The Cafe Sperl stands at the confluence of the Gumpendorferstrasse and the Lehargasse, a block away from the Theater an der Wien and two from the Hoffburg. The two streets come together at an acute angle, and nestled into that angle is a four story building of yellow stone with stone pediments above the upper storey windows and large red and white striped awnings over the cafe windows on the ground floor.
It was just after ten thirty when Jozef entered the cafe, following a walk through the mild June evening. The coffee house was a blaze of electric light, making the dark wood chairs and tables cast reflections on the polished wood floor. The theaters were not yet out, and so the tables were only half full. Leutnant Friedrich Haas von Goldfaden was easy to spot. He had taken one of the best tables, situated before a window, with a view both out into the street and back into the room, and he was magnificent in his Hussar’s uniform: pale blue tunic heavily ornamented with gold braid, red trousers, polished black boots. His shako sat on the table before him, and his sabre was pulled upright to lean against the chair, so that it would not block the walkway behind him. He sat with his legs crossed and leaning back in his chair as he gazed out the window.
Jozef felt a poor contrast in his black and white evening dress. He and Friedrich were within months of the same age, but Friedrich was taller and broader, and he sported a thick, black mustache in true cavalry style, which Jozef silently envied because he knew that he was not able to produce a similar growth.
The one sense in which Friedrich did not look a typical cavalry officer was that he was, to a city used to determining by eye the finer points of ethnicity, obviously a Jew. The good looking sort of Jew, such observers would have been quick to assure. He had thick black hair, a slight cleft in his strong chin, and brown eyes, but clearly a Jew, and thus not someone normally to be seen in the uniform on an Imperial Hussar. His father, Samuel Haas, had made a fortune in textiles whose full extent was the subject of much speculation. He had invested this fortune in a brilliant mansion just off the Ringstrasse, in good matches for his three daughters, in a cavalry commission for Friedrich, his second son, and in a title of nobility for the family.
There was a simple logic in the sale of nobility. The Imperial-Royal house was always in need of money, and there were many among the wealthy who were in need of some sense of legitimacy. A title of nobility cost nothing to produce, and yet provided great value to those who bought them. Samuel Haas had made the exchange with pride, and in selecting the title which would be appended to his name and that of his sons, chose one which reflected his pride in the means by which he had earned his wealth, von Goldfaden: golden thread. Those who had, by the turning of fortune’s wheel, been born with titles considered such an obviously invented one to be a source of amusement rather than dignity, but Samuel himself was unshaken in his pride and so his sons were left to negotiate the troubled waters of status in the way they thought best.
With one booted foot, Friedrich pushed out a chair for Jozef, who sat down.
“How were the opening acts?” Jozef asked.
Friedrich shrugged. “Lehar’s genius is that you never get tired of listening to his songs, but they never become any deeper either. After the first act I went back stage so that I could see Minna between scenes. She’ll be here as soon as she’s finished.”
“Well, forgive my gentile ears. We can’t all love that tuneless art music. My God, that thing you took me to hear in order to meet Minna for the first time.”
“Yes, the long one with no tune about crimes and sex.”
“Jozef,” groaned Friedrich. “Don’t be so bourgeois! This is the music of the future. Schoenberg is a brilliant composer.”
“Even in the future I’ll still like a tune,” Jozef laughed. “Where’s the waiter? Coffee!”
The waiter arrived a moment later, set down a cup and saucer before Jozef, and filled both it and Friedrich’s cup from his silver coffee pot. “Will there be anything else, gentlemen?”
Friedrich consulted his watch. “See here. In ten minutes the crowd from the theater will arrive and it will become very busy here.” The wait bowed agreement. “A lady will be joining us -- a little later than the rest of the crowd because she is an actress. Here’s a little something for your trouble,” he put some silver coins of the table and slid them over to the waiter. “When she arrives she’ll be hungry and thirsty. I want you to have ready for her a bowl of soup, a pot of tea, English style, and some of those pastries. You know which ones I mean. No waiting, all right?”
“Of course.” The waiter discreetly scooped up the coins. “It will be just as you say.”
It was indeed just a few minutes later that the post-theater crowd began to arrive. Tables began to fill up around them. Three Dragoons sat down at a larger table against the wall. Their red trousers and blue coats were of similar shade to Friedrich’s hussar uniform, though much less embellished with gold braid. In contrast to his shako, however, their uniform included the unique, crested, brass and enamel helmet of the Imperial Dragoons. They set these down on the table with a crash, and began discussing loudly the merits of the evening’s operetta and in particular of the two sopranos. Friedrich looked prepared to take offense at several of these comments. Soon enough the officers’ coffee arrived. One of them took out a flask of schnapps which he used to top off the coffee cups, and the three settled down to more quiet conversation.
“How was that party that your mother insisted on?” Friedrich asked, turning his attention away from the other officers.
“As I expected. Mother had gone on about how the Baroness loves to have young people at her gatherings, yet I must have been the only person under twenty-five there and I saw no sign that the Baroness cared one way or the other. Mother gets these fancies into her head. It was a chance for everyone to air their opinions about the assassination and what it means for the Empire.”
“And what did people say?” Friedrich asked, with what to Jozef seemed surprising intensity.
“Oh… I don’t know. The usual sort of things. I don’t know why people think they need to say something deep about the empire rather than just punishing the Serbs.”
“Because this assassination is a symptom of our weakness,” Friedrich said, leaning forward. “And punishing Serbia could be the cure. The Empire has become like a body whose parts have forgotten they belong together. The hand demands independence. The foot tries to go its own way. The head complains that having all the other parts is too much trouble and expense. War will remind the body that it can only be strong as a whole. And the army is the perfect instrument for this. It’s the blood, the nervous system, made up of men from every part, yet united into a common culture and language. The army has been held back by nationalist jealousies and both parliaments starve it for money. But a good war in the Balkans could bring the Empire together and solve all of that. I’m telling you, Jozef, war is exactly what we need.”
“What, a war? Is that all you need?” Minna Barta stood next to the table, looking down at them with a smile. “Gentlemen, your needs are too much. All I require is a place to sit down, some food, and perhaps someone to take me to the Ritz on occasion.”
Jozef and Friedrich both jumped up, and Friedrich pulled out a chair for her and settled her into it. The waiter, true to his promise, appeared almost before the gentlemen were seated again and laid out soup, tea and pastries for Minna who, unconstrained by any artificial daintiness, attacked her food immediately.
“You’re such a darling to have food ready, Friedrich. That’s the thing I hate about this show: I’m never backstage long enough to get a real bite. Oh, I could eat an ox!”
“I am your humble slave, of course,” said Friedrich, settling back into his chair, a proprietary hand now on the back of Minna’s chair. It was a subtle mark of both ownership and status. A man would not take such a liberty with a woman who was not his, and in a place as public as the Cafe Sperl, a respectable man would not do so with his wife either.
Jozef struggled to keep his gaze on Friedrich, who was speaking lightly with Minna about music and the night’s show, but repeatedly he found his attention following the line of his friend’s arm over and settling on Minna. He had known that she was Friedrich’s mistress, but this public sign of it made Jozef at once envious and fascinated, as if he had been given some intimate view of their relationship. This feeling that he was seeing into their private lives, that he was not merely seeing Minna but seeing her as a mistress, drew him in yet made him feel that his gaze was somehow indecent.
“Here now! Don’t keep that little piece to yourself. You weren’t even at the show.”
Jozef started violently. The words were not, however, directed at him. One of the the dragoons from the table by the wall had half risen from his seat and was struggling to approach them, even as his two companions tried to quiet him. There was a brief and awkward struggle, during which it became clear from their movements that all three officers had already had a quantity to drink that night. One of the brass helmets was knocked from the table and clanged as it bounced on the polished wood floor. Then the one who had spoken shook off his two companions and advanced towards Friedrich’s table, planting himself, feet wide apart, in the middle of the aisle and addressing them again in a loud voice.
“Come on, Frauline. We watched your whole performance and drank your health from our box. Sit with us and we’ll send out for a bottle of champagne.”
Minna shook her head and looked away, apparently prepared to ignore the interruption, but Friedrich was no longer leaning back in his chair. He sat very upright, his right hand resting lightly on his sabre hilt. “You will excuse me, sir. The lady has enchanted you with her voice already tonight and she now chooses to sit with her friends.”
The other two dragoons made another, unsuccessful, attempt to restrain their companion and draw him back to his seat.
“Come on,” the dragoon said expansively, in a voice that carried throughout the room. “We’re all having a good time here. You can all join us. All of you! We just want to meet Frauline Barta after watching her sing.”
“Take your gallantry where it’s wanted. Frauline Barta is quite happy to sit where she is.”
The dragoon appeared to take this amiss. A flush was creeping into his cheeks and a muscle in his neck could be seen to twitch. “With the one who bought her, you mean,” he retorted in a carrying voice. “Isn’t that how you get everything? Bought your woman, bought your commission, bought your title, eh, von Moneybags?”
“I don’t believe I have the pleasure of your acquaintance,” Friedrich said, pushing back his chair and standing up.
Minna caught Jozef’s eye and spoke in an undertone, “Can’t you do something?” Jozef pushed back his own chair and got up. He’d seen enough similar disputes among his fellow university students to know that some sort of fight was already inevitable. If he could get the two officers to step outside immediately, a few punches might clear the air quickly before any deeper offense was taken.
“I’m not acquainted with Jews,” the dragoon replied, spitting the last word like an insult. Jozef froze, knowing that things had just become a great deal worse.
“You are speaking to a fellow officer,” said Friedrich. He stepped closer to the dragoon. “You may offer an apology for that remark or you may face the consequences.”
“Are you trying to challenge me?”
“There is no call for me to challenge you. You have already challenged me. The question is: Will you follow through on your challenge and meet me where I choose and when I choose? Or will you show yourself a coward and sacrifice your honor?”
“What does a Jew know of honor? I might kick you, if you can’t keep a civil tongue for your betters, but I won’t fight you.”
Friedrich took a slow step forward, and the two men stood, a pace apart, glaring at one another. Then with sudden speed Friedrich twisted and swung, delivering a fierce backhanded slap which caught the dragoon officer on the jaw and sent him reeling back.
He caught himself against the table, sending the other brass helmets as well as the coffee cups crashing to the ground. The dragoon steadied himself and shook his head, then pushed off, his right hand reaching for his sword as he lurched towards Friedrich. At last, however, his two companions had sprung into action and they seized him firmly, one at each shoulder, and held him back.
“Dog!” he shouted at Friedrich. “Jewish swine!”
Jozef saw one of the waiters run out the doors and suspected he was going for the police.
“You will meet me, or I will bring your cowardice to the attention of your regiment,” Friedrich said. “Now leave. My seconds will call on you when you are sober.”
The dragoon again tried to break free, but his friends held him back. Friedrich reached into the pocket of his uniform coat and took out a thin, silver visiting card box. “Here.” He held out a card to one of the two dragoons holding the third man back. “That’s my address. See that I hear this man’s name and address by nine o’clock tomorrow or I will have to apply to your regiment, with all that entails.”
The visiting card was pocketed with a nod, and the dragoons left the cafe, the two dragging the third, still struggling, between them. Friedrich took out banknotes and put a generous amount on each table.
“I’m sorry, but we should go,” he said, offering Minna his hand. She accepted it while rising from her chair but then shook off his grasp before following him out into the street. She did not speak, but set off rapidly towards the Ringstrasse, her boots sounding clearly on the cobblestones in the evening air.
Friedrich followed her at a more moderate pace, and Jozef walked with him.
“Will you really fight him?” Jozef asked.
To Jozef’s ear, his friend sounded surprisingly unconcerned. “But it’s illegal.”
Friedrich laughed. “Indeed. According to the military code I could be hanged for dueling. And do you know how much that means?”
“What? Being hanged?”
“No, my friend, the code. It means exactly nothing. Because the code also specifies that an officer must protect his honor. If I’m accused of failing to protect my honor, I can be brought before an honor board, and if I am found guilty, I am expelled. Now, if to protect my honor, I have to fight a duel… Well. So be it. Honor before all things.”
“The honor board would expect you to break the law?”
“I’ll tell you a story: A Polish count serving in the Ulans, a very devout man, writes a pamphlet against dueling saying that if he were challenged he would refuse to fight because it is against his faith. He cites letters written by various popes condemning men who fight duels to hell. All very proper, you would think, in the army of our Apostolic Majesty. However, for writing this pamphlet, the good count is called before an honor board and convicted of a violation of his honor. He’s degraded to the rank of sergeant and forced to leave the service. He appealed the verdict directly to Emperor Franz Jozef, with what result? The appeal is denied. An officer unwilling to defend his honor shall not be tolerated and the pope be damned. All of which,” Friedrich added, turning to give his friend a smile, “Is very convenient for me. Honor is blind. When one of these anti-semite swine thinks he can insult my race, I can make him face me on the field of honor or else see him expelled from the service.”
Jozef stopped. “You’ve done this before?”
Friedrich stopped as well and turned to face his friend. “Of course.”
“Fought a duel?”
“Jozef, I’ve fought seven. Three times I killed my man, the other four, wounded him.”
He said the words matter-of-factly, as they stood under the yellow glow of a street light, a peeling poster for the Volksoper on the kiosk behind him forming a backdrop. Jozef found himself at the same time shocked and mesmerized that this was the same friend with whom he’d sipped coffee and listened to operettas. The same man he’d seen play the piano with such delicacy had killed three men in duels. Even as he found the idea slightly horrifying, he thought, “This is living without reservations. This is what I have never done.”
All this passed through his mind in a moment. Friedrich’s words broke back into his consciousness. “Do you have any idea how often the kind of insults you heard tonight are directed at someone like me? Do you think that because my father has money that things come to me free? I live every day with an invisible sign pinned to my coat saying, ‘Rich Jew,’ and half the men I meet either despise me for it or want something from me. Or both at once. Our honor system in the army may be a trifle ridiculous. But if I did not have the ability to call out men like that, I would be subjected to their insults every day, and my fellow officers would despise me for letting it happen.”
Jozef tried to think of a reply, but each died in his throat. His friend’s urgency, and the anger it sprang from, were something he felt he lacked the right to criticize.
“But you can’t fight everyone,” he said at last. “Where does it end?”
Friedrich looked away, first right, then left up the street where Minna was no longer in sight. “We shouldn’t leave Minna walking along at night.” He set off down the street again, and Jozef fell into pace beside him.
“I don’t pretend it’s altruistic,” Friedrich said, after a moment. “There’s an immediacy to the field of honor that you can never understand unless you’ve stood there with a sword or pistol in hand and felt every sense sharpen, knowing that only skill and chance stand between you and death. And I’m proud not to be the sort of Jew who has to hunch his shoulders and pretend he didn’t hear when someone insults me. But it’s not strictly selfish either. Every time my fellow officers see me call someone out, they know that being a Jew doesn’t mean that a man has a servile soul. The world is changing. Someday, perhaps not for twenty or thirty years, but someday people will stop seeing us as Jews and simply see us as Austrians. I believe I’ll live to see that. And in the meantime, I’ll fight.”
Read the next installment...