To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Chapter 15-2

I hope everyone is having a good Thanksgiving weekend. This installment was a lot of fun to write. Every so often a scene which starts off as a way to cover a plot point takes off on its own and becomes a character piece, and Pascal's scene did there here and became the centerpiece of the installment.

I'll be working to get the next installment (finishing Chapter 15) up as quickly as possible. It'll be up no later than this coming Friday, but hopefully sooner.


Chateau Ducloux, France. October 27th, 1914. Not every return to normality was welcome. During the second week of October, the local newspaper, The Lantern, had returned to publication. The typeface and masthead were the same. Eugene Thorel remained the publisher, setting type for its four sheets each afternoon in the workshop which adjoined his house. But the power of the press was closely supervised and this new Lantern shed only the light of German might. Each edition was read throughout the town, yet hated.

Any scrap of news was desperately desired, but this was news filtered through the German command. There was no news of the French army units, active duty and reserve, in which the town’s men served. There was no list of the honorable fallen for families to read with trepidation.

This day’s lead was typical of the last two weeks: “German Army Solidifies Gains Around Langemarck”

In desperate fighting along the Yser river, fresh German units beat the demoralized British and French troops into a defensive position around the nearly-surrounded city of Ypres. Casualties were heavy among the disorganized and demoralized Entente powers as they tried and failed to halt the valiant soldiers of the Imperial German Army.

The paragraphs stretched on but provided little additional news, other than the presence of the city names which indicated that the fighting now stretched all the way to the Belgian coast in Flanders.

“I shouldn’t read it,” said Grandpere in disgust, crumpling the paper. “If we had defeated them, they wouldn’t tell us. The first we’d know is when the shells started to fall on the town again and the Boche began to pull out.”

Philomene smiled at her father. “But you read it every morning.”

“Yes. Yes, I can’t help it.” He smoothed the paper out and began to read again. “Perhaps they’ll give something away. Perhaps what they don’t talk about will give me some clue as to what’s really going on.” He scanned down the page, muttering commentary at times.

Philomene half listened as she spread butter on a piece of the dark, gritty ration bread. No coffee. Black bread. How long was it since Henri has sat at this table, reading his copy of Le Temps and worrying about the unfolding crisis in the Balkans? Three months. Where was Henri now? Was he safe? Was he ever able to quietly read a paper while sipping a cup of coffee and eating a pastry, as they had done together on so many peaceful mornings?

They had bought pastries everyday then, fresh from Jeanpetit’s Patisserie. Now the patisserie made pastries almost exclusively for the German officers. They provided the white flour from their army stores; they received the small, flakey delicacies in return. For the village there was no white flour to be had.

“Can I have another piece of bread?” Pascal was standing in the doorway, his school satchel over his shoulder. It was still only a quarter after eight, but it was encouraging to see the boy so eager for his lessons.

Philomene looked at the large, dark loaf of bread, drying to estimate slices for each family member during the rest of the day. As other foods had become more scarce, the daily one kilo loaf of ration bread had become an essential part of each meal.

“You already had a thick slice this morning with butter and jam on it,” she said.

“But I’m hungry,” Pascal replied, with the trenchancy of a growing boy.

Philomene hesitated. She could always have less herself at dinner if they ran short.

“Let him have another good slice,” Grandpere said, looking up from his paper. “Don’t worry about dinner, Philomene. I have a surprise to show you later on.”

She cut the slice and Pascal bolted from the house with it as soon as he got it in his hand.

“Well?” Philomene asked.

Her father flashed a smiled but turned back to his reading. “You’ll see. Just a little something.” He turned over the paper to read the final sheet and let out a growled invocation, which was the closest he normally came to swearing.

“What?” Philomene leaned in to see what had raised his ire.

On the back page was the headline, “Notice of Requisition,” and underneath the paragraph:

By order of the town Commandant, the following materials are placed under military requisition:
100 winter thickness wool blankets
5 barrels of apples
100 kilograms of copper (cooking vessels, pipe, roofing, etc. are acceptable)
2000 6cm nails
6 draught horses
Collection will be organized by the civilian authorities. If the requisition is not fully gathered by Friday, October 30th, supply patrols will be sent out to collect directly from the population as needed.

“This is nothing but legalized robbery,” said Grandpere. “Not even that. Surely it’s against the law of nations for them to force Frenchmen to give them materials to be used to fight our fellow countrymen.”

Philomene remembered bringing meals to Madame Duval after little Baptiste had been shot by the invading soldiers. Could there be laws of nations when such things happened? Would men who shot on sight hesitate to steal?

“Perhaps in this war there are no laws.”

“Nonsense. We’re not savages. There are treaties. We have rights. And even without treaties, there are human decencies that apply at all times. They can’t steal from us. If Justin Perreau is to be worth anything as mayor, he’ll refuse to carry out these illegal demands.”

Her father showed no sign of calming, and since it was impossible to set town policy at the breakfast table, Philomene changed the subject instead. “You said you had a surprise?”

Grandpere seemed about to respond hotly, then checked himself. For a moment he sat, eyes closed, lips pressed into a line. Then he said, “You’re right of course. What does it accomplish to become angry? I’ll show you something better.”

He pushed aside the paper, got up, and left the room. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a canvas bag, which he opened to reveal potatoes, carrots and onions still dusted with the soft soil they had been grown in.

“I’d added another farmer to the back room market. He’ll send up produce once a week, and I’ll sell it out of the back room to trustworthy villagers. This is our commission for the first week. It should be plenty to give us a good dinner tonight.”

Philomene reached out to touch the smooth yellow skin of one of the potatoes. Yes, this could be simmered into a thick vegetable stew. No one would be hungry tonight.

***

As soon as Pascal reached the cobblestones of the street he set off at a run, the extra slice of bread clutched in one hand, and kept the pace up until he reached the next street, where Lucien Vazart stepped out from the shelter of a doorway to meet him.

“Here.” Pascal broke the piece of bread in half and handed the second piece to the other boy. “I brought this for us to split.” When he had first learned that Lucien came to school hungry, so that he could be seen to eat a lunch the same size as the other boys, Pascal had tried bringing a thick slice of bread entirely for Lucien. This, however, Lucien had rejected with all the pride of his twelve years. He wasn’t hungry, and he was proud that his family wasn’t one of those that got extra food by sucking up to the Boche. Splitting a piece of bread, however, was acceptable to his conscience.

Lucien took the piece and downed it in a few quick bites, chewing massively so that even around the food he was unable to speak for a moment.

“Were you able to get out on reconnaissance last night?” Pascal asked, having swallowed his own last bite.

“Yes, but I didn’t see anything. My father said it was more than my hide was worth to stay out after dark. I watched till seven, but she still wasn’t home by then.”

“So we still don’t know.”

“No, but it’s evidence. What good reason would a loyal Frenchwoman have to be out after dark? There’s nowhere to go now unless you’re with the Boche.”

“She’s a Protestant, so she can’t have many friends,” Pascal offered, recalling Grandpere’s dark warnings about the young Jews and Protestants who were among those who had come from the state teaching schools to instruct in the new secular school.

“The Boche are Protestant,” said Lucien darkly. “Maybe they’re her friends now. Here we are.” In between the locksmith’s and a laundry were two doors leading to upstairs apartments. “Hers is the door on the right.”

The boys found a hiding place between two buildings on the opposite side of the street and settled into the shadows to observe.

Time passed. The plan to keep watch had seemed more exciting than the reality of sitting against a cold brick wall while nothing happened.

“Do you think that Nicolas really saw her with one of the Boche?” Pascal whispered after a few minutes.

“He said he saw her walking with an officer, and that his mother said that her friend heard that there was an officer who spent the night in her flat.”

“Is he quartered with her?”

“Of course not. Even the Boche wouldn’t quarter men with a single woman. It means she’s his mistress. Or maybe she’s not even his mistress, maybe she’s a whore.” Lucien delivered the last worth with emphatic relish.

“But what does that mean? What does a whore do?”

Lucien was one of the oldest boys in the class and spoke on all matters with utter confidence. This seemed an ideal time to clear up what exactly was the ‘fate worse than death’ which he’d heard referred to so darkly.

“You’ve seen dogs mount each other in the street, right?”

“Yes.”

“People are the same way.”

Pascal recalled watching a stray mongrel mount Monsieur Jobert’s spaniel one day outside the pork butcher shop. Amelie had accepted the stray’s advances calmly enough, though growling the whole time in the back of her throat, but then Monsieur Jobert had rushed out of the shop shouting and beating at the offending male with his walking stick. Amelie had wandered back into the shop to console any outrage to her virtue with a sausage, but the pork butcher had been furious, especially when his beloved Amelie had turned up pregnant. He’d insisted on drowning the whole litter, declaring that the town did not need more wandering mixed-breeds. Pascal and his sisters had begged Grandpere to intercede for at least one of the puppies, but Grandpere told them that Yves was enough dog for the family.

“People really mate just like dogs and horses do?”

Lucien nodded sagely.

The revelation made a certain basic sense. There was no mystery about where puppies and other baby animals came from. Pascal had been seven years old when Lucie Marie was born, and he well remembered Mother’s tiredness and swelling stomach and then the morning he had been allowed to visit his parents’ room and see her in her nightgown, propped up on pillow, and holding the little swaddled bundle that was his new sister. Yet when he’d asked Mother how it happened she had explained that when a husband and wife loved each other very much God sometimes sent them another child as a blessing. Even if it was possible to imagine Charlotte and Lucie Marie – even him – being as natural an occurrence as a litter of puppies, it was impossible to imagine Father climbing up on top of mother like the dogs outside the butcher shop.

Surely Mother, whose sensibilities were such that Father and Grandpere sometimes waited till she was out of the room to discuss certain subjects ‘man to man’, wouldn’t allow herself to be mounted like a dog in heat. And would father, always so rational and correct, really try?

“I don’t see how that can be. People aren’t like dogs. How would they even do that?”

“Well, I suppose it’s not exactly like dogs, but it’s the same kind of thing. I think they do it in bed. Armand was starting to tell me about it once, but when I asked him how he knew he told me I was impertinent and clammed up.”

“But do all women do that?”

“Good women only let their husbands do it. If a man has a mistress, that means a woman who acts like his wife even though she isn’t married to him. And a whore will do it with just any man.”

“But why?” Pascal asked. “When dogs mate they have puppies, but surely a whore doesn’t want to have babies all the time.”

Lucien shrugged. “Father used to have a terrier bitch and when she went into heat she’d howl and cry by the door. We’d have to keep her locked up so she wouldn’t go and get pregnant. Maybe some women get like that at times. Or all the time.”

A ludicrous image came to Pascal’s mind of Mademoiselle Levart suddenly stepping away from the blackboard, setting the chalk down on her desk with a low growl, and dashing from the room in search of a German officer. She certainly didn’t show any signs of such madness, but then perfectly calm dogs and cats could become suddenly unpredictable when the mood took them.

“What’s in it for the men anyway? Surely they don’t all want to have babies.”

“I think they just want it. Armand said that we men needed to be vigilant because all the Boche would want it, and some of the women in the village would want to give it to them.”

Pascal was trying to process whether this vision, a world in which men all wanted to mount women and some women were eager to give in, could possibly have any bearing on the calm streets and people that he knew so well, when Lucien reached over and gripped his shoulder. Startled from his thoughts, Pascal saw that the blue painted door had opened and Mademoiselle Levart was stepping out, holding the little leather briefcase in which she carried her books and papers. The boys shrank further back into the shadows of their hiding place, but the teacher gave so sign of suspecting that she was under surveillance from the opposite side of the street. She shut the door behind her and set off down the street at a steady pace.

The young teacher looked exactly as she always did: long narrow gray skirt, high necked white blouse, and wearing the dark blue broad-brimmed hat with a white band, into which was tucked a single red feather. Some of the girls insisted that this was a subtle patriotic touch, a protest against her predecessor’s ouster. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the whole reconnaissance was based on unfair and vicious gossip.

“We should go so that we’re not late to class,” Pascal said, still instinctively using a whisper as they crouched in their hiding place between the buildings. The whole expedition now seemed embarrassing, and Lucien’s explanation of relations between men and women ludicrous.

“There’s still time. Let’s watch a little longer.”

“But there’s nothing to see.”

“Maybe the Boche is hiding inside till she’s gone. I still think it’s very suspicious she wasn’t home before dark last night.”

After watching this long, letting up and leaving without Lucien somehow seemed more humiliating than staying, so Pascal remained in place with an uneasy conscience, mentally calculating again and again how long it would take to walk to school and whether they would be late.

The church tower rang a quarter to nine. It would take five minutes to get to school, but even so fifteen seemed far too little. The other children would be playing and talking in the school yard, and they were sitting on a failed stake out of the sort he was sure Rouletabille never stooped to. The gallant young reporter/detective of Leroux’s novels would never put a lady under surveillance, not if his life depended on it. But then if Mademoiselle Levart had been with a German officer, perhaps she was no lady. Or perhaps there was some tragic backstory which he must discover that would explain the suspicions against the pretty young teacher. What if she had been forced into a marriage with a German before the war, and the villain was now in the invading army trying to hold her to it? Perhaps she needed to be rescued!

The blue door opened again, and both boys froze in excitement and guilt. The moment between when the door opened into the dark little entry and when someone appeared on the step seemed to stretch out forever. Pascal was holding his breath and let it out with an explosive gasp when a tall man in German uniform stepped out. The boys, even more so than the town’s other civilians, had become experts in the nuances of German uniforms and rank. This man’s shoulder tabs marked him as a sergeant, and one of the logistics company, not the regular reserve company tasked with formal occupation duties. The sergeant looked up and down the street, stretched, and put his spiked helmet on, then ambled off down the street with a step that more suggested a worker on his day off than a proud soldier of an occupying army.

Lucien and Pascal exchanged a look, then by silent agreement stepped from their hiding place and headed down the street in the opposite direction, taking a circuitous route to the school which would avoid the streets the sergeant might be on while making his own way back to the city buildings in which the Germans had set up offices.

They reached the school yard with just a few minutes to spare before nine o’clock, but in that time Lucien called a conference of the boys in their class and announced the discovery: “Our teacher is a traitor to France. We must take action. Let’s meet behind the building at lunch time and make our plans.”

Normally a devoted student, Pascal found concentration difficult during the morning lessons. Mademoiselle Levart was demonstrating how to calculate the area of a circle, drawing shapes and figures, at times standing on tip-toe in order to write on the upper part of the blackboard despite her short frame. The lines and numbers swam before Pascal’s eyes, and his notebook contained nothing but a stray drawing of a cannon mowing down German soldiers. Each time the teacher turned to write, his gaze fixed instead on the hourglass shape of shoulders, waist and hips. Was it true, what Lucien said? Had the tall German sergeant spent the night climbing onto Mademoiselle Levart’s back like the stray on Monsieur Jobert’s spaniel? Had she let him? The idea was horrifying and yet strangely fascinating, stirring him in ways that were new, disturbing, and all consuming.

He shifted awkwardly in his seat. Mademoiselle Levart turned back to the class and read the demonstration from her book.

“Who would like to work a problem on the board? ‘Example A) A circle has a diameter of six centimeters. Calculate the circle’s area.’” She scanned the room of students and even as he prayed for her eyes to pass over him she said, “Pascal Fournier.”

He felt heat rising in his face. She knew. She could see the vile thoughts about her which had infested his mind, and this was her revenge. But while he had been indulging in – What was the catechism phrase which now seemed suddenly full of meaning? Impure thoughts? -- he had completely missed the lesson. He desperately looked over the drawings on the blackboard. There was a square around a circle, a smaller square encompassing a quarter of a circle, equations which seemed as impenetrable as some heathen language. He sank lower in his chair and shook his head.

Mademoiselle Levart advanced to his desk and picked up his notebook, seeing its guilty blankness except for the martial drawings across the top.

“A boy who cannot even calculate the area of a circle will never be given the chance to command a cannon,” she said. “You may stand in the back of the room, Pascal.”

He went, guiltily, and stood in the back of the room as one of the girls, in the bloom of her innocence, worked the problem correctly on the board.

Read the next installment.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chapter 15-1

We return to Philomene, Pascal and Grandpere, living under German occupation. I'm striving mightily to pick up the pace, so expect the next installment within a week or less.


Chateau Ducloux, France. September 26th, 1914. The stench was terrible.

“How many do you have down here?” Philomene asked.

In the darkness she could hear the soft clucking of many birds, and their smell was overpowering. As her eyes began to adjust to the dim light, she could see birds moving in the shadows and occasional glimmers of birds’ eyes from the darkness.

“Four dozen,” said Hortense Chartier. “It was the most I thought I could hide when the Germans came to take their inventory. As it was, they asked why I had so few birds for such a large poultry barn, but I said that there’d been pestilence and I’d had to destroy several dozen sick birds.”

“How do they do without sunlight?”

Surely a root cellar was a terrible place to try to keep poultry. It seemed certain they would sicken. But perhaps if Madame Chartier were diligent with the cleaning they would be all right. Certainly, they would not be cold. The ground provided insulation, and the body heat of nearly fifty birds made the cellar almost uncomfortably warm.

“They do well enough,” the farmer’s wife assured. “I bring a lantern down for several hours each day at the same time in the afternoon, so that they will know how the days are passing and when to lay. Don’t mind the smell, it’s only because it’s close and warm down here. I clean the floor out every day.”

“I believe you, but it is rather close.”

Hortense led the way back up the ladder, into the shed beneath which the root cellar was dug. They closed the trapdoor and pushed the untidy pile of grain sacks, ropes and horse blankets which concealed the entrance back into place.

The farmwife wiped her hands on her apron, then exclaimed as she looked at Philomene. “Oh, your dress and your hat. I am sorry.”

She was able to help Philomene pick the stray feathers and bits of straw off the hat, but trying to brush at the dust and grime which had got on the skirts of her dress as they climbed in and out of the cellar only seemed to grind the stains further into the wool.

“Don’t let it worry you,” Philomene said, waving her away. “You told me that you needed help. What can I do?”

Hortense glanced around as if guilt inspired the fear she would be overheard. “I get three or four dozen eggs each day from them, and since the Germans don’t know about them I’m free to sell them. But I need feed for them. And--” She hesitated, lips pressed together, eyes down, ashamed of what came next. “I’ve been selling the eggs to other farms, but they have their own hidden livestock. I don’t get very much. I thought, if I could find a way to sell them in town, I could get a lot more for them. With Mathieu gone, and the Germans requisitioning my milk and the eggs from the chickens they know about, I have so little to live on. And surely people in town must be wanting fresh food.”

The thought of a reliable supply of fresh eggs was indeed a powerful temptation. During the first two weeks after the German occupation of the town, supplies had broken down. Panicked villages bought everything possible off the shelves, stocking up for the emergency of unknown duration, and German soldiers tired of their army rations had bought up the rest. Grandpere had hidden away a few cases of canned goods and other non-perishables, so there had been no danger that the family would starve, not soon at any rate, but the shelves were bare and the only fresh food was what came ripe in the kitchen garden.

Disgusted by this chaotic state of affairs, the German commandant had decided to organize the local economy. Records were taken of how many people lived in each household, and inventories were taken of all livestock and other food sources. Rather than going to market, food brought in from the outlying farms now went to the army post, where it was registered and most of it sent on to feed the occupying army. The rest was then passed on to the shopkeepers, along with instructions for how much per person each household could purchase. According to the new order, no one would starve, but they would be hungry in a very organized fashion.

Yet however appealing fresh eggs might be, how could she arrange something when Madame Chartier, used as she was to bringing goods to market, was unable to?

“I thought that if we could find a way to get the eggs into town, your father could find customers through his shop,” Hortense continued.

There was that, but how to get the eggs to the shop?

This was, apparently, as far as Hortense’s thinking had gone. She stood waiting for a reply.

“I don’t know,” Philomene said. “I don’t have a way to get the eggs into town without the Germans seeing any more than you do. But perhaps we can think of something. As you say, Father would be able to find customers for you.”

“Thank you! Would you like…” She looked away, half bashful at what had already passed between them. “I could give you a half dozen to take back today. Just for your family.”

She knew that accepting them would mean a promise to do as she was asked, but she could already imagine making an omelette for dinner. There were onions in the garden, and a there were still two tomatoes reddening on the vine.

“You are so kind, Hortense. Thank you.”

She left with the eggs packed carefully in a drawstring bag. She would find a way to get egg deliveries from the farm into town. After all, Hortense was also alone, her husband in the army, and unlike Philomene without a father’s help either. It was practically a matter of charity to help her find a way to support herself, and the eggs would do that. And if she herself got an omelette out of it as well… One had to eat. And the children would like it so.

***

“It is not the number of ingredients which makes for good cooking,” Madam Ragot had often said. “Most of the best dishes are simple. A few well chosen ingredients, prepared in the right way. That is everything.”

Philomene wished that Madam Ragot were there to assure the best results with these precious eggs. However, then she would have to send half the eggs home with the cook for her family.

She paused to examine her conscience. Was it greed that made her glad she did not have to share the eggs with Madam Ragot’s family? Should she not desire to share her good fortune with others? Six eggs was enough to make an omelette for a whole family. Three eggs was just a teasing hint of what might be. Soon enough there would be a regular supply of eggs and she would make sure that Madame Ragot was among those who benefit from it.

First she had sauteed the onions in butter until they were pliant and golden. Then she had added the diced tomatoes along with salt and thyme. The smell was wonderful, for itself and for what it promised after several weeks during which brown bread and potatoes -- supplemented by occasional offerings from the garden -- had been the mainstay of nearly every dinner.

Someone pounded on the door.

Just from the knock she knew it was not a friend or neighbor. She put a towel over the bowl full of beaten eggs, and took the pan full of onion and tomato off the flame, then went to open the door.

The person standing on the step was, as she had guessed, a German soldier. Already she was familiar enough with such encounters to recognize from the insignia on his collar, combined with the fact he wore no pistol or sword, that this was a non-commissioned officer of some sort. Had he smelt the cooking from outside and guessed that some sort of smuggling had gone on? Had she been seen carrying the eggs through town?

Her heart seemed to be pounding its way up into her throat, making it impossible to speak. What was the punishment for smuggling eggs? Would they impose some bankrupting fine? Would they close Grandpere’s shop? What if she were taken to jail? Would the children be put with some other family? Or sent to German? Why had she accepted the eggs? How could she have been so greedy? No dinner was worth the breakup of the family.

“Good evening,” said the soldier, in passable French.

Philomene forced down her panic as best she could and returned the greeting. Did her voice sound calm? Innocent? Could he smell the dinner from here?

The German was looking at the family register posted on the wall next to the door, and comparing it to something he had in his notebook. The registers had been instituted two weeks before. Every house within the town limits had been required to post next to the door a list of the names and ages of the people living there. These were then used as the basis for rations and to confirm how many people should be present if a house were searched. Rumor held that several French soldiers -- left behind when the army retreated through the town a month before and now in hiding to avoid becoming prisoners of war -- were hidden in houses within the town, and this among other precautions was designed to flush out such forbidden activity.

“You have a son who is eleven and a daughter who is seven?” the soldier asked.

“Yes.” What did they want with the children? If she was to be punished for having accepted the eggs that was one thing, but they must leave the children out of it.

“Has your daughter begun school yet?”

“No.” Charlotte was due to begin this year, but up to this point she had not begun and whatever the occupiers were doing she want to keep her little girl out of it.

“The school is re-opening on Monday. It will begin at eight o’clock. All students must be in attendance or their families will be fined. School age children found elsewhere during school hours will be subject to arrest and their families subject to fines. Do you have any questions?”

Philomene shook her head mutely.

The soldier gave something between a bow and a nod. “Good evening then, Madame.” Then he turned and continued on down the street. Philomene shut the door and leant against it, feeling limp and drained. She had come to the door not knowing if she would be questioned, fined, arrested. These soldiers occupied the town. They kept Henri away. Perhaps they had wounded or even killed him. There was no way to know because they kept all news from the rest of France away as well.

And now they pounded on her door and threatened her with fines or prison because they wanted the children to go to school. It was ludicrous and terrifying at the same time. For a moment she struggled against the urge to sob until tears washed all of these feelings away.

Then she heard the sounds of the Charlotte and Lucie Marie playing out by the kitchen garden. The smell of sauteed tomatoes and onions wafted in from the kitchen. There was dinner finish. She pushed away from the door and returned to her work.

***

The curtains of the sitting room were closed against the darkness, but the sound of rain could be faintly heard outside. The children were upstairs in their beds asleep. Philomene was seated in her accustomed chair, next to the fireplace. It could have been any other cozy fall evening, but for the fact that Henri’s chair was empty. And Grandpere was beginning to run out of tobacco.

War and occupation had affected different goods in different ways. With a shopkeeper’s instincts, Grandpere could not help thinking of them in terms of different shelves within the store.

Tinned fish and meat had ceased to be produced, and the supplies had quickly been emptied. Flour, sugar, and other necessities were still available, but they seemed clearly to be adulterated: the bread made with German flour tasted chalky and gritty. Manufactured goods like shoe polish, needles and thread remained available, but their supply was strictly controlled by the Germans. And imported goods like coffee and tobacco were gradually choking off.

He had set aside a few extra pouches of his favorite brand, but as the shelves of the store had emptied he had gradually brought out his reserves. To German soldiers, who he knew received rations of army tobacco anyway, he had let the empty shelves speak for themselves. But when fellow villages had stood staring at the empty shelf and then begun to walk away, he had confessed in low tones, “I have a few more pouches in the storeroom.”

So now he had drawn out his old evening ritual: cleaning his pipe, smelling the old residue of tobacco and smoke which hung about the bowl, at last putting a small pinch of the fragrant shreds into the bowl, laboriously tamping the tobacco down and then at last lighting it to enjoy his few minutes of smoking.

“I paid a call on Hortense Chartier this afternoon,” Philomene said from her chair, her chin resting on her hands as she stared into the fire. “She gave me the eggs that I made for dinner.”

“That was a very good dinner,” Grandpere ventured, sensing from her voice and the set of her shoulders that his daughter wanted to tell him something.

“She has four dozen laying hens hidden away, which the Germans didn’t see when they did their inventory of her farm.”

“They must give her a tidy batch of eggs.”

“They do.” She leaned forward in her chair, and for a moment Grandpere fancied he could see in her eyes the same expression which she had so often worn as a child, when she would sit down on the arm of the very same armchair in which he sat now, look up into his eyes, and with a ‘Please, Papa’ tell him what it was that she wanted. There was almost nothing that he would not do for that little girl, and seeing an echo of that look in the grown woman’s eyes made him wish that it was as easy to wipe her cares away as it had been to grant a child’s wishes.

“Father, there’s something that I’d like to do for her.”

She described Madame Chartier’s hidden chickens and her desire to sell their eggs in town, emphasizing that Hortense was, like her, a woman whose husband was away with the army.

“I’d like to help, but I sell only dry goods at the store. And besides, how would I get the eggs into town without the Germans noticing?”

“It doesn’t matter what you normally sell, people know you and they trust you. As for getting the eggs into town, I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon, and I have an idea that I think will work.”

***

Andre Guyot answered his door the next morning wearing a rusty old velvet jacket and slippers.

“I thought I would find you here at this time,” Grandpere said, taking off his hat.

Both men took this for what it was an intended: a reference to the fact that Louis Mertens as in his Sunday suit, returning from mass, while Andre never bothered to dress before noon on Sundays.

“How is God this morning?” Andre asked. “Did you put in a good word for France? I’m sure that will let us overcome, since the Germans will never have thought of praying, knowing they are in the wrong, and so God will be on our side.”

Grandpere shrugged. Normally he would have risen to this bait. However falling into the usual sparring with Andre -- and without Henri there to make peace -- would not advance the purpose of his visit.

“Certainly. Come in, come in.”

The postmaster waved him in through the door, then shut it behind him. Andre led the way down the hall to his small kitchen, his cane tapping out a steady rhythm on the floorboards as he went.

“So what brings you here?” Andre asked, as they reached the small, sunny room, fragrant with coffee. “Can I offer you anything? Coffee?”

Grandpere hesitated. To accept someone’s offer of coffee was to deprive him of a luxury that could not be easily replaced. And yet… The smell tantalized. And he was, after all, about to open the possibility of other luxuries.

“Thank you, yes. Coffee would be wonderful.”

Andre served a cup to him. “I know that some have become very careful in their coffee drinking. My belief is that we must act as if the war cannot last long. I make a full pot every Saturday and Sunday morning, and on then on other mornings I stop at Carbonnaux’s. When I run out, either we shall have to throw off the oppressor’s yoke, or I will do without.”

Grandpere knew that Andre was not a customer for coffee. Perhaps he had a subscription to some place in Paris or elsewhere and had received his supply of beans by mail. No matter where his source had been, between the German Army on land and the British Navy, no new coffee was coming in.

“This is delicious,” said Grandpere.

Andre gave a sort of half bow and raised his own cup. “Thank you. Are you staying well supplied with it yourself?”

“Truthfully, I’m running low. The shelves are already empty, but if our own people come in, and there is no one around to see, I go into the back room and get out a bag. I don’t want to waste our last cases of coffee on Germans when they’re the reason we have none.”

“Compromises.” Andre gave a brief smile. “I suppose it’s much the same for both of us.”

The remark was delivered without the acidity of their usual sparring.

“It’s been a month,” said Grandpere, “Since a German officer knocked on my door and told me that either I could re-open the store or he’d allow the soldiers to loot it. I could let my shop be destroyed and all the goods go to the Germans. Or I could re-open and allow them to shop. What could I do?”

“I don’t want to work for the Germans,” said Andre. “I don’t think of myself as working for them because I’m still doing what I always did. I deliver the mail, and for the moment they are the government. But my loyalty is to La Poste, not to German occupation.”

Both men nodded.

“Can I offer you a cigar?” Andre asked. “Well, half a cigar.”

Grandpere nodded. Andre took the cigar out and cut it in half, giving one end to Louis. Then they both leaned in to Andre’s lighter and puffed. A long silence followed, as both men filled the air with smoke, all other differences subsumed for a time in their shared affection for tobacco leaf and understanding of the line that they both walked, working with the occupiers without collaborating with them.

“Do you know Madame Chartier?” Grandpere asked after a time.

“She’s one of my more scenic stops outside of town.” Andre smiled.

“My daughter knows her well from the altar flower guild,” Grandpere said, in what he hoped was a severe enough tone to indicate it was not the young woman’s looks he was seeking to discuss.

“Why are so many of the pretty ones devout?” Andre refused to be squenched.

“Madame Chartier has few means to support herself with her husband gone. The harvest was not good, and the Germans requisitioned much of it. However, she has hidden a number of chickens, and she wants to sell the eggs in town to support herself.”

“It’s a more honorable means of employment than the oldest profession, but the occupiers would rather that she sold herself than sold food outside the ration system. How is she to get eggs, of all things, into town without being seen?”

Louis paused a moment, drawing on the stump of his cigar. It was certain that Andre would not turn him in to the authorities. But would he agree to take on the risk that they were asking of him? Had this been the right way to approach him?

“Philomene pointed out that you are in an ideal position to help. Every day you right out to all the outlying farms in the Poste horse cart. You could pick up the eggs every day, packed in a parcel, and then deliver them to me at the shop. I would sell them out of the back room of the shop, and send the money back to Madame Chartier through you.”

Silence.

“You’d get a share of the eggs for your trouble, of course. But more importantly you’d know that instead of just serving the occupiers by delivering the mail, you were working against them and serving France right under their noses.”

For a moment Andre’s expression was unreadable. Then he broke into a wide smile. “As I finish delivering mail in town and head out to the farms, I always seem to pass the city hall as Major Dressler is taking a stroll and a cigarette. Each day he waves to me. I shall return his greeting all the more cheerfully from now on.”

***

Pascal shrugged off his mother’s goodbye kiss and set off for school with a mixture of feelings hidden beneath his eleven-year-old bravado.

It was good to be out of the house, striding along with his satchel over his shoulder. His mother had restricted him to the house and garden as much as possible during the last few weeks and made him promise never to leave the town streets on his forays out. It was boring and unfair, yet at the same time a relief not to be forced to test his own courage.

His steps slowed as he passed the Duval house. The curtains were drawn. When he had last gone to school, before the war, Baptiste had come running out to meet him and they had walked to school together.

At some times it seemed as if the last few months had been some suspension of reality, a book or dream into which he had been drawn, and from which he would awake when everything returned to usual. His father would be back. The Germans would be gone. He and Baptiste would go back to playing in the Mouret orchard.

But now he was going to school again. His father was not sitting over his coffee in the kitchen at home. A pair of German soldiers were walking down the street. And Baptiste was buried in the churchyard, his grave marked only by a wooden cross because Monsieur Prevot, the stonecutter, was away with the army.

The school building was the same as ever. The children milled about in the yard and played games until called to their rooms. Pascal took a seat in the last room on the first floor, the final year of ecole primaire. Next year, he would ascend to the second floor with the older students. Monsieur Cohn called for quiet and took roll. He had just ordered them to take out their arithmetic books when there was a knock at the door and Major Dressler entered.

The German officer waved Monsieur Cohn over to the desk, and the teacher obediently sat down. Major Dressler stood at the front of the room, his posture stiff and military. The leather of his boots and belt were polished to an almost mirror finish, and although he wore a uniform of the same dull grey as all the other Germans, there were a set of bright red stripes up the side of his trousers and ornate tabs of red and gold on the high color of his uniform tunic.

“As the town’s commandant, I greet you on your return to school,” the major said, in French that showed only the slightest trace of an accent. “You should welcome the chance to continue your studies, and with it a sign of a return to peaceful life. Perhaps you think of me as your enemy, but be assured that I do not see France as such. We Germans admire France. We admire your history, your science, your culture. We desire peace with France. And soon, when the government in Paris no longer makes alliance with the despots of Russia and the mercantilists of Britain to encircle and strangle Germany, I am convinced that we shall grow together side by side to form a greater Europe. We here have the good fortune to begin that vision immediately. That is why I insisted that school begin again as soon as possible. You should have the opportunity to spend your days in study rather than being left to idleness in the streets. You will be learning from your own teachers, in your own language. All I insist is that you remain in good order, attend your classes, and stay out of mischief.” He turned to Monsieur Cohn and said, “Carry on.”

Monsieur Cohn rose as the officer left the room. He looked around at his students, then at the closed door, and then back to the class.

“Never believe the lies you just heard,” he said. “This war is the result of nothing but Prussian militarism. They invaded our land, illegally and unprovoked. Their culture is hardly a culture at all; it is brutal and barbaric. We may be for a time occupied by their army, but never believe that France will give up or will fail to drive the Germans from French soil. Unlike them, we are a republic. Their soldiers serve an emperor, but every one of our soldiers is a citizen, fighting for the government which he holds a stake in, and citizens will always prevail over slaves. Always remember that and hold your heads high. Now, open your arithmetic books to page eight.”

The day went on, and during their history lesson Monsieur Cohn provided a passionate outline of Napoleon’s triumphs against the Prussians and Austrians.

It was two weeks later that the class was abruptly given a new teacher, and Monsieur Cohn was sent to Germany as part of a labor battalion.

Read the next installment.

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.