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.

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