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

Sunday, 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?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“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.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the installment!! Jozef is my favorite character/storyline, besides maybe Natalie.

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  2. Thanks, Anon. It's always great to hear from people reading!

    ReplyDelete