Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. September 17th, 1914. The morning light was still of the luminous, diffuse type just before the sun cleared the horizon as the training squadron clattered up Var Street onto Castle Hill. The sound of a hundred and fifty iron shod horses trotting up a cobbled street between stone buildings was nearly deafening as it echoed and re-echoed. A few people looked out as they passed. A woman waved a handkerchief to the hussars from a window of Madame Kalmar’s establishment. Heads of troopers, Jozef among them, turned to watch her. But the sound of cavalry units riding up through the old town to the castle was too common now to draw any great attention from the town’s civilians.
“Hussars! Stay in line and keep your spacing even!” Sergeant Major Szabo shouted in a voice that carried right down the column of horsemen.
During training a partially reversed hierarchy applied, and the officers-in-training lived in constant fear of the moments when the sergeants stepped in to provide commands they themselves should have given. The sergeants were not actually in command of the cadets, that would have been an unthinkable violation of the distinctions of rank and structure which allowed the Imperial Army, in all its glorious and multi-lingual complexity, to function. But Jozef knew that assessments of the cadets’ performance flowed unofficially but steadily from the sergeants to Rittmeister Koell who commanded the training squadron and from him to the oberstleutnant in command of the reserve regiment as a whole.
Jozef took the sergeant’s words as the reprimand which they were meant to be and snapped his gaze back to the road and his zug. He barked orders to his the men, bringing them into precise order. The commands in Hungarian came naturally now, though he still found more general conversation in the language halting. The hussars edged their horses more precisely into line, and the squadron rode under the archway into the castle in parade ground order, backs straight, chins up, horses stepping precisely in line, no sign of the tiredness which Jozef felt after spending his few hours of sleep trying to find comfort on the lumpy ground cushioned only by his thin bedroll.
Oberstleutnant Zingler, who despite being over sixty himself and commanding a reserve regiment made up primarily of hussars whose girth and stamina were more suited to the hunting lodge than the front lines, yearned for the glories of battle which had been denied him during a forty-year career which had begun just after the disastrous Austro-Prussian War and stretched through the unsatisfyingly long peace up until this present moment. In the interest of building a less aged regiment which might eventually be posted to the front, Zingler had ordered that the cadets conduct overnight field exercises weekly.
Rittmeister Koell, who commanded the training squadron, was rather more typical of the reserve officers in the units headquartered in the picturesque stone fortress which was situated at the highest point in Veszprém, giving it a view out over forest slopes to the spa towns that lined Lake Balaton. Though a great believer in drill and precision, and able to carry off any feat of horsemanship while keeping his back ramrod straight and his shako at the correctly jaunty angle, Koell did not see any reason why turning the cadets into proper officers should interfere with his ability to eat breakfast in his favorite coffee house, spend the hour after dinner drinking slivovitz and smoking cigars over a game of chess at his club, and repose in the arms of his mistress at night. It was not in his character to disobey the oberstleutnant’s request, so instead he arranged the field exercises to interfere with his routine as little as possible. Every Wednesday, after he had taken dinner at a restaurant and played his game of chess at the club, the squadron assembled in the gathering darkness. They rode a short way north, into the lightly wooded hills, and then the cadets and troopers were ordered to make camp in field fashion: no tents, each man heating his own condensed coffee or rations over his own little fire should he feel the need to enhance the outdoor experience. Once the last inspections were done, Rittmeister Koell rode discretely back to the flat of Madame Deák, from whence he returned with military promptness at five-thirty in the morning to rouse the men and lead them back into the town in time for breakfast.
These proprieties to satisfy the oberstleutnant’s orders observed, the rittmeister devoted the rest of his time to that which he understood and appreciated: turning his cadets into the best horsemen that he possibly could. In this no shortcuts were tolerated, and with much soreness of back and leg, Jozef and his fellows had developed an ability in the saddle which would not have disgraced an imperial review.
The training squadron turned into the the regimental stables, the orderly rows of horsemen going through the huge doors four at a time. The long, cavernous stone building with its aisles of wooden stalls housed the regiment’s nine hundred riding horses. A second building, lower down on Castle Hill, held the larger draft horses and their carts, which, should the regiment be deployed on maneuvers or to the front, would carry supplies (including the massive quantities of fodder needed to keep the horses moving) once the regiment left the railhead.
Troopers had to feed, water and groom their own horses, but the officers turned that duty over to the grooms. Within fifteen minutes of riding under the arch into the castle grounds, Jozef and the other cadets walked back the other way, freshly shaved, their uniforms brushed. They turned into one of the cafes which stood just outside the military enclave’s gates. There was not an official officers’ mess, but the two cafes served that purpose, providing not only breakfast, lunch and strong black coffee served in tiny china cups edged with gold, but a place to receive mail, newspapers, and all the elements of civilized life.
“Have you heard this?” One of the officers of the Hungarian Honved was reading to a group from a copy of the local newspaper. The Honved was the militia of the Kingdom of Hungary, a completely separate force from the joint Imperial-Royal Army, which encompassed all nationalities. The castle served as the base for a regiment of Honved infantry in addition to the two Imperial-Royal regiments: Jozef’s own reserve regiment of Hussars and another reserve regiment of light infantry.
Peter Kardos, the lone Hungarian among the Imperial-Royal cadets, joined the group. Jozef hesitated on the periphery of the Hungarian speaking group, almost exclusively Honved officers, but the reading and discussion of the news article soon surpassed his limited ability with the language. He got a cup of coffee and joined a German-speaking group where officers were arguing as the to relative importance of successes against the Serbs along the Drina and humiliations at the hands of the Russians in Poland. The Czechs formed a third knot, the linguistic separation added to by the accusations, increasingly common in the German and Hungarian-language papers, that Czech troops were at fault for the recent troubles on the Polish front, running at the first sign of danger. Off in a corner, a Croat and a Slovak officer played chess and sipped coffee, united not by language or culture but by their isolation from all others.
“Excuse me, Cadet von Revay?”
The server was carrying a small silver tray with an envelope on it. “This letter was left for you, sir.”
Jozef took the letter, plain blue paper addressed in a precise hand that would have looked well in place on a map or technical diagram.
Cadet von Revay,
Since learning of our relation we have had so few chances to meet socially. Why don’t you come with me out to the family seat this weekend -- just an informal men’s gathering for some stag hunting and similar relaxations. My esteemed brother Henrik is hosting, and his women folk are all off visiting. I can promise you the best of everything and a chance to get to know us rustic members of the family.
Give Rittmeister Koell my compliments and tell him that I’d like you to leave with me at ten in the morning on Friday, to be returned by Monday evening.
Your Obedient Servant and Loving Uncle,
Baron Istvan Revay, Major
Jozef asked the waiter to bring him paper and pen and summoned up all his grammar school exercises -- “you have been invited to the country estate of a nobleman, express your thanks and acceptance in terms proper to a gentleman” -- to compose a suitable yet jaunty reply. After an hour and a number of sheets of paper, he was satisfied that he had produced a letter which looked as if it had been dashed off casually in five minutes by someone of effortless good breeding. He folded the sheet precisely, addressed it, and wadded the failed attempts into a tight ball.
“Give this to Baron Revay when he comes in,” he told the server when the man next brought him a fresh cup of coffee, taking care to light a cigarette with great casualness as he gave the instruction.
An invitation to the family seat to hunt stag with his uncles: at last he would begin to take his father’s position in society, and without the constant hovering and interference of his mother. Would his uncles think that he was like his father? He must see that they did.
Jozef had no difficulty in obtaining Rittmeister Koell’s permission to join his uncles for the weekend and even less effort was required to excite the envy of his fellow cadets over the expedition. Most of them were, like Jozef, Viennese, and a weekend of stag hunting was more the stuff of novels and plays than of everyday experience.
Only Peter had held aloof, waiting until the exclamations of the others had died down before saying in his Hungarian-inflected German, “Oh, but what shall you do for a rifle? There’s no time for you to send home for one of your hunting pieces, and you can hardly hunt stag with a cavalry carbine.”
Jozef, who had no hunting piece at home to send for, shrugged. “I suppose I’ll have to borrow one.”
“Of course, your uncle may have an old gun that he doesn’t mind lending to guests. But I find it’s never the same shooting with a rifle that hasn’t been properly fitted to you.”
The tide of attention at the table was now turning to Peter. Had he gone stag hunting? Did his family have a lodge?
“I suppose I really should send for my own rifle -- a Swiss beauty with a maple stock,” Peter continued. “You can hit a nail’s head with such a rifle, if you’ve had the practice. Fall is coming on and the hunting is supposed to be decent enough here. My grandfather’s hunting lodge is near Vajdahunyad Castle and there’s nothing to match it.”
“I don’t recall you being a particularly distinguished shot when we were on the practice range,” Jozef said, annoyed that his weekend plans had become an opportunity for Peter to brag.
Peter shrugged off the attack. “Who can hit anything with these mass produced, peasant rifles. The only way they’d hit nails is if you used the rifle butt as a hammer! As I said, it’s all about the fit. Father had the gunsmith tune that rifle for me. But really, such a rifle is not needed to shoot Serbs, and I’m hoping we’re all going to be posted to active regiments before we have time to settle into the whirl of house parties and weekend hunting expeditions.”
Feeling his prestige thoroughly undercut, Jozef excused himself early from dinner and went to pack for the trip the next day. As he considered his options in this regard he soon found himself facing a more prosaic problem in what to wear and how to pack. Would they be riding to the Revay house on horseback, or in a carriage, or in an automobile? Should he bring his things in a suitcase, or in his cavalry pack? Were any of his clothes even suitable for stag hunting?
The dashing, visit-country-lodges-all-the-time reply which he had sent to his uncle now seemed a piece of self-defeating bravado. He should have asked a few questions. How did people like mother, or even Peter Kardos, manage to give the impression at every turn that they knew the right thing to do? Here he was, going to the ancestral home of his family, where of all places he should seem to belong, and instead everything set him off as a stranger and a fake.
He briefly considered begging off, finding some excuse. Perhaps he could make a private arrangement to be given weekend night watch duties and then tell everyone that he couldn’t get away. But no, such pretense would be the coward’s way out. The only way to cease to be a stranger to his family heritage was to throw himself into it and make what mistakes would come. He packed his dress uniform and a set of everyday tweeds in his suitcase, then emptied out his leather pack and set it next to the luggage so the he could move his things quickly if his guess were wrong. Then he went out to see if the other cadets had gathered at the bar.
At ten o’clock precisely on Friday morning, Jozef jumped at the sound of a bugle blowing the cavalry charge right outside his window. He rushed to look out and saw, in the street, Baron Revay standing in the back seat of an open topped car brandishing the instrument in one hand and a champagne flute in the other.
Jozef loaded his suitcase into the car’s boot and climbed into the back seat next to his uncle.
“Here’s your morning medicine, my boy,” said the baron, filling a fresh flute from the bottle which reposed in a bucket of ice on the floor of the seat. “Let’s see you drain that like a good man and we shall proceed.”
The wine was crisply cold and slightly sweet, the bubbles crackling on his tongue.
“All of it,” urged his uncle, when Jozef began to lower the glass. “Don’t take a breath, finish it.”
Jozef obeyed and drained the glass, then coughed, the bubbles having forced their way into the back of his throat.
“Not bad, not bad. We’ll make a Revay of you yet.” The baron raised the bugle and blew the ‘close ranks and wheel right’. The driver apparently knew the meaning of these signals as Baron Revay applied them to driving. He performed a multi-point turn in the narrow street, then gunned the engine and roared back in the direction from which the car had come, up Castle Hill towards the army buildings.
Undeterred by the car’s maneuvers, the baron refilled both their glasses. “Once more, rally for the charge, boys!” he called above the roar of the engine, raising his glass.
“Surely we have a while ahead of us, and it’ll stay cold in the ice,” Jozef objected, feeling the first glass slosh against his breakfast, which was itself orbiting the pit of his stomach as the car whipped around corners and vibrated over the cobbles. “Why the rush?”
The baron held the bottle up to the morning sun and gauged its contents. “There’s one more glass for each of us in here, and we have to finish it before we reach the stables. I won’t have the chauffeur drinking it.” With that he led the way by draining his glass.
Jozef obediently knocked back his own. “Why before the stables?”
“Because we’re going to ride, my boy. This is just to give us a healthy glow for the ride. Now for the third round!” His uncle deftly filled the glasses again, despite the slewing car, then released the empty bottle to roll around the floor of the back seat.
As he tilted his glass back for the third time, the crackling bubbles and slightly sweet taste brought vividly to his mind the night with Friedrich before the duel, lining up empty champagne bottles on the piano as they drank through the night. The baron. Friedrich. These were men who knew how to live with intensity. Could he do as much or would he always be following those who truly did?
They reached the stables where Baron Revay’s soldier servant was waiting with two horses which were saddled and ready to go. The baron sent the servant ahead in the car with orders to have their bags in their rooms and unpacked before they arrived. Then he turned to Jozef.
“All right, my boy. No sloppy riding. Anything you can’t do well with half a bottle of champagne in you, you can’t do well at all.”
They saw several country estates during their ride, each built well back from the main road, taking advantage of a crest among the rolling hills to afford a view above the trees. With each, Jozef had wondered if they had reached their destination, the house which had been his father’s home and might some day be his. But each time, as they neared the point where wrought iron gates protected the drive up to the house, the baron had told some story about the owners and continued on.
“That’s Pal Kendi’s place. He went mad and his wife took up with the grounds keeper, but no one blames her and she gives a New Year’s party every year that all the families attend.” “Janko Mikes was a major with the army in ‘48. He never would accept Franz Joseph and when his daughter eloped with an Austrian he refused to ever see her again. Of course, Katalin got the last laugh, as he’s dead now and she and her Austrian live there.”
When the exuberantly baroque country house came in view -- its stonework pale yellow with false columns painted deep orange, the facade flanked by towers topped by spired bronze domes which suggested something further east in their curving lines -- the Baron stopped and looked at it for a moment.
“That’s it,” he said. “It’s a shame Lisette didn’t bring you here sooner, but you’re welcome now.”
They were greeted at the door by a middle-aged woman dressed as a housekeeper, whom the Baron addressed familiarly as Irma and kissed on both cheeks. The car had already arrived and Irma dispatched their baggage upstairs with two boys then shouted for the groom to make haste to get the gentlemen’s horses off to the stables.
“Where’s Henrik?” the baron asked.
“Down at the kennels. You won’t see him until after they’ve been fed and settled from his morning ride. You’d best go up and get freshened. By the time you’re ready to come down for a drink and some food he’ll be ready to see you.”
Whichever Revay ancestor had been responsible for the current baroque style of the house, the renovation did not go beyond the facade and the grand rooms of the first floor. The upstairs rooms were far more rustic: whitewashed stone walls and a floor of smooth pine boards. There was a set of toilets of most primitive design at the end of the hall. Just after Jozef had been shown to his room, there was knock, followed by the quiet entry of a barefooted servant girl who set a basin of steaming water on the wash table and draped a towel next to it.
Looking around the room, with its draped bed, battered wooden chests, and stone walls, Jozef’s leatherbound suitcase with its brass latches and small round lock looked like a visitor from some future time. Perhaps it was no surprise that his mother had never taken him here. The spare, dim room could not have been a starker contrast to the densely decorated and elegant modernity of her rooms in the Vienna flat. Did the family have a city house somewhere, or did they live year round in these rustic conditions?
His judgement of the house’s conditions softened somewhat as he changed before going down to eat. The rug on which the bed was centered proved to be far softer and more deeply piled than any that graced his mother’s flat, and the bed linens were also of finer and softer weave.
Any prejudice against the house which might have remained was erased when he went back downstairs and found his uncles making drinks in the billiard room. Henrik -- a broad shouldered man even taller than his older brother the baron -- was presiding over a huge bar of polished wood, stirring up a drink in a metal tumbler, the contents of which were so cold that frost was forming on the polished surface. After a final stir, he poured the drink into a large tumbler and handed it to his brother.
“And you, youngster,” he said, turning to Jozef. “Welcome to the family. What kind of drink can I make you?”
The rest of the day passed in a blur which was only in part the result of the massively strong drinks which Henrik provided to his guests. His uncles had the sort of open good humor which put everyone immediately at ease, and even before dinner Jozef felt himself at long last united with those to whom he should have spent his life most closely attached.
Over dinner he watched the two men, the one in uniform, the other in a green hunting jacket with leather collar, and picked out the ways in which they resembled him: Their hair was a slightly lighter brown than his, but perhaps that was only age. They had the same large, angular nose, but their eyes were blue rather than brown like his. He tried to imagine what his father must have looked like, the oldest of the three brothers.
Irma served them dinner, then sat down next to Henrik and joined them. Several times she got up to fetch more wine, to bring in another dish, but always she sat back down, and gradually it became clear to Jozef that there was a connection between her and Henrik, such that in the absence of the house’s mistress she slipped into that place. He wondered briefly whether the fact that he was allowed to see this marked him as an insider, privy to the family secrets, or an outsider, one allowed into the family house only at this time during which a low born mistress replaced the lady of the house. But it was impossible to find his uncles anything other than welcoming and it was with a feeling of happiness and belonging that Jozef reeled up the stairs in the small hours of the morning and collapsed into bed. The room slowly revolved around him as the soft bed linens received him into their embrace.
Morning came early. Two neighbors had been invited for the next day’s stag hunt, and Uncle Henrik had made clear that breakfast would be served “according to country hours” at eight o’clock. Jozef could not face much more than coffee, but several small, intense cups of this revived him, and by nine he followed the other men out into the woods, a beautifully engraved over-under double barreled rifle lent to him by Henrik resting heavily in the crook of his arm.
Jozef’s notions of stag hunting had been vague. He had seen pictures of hunters posing proudly over a slain animal, their rifles resting casually in the crooks of their arms in the posture which he endeavored to mimic as he followed the party through the woods. He had seen pictures of dogs holding the stag at bay, or of some knife-wielding nobleman of old wrestling the stag to the ground and pulling its neck back for the kill. These, it proved, bore little resemblance to the actual activity of stag hunting. Indeed, through most of the day where was neither sight nor scent of quarry. The party wandered slowly through the forest, the dogs ran ahead and were recalled by Henrik’s whistle. They drank flasks of hot coffee. At noon, a sumptuous lunch was spread under a canopy, with framed canvas chairs for the hunters to recline in while they they enjoyed hot stew, cold venison pie, and plenty of crisp, golden lager.
As the guests smoked cigars and indulged in the lassitude that comes of a large midday meal, Henrik consulted with his two huntsmen. Jozef lay back in his canvas chair, watching the play of the afternoon sun through the leaves of the trees overhead, blowing occasional plumes of smoke upwards, and half listening to his uncle’s discussion of where a stag might be and the best way to flush the animal out towards them.
At last the huntsmen went off, each one taking half the dogs, the two of them taking wide, arcing routes that would bring them together well ahead. Uncle Henrik stood up and stamped on the remains of his cigar, grinding it into the damp soil and leaves.
“All right, gentlemen. It’s time to become serious. Put your cigars out thoroughly. I want no fires and no smell to startle the game. We’ll take up a position at the edge of the next clearing and wait to see if they can flush anything out.”
The guests obediently put out their cigars and set aside their beer mugs. None of them felt particularly intent upon the hunt as they threaded between the close-spaced, slim trunked young trees. Their boots rustled loudly through fallen leaves and twigs. The two neighboring landlords were chatting about the difficulties one of them was having with a sow who showed no interest in suckling her own piglets.
They reached a place where the trees opened out, a wider clearing than the one in which the lunch tent had been set up. Tall grasses, turning grown and gold with the autumn weather, with clusters of seeds at the end of their stalks, bobbed towards them in the slight breeze which blew across the clearing towards them.
“Do you two want to stop your Goddamned noise or go back to the tent?” Henrik asked in a low voice, and the landowners obediently fell silent.
Under their host’s direction they formed a firing line. Henrik stood, his rifle resting on a tree branch, waiting for sight or sound of their quarry. The others stretched out to his right, a man every two paces. Jozef was last. If the stag came into sight, Henrik would have the first shot. If he missed, the next man in precedence would have his chance. If a second stag appeared, the second man had first shot, and so on.
Jozef rested his borrowed rifle on a tree branch in imitation of his uncle’s stance, but he could not imagine that there was any chance that as the fifth man he would have any chance to shoot. However, as he watched the tree line at the far side of the clearing, he found his mind wandered not into tiredness or inattention, as just a little while before, with the effect of food and beer upon him, he would have expected, but rather into a sort of detached watchfulness. He could see why Henrik and the huntsmen had chosen this clearing as the potential killing ground and in his mind’s eye he saw how their prey would come into view and present itself for the shot. The slight movements of the trees, the waves of grass, the sounds of birds and small creatures, as well as of his fellow hunters, all these took up his attention yet did not distract from the basic purpose of waiting for the stag.
“This is tiresome. Your hounds aren’t finding anything. I’m going back to the tent,” said one of the landowners, his voice just barely low enough to show respect for the others who continued to watch for quarry.
He walked off, his boots seeming to make an inordinate noise, and Jozef found himself wondering how long this newfound trance of watchfulness which he had fallen into had lasted. Then his attention was seized by the sound of dogs baying in the distance. The sound rose and fell and almost seemed to die away. Then came clearly again and grew rapidly in volume and clarity. The dogs were coming towards them quickly. A few moments and then there was the sound of crashing in the undergrowth as well.
A stag burst through the treeline at the far side of the clearing and, seeing the expanse of grass before him, briefly froze, his head turning every so slightly left and right to take in the wide, dangerous area before him. The barking of the dogs continued, and Jozef could hear the sound of the hounds rushing over dry leaves and through low hanging branches.
The stag seemed to gather itself and sprang into motion again to continue its flight, but just as it did so the ringing crack of Henrik’s rifle sounded. Before the shot the stag had begun its first leap, now its motion continued but its legs were loose and it landed in a heap, thrashed its legs briefly, and was still. The report was still echoing in Jozef’s ears. He looked down at the rifle in his own hands and realized that in the instant he had been so focused on watching the animal that he had completely forgotten his purpose in waiting for it.
The first of the dogs burst out of the trees and soon the whole pack was milling around the fallen stag, barking and sniffing, as Henrik approached to survey his kill. There had been only the one stag and the one shot. The rest of them had not been required to make a followup shot, and Jozef wondered if he would even have remembered to shoot in time if there had been an animal for him.
The jumping and barking of the dogs soon broke through the solemnity of the kill. Henrik consulted with his huntsmen about the carcass, and soon they carried it away, slung beneath a pole. The hunting party returned to the lunch pavilion and soon drinks were flowing and more food was served. The servants brought bundles of wood and lit a bonfire in the center of the clearing. The sky turned dark and starry. A fiddle player sawed out wild peasant dances and young women in full, brightly colored skirts and white blouses embroidered with intricate patterns danced with the guests, their bare feet flying over the turf even as the men’s movements became less sure with drink.
The close of the night was never afterwards clear in Jozef’s mind. His uncles and their guests had all disappeared, one by one, and Jozef continued to dance around the fire with the peasants who remained. There was one woman in particular, a face he could not completely remember, full lips, dark hair, a full figure he could see swaying as they danced. He remembered asking her, in words that seemed as if they must have been masterful and elegant, if she was ready to slip out of the circle of firelight and find somewhere to lie. He remembered her laughing and urging him to have one more drink. And he remembered nothing else until he woke with full daylight on his face, his tweeds rumpled and twisted around him awkwardly from sleeping in them.
The baron laughed at him as he drew him towards the table on which breakfast was spread.
“The little minx put you down before you could put her down, eh? Ah, my boy, you have a lot to learn. But what a night, eh? What a night.”
Jozef agreed, if a trifle resentfully.
Breakfast did not appeal, but the baron mixed him a drink which he promised would ease headaches, gentle the stomach, erase regrets and bring strength for a new day. This list of promises was perhaps overlong, but Jozef did soon find himself feeling like something very nearly human.
Sunday was an altogether quieter day. The neighboring landowners had gone home and Jozef was grateful to imitate his uncles in taking a nap through the afternoon hours.
He woke as the shadows were lengthening outside. The house was silent as he washed, put on his dress uniform, and went downstairs. It was the staircase which marked the division between the old and new finishes of the house. The broad pine floorboards of the upstairs ended at the polished marble of the top step. Following the intricate brass bannister and gently curving stone stairs led from the plain stone walls above down to the public rooms where plaster walls painted in strong reds and golds were punctuated by fluted false columns, and gilded plasterwork ran riot on the ceiling. His footsteps echoed on the stone tiles as he went from billiard room to dining room, breakfast room, and drawing room, finding no one. He hesitated to open the closed door of the study or of any of the rooms which he had not been shown before. His uncles must still be napping, or if they were behind closed doors he did not yet feel the confidence in his presence here to disturb them.
He paced the rooms and at last settled in the billiard room. There was a shelf of books against one wall, but aside from a half shelf of French novels these were mostly treatises on historical and agricultural topics written in Hungarian, and thus more work for Jozef’s current skill in the language than the interest of the works justified. Instead he took down a cue, set three balls on the table, and played a solitary game of carom until the baron appeared at the door, sniffed, yawned, and demanded, “No coffee? Why didn’t you shake up some damned kitchen wench?”
It was not until dinner than things began to be jovial again. With the setting of the sun, their spirits rose, helped in part by a generous infusion of wine and spirits. They played a rotating series of games of billiards. Cigar smoke swirled. The baron and Henrik told stories: of hunting, of the army, of women. Jozef took his turns at the billiard table but listened more than he talked. There was a masculine affinity here different from his fraternity comrades, different from the beer hall, a taste of a family life and history which he had never experienced. Lisette told many stories about family, expressed wishes for the future, but he could not remember ever seeing family in the flesh. At times some older man among his mother’s set had made an effort to take him out and speak seriously to him over brandy and cigars or had introduced him to the card games and billiard tables of one of the city’s clubs, but never had he experienced anything like this.
If his father had lived, this might have been his daily world. Why did his mother never visit her husband’s family? Lisette could be difficult at times, but he found it hard to imagine his jovial uncles having taking so much of a dislike to her as to refuse to let her visit. Did she dislike them? He watched Henrik go to the door and roar down the hallway for Irma to have another bottle of cognac sent up. Perhaps his mother did not like his uncles. Their manner far more rural than anyone in her set.
“Can you tell me about my father?” Jozef asked “What was he like growing up? I want to know everything.”
Henrik, who had been struggling to remove the wax seal from the bottle of cognac, stopped and looked at him.
“Growing up? I don’t know. I only met the man a few times.”
It was a blow, unexpected, at first incomprehensible. He had asked the question during a moment in which he felt the secure embrace of family for the first time in his life. Now he was like the stag, struck down in mid-leap, legs loose and lifeless before they even hit the ground.
“You said you were my uncle,” Jozef said, turning to the baron.
“Of course, my boy. So I am. So we both are. But Lisette met that Goddamned Pole in Budapest while she was staying with Aunt Ida to soak up a little culture.”
“But her name is von Revay.”
“Yes, well. Lisette always did like a bit of status. Look at that Frenchified name she picked out for herself. She insisted on it ever since she was old enough to wear long skirts. Lizinka wouldn’t do any more, and by then mother was dead so there was no one to insist upon it. I suppose it’s not completely dishonest to style it ‘von’ in German. There is a baronetcy in the family after all.”
“My mother is your sister.” The words came out as a statement rather than a question.
His uncles looked at each other. They had made no move to resume the game of billiards. Now Henrik poured cognac into three glasses.
“Here, have a drink,” he said.
The two older men sat Jozef down, and then by unspoken agreement the baron spoke.
“I didn’t know that your mother had not been honest with you, or I would certainly not have allowed it to come out in this clumsy fashion. Lisette is our younger sister. She was seventeen when she met your father. He was not a connection our father could approve of, but Lisette always was a willful creature. She ran off with him, and by the time we could find them… Well, there was nothing left to do. In the end, he wouldn’t marry her and she wouldn’t leave him. I was prepared to call him and out shoot him, but since she wouldn’t have that I made him sign over a pension for her maintenance. You were not quite two when he put her away. We thought at first she would come back to live with the family, but she’d had too much independence to give it up. She moved to Vienna and set herself up as a widow. As for all that she told you… I suppose that claiming she’d married a Revay -- a von Revay -- started as something she told people in order to explain her last name and her widowhood. That she told you too… I don’t know. With Lisette perhaps even she believed her own story after a while.”
Jozef sat staring into his glass.
“What as my father’s name?” he asked at last. Somehow in discovering family he had opened up a deeper void of emptiness in his ancestry. By the end of his uncle’s explanation he had ceased to feel confusion and anger. Those had been replaced by an emptiness.
His uncles exchanged a look. “You’d best ask your mother if you want to know more in that quarter,” the baron said, after a moment.
He had no family. Unwanted. Nameless. His own mother had not been willing to admit the name of his father. An hour ago he had felt so happily surrounded by family that he had asked the question that opened the abyss under his feet.
The baron reached out a hand and gripped his shoulder. “There, my boy. Don’t let it cast you down. You’ve got family now. Henrik and I are glad to have found you.”
Jozef looked up into the older man’s face, at the nose that was so like his own and the eyes that were blue like his mother’s. Was it from his father that his brown eyes came, then?
“I think the time has come,” said the baron, “for all of us Revay men to get absolutely Goddamned drunk.”
Read the next installment.