Monday, February 26, 2018

The Duel by Joseph Roth

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passerby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

For a long time, the deaths of the regimental surgeon and Count Tattenbach stirred the emotions of the officers and troops of the lancer regiment and also the civilian population. The deceased were buried according to the prescribed military and religious rites. Beyond their own ranks none of the officers had breathed a word about the manner of deaths, but somehow the news had traveled through the small garrison that both men had fallen victim to their strict code of honor. And it was as if the forehead of every surviving officer now bore the mark of a close, violent death, and for the shopkeepers and craftsmen in the small town the foreign gentlemen had become even more foreign. The officers went about like incomprehensible worshipers of some remote and pitiless deity, but also like its gaudily clad and splendidly adorned sacrificial animals. People stared after them, shaking their heads. Thy even felt sorry for them. They had lots of privileges, the people told one another. They can strut around with sabers and attract women, and the Kaiser takes care of them personally as if they were his own sons. And yet before you can even bat an eyelash, one of them insults another, and the offense has to be washed away with blood!

So the men they were talking about were not truly to be envied. Even Captain Taittinger, who was rumored to have participated in several fatal duels in other regiments, altered his normal behavior. While the loud-mouthed and flippant were now silent and subdued,  strange uneasiness to hold of the usually soft-spoken, sweet-toothed, and haggard rittmaster. He could no longer spend hours siting alone behind the glass door of the little pastry shop, devouring pastries or else wordlessly playing chess or dominoes with himself or with the colonel. Taittinger was now afraid of solitude. He literally clung to the other men. If no fellow officer was nearby, he would enter a shop to buy something he did not need. He would stand there for a long time, chatting with the storekeeper about useless and silly things, unable to make up his mind to leave – unless  he spotted some casual acquaintance passing by outside, whereupon Taittinger would instantly pounce on him. That was how greatly the world had changed. The officers’ club remained empty. They stopped their convivial outings to Frau Resi’s establishment. The orderlies had little to do, If an officer ordered a drink, he would look at the glass and muse that it was the very one from which Tattenbach had drunk just a couple of days ago. They still told the old jokes, but they no longer guffawed loudly; at most, they smiled. Lieutenant Trotta was seen only on duty.

It was as if a swift magical hand had washed the twinge of youth from Carl Joseph’s face. No similar lieutenant could have been found entire Imperial and Royal Army. He felt he had to do something extraordinary now, but nothing extraordinary could be found far and wide. Needless to say, he was to leave the regiment and join another. But he looked about for some difficult task. He was realty looking for some self-imposed penance. He could never have put into words, but we may say that he was unspeakably afflicted by the thought of having been a tool in the hands of misfortune.

It was in this state of mind that he informed his father about the outcome of the duel and announced his unavoidable transfer to a different regiment. Although he was entitled to a brief furlough on this occasion, he concealed this from his father, for he was afraid to face him. But as it turned out, he underestimated the old man. For the district captain, that model of a civil servant, was well aware of military customs. And strangely enough, as could be read between the lines, he also seemed to know how to deal with his son’s sorrow and confusion. For the district captain’s answer went as follows:

Dear Son,
     Thank you for your precise account and your confidence. The fate  your comrades met touches me deeply. They died a death that befits men of honor.

In my day, duels were more frequent and honor far more precious than life. In my day, officers, it seems to me, were also made of sterner stuff. You are an officer, my son, and the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. You will know how to cope with your innocent and involuntary involvement in this tragic affair. Naturally you are sorry to leave the regiment, but you will still be serving our Kaiser in any regiment, anywhere in the army.
                                                              Your father,
                                                              Franz von Trotta
P.S. As for your two-week furlough, to which you are entitled with your transfer, you may spend it as you wish, either in my home or, even better, in your new garrison town, so that you may more easily familiarize yourself with your new situation.

Lieutenant Trotta read the letter not without a sense of shame. His father had guessed everything. I the lieutenant’s eyes, the district captain’s image grew to almost fearful magnitude. Indeed, it soon equaled his grandfather’s. And if the lieutenant had previously been afraid of facing the old man, it was now impossible to spend his furlough at home. Later, later, when I get my regular furlough, thought the lieutenant, who was made of less stern stuff than the lieutenants of the district captain’s youth. . .
                              *                             *                            *  

.  .  . The third day brought orders to retreat, and the battalion formed to march off. Both officers and men were disappointed. It was rumored that an entire dragoon regiment had been wiped out nine miles east. Supposedly Cossacks had invaded the country. Silent and grumpy, the Austrians marched west. They soon realized that no one had prepared for there the retreat, for they came upon a confused donnybrook of the most disparate military branches at highway crossings and in villages and small towns. Innumerable and conflicting directives poured from army headquarters.

Most of these orders pertained t the evacuation of villages and towns and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, clerics and spies. Hast court martials in villages passed hasty sentences.  Secret informers delivered unverifiable reports on peasants, Orthodox priests, teachers, photographers, officials. There was no time. The army had to retreat quickly but also punish the traders swiftly. And while ambulances, baggage, columns, field artillery, dragoons, riflemen, and infantrists formed abrupt and helpless clusters on sodden roads, while courier galloped to a fro, while inhabitants of small towns fled westward in endless throngs, surrounded by white terror, loaded down with red-and-while featherbeds, gray sacks, brown furniture, and blue kerosene lamps, the shots of hasty executioners carrying out hasty sentence rang from the church squares of hamlets and villagers, and the somber rolls of drums accompanied the monotonous decisions of the judges, and the wives of the victims lay shrieking for mercy before the mud-caked boots of the officers, and red and silver flames burst from huts and barns, stables and hayricks. The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from trees on church squats to terrify the living.

The  living, however, had fled far and wide.  Fires surrounded the corpses dangling in the trees, and the leaves were already cracking, and the fire was more powerful than the steady gray drizzle heralding bloody autumn. The old bark of ancient trees slowly charred, tiny, silvery, swelling parks crept up along the fissures like fiery worms, reaching the foliage, and the green leaves curled, turned red, then black, then gray; the ropes broke, and the corpses plunged to the ground, their faces black, their bodies unscathed.

One day the soldiers stopped at the village of Krutyny. They arrived in the afternoon, they were supposed to continue west-ward in the morning, before sunrise. By now the steady wide-spread rain  had paused and the late-September sun had wove a benevolent silvery light across the vast fields, which were still filled with grain, the living bread that would never be eaten. Gossamer drifted very slowly through the air. Even the crows and ravens kept still, inveigled by the fleeting peace of this day and with no hope of finding the expected carrion.

The officers hadn’t taken off their clothes for a week. Their boots were waterlogged, their feet swollen, their knees stiff, their calves sore, their backs couldn’t bend. They were billeted in huts. They  tried  to fish dry clothes out of the trunks and wash at meager wells. In the clear, still night, with the abandoned and forgotten dogs in scattered farmyards howling in fear and hunger, the  lieutenant couldn’t sleep and he left the hut where he was quartered. He walked down the long street towards the church spire, which loomed against the stars with its twofold Greek cross. The church with its shingle roof stood in the middle of the small churchyard, surrounded by slanting wooden crosses that seemed to caper in the nocturnal light,.  Outside the huge gray wide-open gates of the graveyard three corpses were dangling, a bearded priest flanked by two young peasants in sandy-yellow smocks, with coarse plaited raffia shoes on their unstirring feet. The black cassock of the priest hung down to his shoes so that they struck the circles of his priestly garment like dumb clappers in a deaf-and-dumb bell; they seemed to be tolling without evoking a sound . .  . he thought he recognized some of his own soldiers in these three victims. These were the faces of the peasants he drilled every day. The priest’s black, fanning beard reminded him of Onufrij . . . .

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