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.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Chapter 16-2

Once again, a little late, but I hope people will enjoy it.

Jozef returned to Vienna in order to try to secure a commission, and while he's there visits Friedrich who has been wounded in the war.

My plan is to have the concluding segment of Chapter 16 up before the New Year.


Vienna, Austria-Hungary. December 7th, 1914. The streets of Vienna were as busy as ever, busier because in addition to the usual crowds the sidewalks were full of soldiers. Officers in full dress uniforms walked in ones or twos, some in dress blue with shining brass buttons, others in formal white with red sashes and glittering medals. Common soldiers milled along in twos and threes or whole huddled groups, set off by their loosely fitting blue-grey tunics and black visored caps. Men who had never seen such broad streets and tall buildings before craned their necks this way and that, and clustered in confusion around the streetcar stops trying to read maps and schedules. On the beer halls and music halls the electric lights flashed and dazzled.

Street cars and busses added their bass rumble to the street noise. And in the background there was another, more unsettling sound. Voices from the shadows called, “Help a soldier of the Fatherland!” “Aid a wounded veteran!”, where men with missing arms or legs, wearing grubby army greatcoats against the cold, sat tucked against the walls of buildings and held out cups or cans to collect coins.

One of these men had been standing against the wall of the train station as Jozef first stepped out into the street. The beggar’s uniform tunic had no markings of unit or rank, but one leg of his blue-grey pants was pinned up empty. He held out a tin cup in which he jingled coins and called out to passersby.

Jozef hurried past, looking away.

The man gave off a reek, sensible even on the cold December evening: alcohol and sweat and grime. There were always beggars, hustlers, and street walkers in the busy parts of the city. With millions of men called up into uniform, there must be among those the wastrels, the alcoholics, the petty criminals. If this man had been injured in the last few months’ fighting, he must be on the streets because he was one of these. Surely the empire would not allow one of its honorable soldiers to be left without support after losing a limb in the service of his country.

And yet the presence of half a dozen such men near the train station, and the indifference of the passing crowds to them, was unsettling.

After a streetcar ride and a walk of several blocks, lugging his suitcase and wondering if it had been necessary to bring all of the things he had originally packed for the week at the Revay country house, Jozef reached his mother’s flat. The porter greeted him enthusiastically and asked if he was back in Vienna for long.

“Your mother will be glad to see you. She speaks of you all the time.”

“Is she in?”

“Yes. Do you want me to have the boy carry your bag up for you?”

Jozef considered the three flights of stairs and consented.

He paused when he reached the familiar door. The boy was still thumping his way up the last flight of stairs. How long had it been? Four months since he had gone out this door, still in civilian clothes, to catch the military train to Hungary and training. Did he still live here? Should he knock or simply let himself in with the key that he still carried in his pocket?

It was still his home. He took the key from his pocket and was about to put it to the lock when his uncle’s revelations about his mother suggested several possibilities to his mind. He knocked.

Elsa, his mother’s maid, opened the door.

“Oh, it’s you. Don’t you have a key?” she asked.

This seemed a rather cold way to greet a returning soldier. “It’s been a long time. I don’t know where it is,” Jozef lied.

“They’re not free to have made. If you’re back for a time, you’d better look for it.”

She turned and started back into the flat. The boy had reached the top of the stairs and set down the suitcase, then headed back down. Jozef looked back and forth, abandoned on both sides.

“Is Mother in?” he asked, taking the suitcase himself and carrying it into the flat.

“Of course she’s in.” Elsa was hurrying back towards his mother’s suite. “She’s getting ready to go out. She’s going to dinner at Baroness von Miko’s tonight, and she’s not ready yet.”

Jozef found Lisette sitting at her dressing table, where Elsa had returned to putting up her mistress’s hair.

“Why, Jozef!” cried Lizette, speaking to his image in the mirror over his dressing table, so that she would not disrupt Elsa’s work by turning her head. “So good to see you. It’s been a long time. And you never write.”

“They keep us so busy. And you know that I’m a terrible correspondent.” Jozef dutifully placed a kiss on his mother’s cheek and then retreated to sit on the loveseat.

“Well, of course, I’m sure you hardly think of us with all the things you’re doing. But you may be assured we think of you daily.”

All of this thinking had not resulted in any letters flowing the other way either, for Lisette herself was a faithful correspondent only in regards to invitations and notes of thanks. There was nothing to be gained in pointing this out, however.

“I’m sorry, Mother. I know it must have been hard for you.”

Lisette obligingly narrated several conversations in which she had told her friends of how very difficult it had been for her, knowing that her son was away with the army, and the friends had expressed themselves astonished with her stoic patriotism.

Jozef lent these only half an ear, allowing the talk to wash over him. When his mother paused, he broke in.

“I should have written and told you that by good fortune I was stationed in Veszprém.”

He thought he saw his mother’s head turn at the word, though Elsa quickly laid a hand on Lisette’s jaw and directed her head back where it had been before. The maid was wrapping her mistress’s hair up over a switch to form the pompadour style which Empress Zita’s example had made even more popular.

“I met Baron Revay and Uncle Henrik there,” Jozef continued. “I was even able to visit the country house a few times.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. It’s important for you to spend time with the family. And such a beautiful estate.” There was a slight pause after each sentence, as if she were waiting to see if he would contradict or question her. At last, after a slightly longer pause, she added the capstone. “Of course, some day it will all be yours. Just like your dear father.”

There it was, the blatant lie. What would she do if he said, “Your brothers told me everything.” Would she contradict him? Would she cry? Would she ignore the whole incident?

But then, what use would such a confrontation serve? Perhaps it was better to let that illusion stand while attacking the reason for his visit.

“Mother, I’ve come to Vienna to try to get a posting to an active duty regiment. All the others cadets I’ve trained with have received commissions.”

“You mustn’t be in an unseemly hurry,” Lisette replied. “Better to wait and receive a posting to a better regiment, not rush into the first thing that becomes available.”

“These are no longer the days where fashionable regiments enjoy postings in Vienna or Budapest while others are banished to backwaters like Ruthenia. All the active duty regiments are at the front, and the important thing is to get out of the reserve regiment.”

“Now, Jozef, surely you must see that those experienced in the ways of the army must know all about these things. The war won’t go on forever, and when it is over it will be important to be commissioned in the right regiment. I know that at your age a few weeks can seem like a very long time, but you mustn’t throw out the whole progress of your career just to save a few days’ waiting.”

This seemed very close to being an admission. It was time to press the direct question. “Have you been using your connections to influence my advancement?”

“I? Influence?”

“Mother. Have you?”

Lisette gave a sigh. “Well, of course, I do have to be a guiding hand in little ways. After all, remember how at first you were hesitant to enter the army at all. You were so set on the idea of the university and the civil service, but I had to tell you: ‘These are no ordinary times. Our emperor needs you. You must serve.’ But I don’t account that influencing. I was only doing my duty to the empire. My own service may not be worth anything, because I am a woman, but I do not hesitate for a moment to offer my son to the Fatherland.”

Some of these phrases had the polish of frequent repetition. How many people had heard this little fantasy in which she had persuaded a reluctant Jozef to enter the army? And what possible good could there be in trying to persuade her to stop or change her attempt to shelter? If she was capable of constructing this narrative for herself, indeed of believing it, then what chance did he have of diverting her?

Elsa had finished her work, and Lisette was now turning her head one way and then the other, examining the hairstyle in the mirror.

“I think this will look very well,” she said, giving a touch here and there to the effect.

Jozef got up from the loveseat and gave his mother another kiss on the cheek. “You look very well indeed, Mother. Have a good evening with the Baroness.”

Soon enough his mother was gone, and he had the flat to himself. Should he go immediately to Friedrich’s and see what help his friend could provide in getting a commission? No. Just as his mother had a dinner engagement, so might Friedrich. The morning was the time for unscheduled calls. Nor did he want to spend the evening alone in the flat.

He put on his dress uniform and went out. He did not know anyone to visit, but surely a cavalry officer in uniform would not be left to dine alone in this city.

***

A card was tacked to the door frame of Friedrich’s flat, next to the button for the electric bell. “Do not ring bell. Knock softly.”

Obedient to its instructions, Jozef rapped gently on the door. A moment later it opened just a foot wide, and Minna stood in the gap. “Yes? Hello?”

For an instant Jozef wondered if he had made a mistake to come. Had something changed since she sent the telegraph? Had Friedrich died?

Then Minna’s face broke into a smile. “Jozef! This is wonderful. He’ll be so glad to see you.” She pulled the door open wide and beckoned him into the flat. “You got my telegram, then? I never thought you would be able to visit. Where are you stationed?”

“I’m in Veszprém, Hungary, but I have a week’s leave and I had to come to Vienna in order to sort out my next assignment. How is Friedrich? Your telegram said he’s been in the hospital.”

“Yes.” Minna had closed the door behind him but they were still in the entrance hall. Now she glanced over her shoulder to see that no one was coming from the interior of the flat and then leaned close to Jozef. “He was only allowed to come home last week. A nurse is here almost all the time. You mustn’t--” Again she looked over her shoulder, and then continued a lower voice than before. “He’s lost both legs. Don’t let yourself act shocked when you see him. It can make him so very low. And don’t pity him either, or he’ll get angry.”

Friedrich without legs. It was impossible to imagine. How could he keep from appearing shocked? He was shocked. And yet he wanted to avoid offending his friend and adding to his suffering.

“Who’s there, Minna?” called Friedrich’s voice from the next room.

She gave Jozef a last look, and her mouth silently formed the word, “Please.” Then she called back to Friedrich. “It’s Jozef. He’s on leave and has come to visit.”

There was the sound of wheels on the floorboards and Friedrich appeared in the doorway.

“Did she tell you to come?” he asked.

“No,” said Jozef, relieved that he could do so truthfully. “I came to Vienna to try to get assigned to a front line unit. I heard you’d been wounded but were out of the hospital, so I thought I’d visit.”

Friedrich’s hair and mustache were still of Hussar style, but he was wearing a civilian shirt and quilted robe. The wheelchair placed him in a slightly reclining position, with what remained of his legs stretched out before him, wrapped in bandages. The left leg was cut off just above the knee, but the right was only the shortest of stumps, hardly a separate limb at all. The gaze which Friedrich fixed on Jozef was hard.

Should he have come? What business did he have here with his whole legs and his crisp hussar’s uniform?

Friedrich gave a shrug, then gripped the wheels of his chair and turned it around so that he could wheel it back into the sitting room. “Well, come on.”

Was this really a welcome, or should he make his excuses and leave? It would almost be a relief to go. There was too great a break between this and the friend he had known before. He looked at Minna for guidance. “He’s glad to see you,” she whispered.

Perhaps this was its own form of bravery. He followed Friedrich into the main room.

His friend had wheeled himself to the smoking table and was cutting a cigar.

“I went to war with ten boxes of these and shared them with the other officers in my squadron whenever I had the chance. Why not? Father could always send more. But by the time they pulled us out of Serbia and send us East, the supplies were so fouled there was no getting anything but the rations. Machine rolled cigarettes. I hope to God I never smoke another one. There ought to be some compensations.” This last sentence he spoke with a crooked smile, followed by something between a laugh and a snort. “Now my father sends me cases. It’s something he can do. Do you want one?”

Jozef accepted one.

“Do you want a drink?” Friedrich offered.

“No thank you.”

“I do. Minna!” he shouted.

She appeared in the sitting room door. Evidently she had not been far away.

“Whiskey and soda.”

“Friedrich, it’s so early. Can I get you some coffee.”

“It’s almost eleven and I want a goddamn whiskey and soda.” Friedrich hit the smoking table with his open palm, making everything on it jump.

Minna went over to the liquor cabinet, unlocked it with a key that hung on the ring at her belt, and poured out a small glass of whiskey to which she added enough soda from the siphon to turn it a pale straw color. She gave the glass to Friedrich and then left the room again without another word.

Friedrich took a pull at the drink. “God, I’m being a such bastard to her.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with the hand which held his cigar and shook his head. “It’s been thirty-one hours since I last had a dose of morphine, and it’s the very devil. Feels like having the flu and a hangover at the same time, and every damned noise makes me jump. And even though these,” he indicated the stumps of his legs, “have healed over, I keep feeling like there are twinges in my feet. God.” He drained the rest of his glass. “Would you go see if she left that cabinet unlocked?”

Jozef tried the door of the liquor cabinet, but it was firm. “Do you want me to go ask her to open it?”

“No.” Friedrich shook his head and sighed. “I gave her the key to it and asked her to only let me have it if I asked. That’s how it works. I know she’ll give it to me if I ask, but I know how she’ll look at me if I’m taking too much.” He set the glass down and drew at the cigar instead. “That’s a good woman. She came to me as soon as they transferred me to the military hospital here from Galicia. Everyone else in the officer’s ward had to wait for a nurse to come, but I had her every minute. She’d sit next to my bed and read to me, or just hold my hand. Get me anything I needed. The other officers were all jealous.”

He fell silent for a time, pulling at his cigar, but Jozef could sense something further that Friedrich wanted to say.

“It wasn’t till after a couple weeks I had the courage to tell her what the doctors had told me.” He stole a glance at Jozef. “The legs are bad enough. But you know what every man who goes into combat really most fears?”

Jozef was about to stupidly ask what, when the way that bandages were wrapped not only around Friedrich’s legs but also between them made him realize what his friend must mean. Could that be wounded too? Of course it could. He had simply never thought of it in relation to battle in the past.

“I’m sorry.”

“When I did finally tell her, I said that she was free to leave. Or to have another man to satisfy her. She said no.” Friedrich gave another of the barking, bitter laughs which seemed now to be characteristic with him. “It’s almost as if she wasn’t here for what happened in bed. Flattering as that would have been to think.”

“How did it happen?” Jozef asked, then wondered if this was any less painful a topic. “Your wound. If you don’t mind talking about it, that is.”

“No, I don’t mind. Usually everyone is so busy assuring me that I needn’t think about it that it seems clear they’d rather not know. It’s not as if I ever stop thinking about it.” He half turned to stare at the window, letting the smoke from the cigar in his hand curl gently upwards. “It’s nothing like what they’ve been giving you in training. You know the doctrine: ‘Cavalry will exploit the joint arms breakthrough achieved by the infantry and artillery arms.’ Well, there is no breakthrough. Everything is just so much bigger. They find a gap in the enemy line, send us through, and we penetrate five, ten, even twenty miles. But have we broken their line? No. The whole country is their line. We’ve just wandered through a gap. Capture some supply wagons. Burn some peasant cottages. And then that great blundering mass of an enemy figures out where we are, and the artillery and infantry start coming at us. They talk about the Russian Bear, but it tell you it’s the wrong image entirely. Did you ever see, in at university, one of those engravings of the primordial single celled creatures? That’s what Russia is, an amoeba. We beat our way into them, break their lines, exploit a gap, and then they close in around and absorb us.

“That’s how it was, again and again. The day my luck ran out, our squadron was sent to exploit such a gap in their line. We rode five miles in, meeting no one and took a village, but it was deserted and the supplies and half the buildings were destroyed. There was nothing to feed the horses and we resolved that if we didn’t get relief and supplies by the next morning we’d have to pull back. Instead, what we got the next morning was an attack. Shells rained in from three sides. There’s something about shelling that makes you irrational. The safest things to do are to fall back quickly or dig into shelter, but all you want to do is crouch down and get your head as close to the ground as possible. I only had seventeen men left in my troop, and they were all doing that, crouching on the ground or hiding in peasant huts or sheds that gave no real shelter. My sergeant and I got them moving. I had to kick a couple of them to get them moving, but at last they were formed up and we started to move out. Then there was a flash and a bang so loud it seemed more like a ringing silence that blocked everything else out, and I could feel my horse lifting and tumbling.

“It must have been a small shell or even what’s left of me wouldn’t have survived. It hit right under my horse’s hindquarters and the poor beast absorbed much of the explosion. The surgeon at the field hospital said he was picking fragments of horse bone out of my legs as well as shrapnel. I think of those few seconds every day, but while parts are so clear I can see them when I close my eyes there are gaps where I can’t recall anything. I remember the feeling of being lifted up and tumbling forward, but I don’t remember hitting the ground. The next thing I do recall is Sergeant Peiper trying to pull me out from under what remained of my horse. My right leg was trapped under the horse’s body, and it felt like he was ripping it clear off as he pulled.”

Friedrich stopped. The ash had burned long on his cigar and then gone out. He knocked it off into an ashtray and relit it, puffing out thick drifts of smoke.

“You were brave,” said Jozef. “A hero.” The word seemed empty of meaning next to a man who had lost both his legs to an artillery shell.

“I wasn’t.” Friedrich shook his head. “As Peiper was pulling at me I was crying. Screaming. And begging him to leave me. In that moment I would have rather become a Russian prisoner, or just died there on the field, than go through that pain. After all those times facing down death at ten paces, I thought I was ready. But when the time came I wept. At last two of the men came over and helped roll the horse’s carcass off me. They put their belts around my legs to stop the bleeding, and I must have lost consciousness, because the next thing I remember is bouncing along, looking at the ground, as Sergeant Pieper rode with me draped over the saddle in front of him. I left the war as baggage. So much for all my pretensions. Perhaps it’s just as well I’ll be spending the rest of the war sitting.”

If Friedrich had reacted thus to being wounded, who could expect to do any better? In books men could deliver detailed speeches while dying of wounds. Had those authors ever faced an artillery barrage? Would he do even as well when under fire and in pain?

Jozef reached out and took Friedrich’s free hand, which had been picking nervously as the wheel of his chair. “You did well. The men had gone to ground. You got them moving. That was your duty as an officer. Anyone would scream when in pain.”

Friedrich nodded slowly, and then squeezed Jozef’s hand.

For several moments there was silence between them.

“Thank you,” said Friedrich at last, and shook himself. “Still, you had a reason for coming to Vienna. Tell me about your own war.”

Jozef told about meeting his uncles, about being left in the reserve squadron long after all the other cadets had received assignments, and about discovering his mother’s meddling in his career.

“I need to find my own source of influence, a way to get an assignment despite my mother. If I can just get assigned to a front line unit, I’m sure even her friends can’t get me pulled back out again.”

Friedrich leaned back in his chair and took several long puffs at the cigar. “That’s harder than you’d think. Five months ago, everyone you could have talked to was here in Vienna. Now the General Staff is out in Silesia and so are all my contacts. There’s nothing but the civil authorities and some logistics staff here. Father and his fellow industrialists have plenty of dealings with them, but when it comes to military authorities…” He trailed off, then sat up a bit straighter, shifting himself in the wheelchair. “Perhaps that’s your answer. Pay a call on my father. He’s at the center of all sorts of things now: uniforms, provisioning, medical supplies. He asked me if I wanted to join the company now that I’m out of the army, but I told him I needed time to recover and he’s all solicitude, so I stay here and brood and practice the piano. Father, though, he’s at the center of supply, and if there’s something I learned out of all this it’s that supply is more important to this war than bravery. Talk to him. Tell him you’re my best friend. Tell him you went into the Hussars to serve like me. Tell him all those things that stir a father’s heart. He’ll know who’s in Vienna now that can get something done for you. It’s his war now. My war is over.”

“All right, I will. Thank you. So what about you? What will you do now?”

Friedrich shrugged, and that bitter-half laugh again. “I decided last week not to shoot myself. That’s progress, eh? I have been playing, though. They had a piano at the officer’s hospital, which was a very welcome distraction. I’m too old, of course, to become any kind of a performer, but I’ve been thinking about composing. In fact--” He leaned closer. “Do you want to hear a fragment I’ve been working on?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

With the most energy Jozef had seen in him during the visit, Friedrich wheeled himself over to the piano, which Jozef now saw no longer had a bench sitting in front of it.

“It’s just a fragment,” Friedrich said, after some careful adjusting of the wheelchair so that he could reach the keys comfortably. “I was thinking while in hospital about music and modernity and the chaos of war, and-- No, better without the explanations. Just listen.”

Jozef was relieved, after Friedrich’s partial explanation, to find that the piece seemed to be something he could very well understand. A waltz just such as might be heard in the ballroom, which after a moment became more martial in its tone, then switched rhythms after a burst of jangling noise into a marching tune. But then the tune seemed to fall gradually to pieces. Expected notes were missing. The rhythm became ragged. Then the march disappeared completely into a welter of sound with no discernable tune, though something about its tone seemed malevolent. At last, the music stopped abruptly. He waited, not sure if it was done or this was a pause.

“As I said, it’s not finished.” Friedrich rolled himself back from the piano. “But what do you think?”

“I liked the beginning a lot,” Jozef said. “But I don’t know if I understood the later parts.”

“Ha! Said like the good bourgeois gentile that you are, Jozef. No matter. If I can finish it and find a good soloist, perhaps I’ll get a half dozen grubby types who think they like experimental music to come listen to it, and a Jew critic will write it up and say it’s brilliant. Such is fame. Do you know, I think it’s nearly noon. Will you have lunch with me? Good. Minna! Send for sandwiches and champagne. Jozef is going to eat with us.”

The meal lasted a convivial couple of hours, and by the end of it Friedrich was clearly exhausted.

“You were always the one who had to give up first,” he said as Jozef poured himself the last of the bottle of the second bottle of champagne. “But I’m going to have to leave you to it this time. No, no! You don’t have to go. Just excuse the two of us for a moment while Minna gets me settled, then she can see you out.”

Nearly ten minutes passed. Jozef had time to finish the champagne and wonder whether he should take himself quietly away. He was just rising to do so when Minna hurried back in.

“I’m sorry. Everything takes time now. I’m glad to see you’re still here. Come, I’ll see you out.”

She was a short, well curved woman, and as Jozef followed her he couldn’t help recalling Friedrich saying that he had told her she was free to have another man. Was that her aim? No, there was nothing of that air in her movements.

Minna led the way out of the flat onto the landing and shut the door softly behind them, then turned to him. “Thank you for coming. You don’t know what a change it made in him, especially the chance to play you his music. Thank you.”

“Of course. I wish that I could do more. I’ll write when I’m back with my unit.”

“He’d like that. Really, this is the best it’s been since he came home. Last week he gave me his service pistol and his razor to keep. When he first came home, he really seemed to think that everything was over. He told me I could go, and I think he expected that I would. When I told him that I wouldn’t leave him, he offered to marry me.” She had her own version of the bitter laugh. “You’d think that would make me happy, wouldn’t you?”

The rush of talk seemed almost like Friedrich’s description of his last fight in its urgency. Perhaps she too felt the need to have someone interested in hearing about her misfortunes. An answer seemed expected, so he prompted, “Well, didn’t it?”

She shook her head. “I knew he only offered because he thought it didn’t matter now. No children. No career. There was a time, you know. A year ago. There could have been a child. But I was a good kept woman. I took the money and went to a discreet doctor and had it dealt with. And now, that was the only one there’ll ever be. If I’d known then. Now it’s too late for me too. The roles are cast now and there’s no switching parts.” These last came out with a tremor that was halfway between a sob and a laugh. She pressed her lips together and looked away for a moment. When she turned back to him her voice was steady. “If he’d thought he had any future he never would have offered to marry an opera singer. That’s when I really began to fear he’d do something to himself.”

Jozef tried to parse this unexpected glimpse into the secret trials that made another’s life possible. He had never thought before whether there was a price to be paid for the external glamor of a rich cavalry officer keeping a beautiful opera singer.

“I think he’s past the danger of doing something to himself, and he has you to thank for that,” he said. The words came slowly as he grasped for each phrase, trying to find the sentiments appropriate to the moment. “If he seems angry or ungrateful it’s because he puts you between himself and dangers, like giving you the keys to the liquor cabinet.”

“Yes, I know that.”

Of course she did. What could he say to her when she was so much deeper into all of this than he? “Is there anything that I can do to help him? Or you?”

“There is. That’s why I came out to talk to you.”

She bit her lip and looked away a moment, and Jozef again wondered what her aim was in speaking to him privately.

“You’re going to see his father, aren’t you?”

“Yes. He said he could help me get my commission. I’ll go directly.”

She leaned close, as if even here outside the flat she could be overheard. “Ask him to come visit. Friedrich told his father not to visit. He’s afraid of being a burden, and his father is too deferential to the family hero to disobey. But I know that it would do Friedrich good to see him, and Baron von Goldfaden will listen to you. He hates me,” she added matter of factly. “He thinks I’m out to take Friedrich’s money.”

Jozef promised to ask the Baron to visit, and with a brief thanks and an even briefer goodbye, Minna turned and went back into the flat.

No, she had clearly not come out with him out of any restless desires.

***

It was late afternoon by the time Jozef reached Baron von Goldfaden’s offices. He had worried that at this late hour, and without an appointment, he might not be able to see the magnate, but when he presented his visiting card and explained to the secretary that Friedrich had suggested his visit, the young man made the briefest of telephone calls and then led him up a lift and down a corridor to the baron’s private office.

The room was laid out to be impressive. The room was longer than it was wide, and the baron’s massive wooden desk stood at the far end from the door with large windows behind it looking out across the wide street outside. It would have been a daunting place to go into a difficult interview, but the baron took no advantage of its formality. As soon as Jozef entered, von Goldfaden came hurrying around his desk with both arms out in greeting.

“Cadet von Revay!” He took both Jozef’s hands in his and wrung them thoroughly. “You’ve seen my son? How is he? We’re so proud of him.”

“Yes, I saw him today and had lunch with him. He’s recovering well.”

“Good, good.” The baron took a pair of wire rimmed spectacles from the pocket of his suit coat and put them on. This somehow signalled to both that the business phase of the visit could begin. “Now, tell me about what you’ve come. Best to get business out of the way first. Then we can talk more about my boy. Never let sentiment interfere with business. I warn you, that’s my principle.”

Nonetheless, rather than retreating behind the bulwark of his desk, he led Jozef to a pair of leather upholstered chairs standing against the wall, and there they sat down, nearly knee to knee.

Jozef described his difficulties in being posted to an active duty unit. “I’ve learned that my mother has used a connection on the general staff to shelter me from front line duty. I spoke to her, but she is adamant. It’s understandable in a woman, but I feel it’s my duty to serve the empire as Friedrich did, not let myself be held back.”

“That’s worthy, young man. Very worthy. I honor you, as I did my son. But what do you come to me for?”

“I know that you must have many contacts with the army due to your war work. Can you use your influence for me to get a posting to an active duty regiment? I don’t ask that it be a fashionable regiment. I just want to serve the fatherland.”

“You want me to get you a commission?”

“If you can put a word in the right ear. I know that they need fresh replacements, and I’ve been in training longer than any of the other cadets in my group were. I just want the chance to do my duty.”

Baron von Goldfaden sat back in his chair. The family resemblance between him and his son was strong, though whether through age or some chance of heredity, it seemed to Jozef that the most Jewish traits were stronger in the father than the son: his skin darker, his nose larger and more bent, his graying hair curlier. Even the cut of his suit, though made of the best materials, to the experienced eyes said: Jew. Would Friedrich look thus when he was older, or was a time coming when these differences would fade away and no longer be accounted?

“I know that it’s a great favor that I’m asking, sir,” he added, unsure what the baron’s pause meant, “But I don’t have anyone else to whom I can turn.”

“I’ll help you, young man. I’m glad to help. I was just thinking. I don’t believe that any Gentile has asked me for help of this kind before. For money. For contracts. For business connections. But never for help of this kind. Don’t concern yourself with it anymore. I think I know the ears which need to hear a word. You may depend on receiving orders within the week. And you must serve with honor as Friedrich has.” At this last he put away his spectacles and took Jozef’s hands again. “Now tell me: How did you find my son today? Tell me everything.”

Jozef told as much as seemed appropriate, adding as his own Minna’s request. “You should go to see him, sir. I know you respect his privacy, and he won’t ask. Still, I think it would do him good to see you.”

“I will. I will. Thank you, young man. This has been the best quarter-hour of my day.”

The baron rose, and Jozef did likewise, seeing the interview to be over.

“I’ll be glad to visit him,” the baron said as he led Jozef to the door. “I worry about him. Not just his health. That’s that singer as well, who I fear will take advantage of his weak condition to form a permanent attachment to him and try to secure his money. A nice toy, I’m sure, for a young man about the town, but not the sort of woman one would want to have in the family, eh? I tell you,” he put a hand on Jozef’s shoulder, “I’d happily give a good deal if someone would take her on and move her safely away from Friedrich.”

The meaning was all too clear. If he would take Minna, the baron would gladly pay him for it. Too clearly he recalled the matter-of-fact tone in which she had said of the baron, “He hates me.” And yet who had given more for his son?

“No, sir. I don’t think you need to fear her. She cares for Friedrich and for his family honor.”

“Does she? Well, if you say so. All the better.” The baron shrugged away the exchange as he might any other business offer not accepted: a pity but hardly something over which to sour a partnership. He assured Jozef once again that he need give no more worry to the commission. The baron would make his calls and there would be orders within the week.

Out in the street, as he looked for a taxi to hail, Jozef saw another beggar in a soldier’s coat, this one with his empty right sleeve pinned up across his chest. Jozef pulled out the handful of cash that would have secured the taxi ride and a dinner at a night restaurant and shoved it into the beggar’s cup, then hurried off on foot. What was left would get him a sandwich and a drink or two at a beer hall, and he would no longer have the uncomfortable memory of the beggar outside the train station on his conscience.

In the end he spent no money at the beer hall. His hussar’s uniform drew a crowd of older men who bought him rounds of beer while asking for stories of the war, which he supplied with increasing shamelessness after each mug of beer. At the end of the night, he reeled to a taxi and rode home, where he pulled himself up to the flat one flight of stairs at a time.

The next day he caught the early train back to Veszprém. There were still four days left to his leave, but when he reached the Revay country house, he found that Klara had already gone.

Read the next installment.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Chapter 16-1

We're back with Jozef in the Austro-Hungarian hussars, but right now he's striving not against enemy fire but family secrets and a love affair which may not be going as he'd like.

I was sick last week, and that made it impossible to pull the kind of consistent late nights that seem to be essential to getting work done. The novel now weights in at 216k words. I'm consistently running a bit long right now. Wrapping up Jozef will take two more installments totaling around 10k. Then we go back to Natalie, which should bring the novel to nearly 240k, right there. The final three shorter chapters will bring that total to 255-260. And at the rate I'm going, my best shot is to be done by the end of January.

However, I have lots of time off coming. Expect this chapter done before the new year, and hopefully some of Natalie as well. I hope you enjoy it.




Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. December 5th, 1914.
Uncle Henrik poured brandy into two glasses and handed one of them to Jozef.

“It’s good to have you here again, my boy. And for a whole week. I trust the leave wasn’t too hard to come by? We were starting to think you didn’t care for us anymore. It’s been nearly a month.”

“No difficulty. Rittmeister Koell sends his compliments to you.”

In truth, the Rittmeister had been all too willing to let him go on a week long pass. In the middle of November, as the army scraped for men to fill the ranks in the winter counter-attack in Galicia, Oberstleutnant Zingler had at last been gratified in his ambitions and received orders to take half the regiment to the front as replacements for active duty regiments badly mauled in the autumn’s fighting. The squadrons had been reformed based on age and fitness so that three, consisting of the most battle-ready men could move out. Two of the cadets had received their commissions and left with the replacement squadrons. Three others had received orders to join various other units. One was laid up in the barracks with a broken pelvis, the result of a bad fall while riding. And that left Jozef, the sole cadet in a half reserve unit in which remained only the officers who had been deemed unfit for frontline duty or had successfully used connections to continue their quiet existence far from the cannon’s roar.

It had been a day full of chaos and excitement as horses, equipment, and at last men were loaded on the rail cars, but a grim one for Jozef who had to watch as a spectator like the many wives and lovers who had turned out to see their men off. At last, he had gone back to his room and begun to draft a third letter to the commission board, asking to be given an assignment to a front line unit. What could he say that he had not already said in the previous two? Beg? Demand? Claim influence? He had been crumpling another draft when an orderly from the communications office had come in with a folded blue piece of paper, a telegram.

Orders? He had unfolded it. There had been only one word typewritten on the sheet. “Tonight.” But he knew immediately from whom it came. Orders of a sort, but not for the front. Orders from Klara.

She had protracted her stay at the Revay country house. Jozef had only been invited twice more since the partridge hunt, two weekends during which he had spent his days with his uncles, ignored by Klara. Then at night she would come to his room after the house was asleep and leave before dawn. One or twice each week, however, he received a note from Klara, and then he would catch the last local train of the evening to the next station up the line. There, at a well appointed and discreet little hotel, he would tell the old lady behind the desk that he was Mr. Szabó, checking in for the night, and she would reply, “Of course sir. Your wife has already arrived. You have your usual room,” and give him the key.

As he had suffered the indignities of being a cadet apparently unwanted by the army he had so eagerly joined, these nights had provided a needed source of masculine pride. Klara did not always want to talk. Some nights when he tried to begin a conversation, she put a finger to his lips, and said, “Let me tell you what I’d like tonight.” But from the nights on which they talked over an evening meal, and from the fierceness with which she held him at other times, he had constructed an understanding of the young wife ignored by the uncaring husband who was twenty years her senior. Jozef was her protector. Indeed, it was his duty as an officer and a gentleman to protect a woman so vulnerable, so alone. He loved her in a world which had abandoned her to an unloving marriage. And she… She was his mistress. His woman. A dependent that made him something more than he had ever been before. Even if the army, in its labyrinthine bureaucracy did not see fit to recognize his worth, Klara needed him.

To be sure, there were certain inconsistencies which at times troubled this narrative. It was she who had chosen their place of assignation. She who chose the nights on which they would meet. She who paid for the hotel. And she who had made him sundry small but expensive presents: the gold cigarette case, the cigar cutter with a sterling regimental crest on it. Yet surely, these were simply a result of the circumstances in which they found themselves: he living on his pay, she the one who knew when she could make her excuses for an overnight excursion. There was a fundamental relation between man and woman, and if at times these things caused him to think in a moment of resentment or self-accusation that instead of her being his mistress, he was hers, surely the way in which she lay her head upon his chest as she slept, the way she sheltered in his arms, these proved that it was he who was the protector and provider.

“So,” Uncle Henrik asked. “Have you exhausted your commander’s patience with this visit, or do we have some chance of seeing you over Christmas?”

“He said that if I’d like additional leave during Christmas, there’s little enough the regiment will be doing from Christmas through Epiphany.”

“Of course, of course.” Henrik gripped his cigar in his teeth and thus freed a hand to give Jozef a hearty slap on the back. “There are Christmas festivities to be had, and you’re a soldier far from home. It’s the least we can do. And besides, we shall be lonely and in need of company as Klara is finally taking her leave of us. She and her husband will be celebrating Christmas and the new year in Budapest.”

The news fell as an unexpected blow. Why had Klara said nothing when they had last met four days before? Were these plans new? Would she really go back to her husband, or would this demand from her husband cause her to break with him?

The last few months, however, had trained him to conceal the affair at every turn. Even as doubts and questions swirled within, without he gave a laugh. “What, now she leaves? Surely she’s a part of the family by now she’s stayed so long.”

“Ha! Not so bad for you if she is, eh? Quite the little tigress you’ve got there.”

“Uncle! I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Had he been so unsubtle? Had he said aloud some word of what was in his thoughts.

“Come now, Jozef. Don’t try to out fox the old fox himself. We’re men here. There’s no need for lies between us.”

Jozef hesitated. The door of the billiard room was closed. The felted table, the cigar smoke in the air, the bookshelves and leather armchairs -- all these promised a sort of masculine confessional, the secrets of which would never be revealed outside. It would be a relief to let the secret go. There was something in constant concealment that grated on the soul. And yet, a lady’s honor rested on his keeping her secrets.

“I don’t know what you mean, but I assure you that you’re mistaken,” he said, his tone formal.

“Ah well, if that’s the way you must have it.” His uncle shrugged the denial away. “Come, how about a game of billiards before the ladies send for us.”

He did not normally play against his uncle. He could not afford the stakes that Henrik and the baron normally played for. But the baron was not visiting this time, busy with the activities of the Honved regiment, and talk of billiards and wagers would move the conversation away from Klara.

“All right. For small stakes. Remember, I still live off a cadet’s pay.”

***

The country house retired early by society standards. Jozef went up to his room at eleven. The second bachelor room had become Jozef’s own, and so it was given him on this visit even though the baron was not there to take the first. That wing of guest rooms had been left aside in the most recent renovation, and its bare stone walls and pine board flooring spoke to a simplicity which most of the country house had lost in the intervening years. The carpet in the center of the room was deep and soft, however, and the bed was a large old curtained one. He undid the ties which normally held the curtains back, letting them fall into place. With the brocade curtains drawn, and a candle in the wall bracket above his head, the bed could become its own little room. This way he would not sit staring at the door, waiting for it to open, nor would his candle cast a sudden light into the hall when the door was opened.

He hung his uniform in the wardrobe, put on his dressing gown, and retired to the bed with a french novel he had pilfered from the billiard room. It would be an hour until, assured that the household was soundly in its beds, Klara made her quiet passage down the halls to his room.

After the first night when she had come silently into his room, he had offered to traverse the halls himself instead. Surely her reputation was more in danger if one of the servants saw her in the corridor at night. She had only laughed. “Country house servants are not taught to remember whom they have seen in the hallways at night.” And besides, she had pointed out, her more spacious quarters were connected both to her maid’s room and to the suite shared by her son and his nurse. Jozef’s bare little bachelor room was far more discreet.

When it at last came, her arrival was cat-like. The very faintest bump as the door was re-closed, a slight whisper of slippers on floor, and then the curtains parted. She had taken off her nightgown before getting in. He had a brief glimpse of long arms and legs and the pale smooth contours of her back before she dived beneath the covers and pulled them up until only her head was visible, the comforter pulled up under her sharp chin and her loose hair spread across the pillow above.

“It’s cold,” she said, with edge of laughter in her voice. “You could have built up the fire for me.”

He closed the book with which he had passed the last hour. “Why? I can keep you warm enough in here.”

“Mmmm. Is that so? What have you been keeping warm with until now?” She snaked a bare arm out and took the book. “Ah, un roman français. Est-il très scandaleuse?

“Fair to middling.”

She opened the book and idly flipped the pages. Jozef took off his dressing gown and dumped it over the edge of the bed onto the floor, then settled further under the covers, closer to her. He could have spent many happy moments looking at her bare shoulders, the way her collar bones stood out, and the little cord of muscle in her neck that appeared when she turned her head. How many more times would he see this? Was she distracting herself with his book because she knew she had to tell him that she was leaving?

“Did you come here to read?” he asked, reaching out to trace a finger along her jawline.

“Not this.” She closed the book and handed it to him. “Lots of long conversations about whether marriage is bourgeois. Not even a nice boudoir scene to liven it up.”

“It’s social satire.”

“God, isn’t the real society satire enough?” She rolled over to lay on her stomach. “Rub my back, will you? It’s been such a trying day. No, not those soft caresses. Not yet. Pound it.”

Obediently he half sat up and began to knead his palms firmly up and down her back and along her shoulder blades in the way that she had taught during one of their nights at the hotel. After a few minutes she began to make little approving noises when he pressed particularly hard.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I required.”

He planted a kiss on the back of her neck and began to settle down against her.

“No, don’t stop,” she said.

He resumed the kneading, but her murmurs of approval had been arousing. He wanted to make love to her, not spend the night rubbing her back.

“That’s better,” she said after a moment, raising a shoulder blade so that he could work it harder. After a moment she added, “There was a great scandal a few years back when Baroness Orosz ran away with a Swedish masseuse at the end of her stay at the spas in Baden-Baden. She might have had a point, though. Have you ever considered leaving the cavalry to pursue another career?”

“But you don’t need to meet me at a spa town. You already have me.”

“Yes, but running off with a cavalry officer is such a conventional choice. It doesn’t have the really disreputable sound of ‘ran off with her masseuse.’”

“Are you going to run off with me?”

There was a pause before she answered, and he tried to judge if he felt her back tighten. “What sort of a question is that?”

“My uncle says that you are leaving for Budapest soon.”

“Yes. In a week. That’s why I told him to invite you.”

“When will I see you again? When will you be back?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been here two months. I’m sure it’s longer than I should have stayed.”

“But--”

“My God, stop it!” She shook off his hands and rolled over onto her side, turning her back to him. “It’s too much. Now my back hurts.” She pulled the covers up around her until just her hair, a tangle of gold, was visible.

Jozef hesitated. What would soften this sudden mood? Perhaps it was the idea of the impending separation that was upsetting her.

“You don’t have to go. Leave your husband. Come with me. I’ll find a way to get my commission to a front line regiment, get it before the new year. As a leutnant my pay will be twice what it is as a cadet. We’ll rent a house for you in the town where I’m stationed.” He was talking faster as the ideas poured out, half-formed dreams given solidity by being spoken aloud. The future stretched before him. He would take little Laszlo under his care as well, and the boy would thrive on having a father to look up to every day. Didn’t he himself know the pain of growing up with only a mother? Some day, perhaps, if she so desired, he and Klara would have their own children. He pictured a little girl with her mother’s sharp chin and golden hair. The war would be over soon. He would rise in the army. He’d stride home from the base offices each day in his riding boots and Klara would meet him at the door before the children could rush to him. It would be like a happier version of the life his uncle Henrik lived here.

“Commission? Double your pay? Rent a house?” Klara’s words cut through his fantasy, and as she spoke she threw back the comforter with which she’d covered herself and lay back against the mattress to face him. “Are you lying in bed with me talking about money? Dear boy, what do you take me for?”

She was speaking to him, but his eyes were irresistibly drawn to her breasts, exposed when she threw back the covers.

“We have had a blissful two month’s idyll. That is all. But it is enough. You would not be happy trying to provide for me on a junior officer’s pay, and I would not be happy letting you make the experiment. So I won’t. Now my dearest boy, we have a week which we can spend in every enjoyment. But if you insist instead on trying to do what cannot be done, then please, leave now and we shall both do our best with the memories we already have.”

And as if she were putting the shroud of time over memories of the affair already, she pulled the comforter up to her chin again and turned away from him, lying on her side.

He sat, without words, looking at the head that was turned away from him. Was there really nothing he could do? Did she not want him, or was she merely afraid that he would not be able to provide sufficiently for her. If it could be done through any effort of his, he would do it. But what if, truly, she was not interested?

She let the silence stretch out for several minutes which to his racing mind seemed much longer. Then she turned back to him, a bare arm reaching out from the shelter of the covers.

“Here. You don’t have to say anything. Lay down against me where it’s warm. Learning the game is hard, at first. Once upon a time, not long after Laszlo was born, I made quite a fool of myself over an older man, but with great tact he taught me of discretion. Now come. Lay down. Your hand there. Now we’re both quite comfortable. Let’s have no words for a little while as we remember how things were.”

***

She was gone in the morning, the bed tousled and empty beside him. This was how it had been every morning when at the country house, yet the empty pillow beside him made the morning sunlight coming in the windows seem pale and hopeless. He pulled the bed curtains closed again and went back to sleep, rising only late in the morning.

The breakfast room was empty when he at last went downstairs, the food and pots of coffee long cleared away. At last he found a kitchen maid and asked her to have a pot of coffee made and sent up to the billiard room. There he had thought he would be alone, but instead he found his uncle, seated at a side table finishing the day’s paper.

“Ah, Jozef, my boy. You’ve taken your ease this morning. Here, this came for you this morning by motorcycle courier.”

Henrik handed him a folded paper with the crest of the Imperial Royal Telegraph Company printed on it, and underneath Jozef’s own name and unit scrawled hastily in blue ink.

Were these at last orders? A commission? No, none of the other cadets had received their orders by telegram. Some sort of news from home? Had something happened to his mother?

He unfolded the paper. The sender line read, “Minna Barta, Vienna, Austria” A name which he was unable to place until halfway through the text, which was pasted down on little strips of typewritten paper.
FRIEDRICH HOME FROM HOSPITAL BUT IN VERY LOW SPIRITS/ A LETTER CALL OR VISIT FROM YOU WOULD GREATLY HELP HIM/ PLEASE/ I FEAR FOR HIM/ -M

Friedrich home from the hospital? What had happened? How long was it since he had last received a letter from Friedrich about his exploits in Galicia? Five weeks. But then, the mails could be so irregular. Had it been more or less time than that? How badly was he wounded?

He started towards the door, then stopped. There was nothing that could be done at this moment.

“Bad news from home?” asked Henrik.

“My friend has been wounded. I don’t know how badly. He’s just out of the hospital.”

“Ah, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear it.”

Jozef paced to the window, stopped, read the telegram again, then shoved it into his pocket. Friedrich was such a force of action. Now he was wounded. Would he recover, or would he be forever changed? It was impossible to picture Friedrich walking with a cane, or with an arm immobilized.

And meanwhile he himself was still inactive. Waiting. “When will I get orders for the front? All the other cadets have gone already.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Henrik said.

Jozef turned on him. There was something about the tone of the remark he did not like. Did his uncle think him a coward, or too young and ineffective to be useful in the war? “What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t have avoided it this long without influence. They’ve burned through too many young cavalry lieutenants to be picky. Depend upon it: Lisette is taking good care of you through some lover of hers. And not so bad for you either, eh? You’ve found a nice little piece to conquer here, much more pleasant than Serbia.”

“What?”

“Oh come, let’s not take discretion to the point of farce. It’s enough to never mention the lady’s name. You don’t need to pretend we’re all blind.”

Indeed, it seemed clear enough that Henrik knew about the liaison with Klara. But that his uncle did not realize what had actually caused Jozef’s surprise suggested that Henrik considered the other revelation to be utterly common knowledge. “No. What are you saying about my mother?”

“Well, my boy--”

It was at that moment that the kitchen maid entered with the pot of coffee that Jozef had ordered, and found herself glared at by both men. She set the silver pot down on the table and fled the room. At the moment the door closed both men burst into speech, then stopped, waiting for the other.

Jozef began again, this time with forced slowness. “Do you know something of my mother that you have concealed from me?”

“Surely…” Henrik shuffled at the letters on his table. “We are men of the world, my boy.”

The refusal to answer seemed confirmation enough, but such a revelation demanded clarity, not glancing hints.

“Tell me what you know, Uncle.”

“I don’t like you being in the dark about all this, my boy, but you have to see it’s a damned awkward thing to have to tell a man about his mother. And she is my sister. Really, it ought to come from her.”

From Mother? That was rich. A great deal came from mother, but it was increasingly clear that very little of what came from her was truth.

“However awkward it may be, Uncle, I demand to know it. All the more so if I am the only one my mother chooses to keep in ignorance about her doings.”

“Well, I suppose that’s fair enough.” Henrik began to pour himself a drink, then stopped and pushed the bottle aside. “God, it’s not even noon. We should be having these conversations at night so we can get drunk like decent people.”

He paused, turning to Jozef as if hoping for permission to drop the subject for now, but Jozef remained silent and met his gaze. His uncle turned away first.

“Istvan told you about your father. Lisette was his mistress for several years, and when he wouldn’t marry her, we made him settle a pension on her.”

“Yes. But you said that he put her away when I was only two.”

“Indeed he did. That left Lisette twenty-two years old, living as a pretty young widow in Vienna, with a taste for expensive things. Now Lisette has always had a certain way with the facts. God knows I suffered for it as a boy. Our father believed her over me every time, even though often enough the truth lay on my side. But a facility for telling the truth as you’d like it to be will only get you so far. If you’re trying to actually marry, people make investigations and check facts. So although her role as pretty young widow would have made her a perfect match for someone with a title and an income, she must have known that she couldn’t pull off such a gambit. It’s an odd thing. While I could swear that Lisette hardly knows it when she lies -- she believes everything she says -- she seems to have an instinct for avoiding circumstances that would catch her out. So as far as I know she never tried to remarry.”

“I’m not asking you what she didn’t do; I’m asking you what it is that you were making implications about?”

“And I’m telling you. Calm yourself, my boy. Well what does a pretty young widow do if she wants the benefits of an alliance without compromising her independence? She takes advantage of the fact that her widowhood allows her to entertain as if she were a married woman, and she takes a lover or two.”

“Or two?”

“What? Let me ask you this: Do you think your current liaison is the first that’s been had in that quarter?”

Jozef felt the blood rising in his face, and for a moment he imagined stepping forward and delivering a stinging slap as Friedrich had when challenging the dragoon officer. But then, how could he challenge his uncle in the man’s own house, and for the offense of referring obliquely to an affair which Jozef had begun under that very roof. It was not as if Jozef truly believed Klara had never taken a lover before. Whether in bed or in the practicalities of arranging their meetings, she was too practiced to imagine that. Yet to refer to it… Was this really what it meant to be a man of the world? To take all this for granted?

“No need to look like that. I’m not trying to attack your amour. I’m trying to make you set aside the prudishness of youth and understand is that the only difference between someone like her and someone like your mother is that because she had the prudence to get married before getting involved with other men, she doesn’t have to concern herself with questions of who can provide for her financial wants when she chooses a lover. She already has a husband to take care of such things, and she only needs to please herself when she takes someone to bed. Lisette, on the other hand, has to think about a lover the way most women only think about a husband: calculate whether he has the means and willingness to support her at the level to which she is accustomed.”

It was not a comparison Jozef could find comforting on either side. Did his mother really plan and weigh and bargain herself away? Details fell into place. The iron rule that she was not to be disturbed in her suite until she was up and Elsa opened the doors to her rooms. The men she occasionally introduced to others are parties as ‘my particular friend’. Indeed the very phrase brought to mind Oberst Rigo, one of those to whom she had most often applied it. And he was on the General Staff. Was that the connection whose existence his uncle had guessed? Had Mother asked him to make sure that her son was never posted to a combat unit?

The idea of his mother earning in bed the cost of their flat, of everything he had taken for granted in their life, was revolting. And yet, could it be true that there was no difference between his mother and Klara, other than that his mother relied on her lovers for money while Klara relied on her husband? Surely that was only Henrik’s cynicism at work. Klara did not desire the sort of life that she was trapped in. If he could break his mother’s hold upon his life and get a front line commission, he could prove his manhood and independence both in battle and financially. If he could provide the security of a full officer’s pay and pension, surely Klara would put aside her hesitations and come with him. Surely she must be dreading the return to Budapest and having to live with a husband she did not love.

Henrik was still talking. “I know these matters must take a little getting used to. You haven’t had a father to teach you the little hypocrisies which make us civilized. But don’t think too harshly of your mother in all this. Even if you feel you’d rather be off freezing in a trench for the Empire, she has your best interests at heart.”

Jozef did not reply, and after a moment Henrik took the opportunity to gather up his papers and leave the room.

It was a quiet afternoon at the country house. Klara and Magda were engaged in feminine pursuits, and Henrik did not invite his nephew along when he went on a long afternoon ride with the gamekeeper. After some thought, Jozef sat down with the railway timetable and began to make plans.

Although they were often in the same room, and even sat next to each other at dinner, there was no opportunity to speak seriously to Klara during the evening until she slipped into Jozef’s bed in the small hours of the morning.

“I have a plan,” he told her, as her body settled against his under the covers.

“Do you?” Her tone suggested an expectation it was a plan to be acted out between the sheets that night.

“I’m going to go to Vienna. I’m going to find out how my mother has used her influence to keep me from getting a commission to a front line unit, and I’m going to make them stop their meddling and give me a commission.”

“That all sounds very well and important, but what’s so urgent about it now?” He felt her stretch and run a foot along his leg.

“I’ve been looking at the railway timetables. If catch the 10:40 express tomorrow, I can be in Vienna by evening. My friend Friedrich is back after being wounded. He has connections on the general staff. I’ll see him and--”

“You plan to go tomorrow?” She was clearly listening to him now, as she had not been before, but her voice had a hard edge to it.

“Yes.”

“But we have this week together. Our last week.”

“This is a unique opportunity. I have a full week’s leave. Even if it takes a few days to untangle things in Vienna I’ll be back before the week is over.”

“Get more leave. This is mine.”

“But if I can get a commission I could provide for us.”

“I don’t want you to provide for me. I want to you to spend this last week with me.”

“If I have a commission it won’t have to be a last week.”

Klara threw back the covers and climbed on top of him. The cold winter air was a shock against his skin. This was not like the times when they threw back the sheets and felt that their passion had warmed the whole room. But with a slow rocking of her hips she immediately gained his full attention.

“Are you going to Vienna tomorrow?” she asked, leaning almost close enough to kiss.

“I have to. Don’t you see?”

“No.”

She did not speak to him again that night. She made love to him with a clawing, biting, gasping intensity. And then at the point when they might have lain, side by side, and talked in the darkness, she turned her back and remained silent.

Jozef put an arm around her. “I have to go. I have to stop my mother’s meddling so that I can prove myself in the army.”

She pushed his arm away.

***

He awoke early and went down to the breakfast room, hoping to see Klara again, even under the enforced caution of others’ eyes, but even though he waited long after finishing his own meal she did not appear. Before taking his things from his room, he re-opened his suitcase and searched it, hoping to find an envelope among his things as he had after the visit on which they had first met. There was nothing.

Henrik and Magda came to see him off as the chauffeur loaded Jozef’s bags into Henrik’s automobile for the drive into town to the train station. As the car pulled slowly down the gravel drive, Jozef turned to look back. Henrik’s two oldest children were running along behind, arms waving. His aunt and uncle stood at the top of the steps. But even now, Klara did not appear. No face appeared at an upper window. No handkerchief waved. She was gone.


Read the next installment.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Chapter 15-3

This took longer than I thought, in part because it ran longer than I thought: a little over seven thousand words, which makes it almost double the average length of an installment. However, I'm pretty proud of how this turned out. I hope you enjoy it.

This concludes Chapter 15. The next installment will be up within a week (this time for sure!). We'll be returning to Jozef for Chapter 16.


Chateau Ducloux, France. October 28th, 1914. The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons was unchanged by the three months of occupation. Behind the wrought iron vines and flowers of the decorative fence, the gardens rose as pristine and manicured as when Philomene had come in July to seek permission to host her fete there.

With war had come a near paralysis of the town’s economy. Trucks and wagons no longer pulled up in front of the Mertens shop each morning to make deliveries of merchandise to stock the shelves, nor did Louis Mertens’s customers have reliable means of income to pay for his wares. And of course, Henri was no longer earning the fees of his accounting work. Thus Philomene had no longer been able to pay Madame Ragot and Emilie for the hours they spent cooking, cleaning, and watching the children, and for the first time in her married life she was confronted with the full weight of her household’s labor.

As in so many things, the Perreaus inhabited another level of society. They did not employ help by the hour. On the household register posted on the grey stone wall of the house, above the ornamented brass plate which held the button for the electric doorbell, were listed not just Madame Perreau and her son Justin, now the German-appointed mayor, but also the gardener, the cook, and two maids, all residents of the house. If the invasion had reduced the Perreau household income by cutting them off from the Paris stock exchange and the interest payments on government bonds, the house remained the home of its workers as well as its masters and all had, so far, dealt with the deprivations of occupation together.

“Madame Perreau is still in the breakfast room, but she will see you there,” the elderly maid told Philomene, after leaving her for some time to contemplate the entry hall.

The breakfast room was a sunny, east-facing room opening onto the careful order of the rose garden. The roses bushes were bare of blooms and leaves now. Among the geometric order of the gravel paths, the twisted fingers of bare canes already pruned back for the winter pointed at the grey autumn sky, the barren order a fitting vision of the town as it waited to weather a cold season whose length was not yet known.

Madame Perreau was wearing her usual black silk dress, a pair of gold-rimmed pince nez perched upon her nose, sitting at the table with a portable writing desk before her. A silver coffee pot sat next to her, and it was not until Philomene inhaled its fragrant scent that she realized how much she had missed the pot of morning coffee.

She took the seat towards which Madame Perreau waved her and waited until the older woman signed her letter with a flourish and blotted it carefully.

“So, Madame Fournier, to what do I owe this honor?”

It was with a slight effort that Philomene turned her eyes from the coffee pot, where she had rested her jealous gaze while waiting for Madame Perreau to speak, and focused them instead on the face of her host. Putting aside hopes that she would be offered a cup, she organized her thoughts.

“I wanted to consult you about the requisition order which has been published. Firstly, is there any chance that the Germans could be persuaded to rescind their order? Surely, when so many of the men are without work or away in the army, and now with winter coming on, we are in no position--”

Madame Perreau raised her hand to cut her off. “If you’ve cometo ask me to influence city administration then you are wasting both of our time. I have no power over my son’s official duties, and even if I did the military commandant takes no direction from the civil government. Our civil administration is allowed to exist only to carry out the wishes of the military one.”

Philomene lowered her head in submission. “To be sure. I quite understand. In that case, my other errand is simply to you as a leader among the town’s women.”

“Yes?”

The question was asked coldly, and Philomene felt sure that her errand was in vain, but having got this far she would not give up without asking. If Madame Perreau did not care to help, let her say so.

“Surely if we must meet this unreasonable demand from the invaders, we should band together as Frenchwomen to assure that the most vulnerable among us do not bear the brunt of the hardship. We could organize a collection to meet these demands without the poorest families having to give up their blankets or cooking pots right before winter. I’m sure some families could spare three wool blankets more easily than others could give even one.”

To her surprise the widow was nodding slowly. “It is a very good idea, Madame Fournier. A very Christian idea. The Lord tells us to look out for the very least among us, does he not?”

Relief flooded into Philomene, but Madame Perreau continued speaking.

“But we must ask ourselves: Who are really the least among us, and how can we best help them? I tell you: If the Germans see that we have organized in order to meet their demands, they will simply see it as an opportunity to ask for more. We will have put a tool into their hands to plunder the town further. And really, it is so hard to say who is most needy in such difficult times. I’m sure that everyone thinks of my own household as the most fortunate, but you know, we have two officers quartered on us and are responsible for giving them rooms and food and fuel. And despite having lost access to our investments, I am committed to supporting all of our staff. You dismissed your maid and cook, and the maid now does laundry for the Germans. But I could not leave those who have worked for me so long to fend for themselves by serving the serving the occupiers in that fashion.”

Philomene felt her hands clenching into fists to stop from trembling with anger. “I did not dismiss Emilie and Madame Ragot. I did not have the money to continue paying them at the old rates, and naturally they did not wish to accept a reduction.”

“Don’t think that I’m attacking you,” Madame Perreau assured with a smile which Philomene could only see as mocking. “We must each make our own decisions in these times, and I would never condemn yours. But of course, in our family, I knew that I could never abandon our staff, no matter how hard the times. So I assured them that so long as they remained willing to work for us, they would always have a place to live here. Let’s not bring out household circumstances into this, however. I think the best thing for all involved is clearly to have each household contribute equally to meet the German demands. I’ve already directed that Odette find an old wool blanket and a small copper saucepan for our contribution.”

Though she tried several more arguments, Philomene found Madame Perreau impossible to budge, and it was with a heart seething in frustration that she left the large grey house on the hill and walked back down the Rue de Ragons.

Her next stop was the Serre house. Hugo Serre had built his new house on the northern outskirts of the town, where there was room for the gracious structure that his new-built wealth deserved, and where it was an easy drive in his automobile to the cement factory, lime pits, and kilns which had built that wealth.

The house, made in the style of a stone-built chateau but using instead as its principal material the highest grade of cement produced by the Serre Cement Works, had been built on a huge expanse of grassy lawns, with a double line of new trees lining the long driveway leading up to the house from the road. If the location and size of the estate had been chosen to showcase Monsieur Serre’s wealth, however, it also had the unforeseen result of isolating his family. Though only a twenty minute walk from the center of town, the distance of the house from others served to assure that it received few casual visitors, and Madame Serre’s diligently paid calls in town were not returned with nearly the same frequency.

Philomene herself had not visited in six weeks, though she had seen Madame Serre frequently at church and had told herself each week that this time she really must be sure to visit. She was shocked to see the extent of the changes which that time had wrought. The once smooth grass was torn and rutted by wagon tracks, and several wooden wagons were parked at odd angles around the house. Military supply tents stood near the house, and near them were scattered bottles, tins and broken crates.

Taking in these sights with a feeling of growing fear, Philomene’s pace slowed as she advanced up the driveway. When a call, an obscene suggestion in German she could only half understand, came from one of the tents, she nearly fled. But then, with the next house half a kilometer away, what safety would there be in running away toward the road? Surely the house itself was where safety lay, and she hurried her steps.

Madame Serre herself answered the door, and when she saw Philomene standing on the threshold her expression for a moment, wavering between smiling and crying. “Philomene! You came. Thank you. You can’t know how much this means.” She seemed about to say more but choked, and all that came forth was a sob. She threw her arms around Philomene and hugged her tight.

For a moment Philomene was too surprised to respond in any way, her hands hanging awkwardly as her sides as the other woman held her tight. Then she returned the embrace, feeling Madame Serre’s ragged breathing.

“It’s all right, Eva. I’m here. I’m glad I came.”

Slowly the other woman’s crying subsided and they stood leaning into each other’s arms. It was a strange feeling which reminded Philomene of her own loneliness. She often had reason to hold one of the little girls close, occasionally even Pascal when his self-conscious young masculinity would allow it, but she had not been held by another adult since Henri left. Feeling that warmth and closeness, even in this very different circumstance, was a throat-tightening reminder of the loneliness which had haunted her days and nights: the times when she had turned to speak to someone who wasn’t there and the times when she had yearned for a comfort that there was no one to give.

Madame Serre’s grasp loosened and she released Philomene, stepping back and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to wipe her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” said Madame Serre. “I didn’t mean to make such an exhibition of myself. Come inside. I have a little bit of tea. Would you like tea?”

Philomene followed as Madame Serre led the way, not to her sitting room but to a butler’s pantry in the serving passage off the kitchen, a small room lined with drawers and shelves into which had been wedged a pair of flower-upholstered chairs.

“It’s not as gracious as the sitting room, I know,” said Eva. “But the officers have the use of the front rooms, and I thought that if I took this room as my sitting room I would be able to protect some of the linens and china from their ravages.”

She took a little spirit burner from the shelf, worked the pump, and lit it, placing a kettle on it to warm.

Watching these preparations from her seat in one of the chairs, Philomene could not help comparing this to her own home. True, she now had to cook and clean herself, and luxuries such as coffee were rare, but to see Madame Serre evicted from her sitting room and making tea in the confines of the butler’s pantry was sobering.

Eva bustled about the tight confines of the room, setting out a pair of delicate china cups and saucers decorated with a design of strawberry vines in soft colors and carefully measuring just enough loose tea leaves into the china tea pot. The kettle whistled and she poured the water into the teapot. Setting it aside to steep, she at last sat down in the other chair.

“The tea is a comfort. One of the officers gave it to me. I didn’t tell Hugo where it came from. He would have made me throw it out.” This had been delivered in a conversational tone which was bright and normal, aside from its subject matter, but after this last she looked down. “Perhaps he’s right.”

Philomene could see the other woman’s jaw tremble and her face work as Madame Serre tried to force back an urge to cry. It seemed unkind to admit that Philomene had not actually visited because she had heard of whatever misfortune loomed over her acquaintance, but there was danger of even greater rudeness if she attempted to conceal her ignorance and then revealed it by accident.

“I’m glad that I came when you needed company,” Philomene said, before the pause could stretch to awkward length. “But I must confess, I had not heard anything. I came on my own errand. But surely,” she added, seeing Madame Serre’s hand go to her mouth. “God sees all things. Perhaps He guided me here today, even though I thought it was my own idea.”

Eva plied her handkerchief again. “Yes. It must be the work of God. I’m so glad you came,” she said. “But I’m thinking only of myself. The tea!” She got up, poured cups, and handed one to Philomene. “What did you come about?”

Philomene allowed herself a small, indulgent sip of the tea -- good, hot, fragrant tea such as she had not tasted in several weeks. “No, no. It can wait. Tell me what has happened here.”

Madame Serre’s eyes fell, and Philomene wondered if she had been wrong to ask. “They’ve taken Hugo away.”

“Taken him away? Why?”

In fits and starts, and moving forward and backward to explain details left out, Eva explained. The trouble had begun with the cement works. When the war had come, and half the workers had been called up into the army, the factory had scaled back its work but not shut down. However, with the German invasion, Huge Serre had suspended operations when the trains stopped running. If there were no orders, and no way to ship cement, there was no reason to pay workers to make more. At the beginning of October, a letter from the commandant had instructed him to resume manufacturing and sell the cement to the German authorities. But rather than have his cement used to build German fortifications which might be used to prevent French troops from liberating his homeland’s soil, Hugo had refused. Then, in seeming retaliation, the soldiers had been quartered with them, not just a few officers, but sixteen enlisted men and their supplies as well. When he still refused to reopen the factory, fines had been imposed, ruinous fines. Still Hugo had remained adamant that he would not provide the invaders with cement which could be used against the French army.

At last, they had told him that if he did not comply the factory would be confiscated. If he would not work it for the German authorities, they would put it in the charge of someone who would. She had begged him to let it go. At last they would be free to live in peace. After the war they could rebuild, but for now what was this money and property but a burden?

But he was proud, and last night he had gone down to the factory at night with this foremen. They had wrecked or burnt every piece of machinery and building. He had come home, tired and smelling of smoke and cement dust, but proud. And this morning early the Germans come and taken him away. She had gone to the commandant’s office, but all they would tell her was that he had been sent on a train to Germany.

When the story was at last all told, Philomene found herself again holding Madame Serre in her arms as the older woman sobbed against her shoulder. “What will I do? Where are they taking him? When will I see him again?”

She rubbed Eva’s back and told her that it would be all right, all the while wondering if it would. What could they do to Hugo? He was not a criminal. Surely they could not put him in prison, could they? How would Eva know what was happening to him? Who could she appeal to?

Slowly the other woman calmed. At last Eva sat back in her chair, wiping her eyes and sniffing.

“I’m sorry. I’m being all sorts of burden to you today, when you’ve been kind enough to visit. And there, you didn’t even come to hear all this. What is it that brought you here? You’ve been so good to me. Surely there’s something that I can do for you?”

This seemed to be a bad time to ask Madame Serre to provide contributions to ease the burden of the requisition on the less fortunate, and yet she continued to press Philomene to know the reason for her visit.

“You saw the requisition order that the Germans published?” Philomene asked.

Madame Serre nodded.

Philomene explained again her idea for a collection to meet the demands of the German requisition without the poorest families losing supplies they would need in the coming winter. Eva, however, was a far more willing audience than Madame Perreau, and even before Philomene had finished was pledging to help in the collection.

“No, please,” said Philomene, embarrassed by the eagerness of the other woman’s reaction. “I had no idea of all that the Germans had already taken from you. Do not feel you need to give things which you need in order to keep your own family fed and warm.”

“God have mercy! I’m hardly among the town’s poor yet. Besides, I’d rather have my linen cabinet and cupboards emptied to help our own families than see my things stolen by the soldiers quartered here. Here, let’s go see what we can find.”

The clear outward purpose gave Madame Serre new energy, and together the two women sorted through closets and cabinets to make an inventory of the things which the Serre household could provide for the collection. It was, in the end, more than Philomene could have hoped to carry away with her that day. When she left, an hour later, it was with a piece of notepaper in her bag, detailing the items which the Serres would provide as soon as Philomene could arrange for a cart to come out to pick them up.

She walked back into town with a lighter heart and the resolution to visit several more women before going home. After all, Pascal was still at school, and the girls would be playing under Grandpere’s eye. What had happened to Madame Serre was terrible, and even as she continued to seek for donations of blankets and copper, she planned to ask who might be able to write a letter to get news of Hugo and secure his release. Yet while she had left Madame Perreau’s feeling downcast about her project and about her town, crushed under occupation, it was uplifting to see how, even under her day’s misfortunes, Eva had seized upon the chance to help others. W/ith such a spirit, surely France would endure until the invaders left.

***

It was the middle of the afternoon when Philomene returned home, tired but satisfied with her progress. She had collected pledges which would meet the entire German demand for blankets and most of the demand for copper. Their remaining demands -- for apples, nails and horses -- the Germans would doubtless meet at the expense of a few tradesmen and farmers, but the town’s poorer families were at least safe for now from having their household goods taken.

She found Grandpere in an ebullient frame of mind at home. A man from Sedan had paid a call.

“What did he want?” Philomene asked, sitting down on one the kitchen chairs, to give her tired feet a rest before preparing dinner.

Grandpere looked briefly out the window before answering, and assured that all three children were safe out in the back garden -- out of trouble and out of earshot. “He wants to put together a distribution network. Fresh eggs, produce, and meat are impossible to get in the city, and the nearby villages are already picked clean. He’ll send a wagon once a week to take fresh food from here, and in return he’ll send non-perishables. Look at this.”

With a flourish he drew a tin of sardines from his pocket. “Imagine that on our bread tonight.”

Philomene could indeed imagine it. Already, she half tasted the salty, oily flavor of the fish. It would be so good.

From outside she heard, muffled by the window’s glass, a bellow followed by a splintering smash. She looked out the window to see Pascal wielding a hatchet to smash wooden crates, yelling his defiance at them as he did so.


“The boy has been sullen ever since he came home from school,” her father said. “I told him to make himself useful by breaking those crates into firewood. It seems to be giving him a vent for his feelings, whatever they are.”

As Philomene watched, Pascal raised the hatchet again. She could faintly hear him yell, “Is that the kind you are? Take that!” He swung the hatchet and smashed the thin, dry slats of wood. Charlotte and Lucie-Marie, standing well back as they watched, cheered at the exhibition.

“If it gets the sulks out of him, it will be an improvement,” Grandpere went on. “And we need to start using less coal, so the firewood will come in handy.”

The labor did seem to clear Pascal’s mood, and he was cheerful over dinner, especially as each of them was able to lay three little sardines on their first slices of bread, then soak up the juices with their second.

The next day, however, he was again angry and uncommunicative. He rushed off to school early with hardly a word, and when he returned he growled one word answers to his mother’s questions until, in frustration, she ordered him to his room to read.

Friday he gave her a greater fright. It was the deadline for the German requisition, and Philomene had been out much of the day assuring that all the goods were collected and turned in to the authorities as she had planned. When at last she was home, tired but satisfied, she found Charlotte and Lucie-Marie playing with their dolls in the shop’s back room, but Pascal seemed to be nowhere, even as the sun set and evening shadows lengthened.

She searched and called repeatedly. Grandpere went out and searched the streets nearby. No sign of him.

Her prayers were panicked. Mary, you must have felt this way when you realized that Our Lord was not with you on the return from Jerusalem. Help me to share likewise in the joy you felt on finding him in the temple. Please. Let me find him.

She remembered going to visit Madame Duval, and seeing that woman’s frantic sorrow over the loss of Baptiste. Surely Pascal would not have… No, she would not allow herself even to imagine the sorts of activities which might put him in the way of a German bullet. Pascal was fine. He had slipped out with his friends on some silly lark. She was furious with him, and yet eager to throw her arms around him and hold him tight.

The kitchen door opened and closed and Pascal’s steps sounded on the kitchen floor. Now that he was here and safe, anger was more possible. “Where have you been?” Philomene demanded, folding her arms before her chest as a way to fight off a sudden urge to fly and him and either slap him for his lack of consideration or embrace him because he was back and whole.

“Just playing in the kitchen garden.”

Philomene hesitated to accuse him directly of lying, if only because she did not want to believe that he would do such a thing as to tell her a bald an untruth. But she had searched the kitchen garden repeatedly, calling his name -- and gritting her teeth as the girls followed her calling his name as well in a clamor which grated on her tight-stretched nerves.

Yet here he was, safe and whole, glowering at her with his chin thrust out defiantly.

“I’ve been searching and calling for you. Grandpere is still out searching for you now.”

Pascal shrugged. “I don’t know why I didn’t hear you.”

He was lying. Lying to her after leaving her in such fear.

“Go to your room,” she ordered. “Grandpere will deal with you when he gets home.”

Pascal went upstairs without another word, still defiant. When Grandpere came home, after due consultation with Philomene, he went upstairs to get his heavy leather shaving strop.

“I told him that he could come down when he was ready to apologize,” Grandpere said, when he returned to the kitchen, with the grave, angry look which having to punish his grandson usually left on him.

Evidently an apology was slow in coming, because Pascal did not appear again that night. The absence worked at Philomene’s heart, suggesting possible reasons for her son’s behavior and telling her that she would rather have him close to her than see him draw away. How much would she give to take this night back if years from now she looked on this as the first night of her son’s estrangement from her?

When it was time for bed she cut a slice of bread, spread butter on it, and brought it up stairs with her. She knocked on Pascal’s door and heard a sniff from inside.

“Are you ready to come out?” she asked.

The voice that replied had a quaver in it, but the answer was still, “No.”

She set the plate with the bread down on the floor. “There’s something out here for you when you’re ready.”

It was late in the night when she woke from a restless sleep. The moon, nearly full, illuminated the room with its pale, bluish light. Laying still, she heard a floorboard creak out in the hall, and then the gentle bump of a door closing softly. She got up and went to her own door, putting her hand on the knob. It should have been Henri looking after noises that came in the night. What would she do if there were an intruder? But the sound had come from the direction of Pascal’s room and the nursery. If some burglar or worse were to go there--

She opened her door, and as she did so saw something flutter in the dim light, down by her feet. There was a folded piece of notepaper on the floor. She picked it up and took it to the window where the light was stronger.

There she read in Pascal’s careful schoolboy hand an equally formal set of phrases:

Dearest Mother,

I am sorry that my actions caused upset to you and to Grandpere. Please understand that everything I did was necessary for the honor of France.

***

On Sundays, the evening meal was moved up to early afternoon. Philomene began preparing it as soon as they had returned from mass and broken their fast. Despite the difficulties of obtaining supplies, she still made every effort to assure that Sunday was a day of celebration in food as well as prayer. On the way home from church she had purchased the week’s one loaf of white bread, and it was sitting, crusty and inviting, on the kitchen shelf as she sliced vegetables to add to the pot in which a ham bone was stewing.

The knock at the door surprised her. It was not normally a time for calls or business. The person standing on the step was Monsieur Pruvot, the principal of the school, wearing a dark Sunday suit and hat, though as someone whose only faith was Laïcité he was never someone seen at the church. Philomene invited him to come in and talk in the sitting room, but he shook his head.

“This will only take a moment. I don’t want to trouble you any more than necessary, but I am paying a call on all the parents of boys in the fourth year of our ecole primaire.”

Philomene felt the sudden tug of fear, and the principal’s suit took on a funereal aspect in her eyes. Had something happened to one of the boys? Was this the explanation for Pascal’s behavior the night before?

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Yesterday evening, someone defaced the door of Mademoiselle Levart. The vandals were not identified, but the woman who owns the laundry next door said that she saw a group of boys. I believe it was boys from the class, because Mademoiselle Levart has been subject to a campaign of harassment from her students during this last week, with obscene messages written on the blackboard and on slips of paper left in Mademoiselle Levart’s desk and books.”

This was not the sort of trouble which she had expected, yet the idea that Pascal had become involved in such a thing was disturbing in a new and different way.

“You say obscene. May I ask what kind of messages they were?”

Monsieur Pruvot’s lips contracted into a light line. “I will not sully your ears or Mademoiselle Levart’s reputation with the implications which were leveled against her. Suffice it to say that they accused her of impropriety in the most revolting terms.”

Would Pascal do such a thing? Her Pascal? Was this the consequence of Henri being gone? Of the new friends Pascal had made after Baptiste’s death? Of too many boys, angry at the invasion of their homes and without the guidance of their fathers?

She wanted to deny even the possibility of Pascal being involved in harassing his teacher, but then there was his strange behavior the night before.

“About what time did this occur yesterday?” she asked.

“Shortly after sunset. Perhaps six o’clock.”

The time when she had been so frantically searching for Pascal.

“Very well,” said Philomene. “I will talk with my son and deal with him appropriately.”

“Not only must the harassment of Mademoiselle Levart cease,” said the principal. “But recall that the Germans are now responsible for keeping order in the town. If they were to catch boys engaging in vandalism, I do not know what they would do.”

Philomene nodded, fear and anger tangling into a knot in her stomach.

Back in the kitchen, the crusty loaf of bread and the pot of stock simmering on the stove seemed like leftovers from a happily innocent time. Some turnips lay, half chopped, on the cutting board. Mechanically she finished cutting them and dumped them into the stew.

She would talk to him after dinner. She would confront him and find out the truth. No son of hers, no son of Henri’s, would disgrace his family by writing obscene messages about his teacher.

But what would she confront him with? She didn’t even know precisely what the boys had done. They had vandalized Mademoiselle Levart’s door, but how?

She opened the heat box and raked the coals in the stove. They would keep the pot simmering for a while without any danger of boiling over or burning dry. She would find out.

It was a short walk to the street where Mademoiselle Levart lived. The blue-painted door next to the laundry glistened with a new coat of paint, but it would take several more coats to fully conceal the lettering which had been painted on the door in broad black strokes. For now the words showed through dimly, a shadow that had not yet been fully driven away: “Pute Boche”

With those two, short, ugly words, several pieces fell neatly into place to produce a coherent picture: Pascal’s sullen and angry behavior the last few days, the reference in his note of apology to the ‘Honor of France’, and various whisperings among some of the other ladies at church -- Did you hear about that Protestant teacher? Yes, that’s right, walking down by the Mouret orchard with a German. Do these young women have no shame? -- the sort of whispers that Philomene normally made very effort to forget as soon as she heard them.

Poor Mademoiselle Levart. How must she feel? No matter how groundless, no matter how refuted, the blotch would lurk in people’s minds like those letter showing through the paint.

Pascal must be taught a sharp lesson so that he would never participate in this kind of cruelty again.

***

It was after the girls had been put to bed that Philomene summoned Pascal, who had been reading in the sitting room while Grandpere cleaned and filled his pipe. After careful thought she had decided that she would hold the discussion in her room.

If voices were raised in the kitchen Grandpere might come in and begin to lay down his own rougher law, doubtless beginning with the phrase, “Young man, is that any way to speak to your mother?” By taking the step of bringing Pascal to her room, however, she would make clear that this was something she was dealing with in the privacy of her own family. Since he had turned over the main bedroom to Philomene and Henri when they came to live with him, Louis Mertens had only entered it on two occasions, each time to visit a newborn grandchild. By such scrupulosity was peace maintained between the generations in the Mertens and Fournier household.

Philomene seated herself at her dressing table, and positioned the framed picture of Henri where she could look to him for support. Pascal stood nervously with his hands folded behind his back.

“I know what you boys painted on Mademoiselle Levart’s door.”

Her son’s face went stony, as she had seen it do so many times over the years when he was confronted with something he had done, yet was not ready to back down. She waited a moment to see if he would reply, but he remained silent, looking at the floor in front of her rather than meeting her gaze.

“Monsieur Pruvot tells me that the students have been harassing her as school as well.”

More silence.

“He said that a group of boys were seen when the door was vandalized. He doesn’t know which boys are responsible. Is that where you were last night, Pascal?”

Slowly he raised his eyes to look at her. She waited for him to speak, knowing that the silence would become intolerable to him.

“Yes,” he said at last.

“That was wrong, Pascal. Even if the other boys were bent on doing such a thing, you must never allow yourself to go along with something you know is ungentlemanly and wrong. What have you done to that poor woman’s reputation? How must she feel seeing those ugly words painted on her door, and on the basis of nothing more than gossip?”

“It’s not gossip!” Pascal replied, angry at the accusation. “It’s nothing but the truth. We would never insult a woman’s honor based on hearsay. But she has no honor. She is dragging France’s honor through the mud. She’s nothing but--”

The rush of words stopped abruptly and Pascal pressed his lips together rather than say the word before his mother and in her own room.

This hesitance itself made Philomene angrier. Was he afraid to name now the thing which he had painted on an unmarried woman’s door? Would he not use the word before his mother that he had written before all the world?

“Nothing but what, young man?”

He looked down and remained silent.

“I have heard the word before, Pascal. And I know what it means better than you do. But if you’re hesitant to use it in front of me you should have been hesitant to write it on a your teacher’s door.”

It was a moment before Pascal replied, and Philomene could see a slight tremble in his jaw, as if he was fighting for control before he spoke. Poor boy, he was so young. Why did he insist on grappling with these things? If only he would admit that he’d been wrong, he could rush to her arms and she would hold him close. He could again be her little boy, her dear little boy who would never want to hurt anyone.

Instead Pascal’s hands formed into fists and she could see his body tense as if he wanted to be bursting into action rather than words. “We saw it all. Nicolas saw her walking with a German, and his mother said the German spent the night in her flat, and Lucien and I did a stake out just like proper detectives, and we saw a German sergeant come out of her flat after her. It’s all true. She gives herself to them like a common animal. It’s disgusting. She shouldn’t be in our school. She shouldn’t be in France. If she loves the Germans so much why doesn’t she go live there? She thinks she can trample the honor of France because the men are all gone but we won’t let her! We’ll drive her out!”

His voice rose as he spoke until it was near a shout. His clenched fists were trembling with barely controlled rage. It took an act of will for Philomene to remain calm and still in her chair. She wanted to draw back. For the first time her son seemed dangerous, not in the way he had been as a little child -- hurling himself on the floor to wail and pound with hands and feet, a danger more to himself than to others -- but as a boy very nearly as tall as she and perhaps already stronger.

What would happen to the little school teacher, who had moved into the town fresh from the teachers’ college two years before and had few local friends, if the full wrath of such almost-men was released against her? And who, in a village that would rightly despise what she had done, would protect her?

“No, Pascal.” Good. Her voice was calm. On no account must she let him hear fear in her voice. “Defacing a defenseless woman’s door is not protecting France’s honor. If what you say is true, she has done wrong and brought shame on herself. But she will suffer enough for that on her own; it’s not your place to try to punish her.”

“Someone has to punish her.”

“Her own life will punish her. Do you think this German will marry her and take care of her? If she has a child, do you think that child will have a father to provide for him? We must have pity for a fallen woman, not try to make ourselves feel more virtuous by delighting in her humiliation.”

“So you think we should just do nothing?”

“When the Germans leave, she will leave too. The school won’t employ a teacher known for having an affair with an occupying soldier. But right now the Germans are in charge. They won’t fire her for that. If you try to drive her away with harassment and cruelty, you’ll only destroy your own soul.”

This time there was a long pause before he spoke, and when he did at last it was in a softer voice. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”

From that tone she knew that he was not yet past reaching. “Pascal.” She stepped over to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “My brave boy. I know you want to do something. I know it’s humiliating to see the occupiers running everything and taking everything. But remember that Father is fighting for France. Our duty is to keep the family safe, and when the Germans are defeated and he comes home, to still be people of whom he can be proud. Henri would never humiliate a woman -- even a fallen one -- and you must not either.”

No reply. She sensed that she had won, but that to say so out loud seemed to difficult for him.

“Thank you, Pascal. I know that I can rely on you to make us proud.”

A fraction of a nod.

“You can go now.”

He turned and left. A moment later she heard the door of his room shut hard.

She sat down on the bed. There was nothing left; she felt drained to the last dregs of her ability. Careless of the door which Pascal had left standing open she allowed herself to lie back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling above.

It was so easy to hate them. The Germans. The politicians. Everyone who had brought about this terrible war. Even this poor, stupid, weak little teacher who unknowingly had introduced Pascal to the world of love affairs and the cruelties visited upon the women caught in them. Couldn’t she have thought of that before she spread her legs for some German soldier?

But there. Perhaps she hadn’t known any better, living alone, no family nearby, perhaps no religion either. She had trained to teach in the secular schools after all. And the Germans had food and coal. How must it be with no father to help provide for the family and no husband to wait for?

Henri. She closed her eyes and called out in her mind to the one person she needed most in all the world. She should call on God. Was it idolatry that she called on Henri instead, across all that separated them? Perhaps, but God was everywhere. She needed Henri right here.

I’m trying. Trying to keep your son safe. Trying to turn him into the kind of man you are. Trying to do what’s right in a world gone mad. But I don’t have the strength. I need you.

A sudden panic struck her. What if Henri were already dead? God, please. Is Henri still there? No answer from the cruel, empty silence. It had never occurred to her until that moment to wonder if God were there, or if her prayers went as unheard as her thoughts aimed at her distant husband. Were Henri and God both dead in this world turned upside down?

Impossible. The world could not be without meaning. God was listening. Henri was alive. If only she could persevere.


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