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.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chapter 7-2




During the next few days Jozef busied himself with preparations. His fraternity comrades were openly jealous that he had a set of orders and was having uniforms fitted and buying equipment while they still waited for their medical exams. Konstantin had discussed the possibility of deserting from his infantry enlistment and signing up as a cavalry cadet under a false name, but of course there was no staff officer to assist in executing such a desperate plan.

Money problems loomed. Jozef’s usual allowance was enough for the pastimes of a university student, so long as he did not indulge in gambling or the more expensive sort of women, but it was very short indeed when it came to buying the full uniforms and equipment of a cavalry cadet. A reserve officer’s pay was enough to cover such things, but he would not be a reserve officer for at least several months. A cadet’s pay was nominal and even that would not begin until after he reported for duty and was officially enrolled.

He had expected that Mother would be reconciled to his decision once the first shock was past, but she consistently refused to acknowledge any discussion of his impending departure or his need to pay for his kit, either maintaining a blank stare while he spoke to her or replying with questions as to how university lectures were going.

In the end he dodged the problem by purchasing all his supplies on account and giving his mother’s name and address for the bill.

Given the discomforts of home, it was all the more attractive to spend any time not engaged in errands at either the coffee house or the beer hall. With the rest of Vienna, he consumed the newspapers, the rumors, and the discussion of both.

The government had declared Serbia’s partial acceptance of the ultimatum’s terms to be unacceptable, and the army had been mobilized, but no declaration of war or other concrete action had followed. Was the rogue state to the south to be punished for its part in the assassination of the Archduke, for its constant attempts to undermine the dual monarchy, or was this to become yet another in the long string of embarrassments which were summed up in that one shameful phrase: decline?

For a brief time -- in an empire of two kingdoms, twelve nationalities and fifty-two million souls -- it had seemed that there was an essential unity of anger and of willingness to fight the threat, a unity of sympathy and purpose so unusual in this none-too-hopeful empire that many found themselves ready to give it another chance, to discover a forgotten patriotism. Even those opposed to war found themselves intoxicated with the sense that all were to be forged into one glowing whole, their divisions and selfishness refined away by the fires of war. Strangers spoke to each other in the streets, and neighbors who had never more than shrugged at each other when passing in the lift now shook hands and spoke with excited looks. Have you heard anything? Will it be today? What will you do?

And yet before that purpose and unity could be turned into action, it seemed liable to be stillborn through the inaction so familiar and frustrating to all. All waited and read and debated, hoping for and fearing the news that war had at last made real the feelings of the last weeks.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 28th, the answer at last came. War had been declared. War with Serbia. Next day, the first shots of the war were fired. Austrian river monitors, squat ironclads, low in the water, with guns sticking out of round turrets, steamed down the Danube and the Saba, which separated Serbia and its capital from Austria-Hungary, and shelled Belgrade.

It was as the shells were falling in Belgrade, the war still too young to have made it into the morning papers, that Lisette came into the dining room well before her usual late hour, catching Jozef before he could make his silent escape to the coffee house for a morning of reading the news and discussing it with his friends.

“Jozef, good morning! I’m so glad to see you before you leave for the day.”

“Good morning, Mother,” Jozef replied, waiting to see what form his mother’s attack would take. Had she received the bill for his uniform tailoring or his equipage already? Would she refuse to pay? He had hoped that none of the bills would arrive until after he was safely away in training. Let her settle out whether to acknowledge his enlistment or endanger her credit.

“Where are you off to today? Uniforms and equipment, or just hearing the latest news?”

This represented a new tactic. “I was going to go hear the news. My friends are having their enlistment medical exams this morning, and I’m eager to hear what news they come back with.”

“It’s so patriotic of them to enlist, though of course I’m glad that you have followed the family tradition in joining the cavalry.”

He studied his mother, almost expecting her to look different, this approach to the matter was so different from before.

She did not seem to require a reply but continued on, coming close to him and leaning in confidentially. “I wonder, Jozef dear, if you can spare a bit of time for me this evening. Yes, yes, I know. So much to do, and you and your friends who are also going off to war have your interests and your last evenings to spend together before you are parted. Who knows?” She placed a hand lightly over her bosom. “Perhaps forever. But if you could spare just a few hours of your time, Baroness von Miko is having one of her intimate little receptions tonight, and of course you know all my friends would so like a chance to see you before you leave for training.”

Under normal circumstances, such an invitation would have no appeal at all, but with this sudden shift Jozef found himself curious to see what would happen, however much he might regret the foray later.

“All right, Mother. What time?”

“Nine o’clock. Just a little early evening reception. You can be away before eleven.”

“Very well. I’ll be ready to leave on time with you.”

“Thank you!” Lisette turned to go, then paused and turned back. “Oh, and Jozef, do you think… I know that it’s a little vanity on my part, but do you think you could wear your new cavalry uniform?”

“No, Mother. The uniforms aren’t even back from the tailor yet. And even if they were I could not wear the uniform until after I am enrolled and sworn in.”

She sighed. “Oh. I had just thought that people would like it. It would make me so proud. But if you feel that way…”

She left, and as he walked to the coffee house Jozef tried to puzzle out what this sudden transformation might portend.

***

Jozef presented himself in the living room that evening, dressed for the reception, knowing full well that his mother would not be ready to leave until at least nine. His expectations were not refuted, and the delay was further compounded by Lisette’s absolute refusal to either walk so much as a block or take any form of public transportation. They did not have their own car, so be it. They would take a taxi. And since their neighborhood was not of sufficient fashion to have taxis passing by the minute, they would wait while the porter called and had one dispatched. It was nine-thirty by the time they arrived at the Baroness von Miko’s building, just off the Ringstrasse, and when they entered her rooms most of the usual set was already assembled.

The Baroness was not, that day, professing ill health, and was moving about her sitting room at a stately pace with the help of an amber-headed cane. Her dress of grey silk and black lace, set off only by a double rope of pearls which hung nearly to her waist, made her a sober figure against the red and gold diamonds of the rug.

Lisette went directly to her, paying no heed to the other two women who were speaking to her. “Baroness!” She took both of the older woman’s hands and exchanged a pair of brief kisses, which hoved in the air not quite touching each cheek. “I was so glad to receive your invitation, as it gives me a distraction from the feelings which otherwise threaten to overwhelm me.”

The other two women were drifting off, leaving Lisette in possession of the hostess and thus of a degree of the room’s attention.

“Have you taken the war very much to heart?” asked Baroness von Miko. “Of course, we must grieve that any blood is shed, but surely the defense of our country is something to take pride in.”

“Indeed. And as a mother in particular, I am torn between pride and fear. Jozef, you know, is leaving me in just a few days to join his cavalry regiment. We have been all preparations since mobilization was declared.”

“Ah, well. Then I understand how you must feel. But I did not know that Jozef was in the army.”

“Well, he had been hesitant, you know,” confided Lisette. “For so long he had thought of a career in the civil service. A good enough career in its way, I suppose. But, of course, I always hoped. There is such a tradition of service in our family. His grandfather served in the cavalry, and so did his younger uncles. And with war coming, well, the family blood stirred and he told me that he wanted to follow in the family tradition. ‘My son,’ I said. ‘You will break your mother’s heart, but you must follow a higher duty!’”

Jozef stood mutely by. He had seen his mother’s ability to turn a social situation to her advantage, but never had her powers been turned so directly against him. Within the first moments of their arrival his enlistment had somehow become her idea, the civil service had become his. The relatives who she had for years described as good officers in their way, if you could forgive the fact that they were really far more comfortable in the barracks or the country hunting lodge than in the civilized society of Vienna, had now become the models to which she had hoped he would find the courage to aspire.

As she made her way around the room, talking to various acquaintances, the story grew and developed. As cancer grows faster than the healthy cells around it, Jozef found his real life and intentions to be outpaced and choked off by these inventions. He slipped away while his mother was talking to an old Countess and went in search of refreshment. There was champagne and sherry and various other wines, but he found an aging Generalmajor in full dress uniform pouring himself a large glass of clear liquid from a decanter.

“If I may, what is that, sir?” Jozef asked.

“Slivovitz. Plum brandy. The Baroness always keeps a bit around for me. You’ll have to get used to this fire water if you’re heading down to Serbia. They don’t have civilized drinks down there.”

“Generalmajor!” Lisette appeared next to them. “I’m so glad to see you. Have you been sharing a bit of wisdom with my dear Jozef? Did I tell you already tonight that Jozef is joining the cavalry?”

“The Hussars, I believe, Madam.”

“Oh, you know all the right terms, of course! I’m so proud. Afraid, of course, as any mother must be. But so proud. I hope, Generalmajor, that you will watch out for my boy, make sure that he doesn’t find himself too much in danger. You know, of course, while this is all very good as a first step, I do hope that Jozef will not find himself trapped in barracks life for long. What I’ve always dreamed of for him is a position on the general staff. He has worked so hard, you know, on his mathematics at the university, and his languages. Perhaps some day, when you see the right opportunity, you can let me know?”

The old officer poured a tall glass of the slivovitz and handed it to Jozef.


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3 comments:

  1. Delightful ending to the chapter. I should probably feel ashamed at feeling glee at Jozef sticking his mother with the bills. But her turning the tables on him and getting ahead of the story was brilliant. I should have expected it but didn't. I like that we come full circle to the Baroness's party here at the end of the chapter. Very satisfying.

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  2. Jozef sticking his mother with the bill was absolutely hilarious. The danger of being a passive-aggressive parent is that your children learn the tricks of passive-aggressiveness. But I see Lisette still has a few of them in reserve.

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