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.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Chapter 14-2

This took far longer than I expected, in part because it is fairly long, but it completes Chapter 14. Jozef enjoys a weekend of partridge shooting with his new found relatives and perhaps finds love.

I'm going to take a game try at finishing by the end of the calendar year. The total length is now 192,000 words. That leaves me another 40-50,000 to write over the next seven weeks. More to come soon! Next up, Philomene.


Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. October 6th, 1914. As Jozef rode away from his uncle’s country house, it had seemed clear that an epoch had passed in his life. Things would not be the same. He knew his mother now, in a way that he had not through all the years of living with her. And he knew himself: the son of a kept woman and an unknown father. And yet, for all that he had lost a hopeful vision of himself as an heir and nobleman, in Henrik and the baron he had a real family of a sort that he had never experienced before.

Yet the post at Veszprém and the training squadron within it went on exactly as before. Rittmeister Koell put them through riding exercises and on Wednesday night they rode out into the hills beyond the town and laid their blanket rolls beneath the stars, pickets standing watches throughout the night as if they were in danger of being attacked by enemy patrols.

One week slipped into another. The newspapers became vaguer and the rumors worse. Peter Kardos received word from home that his older brother, a leutnant in the 7th Hussars, had been wounded in Poland. Jozef received a cache of five letters from Friedrich, written throughout the latter half of August, which had somehow become tangled in the mails and arrived all at once.

Serbia was a hell hole, Friedrich told him. They had won a battle -- a skirmish really -- and driven the enemy cavalry into the hills. But even as the hussars patrolled and screened the infantry, finding no large units to fight, snipers picked off individual men. Wells were poisoned. The civilians spied for the army and killed soldiers when they could. They’d had to burn several villages to the ground and hang every Serb they could lay their hands on, man or woman, but even so the depredations continued. Now orders had come for them to entrain for Poland. The hussars hated to see the Slavs get away with their insolence, but at least the hussars would be escaping from this godforsaken country.

It was on the last day of September, with these and other hints trickling in of how the war effort was going, that the eight cadets had sat down together in the cafe after morning exercises and each written letters to the commission board asking to be placed in active duty regiments for the remainder of their training.

They walked down to the post together and sent the letters off, then betook themselves to the bar to seal their efforts with alcohol. They drank toasts to each other, to the war, to the army, to the emperor. Yet when the afternoon of patriotic carousing had passed, the routine seized hold of them again and they had to form up after dinner for another night sleeping on the uncomfortable ground. However similar the rocks and lumps beneath their bedrolls might be to those felt by men on active duty, that shared discomfort did not diminish their resentment at having to spend the evening in the chill open air rather than in their lodgings. It might be noble to suffer on the field of battle for the emperor, but to do so in training for Rittmeister Koell, even as he rode back to the ample arms of Madame Deák, was not to be borne.

The mails were running slow, both the chaos of war logistics and the vastly increased load of letters moving to and from the fronts taking their toll upon them, but the cadets estimated that at the longest it would take three days for their letters to reach Vienna and as long again for replies to come back. No doubt the staff was busy, but how could youthful ardor be ignored when the need for men was so great? Surely replies would come quickly with orders assigning them to active duty units.

Jozef’s heart surged when, on the sixth day, he asked the concierge if any letters had come for him and the old man said, “Yes, one did come for you. A military courier brought it down from the castle.”

Where would he be sent? To Poland? To Serbia? He hoped desperately for Poland. Against the Russians there was a chance of real battle, cavalry against cavalry. What were the Serbs but a pack of bandits hiding in the mountains?

“Here you go.” The concierge handed him a small blue envelope, and with a disappointment that gripped his stomach like a tightening fist Jozef immediately recognized it as addressed in his uncle’s precise hand.

He was invited to spend another weekend at the country house. The pheasants were in season, and if they were to put down enough birds for the winter, another shooter would be most welcome. Besides Magda had returned with the children, and she had brought with her a younger sister and another guest. Altogether it would be a lively party, and Jozef must come and meet more of the family.

Orders for the front would have been more welcome, but after that first disappointment Jozef found it impossible not to look forward eagerly to the chance to see his uncles again and meet more of his family. When he conveyed the baron’s compliments to Rittmeister Koell it was easy enough to get permission to attend, and he passed the two days until Friday in happy anticipation despite the continued lack of response to his petition for a posting to the front.

***

The increased activity caused by the return of the house’s mistress was evident upon their first approach. A uniformed footman, who had been lounging against the wall just out of sight of the main door when Jozef and the baron rode up the gravel drive, tossed away his cigarette as they entered the circle and hurried to take their horses’ reigns.

“Good evening, Baron. Your room is ready. The chauffeur has delivered your luggage and is waiting to know if he can return to the castle.”

“Of course,” the Baron laughed. “I imagine he’s all duty, having a glass of lager with the other menservants somewhere. Tell him to get himself back to the castle as soon as he’s done, before the transportation officer complains. It’s nearly sunset, it’ll be well past dark by the time he gets back. I’ll expect him Monday morning.”

The footman nodded and turned to Jozef. “Mister Revay, you are in the second bachelor room as before. Your things are there. Do you require a man to help you dress before dinner?”

Jozef shook his head. With that question the house had just moved into the realm of society above his own. In his mother’s household, Lisette of course had Elsa to help her in dressing and in all other necessities of life. But once Jozef had grown out of the need of a nurse to keep him scrubbed and dressed and properly presented to his mother, he had never had a servant at his own disposal. As a cadet, one of the soldier servants looked after his gear along with that of several others of the cadets in the same boarding house, and the squadron’s grooms cared for his horse, but he was far from the rank of requiring a man to help him dress.

The house was blazing with light, and it was immediately clear that even aside from the night spent out in the woods after the stag hunt, Uncle Henrik had been virtually camping in his own house during Jozef’s previous visit: the few candles had left shadows around the large rooms, with the eyes of hunting trophies on the wall glistening duly out of the gloom near the ceiling as they looked down. Now every room was bright. The notes of a piano flowed into the grand entry hall from the open door of the music room which, on his prior visit, had been shut up.

His room was the same as before, dimly lit with cool stone walls and the thick piled carpet forming an island of softness on the scrubbed pine floor. Now, however, the chamber seemed out of keeping with the rest of the house. What had the footman called it? The second bachelor room. The name gave it the sound of an afterthought where those of little consequence could be stowed.

When he came downstairs, wearing his full dress uniform in anticipation of dinner being a formal affair, Henrik put his head out of the billiard room and waved him in. That room, at least, had not changed, still dimly lit and filled with cigar smoke. Uncle Henrik, the stiff front of his white shirt ready to burst at the effort of squeezing his broad chest into evening dress, waved him toward the drink cabinet.

“Get yourself something, my boy. No country ways tonight. We’ll go in to see the ladies at eight, then to dinner at nine, so you’d better fortify yourself for the long wait now.”

He perched his drink on the edge of the billiard table, clenched his cigar firmly in his teeth, and executed a skillful shot, the cue ball bouncing off one side, touching both balls, then rolling slowly off towards the other side of the table to set up his next shot.

“Feel free to put a pair of balls out if you want to play too. We could make it low stakes since it’s still before dinner.”

Jozef declined but poured himself a glass of cognac and cut a cigar. The Baron arrived a few minutes later, the brass buttons and gold braid of his dress uniform shining, and bet against his younger brother’s next shot before he even poured himself a drink. Seeing what counted for low stakes between his uncles, Jozef was doubly glad he had refused to play. The time passed quickly, however, while the older men bantered and played. As drinks were refilled, the jokes and stories became more ribald and even as they became less sure of touching both their own balls with each shot, they succeeded all the more spectacularly at leaving the cue ball in impossible places to frustrate the other in his next shot.

Just after the mantle clock chimed out eight a boy in short pants and a coat which mimed his father’s green hunting jackets appeared in the open doorway and coughed for attention.

“Please, sir. Mother says it is time for you to come to the drawing room, and would you like to say goodnight to us before we are taken up the nursery.”

“All right, all right, young ruffian,” said Henrik, leaning far over the table, cue in hand. “Just let me get my revenge on your uncle here.”

The boy crept to the edge of the billiard table and stood on tiptoe to watch, keeping well clear of his father’s cue stick.

It was an expert shot, far steadier than many recent ones had been, and Henrik with a satisfied, “Ha!” reached out to snatch the coins the baron had stacked on the edge of the table against his brother’s ability to make the shot.

“You sly fox,” the baron said, shaking his head. “I could swear you conned me with those last few wild shots, just to make me lay out more coin.”

Henrik shrugged. “Can’t help it if I’m lucky once in a while. Take your lumps, brother. Take your lumps.”

With that the two men racked their cues, ground out their cigar butts in the overflowing brass ash stand, and followed the boy to the drawing room.

The drawing room had been dark and unused on Jozef’s previous visit, but it was now overwhelming with people and activity. Three children rushed to hang on Henrik, going through his pockets and all speaking at once: the boy who had fetched them in, and two girls. One girl was nearly as tall as the adult women, but as yet had none of the shape and manner of womanhood, the other was clearly the youngest of the three. In watching them, Jozef realized how infrequently he saw children of any kind. It was impossible to guess their ages. Their clamor seemed overwhelming.

The smallest of Henrik’s girls turned away from her father and approached the baron.

“Uncle Istvan, do you have a treat for me?” she demanded, climbing onto his boots and tugging at his deep blue uniform jacket. “Do you have a treat? If you have two I’ll share one with Kata.”

The baron seemed to take this as a usual greeting, picking her up in his arms and turning her upside down so that she shrieked piercingly. “Oh, if I give you two you’ll share one, will you, my little marmot? And why should I give you a treat at all?”

“Because I asked!” replied the girl, giggling. “And I’m your favorite little marmot!”

After swinging her around one more time, to delighted shrieks, the baron set her down, drew a pair of candies from his pocket, and handed them over to the girl, who ran to share them with a darker-haired child who peered more shyly from behind a wing-backed chair.

“Istvan, you’re terrible,” said Henrik’s wife, Magda, from the place she occupied on the loveseat next her younger sister Ida. “They’re about to go bed, and they’ll be no end of trouble for the nurse if you feed them up with treats.”

“My good woman, isn’t that why you employ a nurse?” the baron replied without repentance.

“What an incorrigible bachelor you are.”

“Madam, you have no idea.”

“Oh, all right. I’d say he acts as if he owns the place,” she added, turning to Ida and speaking in a voice lowered enough to indicate it was an aside but still quite audible to all in the room. “But of course, he does, the old dear. What can one do?” She turned to the two women standing by who were clearly distinguished as upper servants by their dress: long sleeved white blouses and dark wool skirts, in contrast to the evening dresses worn by their employers. “You’d better take them away before they get any more boisterous. Goodnight children.”

The nurses rounded the children up and herded them from the room: Henrik’s three children; their cousin Kata, Ida’s daughter; and a blond little boy, the child of the final guest, Klara.

Silence descended for a moment as the room was left to the adults, until Magda turned to her husband and said, “What kind of a provider are you, my dear? Can’t you see that we’re all exhausted and require sherry?”

While Henrik served the ladies, Jozef poured himself a glass and sat down to observe the room. He had expected something homelike or rustic in the ladies, the female compliment to the bluff charm which drew him to his uncles, even as he could imagine his mother whispering to a friend about her brother, “Money, of course, but dresses like a game keeper. Imagine.”

Magda, however, would have invited his mother’s envy rather than her censure. She was at least a dozen years her husband’s junior, perhaps in her early thirties. Her deep burgundy dress set off her pale skin and fine dark hair to advantage, its cut displaying a waist apparently unravaged by bearing three children. The neckline of her dress was wide and deep, and the double rope of pearls she wore was draped over a bosom which should have commanded any man’s attention.

Trying to make sure that he was not seen to stare, Jozef recalled with confusion the obvious intimacy between his uncle Henrik and the housekeeper, a short, rounded woman nearing fifty, and tried to imagine how this elegant creature failed to retain the fidelity of her husband. And yet, there was nothing of the estranged couple between them. Was his uncle’s liaison a secret? Did Magda tolerate her husband’s infidelity, or did she have her own diversions, and if so, what were they?

The knowledge of these questions seemed an invasion of privacy. Jozef felt color rising in his face and looked away from Magda.

Her sister Ida, sitting next to her on the loveseat, was a younger, slimmer, darker vision of her, and yet something in her figure or carriage did not hold the eye as Magda did. Klara, on the other hand, was of a fully different type. She sat a bit apart, her posture very straight despite the overstuffed chair she sat on. Her dress was a shade so dark it neared black, but made of a fabric which caught the light when the lamplight fell right on some curve or fold, revealing a shifting blue glimmer like light through still, deep water. The effect of this dress was to emphasize the blue of her eyes so that Jozef noticed it even across the room, while making her skin and golden hair seem fairer than they were. Her thin, almost boyish figure, so different from Magda’s, was not the sort he would have turned to look at in the street, yet he now did not want to look away. Jozef watched her cautiously, aware that she too was not speaking much, that she too was watching the room.

When they went in to dinner, the baron was paired with Ida and Jozef with Klara. He tried desperately to think of some bright, easy remark to drop. But it was she who spoke first. “Ah, what shall we do, we watchers? The Baron, Henrik, Magda, they carry all the conversation. But we watch. And I cannot even guarantee that we are thinking anything nice of everyone as we do so.”

***

Saturday was the partridge shoot, and the expedition began early. This was no mere diversion for visitors. The country house was an economy to itself, and an element of its function was to put away in barrels -- packed in a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar and spices which had been standard for the Revay partridges for several generations -- a sufficient quantity of the fatty birds to provide for cooking throughout the winter. Henrik, in cooperation with his gamekeeper and the cook, had decided that eight hundred birds were required, and it was the purpose of the weekend to flush all the coveys and reach this total.

They left the house just before dawn, the men walking while a large-wheeled horse cart creaked along beside them carrying gun cases, crates of ammunition, and the hampers into which the birds would be packed. Henrik and the baron were in extended discussion, verging on argument, with the gamekeeper, deciding which coveys should be approached first and from what direction the beaters should flush them. The men who would do the beating, peasants hired for the day -- older men with bushy mustaches, loose peasant shirts, and slouching broad-brimmed hats -- followed along in a group behind, several of them smoking evil-smelling pipes.

Jozef tried to absorb his uncles’ discussion as he followed them. This was what the Revays did. It was how they lived on their estate, the pastime they enjoyed, the source of many winter meals. He was absorbing an inheritance, if he could learn what it all meant. But it was hard to concentrate on the discussion of shooting stands and approaches. The rolling hills were beautiful in the morning light, even the peasants following along behind seemed something out of a novel rather than everyday life. The very smell of the air, of wet leaves and warming soil and damp mist, seemed to call out to him of excitement and the easy pleasures of country gentry. And after all, he did not need to know the minutiae which his uncles were arguing. He had the luxury to follow along, enjoying the scene, until he was told where to stand and shoot.

At last they reached the first stand. Henrik laid out the shooting line: himself in the center, the baron twenty paces to his right and Jozef an equal distance to his left, the places chosen because he believed the lay of the trees and underbrush would send far more of the birds to the right than the left. Jozef, as the least practiced gun, was to have the lightest flush.

The beaters were sent off, moving quietly but carrying the clackers with which they would startle and drive the partridges out. Three peasants remained behind to serve as loaders. Jozef set up his shooting stick. This was a metal pole about three feet long with a sharpened stake on one end and a padded leather seat like that of a bicycle on the other. Driving the stake into the ground turned the shooting stick into a rest where he could sit back, gun ready, and await the flight of birds.

They were among the stubble of a recently harvested field. A hundred yards ahead was an area of woods and brush, lining a low place where in wet weather a stream ran between fields. It was there that the pheasants nested, venturing out into the fields and pastures to eat seeds and insects. And as the beaters drove them from their nests, they would take to the air over the field and make themselves perfect targets for the three Revays.

The sky was a steely grey, the rising sun just showing through as a pale disk of light. Mist still hung close to the ground, especially on the wooded low ground ahead where the partridges nested. The beaters were audible now, their clackers giving out their fast paced rattle as they spun them around. Listening to that sound and watching the mist bound trees, his shotgun ready in his hands, a line from one of Friedrich’s letter’s returned to him. “From the woods we could hear the rattle of one of their machine guns, which the troopers have nicknamed ‘coffee grinders’ because of that distinctive sound.”

Where was Friedrich now? Had his regiment been redeployed to Poland yet?

How strange it was that he was here, watching a stand of trees with a gun in his hands, waiting to shoot partridges, while so many other men were waiting instead for sight or sound of enemy soldiers. This brought a pang of shame, but Jozef drove it away. He and the other cadets had sent their letter asking for early assignment to front line units. It he was enjoying the country life while others were risking the battlefield, it was through the army’s doing, not his.

Birds suddenly burst forth from the woods ahead. Most of them were bearing to his right, towards his uncles, but two were flying in his direction. There was a pop, strangely quiet in the morning air, and one of the birds to the right began to summersault towards the ground. Jozef brought the shotgun to his shoulder, tracked the sight bead at the end of the barrel along, leading the bird that was flying towards him and slightly to his left, then pulled the trigger. The gun gave a satisfying roar and pushed back into his shoulder, but the bird continued as before. He continued tracking, pulled the trigger again, and this time the partridge came tumbling down to land slightly behind him.

“Here you go, sir.” The loader was already putting the second gun into his hands and taking the one he had just emptied.

The second of the birds was already receding behind him. He looked back to the trees. After that first burst of prey there was a pause. The rattling of the beaters could be heard as they continued through the underbrush of the woodland, looking for more birds to startle from their cover. Meanwhile the loader had broken open the spent shotgun, letting the empty shells fall among the stubble, slipped two new shells into place, and snapped the gun closed again. He was holding it at the ready when another wave of birds burst from the wood. This time Jozef managed to hit a bird with his first shot and another with his second. The loader snatched the gun from his hands and pressed the loaded one into them, but by the time Jozef had fumbled it to his shoulder and to face the remaining bird which had flown towards his part of the firing line, it was receding into the distance. He discharged both barrels after it without effect.

“Don’t bother firing after them when they’re so far past.” The loader had been on many shoots before and clearly sensed both his charge’s inexperience and the fact that he was not such an important person that it was dangerous to risk offending him with unasked advice. “Nines time in ten you’ll miss in a chasing shot, and even if you hit him you’re more likely to break the entrails shooting for the tail, and that spoils the meat.”

Jozef nodded and exchanged guns again. More birds were already in the air, and there was not time to take offense at advice.

By the time the stand was completely flushed out Jozef’s bag stood at nine birds while his uncles had three score between them. The beaters ran back and forth, collecting the birds from where they lay, feathered heaps among the stubble, and packed them into the hampers. Then everything was loaded back onto the cart and the procession set off to the next stand.

***

A carriage drove out from the house with lunch hampers, and servants set up a pavilion.

The women had ridden out on horseback to join the open air luncheon. Henrik and the baron seemed to take it as a point of honor that their jäger coats should be as worn out as an old gamekeeper’s. The green wool fabric was faded and they sported leather patches added at odd places to reinforce areas where the fabric had worn out. However, after five hours of tramping across fields of stubble and through underbrush, even Jozef’s city-bought tweeds were mud spattered and bedecked with bits of twig and straw. Compared to them, the women in their colorful riding habits seemed a vision from a higher world.

“How has your sport been?” Magda asked, as they mingled over beef tongue sandwiches and wine. “I confess we had a luxuriously quiet morning while you were exerting yourselves on behalf of our future roast partridge suppers.”

Henrik provided a detailed description of the performance of the stands they had visited during the morning.

“And how about you,” Klara asked Jozef. “Have you brought your military skills to bear on crushing any nationalist spirit among these birds? They aren’t by any chance Serbian partridges, are they?”

Jozef laughed, and so did Klara, but for both it was a sound empty of any real mirth. He recalled the juxtaposition of the clacking sound from the beater’s driving out the partridges with the line from Friedrich’s letter about clatter of Serbian machine guns. Klara’s own riding habit had a slightly martial tone to it, the deep green of her closely fitted coat set off with black piping in designs much like the gold braid on his hussar parade uniform, her hat like a green kepi with a small, shiny black brim.

“It is strange to think of. I have friends facing the guns against the Serbs or the Russians, and yet here we are, enjoying all the diversions of the countryside. All of us cadets wrote to the staff asking to have our training cut short and to be posted to front line regiments, but the war has them so busy that we haven’t even received a reply yet.”

She gave him a half smile. “I suppose it gives you, for a brief time, a sense of what it is like for us women: so close to the scene of all that is going on, and yet unregarded, unable to approach it.”

***

Had it been left to Jozef, he would have happily spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the pavilion. Walking from one partridge stand to the next and standing propped on his shooting stick was hardly great exertion compared to the long hours of horse drill which were his normal morning activity, but the attempt to avoid complete humiliation before his uncles due to his lack of hunting ability had kept him in a state of focus and tension all morning. His shooting had improved. By the end only one bird in five was getting past him, so long as they did not come so thickly that he had to hurry. But now, after lunch and a few glasses of champagne, his willingness to move had ebbed away. It was not only tiredness. There was also something about talking with Klara, the way she looked at him, a half-smile that lifted one corner of her mouth just before she spoke. He was not conscious of having said or done anything more fascinating than on other occasions, yet he had never been so consistently the focus of a woman’s attention before, and an attractive, older, married woman at that. Like a player at the gaming tables who for the first time finds each card falling as he needs it, he was filled with a mingled confidence (I have learned this! I am the master of it.) and fear (At any moment this will stop, and I will lose everything without even knowing why.)

Henrik, however, was determined to achieve his planned bag of partridge. He rounded up the beaters, who had been a small distance away enjoying simpler fare washed down with beer, and when the procession was ready to start for the next stand -- this one located at one of the furthest corners of the estate -- he demanded that Jozef and the baron leave the pavilion even as the women were starting to pour tea and serve ices.

Jozef was consequently in a foul mood, the more so because the walk to this farthest of the partridge stands took nearly an hour. The beaters seemed cheerful after their lunch -- reasonably enough as the meal which Henrik provided for them had been large and the beer plentiful -- and they sang as they walked. After a while Jozef had climbed onto the back of the wagon and jostled along with the baggage rather than having to walk. This spared him trudging along the track in what heat the afternoon sun could muster, but the bouncing of the wagon over the uneven ground was at best an uncertain trade, especially after a filling lunch and several glasses of champagne. However, the fact that he was sitting on the wagon, looking back down the track over which they had come, meant that he was the first to see the three women approaching on horseback.

He at once slipped down off the wagon, now walking upright and with a spring in his step. It did not make him feel particularly lordly to be walking along, his head at the level of her knees, as Klara’s horse pranced beside him in its impatience at being forced to move slowly enough to keep pace with him. He wished that he had his own horse, rather than leaving the animal to enjoy a day of rest and feed in Henrik’s stables while he trudged on foot from stand to stand. Klara rode well, back straight, her body in tension like a spring so that even as the horse jostled up and down her legs absorbed the movement and her body remained poised and level. It was a pleasure to watch her ride, but if he had been mounted as well they could have galloped off down the field together, perhaps jumped one of the low hedges. It would be pure pleasure to see her move with her horse on a good, fast run. He could almost hear her breathless laughter when they finished.

It was a relief that they reached the stand not long after the ladies joined them. The riding horses were led a little ways off as the beaters set off to the flush the coveys, lest the sound of the guns startle these more highly strung horses into panic. Magna and Ida seated themselves on ammunition crates just behind the place Henrik had chosen for himself on the shooting line, which at this stand was on the far right. Klara approached Jozef, who had been placed on the left. A large tree loomed a few dozen yards ahead of him.

The half smile played across Klara’s lips. “You won’t get a great many birds with that tree blocking their path.”

“I think that’s why this place was chosen for me,” Jozef admitted. “Uncle Henrik and the baron get most of the flush, and I take a shot at any birds that swerve away from them. It should be quiet here. Would you like to sit?” He offered her the shooting stick, and after an initial, polite refusal, she perched on the seat, as upright as she had been on her horse.

“Do they not consider you a very reliable shot?” she asked.

Jozef shrugged, considered lying, then admitted, “I’ve never hunted partridge before.” She didn’t reply immediately and he talked on rather than allow a silence. “I’ve shot a revolver and cavalry carbine on the practice range since joining the hussars, but I grew up in Vienna. Mother spent her holidays at spa towns rather than in the country. Plenty of chances to take the waters and play the roulette wheel, but I never had the opportunity to learn to hunt until now.”

Klara looked off toward the brush, from beyond which they could hear the clatter of the beaters beginning to flush the birds forward, her gaze so fixed that Jozef felt able to stare at her without fear of being noticed. “I grew up in our country house -- larger than this. Every fall there was shooting party after shooting party until Father had enough game stored away for the winter. Large shooting parties, with a whole line of carriages going from shooting stand to shooting stand, the gentlemen shooting and the ladies watching.”

“This must seem very rustic to you, in that case.”

“No, not at all. It seems like home, small and intimate like an evening around the fire. Henrik is a sweet old thing, even if he is a bit of a country bear, and Magda is so hospitable and kind. My husband is no sportsman and never wants to be anywhere but his city house in Budapest, but I have to get away every year and breath the clean country air.”

Her gaze remained fixed on the trees ahead, her face in profile. Jozef felt himself riveted by every detail of her, the curving line of her jaw, the little rounded end of her chin, the graceful lines of her neck.

“Jozef! You’ve got your eyes on the wrong bird!”

The sound of his uncles’ shotguns firing had not broken through his thoughts. He turned quickly, saw two partridge swerving away from Henrik and towards him. Putting the gun to his shoulder he emptied both barrels with an almost simultaneous roar. The kick pressed the butt of the shotgun back into his shoulder and swayed his balance, but he had tried to aim without tracking the birds in their movement, and his double blast tore through the air they had already traversed. He handed the smoking gun to his loader and took the other from him. Already the birds were over his shoulder but another was flying towards him and this time, conscious of the eyes watching his performance, he tracked carefully, then fired. The bird tumbled from the sky, coming to rest on the ground just behind him.

That, at least, had been a creditable shot. Klara must have watched this dozens of times growing up. What must she have thought of those first hurried misses? He scanned the sky diligently, gun at the ready to let loose the second barrel at the next bird that ventured towards him. His uncles’ guns were popping rapidly. He could see birds somersaulting through the air. The loaders must be frantically busy as another bird was hit before the first had yet fallen to the ground, but no more turned his way.

“That was a good clean shot.”

He turned to see that Klara was holding the partridge which had fallen between them.

“There’s just a drop of blood on his feathers. He might be asleep.” She stroked the bird’s brown and grey striped feathers. “And so soft. That’s what I always loved about partridges.” She held the bird up and rubbed its thick, fine feathers against her cheek. “Soft and warm.”

It was impossible to imagine any of the women he had known in Vienna handling a recently shot bird so calmly.

“There’s one coming your way,” Klara said.

Jozef swerved back towards the trees, brought his gun up, and tracked the bird’s motion, turning at the waist so that the barrel of his gun remained just a bit ahead of the partridge, its wings nearly a blur as it flew low and fast towards the left. He squeezed the trigger and the gun bucked. It was not as clean a kill, the bird fluttering as it tumbled, falling well to his left. He handed the empty gun to his loader and took the other in return.

“I always wanted to try, but my brothers would never let me.”

It was a statement rather than a question. Jozef turned to look at her. Blue eyes under fine, pale eyebrows met his, that half smile twitching at the corner of her mouth.

“Would you like to try now?”

“Yes.”

The loader looked at Jozef apprehensively. He was a heavy, broad shouldered man well past fifty, whose huge hands made the gun look almost toy-like as he handled it. Now the thick mustache, gray with a few remaining black flecks, which almost entirely concealed his mouth worked as he licked his lips in preparation for speaking. Then, changing his mind, he simply shook his head and took several steps back, putting himself well behind the shooting stick on which Klara leaned. He had not intention of allowing himself to be in the line of fire if a woman was to handle the gun.

Jozef looked over towards his uncles. Both were firing as fast as the loaders could hand them guns, birds somersaulting from the sky to fall to the ground all around them. They really had given him a terrible spot. No birds were coming his way.

“Well, now’s your chance. Come on.”

He took a few steps back, so that a little stand of trees obscured his uncles from direct view, and held the gun out to her.

That smile back on her lips, Klara pushed away from the shooting stick and came over to him, in the cover of the trees. He held the shotgun out to her. It looked larger as she took it in her hands, her fingers so much slimmer than his own.

“Hold it firmly to your shoulder so that it doesn’t kick you,” he said reaching around to guide her hands, then becoming suddenly conscious of his arms nearly embracing her and stepping back instead.

“I think I have seen what to do,” she said, laughing.

“Then just sight along the barrel, and lead the bird as it moves. Don’t stop tracking as you pull the trigger. That’s what I always forget,” he added, in a lower tone, feeling that the earlier instructions had sounded too officious when she had already seen his limited skill.

She stood cradling the shotgun loosely in her arms, mimicking the same confident posture Jozef had seen his uncles use when waiting for the birds to startle from the brush. Seeing Klara do the same, her green riding habit showing off her slender form, made him all the more intensely aware of her femininity – his enjoyment only spoiled by the fear that his uncles would see. As they waiting for a bird to come their way, he kept looking over his shoulder to assure himself that the little stand of trees still concealed them.

It was as he was again looking toward his uncles that he heard a sound of movement from Klara. He turned back just in time to see her turning gracefully, the shotgun at her shoulder, tracking a partridge which flew fast and low to their left. It was only an instant, his eyes drawn to the way her hips moved, the slimness of her waist, the curve of her small, high bust half hidden by her arms as she held the gun, but with a sudden intensity he knew that he wanted her.

Then he saw the muzzle raise slightly as she pulled hard at the trigger and the gun roared. The bird continued undisturbed on its path. She twisted back to aim at the bird again, pulled the trigger, rocked back slightly on her heels as the gun roared and kicked. The second shot had missed as well. She laughed and held the gun out to him.

“It’s harder than it looks. I’ll have to judge you less severely next time you miss.”

Jozef passed the gun back to the loader, who examined it suspiciously, as if Klara’s handling might have damaged it. Then with a shake of his head and he handed the loaded gun back to Jozef and broke open the one Klara had just fired.

Klara went back to her perch on the shooting stick, and Jozef continued to shoot at what few birds came his way until that stand was exhausted and the party gathered up to move on to the next.

“How was your sport, youngster?” asked Henrik, approaching Jozef.

“I know I’m not a record setting shot, but I’ll never become a better one if I’m always given positions that bad,” Jozef replied. “I only had eleven come my way the whole time at this stand. If you don’t want to share the sport, just tell me to stand aside.”

Henrik laughed and slapped him on the back. “Eager, are you? Well, I’ll try to do better for you next time.” He paused and cast a sidelong glance at his nephew. “Still, is it my imagination or did I see someone else shouldering your gun at one point?”

His uncle’s voice was loud, and Klara, standing not far away with Magda and Ida, caught Jozef’s eye, despite the various people between them.

“No,” said Jozef, though feeling as if his face was flushing as he said it. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Ah. Just as well,” his uncle said, with a knowing tone and a nod. “There are proprieties to be observed, my boy. Always remember that. Never be seen doing anything that you shouldn’t. That’s the great law of social morality.”

Despite his uncle’s promise, Jozef’s place at the next stand, this time at the far right end of the shooting line, offered no more birds than the last. Klara joined him again, and they talked while waiting for birds to come his way. In response to his questions, and punctuated by sighs and modest downward glances, she sketched for him a happy childhood spent on her family’s estate, a crisis brought on by her father’s gambling and financial speculation, her early marriage to Count Miloth who was rich but fifteen years her senior, and the count’s indifference to her since she had produced the required heir.

Several times he wished that he could take her in his arms, tell her that he would protect her, that she would never be hurt again. But would she believe that a younger man could help her? Indeed, how could he help her? He had no money, no title, no father. Yet she was so beautiful. The raw desire he had felt, looking at the way her body moved when she raised the gun to shoot, was now clothed in a tender desire to shelter her from the world, but it remained desire. Somehow, despite all the advantages he lacked, the things which might make him ridiculous in her eyes if he offered her his protection, he must have her.

It was nearly dark when the hunting party returned to the house. There was no formal dinner that night. A buffet had been laid in the dining room, and they ate as soon as they returned, still wearing hunting garb rather than changing for dinner.

“Eat up! Eat up!” Henrik enjoined his guests. “None of these artful little dishes tonight. Hunting calls for wholesome fare.”

Jozef was not able to secure a seat next to Klara, and had to content himself with gazing soulfully at her from across the table as she and Ida talked and laughed with the baron. Before this early, informal supper was even over, Magda announced that the ladies would retire upstairs to rest. Jozef watched them go.

“Drinks in the drawing room at eight!” Henrik called after them as the ladies left the dining room. “Don’t disappoint us, ladies, or we’ll have to invite the Gypsies in!”

***

The ladies did not disappoint. The three of them entered the drawing room together, after the men had been waiting for a quarter of an hour over their first drinks.

“You very nearly ruined me,” Klara told Jozef, with a laughing smile, when they found themselves in a corner of the room together for a moment.

“What do you mean?” Her tone was joking, but nonetheless he tried to think if he had done something compromising.

With a fingertip she pulled back the black lace which covered the shoulders and sleeves of her dark red dress, showing a darkening blue bruise on the pale smooth skin of her shoulder where the recoil of the shotgun had caught her unprepared.

“How ever would I explain that to everyone?” She smiled. “I had my maid take this lace off another dress and sew it on so that no one could see. She worked like mad all afternoon and only just finished. But there, now it’s as if I have a new dress.”

The skin exposed for a moment was only what would have been plain for all to see before the dress’s alteration, yet the way in which Klara had drawn back the lace to show him what it concealed made Jozef feel as if she had shown him far more. A bubble of intimacy seemed to have formed around them, even as the others talked and laughed in the same room. It was only with difficulty that Jozef held back from taking her in his arms immediately and kissing her. But if Klara was aware of the effect of her lighthearted revelation, she did not show it. She laughed and turned away, her skirts swirling around her in a way that riveted Jozef’s attention, and went over to where Henrik was serving drinks.

This set a pattern for the evening.

Jozef sat down next to Klara and leant close to speak to her in quiet urgent tones; Klara laughed brightly, “You must hear this, Jozef. Ida! Come here and tell Jozef that story about the Polish Count.”

He listened to the story and then escaped to pour himself another drink. Pairings shifted around the room. Klara’s laugh rose above the constant hum of conversation and seemed to taunt him. Why was she listening to Henrik tell some foolish story?

The room was becoming hot. Jozef felt his face flushed. He looked around the room: Magda, Ida. He could not find the slim, golden haired figure in the dark red dress that he was looking for. Had she already gone up for the night? What time was it anyway? A cool breath of air on his face provided a welcome relief, and he saw that the French doors to the balcony were standing open. Fresh air. He refilled his glass and took it out with him.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. From the brightly lit room the doors had simply offered a passage into undifferentiated blackness, but now he could see the little tables with their accompanying chair and beyond them the wide curve of wrought iron railing. Leaning against the railing was a slender form whose dress looked almost black in the dimness, hints of red just visible when the light caught it.

“It’s nice and cool out here; the room was becoming stifling,” he said, leaning against the rail next to her, his shoulder almost touching hers.

“I was just thinking that I wished I could stay out here looking at the stars, but it’s too cold.” Her shoulders gave a shiver and she folded her arms against her chest for warmth.

He reached out an arm to pull her close, to keep her warm, those pale slim arms exposed to the night air. She laughed and shrugged the arm away.

“Oh, it’s all very well for you, you gentlemen with your coats and waistcoats, but we poor frail creatures are left at the mercy of the seasons.” She laughed again, that society laugh pitched to be heard across a room, a tinkling of small bells, the laugh which had been taunting him from across the room all evening because she was not with him.

“You’ll have to enjoy the starry skies on your own. I’ll be in warming myself in the social glow.”

He watched her go, her body framed in silhouette for a moment against the light. Then she was inside the brightly lit room, walking over to where the other women sat near the fire. Standing out on the balcony looking in, the room looked almost like a stage set, every detail lighted while he sat in his darkened box watching the drama – or comedy – unfold on stage. Was Klara no more attainable than some leading lady of the stage, available for him to watch but untouchable?

Untouchable by him, at any rate. He remembered sitting next to Friedrich in the Theater an der Wien back in Vienna, watching Minna Barta perform on stage. For Friedrich the beauty on stage was touchable, obtainable. Friedrich with his money and dash and confidence. Now Jozef too wore the dress uniform of a hussar officer, he was staying in his family’s country estate. Even with all these, did he still lack some indefinable trait which allowed some men to have what they desired while others could only watch?

He turned away from the scene inside, let his eyes adjust to the darkness again until he could see the stars and the waning gibbous just rising above the hills casting a pale bluish light over the darkened landscape. He drained his drink, then turned to go back inside. As he turned, he caught his glass against some curling detail in the wrought iron railing. He felt the tug against his grip, but before he could stop he heard the sound of glass breaking.

The jagged glass in his hand seemed to sum up all the frustrations of the night. Damn, damn, damn. He wound his arm back and with all his strength threw the goblet out into the darkness. After a moment he thought he heard a distant smash as it landed.

***

It was late when he went to his room. For a moment he stood before the mirror where he had checked, before going down that night, to be sure that every element of his uniform was in perfect order. The figure that looked back was still in scrupulously correct uniform, but there was no longer any anticipation. It had availed him nothing, and looking into the mirror in the darkened room somehow assaulted his tenuous sense of balance and made the room seem to revolve slowly. He turned away and sat down, taking up the boot jack to begin undressing. When at last he climbed into the big old-fashioned canopy bed and lay between the still-cold sheets, his memory echoed back to him Klara’s silver laugh and the feel of her shoulders shrugging away from his attempted embrace.

A restless sleep came to him at last, jumbled images of the evening, of what had and had not happened, reordering themselves as his still-half intoxicated mind turned the events into confusion.

There was a sound, a breath of air, a flickering light, the soft tread of slippered feet. Impossible to say which of these woke him to the room now illuminated by a candle’s shifting flame, but he did wake just a moment before the covers lifted and a warm body in a soft nightgown slipped in next to him.

“Shhhh.” Before he could speak her name Klara’s finger was on his lips. There it pressed for just a moment, until he kissed the finger tip.

“Yes, that’s right.” The voice was soft in his ear.

She presented each fingertip to be kissed, as if counting. Then her lips were on his, and he could feel the taut, unfamiliar contours of her body pressed against him.

With brandy still coursing through his veins, this encounter seemed a desire-summoned dream. He wanted to see the woman he had desired, now suddenly his, but his eyes kept closing, leaving him only isolated images and the feeling of warm, smooth flesh against his.

After what could have been minutes or an hour she threw back the covers and slipped out of bed, giving a soft version of that laugh which had tormented him so during the evening. He looked at her as she stood in the candle light, a slim form with the white silk of her long nightgown clinging close to her.

“What?” He only dared whisper the word. Was she about to leave him, like this? That would make all the evasions of the evening pale in their cruelty.

She laughed again. “My dear, eager boy. Do you see what you are doing to my nightgown? What will my maid think?”

With a single motion she pulled the nightgown off over her head and draped it over a chair. Jozef caught a brief vision of smooth back, of arms and legs blissfully exposed, of small curving breasts. Then she blew out the candle, plunging the room into darkness, and climbed back into the warmth of the covers, onto him.

***

It was full morning when he awoke, the bright sunlight streaming into the room. He was alone, the only evidence of the night before being the tangled sheets and an equally jumbled set of memories.

But Klara was his.

He dressed in his everyday field uniform in this blissful knowledge. He and the baron would need to leave before noon, but before then he would see her again.

In the dining room a pair of silver coffee pots were standing on the table, wrapped in towels to keep them warm, and a tray of pastries brought in from the town that morning sat between them. Klara and Magda sat at one end of the long table.

Should he sit next to her? Would Magda leave and let them speak? If he sat halfway down the table would Klara find some excuse to come to him? Would she exchange a look with him and go out on to the balcony, leaving him to follow a moment later?

Pondering these questions he poured himself a cup of coffee. He selected a pair of pastries, round with a little dip of chocolate on top, and hesitated over where to sit. He caught Klara’s eye.

Klara sighed. “Come on,” she said to Magda, pushing back her chair. “I can see the men are up now and soon it will be all clumping boots, morning cigarettes, and army talk. Do you think the light in the morning room would be good for handwork yet? I’m all for country sports, but I confess that I look forward to peace descending this afternoon.”

Together the two women left the room. Jozef stood watching them go, his eyes fixed on Klara. Was that narrow waist, shown off by her blue wool skirt, really the same one he had seen for a moment in the candlelight the night before? Of course. That had been real. She had come to him; she must love him. Why did she ignore him now?

“Ah, have the women moved on?” Henrik entered with an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth and a newspaper in his hand. “Good, we can have a little peace. Do you want a paper? There’s even a Wiener Zeitung just a few days old in the library.”

During the rest of the morning Jozef caught no more than brief glimpses of Klara. She seemed completely occupied with the other women. Just before noon he and the baron took their leave of Henrik. The car and driver arrived from the Baron’s regiment to take their luggage, and the two officers mounted their horses for the ride back. Everyone came out to see them off. The nurses even brought the children out to wave.

Jozef’s eyes were fixed on Klara. She was beautiful in the late morning sunlight. The golden hair which had swung about her shoulders in a braid was neatly pinned up, the pale pink of her silk blouse looked like a new-opened rose in the sunlight, contrasting with the deep blue of her skirt. But though he watched her, she had no eyes for him. Her words and smiles went elsewhere, and at last Jozef turned away, goaded by his uncle’s words.

“Come on, boy! You can’t be staring back and lagging. We’ll be late.”

***

On arriving that afternoon at the cafe the cadets haunted, he found a revelry in full swing.

“Did you hear? Peter Kardos has received a transfer! His father got him a commission in one of the Honved hussar regiments.”

Peter was magnanimous in his triumph. He bought round after round of drinks for his fellow cadets, and they in turn, all rivalries between the Honved and the combined Imperial Royal Army forgotten for this day, bought round after round for him. Afternoon turned into evening, and it was not until late, after the rest of the cadets who could walk unassisted set out to complete the evening’s celebrations at Madame Kalmar’s, that Jozef reeled down the street on his own and climbed the narrow stairs to his lodgings.

His suitcase lay on the bed where the baron’s soldier servant had left it. If he set it aside now, he would only have to unpack it in the morning, his dress uniform even more creased than it doubtless was already, so he opened the luggage and began to empty it out.

It was the smell he noticed first. A slight trace of the scene which his memory instantly connected with the nape of Klara’s neck. The perfume had been subtle, obvious only when he kissed her neck and shoulders. How had it carried all the way home with him?

Then he saw the small corner of lilac paper poking out from his folded tweeds. He removed the envelope, small, elegant, a woman’s stationary, unadorned and unaddressed. Inside was a single lilac sheet, from which the smell of perfume gently rose.

“You will have to learn to be very discreet when in your uncle’s house. I will send a letter soon with a time and place.”

There was no name signed, but he needed none.


Read the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I'm not a very good critical reader. All I can say is that I'm really enjoying this. I care about all of your main characters. And I enjoy reading a historical novel written by someone who has done a lot of research and is a skillful enough writer that it's not tiresomely obvious.

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