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.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Chapter 3-4

This section now concludes Chapter 3. The central incident in this chapter is one that I could not invent. It's drawn from the diaries of Florence Farmborough, an English woman who was in Russia at the time that war broke out in 1914 and served throughout the war as a Russian Red Cross nurse.


The Great Retreat. Galicia. June 4th, 1915. The next day the retreat continued. They loaded their patients back onto the ambulances and once again there were the hours of dusty trudging or alternating with jouncing to each bump and rut in the road while taking rest in one of the wagons. But the conclusion of that chance encounter in the woods stayed with Natalile and from it came a new confidence. When Lieutenant Popov asked which building should be taken as the temporary hospital in another village at the end of the day’s march, she directed him and he did ask she requested. When she made up her the list of rations for the hospital patients at night, she included food for Vitek and Eva’s family, and Mamushka quietly obeyed.

One evening when she brought food to them Natalile found Eva even more pale and drawn than usual, but she held in her arms a bundle tightly wrapped in clothes. She showed Natalie the baby’s face, with its tiny nose and mouth quietly working in sleep.

“She came last night, and one of the old women from our village midwifed me,” Eva said. She lowered her voice to little more than a whisper. “Vitek said I mustn’t travel today, even in the hand cart. But the cossacks were driving all of us on from the village and setting fire to the houses. Vitek tried to argue with them, and they beat him.” She looked over to where her husband sat a little way off with his back to them. “When the march stopped today, he went and bought a pot of liquor. He doesn’t drink often, Sister. But you know how men are. They’re not like us. They must have their pride.”

The next evening, Vitek was his usual self, deferential and courteous. But Eva was flushed and looked at her with glazed eyes. Natalie knew even before putting a hand to her hot forehead that she had a fever. The four year old girl held the baby, bouncing it gently in her arms and giving it a small, dirty finger to suck while Natalie examined Eva.

“When did the fever start?”

“Today. During the march. Vitek pushes me on the hand cart, but it’s so hot.”

“Is there pain in your stomach?”

“Only the after pangs when she nurses.”

“And at the birth, was there much bleeding?”

Eva nodded. “It took a long time to stop. I had to stuff full of rags to staunch the blood when we set off in the morning.”

Of course. What would she do for bleeding but treat it as she treated her time of month. And yet whatever rags the midwife or family had been able to use were surely carriers for infection. Natalie’s hospital training cringed against the use of anything other than sterile bandages and antiseptic wash for cleaning an open wound. And when it came to infection, was this tearing of the body any different from the battle wounds she treated? She tried to recall the brief section on female anatomy and childbirth in her Red Cross training manual. There had been no intention that the nurses assist at childbirths. That was work for doctors, or in the countryside for village midwives, and so the subject had been given only the briefest outline. She could remember no more of use other than the risk of bleeding and the importance of avoiding infection.

“The midwife gave me willow bark to chew for the fever.”

“That may help the fever, but it will not cure the infection. You must try to stay cool as much as possible. Bathe your forehead with a cloth soaked in alcohol if you find yourself sweating too much. It will cool you faster. And I will get you a bottle of antiseptic solution. You can use it to clean yourself.” She paused to see if Eva knew what she meant. “To clean inside. It may hurt, but it will fight the infection if it has not gone into your blood.”

“Am I going to die?” The question was asked so calmly. Natalie had heard soldiers cry those words so many times, but seldom had she heard them in such a quiet, gentle voice.

“I hope not. I’ll do everything I can. After all, you have this beautiful child to live for.” She took the swaddled infant from the little girl, and looked at the tiny red features for a moment before nestling the bundle into her mother’s arms.

She brought the bottle of antiseptic solution later that night. Eva was sleeping, so Natalie gave it to Vitek and along with strict instructions on its use. He shifted awkwardly and looked away when she explained how to wash with the solution and sterilize rags with it, but nodded and promised it would be done.

The next two nights found Eva worse. The fever grew higher. Her mind wandered, and she had difficulty nursing the baby. The midwife, an old woman draped in a black veil, was sitting with her on the second night. Natalie could get no sensible words out of Eva, but the midwife told her that although she had stopped bleeding, the rags were now coming out soaked with a yellow discharge that smelled of putrefaction.

All though the next day’s journey, the sick young mother was in Natalie’s mind. The sick mother, the nursing baby. Both seemed all too similar to the story her father had told her of her own mother’s death when she was only a few months old. The little silver framed picture was buried deep her in her bag where she could not get at it, but in her memory the little photograph of her infant self laid one last time in her dead mother’s arms was hauntingly clear.

Holy Virgin, please, among all this suffering, do not let this tiny child grow up without a mother.

When, in the afternoon, Lieutenant Popov rode up and told her that the the regiment had at last received orders to dig in and hold the line, ending the retreat for now, Natalie’s first thought was that at last Eva would be able to rest as a recovering mother should. Only after another moment did the military implications of his statement strike her. If they stopped retreating, there would be fighting. All this time, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had been following just a day or two’s march behind them.

“We will need somewhere to set up the hospital that gives us space for casualties,” she said.

Popov had clearly been waiting for this to occur to her. He winked. “I have found just the place. Wait till you see it.”

The place he had found was a nobleman’s country house. This was no small rural retreat, like the hunting lodge in which the hospital had made its home through the winter and early spring, with its wooden walls and wide porch. This as a major estate, the main house built of white stone, with rank on rank of windows looking out upon the woods and gardens. The hospital’s ambulance wagons -- wooden vehicles covered in canvas and pulled by shaggy, ill groomed horses -- looked distinctly out of place as they made their way up the tree-lined drive.

An old woman, the retired housekeeper, met them on the steps and declared that she would report to Prince Uvarov if anything was stolen or damaged. Otherwise, however, the house was empty. Even the servants had fled.

Natalie gave orders and set the housekeeping sisters and the orderlies to work turning several of the large ground floor rooms into wards. The house war far larger than they could ever need. The upper floors and the north wing would be completely shut off. They would touch as few rooms as possible. But those they needed must be stripped of their finery, both in order that the paintings, rugs, and furniture be preserved, and also so that the newly bare rooms could be scrubbed down with antiseptic solution.

It was late when she finally was able to go in search of Eva and Vitek. But although many refugees had encamped in the estate’s woods and outbuildings, she could not find their family nor any word of them. She returned to the house after midnight, exhausted and worried, but telling herself that surely Vitek must have found some place where Eva could rest along the way. Perhaps the Cossacks were at last employed in fighting the enemy rather than driving the peasantry ahead of them.

The housekeeping sisters had prepared a room for her. Just a small guest room by the standards of the house, but still grander than anything Natalie had stayed in since the hotel in Warsaw where her father had sent her after their meeting. She took a minute to revel in the canopied bed, the inlaid mahogany wardrobe, and the gilt mirror hanging over the dressing table. Then she sat down to take off her shoes and stockings in order to walk barefoot through the soft pile of the oriental carpet.

At last she slipped between the clean sheets: smooth, oft-washed linen against her skin. She felt a moment’s guilt that the availability of water had allowed for the washing only of hands, feet, and face the last few days. Surely this bed was used to more refinement. But for tonight it was hers, and she drifted quickly into a dreamless sleep within its softness.

***

The next day was one of constant activity. Guns could already be heard in the distance when one of the housekeeping sisters woke Natalie in the pre-dawn light. Wounded began to arrive in the mid-morning, even as the wards were still being prepared. It was the first time they had faced a major influx of casualties without a surgeon. Natalie called the other two nurses together as the first patient arrived.

“Sister Travkin, you have the most experience with triage. Can you take charge of receiving patients?” A nod. “We won’t be able to perform major surgeries, just clean, stitch and bandage, so adjust the categories as needed.” She turned to the other nurse, “Sister Gorka, you have the steadiest hand with wound preparation. Would you be willing to act as a surgical nurse and trim and stitch where needed to close up wounds?”

This was the part which she had almost been afraid to speak, the violation of all their training. Here they were treading upon doctors’ territory and without the necessary training. And yet, more casualties would survive the three to five day journey through ambulances and hospital trains to a hospital back in Warsaw, Kiev, or Moscow if they first received the most basic surgical care. The difficult cases might not survive anyway, but at least men would be less likely to die from blood loss or infection due to wounds that avoided the organs and bones.

Sister Gorka nodded slowly. “I will attempt it, but I will be much slower than Doctor Sergeyev.”

“Of course. Take all the time you need. Whatever you can do will be better than they would receive otherwise. And I will deal with wound cleansing and bandaging.”

They set to work. The morning turned into afternoon and then evening, the time marked only by the stream of patients who filled the cots in the wards. Battle weary men lay looking up at the plaster medallions and chandeliers which in times past had looked down on balls thrown for the local nobility. It was as the windows began to darken with evening that one of the housekeeping sisters approached Natalie.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Sister, but there’s a little girl here who says she knows you.”

Natalie looked down and saw the four year old daughter of Vitek and Eva.

“What’s wrong? How is your mother?” What was the little girl’s name? Amid the pressures of the wound ward she could not recall whether she had known.

“She’s nursing the baby in heaven, and father is drinking. Do you have food for me? There’s been no food all day.”

Had Eva died? The baby had not seemed sick. Had something happened to her as well?

Natalie made her excuses to Sister Gorka and secured the chance to step away for a few minutes. She took a loaf of army bread and a jar of the plum preserves they had found in the country house’s store room. Then she asked the little girl to show her where her family was.

The girl led her out into the parkland of the estate. Here and there, where the woods gave cover from the Cossacks and other authorities who might try to force them to move on, peasant families were encamped with their belongings among the trees. The girl picked her way among them, munching the piece of bread spread with preserves that Natalie had given her. Then the old woman Natalie recognized as the midwife who had been helping to treat Eva rushed towards them.

“Hannia! Where have you been? You bad girl!” She swung an open palm at the girl’s ear, which she deftly dodged.

“What’s happened? How is Eva? Where is Vitek?” Natalie asked while Hannia took shelter behind her skirts.

“Ah, it’s very sad.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “Poor Eva died last night. She’d gone into convulsions on the road, the fever would not drop. Nothing she said was sensical. Poor child. Vitek stopped his cart and cradled her in his arms as she died. I offered her every curative I had, but when the Lord’s time comes, there’s naught that can be done. At least she went quietly in the end, poor soul.”

“But the baby?” Natalie asked, looking around. She spied the cart, and next to it Vitek lying prostrate and rumpled like a pile of dirty clothes. “Did she sicken as well?”

“That was the hardest thing. Her milk had given out all day, the fever burning her up so. And the baby cried till she could cry no more. Poor thing, it was a suffering to hear.”

“Where is she?”

“At peace, poor babe. Vitek dug the grave for Eva himself, dug it all night. And in the morning he laid her in it, and the baby at her breast. That calmed the poor creature. He wept as he put each shovelful of earth back over her, but what else could he do? With the mother dead, there was no way to feed the baby while driven through the country like this. It was that or watch the child suffer for days.”

“Are you saying he buried the baby alive?”

The old woman shrugged. “God has mercy on those who suffer. You’ve seen Vitek. He’s a kind man. How could he let the baby die in fear and hunger? It’s she and Eva that are at peace. Pity the living.”

Natalie turned away. She could not speak. The weight of the idea pressed down on her like so many feet of earth. Smothering. All the wounds they had treated in the hospital that day seemed honest and kind now by comparison. This was what it all came to. War. Destroying villages. Burning crops. Driving people from their homes. And now a man who in any other time and place would have been a doting father had laid his living infant daughter at her dead mother’s breast and shoveled earth on top of both of them.

Hope and love and life were buried, smothered by this war.

And that child, that little child who knew nothing but the need for food and touch, laid at the breast of her dead mother and buried alive.

The thought choked her. Who was she but the daughter of a peasant woman who had died young? She had the photograph, her infant self laid upon her mother one last time and photographed by the undertaker. She could have been that child, thinking that she was loved and sheltered from all the world as the earth was shoveled over her.

She cried and couldn’t stop as she stumbled back towards the country house, whose beauty the night before had seemed like such a refuge. Now it seemed a whitened sepulchre that hid the rot inside.

Near the door she stopped and leaned against the wall. The stone was cool and rough against her forehead. She had to stop crying. The horror and despair had to be forced away into some quiet place within her until the patients and her fellow nurses did not need her any more. Then her bed could absorb her tears, if they must come.

Slow breaths went from ragged to smooth. She stepped away from the wall. Smoothed her skirts. Squared her shoulders. She could do nothing for Eva and the baby. There were others whom she could help.

***

The ambulances had stopped coming near sunset, and the sound of guns in the distance had died down for a time. Nevertheless it was nearly midnight when the last of the day’s casualties had been cleaned and bandaged by the nurses and laid in a cot by the orderlies.

In the kitchen one of the field kitchen cooks had kept stew hot for them, and there was a buzz of cheerful chatter from the housekeeping sisters and orderlies as they ate and talked in groups. Natalie hesitated in the doorway and realized that she had passed the point for eating that night. She turned away and went slowly up the curving marble steps of the main staircase and to her room. There she stood, he back against the door, looking at the bed and carpet which had seemed so welcoming and opulent the day before.

Were these some great injustice or fraud? How was it that the war took everything from Vitek and Eva and yet to her it gave a room that looked as if it might be in a palace.

In the silence of the room she felt tears begin to grip her again, her throat tightening. Then she heard a sound. Someone else was crying, long desperate sobs.

What was wrong?

The grip of her own pain loosened as she turned and let herself quietly back into the hall. Up and down, listening at each door, she found the room the sound was coming from and knocked softly. The crying stopped. A few loud sniffs, and then, “Come in.”

She opened the door and found herself facing Sister Gorka.

“It’s you.” The words were flat and lifeless. Sister Gorka sat back down at the chair in front of her dressing table. There was a bottle on the table. Sister Gorka poured pale brown liquid into a glass and took a sip. “Madeira. Whoever our hosts are, they kept a full cellar. The cook put it under lock and key for fear of the soldiers, but he got this for me. Do you want some?”

Natalie shook her head.

“It’s not ladylike, is it,” Sister Gorka said. “But I haven’t been a lady today, and here I am drinking like a real doctor.” She took another sip, and held her hand up and examined it. “Steady now. I was shaking like a leaf when I came in here. Maybe that’s why Doctor Sergeyev couldn’t leave it off.”

“I heard you,” Natalie said. “What’s wrong?”

Sister Gorka folded her arms on the table before her, laid her head down on them, and began to cry again. For a long moment her shoulders shook with the wailing. Natalie stepped forward and put a hand of Sister Gorka’s shoulder. She had never seen the other woman show such strong emotion.

At last the crying subsided and Sister Gorka raised her head again. “I don’t know how they do it. Every time I went to pick up the scalpel or the needle my hands shook. Whenever I cut flesh or pushed the needle through skin I felt my teeth on edge.”

Natalie’s hand was still on her shoulder. “Whatever you felt, you always looked calm and precise. You did good work today. You helped a lot of patients.”

“I know. I forced it down all day, but I hate it. I hate it so much.”

Another bout of crying. Then Sister Gorka started to pour another glass of madeira but slipped and spilled it.

“Here. I’m sorry I asked you to do it,” Natalie said, mopping up the spilled wine with a handkerchief. “You must be exhausted. Why don’t you come to bed?”

She guided Sister Gorka across the room to the bed, sat her down, and helped her take off her shoes. Then she settled her back in the pillows and tucked her in, sheet pulled up to the chin, like putting to bed one of the small girls back at the convent school.

The other nurse clung to her hand. “I don’t want to be a burden, but please... Sit here a while. So that I’m not alone.”

Natalie sat down next to her in the bed, still holding her hand. Sister Gorka’s breathing slowed, and at last her grip on Natalie’s hand loosened in sleep, but by that time Natalie herself found her whole body, and particularly her eyelids, heavy with tiredness.

The two of them were awakened by one of the housekeeping sisters, who threw open the curtains to let in the pale light of dawn.

“There’s news!” she said, showing no surprise at finding the two nurses together, both still in their uniforms as they lay on the bed. “A new surgeon arrived during the night. He’ll be taking over the hospital.”


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Chapter 3-3

This is the updated Chapter 3-3. 4-23-2019


Near Tarnow, Galicia. May 3rd, 1915.
They had set out late in the day, joining a road already clogged with men and vehicles falling back before the enemy onslaught. Their progress was slow, and the more frustrating for the fact that there were not enough places in the hospital vehicles for everyone to ride. By general consent, Doctor Sergeyev was given a place to lie down in one of the ambulances, the canvas curtains drawn to give him the better chance to sleep.

“He downed the rest of that bottle of vodka before laying down,” Sister Travkin said, as the three nurses walked along the grassy verge of the road to avoid the worst of the mud.

“If that’s what he needed to go straight to sleep, I’d say it’s just the medicine the situation calls for,” said Sister Gorka. “He hasn’t slept a wink since the wounded started to arrive yesterday morning. Thirty hours? The poor man needs his rest.”

“Oh, are you his defender now?” Sister Travkin asked. “This how we get a surgeon who drinks between operations, because there is always some warm hearted woman willing to defend him.”

“We all know that the hospital could be better run,” Natalie said. “More modern methods, better hygiene protocols, proper shifts and enough staff. And of course, no alcohol while on shift. But the fact is, the doctors who would run things that way have chosen to stay in their city houses and city hospitals. When it comes to the people who have chosen to work here, near the front lines, Doctor Sergeyev has given a great deal.”

Slow hour after hour they made their way out of the woods that surrounded the hunting lodge and among the fields of the small villages surrounding Tarnow. With Doctor Sergeyev asleep, and the rest of the divisional command too fractured to provide clear orders, it was fortune that carried them on the road they followed, but it was good fortune nonetheless. Tarnow itself was choked with men and horses and carts, and as the region’s one town of any size, marked clearly on all the enemy maps, it was already under heavy bombardment. They pursued an arcing path which led them north of the town, through outlying villages. Letowice, Biala, Brzozówka. By evening they were east of the town, and the artillery was nothing more than a rumble on the horizon several miles distant.

It was fully dark when they stopped, at something that could be called a village because there were a dozen peasant huts clustered near the road. The carts and ambulances were drawn up into a circle and the horses hobbled nearby. The orderlies laid out bedrolls on the ground, and the nurses and housekeeping sisters were preparing to lay out their own in the cramped privacy of the canvas covered ambulances when a regimental staff officer arrived and announced that one of the huts has been requisitioned for the women.

The three nurses and Mamushka exchanged glances.

“We really can be quite comfortable in the ambulances. They’re designed to hold several stretchers, so they can just as well be made up as several beds,” Natalie offered.

“Certainly not. The gentlemen of the regiment could not sleep well knowing that ladies were forced to sleep out of doors.”

“It promises to be a fine night,” Sister Travkin offered. “And including the housekeeping sisters there are fourteen of us.”

“Fourteen?” The officer’s young face betrayed shock for a moment. “But surely the housekeeping sisters…” He stopped before uttering the words, “are only servants”, but the meaning was clear enough.

“We all shared the same quarters at the field hospital,” Natalie said.

“Of course, of course. Well it will be no trouble at all. We shall provide two huts. Please. Do not think of sleeping outdoors.”

There was nothing to do but accept, though when they were led to the low structures with their walls of rough-hewn logs and their roofs of thatched straw, they wondered if this courtesy did not leave them worse off than they would have been under the clean canvas of the ambulances or in the open air.

The air in the hut was close and heavy with smoke. The huge brick and plaster stove which stood against one wall -- so large that in the winter the family bed was made up on top of it -- clearly did not draw well. The living area was a single room, the only other being a lean-to shed normally used for storage into which the peasant family had been pushed for the night by the officers requisitioning the hut.

“I’m so sorry. We did not mean to force you from your house,” Sister Gorka told the family, which consisted of two old women, the farmwife, and three small children.

“No. No. We are honored. Much better you ladies than army officers,” the farmwife assured them, her Polish a dialect which Natalie could understand only with difficulty.

The nurses laid out their blankets on the floor. The beaten earth of the hut’s floor was covered with a layer of straw, which crackled and gave off its smell of summers gone by.

She told herself it was the same as lying down in a grassy field, but in the dim light and close atmosphere of the hut, every little sound brought thoughts of fleas, mice, or other pests.

It was foolish to be frightened of a home which was doubtless little different from that in which her mother’s family had lived. Yet even knowing that she came of peasant stock, this was a world away from the convent of her girlhood, or the Luterek’s home Kiev. Even the field hospital, where the women’s quarters had been a converted stable, had offered a wooden floor covered by rugs scavenged from the hunting lodge.

Yet for all the alien surroundings, she had walked her share of miles that day and slept little enough the night before. Soon she drifted off to sleep, and thus rested until the half light of pre-dawn, when the first of the German heavy artillery shells screamed into the village.

The mission of the field hospital was to provide medical care just behind the front lines. A man might reach their operating table within two hours of being wounded. They were well used to dealing with the immediate effects of battle. And yet battle itself, and the habits for survival that came with it, had not visited the hospital before. They were now encamped with a regiment of soldiers, not set back from the front in a clearly marked medical station. And while the soldiers had, out of habit formed by six months service on the front lines, dug slit trenches or fox holes in case they came under artillery bombardment, no one had thought to tell the hospital staff to do the same.

The first explosion ripped natalie from an exhausted, dreamless sleep. For an instant her surroundings were unfamiliar. Dim light filtering through doors and windows illuminated the smoke-grimed interior of the hut. The strangeness was like waking to another dream. Then she recalled the night before and the peasant women whose hut they were sleeping in.

A second shell exploded. The loudness was beyond anything she had heard before and instantly set her ears ringing. A third explosion went off. She could feel in through the ground on which she lay and though the very air which reverberated right down into her chest.

She had never been trained in what to do under artillery bombardment, but there were deep human instincts which provided the answer. Just as a rabbit knows to seek its hole and a fox to retreat to its den, she knew with desperate urgency that she must seek some kind of cover. At first she grabbed what ineffective protection she had and pulled her woolen blanket over her head, her body working against the floor as if to dig into the sheltering ground by sheer desperation.

As the explosions continued to shake the ground below her and the air above, some remaining scrap of reason told her that the security offered by the blanket was an illusion. She pulled back the blanket enough to look around. She saw Mamushka crouched under the heavy wooden table, whether through presence of mind or simple because that was where she had found room to lay down. She crawled over to the other woman and joined her in the table’s shelter. There was little room, and she crowded against Mamushka, taking comfort in the warmth of another body, secure against hers. With each shell’s impact, she could feel Mamushka’s body convulse, and she knew that she likewise must be trembling with the shock of each explosion. She could see dust and debris sifting down from the thatched roof with each shell burst, and the smell of smoke began to scorch at her nostrils.

The noise and concussion of the explosions had dulled Natalie’s senses enough that reasoned thought became possible again, and now a new fear gripped her. If the sounds themselves were terrifying, the fact that she could hear a shell explode outside the house meant that it had already missed them. If a shell were to hit the house itself, she would be crushed or burned or torn apart before the sound even came to her. Now even the silence between the explosions could be no relief. Death and maiming would come out of the silence, with no warning. The sounds, so brutally battering at all her senses, were taunting reminder: Not this time. But perhaps the next will be for you.

But her time never came.

At last the bombardment ceased. The silence stretched on and on. Both women were tensed in anticipation for the next explosion, but none came. At last, after what seemed a very long time, they crawled out from under the table and began to look around. This house was undamaged, but from the shouts they could hear from outside it was clear that not all had been so fortunate. The only clear words were, “Stretchers! Stretchers!”

Natalie crawled out from under the table. Sister Gorka was huddled against the solidity of the brick oven, her blanket pulled over her head. Sister Travkin was sitting, hugging her knees to her chest, her shoulders shaking. From the lean-to where the peasants on whom they had been quartered had spend the night, she could hear quiet sobbing. She must help the wounded outside. She pulled herself to her feet. One step and her legs gave way, muscles trembling. Putting out her hands she caught herself on all fours, gasping out fear and tension on the straw that covered the floor.

“Any wounded here?”

A sergeant was standing in the doorway of the hut, peering into the dim interior. His tone was oddly calm after the cataclysm they had just gone through. Natalie had seen experienced front line soldiers turn away at seeing her unwrap and clean the wound of a comrade they had brought into the field hospital. Just as she had become able to look at all kinds of wounds without her stomach turning, perhaps some who had been on the front lines for a time had learned to go back to their activities calmly as soon as the shells stopped falling.

“No. We are all well,” she told him, getting slowly back to her feet.

“Good.” He stepped further into the hut and looked around. “You must be the nurses from the field hospital. We have wounded, if you can help. The headquarters was hit.”

If she had no experience as a soldier under fire she had much as a nurse faced with casualties. “We’ll be there immediately.”

The regimental staff had taken a larger hut, slightly set apart from the others in the village, as their headquarters. This clearly had been the target of the artillery barrage. It was reduced to a smoking ruin. Most of its occupants had managed to reach shelter in a slit trench dug outside, but even among these there were shrapnel wounds and several who were otherwise untouched were bleeding from split eardrums.

They began the familiar work of sorting the wounded into triage groups. One of the field hospital orderlies appeared as Natalie was directing soldiers to lay out the bodies -- living and dead -- they were pulling from the wreckage of the hut itself.

“Open some of the crates on our carts,” she told him. “We need bandages, antiseptic powder, and water. Get Doctor Sergeyev. He’s needed.”

The orderly shook his head. “The doctor needs you, Sister. The hut he was sleeping in was hit.”

She left Sister Travkin in charge of the headquarters casualties and followed the orderly to the hut which the surgeon had shared with a group of junior officers. A single shell had come in high, hitting the ridge pole and exploding. A section of that ridge pole now pinned Doctor Sergeyev’s left arm and shoulder against the ground. One of the officers was pinned by the leg. Several others had shrapnel wounds. The hut’s inhabitants -- a young peasant man, two small children, and his heavily pregnant wife -- were picking through the ruins for what of their possessions could be saved.

Doctor Sergeyev bit back a scream as soldiers levered the heavy beam off him.

The arm was an ugly sight. Blood soaked the white linen undershirt in which the doctor had been sleeping. She could see the upper arm was fractured in at least one place, the shoulder dislocated, the collarbone broken. Even if there had been another doctor to set the bones, it would be months before Doctor Sergeyev was able to use it for the fine work of surgery again.

“It would be my arm,” he said, attempting something like a smile. “And this officer here gets his leg crushed. I could have operated with a splinted leg all day long, but he won’t be riding a horse any time soon, and I won’t be doing surgery. No. It’ll be back to Moscow and my wife.”

“Your wife?” Had Sister Usenko known that he was married? Surely she wouldn’t have had anything to do with him if she had. Would she?

“My wife. You don’t think I’d be out here if it weren’t for my loving Countess at home, do you? Never marry for money. That’s my advice to you. Now would you look in my coat pocket over there and see if my bottle survived? I could use a drink.”

Natalie fetched the bottle and left Doctor Sergeyev dosing himself. He would need something to dull the pain on the jouncing ambulance ride to the next train station, where they could send him and the other wounded off.

Back by the headquarters hut Sister Travkin had finished organizing the wounded. The colonel had escaped untouched, but more than half the regiment’s staff officers were killed or wounded.

“Where’s your doctor?” he demanded.

“Wounded. A broken shoulder and left arm. I’ve just seen to him.”

The officer gave an angry swish of his walking stick but bit back any exclamation in the presence of the nurses, the curled tips of his mustache quivering with the effort. “Well. There it is, I suppose.” The tip of his tongue darted out, captured the curled end of his mustache, and pulled it in where he nibbled at it thoughtfully for a moment. Then, seeing Natalie’s eyes on him, he turned away and smoothed it back into place. “There’s no telling how long it is until the medical corps sends us a new surgeon in all this madness. The whole southern front is falling back. Will you ladies consent to remain with the regiment and continue operating the hospital in whatever limited fashion you can without a doctor until that time?”

Natalie looked over to Sister Travkin and Sister Gorka. A nod. A shrug.

By chance or temperament she had become their spokesman. “Of course, sir.”

“Good, then. Right.” The colonel looked around, spotted a young lieutenant, and waved him over. “These ladies and their field hospital will be attached to the regimental staff until further notice. See that they have anything they need, and send a request to the medical corps for a new surgeon to take command.” With a nod of dismissal the colonel turned away and on to his next concern. “Sergeant! Have you found any trace of the peasants from that headquarters house? No? I tell you, they must have betrayed us to the Austrians. These Poles aren’t to be trusted. How could the enemy have targeted us so precisely if they didn’t have news from the village?”

The colonel’s mind was firmly on other topics. Natalie turned to the lieutenant.

“We’ll need transport for all the wounded. Some we can take in our ambulances, but they’re also carrying all the hospital’s equipment.”

The lieutenant nodded, looking quickly around as if he expected to see the needed carts standing nearby somewhere. “How many will you need?”

Natalie looked around the area where Sister Gorka and Sister Travkin were still working on the triage cases. This one would be able to walk. That one would likely die within hours. That one over there would need to be transported. With a practiced eye she made a talley. “Four carts.”

“Four carts,” he repeated back. “I’ll speak to the supply officers, but it’s not as if any of the carts are empty.”

She shrugged. “Yet we have to move the wounded. You can’t abandon them.” As soon as she said the words she recalled the men they had in fact abandoned when they evacuated the hospital -- the men who had cried out or had plucked at her skirts as she passed, knowing they were being left behind. She pushed the memory away. There was nothing she could do for those patients, but for these it was essential that they get carts. “We’ll only need the carts as far as the next time we cross the rail lines,” she offered. “If you have to leave cargo behind temporarily, you could come back for it after getting the wounded on a train.”

In the end a compromise was found. The baggage train contained a huge number of hay wagons, carrying the fodder necessary to keep the horses for the officers, cavalry, and the wagons themselves fed during the march. The wounded were laid out on top of hay bales or grain sacks, and by noon the regimental column was ready to resume motion.

The road was already jammed with slowly moving carts and men -- supply officers shouting and waving as they attempted to bring some order to the chaos -- when Natalie hurried back to the peasant hut were she and the other nurses had spent the night.

She had wanted only to make sure that the housekeeping sisters had collected all their things, and hoped as well to thank the peasant women who had been their unwilling hosts for the night. She found the peasant women arguing loudly with a group of soldiers who were using pitchforks to pull down the thatched roof of the hut. Seeing Natalie the peasant women rushed to her, talking over each other in their strange dialect of Polish.

Once she had untangled their anxious questions, Natalie turned to the soldiers. “They don’t understand. Why are you destroying their house?”

Several shrugs. “Orders, Sestritsa,” one of them said at last.

Natalie saw an officer passing by and approached him. “What are these men doing? They say they have orders to pull the house down.”

“Oh no, they’re just pulling down the outer wet layers of straw,” the officer assured her. “Then they will burn it. Much quicker. We won’t delay the regiment by pulling down all the houses.”

“But why? These people gave us shelter for the night.”

“Orders from the Colonel. Someone in the village went across the lines and brought down artillery fire on the headquarters. These are Galician Poles, not Russian subjects. They can’t be trusted and we can’t be leaving stores and shelter for the Austrians. So all houses and supplies that can’t be carried away are to be burned, and the peasants are to be relocated further into Russia. No men or material for the Russians.”

“But Lieutenant, if you let your men burn these women’s house, they will have nothing.”

The officer shrugged. “What can I do, Sestritsa? If we leave their farm intact, the Austrians will take everything instead. Better we get it over with now and protect Russia.”

Natalie turned to pass on the explanation to the peasant women. One of the older ones began to cry. The farmwife nodded quietly, went into the hut which until now had been her home, brought out Natalie’s bag, and gave it to her. “Thank you, Miss. I’m sure you did all you could for us.”

The calm sadness in her eyes was enough to bring a fog before Natalie’s own vision for a moment. She blinked hard. For this other woman, this was not the tragedy of a moment. A lifetime was entwined with this little village at which they had stopped by chance. A marriage. A family. Whatever lay ahead for this family, it was a life utterly severed from what had come before. In a few days, perhaps a week or two, she and the other nurses would set up a new field hospital in a new location. They would treat their patients as they had before. A new surgeon would come, replacing Doctor Sergeyev whose life was also changed today. But when would this family which had shared their roof with her regain anything like the life they had had before?

“Thank you,” she said, as she accepted the bag. She took what coins she had and offered them to her host, but the farmwife waved them away. There was nothing that she could do. She rejoined the field hospital and their ambulances, now full with wounded including Doctor Sergeyev. Soon the supply officer overseeing the departures granted them a space and waved them onto the road. The nurses walked alongside as the horse drawn carts and ambulances lurched unto the dusty and rutted road. From behind them, columns of smoke began to rise, black against the sky. The village was burning.

***

Two days later, the regiment’s path crossed the rail line. There was no proper hospital train and even after several hours of working the telegraph the station master was able to provide no news of one. But there was a train heading for Warsaw, and that was at least the right direction. They laid the wounded officers, including Doctor Sergeyev, across the seats of the first class compartments, and for the soldiers they laid wool blankets on the floor of two boxcars.

With the wounded safely on their way to Warsaw, the field hospital’s ambulances were once again empty, aside from equipment and the staff taking turns riding in the shade of the canvas covered vehicles rather than walking in the churned up dust of the marching regiment. With the military patients gone, however, another health crisis, less easily solved, was growing. Each day the number of peasant refugees moving along with the regiment increased and so did hunger and disease among them.

It was not fear of the enemy that drove them on, at least, not if the enemy was the Habsburg Empire. Little though these farmers had considered the doings of empires in their lives, they had spent their days under Austrian rule until the outbreak of war. What drove them deeper and deeper into Russian Poland was the standing order now in effect to destroy all shelter, food, and fodder as the army fell back. If it was impossible as of yet to stop the German and Austrian advance, the Russian army could at least force the enemy to carry all their supplies with them by denying them the value of the land.

However sound the military logic of this policy, it led to cruel scenes every time it was enforced. The peasants’ feelings toward the two warring empires might be ambivalent, but their huts, animals, and fields were all they had. In one village a boy barely in his teens rushed a pair of soldiers who were rounding up his family’s chickens. He succeeded in stabbing one of the soldier’s with a pitchfork before shots rang out. Now the soldier lay, sweating and moaning in one of the horse drawn ambulances. The wound itself had not been severe, but the pitchfork tines, fouled with dirt and manure, perforating the intestines had created the perfect conditions for infection. Under its bandages his stomach was now red and swollen, the three puncture wounds half healed and oozing puss. Each day she changed the bandages, Natalie became more sure that he would not survive.

His young assailant had never reached the hospital. The bullet that had struck the boy had left him thrashing on the ground like a wounded animal. A soldier had put a rifle to his head to finish him off, but a lieutenant had waved him away.

“He attacked one of our men. He’s a traitor. He has to hang.”

That was where the hospital staff saw him: a blood-soaked body gently swaying from a tree branch nearby as they worked to bandage up the wounded soldier.

While there were few incidents of such open violence, the resentment of the refugees was clear, and it was returned with disdain by the officers in particular.

“There is not enough food for the civilians,” Natalie told Lieutenant Popov, the officer whom the colonel had assigned to supervise the field hospital until a new doctor arrived to take formal charge. “Couldn’t the mobile kitchens provide them with bread? We’ve driven them from their own sources of food.”

Lieutenant Popov shrugged. “They have their carts and their animals that clog up the roads. They’re peasants: they always have food hidden away somewhere even as they claim they’re starving.”

“I’m a nurse, sir. They cannot fake the symptoms of starvation, and I tell you that the people who come to me for help are starving. There’s a pregnant woman who can barely walk because what little food she gets is needed for the baby she carries. Her husband pushes her in a hand cart. There are children with dull eyes and sunken cheeks. There are--”

“Please!” Lieutenant Popov waved the examples. “I am sure there are hard cases. Even among their own people, there is greed. They don’t share with each other. Yesterday I caught two of the bakers amusing themselves by throwing scraps of bread to the refugee children. Do you know why they found it so amusing? Because as soon as a piece fell among them the stronger ones would beat and kick at the weaker until they succeeded in taking all the food for themselves. If you wonder why the children and pregnant women are hungry, look to the strong ones.”

Nonetheless when she wrote up the list of food needed for the hospital’s patients that night, Natalie included four extra rations. Mamushka looked at the slip of paper, met Natalie’s eyes, and took the list to the mobile kitchen without a word. The head of the housekeeping sisters was not always comfortable in her reading or writing ability, but names and numbers were well within her power. She had known of Natalie’s deception, and if she had not agreed, she had at least consented.

The regiment stayed the night in another small Galician village. The field hospital was given the wooden church in which to set up for the night. As soon as she entered the building, Natalie could see that the priest must already have evacuated it. There were no candles, no brass or gold-plated candlesticks gleamed. The door of the tabernacle stood empty in the intricately carved wooden altar.

It did not bother the Russian staff. This Polish church was bare of icons and with its westernized statues offered no familiarity to them. But Natalie saw Sister Gorka stop herself as she began to genuflect.

They laid patients out where they could, and Natalie oversaw the changing of bandages on the pitchforked soldier and several others with wounds. Food arrived from the mobile kitchen, and Natalie set aside the extra she had ordered -- two loaves of heavy, brown army ration bread and a tin from which the label had fallen off, but which doubtless contained one of the meat or fish pastes which were staples of ‘iron rations’. Once she had seen to all the patients, she wrapped these items in a hospital sheet which was beginning to fray through near the foot, and took them with her out into the night.

The peasant refugees had formed an encampment a short distance from the regiment’s own. She could see the light of campfires and hear distant shouting and singing. Someone must have found a store of vodka. The sounds of men with drink were instantly recognizable. Drink was one of the few escapes the refugees had from the march. The peasants were as avid in their search for liquor as the soldiers, and because they had themselves once been farmers eager to conceal supplies from passing soldiers, they were considerably more skilled in finding their quarry.

But however understandable their need, the way in which the men looked at her when the bottle had been passed around a few times always made Natalie feel unsafe. She was glad to find the family she was looking for camped much closer than the fire around which the refugees were gathered.

The husband, Vitek, scrambled to his feet as she approached. He pulled his cap from his head and stood working it in his hands. His wife, Eva, lay on a blanket on the ground and did not rise, but while her husband looked down at the ground and did not meet Natalie’s gave, Eva’s tired, dark-rimmed eyes met hers. Her pregnant belly was huge. Surely the baby must come soon. With the rigors of the march and lack of food, her body would soon be consumed by the small life inside her if she did not give birth to it first. Another child, perhaps four years old, all thin arms and legs and big, dark eyes looked up at Natalie from under a grubby kerchief.

“I brought you some food,” Natalie said, unwrapping her bundle and handing it to Vitek. She could see the little girl’s eyes following the food as it was put into her father’s hands.

“Thank you.” The peasant man was still looking down at the ground. “It’s not for me, you understand, Sister. I can wait until we reach a village where there is food for us. But Eva and the little girl…” His voice trailed off. He was turning the bread over in his hands, feeling it, weighing it. Then he shook his head, dismissing the thoughts that momentary revery had offered, and tore off a chunk of bread which he handed to the little girl.

“It’s for all of you,” Natalie said. “You need your strength too. There will be more miles to walk tomorrow.”

She had first noticed the family a week before, because Vitek pushed his pregnant wife and their daughter in a hand cart. Surely he could not do such work all day long without food.

“I’m not a beggar,” he told her, meeting her eyes at last. “I’ve worked my own fields. Now they leave us nothing.” The last word came with bitter emphasis.

She had heard bitterness and anger from patients in the hospital, but seldom so strong as this. Here was another kind of war casualty, not caused by guns and shells.

“I’ll try to bring more tomorrow,” she promised, and Vitek nodded, his eyes respectfully directed towards the ground again.

“Thank you, Sister.”

He used the formal term, not the diminutive Sestritsa which so many of the patients used.

How old was this man who treated her with the deference of social inferiority? How old was Eva, whose sunken, dark-rimmed eyes had met hers with wordless gratitude? Was that woman, already the mother of one child and struggling to bring another into a world turned to chaos by invasion, any older than she? Yet what was she? A year ago, she had been nothing more than the ‘old girl’ at the convent school, responsible for overseeing the young ones and helping with lessons. In a year, her nurse’s training and uniform had turned her into an authority, to soldiers who had borne arms in battle and to this small family which had married, raised children, farmed, and then been driven from their home by the very army she was enlisted to heal.

It was strange to think that her mother had come from a village not much different from theirs. In the world of the village, doubtless they were the more respectable: a married young couple, a farmer and a farmwife. And what had her mother been? An unmarried girl with a bastard child, rejected by her family. But because her father was the count, even though he was unwilling to see her again much less give her his name, she had the education, the clothes, the occupation which caused them to treat her with such respect. She was like these people, and yet a gulf yawned between them, as uncrossable as that between her and her titled father. Both distinctions were absolute, even though unearned.

She had been walking back towards the church turned hospital, paying only enough attention to her surroundings to avoid the patches of underbrush and fallen branches which punctuated the carpet of pine needles between the trees. Now a woman’s scream set her heart pounding in her ears and focused panicked attention on the surrounding shadows between the trees.

A girl, perhaps fifteen, ran out from the shadows. Her long, full skirt and blouse -- a dull cream color set off with edges embroidered in bright colors -- marked her as one of the peasant refugees, but her head was uncovered, revealing a long golden braid. She came up short before Natalie, breathing hard.

“Help me, Sister.”

“How? What is wrong?”

There was a sound of heavy movement in the underbrush. “Come back, bitch.” The voice was deep and ponderous, as if each word had taken work to form. A man, also in peasant clothes, middle aged, heavy, appeared from among the trees. In one hand he gripped a red woman’s headscarf.

Seeing Natalie in her nurse’s uniform, veil, and Red Cross armband, he stopped so suddenly that he lost his footing among the pine needles and staggered, then regained his balance and stood facing her.

He was a head taller than Natalie, with thick arms and huge hands in which the woman’s headscarf looked a foreign object. Her first instinct was to turn and run. What could she do against a man, and one to all appearances thoroughly drunk? Why had the girl appealed to her? Simply because she was there, the way a drowning person grabs at anyone else in the water and pulls them under? No, it must be the same authority of her nurse’s uniform which had caused Vitek to address her formally. In that sense it was no different than the trust which wounded soldiers put in her ability to treat their wounds. And in the moment that all those thoughts passed through her terrified mind, she knew that she must try to help.

“What is all this disorder?” she asked. Despite her effort to project command she could hear a high pitch and tremor in her voice. She took a slow breath. “Must I summon one of the officers?

“She…” The man hesitated, searching for words that would make his case before this unexpected authority. “She ran away.” He finished, looking down at his boots at he spoke.

“Is that her headscarf?” asked Natalie. A nod. “Return it to her.”

He held it out to the girl, who snatched it and retreated behind Natalie.

For a moment they all stood looking at each other. How could she end the encounter? “May I go, Sister?” the man asked.

“Yes. Go.” A phrase which one of the nuns in the convent school had habitually used when resolving cases of discipline suddenly recurred to her. “The matter is closed,” she said.

The peasant man turned and moved off into the forest, pushing through the underbrush with the sound of a large animal. Natalie turned to the girl, who was trying the headscarf tightly over her head, hiding her hair from view again.

“Thank you, Sister. Thank you.” The girl took Natalie’s hands and kissed them, in a gesture that startled Natalie so much that she snatched her hands away before she had time to think whether this would seem rude.

“You’re welcome. Do you have family to go to?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Can you go back to them?”

The girl nodded. “Thank you.” She bobbed something like a curtsey and ran off.

Natalie turned to walk back to the hospital and staggered. She found her legs shaking and jelly-like. She leaned against a tree and took slow breaths. At least her fear had not betrayed her until the confrontation was over. And yet, with the shaking fear was an unfamiliar uphoria. She had authority. She had faced down a drunken man nearly twice her size, and he had respectfully done as she told him.

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.