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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Chapter 3-3

She was to leave by train again the next morning. Her new position was as governess to the daughters of an eminent surgeon who was in some sense a protege of the count. “He knows only that you are an orphan whom I have had educated at the best schools. And that is all he is to know. I hope you understand the importance of discretion. If you are responsible for starting rumors, the lawyers may decide to cut off your allowance or confiscate the savings I have put aside for you.”

It had been mid afternoon when she left the count’s house. Drained nearly to numbness, it had been easy for Natalie to avoid any display before the servants, mutely following them out to the waiting car. Her final view of her father had been from the doorway of the library, when the long instincts of her convent education caused her to pause, turn, and bob a parting curtsey in his direction. He stood before the windows, looking after her, but the light of the window was behind him and she could see nothing of his expression.

She had given no thought to where they were going until the car stopped before the white stone facade of the Hotel Bristol. Four floors of balconies looked down on the wide boulevard with its double line of streetcar tracks, each pair of tall wood and glass balcony doors flanked by columns and covered by a classical lintel. The sum of all these columns, lintels and arches, piled up in profusion and capped at the corner facing the intersection by a round, pillared tower, was opulence overbearing in its magnificence.

For a moment she stared dumbly through the car window at the doormen in his blue uniform, the shining brass buttons of his uniform matching the polished fittings of the hotel doors. After all the talk of discretion, surely this could not be for her. But then the footman was getting out from his seat next to the driver, unloading her bags, and opening the door for her. A bellhop swooped in to take her things. She followed them through the doors into the lobby, an expanse of patterned marble floor with a cut glass chandelier above and a massive dark wood registration desk presiding over all. The count’s footman spoke in a low tone for a moment to the desk clerk, who nodded.

“Of course, of course. His excellency’s usual room is available.”

He made a note in his book and gave a pair of keys to the footman. The footman in turn gave one of the keys to her with a slight bow. “Ask them for anything you need. The car will come to take you to the station at seven tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you.”

Another bow and he was gone.

She had just begun to contemplate the implications of the apparent routine being observed by desk clerk and footman when, with a “Follow me, miss,” the bellhop set off with her bags.

A whirlwind followed during which she and her few belongings were deposited in a room that seemed far too large and grand for them. A uniformed maid followed, who hung her dresses in the wardrobe and placed her other clothes in drawers. She offered to run her a bath as well, having shown the awed Natalie the large, bathroom with its tiny octagonal floor tiles of white and blue.

“Please. I just want to be alone for a while.”

“Of course! Of course, miss. Just ring the bell if you require anything.”

The door shut. She was alone.

It was as if the shutting of the door had provided the slight jar, the breath of wind, the touch required. The glass which, though shattered, had till this point held in place, now fell. A sudden tightness grasped her throat, her shoulders tightened and then convulsed. Her legs felt weak, and she half-collapsed onto the bed, wracked by sobs.

Crying was not smiled upon at the convent. As an older girl Natalie had done her share of comforting, patting the trembling shoulders of some new girl as she consigned muffled howls of loneliness, rage, or injustice to the pillow. She could not recall when he had last given herself over, without reservation, to tears. It was the day’s events that broke her down, but once the dam was opened she found there was many years accumulation pooled behind it. She cried for her mother, for that small round-faced child wrapped in her dead mother’s arms, for the father she had seen only to lose again, for the grandfather who existed but whom she must never meet, for hopes she had clung to all through her childhood for a day like this, and for the thousand small sufferings and disappointments that no parent had been there to console her for. She cried until she felt empty and limp and spent, until no more could come and she drifted into sleep.


It was not a long sleep. The late afternoon sun was still shining in the windows when she woke. The maid had opened the balcony doors to allow in whatever breeze might relieve the heat of the summer day, and the curtains were moving with the gentle stir of air, sending shadows playing on the gold and cream striped wall paper.

Natalie lay watching the shadows move on the wall, and listening to the buzzing of some unseen insect. The drained, limp feeling with which she had fallen asleep had transformed into a kind of detachment. There was something very attractive about the idea of just lying there, on this unfamiliarly large and soft bed. As if from some higher vantage point she could see herself cast disorderedly on the bed: Her boots still on. Her hair coming loose. The blue skirts of her second best dress fanned out across the white coverlet. For all the world like a doll discarded by some oversized child.

She could lie here, on this soft bed, until the morning, when she had to meet the count’s car and be taken to the train station. Or perhaps even past then. Who would rouse her if she missed the car? Who would know or care if she did not arrive? How long could she lie here before someone came and demanded that she move?

From the vantage point of self pity there was some attraction in these questions, but even as she asked them of herself she answered back that she was, for the evening, a lady. A lady with a fully paid account in a grand hotel. Yesterday she had been a convent school girl. Tomorrow she might be little better than a servant. A governess inhabited that treacherous ground which, depending on the caprices of the family might make her virtually one of the family, or a starkly isolated creature distanced both from those above and below stairs. But tonight she had all the strength of her father’s money behind her, without even the restraint of being called his daughter.

What would a lady do? She raised herself from the bed and pulled the bell.


The fashionable eat late. At half past seven it was still fully light outside. Through the plate glass windows that ran the length of the Hotel Bristol Cafe, the evening press of people and vehicle could be seen surging up and down the Krakowskie Przedmieście, but inside the white-tied waiters still outnumbered the patrons at the tables.

Natalie sat alone at a table in her best dress. She had not worn it since standing before the fitting room mirror with Madame Ricard while the seamstress bustled about making sure the fit was right. Tonight, she had needed much patience and the help of the maid to get all the tiny buttons, covered in pale pink silk to match the dress, fastened. Now, however, she looked the part of a lady traveler dining in Warsaw’s grandest new hotel. The bodice, with its white lace collar and front panel and fine pink silk, fitted smoothly over the corset which felt tightly unfamiliar compared with the more old fashioned and minimal shapewear the sisters had provided for their older girls. But however constricting and unfamiliar, the effect was satisfying as she stole a sidelong glance at her reflection in the cafe windows. Her waist was visibly narrower than when she wore her other dresses with their less constricting undergarments, and her bosom, not by nature large, was transformed into a smooth, majestic curve. All this was made more gratifying by the knowledge that this did not merely look like Paris fashion, it was in fact from Paris. And perhaps here, where Paris shopping meant much more than three hour ride on the local train, women of wealth and fashion would see the dress and think, “Ah, Paris.”

Around her neck, she wore a part of the gift from her father: a long rope of pearls -- long enough that they clicked pleasingly against the edge of the table when she leaned forward. After all the pragmatic talk about the family she would work for and her allowance, Count Kotarski had got that softer look in his eyes again, and taken from his desk drawer a small, lady’s bag. “This is for you. A small present. Open it later, and let them remind you of the father who cannot see you.”

Even now she made the silent, repressed rejoinder, “But you could see me. You saw my mother. Doubtless you see others. But you don’t choose to take the risk for a daughter.”

And yet he was her father. This imperious and selfish streak which allowed him to quietly congratulate himself for his generosity to a daughter he was sending away was a part of the same character -- passionate, egotistical -- which had made him her father in the first place.

Once dressed, the maid sent away, Natalie had opened the bag her father had given her. The bag itself would be a very nice thing to carry. Inside was a small, silver plated jewelry box. Opening it revealed a small mirror on the inside of the lid, and nestled among the cushioned blue velvet interior, the rope of pearls and a pair of earrings: long, graceful, silver hooks beneath which hung three pearls, each smaller than the one before, interspersed with beads of cut crystal and silver. They were clearly meant to go together, but the sisters had no truck with such things as ear piercings, and so Natalie had left these resting in their box. Someday, she promised herself, she would wear them all.

An older woman, accompanied by a younger one near Natalie’s own age, was seated at the next table.

“Anna!” the older woman ordered. “Go ask the staff for a newspaper. I want you to read to me while I eat. I want to hear about those barbarians who shot the poor Archduke and Duchess. Mon Dieu! We shall never have that kind of uncivilized behavior here, I trust.”

The younger woman meekly bobbed a curtsy and went off to seek a newspaper.

A waiter appeared behind Natalie and leaned close in to speak to her. “I apologize for the noise, madame. May I get you anything else? Coffee? Sherry?”

Natalie contemplated the fact that she might soon be the recipient of barked orders like the unfortunate Anna.

“Yes, I will have an after-dinner sherry. And is there desert?”


Natalie’s arrival in the Kiev’s central rail station, a vaulted Gothic creation of brick and glass, was in some respects similar to her arrival in Warsaw. After a journey which had lasted all through Tuesday and overnight in the swaying comfort of a first class sleeper car, she arrived once again at mid-morning and amidst a bustling crowd on the railway platforms, a mixture of East and West, though here East predominated. The externals were similar, but Natalie knew herself to be different. She was still alone, but she was no longer parentless. And with that came some other change, the nature of which she was still working out in her own mind: a new necessity of making her own way.

When the train stopped at the platform, she pulled her suitcase down from its rack and carried it out onto the platform. There she found a porter. “I need a taxi,” she told him in Russian. He took the suitcase and led the way.

The taxi he led her to was of the horse-drawn variety -- huge spoked wooden wheels, a black enameled carriage body, and a bearded driver who lifted his hat to her and hoisted her suitcase onto a luggage rack that sat upon the roof of the taxi. Soon they were rattling down cobbled streets. The carriage’s springs dampened some of the vibration, and the seat was of deeply upholstered leather, but the jouncing was still enough to make Natalie’s head hurt. She tried to look away into the distance. Some buildings seemed like they could have been in France: huge neo-classical public buildings with rank on rank of pillars, second empire row-houses with curlicued stone lintels and tiny gable windows peering out from slate mansard roofs. Others buildings, especially the churches with their painted arches and gilded domes, were utterly foreign to her experience. Yet others mixed styles with wild abandon.

The Lutereks lived in a house set in a small garden surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Natalie paid the taxi driver, and stood, her suitcase beside her, looking up at the building that would become her home. She tried to pick out some clue that would tell her whether he life here would be happy, but life does not often provide such physical hints of the future. The house spoke no volumes: walls of grey stone, ornately carved white stonework around the windows, a high, decorative fence with gilded leaves and birds sprouting from the black bars. She hefted her suitcase, swung the gate open, and approached her future.

Read the next installment

Monday, November 24, 2014

Chapter 3-2

[Normally Thursday this week is when I'd put up the next installment, but it's Thanksgiving. I'm inclined to give myself the day off and post the final installment of this Natalie chapter next Monday. However, if there are people who are eager for the next installment and would have time to read it over the long weekend, I'm open to changing plans. Leave a comment if you want the next Natalie section on Thursday rather than a week from today.]

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

As the steam cleared Natalie sat looking out the window at the people surging past. A round man in a fawn-colored suit and a bowler hat, who had entered the carriage at Grodzisk, opened the door, grabbed his suitcase, tipped his hat to her, and vanished into the crowd. A moment later a porter entered the compartment from the corridor. He pulled her own suitcase down from the luggage rack, and carried it down onto the platform. She followed him. A moment later and she was amidst the crowd on the platform and the porter was handing her suitcase to a boy wearing a hat that suggested some sort of uniform, though he hardly looked twelve years old and the rest of his clothes were of the non-descript grubbiness of street children in any city.

The boy loaded her suitcase onto a little cart and started off down the platform. “Follow! Please, follow!” he commanded in German so accented that it took Natalie a panicked moment to realize what language she was being addressed in.

Too much was happening too quickly. Through the window of the train the foreignness of the scene had looked slightly thrilling. Now it struck her with full force and terror that she was hundreds of miles from all that was familiar. Her chest felt tight and her face flushed as she hurried after the boy with her suitcase.

“Where are we going?” she asked in Polish.

The boy turned to flash her a smile and tipped his cap to her. “Out to the street. I’ll find you a taxi. I know where the lady can find a motor taxi.”

He plunged on through the crowd and Natalie struggled desperately to stay even with him, terrified that the press of people would close between them and she would lose sight of the cart that held all her worldly belongings.

To a less hurried traveler, the massive railway terminal would have been an interesting sight. Built by an Italian architect in 1845, the white stone building was lit by skylights and arched windows. and flanked by two square clock towers Natalie, however, hardly looked around her. Focused entirely on not losing her guide, she was soon outside, watching the press of noonday traffic making its way up and down the Aleje Jerozolimskie, the Avenue of Jerusalem. Horse-drawn carts and cabs mixed with automobiles, and electric streetcars rumbled down the tracks in the center of the road.

The boy did indeed know where a motor taxi stood, and before she could consider the matter or ask any questions, first her suitcase and then she were bundled aboard the vehicle, all shining black enameled metal, polished wood and smooth leather. The boy stood looking up at her expectantly, holding open the taxi door, and she took out her purse. She had only francs and sous, but these she had in more abundance than she was used to. She held out a pair of silver coins to the boy and he accepted them eagerly, then closed the door on her. The taxi driver put his vehicle in gear and swerved away from the curb. He asked her destination and she handed him the pale blue envelope with the name of Count Kotarsky. The taxi driver nodded and tucked the envelope under his leg as he drove.

Natalie let herself relax into the leather covered comfort of the taxi’s seat and found that she could enjoy watching the bustle of the city streets now that she was doing so through the pane of a glass window. The drive was not far. Offices and public buildings gave way to row houses and then to the great city houses of the wealthy.

The house before which the taxi stopped was one of the most opulent of the mansions. The facade was built in the style of a half century before, with pale yellow brick walls embellished with lintels and columns of white stone. As a nobleman’s city house, it had no gardens or grounds; the house fronted directly on the sidewalk. Four floors of regularly spaced windows looked down, the upper story windows slightly smaller, but otherwise of identical design, thus giving the building the illusion of being even taller than it was. A balcony with an ornate railing ran the full length of the second story. From this, a pair of stairways descended to the street below, starting from the same point and diverging to form the angles of a triangle. The purpose of this design became clear as the taxi pulled directly up to the base of one of these flights of stairs: at large parties two vehicles could pull up and discharge their passengers directly onto the two sets of stairs at once.

The taxi driver opened the door for her, and a servant in livery appeared from somewhere, paid the driver, and took her suitcase. She followed him up the marble steps, looking around yet unable to fully take in the splendor of her surroundings.

The first night after receiving her news from Reverend Mother, she had sat alone in her plain little room in the convent school, looking at the pale blue envelope with “Count Yury Kotarsky” written on it and trying to imagine in what sort of fine house a count in Warsaw might live. This, however, was as beyond her imagination as it was beyond her experience. It was not simply something larger and finer than the houses she had seen before, it was something wholly beyond that realm.

The liveried servant led her into an entrance hall that could easily have swallowed up the entire sitting room at the convent. Their steps echoed on marble and a massive painting in an elaborate gilded frame hung on the wall to her right. Another, older man in a black cut-away coat approached and spoke in low tones to the liveried servant. Natalie stood looking at the painting, a massive Renaissance city-scape which seemed to offer more detail the longer she looked at it: boats moved on canals, loungers sat on the steps of a cathedral, a procession wound through the streets with colorful banners.

Now the older man in the dark coat approached her. “If you will follow me, Mademoiselle,” he said in French, “I will take you to the sitting room and find out if the Count is available.”

“Thank you,” she managed. She reached to pick up her suitcase but he waved her hand away and gestured to the liveried servant who hefted the suitcase again and led the way to the sitting room. There, the suitcase was set down, she was shown to a chair, and both servants withdrew.

This was a dimmer, wood paneled room in a different style. Portraits of many sizes were spaced close together on the walls. A number of these showed variations on a stern, round face with various forms of mustache or beard and a fanciful variety of the uniforms which had, at various times and places, been worn by elements of the Tsar’s forces. Natalie looked from portrait to portrait. Here a red kaftan with black piping and a towering bearskin hat. There a close-fitting black uniform decorated with silver braid. Over the fireplace hung one of the largest ones, this man beardless and wearing a green uniform from the Napoleonic era, sitting astride a grey charger and holding aloft his sabre.

The weight of all this past eminence seemed to press down on Natalie. She pulled her back up a little straighter and raised her chin, refusing to be intimidated by all the stern, painted gazes focused on her from the walls. Nonetheless she felt herself small before them. Who was she, sitting here? A girl just out of convent school who did not know her own parents.

Was this where she was to work, amid all this grandeur? Did the count have a daughter who needed a governess or some mother or aunt who needed a companion? She wondered if after a few weeks or months she would walk through this room with no more sense of gravity than she had felt in the familiar rooms of the convent. Or did people who lived in the house even enter these formal rooms?

She had given very little thought, during these eventful last two weeks, to what the future would hold for her. It was so utterly unknown and beyond her control that she found it hard even to imagine what might come next. These weeks of change had themselves been so eventful. The letter summoning her to meet a Polish count, the shopping trip to Paris to buy “necessities” far nicer than anything she had before owned, the trip across Europe in first class rail carriages, all of these had, in different ways, been flattering novelties. Could what followed in any way equal them? After this brief period of eminence, emerging from the chrysalis of her straightened education to flutter briefly in the splendid independence of a woman of means, would she next have to settle into the quasi-servant status of governess or lady’s companion? And if her convent education had seemed over-long, with many other girls leaving at sixteen or eighteen -- none but those contemplating taking vows with the order themselves stayed on, like her, until twenty -- was there any end to this new state which she would soon be assuming? Was this a transition or a destination?

She heard footsteps approaching before the door opened and so her eyes were already focused on it when the black-coated servant re-entered. She started to rise, as the girls in the convent had been taught to do when one of the sisters entered, then stopped herself. Women did not rise for men, men rose for women, and no one rose for servants.

The man in the dark coat gave her a bow which was the slightest inclination of the head and said, “The Count will see you now. Follow me.”

Natalie rose, picked up her suitcase, and followed him. Pausing in the doorway to make sure that his charge was following him, he stopped and said, “You may leave your suitcase here while you come to see the Count.”

She put the suitcase down, her face hot with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize. It is of no consequence,” he replied, though the necessity of being told this made her feel it very much was of consequence. He knew the rules of the house and she did not. Whatever their relative status would be, he was currently superior.

He led the way down a hall, opened a door, and into another wood panelled room, though this one was smaller and seemed much more lived-in, the air smelling of leather and pipe tobacco. Stepping into the room, she saw that the entire wall in which the door stood was covered with built-in bookshelves packed with handsomely bound volumes. Opposite were large windows facing north, letting in a pleasant diffuse light. To the right was a large wooden desk, and looking at her from across it was a man of perhaps sixty. He had the same full features as the men in the sitting room portraits, but his hair, trimmed short and receding slightly, though still thick, was grey, tending towards white. His beard was full, trimmed short except for curling mustaches, and he wore a grey suit, which made him look much more a creature of the present than the portraits of his ancestors. Nonetheless, Natalie was certain this was Count Kotarsky.

“The young woman, Your Excellency,” the servant said in Polish, with a deep bow.

The Count nodded. “Thank you, Lach. Be so good as to leave us, and should anyone call I am not at home. I will ring when I need you.”

Lach bowed again and left, closing the door behind him.

There was silence. The Count looked fixedly at Natalie, his expression unreadable, and she began to feel uncomfortable. Determined to break the stillness in some way she stepped forward and set the blue envelope which Reverend Mother had given her on his desk.

“The letter Reverend Mother received said to give this to you.”

This had the effect which she had hoped: The count took his gaze off her and picked up the letter, running his fingers over the seal.

“Still unopened,” he said, with a slight smile. She had spoken in Polish, but he answered her in surprisingly unaccented French. “The sisters have taught you well. I am sure that required a great deal of self control. Nor would it have been easy to read the letter by holding it up to the light,” he added, holding it up for a moment to the light of the window.”

Natalie blushed. She had indeed tried many times to read through the envelope by sunlight or candlelight, but it had proved impossible to see anything.

“Ah, I see I am not far from the mark there. Well, even good training has its limits.” Count Kotarsky broke the seal and removed from the envelope a blank sheet of paper, which he displayed for her front and back. “As you see. Well, I had no need to write a letter to myself. The purpose was simply to give you my name and address so that you could arrive here as directed. Now,” he cast aside the blank piece of paper and took another sheet of paper out of a leather portfolio on the desk. “I must start by making a few points very clear. Everything will be done properly. I have family to consider and they must come first, so I have asked my lawyer to draw up for me these points.”

His manner seemed to have closed after his brief moment of humor at her expense over the letter, and Natalie could not tell what his mood was or what would happen next. She wished she were not standing there, exposed, while he sat behind the shelter of the desk with his paper before him. But there was no escape and no cover, so she folded her hands, squared her shoulders, and tried to prepare herself for whatever was to come.

“You are not to see me again,” he said. He looked at the desk rather than at her, his finger tracing down the list before him. Uncertainty gripped Natalie stomach, almost like a cramp, and she felt her back tighten. She did not know what would come next, but these words alone were enough to create fear when she was hundreds of miles from anyone she knew.

“You must never come to visit me. You may not write to me. You may not claim to know me. If you make any such claim, all support for you will be revoked. This is the address of my lawyers.” He pushed a card across the desk towards her but did not look up from the paper he was reading from. “If you are ever in need, you must contact them and they will determine what to do. If you need to contact me, it must be through them, but any reply will be at their discretion.”

He looked up and met her gaze, and she saw with surprise and incomprehension that there were tears in his eyes.

“I have authorized them to do everything which is needed to take care of you, but I myself will never see you again.”

First from one eye and then the other, the tears overflowed and ran down his cheek. He did not wipe them away but, rising, pushed back his chair and rushed around the desk to her. A moment later he was enveloping her in his arms. Natalie started back from this unexpected embrace, a degree of physical closeness she had seldom had since childhood and never from a man, but he held her tightly and against the big man whose shoulder the top of her head barely reached she was terrifyingly helpless.

He cupped her chin in one big hand and tilted her face up to look at his. She felt a tear drop onto her face and the words he was saying finally registered in her ears.

“My child, my child. Oh my little child.”

With an unfamiliar tenderness his hand smoothed her hair away from her face and wiped one of his tears off her cheek.

“I’m sorry.” He released her and stepped back, though the tender look remained on his face. “I was not prepared for how like your mother you look.”

Child. Mother. These were unfamiliar words and they tore at Natalie’s heart in ways for which she was not prepared. That feeling of being held close, of someone saying, “My child,” to her in a soft voice was so unfamiliar, so utterly different and yet so sweet, it took all her self possession not to throw herself back into the Count’s arms in hopes of hearing it again.

“What?” she asked in confusion. “Are you…” She found she couldn’t form the word, but the Count reached out again and smoothed her hair by way of answer.

“Tell me about my mother,” she asked. “Is she…?”

The question hung in the air, but she felt she knew the answer even before Count Kotarsky nodded. “She died when you were a baby.”

He guided her over to the big leather armchairs that sat before the north-facing windows. He sat down and drew her onto his lap. She felt strange, a woman sitting on the lap of a man she had never met before today. Her life during the last ten years and more had been one without much physical affection, and she found now that she craved this touch beyond all things. He was a big man, broad and thick, and Natalie was slight. She looked, to all the world, like a little girl sitting on her father’s lap. And she was. The feeling was so powerful upon her that she felt like she could cry great uncontrollable sobs of joy without end, but the physical manifestation of this feeling would not come yet. It was there, a huge force she could feel inside her, bursting for expression, but so long disused it could not yet come free.

“She was a good woman. A very good woman. You must not judge her by me,” Kotarsky was saying as he held her close. “My little Milenka.”

The feelings which dominated both father and daughter were not of the sort which lead to clear expression, and it was in small pieces over the next hour that Natalie, her head resting against her father’s chest, learned that her mother had been a young peasant woman who had caught the eye of the Count on one of his estates. He had set her up in a cottage of her own and provided her with what luxuries her tastes would allow, but her tastes were simple. She was happy to sew and embroider her own dresses from the materials he brought her. Whenever he came there was food ready for him, simple peasant fare. On long summer evenings they would sit outside and she would sing as she knitted or sewed.

“She wasn’t the sort of woman who wanted furs or silk dresses. She was a good woman who went to Church and made her yearly confession so she could receive on Easter. She was a better wife to me than my wife, for all that she was a peasant woman and uneducated, and I’m sure that God understands these things. That He understood her.”

This last was said with more hope than conviction, the count knowing all too well that in the eyes of both mother, and now daughter, the thing mostly clearly between Milenka and God was him.

“Tell me how she died,” Natalie asked. She took his right hand in both her own and held it close, a protection against the sadness she was calling down on herself. The picture that the count evoked of his peasant cottage escape was the sort of family home she had no memories of, had only read about longingly in books. And yet her own lack of memory made clear that this blissful time had ended not long after her arrival, perhaps because of it.

“She was happy to be expecting a child. I promised her that, boy or girl, our child would have the best of care. She sewed clothes and made blankets. I bought her a carved wooden cradle. Her only sorrow was that her mother would not come and be with her. Her mother was a very strict woman; she called her a whore and said she would never see her again.”

His left hand had been resting on Natalie’s shoulder and she felt it grip tightly for a moment at this. There was an echo of anger in his voice that made her wonder what the count might have done to a peasant family whose moral strictures had condemned their daughter’s relationship with him.

“I wanted to send a doctor to attend the birth, but she desired only the midwife from her village. I should have insisted. She had the fever after your birth, and it was nearly a month before she was well and out of bed again. Even then she was weak. That summer, when you were three months old, there was cholera in the village and she took sick. This time I did bring a doctor, all the way from Warsaw. But it did no good. She died within a week.”

Natalie held his hand tight. She wanted the tears to come, and there was a tightness in her chest, but her eyes remained stubbornly dry.

“I made the priest come to see her. No difficulty with having a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ then. And I made him say a funeral mass for her too, with a proper burial in the village cemetery. A marble headstone. I found a wetnurse for you on another estate, where no one would know your history or bear resentments. And when you were old enough, I sent you to the convent so that you could be educated as a gentlewoman.”

For several moments there was silence. Then Natalie spoke, “My mother’s parents. Are they still alive?”

She felt the count’s body tense. “They cut your mother off. They are no concern of yours.”

“Count…” She paused, about to rephrase, but the word ‘Father’ was too unfamiliar to come now. “I have never had any family at all. I dreamed of course. Every girl at the convent imagined at times that she had relatives who would send for her. Like you did. But to have grandparents…”

“No.” The word was definitive. “Her mother died in the same cholera outbreak. Her father is still alive. He has remarried and still works on one of my estates. But for my family’s sake I can not have you known as my daughter. To him, you died in the cholera outbreak twenty years ago. If you were to visit that estate-- It was well enough known in the village that Milenka was my woman. If you were to go back there now, with your education and your Paris clothes, in a day the whole estate would know that I had a daughter by Milenka I was lavishing money on. No, I’m sorry. There must be limits, and that cannot be. Put him out of your mind. A peasant grandfather would be worse than nothing to you.”

He seemed to sense as soon as he said this how little it would satisfy her, and so immediately he brought up another topic. “Here, I have something for you.”

He shifted and Natalie immediately stood up. She yearned for closeness and yet closeness with him at this moment felt less satisfying than it had before. His hardness on this point reminded her of the words with which the interview had started: “You are not to see me again.” How cruel was it that she should find and lose a whole family in the same day?

The count went to his desk, unlocked a drawer, and took out a small, folding, silver picture frame. He opened it and held it out to her. On the left was a painted miniature of a woman about her own age, with the same light brown hair, broad nose and blue-green eyes. On the right was a photograph which in faded black and white clearly showed the same woman: her face looking a little older, angular and drawn. Her eyes closed. A baby cradled in her arms.

“Those are for you,” the count said. “What little of a mother I can give you. The painting was made by an art student, the son of a friend of mine. He was staying at the estate the summer I met Milenka, and he painted her for me. The photograph… Milenka had been so sickly since your birth. When the undertaker came I realized that I had no picture of her with you. So I asked him to make her look as peaceful as he could. The photographer from the village came, and when she was arranged we put you in her arms.”

Natalie stared with mixed horror and longing at the picture of her dead mother and living self. She wanted to feel closer to the mother she could not remember by looking at these images, yet knowing that those arms had already cooled, that those apparently sleeping eyes would never open again seemed to make her mother even more distant. All of these years later, she finally saw her, and yet in an image taken a few hours too late for her to see any light of maternal love or knowledge in those eyes. The near miss made the distance greater.

She closed the frame and sat down in the armchair before the window. She felt weak and on the verge, like a pane of glass criss-crossed with fractures but not yet fallen into pieces, held together by its long accustomed frame. She held the folded silver frame flat between her hands, feeling the cool contours of the decorative pattern of leaves and flowers pressing into her skin. Her mother was restored to her only in loss. Her father was hers for this moment, but soon she would not see him again.

The count had shifted to practicalities, telling her about the family with which he had found her a position as a governess. Natalie sat watching him, his voice sounding in her ears but only as a rising and falling sound. Rather than hearing the meaning conveyed by his voice she was trying to memorize its sound. He handed her a portfolio with papers detailing the arrangements he had made for her, but it sat unopened in her lap.

He paused, then said, “But what am I saying? You are exhausted. All the last day and night on trains, and now all this newness at once. Forgive me.”

His large hand reached out and cradled her face. She felt the dry, smooth skin of his palm against her cheek and leaned into it slightly, focusing on the feeling, the slight smell of some aromatic lotion or aftershave. There was the smallest hint in that touch of something other than a father. He was a man used to touching women. Yet of this too Natalie wanted to be able to recall every moment.

For a few hours, one day, I had a father.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Chapter 3-1

On the Vienna-Warsaw Railway, Russian Poland. June 29th, 1914 Outside the train’s window, the passing countryside slowed. Natalie leaned closer to the glass and watched. A peasant led a pair of oxen down the road which ran parallel to the railway embankment. He did not look up, but one of his beasts briefly raised its head and for a moment liquid brown eyes seemed to meet hers with a knowing gaze before the train left them behind. The first houses of a village rolled by, then shops and public buildings which slowed as she heard the metallic squeal of the brakes and felt herself pressed back into her seat.

The platform slid into view, and then with a slight bump the train came to rest. The whistle sounded. Steam poured by the window. An army officer and a lady with a wide-brimmed hat got off the train, followed by a porter carrying suitcases. Looking off the to right, down the platform, she could see a crowd of people with cardboard suitcases and parcels done up in string milling about as they pushed towards the third class carriage doors. Above it all hung a sign, the station name painted in large Cyrillic characters. For a moment they were spidery abstractions, utterly foreign and devoid of meaning. Then the scratches resolved themselves into letters and the unfamiliar name sounded itself out in her mind.

This, more than anything, impressed upon her the sense of being far from the convent school where she had spent her last fourteen years. Cyrillic letters had, until now, been relegated to the pages of books. The train began to pick up speed again, the platform vanished behind, and soon there were fields and trees outside the window again, but Natalie’s mind was back in old Sister Maria-Grigori’s room. There, as a girl, she had filled her exercise books with the cyrillic characters of Russian and the Latin ones of Polish while Sister Maria drank strong tea from the samovar and taught her in heavily accented French. In later years, as Sister’s eyesight failed, Natalie had spent their daily hour together reading aloud Russian novels to her and then answering the questions Sister asked in French to see if she had understood the story.

Now, here she was, in a first class railway carriage rumbling across Russian Poland. Was this the sort of train that Anna had confronted in the long, low-roofed station of the Nizhni Novgorod Railway? But no, that was far to the east near Moscow.

Reflecting on how strange it was that she thought of the land that was her home in terms of fiction, she tried to recall her last long trip along this railroad. She had been six years old when Nianka -- old Nianka, crabby Nianka, too busy to be tender except when she kissed her little Natalka goodnight almost like a mother might have -- escorted her to the convent and what was to become her life. Try as she could, however, she could remember no more than storybook images from before she came to the convent school. Nianka, of course, and the pea vines curling up the trellis in the garden, and the little brook that ran through the woods behind the house. There was a favorite window with a deep sill, where she had spent many hours with Lalka, her doll, tucked away between the curtains inside and the garden without, making up stories in which the two of them were brave adventurers who were never scolded or put to bed. But she could recall no definite impressions of her native country, and despite her daily lessons with Sister Maria-Grigori, her Russian and Polish, though adequate, were schoolroom languages less comfortable than the French she’d spoken with the other girls.

The small marks of difference -- the daily lessons with the old Polish sister; her beloved Lalka, whose painted wooden head was so different from the porcelain dolls that several of the other girls had -- seemed of little import to her life until the day that she was called into the formal sitting room in which the convent received guests. This time, however, there was no rich woman being shown the products of the charitable school to which she was thinking of giving money.

Reverend Mother was there alone, sitting behind the tea service. She gestured Natalie towards a seat opposite her and Natalie obediently sat down. Reverend Mother poured a cup of tea and handed it to her.

Tea service was the ritual which brought order to all worldly changes, good and bad, just as the singing of the Office brought order to the convent’s sacred world. If a girl’s relative had died, she was given tea and then told of her loss. If a girl was offered a job or a chance to live with a relative, she likewise was told over tea. Never having heard that she had relatives or prospects, Natalie could not imagine why she had been thus summoned. Only long training guided her through the formalities of tea, cakes and light conversation without voicing the one question which occupied her mind.

Reverend Mother put down her cup and picked up an envelope which had been sitting beside her saucer.

“I have called you here today, Mademoiselle Nowakówna, because I have received a letter from your patron.”

She paused, but Natalie sensed that no response was desired yet. Her fingers gripped the thin porcelain of her teacup so tightly she feared she would break it, yet she was sure that if she did not hold onto something, Reverend Mother would notice her trembling hand.

“He is very pleased with the reports he receives of your progress here, and he says that he has found a suitable position for you. You are to call upon him on June 29th at his city house in Warsaw and present this letter.”

Reverend mother held out a sealed envelope of blue stationery addressed to “Count Yury Kotarsky”.

“Funds -- very generous funds, I must say -- have been provided to buy you suitable things,” Reverend Mother went on. “I have asked Madame Ricard to take you to Paris tomorrow. You will be able to buy everything you need there.” She looked down, seeming to search the dregs of the teacup for the right phrase with which to close the interview. Then with a slight shake of her head she rose. “I hope that you will do the school credit in your new duties.”

And so here she sat.

Two weeks ago she had simply been one of the old girls at the school, helping the younger ones with their lessons, wearing dresses that were, despite her twenty years, still of a girlish cut. Madame Ricard had not intended to indulge her charge. Indeed, she had taken numerous opportunities during measurings and fittings to warn her against the myriad ways in which an unprotected young woman might mis-step. She must call no undue attention to herself by her dress. She must not boldly meet the eyes of men. If there were men in the family she was working for she must modestly ignore them and recall the duties for which she was employed. Most of all she must remember that for a woman in her position the slightest hint of impropriety could destroy all. It was in her blood, after all.

However, what seemed to the comfortably-provided widow respectable and sensible clothing was to the convent-raised girl luxury. The strange new suppleness of silk next to her skin when she moved, the slight heel of her neatly buttoned boots, the long but narrow skirts of the blue second-best dress that she was wearing, and the white kid gloves, so delightfully soft that she constantly found herself running the back of her hand against her lips and inhaling the delicate smell of new leather -- all of these sensations made her feel unfamiliar to herself. After an extended childhood in which the world consisted almost entirely of the girls in the school and the well-regulated sisters, she was called, with few models to mold herself upon, to dress, move and speak as a woman.

A woman traveling alone to Warsaw.

She picked up the pale blue envelope which Reverend Mother had given her and examined it again. Count Yury Kotarsky.

She had never heard the name before her conversation with Reverend Mother, and the only information she had been able to draw from her had been, “Your education here has been through his generosity.”

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chapter 2-3

At 7:30 PM the electric bells rang throughout the Meyer Cycle Works, signalling the end of the day. The flowing order of the factory, each task repeating within its area as the bicycles gradually made their way to completion, shuddered to a stop. The sounds of machinery decreased and that of talking because audible in the new quiet, as workers finished their last task, stepped away from their stations, and began to move towards the workers’ room where they would gather their things and disperse into the streets.

Walter took a little longer than others that night. He took the frame he had been working on from the jig, set everything in its place, and wiped down his machinery and tools with a rag. All afternoon Herr Meyer’s offer, and his argument with his mother over it, had been playing through his mind.

When the foreman position was first offered to him, the future had gone through one of those sudden realignments of which the mind is capable. Prior to walking into the office, his expectations of the future had been some form of the present continuing on for a time and then, at some hazy point in the future, things getting better in some as yet indeterminate way. The offer had given the future distinct form and by the time he was walking down the metal stairs from the office to the factory floor a future of Walter As Foreman already stretched out with clarity before him. Consulting his mother seemed a right and proper thing to do, a deference to authority appropriate to someone now taking on authority himself, but he did not imagine that formality in any way impeding his progress.

He had now had five more hours of work during which to think about his mother’s opposition. He was no less sure of his intent to take the foreman job, but the argument had added an urgency to his desire. The promotion had shifted from being something that would happen to something that he was ready to fight for, and something he would feel a failure if he did not achieve. All afternoon, as he worked, he had formulated arguments -- sometimes actually voicing them in an undertone as he worked -- and as he stepped out of the factory doors and walked across the cobbled yard to the gates, his desire to discuss the promotion, to voice the arguments, to share his feelings, and to examine the situation from every angle, was overpowering.

It seemed strange that for the rest of the world it was an ordinary workday. Food sellers were crying their wares in the street. Three women workers were dashing for a streetcar, their bags of knitting encumbering them as they ran. Paul was on the sidewalk, leaning against the factory yard fence, his cap pulled down against the evening sun. He pushed off as Walter approached him.

“I’m starving. Steiber’s as usual?”

Walter agreed and the two pressed aboard a crowded streetcar. With the familiar crackling buzz of the contacts against the wires overhead, the streetcar gathered speed. The passengers were packed shoulder to shoulder, and at turns were pressed into a sort of unwilling embrace. Still, Walter could wait no longer.

“Herr Meyer called me into his office today,” he said, and launched into a description of the interview. Paul pressed his lips together and did not reply, making him a less than satisfactory target for Walter’s enthusiasm, but he kept his own council until they reached the beer hall which was their destination.

The Steiber chain operated two dozen beer halls scattered through Berlin’s working class perimeter. All shared the family name displayed in large gothic letters painted above the door, the same acceptable but undistinguished straw-colored lager, and the weeknight offer of a free sandwich with each half liter of beer. It was not intended that patrons should stick to this thrifty diet. To reach the cold cut table, the two young men had to pass several other serving tables. The pile of sausages in their chafing pan had each been broiled to a crusty, glistening brown which was exceeded in appeal only by their smell and by the woman standing ready to serve them, who smiled at Walter while displaying a bosom at which he could not resist staring. Whoever had assigned the servers had done his work. The woman who stood behind the cold cuts table was neither so cheerful nor so endowed, and when Paul and Walter showed their freshly drawn mugs of beer and asked for the complimentary sandwiches, her look became more sour as she slapped together the small, open-faced, ham sandwiches to which the purchase had entitled them. They retired to a table where they took turns with the pot of brown mustard, each spreading his sandwich with a thick layer of it before demolishing it in a few quick bites washed down with beer.

“I don’t like it,” Paul said, as he licked the traces of mustard from his fingers. “It’s a bribe. They see you’re good and they want to make sure you’re on the side of the bosses, not the union. Tell Meyer where he can put his foreman’s job.”

Walter’s pride at being offered the promotion was stung again, but he held back from responding for a moment, considering his words. Paul could be quickly worked into a passion on any topic relating to the union, and he wanted at all costs to be persuasive.

“Look here: Someone has to be a foreman. Aren’t we all better off if the foremen are reasonable men, people who know tools and designs, and who will give everyone a fair chance? Everybody suffers when we get someone like Max -- shouting at people all the time and writing up anyone who comes in the slightest bit late from lunch -- or Peter who’s always slipping away from the line to talk to the women and try to pinch some girl’s ass. Wouldn’t you rather see me as foreman instead of someone like them?”

Paul shook his head. “It’s all a trick. Foremen are just another tool for the owners to exploit. Meyer will offer you a few extra marks a week, but the real profits are all still his. Has he even told you how much he’s offering you?”

This stung, but Walter had to shake his head.

“See? It’s a bribe and a cheat. Say Meyer asked you up to his lofty perch and said, ‘I’ll give you five extra marks a week if you’ll promise not to join the union,’ would you accept him?”

“He didn’t ask me that,” Walter replied, beginning to feel heated.

“But say he did. Would you take it?”

“I’m not answering some damned what-if. Meyer didn’t offer me money to stay out of your union. He offered me a job as a foreman because I know my work.”

“All right.” Paul spread his hands out, calling for calm. “I’m sorry. Here, if you’ll buy two more beers I’ll get us each one of those sausages. Is that fair?”

Walter nodded and they dispersed for a moment. Stepping away made him instantly calmer, though he regretted that Paul had reserved to himself the task of going to the sausage girl. He returned with two brimming mugs and another pair of free sandwiches and set them next to the sausages Paul had bought. For a moment the food occupied them quite happily.

“Buy me a drink, will you, boys?” One of the beer hall girls stood beside the table. She looked to be no more than sixteen, but trying hard to look older in a way that did not yet fit well with her. Already she had the flush of several drinks.

Walter knew that for men with their limited means, taking up her offer would at most mean ten or fifteen minutes flirting in return for another round or two of beer -- including the half size but full price mugs the beer hall girls drank -- but he couldn’t help looking her up and down before replying.

“We’re just having a quick dinner,” Paul said, waving her on. “That is a perfect example,” he went on, after she had moved to the next table. “If the beer hall were run by its workers, if it were managed as a cooperative on rational and orderly principles, would young girls be made to go around asking men to buy them drinks?”

Walter shrugged. “I wish I could make a living by drinking beer.”

Paul was not to be put off. “She probably thinks that she’s better off than the honest woman who broils the sausages. If she smiles and winks enough at men who’ve already had too much to drink, and lets the richer ones feel her up a bit, she probably makes better money too. But she’s not doing any real work. She exploits the customers and for her trouble the owners give her a fraction of the money she’s earned them. When the whole rotten system comes down she’ll have nothing. It’s the same with a foreman: He doesn’t do any real work. He exploits the workers on behalf of the owners and gets some scraps from their table. But there’s no need for him any more than there is for the owners.”

“Sure there’s a need for him. It takes at least a month for a man to become a good framer, and during that time who is it who teaches him how to do his job and makes sure his mistakes don’t result in a shoddily made bicycle? The foreman.”

“None of which is work that an ordinary senior worker couldn’t do if the factory wasn’t artificially divided into workers and management. In a proper cooperative factory, the workers who knew their work the best would still teach those who were new. But they would all be working to the same ends instead of working against each other. Tell him ‘No’, Walter. Don’t let Meyer turn you into an enemy of the other working men.”

Walter was staring at a nearly empty mug of beer. “I should be getting home,” he said, draining the last of it. He knew that there was no outlasting Paul when he was in this sort of mood, and he enjoyed his company too much to want to fight with him, but each argument made him more resentful. Surely, if Paul’s own abilities lay in understanding the actual work better than other men, if he could teach others his job and find ways to improve the process and the tools, if his strength was anything other than the ability to form a bigger group of workers with the same resentments, then he would understand the value and allure of that word: management. The promise of money and respect due entirely to his expertise.

“Why don’t you come back to the flat?” Paul asked, cutting through Walter’s thoughts. “Berta will make us some coffee, and she can tell you about the workers’ outings she’s organizing.”

The Ehrlichmanns’ tenement was a few blocks from Walter’s own and the flat itself was similar, though the furnishings were a more seedy and random collection. The brother and sister had come to Berlin with nothing but their suitcases. There were no threadbare pieces from the long remembered home in East Prussia here but rather the leavings of others who had moved on and what could be purchased third or fourth hand. Rather than lace-edged muslin, the curtains that kept out the evening’s gathering dark were quite obviously an old bedsheet -- patched, cut and hemmed.

Berta greeted Walter and her brother at the door, giving Walter a firm handshake. As she brought the spirit burner, coffee pot, grinder and three mis-matched mugs to the table she told them about the doings in the emery factory in which she worked. A girl had been fired that day for becoming pregnant.

“She put on all sorts of airs when the shift boss took her off the line and bought her jewelry. He’s a married man, though, and when one of his girls gets pregnant it’s out she goes and his eye starts roving again.”

Walter half-listened as he watched her make the coffee. Her movements were rapid and business-like; in no sense were they performed to catch his eye. Yet his eye was caught and he devoted more attention to the way her shoulders tensed as she worked the grinder and the strand of hair that fell along the side of her face than he did to her description of the injustices at the emery factory. Berta was friendly enough on the occasions when they met, but never more than friendly. Even so, her intensity, and her wide, often smiling mouth, were attractive to him, and he made an effort to see her whenever practical.

He realized that Paul was watching him and looked away. The two had never discussed Walter’s attraction to Berta, but Walter was sure his friend must have noticed it and did now know what view he took of it.

“It’s like I was telling you before,” Paul said. “The management isn’t primarily there to provide organization, it’s there to exercise power. If management’s main concern was that the factory run efficiently, would they keep a philandering shift boss in charge of all those women? No, then they’d choose a woman, someone who actually knew the work. What they want is someone who will keep the workers in their place. And if that means losing a woman to the streets every few months, they believe there are more where she came from, and they don’t care.”

Walter shrugged. “Why don’t the girls stay away from him. You must all know he’s trouble.”

“Your problem,” Paul said, “is that you have no sense of solidarity. You should be supporting other workers, not blaming them. Tell him about your weekend plan, Berta.”

“I’m organizing a series of weekend hiking trips,” Berta said, leaning forward, her elbows on the table, animation showing in her face now. “We’ll take the train out on Saturday after work, walk through the country, and find a farmer who will let us camp in his barn overnight. Clean country recreation -- not just handing over more of money to some business owner in return for alcohol and a roof overhead. A chance for real community, away from the hurry and dirt of the city. I’ve told Paul to invite anyone from the bicycle works who is interested in organizing, and I’m going to bring as many of the women from the emery factory as I can.”

“Well?” asked Paul. “Clean country air. A chance to understand what the union is about? A campfire and singing? Will you come?”

The image of himself as a foreman was one which had occupied a fixed place in Walter’s mind all afternoon, and as a future its allure remained. However, whatever skepticism he might have over the idea of worker-run factories, the idea of hiking through the countryside with Berta and perhaps some other girls from the emery factory had an immediate appeal. And it was not as if he were promising not to accept the position.

“Yes, I’d like that very much,” he said.

The coffee pot had begun to bubble and steam. Berta poured a cup and handed it to him with a smile of approval.


Next morning Walter was called into Herr Meyer’s office shortly after his shift began. Meyer stood next to the most misbegotten tangle of bicycle parts that Walter had ever seen. The wheels overlapped, the chain and wheel stuck out to one side, the seat stood above all else like a unicycle, the handlebars were twisted and canted down at an impossible angle. The factory owner was visibly brimming over with excitement, but although he patted the seat of the strangely deformed bicycle he did not say anything about it.

“So,” he said, giving the bicycle seat another slight caress. “Did you think about it? Did you talk to your mother? Will you accept the foreman job?”

In the privacy of his mind, Walter could not help reviewing the tepid responses he had actually received to his news from his mother and from Paul. He drew himself up a little straighter in response to Herr Meyer’s question and said, “I have, sir. And I would be honored to accept the position.”

Meyer’s smile was immediate, broad and genuine. “Good! Good! I’m glad to have you. And you…” His hand reflexively went to the bicycle seat again. “You are going to enjoy this. Come and have a look,” he said, waving Walter over to the strange contraption. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Walter came closer, looked at it more closely, shook his head, and confessed that he had not. “What is it?”

“It is a military folding bicycle. Watch.” With a few quick motions the tangle became a bicycle. The two handlebars swung up and latched into place with a snap. Then the whole front half of the frame pivoted, snapped into place, and a completely ordinary bicycle stood before them. Meyer gave a laugh that was very like a crow. “You see? Is that not the most ingenious thing? Here, you try it.”

He guided Walter through folding up the bicycle again. A spring loaded pin lifted to unlock the main hinge, set right in the middle of the top tube. With it unlatched, this and the matching hinge in the downtube swung open easily, allowing the front half of the frame to turn back on itself, aligning the two wheels. Now he felt them Walter could see that rather than the usual inflatable tires these had solid, textured rubber tires.

“Solid to avoid punctures?” Walter asked.

Meyer nodded.

Another spring loaded pin pulled back and the two handlebars unlatched and folded down.

“The straps,” Herr Meyer said, lifting the bicycle by them, “allow the bicycle trooper to carry the bicycle on his back if necessary.”

He swung a leather strap over each shoulder, shifted it slightly for comfort, and then stood, turning first to one side and then the other to show off the neatness with which the bicycle could be carried.

“I can hardly get over the ingenuity. It’s an Austrian design. The Austro-Hungarians have fitted out all their bicycle troops with them. Our army has agreed to try the design as well and I have the order to provide the test vehicles. Two thousand of them. The engineer is working on designs for the new line now.” Meyer took the straps from his shoulders and set the bicycle back on the floor. “Go ahead. Have a look at it. I’d take it out for a ride, but I don’t want it seen on the street. A cousin on the General Staff helped get the order for me. I don’t want word getting out to any larger factories. This is our ticket, my boy. I have the test order, and if they scale up and order tens of thousands more all that business will come to us because we’ll already have the line built.”

Walter was absorbed, unfolding and re-folding the frame. Meyer watched him with the appreciation of a fellow enthusiast.

“The new line won’t be ready for six weeks, but I want you to start doing your foreman’s duties now,” Meyer said. “Everything is to be highest quality on these machines. I want you to learn all the procedures on the line, and when the time comes you’ll help pick the best men and train them.” Meyer sat down behind his desk.

“Thank you!” Reluctantly, Walter unfolded the bicycle one last time, stood it up on its stand, and prepared to go. He hesitated, afraid to ask yet unwilling to leave without doing so. “Is there to be any change to my pay?”

Meyer nodded casually, the detail thought of but not deemed urgent enough to have been mentioned before. “Your pay will increase by ten Marks beginning next week. Oh, and Walter.”


“I expect you to buy a bicycle. There’s no other way.”

“I will, sir.”

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chapter 2-2

At 1:00 PM the lunch bell rang. The workers at the Meyer Cycle Works stepped away from their tools and began to disperse for the midday meal. Out in the street, food carts and stands had set up offering sausages and cabbage soup and other midday fare to the workers in the district’s factories. Some workers hurried home for lunch, others went to carts or taverns. A number of the women, whose salaries did not stretch to buying hot food, sat in the workers’ room knitting and eating pieces of bread they had brought from home.

Walter took the streetcar home, the cost of getting there and back quickly enough to see his mother and brother at the same time. Soup was bubbling on the burner in the kitchen when he entered. Frau Ilse Heuber was already dressed in her best clothes, the ones she only wore when teaching piano lessons or if she went to service on Sunday. She had put on a large apron to preserve her finery and was bustling around the table putting out three settings of china.

It was already becoming stifling in the flat and sweat glistened on Frau Heuber’s forehead, but Walter left his jacket on when he hung up his cap by the door. Mother did not believe that a gentleman should eat in shirtsleeves. “We may live here among the poor,” she would tell her sons. “But we do not have to live as they do. Never forget that your grandfather owned the best saddlery shop in Eickstedt. He sent all six of us children to school, and we girls had music lessons.”

Erich arrived a few minutes after Walter, and their main meal of the day commenced. After the initial exchange of pleasantries, Walter told the news of his conversation with Herr Meyer.

“Will this mean a raise?” his mother asked. “How much?”

Walter felt his triumph checked. There would be more money. Certainly there must be more money. Meyer had said there would be, hadn’t he? He tried to recall the exact words spoken rather than his own impressions. Perhaps it hadn’t been said, but surely he wouldn’t be made a foreman without getting a raise. He felt his pride suddenly checked, and as a result a flash of anger towards his mother.

“The raise isn’t decided yet, but I’m sure there will be more money,” he said.

“Perhaps it would be enough… Enough that I could spend my time only on giving piano lessons.” Unless forced she prefered not to mention her night job as a charwoman.

Walter wished that he could promise her that as a foreman he would earn enough that she could quit that second job, but he knew that if once stated such a promise would be taken as absolute. “I hope so, Mother. But I don’t know yet.”

Frau Heuber did not reply, eating silently, her forehead slightly creased.

“Will you buy a bicycle?” asked Erich? “I’d get the Model 17 racer if I had money.”

Walter grasped at this happier line of discussion. “If it’s a good raise, I’ll buy a bicycle. The last time I was in Herr Meyer’s office, to talk to him about the jig design, he told me I should buy a bicycle. Though I think I’d get a Model 12 Men’s All-Weather.”

Erich nodded, satisfied that if there was a bicycle in the family he would get at least some of the enjoyment of it.

Frau Heuber put her spoon down and squared her shoulders. “I won’t have it, Walter. You must refuse.”

The intensity of the anger which flared up in him surprised Walter. He had come home with news that made him proud, and the reception of it was not what he instinctively felt he deserved. “Why is that, Mother?”

“That the factory has offered you this promotion so soon shows your value. It’s been wrong of me to let you help support the family while giving up your future by working in a factory. You should have a profession. A government job, perhaps. A clerk in an office. If you accept this job you’ll always be working in a sooty factory.”


“I can’t be selfish.”

“I won’t be a clerk, Mother. I don’t have connections, and I don’t have experience.”

“We have connections. Uncle Krem could recommend you.”

“Uncle Krem is a rural policeman. He’s not the sort of civil servant who can recommend someone for an office job. Mother, my job at the cycle works is a good job. Herr Meyer respects my work, and as a foreman I’ll have a chance for more advancement.”

“It’s not right. You should have volunteered to stay in the army. You could have been a sergeant like Uncle Krem and then retired as a policemen. The army is respectable.”

“But mother--” Walter realized that he was starting to shout. He took a breath and forced himself to speak calmly. “You know you didn’t like it when I was away with the army serving my two years. The pay was less than half what I make now, and they fed us so little you had to send me parcels. This is a good job. A respectable job. Factories are the future, not the army or government work.”

Frau Heuber pursed her lips in disapproval. “Well I think that you could do better.”

“Well, I’m sorry not to satisfy your aspirations for me.”

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Chapter 2-1

Chapter Two

It was 5:45 AM when the whistle of the Kaufmann Textilfabrik sounded, warning its workers that fifteen minutes remained until their shift began. The bright light of a summer morning was already streaming in through the thin curtains of the Heubers’ tenement flat. Each of the neighborhood’s many whistles had its own familiar sound, and it was to this one, that Walter had trained himself to wake.

He rose from his narrow bed, moving quietly so as not to disturb his younger brother Erich, sleeping on the other bed against the opposite wall. Erich shifted uneasily and pulled the sheet over his head to block out the light.

With practiced quiet Walter dressed, poured water from the pitcher into the washstand, and shaved. He spread the thick coverlet over his bed, then arranged against the wall the overstuffed cushions which, to his mother’s eye, made the beds look more like couches and less like “a working man’s flat.”

The two brothers slept in the apartment’s main room. Their mother, only returned a few hours before from her night shift of cleaning, slept in the windowless bedroom, isolated from noise and light.

In the kitchen Walter cut himself a thick piece of bread and spread it generously with butter. He took his plate to the table by the window, and drawing back the curtain sat looking out into the street as he ate. Pedestrians and people on bicycles were flowing back and forth three stories below in a gradually increasing stream as the morning advanced. A street car whirred by, the contacts crackling against the wires above. The street view made the Heubers’ one of the better flats -- lacking the sight and scent of rubbish that rose from the courtyards on hot days.

Ten minutes after six. Walter stacked his empty plate to be washed and went to give Erich a shake.

“Time to get up for school. I’m leaving now.” Erich obediently struggled into a sitting position and sat rubbing his eyes.

Walter took his cap and thin summer jacket from their peg by the door and let himself out, locking the flat behind him. It was dim in the passage and stairway. The air had a stale, flat smell -- dust, mold, and the lingering odor of cabbage soup dominating other old cooking smells. The stairs were dangerously steep, although there was a certain safety in the fact the stairwell was so narrow that every six steps there was a small landing and a sharp turn. If someone fell, as tenants trying to go up or down the badly lit stairs at night while the worse for drink often did, chances were good that he would land in a heap at the next landing rather than plunging a full floor or two. Walter thundered down them with practiced ease and burst forth into the bright, cool morning of the street.

Paul Ehrlichmann was already waiting for him, lounging back against the wall and reading a copy of the Workers’ Daily News.

“What’s the news?” Walter asked. “There must be something to make you buy your own copy instead of waiting to get a look at one in the coffee house this afternoon.”

“Someone’s shot an Austrian archduke,” said Paul, holding out the headline which said in huge letters: Blood in Sarajevo!

Walter shrugged. “Isn’t there always some kind of trouble down in the Balkans?”

“Of course they’re trouble. All oppressed people are trouble. We’re trouble ourselves,” Paul replied, with a tone of pride in his voice..

“Come on,” said Walter, starting down the sidewalk. “Call it oppression, but one kind of trouble don’t want to have is being late for work.”

Paul folded his paper and followed after him, but he was not done yet. “What business does the Austrian emperor have ruling over Serbs and Bosnians? No wonder they are fighting to be rid of Hapsburg rule. Join all the German speaking peoples together in a single state -- a democratic state -- and let the Slavs worry about their own problems.”

The press of people was heavy on the sidewalk, but no one seemed to mind Paul’s loud political commentary.

“I thought you said that in the future there will be a workers state with no nationalities,” Walter said. “Why does it matter if there are Germans or Serbs in it?” Politics seemed to provide Paul with the same excitement which Erich drew from the adventure serials that he collected and read incessantly in the evenings. In both cases, Walter enjoyed listening to them since their passion was so clearly in it, but he found it hard to keep the details straight or to understand how they found it so absorbing.

“It’s a matter of development.” Paul was gesturing with the newspaper as he walked and spoke. Walter could easily imagine him with the same gestures, addressing a union crowd from a wooden platform. “We can’t have a workers state without industrialization. Capitalist greed pushes workers to organize, and only then can we move towards socialism. Advanced nations like Germany and France have reached that point. Austria may not be as modern as we are, but a united German state could become a socialist state. Instead they spend their energy forcing empire on Bosnians and Serbians and Croats. Who knows when peoples like that will be ready for socialism.”

“I’ll be more prepared to believe in the workers’ state over beer tonight,” said Walter. “Right now I simply want to avoid being late. Come on.”

The press was heavy on the sidewalk, and even pushing and dodging his way through the crowd he was not satisfied with their speed. After a few blocks he stepped off the curb into the street. A bicycle swerved to avoid hitting him, the rider swearing, but there were few cars and no carts in this part of the city at that hour, and despite the speeding bicycles and occasional clanging street cars there was significantly more space.

“If there was a just wage, we could afford bicycles,” Paul observed, as another rider sped past, yelling at them to get out of the way. “It’s a disgrace that we work at the cycle works but can’t afford to ride one.”

“I was thinking that I might get a raise in September when I’ve been there two years,” Walter said. “And if I do, I’ll sign up to have a mark held back from my pay every week until I can get a Model 12.”

“All workers at a bicycle factory should be able to afford a bicycle. You shouldn’t have to wait two years and hope for a raise. And don’t count on Meyer giving you one unless he has to. If we were all union that would be a beginning.”

Walter did not respond.

It was true enough that Herr Meyer was slow to offer raises. A month before, however, Walter had made a suggestion for improving the jig which held the bicycle frames during assembly and welding. His foreman had led him up to Herr Meyer’s office, a second floor room with a window that looked out over the open assembly floor below. Pride and nervousness striving within him, Walter had explained how his jig design would make assembly faster. With his oversized workman’s pencil he had drawn out on Meyer’s letter paper how the jig would adjust and rotate at each stage of the bicycle frame’s assembly. The pencil lines looked clumsy on the thick, cream-colored paper, and Walter realized with acute embarrassment that his hands were not entirely clean and were leaving faint smudges on the paper.

Herr Meyer had sat nodding quietly during the explanation. He was a heavyset man, balding with only a short-cropped fringe of hair wrapping from ear to ear across the back of his head, and a bristly grey mustache. His dark suit was very clean, his white shirt spotless. Walter had found it difficult to imagine him riding a bicycle, much less building one, yet at the end of the explanation he had asked only one question.

“Here,” his finger indicated one of Walter’s drawings. “How would you hold the rear stays and the welder at the same time?”

As the two men’s eyes had met, there was a moment of recognition: whatever divisions of class and wealth existed between them, this was another man who understood machines and the intense satisfaction of at last finding a resolution to a problem which had nagged and worried at the back of the mind for days or weeks.

“That’s what this clamp is for,” Walter explained, and gesturing and drawing by turns illustrated how the stays would be added to the frame.

At last Meyer had nodded, stacked the sheets of drawings neatly, and put them into his desk.

“How long have you been with us, Heuber?”

“Two years in September. I started just after completing my two years of conscription.”

“A soldier? Very good. You’re not one of these union men, are you?”

“No, sir.”

“And not from Berlin either, judging by your accent.”

“No, sir. I grew up in East Prussia. My mother and I needed work, and after traveling a bit while in the army I thought Berlin would give us more opportunity than Danzig or Konigsburg.”

“Well, well. You’ll go far, Heuber. You’ll go far. I will look into this suggestion of yours. And there may be a little something that I can do for you in September. Perhaps sooner. Thank you.”

He took a pipe from his desk drawer and leaned back in his chair filling it. Walter and the foreman began to leave. Then Meyer looked up. “Do you ride a bicycle, Heuber?”

“I don’t own one, sir.”

“You should.”

Walter hesitated. “It’s a matter of money, sir. My father is no longer with us and I have a mother and younger brother to take care of.”

Herr Meyer nodded slightly, then shrugged. “My advice to you is to find a way. It will help you.”

Two weeks later the jigs had all been replaced with new ones similar to Walter’s design, and although he was afraid to mention it -- both for fear that Paul would think he was mixing with the bosses and lest he somehow break some bargain with his own luck by speaking of it -- Walter remained convinced that some sort of raise or promotion would soon be forthcoming.


The Meyer Cycle Works was one of the smaller factories on the street: a two-story brick building surrounded by iron gates. Behind it, though not attached, stood Herr Meyer’s house, facing on the next street over. Meyer could surely have lived in a more prestigious neighborhood, and his wife and daughters would have been the happier for it, but he remained where he could stand at his dining room window and watch the workers hurrying in so as to be at their stations before seven o’clock. There he stood, watching, as Paul and Walter, among many others, hurried in at the gate and across the cobbled yard to the factory doors.

The Meyer Works did not have a whistle, but a bell rang at seven o’clock, and the foremen walked the floors looking to see who was already working and who was late getting to their places. Walter was at his post, assembling frames. At the core of each bicycle is a diamond of steel tubing, bisected into two halves by the vertical seat tube. The process of building each frame took just over an hour: Cutting sections of tube. Grinding them to the correct shape. Welding the joins. Throughout the jig held the frame in place, rotating as needed but providing at each step the extra hands that Walter did not have.

There was a regularity at once calming and numbing to the process. Cut. Grind. Place. Clamp. Weld. Turn. Cut. Grind.

By mid-morning Walter had completed three frames and was working on his fourth. Kurt, the foreman in charge of the frame assemblers that day approached him.

“Herr Meyer wants to see you in his office.”

Walter took his foot off the grinder’s clutch, disconnecting it from the drive belt which attached to the spinning shaft overhead, and the machine quieted as it wound down. “Now?”

Kurt nodded.

Walter set down the piece of tubing he had been grinding and set off across the factory floor. Though the floor was open, it was divided into many petty fiefdoms, each the domain of a separate team of workers dedicated to a different process. Mudguards and wheel rims were made out of narrow sheets of steel with the help of large curved presses. Chain rings and chain guards and seat blanks were stamped out. Frames were dipped in vats of black enamel. Women with kerchiefs over their hair stitched the leather covers over metal seat blanks and did the tedious work of assembling spoked wheels. Each of these formed its own workday world, unfamiliar to Walter. Now he walked through all of them in succession and up the steel staircase to Herr Meyer’s office, from which the whole bustling river of production and assembly could be seen.

Meyer was standing at that window, looking out over the factory floor and drawing slowly at his pipe, when Walter reached the office door and knocked.

“Heuber. It’s good to see you again. Have a seat.” Meyer closed the office door, shutting out much of the factory noise and waved Walter towards one of two plain wooden chairs facing the desk. Walter sat, then, belatedly thinking of the niceties, removed his worker’s cap and put it in his lap. Meyer seated himself in his own big desk chair, which allowed him to lean back. This he did, gazing at Walter thoughtfully while blowing out little puffs of smoke.

“You’ve had a few weeks now with the new jig. Are you finding it as helpful as you had hoped?”

“Yes, sir. It’s faster and easier.”

“Your framing team is now building two more frames per day on average. You can be very proud of that.”

“Thank you.” Walter was certain that the reason he had been called up to see Herr Meyer, and the reason why he was discussing the improvement to the jig, was that he was about to be offered some reward: a raise, a promotion, a bonus, his own bicycle. Something more than words must be coming and because of his confidence in this he found it all the more difficult to sit still and wait to find out what was in store for him.

Meyer himself seemed to feel no similar urgency. Indeed, his sense of social nicety demanded that he engage the young man before him in conversation for some time before bringing up the purpose of the interview. Conversing with one of the men (or, even worse, one of the women) who made up the many interconnected parts of the creation that was his factory was something that always gave him a slight unease, and he eased that discomfort by following the same pattern of conversation each time.

“You’ve been with us nearly two years now, Heuber. How do you like your work here?”

“I like it very well, sir.”

“And your family. I believe you help take care of your mother and younger brother. How do they like Berlin?”

“Very well. Erich is able to attend a very good school, and Mother gives music lessons.”

“Music? That’s a very refined occupation. I hope that she is proud of your work?”

This was far enough from the case that Walter was unwilling to lie about it. “She is eager to see me do well.”

“Well of course. Isn’t any mother. And you are a very promising young man. I value young men who understand the importance of hard work. You don’t have anything to do with these union agitators, do you Heuber?”

Walter considered for an instant. It was true that he himself was not agitating for a union, but if Meyer did not know about his friendship with Paul already it would certainly be easy for him to find out. “I know that some of the men are very eager to unionize, but I haven’t joined.”

“Good. Good. Well perhaps you are wondering why I have called you here.” With this understatement, Meyer leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “There’s more work coming soon. I can’t tell you about it yet, but I’m going to be hiring more workers and perhaps even expanding the factory. With that expansion I’m going to need more good men as foremen. And I’d like you to be one of them.”

A foreman’s job. That would surely mean more money. And recognition. “Thank you, sir!”

“It’s a big step,” Meyer said. “There would be more responsibility and more hours, and I expect complete loyalty from my foremen. If anyone is causing trouble in my factory, I’d expect you to tell me, and do anything necessary to put a stop to it. It’s a big decision for you. Be sure. Talk to your mother about it and let me know tomorrow morning.”

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Chapter 1-4

The day’s first rush of customers had come and gone. Louis stood behind the shop counter, discussing the news of the day with Felix Jobart as they played a game of draughts. Jobart owned the pork butcher shop down the street, but his busiest time of day was already past. By six in the morning every day he was in the kitchen: grinding sausage, cutting meat, cooking black pudding. By mid-morning the day’s meat cuts were laid out, newly made sausages lay glistening in their skins in the window, and Madame Jobart was reigning serenely from behind the counter in her immaculate white apron. Then Felix began a series of visits up and down the street which occupied him until lunch time.

“It will be a good thing for Austria-Hungary,” said Felix. “These Slavic nationalists and bomb throwers do nothing but cause violence. Now the empire can teach them a good lesson and earn some peace.”

Louis placed a hand thoughtfully on a piece and weighed his options. “My son-in-law says they will have to be careful what they are about.” He jumped two pieces, eliciting a grunt in response from Felix. “Henri knows about military matters, and he says that the Serbs have fought and won two wars in three years. When is the last time Austria-Hungary fought a war? Not since I was a boy. They fought the Prussians and lost before we did.” He sighed. “That was a bitter time.”

Felix shook his head. “Prussia is different. I can’t believe an uncivilized pack of Slavs would give Austria-Hungary much of a fight.”

“Look at Japan. They defeated Russia. Who would have thought a yellow power could have defeated the Tsar’s armies and sunk his ships?”

The door opened, then banged shut, and both old men looked up. It was Pascal entering with a letter in hand. “I got the envelope from Monsieur Thierry. It’s from Bulgaria.” He climbed onto a stool behind the counter and laid out his prize for all to see. “See the sender’s address here? ‘Sofia’ That’s the capital of Bulgaria,” he said, feeling mature to be able to display such knowledge of foreign countries. “Bulgaria is next to Serbia. Will they help the Austrians punish them?”

Grandpere considered for a moment. “Bulgaria has a king too. See, he’s there on the stamp. And if he’s a good king, he would never support a regicide.”

Pascal leaned close to look at the tiny, black ink engraving of the king on the stamp. He was a stern looking man, older than father but younger than Grandpere, with a beard and curling mustache. His uniform and cap looked like a picture of a ship captain, but his portrait was surrounded by an ornate border in red ink culminated in a crown above his head.

“What’s his name, Grandpere?”

“I don’t know,” Louis admitted. “But if you bring me my almanac, we can look it up in the countries of the world section.”

Pascal hurried back to the sitting room, taking the envelope he had acquired from the wine merchant with him, while the two old men returned to their interrupted game of draughts.

The sitting room faced south, looking out onto the the street. The windows had not yet been opened, and the room was warm and slightly musty smelling. Dust motes floated lazily in the shafts of sunlight which shone in through the lace of the summer curtains.

One corner of the room was devoted to Grandpere. There stood his old arm chair, covered in an increasingly threadbare orange velvet that did not match the room’s other, more recent, furnishings. Next to this stood a small marble-topped smoking table, in the drawer of which resided tobacco and pipes, which on occasion, if he was certain that no one would enter and discover him, Pascal would take out and handle reverently, wondering when he would own such fragrant artifacts of manhood. Behind these stood Grandpere’s little bookshelf. From the large bottom shelf Pascal pulled out the stamp album, into which he tucked the envelope for safe keeping. Then, from the shelf above, he took down the almanac.

Opening the book on the floor, he lay down on his stomach and flipped rapidly past the dull pages filled with tables of figures. In the back were the sections which brimmed with knowledge about far away places. Nations of the World. Argentina. Belgium. Brazil. China. Too far. He flipped back a few pages and found what he sought. The sea captain-like king was here too, though in this picture he wore a more fantastic uniform bedecked with medals. Tsar Ferdinand, said the caption. So he was called a Tsar, like the Russian king? Pascal looked at the map, which revealed that Bulgaria was wedged in south of Romania, north of Greece, and between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. This suggested an image of vampires wandering among dark castles to the north and armored hoplites and robed philosophers to the south. The paragraph on the nation’s history told of the Bulgarians fighting for their freedom against the Turks. Pascal turned pages to find Turkey, hoping to find a picture of the sultan with turban and simitar. But although there was a picture, this sultan proved to be another aging man with beard and mustache -- not unlike the sea captain-king except that he wore a fez instead of a military cap. The only satisfyingly exotic detail was a note informing him that the sultan currently had four wives.

Taking the almanac with him, Pascal returned to the shop. Grandpere and Monsieur Jobart were again immersed in their game of draughts. Pascal climbed onto the stool, opened the almanac to the article on Bulgaria, and waited for Grandpere to notice him.

Felix had three pieces to Louis’s two and was progressively boxing his opponent in to one corner of the board. At last, with a decisive click, click, he made a double jump, ending the game. Louis laughed and shook his head.

“All right, all right. Well played.” Louis extended a hand and the two men shook. “Here’s your franc,” he said, clicking the silver coin down on the counter. “I’ll take it back from you tonight over Bezique if you’re at Leroy’s.”

“If you can. If you can,” Felix replied. He pocketed the coin, took his hat from the peg, and went out into the street.

Grandpere sat for a moment, looking at the board and rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully. Then he began putting the wooden pieces back into their box.

“You’ve been very patient, my boy,” he said, putting the lid on the box and turning to Pascal. “So you’ve got the almanac. Let’s see what it can tell us about these mad Slavs. We’ll begin with Serbia.” He opened the book flat on the counter and began flipping pages. Then with the relish we often feel in relating misfortunes too distant to seem as if they are happening to real people at all, he began to explain how these strange and far away people seethed with national rivalries and were prepared, at the slightest provocation, to throw themselves into the furnace of war.

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