Jozef confronts the future of his love affair, joins a new regiment, and finds a new home.
Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. December 14th, 1914. Even when she had been there, Jozef had seen little of Klara during the days when at the country house. And yet, knowing that she was gone, that she would not slip, cat-like, into his bed at night, made the house seem empty and fruitless. He left on Friday, two days earlier than planned.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse, and so Henrik offered the use of the automobile. It was warmer to sit under a pile of furs and blankets in the enclosed vehicle as the chauffer slowly navigated the icy, rutted surface of the road into town than it would have been to make the journey on horseback, but the hours spent sitting, trying to stay warm, also provided little respite from thoughts of how the week’s leave should have ended.
He and Klara could have had four more days together, days the more happy for the knowledge that he would be getting a commission within the week. Perhaps the three days when he was gone had seemed as empty to her as these last few had to him. But no, she had been visiting the Revays for the last two months, and he had only been asked to the house twice during that time. Was waiting three days for him really so much worse than the waits between their assignations at the hotel? Was she angry that he had not agreed to wait until after their week together to sort out the problem of his commission? Even if so, why leave? Surely having some days together was better than none at all.
Why was Minna prepared to face such difficulties for Friedrich: staying with him in the hospital, caring for him at the flat, absorbing his bursts of anger and frustration, and all the while wanting to be with him and care for him? And yet Klara had not been willing to wait three days. Was Minna a better or more loving woman? Was Friedrich a person more worthy of love and devotion than he was?
He had always done everything that Klara asked. He had listened to her difficulties, and he had offered to help in every way that he could think of. What had he left undone that Friedrich had done, or was this yet another way in which Friedrich somehow drew to himself a good fortune which others did not receive? No, that was unfair to the friend who had suffered so much. It was an affront to envy the good fortune of a man who had lost his legs and so much else. And yet, why? Why did Friedrich find constancy and devotion and not he?
With these and similar thoughts Jozef spent the ride back into town. Nor did his arrival bring immediate respite from such musings. He had two more days of leave before his name appeared on the duty roster again. With all the other cadets gone, and the reserve regiment and Honved reduced to those most determined to find some way to sit out the war on their own terms, there was little truly congenial company as he waited to see if Baron von Goldfaden would succeed in wielding his influence. It was a relief on Monday to once again be assigned duties and spend the day inspecting the integrity of tinned beef and dried vegetables which had recently arrived in monumental quantities.
When he returned to his rooms before dinner there was an official envelope lying on his pillow.
He tore it open and skimmed down it rapidly to assure that it did not express regrets, then returned to the beginning to understand the real import.
You will report no later than December 21st to the 7th Regiment of Imperial Royal Uhlans, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Galician Regiment, temporarily headquartered at Krakow, there to assume the duties of a provisional Leutnant of Uhlans.
The rest hardly mattered. He had an assignment. In a week’s time he would be in Galicia, serving in an active duty regiment.
Perhaps if he went immediately he could catch the duty officer before he went to dinner and make sure the transfer had been recorded. The regimental office was locked, but he easily found Rittmeister Koell at the cafe.
“Sir,” Jozef said, drawing himself up to attention. It was hardly smiled upon to approach a senior officer about non-urgent official business while he was taking a personal meal, but if Jozef could assure now that his transfer was known to the regiment he could leave the very next day.
Rittmeister Koell finished blowing on and consuming his spoonful of soup, then set the spoon aside with deliberation and rose to return the salute. “Good evening, Cadet. Or perhaps I should say, Provisional Leutnant. Will you sit?”
The rittmeister resumed his seat, and Jozef pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down, setting his shako on his lap and sitting very straight. “Did you receive the transfer order then, sir? When I came back to my rooms I found the official orders waiting for me.”
“Yes, yes. Received and filed. I’ve had you taken off the roster, so you may leave as soon as you like. Perhaps if you leave immediately and the rail schedules are good to you, it’s even possible for you to get a couple more days leave out of it. Though you have certainly not lacked for leave recently.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“If an old soldier can provide some advice, von Revay.”
“Yes sir?” Jozef squared his shoulders. To be sure, Koell was old now and liked his ease, but he had spent more than twenty years in the Imperial-Royal service. He must have words of wisdom well worth listening to on leading men and remaining calm on the battlefield.
“Settle all your accounts before you leave town. Going so far, it’s always tempting to leave them, but if they come to me I’ll have to forward the reports to your new commanding officer and suspension of commission for debt is not something you want to deal with. And you’d better send home for ready cash. You’ll need new uniforms, among other things, if you’re to serve in an Uhlan regiment, and I believe you’ll find that active duty officers are not offered the chance to spend on account that you have enjoyed here. All very well to celebrate our heroes’ deaths, but the tradesmen don’t want to be left holding the bag, so they’re close. You don’t want to go through the embarrassment of coming up short in some shop when you’ve tried to tell the clerk to put it on account.”
“Thank you, sir.” No. No wisdom from the old soldier. Truly, there were two armies, and the one sitting before him was the one with no valor. This was the old order which, if the war was to justify the sacrifices that men like Friedrich were making for it, the war would purge away like a summer thunderstorm washing the dust and filth from the cobblestones. And yet, if a reckoning of all his account really must be paid before he left, the very phrase suggested immanent mortality.
“All right, all right. Well, congratulations and all, my boy. Allow me to do my duty as your former commander by buying you the first drink of the evening.” The Rittmeister waved over the server. “Some plum brandy for his imperial majesty’s newest commissioned officer, eh? This one on my account.”
With that he waved Jozef away to settle at his own table and order his own dinner. The waiter brought Jozef a tumbler of the clear, fiery plum brandy which was the staple of drinking bouts in the post’s cafes. Trying to total up what his full account with the cafe was in comparison to the amount of pay that he had on the books of the regiment, Jozef made a very frugal order for dinner. Soon enough, however, other officers came in to congratulate him on his transfer and promotion, and he sponsored the first of what was likely to be many rounds of drinks. Several times before, he had enjoyed the nights of heavy drinking sponsored by one or another of the cadets or officers given a longed-for posting to an active duty regiment. Never before, however, had he thought about the cost of covering such a night combined with that of settling all accounts in Veszprém, buying new uniforms, and all the other necessities which promotion and transfer imposed.
He was still thinking about these costs, taking small sips from his second tumbler of plum brandy, when his uncle Baron Revay entered the cafe and sat down with him at his table.
“My boy! I hear that congratulations are in order. Did you finally bring Lisette around to use her influence to get you promotion instead of keep you close to home?”
Jozef shook his head. “I’m not sure if she even knows. I asked a friend’s father to help me overrule her influence.”
“Did you? Did you, my boy? That’s good. A step into the world. Though I suppose that means there will be no money from home to tide you over as you buy new uniforms and such.”
“No, I don’t think there’s much chance of that.” Jozef poured back the last of the brandy. “Still. What can one do? For emperor and fatherland, eh?”
“Indeed. Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll cover tonight’s revels so you can stop sitting here looking dour. I’ll go tell the owner right now to add it all to my account. No cannon’s roar for me, so I remain a good credit risk!”
The baron slapped him on the back as he went to speak to the proprietor, and Jozef, rising from his chair, called out, “All right. Who wants another round?”
The evening continued, following the familiar and increasingly lubricated pattern. Jozef stood round after round. Officers who had barely talked to him before stopped to slap him on the back, embrace him, and assure him that he was a hero of the fatherland. They drank to the emperor. They drank to the regiment. They drank to the defeat of their enemies. A few of the regiment’s confirmed inebriates sat quietly in the corners of the room, downing their free rounds while ignoring the noise as much as possible, but most were eager to make the evening memorable. At last, as it passed midnight, some began to drift away. Those who had duties early in the morning, or who had reached the point of stupefaction went home to sleep. Others set off for Madame Kalmar’s establishment to complete the evening.
This amorous objective reminded Jozef of the nights of passion he’d been denied by Klara’s abrupt departure, and since his duties as the evening’s host seemed to have concluded, he sat down with a tumbler and the remains of a bottle of brandy to erase the worry from his mind.
A large hand came down upon his shoulder, and Jozef looked up to see his uncle, the baron, teetering majestically above him.
“You’re looking serious again, my boy. This is your celebration. Why the determined look and the solitary bottle?”
Jozef poured more brandy into the tumbler and shrugged.
“Come on. This is a night to celebrate properly. It’s Madame Kalmar’s for us.”
Jozef shook his head.
The baron sat down heavily in the chair opposite him. “This is serious. Why not?”
Jozef shrugged again, but his uncle would not accept this answer.
“No, no, no. I’m a man of the world, boy. Don’t think you can pull the wool over my eyes. I look at you and I see…” He lifted Jozef’s chin and leaned close, looking at him and breathing fumes that smelled strongly of plum brandy. “I see a young heartbreak. Is that right? Are you yearning for that skinny piece from Budapest, my boy? Is that why the pleasures of the flesh have no allure for you tonight?”
“You go to Madame Kalmar’s,” Jozef said, pouring more brandy into his tumbler. “Leave me to finish the evening in my own fashion.”
“Ah, so I hit near the mark, do I? Come on, tell me about it. Let an uncle have his concern for you.”
Talking was easy once Jozef started. The events themselves and his confusion and frustration at them seemed to tangle and double back in loops of explanation which repeatedly ensnared his narrative. He closed with the question which most rankled: Why had she left? Why could he not inspire the same kind of devotion from a woman that his friend did?
The baron slowly shook his head. “My boy. Poor fellow, you’ve fallen hard without someone to guide you. You’ve been offered one of the most beautiful things a young man can receive, and you don’t understand it.”
Jozef hit the table with his open hand and was about to retort, but his uncle raised a hand.
“No, no. Calm yourself. This is my fault as much as anyone’s. You’ve been raised by a woman, and aside from any delicate sensibilities one with a few reasons of her own not to give you a proper understanding of adult life. Henrik and I should have reached out to you years ago to make sure that you had a proper bringing up. And now you’ve had a first affair, and a with a woman who though ideal in many respects has perhaps not had the tact to see your inexperience and explain to you gently how these arrangements work.”
“What are you talking about?” growled Jozef.
The baron leaned back in his chair and placed a hand on the bulk of his stomach, in order to hold forth the more comfortably. “There is no better person to fully initiate a young man into the pleasures of adulthood than an experienced married woman. No other woman can offer the companionship of someone of your own class, free of any dangers of commitments. But the fundamental rule of such relationships is that if one party cares a great deal more than the other, that party will be hurt. You must always maintain detachment.
“Now, if you take a shop girl or a dancer, she relies upon you for her upkeep and her hope of advancement. She cares more, and she will put up with neglect and broken promises in the hopes that you will provide what she wants. When at last you throw her over, you’ll have to deal with all the unpleasantness that comes with destroying someone else’s hopes. But find an experienced married woman looking for a diversion, and you have a woman who wants nothing from you other than to please herself. She doesn’t want to destroy her fortune or name by running away with you or abandoning her wealthy husband. All she wants is a little variety and enjoyment. If you come to the affair with the same mind, you can have any number of passionate evenings and walk away without regrets of any kind. But go into it expecting something more, wanting her to throw over her comfortable life and her freedom to take a new lover whenever she chooses, and suddenly you’re no better than a shop girl hoping the gentleman who puts her up will make an honest woman of her. Then it’s you who will put up with any neglect, and you who will be heartbroken when it ends, as it must. So take it from a man of the world: The secret to peace and happiness is never to go to bed wanting any more than what will happen that night. Lie down like those monks who sleep in their coffins to remind them of death. Master that detachment and only sleep with a woman who’s done the same, and you’ll save yourself a great many painful scenes in life.”
There must be some fatal error in all this, some deeper truth that his uncle did not and could not understand. And yet, the explanation seemed to fit so neatly the two relationships which Jozef had been contrasting. Minna relied on Friedrich for support, and so she was devoted and long suffering. Jozef had hoped for permanence and commitment. He had followed every direction which Klara had given him, and hoped to give her more than she asked for, hoped that she wanted more from him. Was he playing the deluded shop girl? Was he the kept woman?
“Now, come on.” The baron rose and taking Jozef by the shoulder propelled him to his feet as well. “What you need is a night with a woman who asks nothing of you but a few kronen, and you’re going to get it at Madame Kalmar’s.”
The sitting room at Madame Kalmar’s was decorated in Oriental style, with brightly colored rugs and dragon vases and watercolor prints on the wall of Chinese warriors copulating with large women. Surrounded by this exotic array, a large portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph, protected from his surroundings by a massive gilded frame, looked down in grandfatherly bemusement.
The air was heavy with cigar smoke. A half dozen officers were seated on various chairs and sofas, talking to each other or to the girls, some of whom wore revealing dresses while others were dressed only in corset and chemise. Madame Kalmar herself -- in a pink silk evening gown that had been current fifteen years before, but which displayed the massive bosom which was the asset of her late middle age -- circulated the room ascertaining which guests wished to buy more drinks or cigars and which among the timid or inebriated needed deft assistance in finding the right partner with which to ascend to the small rooms in the floor above. At an upright piano that stood against one wall, a gray haired man in a seedy suit sat playing Liszt ignoring all that went on around him.
Jozef immediately ordered a bottle of brandy, seeking to wash away what feelings continued to clash with his uncle’s advice on women.
“Now you can see there are plenty of goods on display,” the baron said, waving away the glass which Jozef offered him and lighting a cigar instead. “Don’t drink yourself into a stupor. Pick out a nice girl who can help you forget your troubles for a few hours.”
This might be sensible advice, but surely Jozef could have one more drink first. He poured a generous glass of brandy. Just a splash more since this was the last one, and corked the bottle with finality. He’d had a great deal to drink already, but it seemed to be going down well, and perhaps this extra glass would help provide the detachment which his uncle urged. Right now, as he looked around the room, instead of potential partners for a night of pleasure he saw women who looked more or less like Klara.
What was she doing tonight, in Budapest? Back with the husband who did not care for her, did she too now regret their lost last days together? Perhaps right now she was looking around some crowded sitting room -- a more respectable sitting room of course -- seeing all the people there and wishing that she had someone truly congenial next to her instead of all these dazzling, braying, mindless characters.
His uncle reappeared from the haze of cigar smoke and talk with one of the women, dressed in a red corset and thin white chemise, hanging on his arm. “Here you go, my boy. Gizi here should be to your taste.”
The reason for this assessment was all too clear, as she was tall and thin with blonde hair, though Jozef was immediately struck by the heavy makeup on her face. Klara would never go about so painted.
The baron was talking. “She’s a very nice girl. A good listener. You can tell her about your troubles if you like.” Jozef focused on his uncle, whose words seemed somehow more difficult to decipher than they had a little while back, but the implications of these assembled themselves in his mind. “Do you mean you’ve been with her?”
“Well,” his uncle’s voice was low, chagrined that so obvious a question was asked out loud before the female in question. “You can’t be needlessly fastidious. There are only a score of girls in the place, and a great many officers who visit.”
In answer to these thoughts Jozef threw back the last of the brandy in his glass.
“Are you all ready to come up?” asked Gizi, putting her arms around Jozef’s neck.
His stomach lurched as he stood up, and Jozef focused all his concentration on moving steadily. Everyone seemed to be over-reacting. His uncle took his shoulders and steered him towards the stairs. Gizi put one of his hands on the bannister and took the other in her own. Of course that made it difficult to walk. If people would stop crowding him, his feet would not keep missing the stairs. They thought he was too drunk to walk, but anyone could see it was their fault. If they would only give him space. And some air. The cigar smoke was clearly at fault. Why didn’t someone open a window?
The room was small and plain after the garish sitting room, but the bed looked invitingly soft and clean. He pushed away the woman’s clinging hands -- what was her name? -- and cast himself onto it. It was a relief to lay down, though when he closed his eyes the room began to spin and pitch and he opened them again before something worse could happen.
“Here, take your jacket off.”
Obediently he sat up, undid the buttons of his uniform jacket, and slung it over the bedpost. Now it was sitting up that made the room spin, however, so he flopped back down.
Then she was sitting on a chair facing him, taking off her shoes and rolling down her stockings. She undid the first hook of her corset.
“Do you want to undo them?” she asked, leaning forward.
Why would no one leave him alone? He rolled onto his back with a groan. If he could only close his eyes.
The door opened, and a moment later a white haired woman in a shawl was looking down at him.
“Come on,” she said. “You know what’s needed, sir.”
He didn’t, and he put an arm over his eyes instead. Someone was fumbling with the buttons of his trousers and then suddenly cold hands were on him. He yelped and rolled away, curling up to protect himself.
“No sign of infection” said the old woman’s voice. “But you’ve got your work cut out for you with that one.”
At last it was quiet. In something between dream and memory he was stepping through the partridge shooting party on which Klara had asked to try his gun. Had she shown signs of the detachment that his uncle advocated? If he could only be clear on the words she had said he would know, but instead there was her smile, and the way she turned to bring the gun to bear.
“Here. Some of the gentlemen like this. What do you think?”
The woman was wearing his uniform jacket, unbuttoned, and apparently nothing else.
“Salute!” She brought a hand up to an imaginary visor in a crisp salute, her raised arm causing the jacket to gape wider.
What was she doing in his coat? Had he invited her back to his room? No, this wasn’t his room. He started to get to his feet, but then his stomach gave an angry lurch and he lay back down. Quiet settled onto him for a time, but then a hand was groping at him and a voice whispering in his ear, unfamiliar hair with an overstrong perfume wafting from it falling about him. Why wouldn’t she leave him alone? How could she expect him to manage an arousal without going to the bathroom first? He considered heaving himself out of bed to look for a toilet or a chamber pot, but it was easier to slip back into sleep and perhaps she would leave him alone.
“I thought he looked too far gone.” It was the old woman’s voice again. “Well, you tried. And the old man paid in advance, so there’s no unpleasantness. There are still a few late comers in the sitting room, so since the linens are clean you have time to try for another fee. Help me get him packed up and I’ll take him from there.”
Hands tugged at his clothes, and then he was pushed into sitting and his uniform jacket pulled on him. He looked around for a clock but saw nothing, impossible to know how much time had passed. Why couldn’t he just sleep? He lay back down but immediately hands were pushing and pulling at him.
“Come on. You didn’t pay enough to stay the night.”
Then he was in the stairs, half draped over the shoulders of the old woman in the shawl. Someone put his overcoat over his shoulders and he was propelled out the door into the street.
Cold hit him like a stinging blow, and icy air seared into his lungs. God, it was cold, but the shock of it brought a certain clarity and with firm deliberation he started down the street towards his rooms. There was no ice on the ground, yet somehow the footing seemed treacherous. His boots kept slipping or catching on the cobbles. Given how impossible the ground was, his ability to stay upright was surely proof that he was not that much worse for wear.
It must be after one, for the concierge had gone to bed and locked the outside doors. Of course he had his key, but somehow he had forgotten to put his gloves on before going outside, and now his hands were so cold it was difficult to insert the key into the lock. After several frustrating attempts he pulled the gloves on and blew into them in order to warm his hand, but now his gloved fingers were clumsy in handling the small key.
At last the door was open. It was blissfully warm inside. So warm that after taking his overcoat off he decided to sit down on the stairs for a moment before going up. It was surprising how comfortable it could be to sit on stairs. And there was the bannister to lean on. Where it was so warm.
There was a slight jar as the connection between the second class train carriage and those before it went taut, and then Jozef felt himself pushed back gently into the leather upholstery of the seat as the train accelerated. Looking at the town of Veszprém moving past the windows with increasing speed caused his stomach to give a momentary lurch, and so Jozef closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
His neck and back were still sore from the nearly five hours he’d spent sleeping on the stairs, before waking in the pre-dawn light to stumble up and get a few more hours in bed. As hangovers went, the depredations of the previous night had not been too severely punished. While he’d settled his accounts with a relatively clear head and packed his bags before catching the one-twenty local to Budapest, the idea of touching any kind of solid food had remained nauseating, and like the much put-upon creature it was, his stomach was making its fickle nature known by both resenting its emptiness and rebelling at any suggested remedy.
Fortunately the train was not heavily populated, and no one had sat down next to him or on the seat that faced his across the little wooden table on which a rumpled day-old newspaper from Budapest lay. He was free to close his eyes and try to piece together the fragmented images of the night before. The last truly clear memory was of his uncle explaining his philosophy of detachment in matters of the heart. Or was it even the heart? In matters of the bedroom at any rate.
Was the woman last night an example of this principle of detachment? As best he could piece together, she had made every effort to provide him a pleasurable night, though in the end she had proved to have less of a hold on him than the brandy. But she had sought to please him in order to earn her evening’s fee. Klara. What made each memory of intimacy with Klara precious was not that she sought to give him pleasure but that she so passionately wanted him for her own pleasure. Simply to have his desires satisfied might be pleasure enough in its way, but it was so much more to be actively and eagerly desired by another.
So what was detachment? Was it only to desire his own pleasure, a sober version of what the night before could have been? No, it must be to desire each other today, but without staking his happiness on whether he was still desired tomorrow.
That was the question: Did Klara care that he still desired her? If he found her in Budapest, would she come with him, or had he simply been a welcome diversion as long as she chose to remain in Veszprém?
He would test the question, and then he would know. But as he at last drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking of the train compartment it was images of Klara that played before his mind’s eye, and it seemed impossible in the face of these to believe that she did not desire him.
It was in the afternoon next day that a solution came to Jozef in the form of a poster advertising a revival of The Merry Widow at the State Opera House. This was how he could meet Klara without calling on her house or asking her to be see him in a restaurant or cafe where unwelcome eyes might recognize her. Anyone could go to the opera, and if the opera house here was anything like Vienna’s Staatsoper, stepping out to meet privately on a stair or corridor would be not only easy but common.
He would need to know where to promise to meet her, and to that end he invested a krone and an hour in touring the opera house.
Then to write a letter before the day’s last post.
I have only a few days here in Budapest before reporting to my regiment. I will be at the State Opera watching The Merry Widow on Thursday night, and I will step out during the pavillion scene. If you should happen to do so as well, I will be under the arch of the main staircase.
He read this final draft over several times and congratulated himself on his discretion. There was no expression of love. It might easily come from a friend or relative on the way to the front. He had not even signed his name. She knew his handwriting well enough there was no need, and if her husband demanded to read it in a fit of jealousy, there would be nothing to give her away.
Yes, this was the letter of a man of the world. And if she loved him, if she was not a disciple of Uncle Istvan’s detachment, her heart would beat faster when she read it and she would come to him. Perhaps she would not be ready to leave the comfort of her present life, but if she would at least tell him that she cared for him and always would, then when the war allowed time to them, they could be together. And perhaps someday, she would be his alone.
It was in the mirror of a mahogany wardrobe that Jozef looked to see that every detail of his uniform was in order. It was a shame that he did not yet have his Uhlan’s uniform, with its pale blue jacket and double row of white buttons, but he had at least taken the precaution of purchasing his leutnant stars ahead of time and attaching them to the previously unadorned collar tabs of his Hussar uniform.
He had chosen the Ritz-Dunapalota because after careful consultation of the railroad tables and his funds, he judged that he could spent two nights in Budapest with Klara, and this river-view room at the Ritz-Dunapalota would exhaust his savings in precisely that amount of time.
It was not a full suite, but the room was large. There was a little table and chairs nestled in front of the window which looked out onto the broad Danube. They could sit there and eat the breakfast which was brought in.
He arrived early for the opera and bought a seat in the top balcony, scanning the boxes and balconies as they filled. Was she here? Would she come? Surely she would come. But perhaps her husband had a box and it was in the levels below him where he could not see. He should have acquired opera glasses. He saw other young men scanning the opposite side of the theater, doubtless looking for some particular woman among the crowd. What was it Friedrich had complained? “Half your Vienna theater set is not a theater set at all. They’re an adultery set and the theater is merely a place to see other people while a lot of unfortunate actors and musicians are ignored on stage. I’ve nothing against a nice affair, but my morals are outraged that not one in ten really cares about the music.”
The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and with Friedrich’s words echoing in memory Jozef turned his attention to Lehár’s music. Both the music and the story might have seemed insipid to his friend, but to Jozef, even though he had seen it before on several occasions, the opera seemed fraught with meaning. Hanna loved Danilo, but she would not give herself to him unless he told her that he loved her. Danilo did indeed love her, but he feared the scorn that she might have for him if he proclaimed his love when she was rich and he had little. If he would risk all and tell her that he loved her, they could both end in happiness.
Perhaps in peacetime someone could indulge in such hesitation, but no longer.
During the intermission he was tempted to walk the corridors and see if he could catch a glimpse of her coming or going from one of the boxes. But then, what good could it do? The whole point of choosing the opera had been discretion, and how could he bear to see her and then have to pretend not to in case there was someone watching. No, he would remain in his seat until the pavillion scene, and then…
At last, as misunderstanding and jealousy were beginning to play out on stage, Jozef whispered his apologies to the two young men he had to climb over to gain the aisle and escaped into the corridor behind the balcony. He descended to the main level and down the red carpeted stairs to the patterned black and white stone floor below. There was no one there, other than the impassive marble bust of some composer who was calmly prepared to witness Jozef’s embarrassment or triumph.
He paced, then tried to force himself to take a jaunty attitude against a pillar, then paced again. And then, as he turned again, there she was. Her evening dress was blue with patterns of black beads and sheer black lace over it, the narrow skirt spreading out into a train that flowed several feet behind her as she descended the stairs towards him. A single, long black feather was tucked into her piled golden hair, making it look all the lighter by the contrast.
“Jozef. Imagine my surprise when I received your note. What brings you to Budapest?”
Looking at her, the dress uniform which he had so carefully primped and preened before coming seemed to lose its luster. Younger than her, a mere provisional leutnant, could he ever deserve her?
“My trip to Vienna was successful in that regard. I have a posting to the 7th Uhlan Regiment. I have to be in Krakow by Monday.”
A smile and inclination of the head. “I’m very happy for you, I’m sure.”
When he heard that sentence he knew in his heart what the answer was, but he had staked too much upon this hand not to play it out to its conclusion. He told her that he loved her. He wanted to spend his time with her. If she could leave her husband, he would take care of her. If she could but promise that she cared for him, they would find precious days together whenever they could. He told her about the room at the Ritz-Dunapalota.
She smiled and reached out a finger to touch his lips. He fell silent.
“Jozef, you’re such a dear boy. But I don’t need your help. What could you do for me?”
He started to reply but she shook her head.
After that, her words began to run together in his memory. She had a husband who was very rich and also very understanding, since she’d already provided him with a son. What more could she need? She and Jozef had spent a pleasant few months. Perhaps some day, if the time and place were convenient, they would find themselves doing so again.
“But let us not be foolish about it. You must learn to be a man of the world, Jozef.”
There it was. A man of the world. Detached.
There were muffled applause from inside the theater, then the sound of steps and talk and laughter above. Klara took a step back, placing them at the distance of a chance meeting between acquaintances rather than an intimate conversation.
A tall man, perhaps a year or two older than Jozef, in the uniform of a first lieutenant in the Honved Hussars approached them.
“Ah, Klara. So this is where you’ve got to. Can I get you a refreshment?”
She turned to the newcomer. “No, Lorinc. You may take me to get one. I’m overcome with longing for an ice before the final act.” Lorinc offered his arm and she took it. “Goodbye, Jozef,” she said over her shoulder.
The hussar gave Jozef a nod and a fraction of a smile before he and Klara proceeded down the lobby together.
There was no reason to stay, and so Jozef boarded the train for Krakow on Friday morning. Before leaving, bags packed, he had rung the room’s bell for service and ordered a cup of coffee and a soft boiled egg, which he ate alone at the table before the window looking out on the Danube. He might as well get what small enjoyment he could from this absurd gesture of a room. But the greater satisfaction had been at the checkout desk, when leaving early meant that he could preserve half his savings.
The train rocked and jolted through the day. Passengers came and went in the second class carriage. Plains of winter brown with faint dustings of old snow alternated with rolling hills covered in trees. The sun set and the train rolled on through darkness. Jozef purchased coffee in the dining car and walked up and down the length of the train to keep himself awake so that he would not miss his transfer station. It was just as well for Zwardoń proved to be a tiny mountain village in which the train paused only long enough for him to scramble down the steps onto the single platform.
The station master told him it would be another ninety minutes before the military train bound for Krakow arrived and directed him to the run down tavern which was the only building nearby from which light spilled into the street. A cold wind was blowing stray flakes of snow along the platform, and a drink would be welcome.
Despite the low roof and soot-grimed windows, Jozef found that the inside of the tavern was warm, with clean straw newly spread on the packed earth floor. A dozen other officers in heavy army greatcoats were standing around the tables with various drinks before them.
“Which regiment are you?” the nearest officer asked.
“Imperial-Royal 7th Uhlans.”
“Ah, you’ve got some comrades here then. Dziedzic and Niemczyk over there at the counter.”
Jozef approached the bar, a few steps away from the two men who’d been pointed out to him, and ordered fruit brandy. The ample woman behind the counter poured him a tumbler of the local firewater.
The two officers wore greatcoats stained and spattered by the elements. Real campaigners, then, not new replacements like himself. After a moment’s hesitation, he ventured to introduce himself to them and was greeted warmly.
“You’re a new replacement?” Leutnant Niemczyk asked in Polish-accented German.
Jozef nodded, unsure if this would immediately relegate him to a set not worth talking to. “I just got my orders as a provisional leutnant. I’ve been a cadet in the reserves since August.”
The leutnant smiled. “Fresh grist for the mill, then. Very good. Oberleutnant Dziedzic and I are warmed over leavings. He was wounded in Serbia, and I a month later outside Lwow. We had a heroes’ reunion in the hospital in Vienna and now we’re headed back for more as they haven’t cured us of being Poles yet. Do you speak Polish?”
Dziedzic fired a rapid string of sentences at him, and Niemczyk doubled over laughing.
Jozef shrugged. “I only know the basic commands. Advance, retreat, dismount, fire. You know.”
Niemczyk calmed himself enough to translate, “He said, ‘You look like a nice girl, how about if you take off your knickers as your mother is already tired.’ And a bit more after that I won’t trouble you to translate.”
The two men pounded each other on the back for a few minutes until they calmed themselves, then ordered another round of drinks, in which they included Jozef. The two had clearly been waiting for the train a while. Jozef knocked back the last of his first drink in an effort to catch up.
“At least a third of the officers in the 7th are Poles,” said Niemczyk, “and more than half the men. So you’ll have to polish it up a bit.”
“My father was Polish,” Jozef offered.
“Oh? See, I thought you must be a decent fellow. What’s his name?”
Jozef hesitated a moment. He should have kept it to himself. “I-- Well, I don’t know.”
The other two officers looked at each other for a moment. “Then he must be a real Pole!” shouted Niemczyk, and this time he pounded both Jozef and his companion on the back as he collapsed in mirth.
“So you joined up when the war started?” Dziedzic asked.
Jozef nodded. “A friend in the Hussars helped me get a reserve cadet’s appointment in August. And then he helped me get the commission to the 7th Uhlans.”
“Sounds like a useful friend. Who is he.”
“Leutnant Friedrich von Goldfaden.”
“What, the killer Jew of 1st Hussars?”
Jozef hesitated at this designation, then nodded.
“That’s an officer for you. A God-damned fine officer. Do you know he’s killed four men in duels?”
“I was at the last one.”
“Well then!” Dziedzic shouted. “As I said. A fine officer, Jew be damned.”
“I heard he caught an artillery shell during the Lwow campaign,” said Niemczyk.
“He did,” said Jozef. “Lost both legs. I visited him in Vienna.”
There was a pause as all absorbed this, sober news even through the filter of plentiful brandy. “God-damned shame,” said Niemczyk. “That’s a real soldier for you.” For a moment they contemplated this judgement. “We’ll have to make the Russians pay for it. And if we liberate Russian-Poland while we’re at it, who’s to say it isn’t worth it?”
It was four in the morning when the military train rolled into Zwardoń, and the assembled officers reeled from the tavern onto the train. Jozef and his two new comrades settled into what had been a dining car before its requisition, though sadly there was no bartender there now. Leutnant Niemczyk produced a deck of cards and they played Mizerka until, as the dawn broke over the plains of Poland up ahead, the train began to approach Krakow.
Read the next installment.