I was sick last week, and that made it impossible to pull the kind of consistent late nights that seem to be essential to getting work done. The novel now weights in at 216k words. I'm consistently running a bit long right now. Wrapping up Jozef will take two more installments totaling around 10k. Then we go back to Natalie, which should bring the novel to nearly 240k, right there. The final three shorter chapters will bring that total to 255-260. And at the rate I'm going, my best shot is to be done by the end of January.
However, I have lots of time off coming. Expect this chapter done before the new year, and hopefully some of Natalie as well. I hope you enjoy it.
Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. December 5th, 1914. Uncle Henrik poured brandy into two glasses and handed one of them to Jozef.
“It’s good to have you here again, my boy. And for a whole week. I trust the leave wasn’t too hard to come by? We were starting to think you didn’t care for us anymore. It’s been nearly a month.”
“No difficulty. Rittmeister Koell sends his compliments to you.”
In truth, the Rittmeister had been all too willing to let him go on a week long pass. In the middle of November, as the army scraped for men to fill the ranks in the winter counter-attack in Galicia, Oberstleutnant Zingler had at last been gratified in his ambitions and received orders to take half the regiment to the front as replacements for active duty regiments badly mauled in the autumn’s fighting. The squadrons had been reformed based on age and fitness so that three, consisting of the most battle-ready men could move out. Two of the cadets had received their commissions and left with the replacement squadrons. Three others had received orders to join various other units. One was laid up in the barracks with a broken pelvis, the result of a bad fall while riding. And that left Jozef, the sole cadet in a half reserve unit in which remained only the officers who had been deemed unfit for frontline duty or had successfully used connections to continue their quiet existence far from the cannon’s roar.
It had been a day full of chaos and excitement as horses, equipment, and at last men were loaded on the rail cars, but a grim one for Jozef who had to watch as a spectator like the many wives and lovers who had turned out to see their men off. At last, he had gone back to his room and begun to draft a third letter to the commission board, asking to be given an assignment to a front line unit. What could he say that he had not already said in the previous two? Beg? Demand? Claim influence? He had been crumpling another draft when an orderly from the communications office had come in with a folded blue piece of paper, a telegram.
Orders? He had unfolded it. There had been only one word typewritten on the sheet. “Tonight.” But he knew immediately from whom it came. Orders of a sort, but not for the front. Orders from Klara.
She had protracted her stay at the Revay country house. Jozef had only been invited twice more since the partridge hunt, two weekends during which he had spent his days with his uncles, ignored by Klara. Then at night she would come to his room after the house was asleep and leave before dawn. One or twice each week, however, he received a note from Klara, and then he would catch the last local train of the evening to the next station up the line. There, at a well appointed and discreet little hotel, he would tell the old lady behind the desk that he was Mr. Szabó, checking in for the night, and she would reply, “Of course sir. Your wife has already arrived. You have your usual room,” and give him the key.
As he had suffered the indignities of being a cadet apparently unwanted by the army he had so eagerly joined, these nights had provided a needed source of masculine pride. Klara did not always want to talk. Some nights when he tried to begin a conversation, she put a finger to his lips, and said, “Let me tell you what I’d like tonight.” But from the nights on which they talked over an evening meal, and from the fierceness with which she held him at other times, he had constructed an understanding of the young wife ignored by the uncaring husband who was twenty years her senior. Jozef was her protector. Indeed, it was his duty as an officer and a gentleman to protect a woman so vulnerable, so alone. He loved her in a world which had abandoned her to an unloving marriage. And she… She was his mistress. His woman. A dependent that made him something more than he had ever been before. Even if the army, in its labyrinthine bureaucracy did not see fit to recognize his worth, Klara needed him.
To be sure, there were certain inconsistencies which at times troubled this narrative. It was she who had chosen their place of assignation. She who chose the nights on which they would meet. She who paid for the hotel. And she who had made him sundry small but expensive presents: the gold cigarette case, the cigar cutter with a sterling regimental crest on it. Yet surely, these were simply a result of the circumstances in which they found themselves: he living on his pay, she the one who knew when she could make her excuses for an overnight excursion. There was a fundamental relation between man and woman, and if at times these things caused him to think in a moment of resentment or self-accusation that instead of her being his mistress, he was hers, surely the way in which she lay her head upon his chest as she slept, the way she sheltered in his arms, these proved that it was he who was the protector and provider.
“So,” Uncle Henrik asked. “Have you exhausted your commander’s patience with this visit, or do we have some chance of seeing you over Christmas?”
“He said that if I’d like additional leave during Christmas, there’s little enough the regiment will be doing from Christmas through Epiphany.”
“Of course, of course.” Henrik gripped his cigar in his teeth and thus freed a hand to give Jozef a hearty slap on the back. “There are Christmas festivities to be had, and you’re a soldier far from home. It’s the least we can do. And besides, we shall be lonely and in need of company as Klara is finally taking her leave of us. She and her husband will be celebrating Christmas and the new year in Budapest.”
The news fell as an unexpected blow. Why had Klara said nothing when they had last met four days before? Were these plans new? Would she really go back to her husband, or would this demand from her husband cause her to break with him?
The last few months, however, had trained him to conceal the affair at every turn. Even as doubts and questions swirled within, without he gave a laugh. “What, now she leaves? Surely she’s a part of the family by now she’s stayed so long.”
“Ha! Not so bad for you if she is, eh? Quite the little tigress you’ve got there.”
“Uncle! I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Had he been so unsubtle? Had he said aloud some word of what was in his thoughts.
“Come now, Jozef. Don’t try to out fox the old fox himself. We’re men here. There’s no need for lies between us.”
Jozef hesitated. The door of the billiard room was closed. The felted table, the cigar smoke in the air, the bookshelves and leather armchairs -- all these promised a sort of masculine confessional, the secrets of which would never be revealed outside. It would be a relief to let the secret go. There was something in constant concealment that grated on the soul. And yet, a lady’s honor rested on his keeping her secrets.
“I don’t know what you mean, but I assure you that you’re mistaken,” he said, his tone formal.
“Ah well, if that’s the way you must have it.” His uncle shrugged the denial away. “Come, how about a game of billiards before the ladies send for us.”
He did not normally play against his uncle. He could not afford the stakes that Henrik and the baron normally played for. But the baron was not visiting this time, busy with the activities of the Honved regiment, and talk of billiards and wagers would move the conversation away from Klara.
“All right. For small stakes. Remember, I still live off a cadet’s pay.”
The country house retired early by society standards. Jozef went up to his room at eleven. The second bachelor room had become Jozef’s own, and so it was given him on this visit even though the baron was not there to take the first. That wing of guest rooms had been left aside in the most recent renovation, and its bare stone walls and pine board flooring spoke to a simplicity which most of the country house had lost in the intervening years. The carpet in the center of the room was deep and soft, however, and the bed was a large old curtained one. He undid the ties which normally held the curtains back, letting them fall into place. With the brocade curtains drawn, and a candle in the wall bracket above his head, the bed could become its own little room. This way he would not sit staring at the door, waiting for it to open, nor would his candle cast a sudden light into the hall when the door was opened.
He hung his uniform in the wardrobe, put on his dressing gown, and retired to the bed with a french novel he had pilfered from the billiard room. It would be an hour until, assured that the household was soundly in its beds, Klara made her quiet passage down the halls to his room.
After the first night when she had come silently into his room, he had offered to traverse the halls himself instead. Surely her reputation was more in danger if one of the servants saw her in the corridor at night. She had only laughed. “Country house servants are not taught to remember whom they have seen in the hallways at night.” And besides, she had pointed out, her more spacious quarters were connected both to her maid’s room and to the suite shared by her son and his nurse. Jozef’s bare little bachelor room was far more discreet.
When it at last came, her arrival was cat-like. The very faintest bump as the door was re-closed, a slight whisper of slippers on floor, and then the curtains parted. She had taken off her nightgown before getting in. He had a brief glimpse of long arms and legs and the pale smooth contours of her back before she dived beneath the covers and pulled them up until only her head was visible, the comforter pulled up under her sharp chin and her loose hair spread across the pillow above.
“It’s cold,” she said, with edge of laughter in her voice. “You could have built up the fire for me.”
He closed the book with which he had passed the last hour. “Why? I can keep you warm enough in here.”
“Mmmm. Is that so? What have you been keeping warm with until now?” She snaked a bare arm out and took the book. “Ah, un roman français. Est-il très scandaleuse?”
“Fair to middling.”
She opened the book and idly flipped the pages. Jozef took off his dressing gown and dumped it over the edge of the bed onto the floor, then settled further under the covers, closer to her. He could have spent many happy moments looking at her bare shoulders, the way her collar bones stood out, and the little cord of muscle in her neck that appeared when she turned her head. How many more times would he see this? Was she distracting herself with his book because she knew she had to tell him that she was leaving?
“Did you come here to read?” he asked, reaching out to trace a finger along her jawline.
“Not this.” She closed the book and handed it to him. “Lots of long conversations about whether marriage is bourgeois. Not even a nice boudoir scene to liven it up.”
“It’s social satire.”
“God, isn’t the real society satire enough?” She rolled over to lay on her stomach. “Rub my back, will you? It’s been such a trying day. No, not those soft caresses. Not yet. Pound it.”
Obediently he half sat up and began to knead his palms firmly up and down her back and along her shoulder blades in the way that she had taught during one of their nights at the hotel. After a few minutes she began to make little approving noises when he pressed particularly hard.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I required.”
He planted a kiss on the back of her neck and began to settle down against her.
“No, don’t stop,” she said.
He resumed the kneading, but her murmurs of approval had been arousing. He wanted to make love to her, not spend the night rubbing her back.
“That’s better,” she said after a moment, raising a shoulder blade so that he could work it harder. After a moment she added, “There was a great scandal a few years back when Baroness Orosz ran away with a Swedish masseuse at the end of her stay at the spas in Baden-Baden. She might have had a point, though. Have you ever considered leaving the cavalry to pursue another career?”
“But you don’t need to meet me at a spa town. You already have me.”
“Yes, but running off with a cavalry officer is such a conventional choice. It doesn’t have the really disreputable sound of ‘ran off with her masseuse.’”
“Are you going to run off with me?”
There was a pause before she answered, and he tried to judge if he felt her back tighten. “What sort of a question is that?”
“My uncle says that you are leaving for Budapest soon.”
“Yes. In a week. That’s why I told him to invite you.”
“When will I see you again? When will you be back?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been here two months. I’m sure it’s longer than I should have stayed.”
“My God, stop it!” She shook off his hands and rolled over onto her side, turning her back to him. “It’s too much. Now my back hurts.” She pulled the covers up around her until just her hair, a tangle of gold, was visible.
Jozef hesitated. What would soften this sudden mood? Perhaps it was the idea of the impending separation that was upsetting her.
“You don’t have to go. Leave your husband. Come with me. I’ll find a way to get my commission to a front line regiment, get it before the new year. As a leutnant my pay will be twice what it is as a cadet. We’ll rent a house for you in the town where I’m stationed.” He was talking faster as the ideas poured out, half-formed dreams given solidity by being spoken aloud. The future stretched before him. He would take little Laszlo under his care as well, and the boy would thrive on having a father to look up to every day. Didn’t he himself know the pain of growing up with only a mother? Some day, perhaps, if she so desired, he and Klara would have their own children. He pictured a little girl with her mother’s sharp chin and golden hair. The war would be over soon. He would rise in the army. He’d stride home from the base offices each day in his riding boots and Klara would meet him at the door before the children could rush to him. It would be like a happier version of the life his uncle Henrik lived here.
“Commission? Double your pay? Rent a house?” Klara’s words cut through his fantasy, and as she spoke she threw back the comforter with which she’d covered herself and lay back against the mattress to face him. “Are you lying in bed with me talking about money? Dear boy, what do you take me for?”
She was speaking to him, but his eyes were irresistibly drawn to her breasts, exposed when she threw back the covers.
“We have had a blissful two month’s idyll. That is all. But it is enough. You would not be happy trying to provide for me on a junior officer’s pay, and I would not be happy letting you make the experiment. So I won’t. Now my dearest boy, we have a week which we can spend in every enjoyment. But if you insist instead on trying to do what cannot be done, then please, leave now and we shall both do our best with the memories we already have.”
And as if she were putting the shroud of time over memories of the affair already, she pulled the comforter up to her chin again and turned away from him, lying on her side.
He sat, without words, looking at the head that was turned away from him. Was there really nothing he could do? Did she not want him, or was she merely afraid that he would not be able to provide sufficiently for her. If it could be done through any effort of his, he would do it. But what if, truly, she was not interested?
She let the silence stretch out for several minutes which to his racing mind seemed much longer. Then she turned back to him, a bare arm reaching out from the shelter of the covers.
“Here. You don’t have to say anything. Lay down against me where it’s warm. Learning the game is hard, at first. Once upon a time, not long after Laszlo was born, I made quite a fool of myself over an older man, but with great tact he taught me of discretion. Now come. Lay down. Your hand there. Now we’re both quite comfortable. Let’s have no words for a little while as we remember how things were.”
She was gone in the morning, the bed tousled and empty beside him. This was how it had been every morning when at the country house, yet the empty pillow beside him made the morning sunlight coming in the windows seem pale and hopeless. He pulled the bed curtains closed again and went back to sleep, rising only late in the morning.
The breakfast room was empty when he at last went downstairs, the food and pots of coffee long cleared away. At last he found a kitchen maid and asked her to have a pot of coffee made and sent up to the billiard room. There he had thought he would be alone, but instead he found his uncle, seated at a side table finishing the day’s paper.
“Ah, Jozef, my boy. You’ve taken your ease this morning. Here, this came for you this morning by motorcycle courier.”
Henrik handed him a folded paper with the crest of the Imperial Royal Telegraph Company printed on it, and underneath Jozef’s own name and unit scrawled hastily in blue ink.
Were these at last orders? A commission? No, none of the other cadets had received their orders by telegram. Some sort of news from home? Had something happened to his mother?
He unfolded the paper. The sender line read, “Minna Barta, Vienna, Austria” A name which he was unable to place until halfway through the text, which was pasted down on little strips of typewritten paper.
FRIEDRICH HOME FROM HOSPITAL BUT IN VERY LOW SPIRITS/ A LETTER CALL OR VISIT FROM YOU WOULD GREATLY HELP HIM/ PLEASE/ I FEAR FOR HIM/ -M
Friedrich home from the hospital? What had happened? How long was it since he had last received a letter from Friedrich about his exploits in Galicia? Five weeks. But then, the mails could be so irregular. Had it been more or less time than that? How badly was he wounded?
He started towards the door, then stopped. There was nothing that could be done at this moment.
“Bad news from home?” asked Henrik.
“My friend has been wounded. I don’t know how badly. He’s just out of the hospital.”
“Ah, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear it.”
Jozef paced to the window, stopped, read the telegram again, then shoved it into his pocket. Friedrich was such a force of action. Now he was wounded. Would he recover, or would he be forever changed? It was impossible to picture Friedrich walking with a cane, or with an arm immobilized.
And meanwhile he himself was still inactive. Waiting. “When will I get orders for the front? All the other cadets have gone already.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Henrik said.
Jozef turned on him. There was something about the tone of the remark he did not like. Did his uncle think him a coward, or too young and ineffective to be useful in the war? “What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t have avoided it this long without influence. They’ve burned through too many young cavalry lieutenants to be picky. Depend upon it: Lisette is taking good care of you through some lover of hers. And not so bad for you either, eh? You’ve found a nice little piece to conquer here, much more pleasant than Serbia.”
“Oh come, let’s not take discretion to the point of farce. It’s enough to never mention the lady’s name. You don’t need to pretend we’re all blind.”
Indeed, it seemed clear enough that Henrik knew about the liaison with Klara. But that his uncle did not realize what had actually caused Jozef’s surprise suggested that Henrik considered the other revelation to be utterly common knowledge. “No. What are you saying about my mother?”
“Well, my boy--”
It was at that moment that the kitchen maid entered with the pot of coffee that Jozef had ordered, and found herself glared at by both men. She set the silver pot down on the table and fled the room. At the moment the door closed both men burst into speech, then stopped, waiting for the other.
Jozef began again, this time with forced slowness. “Do you know something of my mother that you have concealed from me?”
“Surely…” Henrik shuffled at the letters on his table. “We are men of the world, my boy.”
The refusal to answer seemed confirmation enough, but such a revelation demanded clarity, not glancing hints.
“Tell me what you know, Uncle.”
“I don’t like you being in the dark about all this, my boy, but you have to see it’s a damned awkward thing to have to tell a man about his mother. And she is my sister. Really, it ought to come from her.”
From Mother? That was rich. A great deal came from mother, but it was increasingly clear that very little of what came from her was truth.
“However awkward it may be, Uncle, I demand to know it. All the more so if I am the only one my mother chooses to keep in ignorance about her doings.”
“Well, I suppose that’s fair enough.” Henrik began to pour himself a drink, then stopped and pushed the bottle aside. “God, it’s not even noon. We should be having these conversations at night so we can get drunk like decent people.”
He paused, turning to Jozef as if hoping for permission to drop the subject for now, but Jozef remained silent and met his gaze. His uncle turned away first.
“Istvan told you about your father. Lisette was his mistress for several years, and when he wouldn’t marry her, we made him settle a pension on her.”
“Yes. But you said that he put her away when I was only two.”
“Indeed he did. That left Lisette twenty-two years old, living as a pretty young widow in Vienna, with a taste for expensive things. Now Lisette has always had a certain way with the facts. God knows I suffered for it as a boy. Our father believed her over me every time, even though often enough the truth lay on my side. But a facility for telling the truth as you’d like it to be will only get you so far. If you’re trying to actually marry, people make investigations and check facts. So although her role as pretty young widow would have made her a perfect match for someone with a title and an income, she must have known that she couldn’t pull off such a gambit. It’s an odd thing. While I could swear that Lisette hardly knows it when she lies -- she believes everything she says -- she seems to have an instinct for avoiding circumstances that would catch her out. So as far as I know she never tried to remarry.”
“I’m not asking you what she didn’t do; I’m asking you what it is that you were making implications about?”
“And I’m telling you. Calm yourself, my boy. Well what does a pretty young widow do if she wants the benefits of an alliance without compromising her independence? She takes advantage of the fact that her widowhood allows her to entertain as if she were a married woman, and she takes a lover or two.”
“What? Let me ask you this: Do you think your current liaison is the first that’s been had in that quarter?”
Jozef felt the blood rising in his face, and for a moment he imagined stepping forward and delivering a stinging slap as Friedrich had when challenging the dragoon officer. But then, how could he challenge his uncle in the man’s own house, and for the offense of referring obliquely to an affair which Jozef had begun under that very roof. It was not as if Jozef truly believed Klara had never taken a lover before. Whether in bed or in the practicalities of arranging their meetings, she was too practiced to imagine that. Yet to refer to it… Was this really what it meant to be a man of the world? To take all this for granted?
“No need to look like that. I’m not trying to attack your amour. I’m trying to make you set aside the prudishness of youth and understand is that the only difference between someone like her and someone like your mother is that because she had the prudence to get married before getting involved with other men, she doesn’t have to concern herself with questions of who can provide for her financial wants when she chooses a lover. She already has a husband to take care of such things, and she only needs to please herself when she takes someone to bed. Lisette, on the other hand, has to think about a lover the way most women only think about a husband: calculate whether he has the means and willingness to support her at the level to which she is accustomed.”
It was not a comparison Jozef could find comforting on either side. Did his mother really plan and weigh and bargain herself away? Details fell into place. The iron rule that she was not to be disturbed in her suite until she was up and Elsa opened the doors to her rooms. The men she occasionally introduced to others are parties as ‘my particular friend’. Indeed the very phrase brought to mind Oberst Rigo, one of those to whom she had most often applied it. And he was on the General Staff. Was that the connection whose existence his uncle had guessed? Had Mother asked him to make sure that her son was never posted to a combat unit?
The idea of his mother earning in bed the cost of their flat, of everything he had taken for granted in their life, was revolting. And yet, could it be true that there was no difference between his mother and Klara, other than that his mother relied on her lovers for money while Klara relied on her husband? Surely that was only Henrik’s cynicism at work. Klara did not desire the sort of life that she was trapped in. If he could break his mother’s hold upon his life and get a front line commission, he could prove his manhood and independence both in battle and financially. If he could provide the security of a full officer’s pay and pension, surely Klara would put aside her hesitations and come with him. Surely she must be dreading the return to Budapest and having to live with a husband she did not love.
Henrik was still talking. “I know these matters must take a little getting used to. You haven’t had a father to teach you the little hypocrisies which make us civilized. But don’t think too harshly of your mother in all this. Even if you feel you’d rather be off freezing in a trench for the Empire, she has your best interests at heart.”
Jozef did not reply, and after a moment Henrik took the opportunity to gather up his papers and leave the room.
It was a quiet afternoon at the country house. Klara and Magda were engaged in feminine pursuits, and Henrik did not invite his nephew along when he went on a long afternoon ride with the gamekeeper. After some thought, Jozef sat down with the railway timetable and began to make plans.
Although they were often in the same room, and even sat next to each other at dinner, there was no opportunity to speak seriously to Klara during the evening until she slipped into Jozef’s bed in the small hours of the morning.
“I have a plan,” he told her, as her body settled against his under the covers.
“Do you?” Her tone suggested an expectation it was a plan to be acted out between the sheets that night.
“I’m going to go to Vienna. I’m going to find out how my mother has used her influence to keep me from getting a commission to a front line unit, and I’m going to make them stop their meddling and give me a commission.”
“That all sounds very well and important, but what’s so urgent about it now?” He felt her stretch and run a foot along his leg.
“I’ve been looking at the railway timetables. If catch the 10:40 express tomorrow, I can be in Vienna by evening. My friend Friedrich is back after being wounded. He has connections on the general staff. I’ll see him and--”
“You plan to go tomorrow?” She was clearly listening to him now, as she had not been before, but her voice had a hard edge to it.
“But we have this week together. Our last week.”
“This is a unique opportunity. I have a full week’s leave. Even if it takes a few days to untangle things in Vienna I’ll be back before the week is over.”
“Get more leave. This is mine.”
“But if I can get a commission I could provide for us.”
“I don’t want you to provide for me. I want to you to spend this last week with me.”
“If I have a commission it won’t have to be a last week.”
Klara threw back the covers and climbed on top of him. The cold winter air was a shock against his skin. This was not like the times when they threw back the sheets and felt that their passion had warmed the whole room. But with a slow rocking of her hips she immediately gained his full attention.
“Are you going to Vienna tomorrow?” she asked, leaning almost close enough to kiss.
“I have to. Don’t you see?”
She did not speak to him again that night. She made love to him with a clawing, biting, gasping intensity. And then at the point when they might have lain, side by side, and talked in the darkness, she turned her back and remained silent.
Jozef put an arm around her. “I have to go. I have to stop my mother’s meddling so that I can prove myself in the army.”
She pushed his arm away.
He awoke early and went down to the breakfast room, hoping to see Klara again, even under the enforced caution of others’ eyes, but even though he waited long after finishing his own meal she did not appear. Before taking his things from his room, he re-opened his suitcase and searched it, hoping to find an envelope among his things as he had after the visit on which they had first met. There was nothing.
Henrik and Magda came to see him off as the chauffeur loaded Jozef’s bags into Henrik’s automobile for the drive into town to the train station. As the car pulled slowly down the gravel drive, Jozef turned to look back. Henrik’s two oldest children were running along behind, arms waving. His aunt and uncle stood at the top of the steps. But even now, Klara did not appear. No face appeared at an upper window. No handkerchief waved. She was gone.
Read the next installment.