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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chapter 4-3

Before they parted for the night, Friedrich asked Jozef to call on him early the next morning. As a non-officer, Jozef could not serve as a second, but since he was a witness to the confrontation he must come and attest to the insult which made the duel necessary.

The flat was still when Jozef left his rooms the next morning. Lisette was never an early riser. The door which led to her bedroom and sitting room usually remained closed until ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, when she rang the bell for her breakfast and the morning’s letters to be brought in. Jozef’s own habits were not as late rising as his mother’s, but even so he felt tired and rumpled as he issued forth onto the street before eight o’clock, blinking in the summer morning sunlight at the crowds that seemed far too awake and busy for what seemed to him a very early hour.

Friedrich’s flat, when he arrived, was a contrast to his own: bright and bustling with activity. A soldier servant was serving out small cups of coffee. Friedrich and another officer sat together at the breakfast table, leaning over a document they were drawing up and consulting several others. The third officer stood behind, leaning against the wall. All three officers were polished and crisp in their uniforms, contrasting starkly with Jozef’s grey summer suit and straw boater. The outfit that would have looked athletic and casual at the student cafe here was weak, almost effeminate.

“So you’re the witness?” asked the officer lounging against the wall. Rittmeister Istvan Granar was an experienced duelist who frequently stood as second and advisor to officers in Friedrich’s regiment in their affairs of honor. His greying mustache and the heavy creases around his grey-blue eyes gave him a demeanor of intensity, and there was clearly no regard for this little civilian in his gaze.

Friedrich looked up from his work with the other, younger officer. “This is Jozef von Revay. He is a good friend, and he stood with me when I was insulted last night.”

The Rittmeister made a sound that sounded half a cough, half a clearing of his throat. “Well, come on, young man. You’d best tell me all about it before the other party’s seconds arrive.” He pulled out a pair of chairs. “Would you like coffee? You look like you’re not used to morning hours.”

There was something very like a smile beneath the fierce mustache, and Jozef found himself less awkward and daunted. He accepted a cup of coffee from the soldier servant and recounted the previous night’s events, with frequent interruptions for Rittmeister Graner’s questions.

Just before nine o’clock two dragoon officers arrived at the door, one of whom Jozef recognized as one of the officers from the night before, and declared themselves as the seconds for Oberleutnant Manz. The two sets of seconds saluted each other and solemnly exchanged visiting cards, then set a time to meet and discuss the particulars of the duel.

The number and the extent of the formalities was a surprise to Jozef. Most of the morning was spent drawing up a detailed protocol which Friedrich’s seconds would propose to those of Oberleutnant Manz and discussing which of the elements in the protocol they would be prepared to compromise on.

Jozef had seen, once, one of the strange, fixed position sword duels conducted by the dueling fraternities: Two students wearing heavy padding on their chests and necks and metal mesh goggles over their eyes exchanging slashes and parries while their feet remained rooted to the ground, until a long red slash was made on one of their cheeks to general cheering from the crowd. The exercise had struck him as ludicrous in its artificiality. There was no bravery, no true life, to be found in an encounter that was more a ritual than a struggle. Here, it seemed, the fight would be all too real, but the preparations seemed to have all the formality of a business contract and a court function rolled into one.

As a non-officer, he was on the sidelines for much of the morning, but as he and the two seconds were preparing to leave Friedrich briefly took his hands. “I know this is not part of your world, Jozef, but thank you. I appreciate your coming and supporting me in this. And if you’re willing to come on the morning, I would be honored at your presence.”

Jozef returned his friend’s grasp. “I’ll be there.”


After many negotiations between the seconds, the duel had at last been set to take place a week after the original affront: at six thirty in the morning on the first Monday in July. Jozef had found his alarm clock and planned to set it to make sure he was ready when Friedrich’s car called for him shortly before six. He had determined that he would go to bed early, and was already in his pajamas on Sunday, July 5th, when there was a knock at the door of the flat. His mother was still out, and her maid had taken the opportunity to enjoy an unofficial evening off, so he threw his dressing gown on over his pajamas and answered the door.

The porter was on the landing. The old man looked distinctly flushed. Though it was in an unimpeachable neighborhood, the building lacked an elevator, and the porter had evidently just climbed the three flights of stairs in a hurry.

“There is a telephone call for you, sir.”

Jozef followed him back down the stairs to the porter’s office, put the cone of the instrument to his ear, and spoke into the horn.

“This is Herr von Revay.”

“Jozef!” said a voice which was recognizably Friedrich’s over the electric crackling of the connection. “Are you still awake?”

It was impossible to hear tone clearly over the line. It sounded as if Friedrich was shouting, and the nonsensical question suggested that he had been drinking. “Yes,” replied Jozef.

“Good! Good, I didn’t want to wake you. Do you want to come by my flat for a drink?”

Jozef glanced at the clock. It was just before eleven o’clock.

“I’d be happy to, but don’t you need to be fresh in the morning.”

“The secret,” Friedrich confided, “is to treat it with casual contempt, like a morning inspection. Look the future in the eye and it won’t dare look back at you. Come on!”

“I’ll be there.”

Back in his room, Jozef dressed as quickly as he could -- in evening dress, in case Friedrich wanted to go out. He stood before the mirror fumbling with the knot of his white bow tie, until with the third try it came out even. He stood for a moment longer, looking at himself in the mirror, and thought of how plain his civilian suit looked. The greys and blacks and whites of civilian clothes seemed to underline the colorlessness of the life he had chosen. That he had drifted into. That his mother had chosen.

Why was he not a man? Why was he living in a world without color, without danger, without blood? Wasn’t blood what carried life throughout the body? No wonder those who dealt in it seemed more alive.

In the street he hailed a taxi, and within a few minutes he was at Friedrich’s flat. The soldier servant opened the door and let him in. Cigar smoke hung in the air and the sound of discordant pieces of piano music carried in from the next room.

Friedrich sat at the upright piano in the sitting room, a cigar clenched between his teeth, a bottle of champagne and a half filled glass sitting on the music shelf.

“Jozef! I had the bottles of 1899 opened. Come have some of this.” He struck up a spirited rendition of the Radetsky March, then after a few bars dropped the lower portion in order to reach for his glass with his left hand while continuing to play with his right until he finished with an emphatic pound of the keys.

“This is the second bottle,” he said, refilling his glass and then holding the bottle out to his friend. “Minna has locked herself in her room. My intention is to live largely tonight. So we can either get drunk or visit a brothel. Which do you prefer? Or why not both?”

Jozef retrieved a glass from the sideboard and poured himself a glass, trying to gauge from Friedrich’s appearance how persuadable he was at this point in his evening. “We can’t go to a brothel when Minna’s locked herself in her room because she’s upset at you risking your life.” He hesitated, then added, “What if something were to happen to you tomorrow?”

Friedrich shrugged. “I’m not the first man who’s kept Minna, and I’m unlikely to be the last.” He broke into the Merry Widow Waltz for a moment.

“But it’s not right. If anything, you should go to her. She must want you to.”

“You’re such a romantic, Jozef. You probably need a little more time among the flesh markets to cure you of that. You have had a woman, haven’t you?”

“Well. Of course.” Discussing the matter was mortifying, yet the way the question was asked, it seemed that refusing to answer would be to surrender his manhood. “I’ve been to Madam Roth’s.”

Before beginning at the university, several of his set of school friends had proposed this venture into adult masculinity. With their savings jingling in their pockets they had set off to the establishment, which all had known by repute but none had visited before. They had sat, with the other men, in the garishly over-decorated sitting room -- thick-piled but clearly somewhat worn rugs on the floors, the couches all upholstered in pink patterned silk and overstuffed to obscenity, lampstands in the form of gilded classical nudes holding up electric lamps on their shoulders like water jars -- and made conversation with the prostitutes, some formally, some coarsely. Gradually, each man had slipped away with a woman of his choosing, until Jozef only had been left, unsure of how to begin that which he had come for, and his feeling of furtive shame heightened by the surroundings. A woman whom he had seen go off with a heavy man with white side whiskers just after their arrival re-entered the sitting room and approached him.

“And what about you? Don’t you want some?”

He had, and taking him back to a room she had provided it to him in a workmanlike fashion. But walking home, alone, through the gaslit streets his feelings had been a mixture, both satisfaction and revulsion. And for weeks afterward that lingering revulsion had left him checking for signs of the diseases which schoolboy rumor told in gruesome detail could be contracted in such places.

“Madam Roth’s?” Friedrich demanded. “You’re lucky you didn’t come down with some kind of pox. You see, this is where Herr Freud understands us all so well. Sexual insecurity. We, all of us, do these things, but do we talk of them? No! That would destroy the purity of our society. And so rather than tell a young man where he ought to go as he embarks on manhood, we leave perfectly decent people like you to wander into a slovenly rut-house like Madame Roth’s. And what does that leave you thinking?”

Friedrich paused, stared hard at his glass for a few moments, then drained it.

“I’m sorry. I’m at the pontificating stage. We’d best get past it. Max!” he added in a bellow. “Max!”

The soldier servant entered.

“Bring in another bottle.” Max nodded and went out. “I wasn’t thinking of any place of that kind,” he continued in a normal tone. “Only the best, my friend. Establishments that have a private back staircase for times when members of the court need to make a discreet visit without any prying eyes seeing them. But all right. No courtesans, if that’s your preference. We’ll have another bottle or two. Drink up. You’ve barely started.”

When Jozef arrived back in his room, he stood for a moment contemplated the alarm clock. It was a quarter after two and despite the quantity he had drunk he felt curiously clear-headed. There had been no taxis on the street when he issued from Friedrich’s flat shortly before two, and so he had been forced to walk the mile and a half home through the crisp summer night.

It seemed hardly worth going to sleep for three hours, but he set the clock and laid himself down, hoping the Friedrich, at least, would wake with a clear head and a steady hand.

Read the next installment.


  1. So I'm curious what research materials you drew on to find all the details about how dueling went down in this time and place. Really interesting!

  2. Bearing,

    Thanks. I got a lot of detail from Istvan Deak's Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 which has a whole chapter dealing with dueling and the rules around them. The anecdote which Friedrich cites in the prior installment is a slightly fictionalized version of an event that happened in 1900 to a Polish count and captain in the cavalry who wrote against dueling.

    Also helpful was the novel Radetsky March, which takes place at this time and gives prominent place to a duel, and other fictional treatments.

  3. All the dueling I've read about was English and in a slightly earlier period. Much less formal without all the paperwork.

  4. The yearning for Real Life intensifies. But will he find the courage to go after it? He seem like Prufrock right now, yearning but afraid. But what he wants is the dream or idea of the Real Life, since the banal reality of the bordello left him nauseated.

    1. Good point. He's nauseated by the banality bordello and then disturbed by the duel. How will he react to the reality of war? How will it match up to his heroic ideals? I hadn't thought of the bordello as a type of foreshadowing. That's a nice observation.