horse with the major the day before. Perhaps he would have warned them against speaking to Jozef in particular.

There was no way to find out but to throw the dice and see if luck served him well. Glancing down to be sure that all in his dress uniform was correct to what would have been the major’s satisfaction, Jozef approached the stable hands at a purposeful gate. The overseer, a heavy man whose bristly mustache was tending towards gray, stepped away from the others and took off his cap as he greeted him.

“Good morning, sir. Nearly finished with the feeding and watering, sir.”

“Very good. I’ll be seeing Major von Brenner in just a little while and hope to give him a good report of your work. Would you be so kind as to show me around?”

“Of course.”

The overseer led Jozef through both stables, where the feed and water troughs were indeed full.

“All very satisfactory,” Jozef pronounced. “And the other horses?” He leaned in slightly. “The special ones?”

“Oh, they were fed first of all, sir.”

He had gone so far. This was not the time for caution. “Show me.”

There was uncertainty in the overseer’s expression; his gaze shifted back and force and he ran his tongue over his lips. Anything but complete confidence now could be fatal.

“Come on,” said Jozef, and started walking. It was a guess, though an informed once since most of the other fairground buildings lay in the direction towards which he started.

“Of course, sir,” the overseer said, overcoming his doubts and hurrying to take the lead.

The building he let Jozef to was smaller than the other stables, and located at the far end of the fairground, well away from the track. Rather than one big open space it was broken into a row of stalls down each side, each one just big enough for one horse. Walking down the central aisle, looking into stalls on either side, Jozef quickly found the black hunter he had picked out. The requisition number had been washed off its haunch. Only a few faint traces of white paint remained. But otherwise the animal seemed well and satisfied with its lot, chewing quietly at the feed in its box.

Examining the other horses, there were at least some that had been among the ones chosen by Rittmeister Korzeniowski as well as several dozen other clearly superior mounts. All of these had also had their requisition numbers scrubbed away. Other animals still had numbers clearly painted on their hindquarters, but these were the sort of undistinguished riding and cart horses that the major had been requisitioning. Were these, perhaps, the horses that would be used to replace the better requisitions from the second and third day, just as many of the best from the first had already been moved here and replaced with middling animals?

“All to your satisfaction, sir?” asked the overseer, hanging at Jozef’s elbow.

“Yes indeed. I’m sure the major will be most pleased. And now I thank you for your time and will not take up any more of it.” The ruse had worked as well as, perhaps better than, he had any right to expect. There was no point in pushing it further.

The overseer assured him effusively that it was no trouble at all, but he seemed relieved as he led them quickly back across the fairgrounds to the stables where he men were at work.

“Will you be by again this evening, or perhaps tomorrow morning?” the overseer inquired before they parted.

“Who’s to say? I go or come as ordered. But I can see you have everything well in hand, so there’s nothing to fear,” Jozef assured him.

***

As soon as he was able to find a chance to step aside together in privacy, Jozef told Rittmeister Korzeniowski about his discovery.

“So our good host is running this little game, is he?” the Polish officer said. “What am I expected to do, I wonder? Find that my requisitions have all been replaced with nags and cart horses and say nothing? That seems a bit of a hole in the plan. But I suppose with him managing the paperwork there would be nothing but my word that these weren’t the horses I’d selected myself. Yes, that must be the plan. I’d come back with claims of how I’d requisitioned these wonderful horses, and when they all proved to be disappointments it would be, ‘Who are you to believe, the officer who was swilling champagne behind the lines for a three days while picking the animals or the paperwork drawn up with precision by the supply service.’ Indeed, once I lay it out that way, perhaps I would keep my mouth closed once it all came to it. What would be the point? I suppose if I must admit it, it is something of a brilliant little scam.”

“But what should we do about it?”

‘You say the good horses are still quartered on the fairgrounds. I’ve a fair mind to gather my enlisted men tomorrow morning, come in with weapons out and simply collect the horses that I originally selected. Board the supply train on schedule and who’s to stop me? Filing a complaint over my behavior would raise too many questions, and I can’t see that they’ve made any provision for one of us realizing what’s going on before we’re safely back with our units.”

“But shouldn’t we do something to end all this scheming? It’s a disgrace that an officer is selling horses needed by the army for profit.”

“A noble sentiment, but how are we to stop it?”

“Couldn’t we file some sort of complaint?”

“With whom?”

“Well--” Jozef hesitated. The very idea that there was no recourse against such corruption seemed offensive. “I don’t know. But perhaps if I tell Rittmeister Hofer he will know how to do something.”

“As I see it, the more people you tell, the more chance that the Major hears of it and moves the stolen horses somewhere safer.”

“He’s an officer in my own regiment.”

“You’ve made the discovery, so I suppose it’s your own affair,” Korzeniowski conceded. “But if you were to ask me I’d advise you to tell no one else unless you know absolutely that he cannot be compromised. You and I are both rather low in the pecking order, I because of the Legion and you because you’re a reservist junior officer and not even staying at the hotel with the others. Not to mention that I imagine the others resent the dalliance you’re enjoying with that young soprano. Oh, never mind,” he amended as Jozef objected to this last. “I’m sure the lady’s as pure as the driven snow if you insist upon it, but the others can hardly be expected to know that and you behave like a man who’s keeping a sweetmeat to himself. My point is that it may well be that the Major is acting with the knowledge of other officers and has already greased the skids with them, while you and I are playing detective because we haven’t been deemed worthy to include in the circle of mutual favors.”

“Perhaps,” Jozef admitted. “But remember my position. I am not in command; Rittmeister Hofer is. If I’m to get back our horses, I must tell him.”

Korzeniowski shrugged. I can hardly forbid you, as you’re the one who has done the work to trace our missing horses. But the end of it all is that my prime mounts are moved somewhere else so that I can’t retrieve them, I promise to resent you from atop my shaggy cart horse for months to come.”

***

The Polish officer’s concern gave Jozef sufficient pause that he kept his secret to himself throughout the afternoon, but no other solution was forthcoming. If he was to get back the stolen horses, he must take the enlisted men to the other stable, free them, and then bring the back on the military train with the other mounts. There was no way to do this without Rittmeister Hofer’s agreement, and so getting his agreement must be the next step.

Jozef resolved to approach him after the evening’s performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

“A word, if I may, sir.”

“Certainly, certainly. What, tired of your little nightingale, or has she merely not come down from her perch yet?”

“I hope to see Miss Nosek later, thank you.” He could not allow himself to be dismissive to a superior officer, but surely he did not need to allow himself to be a figure of fun. “I have something to report to you, sir.”

“What’s that?”


“I think that there’s some fraud being carried out with the requisitions.”

The rittmeister’s expression became grave. He put an arm around Jozef’s shoulders and led him off to a corner of the room where they could speak without any interruption or risk of being overheard. “And why do you think that?”

Jozef described his investigation and discovery of the missing horses in detail, leaving out only the involvement of Rittmeister Korzeniowski, out of respect for the Polish officer’s fear that discussing the theft with others might prevent him from stealing back his own horses.

“All the missing horses were in the other stable, sir. And from what I could draw from the overseer, I think that the Major is aware of the deception, perhaps even organizing it.”

Rittmeister Hofer exhaled a gusty sigh and scratched at the back of his head thoughtfully. “It’s a serious business, von Revay. A very serious business. To think that an officer of his age and experience would stoop to such corruption.”

“Sir, I don’t suggest this lightly, but I have seen the horses and talked to the workmen.”

The rittmeister dismissed the protest with a wave of his hand. “I know. I know. I don’t doubt you at all. I only mean to say that this will need to be handled with discretion. It’s not just a matter of assuring that we get our requisitioned animals and bring justice to the profiteers, we must also protect the honor of the army, indeed the emperor himself, whose commission each officer holds. I’m glad you came to me.”

Relief swept Jozef. “Then you can deal with the situation?”

“Indeed. I’ll deal with it,” Rittmeister Hofer promised with a grim look. “But you must leave it to me to manage it properly. Not a word to anyone else, let we lose the element of surprise, eh? Can you promise me that? Not one word. Carry on as if you knew nothing about it, and I’ll see that all is resolved to our satisfaction.”

Jozef promised that he would do as instructed.

“Here’s what we shall do, eh? The military supply train for Galicia leaves at three tomorrow. I’ll deal with this situation, and see that we get our mounts back. Sergeant Egger and the men will have their orders and will get the horses loaded up. And you must go with them and see that everything makes it to the regiment without delay. Once I’ve sorted things in the morning, I will catch the noon train for Vienna. There I can deal with this matter through proper channels and see that all justice is done. And after that I’ll return to meet you and the regiment. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” To be entrusted with bringing the requisitions back to the regiment showed the trust that Hofer placed in him, and that the rittmeister was taking the matter to Vienna proved that he took it with the utmost seriousness.

“Very good. And remember: Not one word.”

Zita was late coming to the restaurant, and when she did so it was with a forbidding look.

“You sounded wonderful tonight!” said Jozef, hoping that their evening had not been ruined before it began by another unwelcome dressing room visit from the Opera company manager.

“It went well,” Zita agreed, in a tone of no great enthusiasm. “Tell me something. Who among your fellow officers there is the major you told me about, the man who runs the requisition fairs?”

Jozef pointed out the silver-haired major.

“I thought so.” She stood looking at him for a moment with a fixed and unfriendly gaze which could all too easily be noticed.

“Would you like to sit down?” Jozef indicated one of the small tables at the periphery of the room. “I could order you some dinner.”

“I think I’d like to go somewhere else,” she replied. “Somewhere we can talk without attracting everyone’s gaze. And then I can tell you a thing or two I believe you’ll be interested to hear.”

There was determination, perhaps even controlled anger, rather than any sort of allure in her words. Nonetheless his curiosity was strong. There was no real obligation to remain in the restaurant with the others. On previous nights, after all, they had usually kept to their own table.

“Let’s go, then,” he said. “There’s nothing to keep us here, and we can decide where to go as we walk.”

The summer twilight was fading into full night, and there was no moon to light the sky. Zita began to speak as they walked the street from the Hotel Grande towards the more modest one in which she and most of the other members of the opera company were lodged. This darkness clothed their conversation in a veil of privacy. Even as Jozef looked over he could see only the pale outlines of her face against the glow of lighted windows.

“I received visitors in my changing room again, tonight,” said Zita. “There was no knock when the door opened. I was behind my screen, changing from the costume into my own dress. I heard the company manager say, ‘Thank you gentlemen, I’m sure that Miss Nosek will be happy to receive you.’ There was the clink of coins, and then I heard the tread of two men coming into the room. The door shut behind them. Do you see? He took money in return for sending them into my room. Really, he has no shame at all. This company is little better than a burlesque.”

“I’m sorry.”

“But after the last time I was prepared. I had taken all my things behind the screen, so I had no need to come out and no intention of giving them the satisfaction of noticing their presence. I stayed behind my screen and continued dressing. From the other side I could hear the shifting of feet, as if they were unsettled that I had not acknowledged their entrance. Then they began to talk. Perhaps they imagined they were speaking too discretely to be understood, and they would have been right if you had not told me about your little mystery with the missing horses. With that context, I soon realized what they were talking about, and I think I can tell you how there scheme works. And it serves them right, both for how they treated me and their profiteering,” she added.

“They didn’t…” Jozef paused, unsure of the word to apply in front of the lady herself for what the troopers at times so casually spoke of in regards to enemy civilians.

“No!”

The sound of shock in her voice made him regret the question. “I’m sorry. You said you learned about their horse scheme?”

“Yes, the one man, whom you identified for me before we left as the major, spoke of horse owners visiting him and putting down deposits. The other officer was asking when he would get the rest of his money. He was eager to invest the money in a manufacturing project that his future brother in law was organizing. He said that if he could prove his solvency that way, he would at last be able to marry the rich widow he had been pursuing. They had some rather knowing talk about her. But from all they said, the horse scheme seems to work this way: At the requisition fair, many of the horses chosen belong to wealthy men. The major tells them that they can have their horses back if they will pay a fee to exchange another horse for theirs. They give him half immediately. Then, when the horses are shipped off to the army, it’s the substitute horses that go instead of theirs. The owners pay the second half of their fee when they get their horses back, and along with them they get a certificate good for one year, saying the horses were found unsuitable for military use. Then the major shares the money with the other officers who were in on the scheme. In this case, because the other officer was so urgent for his money the major agreed to advance the money right away, in return for the major getting a larger share.”

This explained the replacement of many of the best horses with ones of lesser quality, and even the Polish officer’s one horse that had been unscathed -- he had described it as belonging to a farm boy, clearly someone not able to buy back his requisitioned horse. How many officers were in on this corrupt arrangement? Clearly not his own rittmeister, nor the Polish officer. Were all the others, or just some chosen few?

“I learned all this while listening from behind my screen. I was in no hurry, since I did not intend to come out until they went away. They must indeed have run out of patience, because as I was sitting and lacing up my boots, I heard a sound above me. The other officer, not the major, was standing right at the screen, looking over it at me. I demanded to know what he was doing, but he just smiled and said, ‘Your voice is very good, but if you are to become a star you must learn to appreciate your public’s adoration.’ Then he tossed a coin over the screen to me and added, ‘And they will adore. That’s a dancer’s leg you’ve got there.’ As I say, I had been lacing up my boots, but you may be sure that covered myself up the moment I heard his voice. The cheek and indecency! I told him he was no gentleman, but he only laughed and turned away. He and the major left the room directly. Perhaps he thought he’d put me in my place very nicely with his remarks and that coin he tossed me, but I knew that I had understood much more of what they said than they imagined and that I could come straight to you with it.”

“Who was the second officer?” Jozef asked. “What did he look like?”

“Tall. With dark hair and a mustache.” It was a description which would fit most of the officers. “I would know him if I saw him again,” she added.

So now the structure of the horse scheme was clear, but he still did not know the major’s accomplices.

“Will you be able to stop them and expose their corruption?” Zita asked. She had stopped and stood facing him. This, it was clear, was what would wipe away her own humiliation, that it would serve to bring the downfall of the men who had treated her thus.

“Yes. We will,” Jozef promised, and was rewarded with a look of gratitude.

***

Jozef was on the railroad platform early to see Rittmeister Hofer onto the noon train to Vienna.

“I’ve already sent notice to the regiment informing them that I shall follow you by several days,” Hofer said. “Once I have dealt with all of this corruption.”

“And the horses, sir?”

“Already dealt with. No fears there. Sergeant Egger and his men will have the horses loaded safely on the livestock cars of the military train. All you need do is find yourself a nice berth and enjoy the ride back to the regiment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ve been a great help in all this. Thank you, Leutnant. And remember, not a word of all these machinations. I’ll resolve them myself with all due discretion.”

The train whistle sounded and Rittmeister Hofer stepped up into the carriage. Jozef saluted, but the older officer never turned to see or return it. Then with a squealing of metal wheels on metal track and a cloud of steam, the train chuffed and churned out of the station.

Walking back down the platform towards the street, Jozef saw Zita waiting for him. They’d agreed to spend his last few free hours before the military train taking a walk together, but now her expression was not the cheerful welcome he had hoped for.

“That officer you were speaking to,” she said. “Is that your rittmeister?”

“Yes. That’s Rittmeister Hofer.”

“I recognize him. He is the officer who treated me so humiliatingly in my changing room.”

“It was Rittmeister Hofer who was with the major in your room?” The evidence which before had pointed to one reality now shifted to point to another, but the change was so sudden that Jozef felt the need to ask questions while seeking his new equilibrium.

“Yes.”

“And is that the officer involved in the scheme and already making plans to invest his earnings.”

“Yes, I told you.”

“He’s played me for a fool. Come on.”

“Where?”

“To see if we can play him for one.”

His first stop was the hotel, but there he found that Rittmeister Korzeniowski had already left.

“You might try the fairground, sir,” offered the porter. “The Polish officer said that he was going to collect his horses.”

And if Korzeniowski had already retaken his stolen horses by force, the major and the others would already be put on guard and it would be impossible for Jozef to do the same without risking violence.

Jozef turned to Zita. “I’d wanted to take that walk with you. But I may already be too late. And if I’m not, I’ll have no free time before the train leaves.” It was on that walk he had intended to find the right way to say goodbye, perhaps a way that would create a way to see her again, perhaps even find at last a way to advance their relations beyond friendship.

“It’s not the same, but I could walk with you.”

It wasn’t the same, but it did at least leave open the chance that in their last few hours together something might happen. “Of course. If you won’t find it boring.”

“What are you going to do?”

Jozef glanced around. They had regained the street outside the hotel. There was no one nearby. “I’m going to try to steal back the stolen horses.”

“That doesn’t sound boring.”

“Well come along then.”

At the fairgrounds they found much activity already in motion. Sergeant Egger was already organizing the men in lining up the horses for the 7th Uhlans.

“Did the Rittmeister speak to you about the horses this morning, Sergeant?” Jozef asked. If Hofer had given the sergeant orders or even drawn him into the horse scheme, it might be impossible to use him in regaining the stolen horses.

“No, sir. Are there new instructions?”

Relieved, Jozef asked for a half dozen men and set off for the other stable building. There he found Rittmeister Korzeniowski’s men in dispute with the stable hands.

Recognizing Jozef from the previous day, the overseer of the stable hands turned to him for support and complained of Korzeniowski’s actions at length. “I’ve had no orders to allow removal of these horses,” he concluded.

“I’m sorry about the orders, but the rittmeister is quite right,” Jozef assured him. “My men need to remove several of the horses as well.”

Doubt was obvious in the overseer’s face. “The major’s orders were that no horses are to be taken from this stable for any reason.”

“Clearly he should have sent you orders independently,” Jozef replied, trying hard to project the breezy confidence of one with no thought be being disobeyed. “Unfortunately, everything’s at odds today with the supply trains loading. It must have been overlooked. If you don’t find my word sufficient, I encourage you to send word to the major. But don’t delay me and the rittmeister here while you make up your mind.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, sir.”

“Of course not. You’re only doing your duty. I would expect nothing less.”

“Very well, sir. I’ll send a messenger.”

How much time would that give them? Twenty minutes at the least, perhaps half an hour, before the messenger could find the major, explain the situation, and return with a denial. By that time, they must be finished and well away. In a look Rittmeister Korzeniowski seemed to acknowledge the same thing. They both set to moving through the stalls and pointing out the horses that had originally been among their requisitions. The enlisted men led the selected animals out into the open.

Three horses were as many as a man could manage, even well behaved animals led by the halter. Luckily, Jozef had only fourteen animals that his six men had to manage. The Poles had rather more to handle, and so Jozef ordered his men to help lead a few of theirs as well. They went straight to the train station. Sergeant Egger was still organizing the bulk of the Uhlan’s horse requisitions at the other stables, but Jozef wanted to take no risk of the major or some other higher ranking officer who was privy to the horse scheme arriving and taking back these horses while they were still on the fairgrounds. If there was to be a confrontation over the horses, let it be in public at the train station.

The military train which would take their horses east into Galicia and Russian Poland was already in the station. Workers were loading coal onto the fuel bins and bales of hay into the livestock cars. Jozef attempted to have their horses loaded, but the logistics officer in command of the train was adamant that no horses be loaded until the entire contingent of horses for the Uhlans and the Polish Legion were present. This meant that they were standing with their horses in the freight yard when the major appeared.

“My boy,” the major said, ignoring Korzeniowski and addressing himself to Jozef. “There seems to be some sort of confusion. These horses aren’t among your requisitions. Yours are all marked on the hindquarters with their requisition numbers.”

Jozef was about to return an indignant contradiction to this when he saw Rittmeister Korzeniowski raise his hand. The Pole had the advantage of age and experience, if he wanted to take the lead, he surely had his reasons. Jozef inclined his head to the other officer.

“Sir,” said Rittmeister Korzeniowski. “I hardly know how to tell you, because I know that you will be as shocked and outraged as I was. Indeed, surely more so, because you have for so long had the honor of the Imperial-Royal service as your guiding star.” He paused and the two men eyed each other. Zita and Jozef looked on in silence, waiting to see what the Polish officer would say. “These are in fact among the horses we requisitioned. I took careful note of the description of each horse that I spoke for, and these were among the ones I chose. However, someone -- a man with neither honor nor wit -- has attempted to enact a vulgar fraud upon all of us: you, sir, most of all. He has taken the best of the horses we requisitioned and substituted animals quite unsuitable for cavalry. I think it very likely that perpetrator has done this out of a base desire for profiteering. If I erred in not coming to you immediately, it was only because like you my first desire is to preserve the honor of the army. I couldn’t bear for word of this disgrace to spread. And so I did what I could do quietly, took back the horses which had been stolen from the empire’s cause and brought them here to be loaded along with the others. Perhaps you’ll see a better course I should have followed, but at the very least you will see that my motives were the same as yours would have been.”

Jozef had been ready for a confrontation, for raised voices, perhaps even for his men and the Major’s facing each other down with rifles leveled. Instead, the silence stretched on for a moment as the major and the Pole faced each other. Then the major bowed. “You’ve done me a great service in handling this matter with such discretion. Be assured that I will make every effort to find out who has stained the honor of the army with this venal ploy.”

The major turned and left.

“How did you know that would work?” Jozef asked.

Korzeniowski shrugged. “I didn’t. But it seemed worth the attempt before things came to threats or shooting.”

“Still,” said Zita. “He must see that you know him to be at the center of it all.”

“Indeed. He wouldn’t have let us go so easily if he hadn’t seen that as what it was: a threat to expose his scheme.”

“Then he must be thinking about how you uncovered it. And as I was standing next to you, it will hardly be difficult for him to put the pieces together.”

“You, dear lady?” Rittmeister Korzeniowski asked. “Surely it is Leutnant von Revay and I who have cause to fear the major’s subtle wrath. I imagine he has bought his share of ears on the general staff.”

“But it was in my room that the major and Rittmeister Hofer were discussing their scheme. I immediately told Jozef. Surely he will put it all together.”

Korzeniowski’s eyebrows had shot up at the words ‘my room’ but a firm shake of the head from Jozef prevented him from saying anything out loud. Instead he took a reassuring route, “I don’t in any way want to diminish your service in all this, but surely von Revay discovered a great deal on his own and he is an officer. I wouldn’t say that the major doesn’t notice you, for as I’m sure you’re aware we men cannot help noticing a woman of your looks, but even as the major looks at you he may not see you when it comes to thinking about who discovered his scheme.”

For a long moment Zita was silent, her lips compressed into a line. Then, at last, “I want to leave. I’ve had nothing but humiliation from the manager of this company, and I don’t want to wait and see what retribution he and the major may take against me if they discover my role in this.”

“Where would you go?” asked Jozef. She could not stay with him once he returned to the regiment. At most, he could manage a brief tryst in some town along the way, if only that was what she wanted.

“Home at first,” she said, with a matter of factness that made it clear she had not been contemplating the sort of departure Jozef had for a moment allowed himself to imagine. “Perhaps without patronage it was foolish of me to attempt a stage career. This sort of company is worse than nothing. With my Vienna training I could teach. There are rich parents who would pay well enough for a Vienna trained singing teacher, even a young one. Churches won’t take a woman soloist, but I will find things. And I’d be with my family again. Yes, home.”

So there was to be no tryst, but perhaps at least one last chance to do something together. “If you want to leave now, why not come on the train with us? You could take you at least as far as Olmütz, and then you could catch a civilian train home.”

Rittmeister Korzeniowski leaned in close to Jozef and said in a low voice, “No women are allowed on the military trains. There have been scandalous incidents, and a regulation was issued by the general staff.”

Jozef shrugged. To show that he could brush the rule aside would add to the dashing impression he wanted to leave Zita with, so he replied in a voice that could be easily overheard. “We’re already stealing our horses back under from under the major’s nose. Are we going to let a regulation stop us? And don’t forget, Zita helped uncover the horse fraud. That makes her a comrade of sorts, and we owe her the chance to get away from here before she suffers any retribution.”

“How?” asked Korzeniowski, but now with a smile.

An answer sprang fully formed into Jozef’s imagination. “Why not have her dressed as a soldier?” She was an opera singer, after all. Disguise was a staple of light opera.

Korzeniowski laughed and shook his head.

“What, you don’t think it would work?”

“Oh, I suppose it would work well enough, though Miss Nosek would make too slim and pretty a boy to be safe in the army. Still, with officers for chaperones…” He leaned close to whisper in Jozef’s ear. “I’ll allow it, friend. But you had better get a great deal out of that girl for all the trouble you’re putting us to.”

To protest this implication would only draw Zita’s attention to it and decrease the possibility -- already small, though Jozef could not resist allowing his imagination to dwell on it -- that during the train journey she might succumb to a moment of passion with him before leaving. So rather than argue, Jozef ignored the Pole’s suggestion and with his help sent Zita off with a uniform and a pair of soldiers to carry her luggage. By the time the rest of the horses had arrived from the fairgrounds and been loaded on the livestock cars, the officers had been joined by a short and slight non-commissioned officer with boyishly smooth cheeks and an Uhlan’s czapka which sat high on his head due to the quantity of hair bundled under it.

This non-commissioned officer seemed strangely familiar with the Uhlan leutnant and the Reittmeister from the Polish Legion. Indeed, as the train pulled away from the station, close observers might have noticed the arm of the leutnant wrapped around the waist of the non commissioned officer. This did not attract the attention of the logistics officer, however, who completed his inspection of the train without complaint or comment. Nothing so shocking as a woman was discovered aboard.

***

The military train steamed its way northwest to Olmütz. There it would change tracks onto the main line which would take them all the way to the Galica and on into Russian Poland. There too, Zita would need to leave the train, dressed respectably as a woman, and board a civilian train which would take her south to her family in Auspitz.

Rittmeister Korzeniowski secured a private compartment in which this miraculous transformation from Uhlan to opera singer could take place, had her luggage placed in it, and whispered to Jozef with a knowing look, “I hope she makes it worthwhile for you.”

Whether Zita sensed this expectation or some perfect innocence guided her, Jozef could never decide when looking back. Whatever the reason, she stopped outside the private compartment and turned serious eyes upon him. Her features seemed all the more strongly feminine for being framed by the Uhlan uniform and czapka.

“I want to thank you. I’ve seen these last few days how for many men an opera singer is a thing to be enjoyed. But you, at every turn, have been kind and thoughtful. You’ve treated me as a person in her own right rather than a toy or trophy. I know that once I’m back in my own clothes I’ll have to remain out of sight until we reach the station and I can slip off the train without getting you in trouble. So I wanted to be sure to thank you first, even if I make a strange show of it in this uniform.”

She leaned forward, taking him by the shoulders to bring him down to her height, and planted a quick, glancing kiss upon his cheek. Not the passionate embrace he had for a moment envisioned, but a sisterly brush of the lips. Then, before he could pull her close into something more, she turned away and the door of the private compartment closed behind her.

It was very nearly the last time that he saw her. She did indeed slip off the train unobtrusively at the station in Olmütz, drawing no attention from the logistics officers and military police. But even as he and Korzeniowski went to oversee the feeding of the horses in the livestock cars, Jozef saw her as a distance as she hurried down the platform. He stopped and watched until she disappeared among the crowd.

Disappearing to where? To the continuation of a life which had stretched on before this few days -- though in the moment it had seemed longer -- where they had intersected. Now her life would continue on its own trajectory and Jozef on his. She was no more a side character in is life and than he in hers. Was it the fact that she had wanted nothing from him other than to be known for who she was that gave this sense of knowing only a small part of a greater story? Turning back to the far longer time he had spent with Klara, she seemed a more easily contained episode in his life. But then, she had not desired to let him see into the rest of her life. She had offered a set portion of herself, for her pleasure and for his, but no more. Zita offered less and more, and as she disappeared among the crowd left him wondering how her story would continue, and whether his own would intersect with it again.

***

In peacetime it would have been a single afternoon’s train journey from Olmütz to the 7th Uhlans’ camp near Sandomierz, and yet the tangle of wartime logistics made it nearly a two day journey, with long hours spent with the train sitting on railroad sidings while other trains with higher priority steamed past.

Jozef spent this time composing a detailed report for the regimental commander, Oberst von Bruenner, detailing the horse stealing scheme, Rittmeister Hofer’s participation in it, and Jozef’s own efforts to foil the scheme and deliver the horses which had originally been requisitioned for the regiment.

It was a task which seemed to require some diplomacy. Too much reticence and he might not receive proper credit for his actions. Too much braggadocio and he might not be believed. The finished report was, he believed, a master work of balance. He submitted it to the Oberst as soon as he arrived.

And yet it was three long days before he was at last called into von Bruenner’s tent. During that time he had experienced plenty of doubts as to whether the balance of the report had been as good as he had believed. These doubts seemed confirmed by the dour expression with which the Oberst greeted him.

“Leutnant von Revay.” The commanding officer turned the three words into a sigh.

Jozef remained rigidly at attention. Whatever he had done wrong, he would find out soon enough without asking, and strict formality was the only holding action he could offer. “Yes, sir?”


“You are a diligent and resourceful young man. That would be good, if you had the honor of the regiment and the army in mind rather than your own advancement.”

“Sir?”

“I have just received confirmation that Rittmeister Hofer’s request to be posted to an infantry regiment has been accepted. The staff understands his desire to serve where experienced officers are most needed. And since he is no longer a part of this regiment, there is no need for me to take official notice of this very indiscreet report which you wrote.”

Jozef chose to remain silent.

“You’re not a regular officer, von Revay. And perhaps in the professional army to which the rest of us have dedicated our lives, you are not cut out to be. Do you even understand what you have done?”

It was clear that he was not going to be allowed to remain silent at this, so Jozef grated out a, “No, sir.”

“You have brought disgrace upon this regiment, leutnant, by making it known to all and sundry that one of its officers is a horse thief. A disgrace that I was only able to fend off by sending a long serving officer off to the infantry. Eh? Did you think of that? Did you think of how it would reflect upon this regiment when you wrote down all of these things? Did it never occur to you that you could pass up whatever glory you hoped to gain by the exposure and instead let your own company commander know in confidence what had happened? You had already assured that we got the right horses. That was good work and done with sufficient discretion that I admit to wondering if it was all yours. The Polish rittmeister perhaps?”

“He guided me, sir.”

“Yes, I thought so. And he seems to think well of you, as I find, which solves the problem that you present.”

“I’m sorry. What problem, sir?”

“The problem that no company commander will want to be assigned a leutnant who just had another rittmeister sent down to the infantry by his indiscretion.”

And so the work which had seemed to do him so much credit instead made him unwanted by every unit in the regiment. How could doing the right thing for the army be considered so wrong? But the Oberst was still speaking.

“Fortunately I’ve been asked to assign a liaison officer to deal with these Polish legionnaires. It’s a damned useless and thankless task, but this rittmeister with too many letters in his name seems to have taken a liking to you and hints that you’d be welcome as a choice, so I’m happy enough to oblige. Perhaps the Poles can teach you some discretion before it’s all over.”

The change was too sudden for Jozef to know yet what his feeling should be. The wild miscalculation of his report, this new assignment to the Polish Legion. “Is that all, sir?”

“Yes, yes.” Oberst von Bruenner waved him away. “You’ll receive a set of written orders shortly. Then it’s off to the Poles and be damned with you.”




I feel that I'm doing you, dear reader, no great favors by producing so slowly at this time. In an effort to get some freshness to move forward faster in the future, I'm going to take a short break from working on Volume Two, and instead return to a novel I wrote nearly five years ago, a lighter piece dealing with family, business, and Chinese manufacturing. I want to get that novel into publication ready order and hopefully when I return I'll be able to move this project forward much faster for you.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chapter 4-2

The second Jozef installment, and the next hopefully very soon to follow.


Prerau, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. “There are two ways to go about the task,” Major von Brenner said, leaning so close to Jozef that he could smell the pomade with which the older officer’s mustache was styled into stiff upward curls. “Either look at the horse, or look at the owner. If you have a trained eye for horse flesh, you may do well enough with the former. But often enough you’ll miss some detail -- the older horse with unusually good teeth or the young firebrand that’s just a touch lame. Watch the owner, and you’ll never fail. You’ll never get a good horse off a farmer or a carter. They’ll have the big, slow beasts who eat more feed than they can carry, very good for pulling a plow but no use to the cavalry. For cart horses, look to the man of quality who has a set of good carriage horses. But for a riding horse, you need a young man, someone who invests in a racer or a hunter. And the richer the owner, the better the horse. Jews are the most reliable, of course. Always take a Jew’s horse. They have an unerring instinct for value.”

Jozef reflected on this advice as the horse requisition fair formally began. The officers all sat in a line. As the junior officer from the 7th Uhlans, Jozef was seated to the right of Rittmeister Hofer. On Jozef’s other side sat Rittmeister Korzeniowski, the lone representative of the Polish Legion wearing their distinctive square czapka hat embellished with a silver Polish eagle. The Pole was the second to last in the line of officers, the only one placed after him being a leutnant from the supply service there to requisition draft horses.

The non-commissioned officers under von Brenner’s command martialed the civilians and their horses at the other end of the enclosure, then sent them across one at a time leading their animals so that the officers could see the horses move. If they like the look of a horse, they called out, and the horse was numbered, the unit of the officer who had spoken for it noted down, and the horse was led into a holding pen. If no officer spoke up, the owner was issued a paper stating that his horse did not have military value and exempting it from requisition during the next twelve months.

It was indeed mostly the horses led across by well dressed men or uniformed servants that were called for. The shaggy plow horses led through by peasants were let pass, and their owners left the fairgrounds gratefully clutching their certificates of exemption. A few carters or shopkeepers had wagon horses that were well suited for draft work. And matched sets of carriage horses led by their drivers were quickly snapped up.

As the last in line, Jozef and Rittmeister Hofer did not at first get the best picks, but as the officers at the front of the line began to near their quotas they let more and more good animals pass. A black hunter that stepped impatiently behind a liveried groom caught Jozef’s eye in particular, and when it somehow escaped the notice of other officers Jozef spoke for it. The groom scowled to get so close to escape and then see the horse requisitioned, but he led it to the pen where a korporal put a number on its haunch in white paint and noted down the owner’s information.

Jozef was not among the officers rich enough to purchase his own horses privately, but perhaps having helped to pick out good horses for the regiment he would be able to take this one for his use. Jozef watched as the korporal took the halter off the horse which already he already thought of as his and handed it back to the groom. Then the black horse dashed off into the enclosure, tossing his head, until he slowed and approached another horse, nostrils whiffling in greeting.

He was so busy watching that horse that Jozef only saw the next, a perfectly decent pair of carriage horses which no one spoke for because their quota of draft animals was already nearly full, as it was being led away for the relieved owner to receive his exemption.

Since the officers spoke for horses in the order that Major von Brenner had seated them, it was those closest to him who were able to snatch up one good mount after another, while Rittmeister Korzeniowski was left to pick from among the horses for which none of the other officers had bothered to speak. When a particularly well made animal was led down the line, Korzeniowski would lean forward, following its movements, only to fall back in his seat when one of the others spoke for it.

Many of the other officers seemed to follow von Brenner’s theory of selection, choosing horses based upon the man who led the horse as much as the horse itself. Horses led by uniformed servants or well dressed men were almost uniformly taken. Indeed, the greatest exception to this pattern was von Brenner himself, who asked for a number of very middling horses led by farmers or tradesmen to be set aside.

As one of these selections was being led away, one of the other officers chided their host some over his dull selections.

“You recall,” von Brenner said, “I am not choosing for a particular unit. I am merely trying to make sure that when we fill all the quotas, if any of you are short, there are still some middling choices to fill out your requisitions. You choose the cream and I’ll supply the dross.”

“Perhaps there should be a different order when we resume,” Jozef suggested as they broke for lunch. Waiters from the hotel sliced cold tongue and poured champagne as the officers discussed the morning’s horses.

“Are you hoping for a better spot, young man?” von Brenner asked.

Jozef shrugged. “Rittmeister Korzeniowski is next to last and seems to get very few choice horses.”

“Ah.” von Brenner nodded. “I wouldn’t worry yourself on his account. He’s picked some good mounts, and he’ll have more chances as the others reach their quotas.” With that he turned away and went to join another knot of officers.

“If was good of you to try.” Jozef turned to see Korzeniowski approaching him. “Forgive my overhearing,” the Pole added. His German was very correct, with just the slightest Polish accent.

“It looked to me as if you had a good eye for horses but were disappointed in most of your choices.”

“I like to think I know a good horse. My uncle raised them. But I’m fated to get the leavings. It shows some tolerance that I’m here at all. One can’t ask more.”

“How so?” Jozef asked.

Korzeniowski smiled. “You don’t know what unit I represent, do you.”

The square headgear emblazoned with the Polish eagle made the nationality of his unit clear enough, but what was the unit itself? “You have me there,” he admitted. “I’m not a career officer. I can tell it’s a Polish formation, but I don’t know what kind.”

“We are the only kind of Polish formation.”

“Our own 7th Uhlans are mostly Polish, and my fellow officers very proud of it too.”

“Ah, but you miss my meaning, sir. You are a unit of Poles. We in the Legion are a Polish unit. We have our allegiance to the Polish Supreme National Committee, which perhaps if God, the emperor, and the fortunes of war are willing will someday soon be just as real a government as the Hungarian Parliament. But in the meantime… Suffice it to say there are those who would call us play soldiers, though if anyone says as much in my hearing I will of course have to demand that he meet me on the field of honor.”

“But how can the committee have an army if it’s not really a government? What is it?”

“What is it? An idea, an ideal, a people. Ask anyone with the luxury of a government for his own nation and he’ll tell you that only a legitimate government can raise an army. But history is clear in its examples: the army always comes first, and only after a people has proved itself in battle is it acknowledge to have a legitimate government. So with this great war comes an opportunity. There are thirty million of us Poles, and for over a century our land has been divided up between Russian control and Austrian. If we throw our weight in with the empire and help to free our fellow countryman from the oppression of the Tsar, perhaps that earns us the right to stand as a separate and equal nationality within the empire. And for that possibility, we’re willing to risk our lives.”

“That seems a noble enough reason. And yet they force you to the end of the line when it comes to selecting horses.”

Korzeniowski spread his hands. “If I were to be generous in my thinking, I’d admit that there are plenty of Polish officers and men who serve in his Imperial Royal Majesty’s army without thought for advancing their nationality. The fact that we wear the Polish uniform rather than the Austrian is suspect.”

“Well as far as I’m concerned, anyone willing to risk his life to fight the Russians is loyal enough. And I’m sure many of the Polish officers I serve with in the Uhlans would like to see a greater Poland within the empire. I’m part Polish myself, in a way.”

“Even if he weren’t, your fair mindedness would make you a comrade in my eyes.” Korzeniowski gave a slight bow.

“I wish I could help, but I hardly have any better pickings than you.”

“It’s kind of you, but I’ll get by. It’s a great deal of progress that I’m here at all. You should have seen us back in 1914. We had to provide our own weapons. One of my troopers was carrying a sword his grandfather used against the Prussians in 1866 and a muzzle-loading fowling piece. And when they did first send us proper arms we got Turkish rifles which didn’t fit the ammunition we were issued. Things are better now. We’ll just never be at the front of anyone’s list, which is fair enough since we’re at the front of our own.”

***

After the horse requisition fair was over for the day, the officers converged again on the hotel for dinner and the evening’s performance. Tonight was the opera company’s tragedy “Lucia di Lammermoor” and while it was not one of the crowd-pleasing comedies it was at least a well known classic with songs that appreciative fans could hum along to. For Jozef there was an additional attraction in that he could see Zita on the stage for the first time.

“You were wonderful,” he said, when she joined him in the hotel restaurant after the performance.

“Bring your songbird to the table, von Revay!” called the major from across the room.

“Do you want to join the main table?” Jozef asked, keeping his voice low so that the other officers could not hear. “Revel in your triumph with the whole crowd?”


Zita looked down and gave a slight shake of the head.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to comply with your suggestion at this time,” Jozef told the major, drawing howls and laughter from the other officers. The comedic sopranos were already seated with them, however, and soon the attention directed at their little side table died away.

Zita ordered soup and shrugged away the glass of champagne Jozef offered. Even as he waxed eloquent about her performance she kept her gaze down at the table in front of her and picked at the soup.

“Is something wrong?” Jozef asked at last.

Another shrug. “I’m tired.”

Silence. Jozef poured himself another glass of champagne and contemplated his companion. The curve of her jaw. The line of tendon that stood out in her neck as she turned to look away. The smooth line of collarbone visible above the blue lace yoke of her evening dress. It seemed almost indecent, as if the day of judging horses’ merit had left him seeing only flesh and skin and muscle, but every feature spoke of a creature more young and supple than Klara.

And yet at this moment her gestures spoke of someone unhappy despite her successful performance. Another tack was called for.

“The second day of the horse fair isn’t until Monday. I’ve no obligations tomorrow. Could I take you somewhere?”

A shake of the head. “I want to go to mass. And after that... I’ve no performance tomorrow, and I don’t want to see anyone.”

“We could go away together. Perhaps a picnic. I could rent a trap and drive you out into the country. We could eat sandwiches from a hamper and not see anyone all day.”

At last her eyes met his. “Oh. How could you guess? We used to take picnics with my father. Nature walks, he called them. He said it was the best change from spending his days dealing with trains: clean air and quiet.” The words had tumbled out with a sort of desperate happiness, but now she stopped, conscious of having for a moment shown a great deal. “Yes, I’d like to go. Just a quiet picnic. You needn’t plan anything fancy.”

“A rustic ramble, then, of the very simplest kind, I promise.”

This had his intended effect of drawing a laugh, if a guarded one.

He met her next morning outside her hotel. Her wide straw hat and the walking boots he saw peek out from under the hem of her plain cotton dress as he helped her into the gig reinforced the idea of a family-style walk in the country rather than any romantic assignation, and so Jozef carefully played the part of brotherly companion and bided his time. Was this just the loneliness of a girl not long away from home, or was there something deeper troubling her?

They had a quiet ride out into the country, the rented horse trotting briskly enough but with no dash. Jozef choose a grassy stream bank overshadowed by willow trees to lay out the picnic cloth and on it the hamper of food which the hotel restaurant had provided to his order.

It was an ideal spot for an afternoon that might turn amorous. The willow blocked out the heat of the June sun, and the stream gurgled pleasantly over its rocky bed. All of these, however, worked no magic upon Zita, who sat silently with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, watching the play of the leafy shadows on the grass.

When the silence became too uncomfortable he ventured, “You did wonderfully last night.”

A slight shrug followed by a long pause. Having spoken, the silence now seemed to belong to him, and it was painful. He was frantically reaching for some line of commentary which would fill the air with something light and witty when Zita shook her head and turned to him.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly rude. You’re very kind.”

“Is something wrong?”

She looked away, and Jozef feared she was about to fall silent again, but instead the anonymity of speaking to someone she was not looking at seemed to give her the ability to go on.

“All of these years I’ve prepared for a career as an opera singer, and now I wonder if I want to go on.”

“But why would you stop? You sang beautifully.”

“It’s not the singing. I love every minute that I’m on stage. I even love to practice. No, it’s not the work that gives me pause. It’s being an opera singer.”

This time Jozef knew to remain quiet, and after a moment she continued.

“All those years of lessons and at the conservatory, I learned about music and about singing technique. That seemed the most important thing. Opera was simply the way to share that music with the world. And when people said it wasn’t moral to go on the stage, I always insisted: it’s just music. That’s what my father believed too. ‘There can be nothing immoral in your singing,’ he told me. ‘God gave you that.’ And yet…” She shook her head and took a long pause. Though her face was turned away, Jozef felt sure that she was blinking back tears. “Yesterday evening, after I finished the performance, I was so proud. I’d sung Lucia before, but this was my first time with a real touring company. I’d soaked up every moment of the applause. I was thinking of how you would all greet me in the restaurant. I was full of pride, and why not? It was innocent pride for a job well done.

“I was changing in the room set aside for the leading sopranos when the door opened without so much as a knock. In came the company manager and with him the hotel owner. I dived behind the screen, calling out that I was not prepared for visitors. No need to worry, just an admiring visitor, the manager tells me. Then the hotel owner puts down a big vase full of roses on the cabinet and the two of them stand talking as if they were in any public place.

“My dress was still hanging in the wardrobe, so I cowered behind the screen and waited for them to leave. But they did not. At last I told the company manager that they must leave so I could get my dress, and he laughed and tossed my silk dressing gown over the screen to me. Time passed, and I saw they had no intention of leaving until I emerged, so at last I put the dressing gown on and went to get the dress myself. My face must have been as red as the silk, and I kept my eyes on the ground. I couldn’t bear to meet their gaze and see them looking at me. Then as I fumbled to take my dress from its hanger, finding everything difficult as one does in a moment of nervousness, the hotel owner began to talk, saying I was a beautiful girl and it was a pity I wasn’t staying in his hotel. I said it was much too expensive for an actress like me, and he said he’d leave word and all I had to do was go to the desk and ask for the owner’s special room.

“At last I got my dress free and retreated to behind the screen. I wouldn’t come out or say another word until they left, which they did when they realized they weren’t to get any more satisfaction from me. But the humiliation. I didn’t study music to be shown off like some cheap whore.”

She threw out this last word with bitter force as if it were a curse, which on her lips perhaps it was.

While Jozef was still searching for the proper response to all this she began again. “I know I must have seemed sullen last night. And yet each time someone praised my performance all I could think of was: This is what they all think of me, the sort of woman they can ogle while she dresses and have for the price of a free hotel room. What should have been a night of triumph tasted like ashes.

“Then this morning at church I thought perhaps I was taking it all too hard. Surely not every singer is treated this way. Perhaps I’d somehow given the wrong impression. I even thought,” she cast a glance back at Jozef and flushed, “Perhaps it was because I conversed so easily and so much with you. Perhaps the company manager though that I was casting myself in men’s way. So I went to Anna-Elizaveta, the lead comic soprano, and told her what had happened. She just laughed, as if it were the most usual thing in the world, and said that next time I should be sure to show them a little shoulder or leg and they might leave a tip.”

This was not the kind of conversation that Jozef had envisioned as he selected a secluded picnic spot and spread out the picnic blanket. However mysterious and changeable women were reputed to be, it seemed unlikely that a picnic which began with this discussion would end with consummating a moment of passion in this secluded spot. Indeed, now the hope that it would seemed sordid. The actions of the company and hotel managers were crass. And yet, was there lurking still some similarity to his own?

They knew nothing of her, while Jozef had heard about her family, her schooling, her drive to succeed as a singer. In their easy conversation he had found hope that she might prove the Minna to his Friedrich. In one sense it was a lofty goal. No couple he knew seemed closer, even when faced with the adversity of Friedrich’s wounds. And yet had anything in Zita’s conversation suggested that she would be willing to become the mistress of a cavalry officer? Indeed did not everything which she had said about her background and desires suggeste the opposite? Was there anything which had suggested to him the idea that she might lay herself out for him on this river bank other than that she was a singer? And if was only her place as a singer that had suggested her availability to him, were his assumptions not the same as those other men’s?

Perhaps it was naive of her to imagine that she could be an opera singer and a respectable woman at the same time, and soon she would be forced to choose which was more important to her. Or perhaps it happened all the time, despite the assumptions of those who wanted to either scorn or take advantage of them. But unless he wanted to place himself in the company of her unwelcome visitors the day before, he would have to wait and see.

Zita was rubbing away tears with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This has hardly been picnic conversation. And yet you’ve listened very kindly. I’ve been tiresome company.”

Now that she seemed prepared to move to other subjects, words came to him more easily. “Not at all. I may not have the right words for every moment, but I can at least provide a sympathetic ear. And champagne,” he added, drawing a bottle from the picnic basket. “Could you, perhaps, be more in the mood for it than last night?”

***

In the end, the picnic proved a pleasurable afternoon. If it did not provide the kind of release which Jozef had imagined when he made his plans, it did at least develop from an awkward set of revelations to a rambling and enjoyable conversation. It was nearing evening when he returned to the fairgrounds. Sunday night offered no dramatic diversion, and although the officers were enjoying a dinner and round of drinks at the hotel restaurant, Jozef had chosen solitude instead after his day with Zita. And yet solitude did not prove enough.

He wandered the fairgrounds, inspected the men -- who were resentful at having an officer interrupt their Sunday amusements -- and at last hit upon something which would suit. He would inspect the requisitioned mounts and thus have the opportunity to see again the horse he had picked and hoped to keep for his own use.

The horses were kept in a long, low stable building. The men on guard, not Uhlans from his own contingent but men reporting to the major, suggested that there was nothing to inspect, but he ordered them to allow him in and at such direct instructions they fell back and saluted.

Inside, rather than individual stalls, was one long space. Straw covered the wooden floor, and long troughs offered food and water for the animals. They milled around quietly in the dim interior, lighted only by the few rays of summer evening sunlight slanting in, each horse with its requisition number painted on its hindquarters in white.

He recalled watching the number be painted on his favorite: ‘318’ in big block numerals against the black flank. And yet when he at last found a horse with that number, it was not the sleek, black creature that he recalled so clearly but a big, shaggy, gray cart horse. He even summoned one of the guards from outside.

“This horse is numbered incorrectly. Where is the correct requisition 318?”

The guard shrugged. “All the horses are here, sir. Perhaps you remember the number wrong?”

But numbered or not, the black hunter which Jozef had picked so eagerly was nowhere to be found.


[Read the next installment.]

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chapter 4-1

It's been a long, long time. The last couple installments went up right around the time baby was born. That threw the household into more of a time organization crunch than I expected. I'm trying to make a push until the end of the year to finish this 4th chapter and also the 5th.


Near Sandomierz, Galicia. June 8th, 1915. The 7th Uhlans were surrounded by dead. Not because there had been any pitched battle, but because the town of Sambor had, in its wisdom, built its cemetery on the only hill within miles.

Jozef sat in the shadow of a monument on which two angels held up a scroll proclaiming that Irena Wyrzykowski had been a beloved wife and mother from 1829 to 1873 and waited while Oberleutnant Niemczyk scanned the distance with his binoculars.

It was not a very high hill, and yet because the rest of the plain along the Vistula was so flat, it afforded a view which stretched more than a dozen miles.

“Any sign of the Russians?”

“Nothing beyond a few smoking cottages. They’re doing their best to leave nothing behind for us.”

The oberleutnant, serving as temporary squadron commander since the Rittmeister had been wounded in the second day of the offensive, turned his glasses to look down the river road towards the west instead. “The infantry is coming up. We should be relieved by noon.”

In the end, it was not until the cavalrymen were finishing their lunch among the graves that the long line of infantry in their dusty gray-blue uniforms came marching by the hill. Their officers, on horseback but wearing the shoes and leg-wraps of infantrymen rather than the boots of true cavalry, directed some companies forward and others up onto the hill. These were Landsturm sappers, older men, bearded, slouching, their marching order ragged. They carried rifles on their shoulders, but also oversized shovels lashed to their packs. Their mission was not to fight but to dig the fortifications from which others would.

“How goes it with the mole soldiers?” called one of the troopers. “Will you dig your way through and attack the Orient?”

“Go suck a horse, pretty boy,” one of the infantrymen called in reply, while the rest simply hunched their shoulders and kept moving.

Oberleutnant Niemczyk ordered the squadron to mount up, and as the Landsturm set to with their spades to begin turning the hill into a fortification, the Uhlans rode back down the highway to make camp. Once there, however, Jozef did not find his name on the roster of assignments with the other junior officers. Instead he found a summons to Oberst von Bruenner, commander of the regiment.

The retreating Russians had left standing no buildings in the village worth using as a headquarters. The Oberst made himself at home in a tent instead, and did so with some style. When the guard outside pulled back the tent flap and bowed Jozef in, he stepped onto a rug which covered the ground. Oberst von Bruenner sat on a folding camp chair in front of a wooden writing desk. Jozef came to full attention and saluted.

“Provisional Leutnant von Revay, Sir.”

There were several other chairs and stools arranged in a horseshoe facing the desk, perhaps unmoved since the Oberst had last met with his squadron commanders, but he did not invite Jozef to be seated. For a moment the Oberst remained immersed in a paper on his desk, then he signed it with a flourish, got slowly to his feet, and returned Jozef’s salute.

“Yes, von Revay. I hear good things about you from Oberleutnant Niemczyk.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have two things to tell you. First, you may drop the ‘provisional’. I have received approval for your promotion to a full leutnant.”

The Oberst picked up the paper he had just signed and held it out to Jozef. There it was in elaborate black printed letters: a commission to the officer corps of the Imperial-Royal Army.

“Secondly,” went on the Oberst, “I’m detaching you on a special mission.”

The phrase instantly conjured up visions of adventure and danger. In the first days of the Grolice-Tarnow offensive they had seen a few sharp engagements -- thundering towards Russian scouts with sabres drawn until the foot soldiers scattered like so many rabbits, or dismounting and settling in behind cover with their carbines to hold newly captured territory against counter attack -- but for weeks now they had simply followed the retreating Russians and occupied the villages they left behind.

Perhaps he would be sent behind enemy lines to gather intelligence or raise the Polish population against their Russian overlords.

Oberst von Bruenner took another paper from his desk. “Here are the official orders. You’ll be assigned with Rittmeister Hofer to take a half troop of men by rail and conduct horse requisitions.”

Horse requisitions. Excitement turned to bitterness, but Jozef knew enough to keep his face impassive. Complaining to a superior officer was a sin never to be forgiven. But why had he been singled out for a mere supply errand? He had followed orders and accepted dull tasks when his turn came. He had improved his riding and his Polish. He had befriended his fellow officers as well as he could with the limitations imposed by living on his pay, and thus steering clear of the nightly card games in which the better heeled officers indulged. He had drilled his troopers and drilled with them. He had done everything to make himself a worthy officer, and now on the moment of his promotion he was offered not combat, not reconnaissance, but a supply mission? He had not realized his superiors thought so little of him. Or had his mother managed to wield her influence again through some lover and asked to have him removed from the front lines?

The Oberst finished his remarks and Jozef thanked him with an unconvincing counterfeit of gratitude. He turned to go, but von Bruenner clapped a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

“I know that this first assignment may not be the stuff of dreams,” Oberst von Bruenner said. “No, don’t shake your head. I was young once, you know. Well, I tell you, von Revay, horse requisition may not seem as dashing as what you’d hoped for, but it’s an important task. The cavalry would be nothing without horses. Leastways, we’d be infantry without horses, and that’s as near to nothing as I’d care to go. Do you take my meaning?”

Jozef nodded and forced a smile. “Yes, sir. I understand. Thank you, sir.”

Oberst von Bruenner clapped him on the shoulder again and assured him that he was a very promising young man, after which he at last allowed Jozef to depart.

At mess that night, with the other junior officers, Jozef indulged in pouring out his frustrations to his squadron commander. Oberleutnant Niemczyk was close enough to being a friend as well as an officer that when away from the immediate pressure of duties such conversation was possible.

“And you’re feeling quite ill-used about it all?” Oberleutnant Niemczyk asked, once Jozef had finished laying out his situation. “No, no, don’t bother denying it. Well, before you indulge in any self pity, here’s something you haven’t heard yet: The Oberst has orders to select select two squadrons from the regiment to be dismounted and transferred to the infantry, and they’re especially in need of junior officers, as it seems the infantry keeps getting theirs killed or wounded. So if you like your life in the cavalry consider yourself fortunate that von Bruenner is sending you on his shopping errand and not off to the trenches.”

***

Olmütz, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. The train journey took them south and west, back towards Vienna, and with each stop came more that was familiar. Proper farm houses with steep, shingled roofs replaced the squat peasant huts topped with thatching. The station signs were lettered in clear, bold, Gothic lettering rather than the tangle of Oriental characters used on official signage in Russian territory.

When they detrained in Olmütz they could almost have been in Vienna again. The platforms of the bahnhof teamed with people, not just soldiers but gentlemen in dark suits and homburgs, workers with caps pulled down over their eyes, and women. Not the peasant women with kerchiefs covering their hair and wary eyes who had watched them from the windows of town houses and the doors of peasant huts. Here were young women in cotton dresses and wide brimmed summer straw hats, ladies in bright silks with tall plumes bobbing from modish hats, and working women in the plain black hats which like their long sleeved shirts and wool skirts had to serve as year round costume. Women who, perhaps, were not looking at the brave defenders of the realm descending from the train, but who at least were not scurrying out of sight or regarding them with suspicion.

“Hey there, pretty one, where are you going?” called one of the troopers.

She shook her head and hurried on.

“Did you see that smile?” he asked his fellows.

“Sergeant,” Rittmeister Hofer said. “Get your troopers under control and report with them to the central barracks to find accommodations. Leutnant, come with me.” He set off across the platform,the spurs of his polished cavalry boots ringing on the pavement and his orderly scurrying after with the luggage cart.

“Save your catcalls for the beerhall,” the sergeant shouted. “Respectable women don’t want to hear you. Now form up.”

Jozef left him to it and followed Rittmeister Hofer out, passing under the glass and steel facade of the bahnhof and out into the teeming streets.

***

The quartermaster’s office was tucked away in a business quarter, the second floor of a big brick building, with a bank below it and a grain broker above. During its brief possession of the premises the imperial and royal army’s supply service had broken the space up into a warren of little offices, from the desks of which materials of all descriptions were managed and mismanaged from the vast multi-ethnic patchwork of the empire’s many regions and directed to the regiments of the Second and Third armies.

With Jozef in his wake, Rittmeister Hofer found his way to the office responsible for horse requisitions. There an oberleutnant supply officer looked carefully through a ledger while muttering to himself, “7th Uhlans. 7th Uhlans. Ah, here, I see. You’re authorized to requisition one hundred riding quality animals and forty draft animals.”

Rittmeister Hofer threw up his hands. “That’s not sufficient.” He pulled out a paper and showed it to the supply officer, explaining with some heat the numbers of remount and draft animals the regiment required.

Jozef watched in silence. In the field, no oberleutnant would have dared to thwart or question a rittmeister, but here this supply officer’s control over a vital resource allowed him to shrug off even orders written by the regiment’s oberst himself.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the oberleutnant said, handing back the papers. “There’s a very strict allocation of horses. I can’t authorize more than I just told you. If you capture enemy mounts, of course, that’s your own affair. But these are all the horses 7th Uhlans can have this month. According to records you should still have at least one mount per soldier.”

“Trooper,” said Rittmeister Hofer. “Soldiers march, not ride.”

The supply officer shrugged again. “Of course. One mount per trooper.”

“But we lose horses every week. Lameness. Exhaustion. If we have no replacement mounts they’ll have to keep riding injured horses and we’ll lose more permanently.”

“Then train your soldiers to treat their horses better. I can’t give you more than I have told you, sir. Do you want to attend the requisition fair and take what has been authorized or pursue other avenues to meet your needs?”

For a moment it seemed Rittmeister Hofer would indeed turn on his heel and walk out of the little windowless cubby of an office, but then the older officer bit back his frustration, offered a slight bow, and said that they would indeed attend the fair.

“Very well. The next one is to be held in Prerau beginning tomorrow morning. I’ll write up a requisition order for you to show the fair officer.”

Rittmeister Hofer said nothing as they left the offices. The narrow stairway from the second floor spit them out a small side door into the street. There it seemed surprising that it was still mid-afternoon, the light harsh after the dim confines of the offices.

“I suppose we’ll have to go to the barracks?” Jozef ventured, when the silence seemed to stretch on uncomfortably long. “Or will we go to Prerau tonight? Is it far?”

“The very first thing we will do,” the rittmeister replied, “is find out what opera is playing tonight. I don’t intend to spend my precious nights in civilization drinking rotgut brandy in the barrack canteen and dallying with third rate whores. I want to hear hear a good rousing tune or two and then buy drinks for a ballet or chorus girl afterwards. Do you like culture, von Revay?”

Jozef hesitated. The word suggested the tuneless modern art songs which Friedrich had taken him to hear Minna sing. He would have given much to see Friedrich and Minna again, but sitting through such a performance with Hofer, whom he hardly knew, bore no attraction. Still, the rittmeister wasn’t Jewish and hadn’t shown any notably strange enthusiasms before. Perhaps his ideas of culture were more accessible. Jozef cautiously allowed that he liked music.

“Like music? Where are you from? Are you one of these country squires who joins the Uhlans because he knows horses better than women and has never been to the opera? I grew up in Pressburg and I tell you, there we have culture. Wonderful shows at the opera every season. Strauss. Flotow. Have you been to the opera?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“I grew up in Vienna.”

“Ah.” The revelation brought Rittmeister Hofer up short for a moment. It did not fit with his chosen mode as the older, more cultured man instructing the younger and less experienced one. Then he shrugged it off. “Much the same. There’s good opera in Vienna just like in Pressburg.”

They took the tram to Olmütz’s opera house, a white building on the main square whose facade of ordinary windows allowed it to blend in with those around it.

There were several old men sipping coffee and reading newspapers at the street tables of the Opera Cafe, but the only playbills on the wall were already old and peeling. The rittmeister pulled aside a waiter.

“What is the opera?”

The waiter shrugged. “No opera,” he answered, pronouncing each word with extra clarity as if he suspected that the officer who asked such a foolish question must not speak German well. “Not in the summer. The company is on tour. No opera till September.”

Hofer grew angry, which made his Pressburg accent, normally slight, stronger. The hints of Slovak pronunciation did little to reassure the waiter of his knowledge or intellect. “Where are they on tour? What city?”

“On tour in small cities,” the waiter said, abandoning full sentences and using his hands to illustrate with gestures. “Small cities. Small shows.”

“What city are they in now?”

The waiter considered and counted off days on his fingers. “Prerau,” he said at last. “They go to Prerau this week. Yesterday, today, tomorrow maybe. Prerau.”

Rittmeister Hofer turned away without thanking him and strode back towards the tram, the spurs of his dress riding boots jingling against the paving stones. “Goddamned Cheskey,” Jozef heard him mutter.

The Uhlans had already found a place congenial to their tastes near the city barracks and begun what they had expected to be an evening’s drinking uninterrupted by duties or officers.

“Sir, it took long enough to arrange accommodations for tonight,” the sergeant pleaded. “Couldn’t we take the morning train to Prerau?”

“No,” the Rittmeister told him. The men could drink as well in Prerau as here.

It was thus a sullen group of Uhlans that the sergeant herded onto the local train to Prerau. This was one of the egalitarian sort of trains meant for carrying people to and from the city on market days. It offered no first class carriage, but the sergeant, knowing what would keep him from being reprimanded for the men’s behavior while at the same time ingratiating him to the rittmeister, created one by ordering the men back to the last carriage of the train and then stationing himself outside the doors of the one which Rittmeister Hofer and Jozef had entered, directing all passengers, civilian or military, to other cars until the whistle sounded and the train began to move.

The Rittmeister showed no signs of wanting to converse, so Jozef found another of the plain wooden benches in the empty rail car and made himself as comfortable as he could.

How old was Rittmeister Hofer? How long had he been an officer? Jozef watched the older officer, who leaned back against a bench, eyes half shut, as the scenery rolled by outside the windows. His hair was slowly drawing back on both sides of a pronounced widow’s peak but there was no gray sprinkled among it. Ten years older, perhaps? Surely not more than fifteen. Promotion had come slow in the years before the war, but surely a man still a rittmeister could not be over thirty-five.

Where and how, in those ten or fifteen years had Hofer learned to wield authority so effortlessly?

This empty rail car was a sign of it. Hofer had given no orders, had not even expressed a wish to have a carriage free of the peasants and farmwives who had swarmed across the platform but been urged by the sergeant toward other cars. No, the sergeant had done that simply because he thought it would please the rittmeister. That was authority, silent and unquestioned. An authority very different from the officers who shouted and cursed, demanding obedience.

How long would it take to gain the kind of authority? How did a man gain it?

Answers did not come as the train swayed along, accelerating up to its brisk twenty-five kilometers an hour top speed and then slowing again to stop at each town and village along the track. At last the older officer’s head nodded down to his chest. A quiet snore betrayed his sleep.

Jozef, alone at last, took a cigar from the pocket of his uniform tunic and puffed quietly out the window until the train arrived in Prerau.

***

The horse requisition fair was managed by an aging major of the supply service, a short thin man with steel gray hair and mustache. They found him at the town’s nicest restaurant, the one in the Hotel Grande. The scene could have been from a year before or from fifty years before, any time but the gray clad present. Major Brenner was resplendent in his dark blue dress tunic with gold braid and green facings. The officers sitting with him wore dress uniforms in dark blue, light blue, and green, and their headgear sitting on the side table included shakos, brass helmets and a Polish Legion czapka with silver eagle.

“7th Uhlans?” asked the major. “I received a telegram about your arrival today. Will you attend the opera tonight?”

“Oh, is there an opera here tonight?” Rittmeister Hofer asked, his offhand tone suggesting no prior knowledge of such a thing.

“The theater company just arrived today. They perform in the ballroom here tonight.”

“In that case…” The rittmeister finished the sentence with a slight bow.

“Just one word for you then, if I might.” Major von Brenner rose from his table and approaching, leaned close to Rittmeister Hofer as if to share a secret. His next words, however, were spoken in a tone that, though quiet, was far from a whisper. The whole room, having fallen silent, heard him say, “Do not embarrass your fellow officers by appearing in these field grays again, whether at the opera or at the fair tomorrow. Whatever laxities the world outside indulges, here we are gentlemen who observe proper form.”

He returned to his seat, and as he did so added in a louder voice, “Your men may quarter at the fairgrounds. The proprietor is under orders to find them all shelter. You and your leutnant can doubtless find rooms here if you wish.”

With that he reached for his glass, which the waiter hurried to refill. They were dismissed. Rittmeister Hofer and Jozef both bowed and left.

“You’re welcome to stay in the hotel if you have the funds,” the rittmeister said as they left, their cavalry boots ringing on the glossy marble of the hotel floor. “And if not, Sergeant Egger will make sure that you have the pick of the sleeping arrangements at this fairground in which the men will be quartered.”

The message was clear enough: for Jozef at least, any stay in the hotel must be at his own expense. He tried to tally up what that expense might be. The white stone facade of the hotel suggested exclusivity, but at what cost was exclusivity in rural Moravia?

“I hope you brought a proper uniform?” asked the rittmeister.

“Yes, sir.” His czapka, the formal helmet of polished leather and bronze topped with a tassel of black horsehair, was packed carefully in its leather hatbox as it had been ever since he had joined the regiment, and his blue dress tunic with white buttons was folded away in brown paper at the bottom of his luggage. The last time he had worn them had been in Budapest, trying to win back Klara. There too he has spent scarce money on a nice hotel room, and here he did not even have the prospect of female companionship in it. “I’ll stay with the men, sir,” Jozef added, before his new resolution could soften. “But I’ll come back here for the opera tonight.”

***

The fair grounds stood on the outskirts of the town. Some elements would have been familiar to any mid-sized market town: a horse track; long low buildings which could serve as stables or display places for the products of the surrounding rural districts; stalls for merchants and games. Above these, however, was strung a criss-cross of wires from which hung the new, modern, light bulbs. And at the center of it all stood a large round building, through the windows of which was visible a brightly painted carousel.

“Would you like to see inside, sir?”

Jozef startled -- having been absorbed in looking at the carousel building -- and turned to see a middle aged man whose balding head and large nose marked him to Vienna-trained eyes as a prosperous Jew.

“Of the carousel? It looks closed up.”

“I’ve already promised the soldiers that I’ll open it tonight, sir. If you would like to see…” He bowed and gestured with his hands as if to say, no trouble.

“Why all of this technology out here in a small town fair grounds?”

The man extended his hands and shrugged. “Well, you know. Electricity is very much the new thing. Everyone likes it. No one has it. If the electrical company is to build new lines out to houses and shops, it must attract customers who are willing to pay. And if we are to offer electricity to the town at all, we must have a generator. So, two problems slain with a single stone: We build the generator here, and with it lighting and this very modern merry go round, covered in lights and powered by the same steam engine which runs the generator. And so the town gets a diversion and a very nice demonstration of what electricity can do, and the electrical company gets the capital to invest in the generator and a way to pay off the bond through the tickets. Do you see that little building to one side?”

Jozef said that he did.

“That building contains the steam engine. Coal goes in. Electricity and the spinning shaft to drive the carousel comes out. All very scientific and up to date. And when the town worthies see what brilliance the new technology can produce, they ask us to build lines to their houses. Here, I can show you the engine.”

It was a strange beast, all arms and wheels and steam pipes, filling half the little building to the side of the carousel’s structure.

“I promised the sergeant that I would fire it up tonight and let the soldiers see it run,” the Jew, clearly some sort of manager for the fair, explained. “Anything for the empire’s soldiers.”

Jozef acknowledged this compliment, asked a few more polite questions about the engine, and then about where he could stay.

The managed looked at his insignia with a practiced eye. “The soldiers are quartered in one of the stable buildings. Very clean. No animals. Clean straw. But you, Leutnant, perhaps I could invite you to stay in my house? My family would be honored, sir.”

Jozef considered. They would be honored, no doubt, not only by the presence of an imperial-royal officer, but also by the knowledge that with the officer staying with them he would serve as a sort of guarantee for the behavior of the men. Free lodging for the officer, no looting or ill treatment of Jews from the men. There was a certain back handedness to the offer, which doubtless came from fear as much as patriotism. Would taking it be a form of implicit extortion? And yet, it was a bed indoors, and for free, something he had not enjoyed often as of late.

“Thank you.” Jozef gave a slight bow with a military click of the heels. “It is I who would be honored.”

The manager’s house stood on a plot of well trimmed grass, a stand of trees masking it from the fairgrounds. He insisted that the bedroom to which he showed Jozef was a spare room, reserved for guests, though from the rose printed curtains and a number of other feminine touches, Jozef suspected it was in fact the room of the manager’s oldest daughter, a heavy, dark-haired girl he saw only briefly as she was hurried out of the sitting room along with the other women of the family when the manager led him in.

Still, it was a room, a room in an undamaged house, with a soft bed and a box of cigars which the fair manager placed on the vanity, carrying away the jewelry box and cosmetic box which had been there before.

Pulling off his tall boots and taking one of the cigars, Jozef lay back upon the bed and looked up at the gold patterned paper on the ceiling. The cigar gave off a gentle scent and he rolled it back and forth between his fingers. This was a better cigar than he had enjoyed in many weeks, and he would take it by stages. The first was to revel on the scent of the aged tobacco leaves. Once he had put on his dress uniform and set off for the evening’s opera performance back at the hotel, perhaps then he would trim and light the cigar. But for now, he let his world become the soft bed and the delicate smell.

***

Two hours later, as Jozef was walking back to the hotel, he saw a boy in a slouch worker’s cap pasting up a handbill: “One Week Engagement of the Olmütz Opera Company. Experience the thrilling performances of WIENER BLUT, MARTHA, and the tragic LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR!

The dates listed began with that night. The names of the singers at the bottom of the poster were unfamiliar, but one could hardly expect the names he knew from Vienna to appear here.

At the hotel itself, Rittmeister Hofer was with the other officers in the restaurant and food and drink were already much in supply. Jozef gladly accepted a glass of wine and watched as the waiter cut him a slice of duck glistening with fat.

They ate. They drank. They offered toasts: To his imperial-royal majesty. To the empire. To the army. To the ladies. To wives and lovers; may they never meet! To the destruction of the faithless Italians, who the previous month had reversed their treaty allegiance and declared war against Austria-Hungary. To the confusion of the English, whose avarice and trading empire must somehow be behind all the evils besetting the civilized world. To the destruction of the bestial Russians and their asiatic hordes.

The language became more flowery as the bottles emptied, and by the time they filed into the hotel’s ballroom and sat in the chairs ranged before the temporary stage, the officers were in such a mood that cheers and catcalls went up in response to each theme and entrance. The audience, particularly those who had consumed at least a bottle of wine each, were ready and eager to care about the principality of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz and the complicated love life of its Count. The orchestra knew well that the only justification for the show was that everyone already knew Strauss’s incomparable tunes, and so they obligingly belted out each favorite loudly enough to be heard over the knee slapping and foot tapping of the tipsy officers.

The first act ended to thunderous applause. The ballroom had become close and stale during the last hour, despite the windows open to the summer evening, and so the audience poured out into the courtyard to cool themselves during the intermission. Major Brenner was pouring glasses of champagne for the other officers, drawing bottles from a case he had ordered a waiter to bring out to the courtyard.

Jozef stood behind the knot of officers for a moment, as they each waited for a glass, then turned away. In the breast pocket of his dress uniform tunic he could feel the slight weight of one of the fair manager’s cigars, which he had tucked away for an appropriate moment. With his head clear enough that there was now little risk to drowsing off during the second act, perhaps this was more a time for the cigar than for more champagne. Turning away from the others, he sought out a quiet corner of the courtyard where he could catch the evening breeze and, turning his back to the cool draft and cupping his hand to shelter the match, lit the cigar with a series of rapid puffs.

It was as he turned back into the breeze, that he noticed the woman sitting on a traveling trunk and enjoying the same summer breeze, half hidden behind the next pillar. With an effort to appear as casual as possible, he took one sauntering step and then another, until he could lean negligently against the pillar and issue of cloud of cigar smoke. Then he gave himself a shake, as if just noticing her.

“I’m sorry, Miss. Does the smoke bother you?”

She shook her head, a little too vigorously, then readjusted her traveling hat with its solitary artificial flower and the little veil of black netting hanging down from the brim. The hat itself might have seemed conservative, severe, but the motion had a girlishness to it, someone not accustomed to the formality which her costume required.

“Oh no. It reminds me of home. My father smoked a cigar every night.” The reference to ‘my father’ again made her sound young, and hardly seemed an invitation to a flirtatious exchange.

“Have you been enjoying the show?” Jozef asked instead.

“I’m afraid I didn’t arrive until after it had begun. I’ll have to wait until after to introduce myself to the company.”

“The company?”

A brief pause, then she said, “I am Miss Zita Nosek. I’m the new dramatic soprano. I just got in on the 8:15, and I don’t yet know where I’m supposed to stay.”

“Miss Nosek.” Jozef swept a bow and clicked the heels of his riding boots. She laughed, but it was an empty sound. Evidently gallantry was not the route with this one. He turned away, leaned casually back against the wall, and took a series of puffs at the cigar. “So? How do you come to be the new dramatic soprano? From another opera company?”

A little shrug and then in a natural voice. “I only just graduated from the conservatory in Vienna.”

“In Vienna? That’s my home. Did you grow up there?”

“Oh no. My father was a railway conductor in Auspitz.”

This was easier conversation. In response to his questions and light banter she told her story. She had always loved to sing and done it well. Her father had been a poor farmer’s third son, but had applied himself in school and mastered the required math for the civil service test and had thus become a conductor on the imperial railways. As a result, he was a man with a deep belief that application and study under a good teacher could bring success in anything. And so she had been sent to singing lessons.

Her father had not been not wrong, and talent and dedication, along with a letter of recommendation to her singing teacher’s old mentor, had won her admission to the conservatory where she had thrived. She had stayed there even after her father had died of cancer, leaving her mother to care for three younger siblings back at home in Auspitz, because to see his daughter succeed in that cultured world had been his great ambition and delight.

But to succeed in the conservatory was not that same as to do so beyond it. If her voice was as good as others, her connections here not. When other sopranos had been offered places at the Staatsoper or the Volksoper, or failing that in Budapest or Prague, she had found nothing, until at last, this. And yet, didn’t the Olmütz Opera Company have as much right to their share of talent as the Volksoper?

Jozef had seldom found it so easy to speak to a woman. There was not here the almost dizzying intensity of talking to Klara, though as he stole glances at her without being seen to stare he found Zita was pretty enough, with round cheeks, a small nose, and dark hair peaking out from under her hat and travel veil. Yet she talked so freely and openly, he could almost see the little sitting room in Auspitz and her father puffing a cigar while listening to her sing as her younger brother played the piano.

The others taking their ease in the courtyard returned to the hotel ballroom to see the rest of the operetta, but Jozef remained talking with Zita: about their families, their schooling, the sudden adulthood of leaving home. At last the summer sun went down. Jozef asked her into the hotel restaurant where he had dined with the other officers.

“But my trunk. I still don’t know where I am to stay.”

“I’ll tell one of the porters look after it. You needn’t stand here to guard it. Have you had dinner?”

A slight shake of the head.

“Well then. If you will allow me, Miss Nosek, I will buy you some.”

She ordered food, and he ordered a bottle of wine. She accepted a half glass, which looked all the smaller next to his generous portion.

“I’m not used to much wine.”

“Should I have ordered Champagne? Surely that’s the drink for opera singers.” He regretted the jest as she smiled and looked away. Perhaps he’d let ordering her dinner go to his head too quickly. The more flirtatious tone seemed to tarnish the easy friendship they had enjoyed the last hour. And yet here he was, an officer treating an opera singer to dinner. Might this not be how Friedrich had begun with Minna?

“One of my singing masters told me to be wary of too much alcohol. It can dry out the vocal cords. So a small glass is always good for me. I drink it so slowly anyway.”

“No wine? What are you to drink?”

“She recommended tea with honey and lemon.”

“Shall I order a pot of that then?” He started to raise a hand to summon the waiter.

“No, no. This is fine. I like a little bit. And you go ahead.” She waved towards his glass, already half empty.

Half an hour later, as Jozef was calling for a second bottle, having consumed two full glasses himself and persuaded Zita to take another half glass to finish the bottle, the audience from evening’s operetta descended upon the previously quiet restaurant. The officers took the room’s longest table, making it vibrant with the blue, red, green, gold, and silver of their dress uniforms. Only after most of the party had settled and begun making loud toasts to each other did Major Brenner arrive, leading by the arm the two comic lead sopranos who had starred in the evening’s production. The officers greeted them with raucous cheers.

For a time Jozef and Zita did not draw the attention of the larger group. They talked quietly at their table while mirth rose at the long one. After a time the rest of the opera company came in and were seated off to one side. Jozef recognized the tenor who had played the Count among them. There were women among this group too, but these did not draw the attention of the officers. As that raucous group was demanding more bottles of champagne, having emptied the first batch in praise of their lady-guests and themselves, the opera company’s table received their order: a bowl of stew and a mug of beer for each person.

“I should introduce myself and find out where I am to stay,” Zita said, excusing herself.

It was as she crossed the room to the actors’ table that the officers’ table noticed both her and her host.

“Leutnant von Revay! What have you been doing hiding away from us? Who have you been biding your time with?”

“Miss Nosek is the company’s new dramatic soprano, just in from Vienna.”

This drew shouts and whistles. “Oh, he is sly, this young one, keeping a girl all to himself through the evening. What’s this, von Revay? Where is your conviviality? It’s a dreer lion that keeps his meat to himself! It’s tomorrow that you’re supposed to find something nice to ride, not tonight!”

Zita was speaking with the actors at their table, but the tense set of her shoulders made clear that these jests did not escape her notice. Jozef pushed back his chair.

“Miss Nosek is a lady. Her father is a civil servant, and she is a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory.”

The officers’ table could not be squelched, and this drew a laugh rather than any form of repentance. Rittmeister Hofer stood up and clapped a hand on Jozef’s shoulder in a manner meant to calm the excitable boy.

“She’s an opera singer, boy. I’m sure a very nice one. Take your turn, but don’t foster any illusions. A gentleman must always know what he’s about, eh?”

Zita was leaving the restaurant, and Jozef shook off the Rittmeister’s hand and followed her.

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “It was good of you to speak up for me.”

“Did you find out where you’ll be staying?”

“Yes. And they say the porter will take my luggage.”

The porter showed an ostentatious lack of enthusiasm for the task when they called him over. He would see what he could do. They were short handed that night. It was a great way to the other hotel. It would be hard to spare someone for the task.

Jozef wondered if the luggage would be delivered at all that night, or if Zita would find herself without her things. He touched the porter on the elbow and handed him a silver coin, which seemed immediately to resolve the issue.

Together he and Zita walked the few blocks to the modest hotel in which the actors lodged. Outside a pause. Should he take her in his arms? Kiss her? Or had the coarse jests of the other officers destroyed whatever mood had developed between them. Before he could decide the appropriate course she was speaking.

“I had feared this evening -- arriving in a new city for a new job -- but speaking with you made it pleasant. Thank you. Good night!”

She turned and was up the steps as he called ‘good night’ after her.

It was a longer walk out to the fairground. The cool, fresh night air began to dissipate the effects of the evening’s wine, and he continued to go over in his mind the conversation with Zita. A rare girl, that. And such a pleasant evening. But what did it require to turn such easy conversation into something more?

In the fairground the strings of electric lights were all illuminated, and from the carousel building spilled out both light and the sounds of a steam organ. Jozef approached the doorway. The owner was at the controls, while on the brightly painted horses rode the men, jackets unbuttoned, some still holding bottles in their hands, shouting, leaning out from the turning force of the carousel, or singing to the hooting music of the mechanized organ.

Jozef stood and watched it turn round and round, a blur of color and light and technology, until the whirling of the machine began to revive the effects of the wine. He turned away, back into the darkness of the night, and towards the manager’s house where his bed awaited him.


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