Once again, a little late, but I hope people will enjoy it.
Jozef returned to Vienna in order to try to secure a commission, and while he's there visits Friedrich who has been wounded in the war.
My plan is to have the concluding segment of Chapter 16 up before the New Year.
Vienna, Austria-Hungary. December 7th, 1914. The streets of Vienna were as busy as ever, busier because in addition to the usual crowds the sidewalks were full of soldiers. Officers in full dress uniforms walked in ones or twos, some in dress blue with shining brass buttons, others in formal white with red sashes and glittering medals. Common soldiers milled along in twos and threes or whole huddled groups, set off by their loosely fitting blue-grey tunics and black visored caps. Men who had never seen such broad streets and tall buildings before craned their necks this way and that, and clustered in confusion around the streetcar stops trying to read maps and schedules. On the beer halls and music halls the electric lights flashed and dazzled.
Street cars and busses added their bass rumble to the street noise. And in the background there was another, more unsettling sound. Voices from the shadows called, “Help a soldier of the Fatherland!” “Aid a wounded veteran!”, where men with missing arms or legs, wearing grubby army greatcoats against the cold, sat tucked against the walls of buildings and held out cups or cans to collect coins.
One of these men had been standing against the wall of the train station as Jozef first stepped out into the street. The beggar’s uniform tunic had no markings of unit or rank, but one leg of his blue-grey pants was pinned up empty. He held out a tin cup in which he jingled coins and called out to passersby.
Jozef hurried past, looking away.
The man gave off a reek, sensible even on the cold December evening: alcohol and sweat and grime. There were always beggars, hustlers, and street walkers in the busy parts of the city. With millions of men called up into uniform, there must be among those the wastrels, the alcoholics, the petty criminals. If this man had been injured in the last few months’ fighting, he must be on the streets because he was one of these. Surely the empire would not allow one of its honorable soldiers to be left without support after losing a limb in the service of his country.
And yet the presence of half a dozen such men near the train station, and the indifference of the passing crowds to them, was unsettling.
After a streetcar ride and a walk of several blocks, lugging his suitcase and wondering if it had been necessary to bring all of the things he had originally packed for the week at the Revay country house, Jozef reached his mother’s flat. The porter greeted him enthusiastically and asked if he was back in Vienna for long.
“Your mother will be glad to see you. She speaks of you all the time.”
“Is she in?”
“Yes. Do you want me to have the boy carry your bag up for you?”
Jozef considered the three flights of stairs and consented.
He paused when he reached the familiar door. The boy was still thumping his way up the last flight of stairs. How long had it been? Four months since he had gone out this door, still in civilian clothes, to catch the military train to Hungary and training. Did he still live here? Should he knock or simply let himself in with the key that he still carried in his pocket?
It was still his home. He took the key from his pocket and was about to put it to the lock when his uncle’s revelations about his mother suggested several possibilities to his mind. He knocked.
Elsa, his mother’s maid, opened the door.
“Oh, it’s you. Don’t you have a key?” she asked.
This seemed a rather cold way to greet a returning soldier. “It’s been a long time. I don’t know where it is,” Jozef lied.
“They’re not free to have made. If you’re back for a time, you’d better look for it.”
She turned and started back into the flat. The boy had reached the top of the stairs and set down the suitcase, then headed back down. Jozef looked back and forth, abandoned on both sides.
“Is Mother in?” he asked, taking the suitcase himself and carrying it into the flat.
“Of course she’s in.” Elsa was hurrying back towards his mother’s suite. “She’s getting ready to go out. She’s going to dinner at Baroness von Miko’s tonight, and she’s not ready yet.”
Jozef found Lisette sitting at her dressing table, where Elsa had returned to putting up her mistress’s hair.
“Why, Jozef!” cried Lizette, speaking to his image in the mirror over his dressing table, so that she would not disrupt Elsa’s work by turning her head. “So good to see you. It’s been a long time. And you never write.”
“They keep us so busy. And you know that I’m a terrible correspondent.” Jozef dutifully placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek and then retreated to sit on the loveseat.
“Well, of course, I’m sure you hardly think of us with all the things you’re doing. But you may be assured we think of you daily.”
All of this thinking had not resulted in any letters flowing the other way either, for Lisette herself was a faithful correspondent only in regards to invitations and notes of thanks. There was nothing to be gained in pointing this out, however.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I know it must have been hard for you.”
Lisette obligingly narrated several conversations in which she had told her friends of how very difficult it had been for her, knowing that her son was away with the army, and the friends had expressed themselves astonished with her stoic patriotism.
Jozef lent these only half an ear, allowing the talk to wash over him. When his mother paused, he broke in.
“I should have written and told you that by good fortune I was stationed in Veszprém.”
He thought he saw his mother’s head turn at the word, though Elsa quickly laid a hand on Lisette’s jaw and directed her head back where it had been before. The maid was wrapping her mistress’s hair up over a switch to form the pompadour style which Empress Zita’s example had made even more popular.
“I met Baron Revay and Uncle Henrik there,” Jozef continued. “I was even able to visit the country house a few times.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. It’s important for you to spend time with the family. And such a beautiful estate.” There was a slight pause after each sentence, as if she were waiting to see if he would contradict or question her. At last, after a slightly longer pause, she added the capstone. “Of course, some day it will all be yours. Just like your dear father.”
There it was, the blatant lie. What would she do if he said, “Your brothers told me everything.” Would she contradict him? Would she cry? Would she ignore the whole incident?
But then, what use would such a confrontation serve? Perhaps it was better to let that illusion stand while attacking the reason for his visit.
“Mother, I’ve come to Vienna to try to get a posting to an active duty regiment. All the others cadets I’ve trained with have received commissions.”
“You mustn’t be in an unseemly hurry,” Lisette replied. “Better to wait and receive a posting to a better regiment, not rush into the first thing that becomes available.”
“These are no longer the days where fashionable regiments enjoy postings in Vienna or Budapest while others are banished to backwaters like Ruthenia. All the active duty regiments are at the front, and the important thing is to get out of the reserve regiment.”
“Now, Jozef, surely you must see that those experienced in the ways of the army must know all about these things. The war won’t go on forever, and when it is over it will be important to be commissioned in the right regiment. I know that at your age a few weeks can seem like a very long time, but you mustn’t throw out the whole progress of your career just to save a few days’ waiting.”
This seemed very close to being an admission. It was time to press the direct question. “Have you been using your connections to influence my advancement?”
“Mother. Have you?”
Lisette gave a sigh. “Well, of course, I do have to be a guiding hand in little ways. After all, remember how at first you were hesitant to enter the army at all. You were so set on the idea of the university and the civil service, but I had to tell you: ‘These are no ordinary times. Our emperor needs you. You must serve.’ But I don’t account that influencing. I was only doing my duty to the empire. My own service may not be worth anything, because I am a woman, but I do not hesitate for a moment to offer my son to the Fatherland.”
Some of these phrases had the polish of frequent repetition. How many people had heard this little fantasy in which she had persuaded a reluctant Jozef to enter the army? And what possible good could there be in trying to persuade her to stop or change her attempt to shelter? If she was capable of constructing this narrative for herself, indeed of believing it, then what chance did he have of diverting her?
Elsa had finished her work, and Lisette was now turning her head one way and then the other, examining the hairstyle in the mirror.
“I think this will look very well,” she said, giving a touch here and there to the effect.
Jozef got up from the loveseat and gave his mother another kiss on the cheek. “You look very well indeed, Mother. Have a good evening with the Baroness.”
Soon enough his mother was gone, and he had the flat to himself. Should he go immediately to Friedrich’s and see what help his friend could provide in getting a commission? No. Just as his mother had a dinner engagement, so might Friedrich. The morning was the time for unscheduled calls. Nor did he want to spend the evening alone in the flat.
He put on his dress uniform and went out. He did not know anyone to visit, but surely a cavalry officer in uniform would not be left to dine alone in this city.
A card was tacked to the door frame of Friedrich’s flat, next to the button for the electric bell. “Do not ring bell. Knock softly.”
Obedient to its instructions, Jozef rapped gently on the door. A moment later it opened just a foot wide, and Minna stood in the gap. “Yes? Hello?”
For an instant Jozef wondered if he had made a mistake to come. Had something changed since she sent the telegraph? Had Friedrich died?
Then Minna’s face broke into a smile. “Jozef! This is wonderful. He’ll be so glad to see you.” She pulled the door open wide and beckoned him into the flat. “You got my telegram, then? I never thought you would be able to visit. Where are you stationed?”
“I’m in Veszprém, Hungary, but I have a week’s leave and I had to come to Vienna in order to sort out my next assignment. How is Friedrich? Your telegram said he’s been in the hospital.”
“Yes.” Minna had closed the door behind him but they were still in the entrance hall. Now she glanced over her shoulder to see that no one was coming from the interior of the flat and then leaned close to Jozef. “He was only allowed to come home last week. A nurse is here almost all the time. You mustn’t--” Again she looked over her shoulder, and then continued a lower voice than before. “He’s lost both legs. Don’t let yourself act shocked when you see him. It can make him so very low. And don’t pity him either, or he’ll get angry.”
Friedrich without legs. It was impossible to imagine. How could he keep from appearing shocked? He was shocked. And yet he wanted to avoid offending his friend and adding to his suffering.
“Who’s there, Minna?” called Friedrich’s voice from the next room.
She gave Jozef a last look, and her mouth silently formed the word, “Please.” Then she called back to Friedrich. “It’s Jozef. He’s on leave and has come to visit.”
There was the sound of wheels on the floorboards and Friedrich appeared in the doorway.
“Did she tell you to come?” he asked.
“No,” said Jozef, relieved that he could do so truthfully. “I came to Vienna to try to get assigned to a front line unit. I heard you’d been wounded but were out of the hospital, so I thought I’d visit.”
Friedrich’s hair and mustache were still of Hussar style, but he was wearing a civilian shirt and quilted robe. The wheelchair placed him in a slightly reclining position, with what remained of his legs stretched out before him, wrapped in bandages. The left leg was cut off just above the knee, but the right was only the shortest of stumps, hardly a separate limb at all. The gaze which Friedrich fixed on Jozef was hard.
Should he have come? What business did he have here with his whole legs and his crisp hussar’s uniform?
Friedrich gave a shrug, then gripped the wheels of his chair and turned it around so that he could wheel it back into the sitting room. “Well, come on.”
Was this really a welcome, or should he make his excuses and leave? It would almost be a relief to go. There was too great a break between this and the friend he had known before. He looked at Minna for guidance. “He’s glad to see you,” she whispered.
Perhaps this was its own form of bravery. He followed Friedrich into the main room.
His friend had wheeled himself to the smoking table and was cutting a cigar.
“I went to war with ten boxes of these and shared them with the other officers in my squadron whenever I had the chance. Why not? Father could always send more. But by the time they pulled us out of Serbia and send us East, the supplies were so fouled there was no getting anything but the rations. Machine rolled cigarettes. I hope to God I never smoke another one. There ought to be some compensations.” This last sentence he spoke with a crooked smile, followed by something between a laugh and a snort. “Now my father sends me cases. It’s something he can do. Do you want one?”
Jozef accepted one.
“Do you want a drink?” Friedrich offered.
“No thank you.”
“I do. Minna!” he shouted.
She appeared in the sitting room door. Evidently she had not been far away.
“Whiskey and soda.”
“Friedrich, it’s so early. Can I get you some coffee.”
“It’s almost eleven and I want a goddamn whiskey and soda.” Friedrich hit the smoking table with his open palm, making everything on it jump.
Minna went over to the liquor cabinet, unlocked it with a key that hung on the ring at her belt, and poured out a small glass of whiskey to which she added enough soda from the siphon to turn it a pale straw color. She gave the glass to Friedrich and then left the room again without another word.
Friedrich took a pull at the drink. “God, I’m being a such bastard to her.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with the hand which held his cigar and shook his head. “It’s been thirty-one hours since I last had a dose of morphine, and it’s the very devil. Feels like having the flu and a hangover at the same time, and every damned noise makes me jump. And even though these,” he indicated the stumps of his legs, “have healed over, I keep feeling like there are twinges in my feet. God.” He drained the rest of his glass. “Would you go see if she left that cabinet unlocked?”
Jozef tried the door of the liquor cabinet, but it was firm. “Do you want me to go ask her to open it?”
“No.” Friedrich shook his head and sighed. “I gave her the key to it and asked her to only let me have it if I asked. That’s how it works. I know she’ll give it to me if I ask, but I know how she’ll look at me if I’m taking too much.” He set the glass down and drew at the cigar instead. “That’s a good woman. She came to me as soon as they transferred me to the military hospital here from Galicia. Everyone else in the officer’s ward had to wait for a nurse to come, but I had her every minute. She’d sit next to my bed and read to me, or just hold my hand. Get me anything I needed. The other officers were all jealous.”
He fell silent for a time, pulling at his cigar, but Jozef could sense something further that Friedrich wanted to say.
“It wasn’t till after a couple weeks I had the courage to tell her what the doctors had told me.” He stole a glance at Jozef. “The legs are bad enough. But you know what every man who goes into combat really most fears?”
Jozef was about to stupidly ask what, when the way that bandages were wrapped not only around Friedrich’s legs but also between them made him realize what his friend must mean. Could that be wounded too? Of course it could. He had simply never thought of it in relation to battle in the past.
“When I did finally tell her, I said that she was free to leave. Or to have another man to satisfy her. She said no.” Friedrich gave another of the barking, bitter laughs which seemed now to be characteristic with him. “It’s almost as if she wasn’t here for what happened in bed. Flattering as that would have been to think.”
“How did it happen?” Jozef asked, then wondered if this was any less painful a topic. “Your wound. If you don’t mind talking about it, that is.”
“No, I don’t mind. Usually everyone is so busy assuring me that I needn’t think about it that it seems clear they’d rather not know. It’s not as if I ever stop thinking about it.” He half turned to stare at the window, letting the smoke from the cigar in his hand curl gently upwards. “It’s nothing like what they’ve been giving you in training. You know the doctrine: ‘Cavalry will exploit the joint arms breakthrough achieved by the infantry and artillery arms.’ Well, there is no breakthrough. Everything is just so much bigger. They find a gap in the enemy line, send us through, and we penetrate five, ten, even twenty miles. But have we broken their line? No. The whole country is their line. We’ve just wandered through a gap. Capture some supply wagons. Burn some peasant cottages. And then that great blundering mass of an enemy figures out where we are, and the artillery and infantry start coming at us. They talk about the Russian Bear, but it tell you it’s the wrong image entirely. Did you ever see, in at university, one of those engravings of the primordial single celled creatures? That’s what Russia is, an amoeba. We beat our way into them, break their lines, exploit a gap, and then they close in around and absorb us.
“That’s how it was, again and again. The day my luck ran out, our squadron was sent to exploit such a gap in their line. We rode five miles in, meeting no one and took a village, but it was deserted and the supplies and half the buildings were destroyed. There was nothing to feed the horses and we resolved that if we didn’t get relief and supplies by the next morning we’d have to pull back. Instead, what we got the next morning was an attack. Shells rained in from three sides. There’s something about shelling that makes you irrational. The safest things to do are to fall back quickly or dig into shelter, but all you want to do is crouch down and get your head as close to the ground as possible. I only had seventeen men left in my troop, and they were all doing that, crouching on the ground or hiding in peasant huts or sheds that gave no real shelter. My sergeant and I got them moving. I had to kick a couple of them to get them moving, but at last they were formed up and we started to move out. Then there was a flash and a bang so loud it seemed more like a ringing silence that blocked everything else out, and I could feel my horse lifting and tumbling.
“It must have been a small shell or even what’s left of me wouldn’t have survived. It hit right under my horse’s hindquarters and the poor beast absorbed much of the explosion. The surgeon at the field hospital said he was picking fragments of horse bone out of my legs as well as shrapnel. I think of those few seconds every day, but while parts are so clear I can see them when I close my eyes there are gaps where I can’t recall anything. I remember the feeling of being lifted up and tumbling forward, but I don’t remember hitting the ground. The next thing I do recall is Sergeant Peiper trying to pull me out from under what remained of my horse. My right leg was trapped under the horse’s body, and it felt like he was ripping it clear off as he pulled.”
Friedrich stopped. The ash had burned long on his cigar and then gone out. He knocked it off into an ashtray and relit it, puffing out thick drifts of smoke.
“You were brave,” said Jozef. “A hero.” The word seemed empty of meaning next to a man who had lost both his legs to an artillery shell.
“I wasn’t.” Friedrich shook his head. “As Peiper was pulling at me I was crying. Screaming. And begging him to leave me. In that moment I would have rather become a Russian prisoner, or just died there on the field, than go through that pain. After all those times facing down death at ten paces, I thought I was ready. But when the time came I wept. At last two of the men came over and helped roll the horse’s carcass off me. They put their belts around my legs to stop the bleeding, and I must have lost consciousness, because the next thing I remember is bouncing along, looking at the ground, as Sergeant Pieper rode with me draped over the saddle in front of him. I left the war as baggage. So much for all my pretensions. Perhaps it’s just as well I’ll be spending the rest of the war sitting.”
If Friedrich had reacted thus to being wounded, who could expect to do any better? In books men could deliver detailed speeches while dying of wounds. Had those authors ever faced an artillery barrage? Would he do even as well when under fire and in pain?
Jozef reached out and took Friedrich’s free hand, which had been picking nervously as the wheel of his chair. “You did well. The men had gone to ground. You got them moving. That was your duty as an officer. Anyone would scream when in pain.”
Friedrich nodded slowly, and then squeezed Jozef’s hand.
For several moments there was silence between them.
“Thank you,” said Friedrich at last, and shook himself. “Still, you had a reason for coming to Vienna. Tell me about your own war.”
Jozef told about meeting his uncles, about being left in the reserve squadron long after all the other cadets had received assignments, and about discovering his mother’s meddling in his career.
“I need to find my own source of influence, a way to get an assignment despite my mother. If I can just get assigned to a front line unit, I’m sure even her friends can’t get me pulled back out again.”
Friedrich leaned back in his chair and took several long puffs at the cigar. “That’s harder than you’d think. Five months ago, everyone you could have talked to was here in Vienna. Now the General Staff is out in Silesia and so are all my contacts. There’s nothing but the civil authorities and some logistics staff here. Father and his fellow industrialists have plenty of dealings with them, but when it comes to military authorities…” He trailed off, then sat up a bit straighter, shifting himself in the wheelchair. “Perhaps that’s your answer. Pay a call on my father. He’s at the center of all sorts of things now: uniforms, provisioning, medical supplies. He asked me if I wanted to join the company now that I’m out of the army, but I told him I needed time to recover and he’s all solicitude, so I stay here and brood and practice the piano. Father, though, he’s at the center of supply, and if there’s something I learned out of all this it’s that supply is more important to this war than bravery. Talk to him. Tell him you’re my best friend. Tell him you went into the Hussars to serve like me. Tell him all those things that stir a father’s heart. He’ll know who’s in Vienna now that can get something done for you. It’s his war now. My war is over.”
“All right, I will. Thank you. So what about you? What will you do now?”
Friedrich shrugged, and that bitter-half laugh again. “I decided last week not to shoot myself. That’s progress, eh? I have been playing, though. They had a piano at the officer’s hospital, which was a very welcome distraction. I’m too old, of course, to become any kind of a performer, but I’ve been thinking about composing. In fact--” He leaned closer. “Do you want to hear a fragment I’ve been working on?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
With the most energy Jozef had seen in him during the visit, Friedrich wheeled himself over to the piano, which Jozef now saw no longer had a bench sitting in front of it.
“It’s just a fragment,” Friedrich said, after some careful adjusting of the wheelchair so that he could reach the keys comfortably. “I was thinking while in hospital about music and modernity and the chaos of war, and-- No, better without the explanations. Just listen.”
Jozef was relieved, after Friedrich’s partial explanation, to find that the piece seemed to be something he could very well understand. A waltz just such as might be heard in the ballroom, which after a moment became more martial in its tone, then switched rhythms after a burst of jangling noise into a marching tune. But then the tune seemed to fall gradually to pieces. Expected notes were missing. The rhythm became ragged. Then the march disappeared completely into a welter of sound with no discernable tune, though something about its tone seemed malevolent. At last, the music stopped abruptly. He waited, not sure if it was done or this was a pause.
“As I said, it’s not finished.” Friedrich rolled himself back from the piano. “But what do you think?”
“I liked the beginning a lot,” Jozef said. “But I don’t know if I understood the later parts.”
“Ha! Said like the good bourgeois gentile that you are, Jozef. No matter. If I can finish it and find a good soloist, perhaps I’ll get a half dozen grubby types who think they like experimental music to come listen to it, and a Jew critic will write it up and say it’s brilliant. Such is fame. Do you know, I think it’s nearly noon. Will you have lunch with me? Good. Minna! Send for sandwiches and champagne. Jozef is going to eat with us.”
The meal lasted a convivial couple of hours, and by the end of it Friedrich was clearly exhausted.
“You were always the one who had to give up first,” he said as Jozef poured himself the last of the bottle of the second bottle of champagne. “But I’m going to have to leave you to it this time. No, no! You don’t have to go. Just excuse the two of us for a moment while Minna gets me settled, then she can see you out.”
Nearly ten minutes passed. Jozef had time to finish the champagne and wonder whether he should take himself quietly away. He was just rising to do so when Minna hurried back in.
“I’m sorry. Everything takes time now. I’m glad to see you’re still here. Come, I’ll see you out.”
She was a short, well curved woman, and as Jozef followed her he couldn’t help recalling Friedrich saying that he had told her she was free to have another man. Was that her aim? No, there was nothing of that air in her movements.
Minna led the way out of the flat onto the landing and shut the door softly behind them, then turned to him. “Thank you for coming. You don’t know what a change it made in him, especially the chance to play you his music. Thank you.”
“Of course. I wish that I could do more. I’ll write when I’m back with my unit.”
“He’d like that. Really, this is the best it’s been since he came home. Last week he gave me his service pistol and his razor to keep. When he first came home, he really seemed to think that everything was over. He told me I could go, and I think he expected that I would. When I told him that I wouldn’t leave him, he offered to marry me.” She had her own version of the bitter laugh. “You’d think that would make me happy, wouldn’t you?”
The rush of talk seemed almost like Friedrich’s description of his last fight in its urgency. Perhaps she too felt the need to have someone interested in hearing about her misfortunes. An answer seemed expected, so he prompted, “Well, didn’t it?”
She shook her head. “I knew he only offered because he thought it didn’t matter now. No children. No career. There was a time, you know. A year ago. There could have been a child. But I was a good kept woman. I took the money and went to a discreet doctor and had it dealt with. And now, that was the only one there’ll ever be. If I’d known then. Now it’s too late for me too. The roles are cast now and there’s no switching parts.” These last came out with a tremor that was halfway between a sob and a laugh. She pressed her lips together and looked away for a moment. When she turned back to him her voice was steady. “If he’d thought he had any future he never would have offered to marry an opera singer. That’s when I really began to fear he’d do something to himself.”
Jozef tried to parse this unexpected glimpse into the secret trials that made another’s life possible. He had never thought before whether there was a price to be paid for the external glamor of a rich cavalry officer keeping a beautiful opera singer.
“I think he’s past the danger of doing something to himself, and he has you to thank for that,” he said. The words came slowly as he grasped for each phrase, trying to find the sentiments appropriate to the moment. “If he seems angry or ungrateful it’s because he puts you between himself and dangers, like giving you the keys to the liquor cabinet.”
“Yes, I know that.”
Of course she did. What could he say to her when she was so much deeper into all of this than he? “Is there anything that I can do to help him? Or you?”
“There is. That’s why I came out to talk to you.”
She bit her lip and looked away a moment, and Jozef again wondered what her aim was in speaking to him privately.
“You’re going to see his father, aren’t you?”
“Yes. He said he could help me get my commission. I’ll go directly.”
She leaned close, as if even here outside the flat she could be overheard. “Ask him to come visit. Friedrich told his father not to visit. He’s afraid of being a burden, and his father is too deferential to the family hero to disobey. But I know that it would do Friedrich good to see him, and Baron von Goldfaden will listen to you. He hates me,” she added matter of factly. “He thinks I’m out to take Friedrich’s money.”
Jozef promised to ask the Baron to visit, and with a brief thanks and an even briefer goodbye, Minna turned and went back into the flat.
No, she had clearly not come out with him out of any restless desires.
It was late afternoon by the time Jozef reached Baron von Goldfaden’s offices. He had worried that at this late hour, and without an appointment, he might not be able to see the magnate, but when he presented his visiting card and explained to the secretary that Friedrich had suggested his visit, the young man made the briefest of telephone calls and then led him up a lift and down a corridor to the baron’s private office.
The room was laid out to be impressive. The room was longer than it was wide, and the baron’s massive wooden desk stood at the far end from the door with large windows behind it looking out across the wide street outside. It would have been a daunting place to go into a difficult interview, but the baron took no advantage of its formality. As soon as Jozef entered, von Goldfaden came hurrying around his desk with both arms out in greeting.
“Cadet von Revay!” He took both Jozef’s hands in his and wrung them thoroughly. “You’ve seen my son? How is he? We’re so proud of him.”
“Yes, I saw him today and had lunch with him. He’s recovering well.”
“Good, good.” The baron took a pair of wire rimmed spectacles from the pocket of his suit coat and put them on. This somehow signalled to both that the business phase of the visit could begin. “Now, tell me about what you’ve come. Best to get business out of the way first. Then we can talk more about my boy. Never let sentiment interfere with business. I warn you, that’s my principle.”
Nonetheless, rather than retreating behind the bulwark of his desk, he led Jozef to a pair of leather upholstered chairs standing against the wall, and there they sat down, nearly knee to knee.
Jozef described his difficulties in being posted to an active duty unit. “I’ve learned that my mother has used a connection on the general staff to shelter me from front line duty. I spoke to her, but she is adamant. It’s understandable in a woman, but I feel it’s my duty to serve the empire as Friedrich did, not let myself be held back.”
“That’s worthy, young man. Very worthy. I honor you, as I did my son. But what do you come to me for?”
“I know that you must have many contacts with the army due to your war work. Can you use your influence for me to get a posting to an active duty regiment? I don’t ask that it be a fashionable regiment. I just want to serve the fatherland.”
“You want me to get you a commission?”
“If you can put a word in the right ear. I know that they need fresh replacements, and I’ve been in training longer than any of the other cadets in my group were. I just want the chance to do my duty.”
Baron von Goldfaden sat back in his chair. The family resemblance between him and his son was strong, though whether through age or some chance of heredity, it seemed to Jozef that the most Jewish traits were stronger in the father than the son: his skin darker, his nose larger and more bent, his graying hair curlier. Even the cut of his suit, though made of the best materials, to the experienced eyes said: Jew. Would Friedrich look thus when he was older, or was a time coming when these differences would fade away and no longer be accounted?
“I know that it’s a great favor that I’m asking, sir,” he added, unsure what the baron’s pause meant, “But I don’t have anyone else to whom I can turn.”
“I’ll help you, young man. I’m glad to help. I was just thinking. I don’t believe that any Gentile has asked me for help of this kind before. For money. For contracts. For business connections. But never for help of this kind. Don’t concern yourself with it anymore. I think I know the ears which need to hear a word. You may depend on receiving orders within the week. And you must serve with honor as Friedrich has.” At this last he put away his spectacles and took Jozef’s hands again. “Now tell me: How did you find my son today? Tell me everything.”
Jozef told as much as seemed appropriate, adding as his own Minna’s request. “You should go to see him, sir. I know you respect his privacy, and he won’t ask. Still, I think it would do him good to see you.”
“I will. I will. Thank you, young man. This has been the best quarter-hour of my day.”
The baron rose, and Jozef did likewise, seeing the interview to be over.
“I’ll be glad to visit him,” the baron said as he led Jozef to the door. “I worry about him. Not just his health. That’s that singer as well, who I fear will take advantage of his weak condition to form a permanent attachment to him and try to secure his money. A nice toy, I’m sure, for a young man about the town, but not the sort of woman one would want to have in the family, eh? I tell you,” he put a hand on Jozef’s shoulder, “I’d happily give a good deal if someone would take her on and move her safely away from Friedrich.”
The meaning was all too clear. If he would take Minna, the baron would gladly pay him for it. Too clearly he recalled the matter-of-fact tone in which she had said of the baron, “He hates me.” And yet who had given more for his son?
“No, sir. I don’t think you need to fear her. She cares for Friedrich and for his family honor.”
“Does she? Well, if you say so. All the better.” The baron shrugged away the exchange as he might any other business offer not accepted: a pity but hardly something over which to sour a partnership. He assured Jozef once again that he need give no more worry to the commission. The baron would make his calls and there would be orders within the week.
Out in the street, as he looked for a taxi to hail, Jozef saw another beggar in a soldier’s coat, this one with his empty right sleeve pinned up across his chest. Jozef pulled out the handful of cash that would have secured the taxi ride and a dinner at a night restaurant and shoved it into the beggar’s cup, then hurried off on foot. What was left would get him a sandwich and a drink or two at a beer hall, and he would no longer have the uncomfortable memory of the beggar outside the train station on his conscience.
In the end he spent no money at the beer hall. His hussar’s uniform drew a crowd of older men who bought him rounds of beer while asking for stories of the war, which he supplied with increasing shamelessness after each mug of beer. At the end of the night, he reeled to a taxi and rode home, where he pulled himself up to the flat one flight of stairs at a time.
The next day he caught the early train back to Veszprém. There were still four days left to his leave, but when he reached the Revay country house, he found that Klara had already gone.
Read the next installment.