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, December 11, 2014

Chapter 4-4


Jozef had been standing on the sidewalk just a few moments, blinking in the early morning sunlight, when he heard the growl of an approaching car and Friedrich’s grey Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich pulled up in front of him. Friedrich, with motoring goggles providing a stark contrast to his uniform coat and shako, sat in the the front seat next to his driver. The two seconds were sitting in the back and Jozef climbed in next to them. It was a snug fit. The Prinz Heinrich was narrower than other models, and the bullet-shaped back meant that the second row of seats had less legroom as well. However, the two seater version of the same car had set a race track record of ninety-two miles an hour, and Friedrich had immediately determined to have one, whatever inconveniences might come with it.

They attempted no such speeds as they rolled along the cobbled Vienna streets that early morning. They crossed the Danube Canal and drove southeast along tree-lined roads between the canal and the river. The car was forced to slow even further when the driver suddenly turned off the paved road and guided the car gingerly along a dirt track. Large trees loomed on either side of the track, making it a dim tunnel with walls and roof of foliage and shadow. Only small specks of sky were visible through the branches which met overhead. Later in the day, or on a different errand, this might have seemed a cool, woodland shelter from the summer sun, but now it looked a gloomy place from which night had not yet released its grip. As the car jounced slowly over roots and ruts in the track, Jozef had time to wonder in what kind of dark, Wagnerian place the duel would be held. Perhaps an abandoned graveyard. It looked like a proper place for death. Then light appeared at the end of the track and as quickly as darkness had descended they emerged into a clearing where the sun shone down brightly on dewy grass. It was an open space a hundred yards wide and several hundred long, screened in all directions by the surrounding trees.

Another car and a horse-drawn carriage already waited there. Friedrich’s driver pulled the Prinz Heinrich to a stop some distance away from the other two vehicles and turned off the engine.

Rittmeister Granar opened his door and stepped down. “Oberleutnant, let us go meet the other seconds.”

The two seconds walked off, leaving dark footprints in the shimmering dew. A moment later two officers in the distinctive brass helmets of the Dragoons stepped down from the carriage and approached to meet them in the middle of the clearing.

There was the scratch of a match and Jozef turned to see Friedrich lighting a cigar. “Do you want one?” he asked Jozef. “It will take them a while.”

Jozef shook his head. The aftereffects of the previous night had left his head sore and his stomach unsettled.

“You went to sleep. That was your mistake. Stay awake and the body remains in the will’s custody.”

“I’m glad you’re able to. When I woke up this morning, I was worried that you would feel the way that I do.”

Friedrich closed his eyes and blew out a long slow plume of smoke. An automobile could be heard approaching. “Ah, here she comes.” Friedrich opened his eyes and pointed.

Two cars pulled slowly into the clearing. One pulled up a dozen feet from Friedrich’s and stopped. A man in the back seat lifted his hat to them, but Friedrich’s attention was on the other car, which skirted the edge of the clearing and stopped some distance away. It was a dark Mercedes double phaeton with the roof up and the side curtains down, obscuring any view of whoever was sitting in the row behind the driver.

“Minna,” said Friedrich. “I told my father’s driver to come and wait in front of the flat where she could see the car. I thought she’d come.” He turned and gave Jozef a half smile, only the right side of his mouth quircking up under his mustache. “About half concern for my well being, I should think. And half hatred of the idea of someone else coming to tell her if something happened to me.”

The man in the nearby car lifted his hat to them again and Jozef lifted his hat in return. “Who is that?” he asked Friedrich.

“Surgeon,” explained Friedrich. “Each of us brings his own surgeon.”

In the center of the clearing, Rittmeister Granar and one of the Dragoon officers were standing back to back. They began to walk away from each other in slow, even strides. Jozef could just hear them counting off, “One, two, three…” At ten they both stopped, drew their swords, and stabbed them into the ground. Then they resumed pacing and counting again, “Eleven, twelve...” At twenty-five they stopped and each unbuckled his sword belt and laid his scabbard out on the ground, perpendicular to the path he had just trodden through the grass.

“It’s time,” said Friedrich. “Come on.”

Together they walked towards where Rittmeister Granar and Friedrich’s other second were standing together, next to the scabbard that lay on the grass. From the other side, Oberleutnant Manz stepped down from his carriage and approached his seconds.

“Do you approve the ground?” Rittmeister Granar asked.

Friedrich stood with his right foot just short of the scabbard which marked the starting line and looked up and down the trodden line towards his opponent. The seconds had laid out the line to run from north to south, so that neither duelist would be looking into the sun. He nodded.

“There is a last minute request,” Rittmeister Granar said. “They would like to use percussion cap pistols, not your cartridge pistols.”

Friedrich drew on the cigar for a moment, looking off towards the horizon.

“Are they good, rifled pistols? Not some ludicrous thing from his grandfather’s day?”

“They’re nearly as good as yours. Custom made in 1911 according to the stamps, by a good gunsmith.”

Friedrich nodded. “All right. I demand first pick.”

“Of course.”

Rittmeister Granar left them by the starting line and crossed back to consult with his opposite number. A soldier servant brought a small wooden table and a flat wooden box from the carriage, and the seconds set this up a few paces to one side of the path they had paced out. Here, with great deliberation, they loaded the pistols, each checking the other’s work at each stage. One measured powder, the other inspected the measure, then it was poured into the first pistol. Then the other measured. Bullets were inspected, then rammed home. Percussion caps were placed. The work was checked and rechecked. Muzzle loading pistols had been obsolete for fifty years, and cartridge ammunition, mass produced by precise but impersonal machines in some factory far away, was both more reliable and more precisely measured in its composition than this old ritual of mutual inspection. However, the ricontre was from start to finish a matter of ritual, and it was common for duelists to insist upon hand measured powder and hand loaded pistols.

When the loading of the pistols was complete, the seconds approached the center point of the firing line and beckoned for the two opponents to approach. When Friedrich reached them he was offered the first choice of pistols. He hefted each, sighted down them, and then picked one. Then they turned and offered the remaining pistol to Oberleutnant Manz. He too practiced sighting along it, then nodded.

Next Rittmeister Granar turned to Friedrich. “Leutnant von Goldfaden, will you apologize to Oberleutnant Manz and end this dispute before it results in blood?”

“I will not. But if he will apologize, I will accept his apology.”

Oberleutnant Manz was then approached by his second who made the same ritual request and received the same reply.

“Very well,” Rittmeister said. “I will now read the protocols for the encounter.”

Manz’s second handed him the folded piece of paper and Granar, unfolding it, began to read. “Upon my word, you will both withdraw to the starting line. When you are both in place, we will begin to count off the paces. You will advance one pace upon each count. You may fire at any point up until you reach the ten pace mark delineated by the swords. Once you reach that mark, you may advance no closer and you must fire by the count of three or you forfeit your shot and your honor. If one of you chooses to fire first, and the other survives, you are required to continue advancing with each count until you reach the ten pace mark, and you are then required to present yourself until the count of three.” He paused a moment. The air was thick with solemnity. “Do either of you have any questions?”

“No.”

“I do not.”

“Very well then. All observers are to take five paces back from the line of fire. Gentlemen, proceed to the starting line.”

There was no counting for this retreat, but both officers, long accustomed to parade ground maneuver, unconsciously moved in step as they walked to the starting lines. They stood and faced each other, fifty yards apart. Each man stood straight, his body slightly angled with the right shoulder forward and his pistol pointed skyward at shoulder height.

“Are you ready, gentlemen?” Rittmeister Granar called the question in a loud, carrying voice.

The two figures were seen to nod, slowly and clearly, almost a bow.

“One,” the two seconds called out together.

Each man took a step forward, leading with his right foot, then drawing the rest of his body forward, so that at all times he was ready to extend his arm and fire.

“Two.”

The colors were brilliant in the morning sun. Polished black boots. Brilliant red trousers. Pale blue coats. White belts and gold braid. The sun glistened off the polished brass of Oberleutnant Manz’s helmet.

“Three.”

The seconds were allowing a moment between each count, a far slower tempo than a parade step or a even a church procession. Slower even than a funeral march.

“Four.”

The connection to a funeral march suggested itself, and at last it smote Jozef: Someone is going to die in this place, in this sunlight, during this slow-counted advance. All of the ceremony in some sense masked the true and vital thing that was to be done here. Kill or be killed. He tried to think if it would be somehow better or more honest if this ritual were stripped away and killing were reduced to its most essential, most brutal nature. Or did this ritual add to the effect? With the rush and urgency held at bay, this was a contest strictly of the will. He tried to imagine what it would take to advance slowly, calmly, ready to lower the pistol with steady hand and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Would a tearing, pounding fight equal this in testing what truly made a man, will against will, courage against courage?

“Nine.”

The duelists were nearing the swords now. He could see both without turning his head from side to side.

“Ten.”

Oberleutnant Manz extended his right hand, his left still tucked behind his back, and sighted along the leveled barrel of his pistol. Friedrich stood completely still, thirty paces away. The silence seemed to scream for a moment, as the seconds held their count for the shot that was clearly about to come. Then the report boomed through the air, a small cloud of smoke spitting forth from Oberleutnant Manz’s pistol. Friedrich staggered slightly, then returned to a fully upright stance.

The seconds resumed their counting.

“Eleven.”

Oberleutnant Manz raised his now empty pistol back up to the ready position and advanced a step upon the command. Jozef strained to see where Friedrich had been hit. At first he could not tell, but now he could see a darkening stain on the left side of his uniform coat, just below the shoulder.

“Twelve.”

The pistol which Oberleutnant Manz held pointed skyward gave a tremble. There was sweat glistening on his forehead. Both men had begun the advance knowing the other could shoot at any time, but now Manz knew both that he had failed to stop his opponent, and that his opponent could choose his own time to shoot at him. Yet he continued to advance on command, controlling himself as rigorously as he could. And Friedrich, his uniform coat slowly staining darker with blood, advanced calmly towards him as the seconds continued to count down.

“Fifteen.”

The duelists were at the swords now. Friedrich’s pistol was still pointed up, at the ready.

“One,” called the seconds, and the pistol moved slowly out and leveled in Friedrich’s hand. “Two.” Jozef could see his friend’s left eye close as he sighted along the barrel.

Another boom. Smoke belched forth from Friedrich’s pistol as it kicked up in his hand. And with a speed that seemed at once fast and agonizingly slow Oberleutnant Manz’s head snapped up and back, then his whole body fell backwards, thrown back by the momentum which the half inch sphere of lead had imparted to his head as it smashed through his face just below the left eye. The black powder used by the muzzle-loading pistols burned more slowly than the modern, smokeless powder, sending the heavy ball more slowly than a smaller, modern cartridge bullet would have traveled. Having spent its force in smashing through the Oberleutnant’s cheekbone, sending fragments of skull as well as the ball itself careening through the brain tissue, the ball lacked the force to break out again through the back of the skull and instead bounced destructively until it came to rest.

The surgeon who had come to attend on Oberleutnant Manz rushed from his car, and his seconds hurried forward as well. None were in time to see any sign of consciousness from the fallen dragoon.

Friedrich lowered his pistol, until his hand hung at his side. He watched the three men gathered around his fallen opponent, then turned away and walked toward his own seconds and Jozef. This movement on his part seemed to release them from the feelings which had at first kept them rooted in place, and they hurried to him.

“Are you all right?” asked Jozef, and immediately felt foolish for asking the question of someone who had just been wounded.

“It’s nothing,” said Friedrich. He handed the pistol to Rittmeister Granar. “See that that gets back to them. The set will be part of his effects.”

“I will. Here’s your surgeon. Go get that wound seen to.”

Friedrich reached his right hand up to touch the blood on his coat. Then the surgeon arrived with them.

“All right. Let’s see, let’s see. Nothing too bad. Come with me, sir.” He led Friedrich back away towards the cars. Jozef heard the sound of an engine starting and saw the Mercedes phaeton with its curtains down make a turn and drive away, back towards the road. Evidently Minna had seen all that she needed to see.

Without thinking why, Jozef followed Rittmeister Granar over to the table where the pistols had been loaded. There they set the empty pistol, the barrel near the muzzle still streaked with sooty powder residue, down on the wooden case in which Oberleutnant Manz had brought the matched pair. Jozef’s eyes were drawn to the group standing a dozen paces away. In the grass somewhere, perhaps still in the fallen dragoon’s hand, must be the other pistol that matched this one. He recalled the instant before the shot, the set tense look of the man standing still, exposing himself to a shot he knew was coming and might kill him, and wondered if he had that kind of courage. And yet what had it bought the man?

Friedrich was standing, half leaning against the surgeon’s car, his coat and shirt off and his left arm held up in the air as the doctor probed with some tool at a gash the length of a hand in his chest.

“Will he be all right?” Jozef asked. He was experiencing a strange cacophony of feelings which he was unable to sort out: revulsion at the death he had just seen and his friend’s wound, respect for the ritual of courage and honor he had just seen played our, fear that Friedrich would prove to be badly wounded, yet somehow most of all a sort of rushing exultation at the sheer intensity of the morning’s experiences.

“He’ll be fine.” Rittmeister Granar sounded confident. “The ball didn’t lodge in him, just sheared through some flesh and kept on going. He’ll patch up quickly enough this time.”

“What do you mean ‘this time’?”

The Rittmeister sighed. “I’ve fought more than a dozen duels in my time. Over women. Over insults. Over rank. Each time, the offense ended with the duel, whether it ended with a death or a wound. The young leutnant, on the other hand… His grudge isn’t against one insult. It’s against the world That’s a man determined to hold back the tide or batter himself to death trying. I’ll be surprised if he lives to be thirty.”


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5 comments:

  1. Cool. This was the first time I opened up FB and saw there was a new episode and went "Oh, goody!" and clicked and read through right away.

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  2. It WAS good. The thoughts during the countdown especially.

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  3. Kyra's right. I just went back and re-read that bit. So good.

    "a far slower tempo than a parade step or a even a church procession. Slower even than a funeral march." That's such a lovely detail. And the following thoughts about funerals and the reality of killing breaking in through the ceremony.

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