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.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chapter 4-2

The second Jozef installment, and the next hopefully very soon to follow.

Prerau, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. “There are two ways to go about the task,” Major von Brenner said, leaning so close to Jozef that he could smell the pomade with which the older officer’s mustache was styled into stiff upward curls. “Either look at the horse, or look at the owner. If you have a trained eye for horse flesh, you may do well enough with the former. But often enough you’ll miss some detail -- the older horse with unusually good teeth or the young firebrand that’s just a touch lame. Watch the owner, and you’ll never fail. You’ll never get a good horse off a farmer or a carter. They’ll have the big, slow beasts who eat more feed than they can carry, very good for pulling a plow but no use to the cavalry. For cart horses, look to the man of quality who has a set of good carriage horses. But for a riding horse, you need a young man, someone who invests in a racer or a hunter. And the richer the owner, the better the horse. Jews are the most reliable, of course. Always take a Jew’s horse. They have an unerring instinct for value.”

Jozef reflected on this advice as the horse requisition fair formally began. The officers all sat in a line. As the junior officer from the 7th Uhlans, Jozef was seated to the right of Rittmeister Hofer. On Jozef’s other side sat Rittmeister Korzeniowski, the lone representative of the Polish Legion wearing their distinctive square czapka hat embellished with a silver Polish eagle. The Pole was the second to last in the line of officers, the only one placed after him being a leutnant from the supply service there to requisition draft horses.

The non-commissioned officers under von Brenner’s command martialed the civilians and their horses at the other end of the enclosure, then sent them across one at a time leading their animals so that the officers could see the horses move. If they like the look of a horse, they called out, and the horse was numbered, the unit of the officer who had spoken for it noted down, and the horse was led into a holding pen. If no officer spoke up, the owner was issued a paper stating that his horse did not have military value and exempting it from requisition during the next twelve months.

It was indeed mostly the horses led across by well dressed men or uniformed servants that were called for. The shaggy plow horses led through by peasants were let pass, and their owners left the fairgrounds gratefully clutching their certificates of exemption. A few carters or shopkeepers had wagon horses that were well suited for draft work. And matched sets of carriage horses led by their drivers were quickly snapped up.

As the last in line, Jozef and Rittmeister Hofer did not at first get the best picks, but as the officers at the front of the line began to near their quotas they let more and more good animals pass. A black hunter that stepped impatiently behind a liveried groom caught Jozef’s eye in particular, and when it somehow escaped the notice of other officers Jozef spoke for it. The groom scowled to get so close to escape and then see the horse requisitioned, but he led it to the pen where a korporal put a number on its haunch in white paint and noted down the owner’s information.

Jozef was not among the officers rich enough to purchase his own horses privately, but perhaps having helped to pick out good horses for the regiment he would be able to take this one for his use. Jozef watched as the korporal took the halter off the horse which already he already thought of as his and handed it back to the groom. Then the black horse dashed off into the enclosure, tossing his head, until he slowed and approached another horse, nostrils whiffling in greeting.

He was so busy watching that horse that Jozef only saw the next, a perfectly decent pair of carriage horses which no one spoke for because their quota of draft animals was already nearly full, as it was being led away for the relieved owner to receive his exemption.

Since the officers spoke for horses in the order that Major von Brenner had seated them, it was those closest to him who were able to snatch up one good mount after another, while Rittmeister Korzeniowski was left to pick from among the horses for which none of the other officers had bothered to speak. When a particularly well made animal was led down the line, Korzeniowski would lean forward, following its movements, only to fall back in his seat when one of the others spoke for it.

Many of the other officers seemed to follow von Brenner’s theory of selection, choosing horses based upon the man who led the horse as much as the horse itself. Horses led by uniformed servants or well dressed men were almost uniformly taken. Indeed, the greatest exception to this pattern was von Brenner himself, who asked for a number of very middling horses led by farmers or tradesmen to be set aside.

As one of these selections was being led away, one of the other officers chided their host some over his dull selections.

“You recall,” von Brenner said, “I am not choosing for a particular unit. I am merely trying to make sure that when we fill all the quotas, if any of you are short, there are still some middling choices to fill out your requisitions. You choose the cream and I’ll supply the dross.”

“Perhaps there should be a different order when we resume,” Jozef suggested as they broke for lunch. Waiters from the hotel sliced cold tongue and poured champagne as the officers discussed the morning’s horses.

“Are you hoping for a better spot, young man?” von Brenner asked.

Jozef shrugged. “Rittmeister Korzeniowski is next to last and seems to get very few choice horses.”

“Ah.” von Brenner nodded. “I wouldn’t worry yourself on his account. He’s picked some good mounts, and he’ll have more chances as the others reach their quotas.” With that he turned away and went to join another knot of officers.

“If was good of you to try.” Jozef turned to see Korzeniowski approaching him. “Forgive my overhearing,” the Pole added. His German was very correct, with just the slightest Polish accent.

“It looked to me as if you had a good eye for horses but were disappointed in most of your choices.”

“I like to think I know a good horse. My uncle raised them. But I’m fated to get the leavings. It shows some tolerance that I’m here at all. One can’t ask more.”

“How so?” Jozef asked.

Korzeniowski smiled. “You don’t know what unit I represent, do you.”

The square headgear emblazoned with the Polish eagle made the nationality of his unit clear enough, but what was the unit itself? “You have me there,” he admitted. “I’m not a career officer. I can tell it’s a Polish formation, but I don’t know what kind.”

“We are the only kind of Polish formation.”

“Our own 7th Uhlans are mostly Polish, and my fellow officers very proud of it too.”

“Ah, but you miss my meaning, sir. You are a unit of Poles. We in the Legion are a Polish unit. We have our allegiance to the Polish Supreme National Committee, which perhaps if God, the emperor, and the fortunes of war are willing will someday soon be just as real a government as the Hungarian Parliament. But in the meantime… Suffice it to say there are those who would call us play soldiers, though if anyone says as much in my hearing I will of course have to demand that he meet me on the field of honor.”

“But how can the committee have an army if it’s not really a government? What is it?”

“What is it? An idea, an ideal, a people. Ask anyone with the luxury of a government for his own nation and he’ll tell you that only a legitimate government can raise an army. But history is clear in its examples: the army always comes first, and only after a people has proved itself in battle is it acknowledge to have a legitimate government. So with this great war comes an opportunity. There are thirty million of us Poles, and for over a century our land has been divided up between Russian control and Austrian. If we throw our weight in with the empire and help to free our fellow countryman from the oppression of the Tsar, perhaps that earns us the right to stand as a separate and equal nationality within the empire. And for that possibility, we’re willing to risk our lives.”

“That seems a noble enough reason. And yet they force you to the end of the line when it comes to selecting horses.”

Korzeniowski spread his hands. “If I were to be generous in my thinking, I’d admit that there are plenty of Polish officers and men who serve in his Imperial Royal Majesty’s army without thought for advancing their nationality. The fact that we wear the Polish uniform rather than the Austrian is suspect.”

“Well as far as I’m concerned, anyone willing to risk his life to fight the Russians is loyal enough. And I’m sure many of the Polish officers I serve with in the Uhlans would like to see a greater Poland within the empire. I’m part Polish myself, in a way.”

“Even if he weren’t, your fair mindedness would make you a comrade in my eyes.” Korzeniowski gave a slight bow.

“I wish I could help, but I hardly have any better pickings than you.”

“It’s kind of you, but I’ll get by. It’s a great deal of progress that I’m here at all. You should have seen us back in 1914. We had to provide our own weapons. One of my troopers was carrying a sword his grandfather used against the Prussians in 1866 and a muzzle-loading fowling piece. And when they did first send us proper arms we got Turkish rifles which didn’t fit the ammunition we were issued. Things are better now. We’ll just never be at the front of anyone’s list, which is fair enough since we’re at the front of our own.”


After the horse requisition fair was over for the day, the officers converged again on the hotel for dinner and the evening’s performance. Tonight was the opera company’s tragedy “Lucia di Lammermoor” and while it was not one of the crowd-pleasing comedies it was at least a well known classic with songs that appreciative fans could hum along to. For Jozef there was an additional attraction in that he could see Zita on the stage for the first time.

“You were wonderful,” he said, when she joined him in the hotel restaurant after the performance.

“Bring your songbird to the table, von Revay!” called the major from across the room.

“Do you want to join the main table?” Jozef asked, keeping his voice low so that the other officers could not hear. “Revel in your triumph with the whole crowd?”

Zita looked down and gave a slight shake of the head.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to comply with your suggestion at this time,” Jozef told the major, drawing howls and laughter from the other officers. The comedic sopranos were already seated with them, however, and soon the attention directed at their little side table died away.

Zita ordered soup and shrugged away the glass of champagne Jozef offered. Even as he waxed eloquent about her performance she kept her gaze down at the table in front of her and picked at the soup.

“Is something wrong?” Jozef asked at last.

Another shrug. “I’m tired.”

Silence. Jozef poured himself another glass of champagne and contemplated his companion. The curve of her jaw. The line of tendon that stood out in her neck as she turned to look away. The smooth line of collarbone visible above the blue lace yoke of her evening dress. It seemed almost indecent, as if the day of judging horses’ merit had left him seeing only flesh and skin and muscle, but every feature spoke of a creature more young and supple than Klara.

And yet at this moment her gestures spoke of someone unhappy despite her successful performance. Another tack was called for.

“The second day of the horse fair isn’t until Monday. I’ve no obligations tomorrow. Could I take you somewhere?”

A shake of the head. “I want to go to mass. And after that... I’ve no performance tomorrow, and I don’t want to see anyone.”

“We could go away together. Perhaps a picnic. I could rent a trap and drive you out into the country. We could eat sandwiches from a hamper and not see anyone all day.”

At last her eyes met his. “Oh. How could you guess? We used to take picnics with my father. Nature walks, he called them. He said it was the best change from spending his days dealing with trains: clean air and quiet.” The words had tumbled out with a sort of desperate happiness, but now she stopped, conscious of having for a moment shown a great deal. “Yes, I’d like to go. Just a quiet picnic. You needn’t plan anything fancy.”

“A rustic ramble, then, of the very simplest kind, I promise.”

This had his intended effect of drawing a laugh, if a guarded one.

He met her next morning outside her hotel. Her wide straw hat and the walking boots he saw peek out from under the hem of her plain cotton dress as he helped her into the gig reinforced the idea of a family-style walk in the country rather than any romantic assignation, and so Jozef carefully played the part of brotherly companion and bided his time. Was this just the loneliness of a girl not long away from home, or was there something deeper troubling her?

They had a quiet ride out into the country, the rented horse trotting briskly enough but with no dash. Jozef choose a grassy stream bank overshadowed by willow trees to lay out the picnic cloth and on it the hamper of food which the hotel restaurant had provided to his order.

It was an ideal spot for an afternoon that might turn amorous. The willow blocked out the heat of the June sun, and the stream gurgled pleasantly over its rocky bed. All of these, however, worked no magic upon Zita, who sat silently with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, watching the play of the leafy shadows on the grass.

When the silence became too uncomfortable he ventured, “You did wonderfully last night.”

A slight shrug followed by a long pause. Having spoken, the silence now seemed to belong to him, and it was painful. He was frantically reaching for some line of commentary which would fill the air with something light and witty when Zita shook her head and turned to him.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly rude. You’re very kind.”

“Is something wrong?”

She looked away, and Jozef feared she was about to fall silent again, but instead the anonymity of speaking to someone she was not looking at seemed to give her the ability to go on.

“All of these years I’ve prepared for a career as an opera singer, and now I wonder if I want to go on.”

“But why would you stop? You sang beautifully.”

“It’s not the singing. I love every minute that I’m on stage. I even love to practice. No, it’s not the work that gives me pause. It’s being an opera singer.”

This time Jozef knew to remain quiet, and after a moment she continued.

“All those years of lessons and at the conservatory, I learned about music and about singing technique. That seemed the most important thing. Opera was simply the way to share that music with the world. And when people said it wasn’t moral to go on the stage, I always insisted: it’s just music. That’s what my father believed too. ‘There can be nothing immoral in your singing,’ he told me. ‘God gave you that.’ And yet…” She shook her head and took a long pause. Though her face was turned away, Jozef felt sure that she was blinking back tears. “Yesterday evening, after I finished the performance, I was so proud. I’d sung Lucia before, but this was my first time with a real touring company. I’d soaked up every moment of the applause. I was thinking of how you would all greet me in the restaurant. I was full of pride, and why not? It was innocent pride for a job well done.

“I was changing in the room set aside for the leading sopranos when the door opened without so much as a knock. In came the company manager and with him the hotel owner. I dived behind the screen, calling out that I was not prepared for visitors. No need to worry, just an admiring visitor, the manager tells me. Then the hotel owner puts down a big vase full of roses on the cabinet and the two of them stand talking as if they were in any public place.

“My dress was still hanging in the wardrobe, so I cowered behind the screen and waited for them to leave. But they did not. At last I told the company manager that they must leave so I could get my dress, and he laughed and tossed my silk dressing gown over the screen to me. Time passed, and I saw they had no intention of leaving until I emerged, so at last I put the dressing gown on and went to get the dress myself. My face must have been as red as the silk, and I kept my eyes on the ground. I couldn’t bear to meet their gaze and see them looking at me. Then as I fumbled to take my dress from its hanger, finding everything difficult as one does in a moment of nervousness, the hotel owner began to talk, saying I was a beautiful girl and it was a pity I wasn’t staying in his hotel. I said it was much too expensive for an actress like me, and he said he’d leave word and all I had to do was go to the desk and ask for the owner’s special room.

“At last I got my dress free and retreated to behind the screen. I wouldn’t come out or say another word until they left, which they did when they realized they weren’t to get any more satisfaction from me. But the humiliation. I didn’t study music to be shown off like some cheap whore.”

She threw out this last word with bitter force as if it were a curse, which on her lips perhaps it was.

While Jozef was still searching for the proper response to all this she began again. “I know I must have seemed sullen last night. And yet each time someone praised my performance all I could think of was: This is what they all think of me, the sort of woman they can ogle while she dresses and have for the price of a free hotel room. What should have been a night of triumph tasted like ashes.

“Then this morning at church I thought perhaps I was taking it all too hard. Surely not every singer is treated this way. Perhaps I’d somehow given the wrong impression. I even thought,” she cast a glance back at Jozef and flushed, “Perhaps it was because I conversed so easily and so much with you. Perhaps the company manager though that I was casting myself in men’s way. So I went to Anna-Elizaveta, the lead comic soprano, and told her what had happened. She just laughed, as if it were the most usual thing in the world, and said that next time I should be sure to show them a little shoulder or leg and they might leave a tip.”

This was not the kind of conversation that Jozef had envisioned as he selected a secluded picnic spot and spread out the picnic blanket. However mysterious and changeable women were reputed to be, it seemed unlikely that a picnic which began with this discussion would end with consummating a moment of passion in this secluded spot. Indeed, now the hope that it would seemed sordid. The actions of the company and hotel managers were crass. And yet, was there lurking still some similarity to his own?

They knew nothing of her, while Jozef had heard about her family, her schooling, her drive to succeed as a singer. In their easy conversation he had found hope that she might prove the Minna to his Friedrich. In one sense it was a lofty goal. No couple he knew seemed closer, even when faced with the adversity of Friedrich’s wounds. And yet had anything in Zita’s conversation suggested that she would be willing to become the mistress of a cavalry officer? Indeed did not everything which she had said about her background and desires suggeste the opposite? Was there anything which had suggested to him the idea that she might lay herself out for him on this river bank other than that she was a singer? And if was only her place as a singer that had suggested her availability to him, were his assumptions not the same as those other men’s?

Perhaps it was naive of her to imagine that she could be an opera singer and a respectable woman at the same time, and soon she would be forced to choose which was more important to her. Or perhaps it happened all the time, despite the assumptions of those who wanted to either scorn or take advantage of them. But unless he wanted to place himself in the company of her unwelcome visitors the day before, he would have to wait and see.

Zita was rubbing away tears with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This has hardly been picnic conversation. And yet you’ve listened very kindly. I’ve been tiresome company.”

Now that she seemed prepared to move to other subjects, words came to him more easily. “Not at all. I may not have the right words for every moment, but I can at least provide a sympathetic ear. And champagne,” he added, drawing a bottle from the picnic basket. “Could you, perhaps, be more in the mood for it than last night?”


In the end, the picnic proved a pleasurable afternoon. If it did not provide the kind of release which Jozef had imagined when he made his plans, it did at least develop from an awkward set of revelations to a rambling and enjoyable conversation. It was nearing evening when he returned to the fairgrounds. Sunday night offered no dramatic diversion, and although the officers were enjoying a dinner and round of drinks at the hotel restaurant, Jozef had chosen solitude instead after his day with Zita. And yet solitude did not prove enough.

He wandered the fairgrounds, inspected the men -- who were resentful at having an officer interrupt their Sunday amusements -- and at last hit upon something which would suit. He would inspect the requisitioned mounts and thus have the opportunity to see again the horse he had picked and hoped to keep for his own use.

The horses were kept in a long, low stable building. The men on guard, not Uhlans from his own contingent but men reporting to the major, suggested that there was nothing to inspect, but he ordered them to allow him in and at such direct instructions they fell back and saluted.

Inside, rather than individual stalls, was one long space. Straw covered the wooden floor, and long troughs offered food and water for the animals. They milled around quietly in the dim interior, lighted only by the few rays of summer evening sunlight slanting in, each horse with its requisition number painted on its hindquarters in white.

He recalled watching the number be painted on his favorite: ‘318’ in big block numerals against the black flank. And yet when he at last found a horse with that number, it was not the sleek, black creature that he recalled so clearly but a big, shaggy, gray cart horse. He even summoned one of the guards from outside.

“This horse is numbered incorrectly. Where is the correct requisition 318?”

The guard shrugged. “All the horses are here, sir. Perhaps you remember the number wrong?”

But numbered or not, the black hunter which Jozef had picked so eagerly was nowhere to be found.

[Read the next installment.]

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chapter 4-1

It's been a long, long time. The last couple installments went up right around the time baby was born. That threw the household into more of a time organization crunch than I expected. I'm trying to make a push until the end of the year to finish this 4th chapter and also the 5th.

Near Sandomierz, Galicia. June 8th, 1915. The 7th Uhlans were surrounded by dead. Not because there had been any pitched battle, but because the town of Sambor had, in its wisdom, built its cemetery on the only hill within miles.

Jozef sat in the shadow of a monument on which two angels held up a scroll proclaiming that Irena Wyrzykowski had been a beloved wife and mother from 1829 to 1873 and waited while Oberleutnant Niemczyk scanned the distance with his binoculars.

It was not a very high hill, and yet because the rest of the plain along the Vistula was so flat, it afforded a view which stretched more than a dozen miles.

“Any sign of the Russians?”

“Nothing beyond a few smoking cottages. They’re doing their best to leave nothing behind for us.”

The oberleutnant, serving as temporary squadron commander since the Rittmeister had been wounded in the second day of the offensive, turned his glasses to look down the river road towards the west instead. “The infantry is coming up. We should be relieved by noon.”

In the end, it was not until the cavalrymen were finishing their lunch among the graves that the long line of infantry in their dusty gray-blue uniforms came marching by the hill. Their officers, on horseback but wearing the shoes and leg-wraps of infantrymen rather than the boots of true cavalry, directed some companies forward and others up onto the hill. These were Landsturm sappers, older men, bearded, slouching, their marching order ragged. They carried rifles on their shoulders, but also oversized shovels lashed to their packs. Their mission was not to fight but to dig the fortifications from which others would.

“How goes it with the mole soldiers?” called one of the troopers. “Will you dig your way through and attack the Orient?”

“Go suck a horse, pretty boy,” one of the infantrymen called in reply, while the rest simply hunched their shoulders and kept moving.

Oberleutnant Niemczyk ordered the squadron to mount up, and as the Landsturm set to with their spades to begin turning the hill into a fortification, the Uhlans rode back down the highway to make camp. Once there, however, Jozef did not find his name on the roster of assignments with the other junior officers. Instead he found a summons to Oberst von Bruenner, commander of the regiment.

The retreating Russians had left standing no buildings in the village worth using as a headquarters. The Oberst made himself at home in a tent instead, and did so with some style. When the guard outside pulled back the tent flap and bowed Jozef in, he stepped onto a rug which covered the ground. Oberst von Bruenner sat on a folding camp chair in front of a wooden writing desk. Jozef came to full attention and saluted.

“Provisional Leutnant von Revay, Sir.”

There were several other chairs and stools arranged in a horseshoe facing the desk, perhaps unmoved since the Oberst had last met with his squadron commanders, but he did not invite Jozef to be seated. For a moment the Oberst remained immersed in a paper on his desk, then he signed it with a flourish, got slowly to his feet, and returned Jozef’s salute.

“Yes, von Revay. I hear good things about you from Oberleutnant Niemczyk.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have two things to tell you. First, you may drop the ‘provisional’. I have received approval for your promotion to a full leutnant.”

The Oberst picked up the paper he had just signed and held it out to Jozef. There it was in elaborate black printed letters: a commission to the officer corps of the Imperial-Royal Army.

“Secondly,” went on the Oberst, “I’m detaching you on a special mission.”

The phrase instantly conjured up visions of adventure and danger. In the first days of the Grolice-Tarnow offensive they had seen a few sharp engagements -- thundering towards Russian scouts with sabres drawn until the foot soldiers scattered like so many rabbits, or dismounting and settling in behind cover with their carbines to hold newly captured territory against counter attack -- but for weeks now they had simply followed the retreating Russians and occupied the villages they left behind.

Perhaps he would be sent behind enemy lines to gather intelligence or raise the Polish population against their Russian overlords.

Oberst von Bruenner took another paper from his desk. “Here are the official orders. You’ll be assigned with Rittmeister Hofer to take a half troop of men by rail and conduct horse requisitions.”

Horse requisitions. Excitement turned to bitterness, but Jozef knew enough to keep his face impassive. Complaining to a superior officer was a sin never to be forgiven. But why had he been singled out for a mere supply errand? He had followed orders and accepted dull tasks when his turn came. He had improved his riding and his Polish. He had befriended his fellow officers as well as he could with the limitations imposed by living on his pay, and thus steering clear of the nightly card games in which the better heeled officers indulged. He had drilled his troopers and drilled with them. He had done everything to make himself a worthy officer, and now on the moment of his promotion he was offered not combat, not reconnaissance, but a supply mission? He had not realized his superiors thought so little of him. Or had his mother managed to wield her influence again through some lover and asked to have him removed from the front lines?

The Oberst finished his remarks and Jozef thanked him with an unconvincing counterfeit of gratitude. He turned to go, but von Bruenner clapped a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

“I know that this first assignment may not be the stuff of dreams,” Oberst von Bruenner said. “No, don’t shake your head. I was young once, you know. Well, I tell you, von Revay, horse requisition may not seem as dashing as what you’d hoped for, but it’s an important task. The cavalry would be nothing without horses. Leastways, we’d be infantry without horses, and that’s as near to nothing as I’d care to go. Do you take my meaning?”

Jozef nodded and forced a smile. “Yes, sir. I understand. Thank you, sir.”

Oberst von Bruenner clapped him on the shoulder again and assured him that he was a very promising young man, after which he at last allowed Jozef to depart.

At mess that night, with the other junior officers, Jozef indulged in pouring out his frustrations to his squadron commander. Oberleutnant Niemczyk was close enough to being a friend as well as an officer that when away from the immediate pressure of duties such conversation was possible.

“And you’re feeling quite ill-used about it all?” Oberleutnant Niemczyk asked, once Jozef had finished laying out his situation. “No, no, don’t bother denying it. Well, before you indulge in any self pity, here’s something you haven’t heard yet: The Oberst has orders to select select two squadrons from the regiment to be dismounted and transferred to the infantry, and they’re especially in need of junior officers, as it seems the infantry keeps getting theirs killed or wounded. So if you like your life in the cavalry consider yourself fortunate that von Bruenner is sending you on his shopping errand and not off to the trenches.”


Olmütz, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. The train journey took them south and west, back towards Vienna, and with each stop came more that was familiar. Proper farm houses with steep, shingled roofs replaced the squat peasant huts topped with thatching. The station signs were lettered in clear, bold, Gothic lettering rather than the tangle of Oriental characters used on official signage in Russian territory.

When they detrained in Olmütz they could almost have been in Vienna again. The platforms of the bahnhof teamed with people, not just soldiers but gentlemen in dark suits and homburgs, workers with caps pulled down over their eyes, and women. Not the peasant women with kerchiefs covering their hair and wary eyes who had watched them from the windows of town houses and the doors of peasant huts. Here were young women in cotton dresses and wide brimmed summer straw hats, ladies in bright silks with tall plumes bobbing from modish hats, and working women in the plain black hats which like their long sleeved shirts and wool skirts had to serve as year round costume. Women who, perhaps, were not looking at the brave defenders of the realm descending from the train, but who at least were not scurrying out of sight or regarding them with suspicion.

“Hey there, pretty one, where are you going?” called one of the troopers.

She shook her head and hurried on.

“Did you see that smile?” he asked his fellows.

“Sergeant,” Rittmeister Hofer said. “Get your troopers under control and report with them to the central barracks to find accommodations. Leutnant, come with me.” He set off across the platform,the spurs of his polished cavalry boots ringing on the pavement and his orderly scurrying after with the luggage cart.

“Save your catcalls for the beerhall,” the sergeant shouted. “Respectable women don’t want to hear you. Now form up.”

Jozef left him to it and followed Rittmeister Hofer out, passing under the glass and steel facade of the bahnhof and out into the teeming streets.


The quartermaster’s office was tucked away in a business quarter, the second floor of a big brick building, with a bank below it and a grain broker above. During its brief possession of the premises the imperial and royal army’s supply service had broken the space up into a warren of little offices, from the desks of which materials of all descriptions were managed and mismanaged from the vast multi-ethnic patchwork of the empire’s many regions and directed to the regiments of the Second and Third armies.

With Jozef in his wake, Rittmeister Hofer found his way to the office responsible for horse requisitions. There an oberleutnant supply officer looked carefully through a ledger while muttering to himself, “7th Uhlans. 7th Uhlans. Ah, here, I see. You’re authorized to requisition one hundred riding quality animals and forty draft animals.”

Rittmeister Hofer threw up his hands. “That’s not sufficient.” He pulled out a paper and showed it to the supply officer, explaining with some heat the numbers of remount and draft animals the regiment required.

Jozef watched in silence. In the field, no oberleutnant would have dared to thwart or question a rittmeister, but here this supply officer’s control over a vital resource allowed him to shrug off even orders written by the regiment’s oberst himself.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the oberleutnant said, handing back the papers. “There’s a very strict allocation of horses. I can’t authorize more than I just told you. If you capture enemy mounts, of course, that’s your own affair. But these are all the horses 7th Uhlans can have this month. According to records you should still have at least one mount per soldier.”

“Trooper,” said Rittmeister Hofer. “Soldiers march, not ride.”

The supply officer shrugged again. “Of course. One mount per trooper.”

“But we lose horses every week. Lameness. Exhaustion. If we have no replacement mounts they’ll have to keep riding injured horses and we’ll lose more permanently.”

“Then train your soldiers to treat their horses better. I can’t give you more than I have told you, sir. Do you want to attend the requisition fair and take what has been authorized or pursue other avenues to meet your needs?”

For a moment it seemed Rittmeister Hofer would indeed turn on his heel and walk out of the little windowless cubby of an office, but then the older officer bit back his frustration, offered a slight bow, and said that they would indeed attend the fair.

“Very well. The next one is to be held in Prerau beginning tomorrow morning. I’ll write up a requisition order for you to show the fair officer.”

Rittmeister Hofer said nothing as they left the offices. The narrow stairway from the second floor spit them out a small side door into the street. There it seemed surprising that it was still mid-afternoon, the light harsh after the dim confines of the offices.

“I suppose we’ll have to go to the barracks?” Jozef ventured, when the silence seemed to stretch on uncomfortably long. “Or will we go to Prerau tonight? Is it far?”

“The very first thing we will do,” the rittmeister replied, “is find out what opera is playing tonight. I don’t intend to spend my precious nights in civilization drinking rotgut brandy in the barrack canteen and dallying with third rate whores. I want to hear hear a good rousing tune or two and then buy drinks for a ballet or chorus girl afterwards. Do you like culture, von Revay?”

Jozef hesitated. The word suggested the tuneless modern art songs which Friedrich had taken him to hear Minna sing. He would have given much to see Friedrich and Minna again, but sitting through such a performance with Hofer, whom he hardly knew, bore no attraction. Still, the rittmeister wasn’t Jewish and hadn’t shown any notably strange enthusiasms before. Perhaps his ideas of culture were more accessible. Jozef cautiously allowed that he liked music.

“Like music? Where are you from? Are you one of these country squires who joins the Uhlans because he knows horses better than women and has never been to the opera? I grew up in Pressburg and I tell you, there we have culture. Wonderful shows at the opera every season. Strauss. Flotow. Have you been to the opera?”



“I grew up in Vienna.”

“Ah.” The revelation brought Rittmeister Hofer up short for a moment. It did not fit with his chosen mode as the older, more cultured man instructing the younger and less experienced one. Then he shrugged it off. “Much the same. There’s good opera in Vienna just like in Pressburg.”

They took the tram to Olmütz’s opera house, a white building on the main square whose facade of ordinary windows allowed it to blend in with those around it.

There were several old men sipping coffee and reading newspapers at the street tables of the Opera Cafe, but the only playbills on the wall were already old and peeling. The rittmeister pulled aside a waiter.

“What is the opera?”

The waiter shrugged. “No opera,” he answered, pronouncing each word with extra clarity as if he suspected that the officer who asked such a foolish question must not speak German well. “Not in the summer. The company is on tour. No opera till September.”

Hofer grew angry, which made his Pressburg accent, normally slight, stronger. The hints of Slovak pronunciation did little to reassure the waiter of his knowledge or intellect. “Where are they on tour? What city?”

“On tour in small cities,” the waiter said, abandoning full sentences and using his hands to illustrate with gestures. “Small cities. Small shows.”

“What city are they in now?”

The waiter considered and counted off days on his fingers. “Prerau,” he said at last. “They go to Prerau this week. Yesterday, today, tomorrow maybe. Prerau.”

Rittmeister Hofer turned away without thanking him and strode back towards the tram, the spurs of his dress riding boots jingling against the paving stones. “Goddamned Cheskey,” Jozef heard him mutter.

The Uhlans had already found a place congenial to their tastes near the city barracks and begun what they had expected to be an evening’s drinking uninterrupted by duties or officers.

“Sir, it took long enough to arrange accommodations for tonight,” the sergeant pleaded. “Couldn’t we take the morning train to Prerau?”

“No,” the Rittmeister told him. The men could drink as well in Prerau as here.

It was thus a sullen group of Uhlans that the sergeant herded onto the local train to Prerau. This was one of the egalitarian sort of trains meant for carrying people to and from the city on market days. It offered no first class carriage, but the sergeant, knowing what would keep him from being reprimanded for the men’s behavior while at the same time ingratiating him to the rittmeister, created one by ordering the men back to the last carriage of the train and then stationing himself outside the doors of the one which Rittmeister Hofer and Jozef had entered, directing all passengers, civilian or military, to other cars until the whistle sounded and the train began to move.

The Rittmeister showed no signs of wanting to converse, so Jozef found another of the plain wooden benches in the empty rail car and made himself as comfortable as he could.

How old was Rittmeister Hofer? How long had he been an officer? Jozef watched the older officer, who leaned back against a bench, eyes half shut, as the scenery rolled by outside the windows. His hair was slowly drawing back on both sides of a pronounced widow’s peak but there was no gray sprinkled among it. Ten years older, perhaps? Surely not more than fifteen. Promotion had come slow in the years before the war, but surely a man still a rittmeister could not be over thirty-five.

Where and how, in those ten or fifteen years had Hofer learned to wield authority so effortlessly?

This empty rail car was a sign of it. Hofer had given no orders, had not even expressed a wish to have a carriage free of the peasants and farmwives who had swarmed across the platform but been urged by the sergeant toward other cars. No, the sergeant had done that simply because he thought it would please the rittmeister. That was authority, silent and unquestioned. An authority very different from the officers who shouted and cursed, demanding obedience.

How long would it take to gain the kind of authority? How did a man gain it?

Answers did not come as the train swayed along, accelerating up to its brisk twenty-five kilometers an hour top speed and then slowing again to stop at each town and village along the track. At last the older officer’s head nodded down to his chest. A quiet snore betrayed his sleep.

Jozef, alone at last, took a cigar from the pocket of his uniform tunic and puffed quietly out the window until the train arrived in Prerau.


The horse requisition fair was managed by an aging major of the supply service, a short thin man with steel gray hair and mustache. They found him at the town’s nicest restaurant, the one in the Hotel Grande. The scene could have been from a year before or from fifty years before, any time but the gray clad present. Major Brenner was resplendent in his dark blue dress tunic with gold braid and green facings. The officers sitting with him wore dress uniforms in dark blue, light blue, and green, and their headgear sitting on the side table included shakos, brass helmets and a Polish Legion czapka with silver eagle.

“7th Uhlans?” asked the major. “I received a telegram about your arrival today. Will you attend the opera tonight?”

“Oh, is there an opera here tonight?” Rittmeister Hofer asked, his offhand tone suggesting no prior knowledge of such a thing.

“The theater company just arrived today. They perform in the ballroom here tonight.”

“In that case…” The rittmeister finished the sentence with a slight bow.

“Just one word for you then, if I might.” Major von Brenner rose from his table and approaching, leaned close to Rittmeister Hofer as if to share a secret. His next words, however, were spoken in a tone that, though quiet, was far from a whisper. The whole room, having fallen silent, heard him say, “Do not embarrass your fellow officers by appearing in these field grays again, whether at the opera or at the fair tomorrow. Whatever laxities the world outside indulges, here we are gentlemen who observe proper form.”

He returned to his seat, and as he did so added in a louder voice, “Your men may quarter at the fairgrounds. The proprietor is under orders to find them all shelter. You and your leutnant can doubtless find rooms here if you wish.”

With that he reached for his glass, which the waiter hurried to refill. They were dismissed. Rittmeister Hofer and Jozef both bowed and left.

“You’re welcome to stay in the hotel if you have the funds,” the rittmeister said as they left, their cavalry boots ringing on the glossy marble of the hotel floor. “And if not, Sergeant Egger will make sure that you have the pick of the sleeping arrangements at this fairground in which the men will be quartered.”

The message was clear enough: for Jozef at least, any stay in the hotel must be at his own expense. He tried to tally up what that expense might be. The white stone facade of the hotel suggested exclusivity, but at what cost was exclusivity in rural Moravia?

“I hope you brought a proper uniform?” asked the rittmeister.

“Yes, sir.” His czapka, the formal helmet of polished leather and bronze topped with a tassel of black horsehair, was packed carefully in its leather hatbox as it had been ever since he had joined the regiment, and his blue dress tunic with white buttons was folded away in brown paper at the bottom of his luggage. The last time he had worn them had been in Budapest, trying to win back Klara. There too he has spent scarce money on a nice hotel room, and here he did not even have the prospect of female companionship in it. “I’ll stay with the men, sir,” Jozef added, before his new resolution could soften. “But I’ll come back here for the opera tonight.”


The fair grounds stood on the outskirts of the town. Some elements would have been familiar to any mid-sized market town: a horse track; long low buildings which could serve as stables or display places for the products of the surrounding rural districts; stalls for merchants and games. Above these, however, was strung a criss-cross of wires from which hung the new, modern, light bulbs. And at the center of it all stood a large round building, through the windows of which was visible a brightly painted carousel.

“Would you like to see inside, sir?”

Jozef startled -- having been absorbed in looking at the carousel building -- and turned to see a middle aged man whose balding head and large nose marked him to Vienna-trained eyes as a prosperous Jew.

“Of the carousel? It looks closed up.”

“I’ve already promised the soldiers that I’ll open it tonight, sir. If you would like to see…” He bowed and gestured with his hands as if to say, no trouble.

“Why all of this technology out here in a small town fair grounds?”

The man extended his hands and shrugged. “Well, you know. Electricity is very much the new thing. Everyone likes it. No one has it. If the electrical company is to build new lines out to houses and shops, it must attract customers who are willing to pay. And if we are to offer electricity to the town at all, we must have a generator. So, two problems slain with a single stone: We build the generator here, and with it lighting and this very modern merry go round, covered in lights and powered by the same steam engine which runs the generator. And so the town gets a diversion and a very nice demonstration of what electricity can do, and the electrical company gets the capital to invest in the generator and a way to pay off the bond through the tickets. Do you see that little building to one side?”

Jozef said that he did.

“That building contains the steam engine. Coal goes in. Electricity and the spinning shaft to drive the carousel comes out. All very scientific and up to date. And when the town worthies see what brilliance the new technology can produce, they ask us to build lines to their houses. Here, I can show you the engine.”

It was a strange beast, all arms and wheels and steam pipes, filling half the little building to the side of the carousel’s structure.

“I promised the sergeant that I would fire it up tonight and let the soldiers see it run,” the Jew, clearly some sort of manager for the fair, explained. “Anything for the empire’s soldiers.”

Jozef acknowledged this compliment, asked a few more polite questions about the engine, and then about where he could stay.

The managed looked at his insignia with a practiced eye. “The soldiers are quartered in one of the stable buildings. Very clean. No animals. Clean straw. But you, Leutnant, perhaps I could invite you to stay in my house? My family would be honored, sir.”

Jozef considered. They would be honored, no doubt, not only by the presence of an imperial-royal officer, but also by the knowledge that with the officer staying with them he would serve as a sort of guarantee for the behavior of the men. Free lodging for the officer, no looting or ill treatment of Jews from the men. There was a certain back handedness to the offer, which doubtless came from fear as much as patriotism. Would taking it be a form of implicit extortion? And yet, it was a bed indoors, and for free, something he had not enjoyed often as of late.

“Thank you.” Jozef gave a slight bow with a military click of the heels. “It is I who would be honored.”

The manager’s house stood on a plot of well trimmed grass, a stand of trees masking it from the fairgrounds. He insisted that the bedroom to which he showed Jozef was a spare room, reserved for guests, though from the rose printed curtains and a number of other feminine touches, Jozef suspected it was in fact the room of the manager’s oldest daughter, a heavy, dark-haired girl he saw only briefly as she was hurried out of the sitting room along with the other women of the family when the manager led him in.

Still, it was a room, a room in an undamaged house, with a soft bed and a box of cigars which the fair manager placed on the vanity, carrying away the jewelry box and cosmetic box which had been there before.

Pulling off his tall boots and taking one of the cigars, Jozef lay back upon the bed and looked up at the gold patterned paper on the ceiling. The cigar gave off a gentle scent and he rolled it back and forth between his fingers. This was a better cigar than he had enjoyed in many weeks, and he would take it by stages. The first was to revel on the scent of the aged tobacco leaves. Once he had put on his dress uniform and set off for the evening’s opera performance back at the hotel, perhaps then he would trim and light the cigar. But for now, he let his world become the soft bed and the delicate smell.


Two hours later, as Jozef was walking back to the hotel, he saw a boy in a slouch worker’s cap pasting up a handbill: “One Week Engagement of the Olmütz Opera Company. Experience the thrilling performances of WIENER BLUT, MARTHA, and the tragic LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR!

The dates listed began with that night. The names of the singers at the bottom of the poster were unfamiliar, but one could hardly expect the names he knew from Vienna to appear here.

At the hotel itself, Rittmeister Hofer was with the other officers in the restaurant and food and drink were already much in supply. Jozef gladly accepted a glass of wine and watched as the waiter cut him a slice of duck glistening with fat.

They ate. They drank. They offered toasts: To his imperial-royal majesty. To the empire. To the army. To the ladies. To wives and lovers; may they never meet! To the destruction of the faithless Italians, who the previous month had reversed their treaty allegiance and declared war against Austria-Hungary. To the confusion of the English, whose avarice and trading empire must somehow be behind all the evils besetting the civilized world. To the destruction of the bestial Russians and their asiatic hordes.

The language became more flowery as the bottles emptied, and by the time they filed into the hotel’s ballroom and sat in the chairs ranged before the temporary stage, the officers were in such a mood that cheers and catcalls went up in response to each theme and entrance. The audience, particularly those who had consumed at least a bottle of wine each, were ready and eager to care about the principality of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz and the complicated love life of its Count. The orchestra knew well that the only justification for the show was that everyone already knew Strauss’s incomparable tunes, and so they obligingly belted out each favorite loudly enough to be heard over the knee slapping and foot tapping of the tipsy officers.

The first act ended to thunderous applause. The ballroom had become close and stale during the last hour, despite the windows open to the summer evening, and so the audience poured out into the courtyard to cool themselves during the intermission. Major Brenner was pouring glasses of champagne for the other officers, drawing bottles from a case he had ordered a waiter to bring out to the courtyard.

Jozef stood behind the knot of officers for a moment, as they each waited for a glass, then turned away. In the breast pocket of his dress uniform tunic he could feel the slight weight of one of the fair manager’s cigars, which he had tucked away for an appropriate moment. With his head clear enough that there was now little risk to drowsing off during the second act, perhaps this was more a time for the cigar than for more champagne. Turning away from the others, he sought out a quiet corner of the courtyard where he could catch the evening breeze and, turning his back to the cool draft and cupping his hand to shelter the match, lit the cigar with a series of rapid puffs.

It was as he turned back into the breeze, that he noticed the woman sitting on a traveling trunk and enjoying the same summer breeze, half hidden behind the next pillar. With an effort to appear as casual as possible, he took one sauntering step and then another, until he could lean negligently against the pillar and issue of cloud of cigar smoke. Then he gave himself a shake, as if just noticing her.

“I’m sorry, Miss. Does the smoke bother you?”

She shook her head, a little too vigorously, then readjusted her traveling hat with its solitary artificial flower and the little veil of black netting hanging down from the brim. The hat itself might have seemed conservative, severe, but the motion had a girlishness to it, someone not accustomed to the formality which her costume required.

“Oh no. It reminds me of home. My father smoked a cigar every night.” The reference to ‘my father’ again made her sound young, and hardly seemed an invitation to a flirtatious exchange.

“Have you been enjoying the show?” Jozef asked instead.

“I’m afraid I didn’t arrive until after it had begun. I’ll have to wait until after to introduce myself to the company.”

“The company?”

A brief pause, then she said, “I am Miss Zita Nosek. I’m the new dramatic soprano. I just got in on the 8:15, and I don’t yet know where I’m supposed to stay.”

“Miss Nosek.” Jozef swept a bow and clicked the heels of his riding boots. She laughed, but it was an empty sound. Evidently gallantry was not the route with this one. He turned away, leaned casually back against the wall, and took a series of puffs at the cigar. “So? How do you come to be the new dramatic soprano? From another opera company?”

A little shrug and then in a natural voice. “I only just graduated from the conservatory in Vienna.”

“In Vienna? That’s my home. Did you grow up there?”

“Oh no. My father was a railway conductor in Auspitz.”

This was easier conversation. In response to his questions and light banter she told her story. She had always loved to sing and done it well. Her father had been a poor farmer’s third son, but had applied himself in school and mastered the required math for the civil service test and had thus become a conductor on the imperial railways. As a result, he was a man with a deep belief that application and study under a good teacher could bring success in anything. And so she had been sent to singing lessons.

Her father had not been not wrong, and talent and dedication, along with a letter of recommendation to her singing teacher’s old mentor, had won her admission to the conservatory where she had thrived. She had stayed there even after her father had died of cancer, leaving her mother to care for three younger siblings back at home in Auspitz, because to see his daughter succeed in that cultured world had been his great ambition and delight.

But to succeed in the conservatory was not that same as to do so beyond it. If her voice was as good as others, her connections here not. When other sopranos had been offered places at the Staatsoper or the Volksoper, or failing that in Budapest or Prague, she had found nothing, until at last, this. And yet, didn’t the Olmütz Opera Company have as much right to their share of talent as the Volksoper?

Jozef had seldom found it so easy to speak to a woman. There was not here the almost dizzying intensity of talking to Klara, though as he stole glances at her without being seen to stare he found Zita was pretty enough, with round cheeks, a small nose, and dark hair peaking out from under her hat and travel veil. Yet she talked so freely and openly, he could almost see the little sitting room in Auspitz and her father puffing a cigar while listening to her sing as her younger brother played the piano.

The others taking their ease in the courtyard returned to the hotel ballroom to see the rest of the operetta, but Jozef remained talking with Zita: about their families, their schooling, the sudden adulthood of leaving home. At last the summer sun went down. Jozef asked her into the hotel restaurant where he had dined with the other officers.

“But my trunk. I still don’t know where I am to stay.”

“I’ll tell one of the porters look after it. You needn’t stand here to guard it. Have you had dinner?”

A slight shake of the head.

“Well then. If you will allow me, Miss Nosek, I will buy you some.”

She ordered food, and he ordered a bottle of wine. She accepted a half glass, which looked all the smaller next to his generous portion.

“I’m not used to much wine.”

“Should I have ordered Champagne? Surely that’s the drink for opera singers.” He regretted the jest as she smiled and looked away. Perhaps he’d let ordering her dinner go to his head too quickly. The more flirtatious tone seemed to tarnish the easy friendship they had enjoyed the last hour. And yet here he was, an officer treating an opera singer to dinner. Might this not be how Friedrich had begun with Minna?

“One of my singing masters told me to be wary of too much alcohol. It can dry out the vocal cords. So a small glass is always good for me. I drink it so slowly anyway.”

“No wine? What are you to drink?”

“She recommended tea with honey and lemon.”

“Shall I order a pot of that then?” He started to raise a hand to summon the waiter.

“No, no. This is fine. I like a little bit. And you go ahead.” She waved towards his glass, already half empty.

Half an hour later, as Jozef was calling for a second bottle, having consumed two full glasses himself and persuaded Zita to take another half glass to finish the bottle, the audience from evening’s operetta descended upon the previously quiet restaurant. The officers took the room’s longest table, making it vibrant with the blue, red, green, gold, and silver of their dress uniforms. Only after most of the party had settled and begun making loud toasts to each other did Major Brenner arrive, leading by the arm the two comic lead sopranos who had starred in the evening’s production. The officers greeted them with raucous cheers.

For a time Jozef and Zita did not draw the attention of the larger group. They talked quietly at their table while mirth rose at the long one. After a time the rest of the opera company came in and were seated off to one side. Jozef recognized the tenor who had played the Count among them. There were women among this group too, but these did not draw the attention of the officers. As that raucous group was demanding more bottles of champagne, having emptied the first batch in praise of their lady-guests and themselves, the opera company’s table received their order: a bowl of stew and a mug of beer for each person.

“I should introduce myself and find out where I am to stay,” Zita said, excusing herself.

It was as she crossed the room to the actors’ table that the officers’ table noticed both her and her host.

“Leutnant von Revay! What have you been doing hiding away from us? Who have you been biding your time with?”

“Miss Nosek is the company’s new dramatic soprano, just in from Vienna.”

This drew shouts and whistles. “Oh, he is sly, this young one, keeping a girl all to himself through the evening. What’s this, von Revay? Where is your conviviality? It’s a dreer lion that keeps his meat to himself! It’s tomorrow that you’re supposed to find something nice to ride, not tonight!”

Zita was speaking with the actors at their table, but the tense set of her shoulders made clear that these jests did not escape her notice. Jozef pushed back his chair.

“Miss Nosek is a lady. Her father is a civil servant, and she is a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory.”

The officers’ table could not be squelched, and this drew a laugh rather than any form of repentance. Rittmeister Hofer stood up and clapped a hand on Jozef’s shoulder in a manner meant to calm the excitable boy.

“She’s an opera singer, boy. I’m sure a very nice one. Take your turn, but don’t foster any illusions. A gentleman must always know what he’s about, eh?”

Zita was leaving the restaurant, and Jozef shook off the Rittmeister’s hand and followed her.

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “It was good of you to speak up for me.”

“Did you find out where you’ll be staying?”

“Yes. And they say the porter will take my luggage.”

The porter showed an ostentatious lack of enthusiasm for the task when they called him over. He would see what he could do. They were short handed that night. It was a great way to the other hotel. It would be hard to spare someone for the task.

Jozef wondered if the luggage would be delivered at all that night, or if Zita would find herself without her things. He touched the porter on the elbow and handed him a silver coin, which seemed immediately to resolve the issue.

Together he and Zita walked the few blocks to the modest hotel in which the actors lodged. Outside a pause. Should he take her in his arms? Kiss her? Or had the coarse jests of the other officers destroyed whatever mood had developed between them. Before he could decide the appropriate course she was speaking.

“I had feared this evening -- arriving in a new city for a new job -- but speaking with you made it pleasant. Thank you. Good night!”

She turned and was up the steps as he called ‘good night’ after her.

It was a longer walk out to the fairground. The cool, fresh night air began to dissipate the effects of the evening’s wine, and he continued to go over in his mind the conversation with Zita. A rare girl, that. And such a pleasant evening. But what did it require to turn such easy conversation into something more?

In the fairground the strings of electric lights were all illuminated, and from the carousel building spilled out both light and the sounds of a steam organ. Jozef approached the doorway. The owner was at the controls, while on the brightly painted horses rode the men, jackets unbuttoned, some still holding bottles in their hands, shouting, leaning out from the turning force of the carousel, or singing to the hooting music of the mechanized organ.

Jozef stood and watched it turn round and round, a blur of color and light and technology, until the whirling of the machine began to revive the effects of the wine. He turned away, back into the darkness of the night, and towards the manager’s house where his bed awaited him.

[Read the next installment]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chapter 3-3

This concludes Chapter 3. Sorry to be a bit slow about it, but baby arrived the day after I posted the last installment, and somehow even with time off work the first couple weeks after a baby's arrival are not ideal writing time.

Chapter 4 will return to Jozef with the Austro-Hungarian cavalry.

Near Trzeszczany, Galicia. June 22nd, 1915. At normal times, with one surgeon handing off responsibility to another, the transition would have been accomplished away from the nurses’ view, between the two men. These were not normal times, and so Doctor Kalyagin arrived in the middle of the morning routine, escorted by Lieutenant Popov. The two men stood awkwardly in the middle of the ward as the nurses moved from bed to bed, checking dressings and temperatures. The orderlies carried away bedpans and dirty dressings. The housekeeping sisters brought food and changed sheets.

The doctor cut a rather unmilitary appearance next to the infantry lieutenant. His uniform tunic was clearly standard issue rather than the more expensive tailored versions most of the regimental officers wore. Its loose fit only served to accentuate a stomach which bulged above his belt. A rather thin mustache gave no military bearing to his broad, round face, which was boyish in its smoothness, though a receding hairline suggested he was no longer young.

Natalie broke off from her tasks and approached the two men.

“Doctor? We’re very glad to have you here.”

He started to extent a hand, as he would have to a colleague, then stopped himself, withdrew it, and gave a bow instead. Lieutenant Popov made introductions.

“I understand that you’ve been working without a surgeon for several weeks now,” Doctor Kalyagin said. “That must have been difficult.”

“It has. Particularly yesterday, when the fighting became heavy and we received a lot of casualties. There are some cases you’ll want to examine for surgery as soon as you’re settled. The most we could do was trim, stitch, and bandage.”

“Trim and stitch? Who was doing making incisions and performing sutures without a surgeon?”

Perhaps it was reasonable enough that the doctor would be against nurses going beyond their training, but she would at least make sure that any consequences were not unfairly focused on Sister Gorka, who had only been obeying her orders.

“We had casualties pouring in and no idea that we would have a doctor so soon. I gave directions that the minimum be done -- cutting away ruined tissue and suturing wounds before bandaging -- so that the patients would be able to survive the train journey to a regional hospital and receive better care. None of us have any desire to go beyond our training now that you are here.”

She met his gaze and held it. It had been the right thing to do. If he couldn’t see that, well, put that aside. He would have to see it.

He nodded. “Of course. Well, now that the hospital is staffed again, our first priority will be to set procedures and abide by them.”

“Yes, sir.” He was right, of course, but the words stung like a rebuke.

The flatness of her tone brought Doctor Kalyagin up short. He licked his lips. “With no trained staff, I can acknowledge that having nurses perform simple surgeries was the course most likely to save the most lives. Now, perhaps you can take me round the wards?”

The other two nurses joined them as Natalie guided Doctor Kalyagin through the stately rooms which they had so rapidly turned into a hospital. The two operating tables. The gas rings with their kettles for boiling instruments. There were no beds or cots -- the hospital’s had been abandoned along with the patients when they were forced to evacuate their previous field hospital on mere minutes of notice -- but the patients were laid out in neat rows on army blankets.

They finished back where they had started in the main ward. Doctor Kalyagin faced his three nurses, knowing they were waiting for some words -- about their work, about his plans for the hospital. It was these human moments which were so much more complicated than an operation. The clear necessities of saving lives and repairing bodies, works of skill and science, were more rational than the vicissitudes of human interaction.

“I’m glad to be here with you,” he said. That was the person touch. They would like that. It was the personal that he had lacked before when speaking with that lead nurse before. “You have all worked very hard while without leadership, and I salute you for it. My duty now I am here is to show you the most that modern medicine has to offer. There’s so much that science has learned. Proper wound drainage, for instance. Let someone without training suture and bandage a wound, and he might as well stitch a grenade into the poor man’s limb for he will lose it just as surely. But insert a proper drainage tube when suturing, just a little length of rubber pipe, and a man’s limb and livelihood can be saved. Written treatment protocols. Don’t let yourself be deceived into thinking it a mere checklist such as a wife might taking shopping. We are all by our natures forgetful and imprecise creatures. A written protocol saves us from our own failures.”

He let himself wax eloquent on the practices he intended to introduce. To be sure, it was a primitive place. This country house might have been well suited for hosting shooting parties but adapting it to a hospital was a clumsy affair at best for all the nurses’ obvious hard work. Still, there would be flexibility as well. No longer would he need to convince the entire board of senior surgeons about each change he wished to make. In a small hospital such as this real progress could be made.

“With modern procedures,” he concluded, “we can turn this hospital into an institution to be proud of.”

He stood looking back and forth between the three nurses facing him. Their faces were all expressionless. Had he said the wrong thing?

“Perhaps you’ve misunderstood.” He shifted on his feet. “I don’t mean to diminish what you’ve accomplished these last few weeks. You’ve done nothing of which you should be ashamed. You’ve worked without direction, without medical expertise, and without resources. And nonetheless you’ve done yourselves great credit. You should be proud. Really.” He looked around for the warmth this praise was meant to generate and saw none. “As I’ve said, I believe there is much that can be improved by implementing modern medical procedures. I expect your assistance and support, and I know that because you are professional nurses I can expect it.”

There. That would have to do it. With a little bow he turned and left the ward.

“Oh, we’ve nothing to be ashamed of, have we?” Sister Travkin asked. “We have no medical expertise? He’s been in his big city hospital with all the modern conveniences while we’ve traveled hundreds of miles in horse carts, and he would like to tell us that we have nothing to be ashamed of?” She snorted.

“I’ll be glad to have a surgeon back,” said Sister Gorka, her voice low. “Even if he is arrogant. If I never have to use another scalpel or needle I’ll be happy enough.” Natalie remembered the other nurse’s despair the night before, brought on by the work Natalie had told her to do. It didn’t matter what the new doctor was like, Sister Gorka would be glad of his presence.

“If he lasts,” warned Sister Travkin. “You saw that soft round face of his. And if looks are anything to go on he likes his food. We may not have him many weeks. Say what you will of Doctor Sergeyev -- and I have -- but he did have staying power. It took artillery to send him home.”

The morning had begun so well. As they had taken the new surgeon through the wards and showed him the men whom they had treated the day before, the other two nurses had left Natalie to lead, to explain, as if it were the most natural thing for her to be in charge. She had felt a pride of ownership as she pointed out each thing. This was her hospital, her nurses, her patients. And so she had also felt the deepest affront when Doctor Kalyagin began to speak of the need for modern practices, of retraining the staff, of re-organizing the wards to reduce infection. These were not things unfamiliar to her. These modern methods: sewing wounds up with drain tubes, using separate nurses for sterile and unsterile tasks, these and more had been her everyday work at the hospital in Kiev. She hadn’t ignored them in the field hospital out of ignorance. She had done so because here the doctors had scoffed at such practices, and because there had not been the resources to follow them here.

Her fists clenched and anger simmered up as she recalled Kalyagin’s casual superiority.

Looking at the other two nurses she felt balanced on the edge. Sister Travkin was affronted. Sister Gorka was relieved. Both had come to rely on her. Both were as much offended on her behalf as on their own. The three of them had no power to reject the doctor. But with the right words she could make his time in the hospital difficult, perhaps even so frustrating that he would leave.

And yet these practices, which she had known so well in Kiev, would save lives. The doctor might have no instinct for speaking to others, but that did not mean his medical abilities were not sound. If she could set aside her pride, if she put her support fully behind his innovations, he would get the credit, but she would have helped to improve the hospital.

“I’ll go and speak with him,” she said. “I’m sure he doesn’t mean offense. And I’ve seen these practices work in the hospital where I was trained.”

She found Doctor Kalyagin in the butler’s pantry which they had turned into the dispensary. He was examining the quantities of drugs and checking them against the ledger books.

“Who created this tracking system?” He asked the question with no expression, no indication as to whether its creation was a matter of credit or blame.

“I did.”

He turned a page, skimmed down the figures for dosage given and amount withdrawn. “This is very good. Exactly the system we used in my hospital in Vilnius. The fact that you require both an entry for the patient dosage with the date and time, and then a separate entry for the amount withdrawn from the stores, serves as a check against abuse.” He closed the book. “Very good.”

“Thank you. It’s how we managed drugs in the hospital where I was trained in Kiev.”

“Good, good.” His fingers drummed on the ledger for a moment. “Tell me, Sister…”


“Of course. Nowakówna. What must I do? I can see the staff at this hospital has worked hard. All I want to do is bring modern methods. Save lives. What have I done that offends the other nurses? I can see they aren’t happy with my presence.”

“They’re not unhappy, doctor. Indeed, we are all very relieved to have you here. We did not enjoy having to do work we were not trained but. If there is any hesitation, it is only a feeling that the work we have done and the methods we have followed up till now are being discounted. I’ve seen the modern methods work in Kiev. We’ve just never had the tools. And our previous surgeons were more traditional.”

The doctor was leaning forward, his elbows resting on the drug ledger. “Can you help me? If I can only get the support of all the staff, I know that we can turn this into a modern, model hospital.”

It seemed false to take the credit for supporting his methods when it was loyalty to her, along with their own wounded pride, which held the others back. Yet the others had not stepped forward to talk with the doctor. She had. And she did know the value of the modern techniques.

“Please,” he said. “We can save lives. I know it.”

“Yes. I will help as much as I can.”


It was no longer her hospital, but in some sense she still felt the credit for it as she urged the others to accept the new methods which Doctor Kalyagin proposed. The hours were punishing. In order to follow septic protocol, every bandage change now took two nurses instead of one, and so the normal routines of changing bandages and cleaning wounds took twice as long. An orderly who was particularly reliable in matters of spelling and handwriting was assigned to follow Doctor Kalyagin on his rounds and take down the treatment protocol for each patient, which was then pinned to the man’s blanket. While this made the doctor’s paperwork responsibilities manageable, however, it did nothing to relieve the nurses of the additional time required to update the protocol with the date, time and their initials every time they performed any task for a patient. Doctor Kalyagin promised to file a request for more nurses, but in the until this achieved any fruits, they worked more and slept less.

All this became more difficult two weeks later, when after two days of heavy fighting that sent a constant stream of wounded to the hospital the orders came that they must pack up the hospital and withdraw the next morning. The great retreat had resumed.

They were not, at least, forced to once again abandon their patients in order to hasten the retreat. At first they received orders to do so, but Doctor Kalyagin refused to do it. And it proved that he could harangue time and resources from the regimental command nearly as effectively as he could from his own staff. And hour and a half after he had set off in wrath to demand help, a supply sergeant had arrived on the steps of the country house and asked Natalie if this was the mad doctor’s hospital. On being told that it was, he had returned with two dozen hay wagons.

“There’ll be no more room for wounded once we meet up with the rail lines and get the next load of feed,” the sergeant warned her. “But that doctor of yours said his patients could be put on the train at that point.”

And so they began again the itinerant life of the hospital in retreat. Through July they set up hospital nine different times: in schools, in houses, once even in a convent, where the silent nuns in their brown habits moved silently through the bare halls and communicated with each other mainly in hand signals -- so unlike the chatty sisters with their well furnished rooms at the school where Natalie had been brought up. Several of the nuns had some rudimentary medical training, however, and the mother superior had put them at the hospital’s disposal for the length of their stay, allowing the nurses to gain some much needed rest.

They were traveling at angles to the tide now. The Third Army was retreating on a line due north, even as the German armies began to close the salient of Galicia from the west. Refugees streamed east. Lublin was threatened, and those who could not secure places on the overburdened trains had taken to the roads with carts and automobiles, wheelbarrows and baby carriages, all manners of vehicle piled with what possessions they could carry. But while the people followed whatever paths they could fine, the army fell back along lines chosen by the high command. These planners had decreed that the Third Army pass north, between Lublin and Chelm, before the invading armies cut them off, and thence north to Brest-Litovsk before crossing the Bug River. By that route they could avoid the Pripet Marshes, whose unimproved roads and buzzing clouds of midges would have slowed their progress and spread disease among the troops. This gave the army more than a hundred and twenty miles to cover before August, a relentless pace which seldom allowed them the chance to keep their field hospital in one place for more than a day or two.

It was a relief when they at last reached Terespol, and the fortresses guarding the westward approaches to Brest-Litovsk.

The original fortress was over three hundred years old, but there were no picturesque turrets. This was a product of the early gunpowder age, a squat, star-shaped structure with massive walls of stone set in cement and surrounded by a ditch twenty meters across. More modern military design had been at work beyond this. Another fifty yard beyond the ditch, soldiers had dug a trench, the fresh dug earth piled up outside it to form a parapet. Beyond the trench was line after line of barbed wire, strung between posts.

As they approached the fortress, they followed a path that passed through these obstacles in sawtoothed zigzags, blocked every so often by a gate strung with barbed wire and guarded by sentries. None of these seemed built to withstand any solid attack, but perhaps the purpose was simply to slow any would be attacker, making him a target to the soldiers in the trenches of the guns of the fortress. If so, the approach was well designed. It took the hospital staff and their vehicles more than an hour of stops and starts to wind their way through the gates and checkpoints to the fortress itself, where they passed within the big swinging gates of steel-bound wood.

The builds within the fortress walls retained the charm of age. They were assigned a barrack house with whitewashed plaster walls and wide plank floors. Metal bedframes with bare springs were already laid out in rows for the patients.

Doctor Kalyagin went to green the fortress commander. Natalie set the housekeeping sisters to washing down the walls and floors with antiseptic. The orderlies laid blankets across the bedsprings and then carried in the patients from the ambulances one by one.

“Do you think at last we stay in one place for a few days?” Sister Travkin asked as she unpacked the dispensary.

“If the looks of this place are any indication, the army isn’t prepared to retreat any time soon.”

“Surely we’ve had other forts,” said Sister Gorka. “They say Warsaw in surrounded. What good is a fortress if the Germans are on all sides?”

It was more than a year now, since that day in June when Natalie had met her father in his Warsaw house. It seemed even longer than that. Where was he now? Would that grand house with its marble floors and family portraits soon be in German hands?


It was a few days that a lone motor ambulance arrived with a screech of tires carrying several wounded men, one an officer with a torn tunic stained dark with blood. “Stomach wound here,” said the stretcher bearer. “A nasty one. Faulty shell exploded in an artillery pit. Killed three of the crew outright. This here is the gun’s commander.”

Natalie took a pair of scissors and began cutting away the tunic as soon as the officer was laid out on the surgical table. Sister Gorka held the rubber tube which dispensed antiseptic solution and reached in by turns to pour it over the exposed wound, washing away the blood. The roles of septic and aseptic nurse, the one who touched the unsterile clothes and fragments and flesh, and the one who only touched what had been disinfected, had already become so natural that they required no instructions.

Doctor Kalyagin asked for a retractor and probed the wound. The officer’s body arched back in pain, a scream breaking through clenched teeth.

“I’ll operate immediately on this one,” he said. “Sister Nowakówna, prepare the the chloroform mask, if you will.”

She counted the drops onto the mask’s filter, pressed it over his face. Was he able to hear and control himself, or was he helpless in the wash of pain? Just in case she leaned close. “This will put you to sleep. Just breath deeply. Count backwards with me. Ten. Nine. Eight.” If he tried to count along with her, she couldn’t distinguish it from the choked moans that were his breathing, but before she reached “One” those too were gone and he breathed deep and evenly.

The operation was extensive. Half burned powder and flecks of metal were scattered among the snaking folds of intestine which in places was torn and punctured. She helped the doctor unpack the coils, and Sister Gorka washed them with antiseptic solution. Then with precise calm Doctor Kalyagin cut and stitched, closing small tears and cutting away badly damaged sections and then suturing the clean ends back together.

As the septic nurse, her work was done first. The cavity was cleaned of dirt and splinters and spilled bile. The coils of entrail were in Sister Gorka’s sterile hands, as she began to carefully fold and pack them back into the stomach.

Natalie went to wash her hands. She scrubbed the dried blood from around her nails. Her apron would have to be changed, it was badly stained. Like a butcher shop. The phrase bubbled up, and of a sudden the enormity of the scene came home. She had been helping to unpack and repair the viscera of another, living human being, and had done so with no real shock or alarm.

She could remember, years ago in the convent school, the feeling of shock clenching at her stomach on the day another girl had fallen from climbing in a tree and broken her arm. She had felt dizzy, with white spots before her vision, at seeing the sick unnatural way the limb bent. And then there had not even been blood.

Had she lost so much natural feeling since that time? Would she still feel a normal revulsion if she saw blood or injury in some normal setting, in a home or on the street, somewhere unexpected and far from the hospital and battlefields? Or were those feelings gone forever?

“I don’t know,” Sister Gorka said, when Natalie asked her about it that night over the samovar. “I think perhaps if I weren’t in the hospital and weren’t wearing my nursing uniform, blood would still shock me. I like to think that there’s a normal life out there that I can go back to, where all these experiences will seem another world.”

For a moment they drank their tea together in silence.

“Would you like to come up on the wall?” Sister Gorka asked.

“What for?”

“I like to look around.”

“It’s dark.”

“You can see the fires. Sometimes artillery and flares. And the stars if it’s clear.”

Their nurse’s uniforms were sufficient pass for the sentry to wave them through.

“There’s a cool breeze tonight, Sisters,” was all the challenge the soldier at the top of the ladder offered. “Keep yourselves warm.”

The breeze was indeed chill enough that Natalie missed her wool coat.

“I’ll show you where I liked to go,” Sister Gorka said. “There’s some shelter from the wind there.”

It was a mortar emplacement, a flat round platform surrounded by a low wall. In the middle of it stood the squat mortar, a short, thick barrel, chest high, with a gaping hole where a ten inch mortar shell would burst forth when fired.

Sister Gorka ignored the artillery piece and went to stand on the stone step that allowed her to look out over the wall. Natalie joined her.

They were facing west. In the distance they could see occasional flashes, German artillery firing at the front with a rumble like far off thunder. There was a strange, round shape, fitfully illuminated by those flashes.

“It’s an observation balloon,” Sister Gorka said, in answer to Natalie’s question. “You can see it clearly in the daylight. It looks like a fat, floating sausage. An officer told me that artillery observers ride up to it with a basket on a pulley and watch to see if their shells are hitting where they are supposed to.”

“They’re filled with hydrogen,” said a male voice. “It’s lighter than air, but it’s a flammable gas. If we need to take away their eyes for at time we send an airplane with aerial torpedoes to shoot it down, and it bursts into flame. Soon enough, however, they send another one.”

Natalie startled and turned to see an officer with the insignia of a lieutenant on the shoulders of his overcoat.

“This is Lieutenant Serafin,” said Sister Gorka. “He also likes to look out over the walls. And he’s interested in photography,” she added. “He has a Bergheil.” She smiled with a softness of expression Natalie had never seen on the reserved nurse before. “Lieutenant, this is Sister Nowakówna.”

The lieutenant bowed. “Good to meet you, Sister.”

Behind them, the moon, just past half, broke from behind one of the scattered clouds and cast its pale light over the lines of trench and wire stretched out between the fort and the still distant enemy.

“How many men defend this fortress?” Natalie asked.

“A division, Sister. Give and take a few battalions here and there. And fortress artillery as well. Perhaps fifteen thousand men in all.”

“Surely here the retreat will stop for a time? That must be enough strength to hold them back.”

“Oh we don’t lack for strength here. Regiments have been falling back across the river for the last two weeks. If we wanted we could have fifty thousand here. But it doesn’t matter. The Germans may not even attack this point. All they have to do is cross the river to the north, get behind us, cut the rail lines. We’d have to fall back before then or we’d be trapped and have to surrender. Once upon a time, when armies were counted in tens or even hundreds of thousands, a fortress like this would have been a threat to the enemy’s rear that he would have been forced to pinch out. But now we count in millions. You’ll hear patriots who’ve read their Tolstoy speak of how we stopped Napoleon, but his army was only a spear, enough to wake the Russian bear and make it angry enough to snap it off and continue fighting. We face an ocean, and it’s more than I know how well this big, clumsy old bear can swim.”

“But if they have millions, don’t we have millions more?”

“We do. We have millions, but with fewer guns, less ammunition, feuding generals, and in the back of their minds the question: Would I, my village, my people be better off if we lost? You’re Polish, aren’t? What do you think? Is Warsaw really any worse off with the Germans and the Austrians than it was with the Tsar?”

These were not the sort of questions the Lutereks -- even Borys with his university ideas -- had discussed, nor the sisters in the hospital. Sister Maria-Grigori, back in the convent, had spoken of the old country as if Poland and Russia were two sides of the same coin. “Do you think it would be better for us to lose the war, Lieutenant?”

“No! No, I said nothing of the kind.” There was an edge to his voice that had not been there before.

Natalie felt Sister Gorka dig an elbow into her side. “He said nothing of the kind,” said the other nurse.

“I’m sorry,” said Natalie. Even in the staid atmosphere of the convent school and its patrons, it had been no great shock in France to hear people speak of the Republic’s illegitimacy, of the need for change. Raised outside the country, she could not know how shocking the turn from hints to plain words was to ears raised under Russian rule.

“All I am speaking of,” said Lieutenant Serafin, “is the necessity of reform, of the recognition of national identities. Surely the Tsar knows this too. If only he can break free of corrupt advisors. I’m sure he wants to give the nationalities a reason to fight.”


The officer with the stomach wound was conscious when Natalie made her rounds the next morning, his face pale under a stubble of dark whiskers.

“It’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?”

He attempted something like a smile. “I don’t remember much, but I imagine it was bad.”

“It was a good surgery, but it will take time for your stomach to heal. You should sleep.”

“I can’t seem to.” This voice was taught but under control.

Natalie looked at the notes on the protocol. Sister Travkin’s initials were next to the approved dosage of morphine, but the time noted was six hours ago. “You poor man. That last dose of morphine must be wearing off. I’ll get you another injection.”

“Thank you, Sestritsa.”

She made the notes in the drug ledgers and drew the dose into a clean syringe.

“I’m putting it directly into the vein. It will take effect more quickly that way.” He looked away as the pressed the needle in. That was good. Still innocent of the desire that made some patients look hungrily at the needle as it delivered the relief to which they had become too much accustomed. “There. In ten or fifteen minutes you should begin to feel the effect. It may also make you sleepy.”

“That would be welcome too.”

He closed his eyes and she turned to go.

“Sestritsa. One more thing.”


“Some water?”

“I’m sorry, didn’t they tell you?”

He nodded. “But please. Just a little.”

“You need time to heal. The surgeon cut out the torn portions of your intestines and sewed them back together again. Anything that passes through, even water, increases the chance of infection. You have to wait. Tomorrow afternoon, you can have water.”

He ran his tongue over his lips. It would only make him feel worse, but always the patients did it. Forty-eight hours without water. Then another forty-eight with only water, during which they forgot the mercy of being able to drink in the suffering of hunger. By that time, if infection had not set in, broth and other fluids that would at least provide some nourishment. And at last food.

Shocking though it had seemed when she had first seen such operations done, men survived. They had heard back from the regional and base hospitals of patients slowly returned to normality, men who survived having their guts taken out and put back in. It was staggering that modern medicine could accomplish such miracles at all. And yet for those who did not survive, for the nearly half whose wounds became infected despite the attention to antiseptic discipline and the strict diet, those men died raving and feverish, while suffering all the more from the lack of food and water.

“What’s your name, Sestritsa?”

“Sister Nowakówna.”

“Lieutenant Ivan Ovechkin. Sister Nowakówna, would you… Please sit with me. Just for a little while. You said this will make me sleepy when it takes effect.”

“Yes, I’ll sit with you.” She went and got a wooden chair that stood against the wall near the entrance to the ward. His eyes tracked her as she returned and set it next to his bed. Then he closed his eyes.

“Thank you.” He held out a hand and she took it in hers. It was a large hand, but smooth skinned with neatly trimmed nails. A gentleman’s hand. “Our estate is near Odessa,” he said after a moment. “Not a large estate, but comfortable. My father died young. Thrown from a horse. A great rider, they said, but reckless. Now my mother and sister are there to watch over it. She’s a difficult woman, mother. But she cried when I left.”

He continued on, short sentences broken by pauses, speaking of his family and the countryside where he had grown up. At last one pause drew on and became a silence. His breathing was steady. Natalie carefully removed her hand from his and went back to her rounds.


“Sister! Sister Nowakówna!”

By the afternoon Lieutenant Ovechkin was calling to her every time he saw her pass.

“Please, Sister Nowakówna. Just a little water. Just enough to wet my mouth.”

“I’m sorry.” Twenty hours since the operation. Twenty-eight more before he could drink.

“Please.” His cheeks were flushed. She felt his forehead. Hot. It could simply be that he was upsetting himself. Or the stress upon the body of blood loss followed by dehydration. But nearly half the time it was infection. As soon as she could she gave him another injection of morphine and he lapsed into sleep again.

By night the fact was clear. He was feverish and sweating, which would only deplete the body’s store of fluid more quickly. She put a cloth soaked in cold water on his forehead, wiped his face to try to cool him down, but when she was called away for a moment she came back to find him sucking at the cloth for what few drops of water he could get from it.

She snatched the cloth away, then saw his jaw tremble. “I’m sorry, Sestritsa. I was just so thirsty.”

Again she wiped his face with the damp cloth. It was simply cruel now. Infection had clearly set it. What good was there in following the forty-eight hour regimen? All it would do is add the pain of thirst to the torture of infection. She had seen this play out in case after case. There was no hope after the infection set in.

“Wait a moment.” She went to the dispensary and drew another injection of morphine. It was an hour early, but what did it matter. Then she took a glass and filled it from the bucket the orderlies refilled from the pump for every shift.

The lieutenant’s eyes followed the glass as she approached him.

“Here. Drink it slowly. Just one glass. And then I have another injection for you to help the pain and let you sleep.”

His hands shook, and she helped him hold the glass so that he would not spill it. Obediently, he took small, slow sips. So slow that she found herself glancing back over her shoulder, wondering if someone would come in and see her breaking the protocol.

There was no reason to be ashamed. She was not hurting him. The infection had already set in. And yet, if she did not have to explain her choice to Doctor Kalyagin, it would be easier.

At last he finished, and setting the glass aside she gave him the injection. Immediately he closed his eyes. “Thank you, Sestritsa. Thank you.”

By morning the fever had Lieutenant Ovechkin deep within its grip. He did not recognize her, but called out to his mother for water. She gave him another glass, then another dose of morphine which left him murmuring in his sleep the rest of the morning. From there he moved into the last stage, the restless fever sleep which preceded death. He was still in that state of near-death when Doctor Kalyagin called her aside.

“Sister Nowakówna, I thought I could rely on you.” His voice was trembling with the effort to keep from shouting.

There was no point in pretending not to know what had angered him or asking how he had found out.

“Doctor, infection had clearly set in. He was dying. I only wanted to make him more comfortable.”

“Sister, we have protocols for a reason. We have them because they save lives. When we disregard our protocols, we kill patients. Is that what you want?”

“He was already dying.”

“That is not for you to decide. It’s not for any of us to decide. Our duty is simply to give care, the best care that we know how. And that is what is written down in our protocols. You, of all people should--” He was shouting, and now he made himself stop. He pressed his lips together, struggling to regain the calm which a doctor should have in front of his staff.

Natalie stood, her shoulders back, teeth clenched. It was the same way she had stood when absorbing a scolding when at school, waiting to see if the nun would strike her or let stinging words do their work alone. If she answered back now, her voice might tremble, and that she did not want to allow. So she stood in silence, and that silence tore at Doctor Kalyagin’s calm since the one thing which seemed like it would quench the betrayal he felt was to see her break down and admit that she had been wrong.

“I trusted you,” he said. “I respected you and I thought that you cared about our patients and our methods.”

She would not cry. She would stand here, with her hands folded, and accept what he said, but she would not speak, because she could not speak without losing control. She tightened her clasped hands until she could feel her nails digging into her palm.

“Get out. Get out for the rest of the day. The other nurses will have to do your work. And when you come back, I will have to watch you since I cannot trust you.”


Lieutenant Ovechkin died during the night. Sister Gorka came and told her in the pre dawn light. Since he was an officer, he would not be laid in the common grave where ordinary soldiers were placed in rows and sprinkled with lime. There was no place for new graves in the fortress, so the carpenters would put him in a rough coffin to be shipped by light rail to Brest-Litovsk, where he would join the rows of honored dead in a military cemetery.

His body was already gone when Natalie returned to the hospital the next morning.

Read the next installment.