The editor has taken the liberty of suggesting that the ensuing statements in the manuscript smack of self-serving apologia, akin to the homilies obtaining in the forwards of most modern three-volume biographies, to the effect that guessing, decontextualizing, moralizing and or fiction are necessary in order to render an antique subject “accessible” — R.A.D.]
R. A. Dunleavy, Fellow of Old College.
“Most murderers are bores, and nearly all strike me as stupid.” Thus Colin Wilson, in his and Ms. Pitman’s Encyclopaedia of Murder and yet his pithy account of the strange case of Béla Kiss makes for compelling reading, explicable not only by its exquisite style. The literature hitherto available as to this mass killer has been slight – one is left with a raft of descriptions of the subject such as “plague rat” (Wilson’s phrase), “vengeful and rapacious”, and so on. Now unearthed, we have detailed material from the primary source upon which to develop an understanding of this singular creature; an opportunity for in-depth study of homicidal mania rarer even than observation in confinement, and more objective because of the freedom from restraint which obtained during the process of memoirism.
Yet the chief function of this volume is to serve, not the alienist or plot driven writer of fiction, but he and she who chronicle the decline of western civilization itself. At risk of a charge of portentousness, I maintain (and it has sustained me in the task with which I have been entrusted) that this work mirrors in microcosm how the luster was buffed and debrided until conflict became its own raison d’etre, and the prize was lost. Gifts were squandered, standards flouted (or observed corruptly) and potential cut adrift. Kiss’ story is of a representative contaminant in such process.
In the five years since elevation to the new Chair in Studies of Malignancies in Western Civilization, I have concentrated upon those figures comprising the tragically mislabeled Canon, in the context of their elevation due to prejudice and other subjective elements. In part from success, in part from fatigue, an increasing interest has arisen since that period concerning the degradations of the lesser ranks amongst inert, albescent, androcentric specimens, such as the lunatic Kiss.
By the way, a romance of the discovery of this butcher’s tapes has already appeared in the magazine-table magazines. I shan’t trouble to correct or supplement the monotonous sleuthing tale (of the filmed type, where Literature is depicted not as a pallid nymph carved by an ape of Jean Goujon, but a gorgeous, Potemkin-like row of calf-bound spines blocked in gold. Yet another proof of decline, evidencing the usual symptoms of impatience, relentless competition, and mercantile drive, reducing all to grey goo; the nano-technology for which art and culture are weapons of mass destruction.) Suffice it to say that certain floorboards in Manhattan’s west-80s lay down their shelf-lives in a revelatory fashion to the publisher’s advantage.
In preparing the transcriptions, I have assembled these thoughts, “blemishes and all”, in chronological order, translated some of the more obscure foreign terms, retained the author’s overall structure and corrected glaring errors, especially with regard to philosophical contentions. American spelling is retained except where the context permits. I want to thank my colleagues and pupils at Old College for their suggestions, technical assistance with acoustic enhancement of the antique recordings and contemporary insights into the classification of the relative gravity of this man’s crimes and opinions (in their social judgment, racialism supplanting misogyny in our enlightened age). These satisfy me of the advancement in modern thought to a level that would have dazzled our primitive subject. Any mistakes, or repugnant opinions, which remain are those of the egregious speaker and in some cases, will constitute booby-traps for those subjecting it to forensic study or critical review. For this book is the Faberge egg that Pope Alexander VI would have commissioned; the flaws are dangerous, maybe by design.
R.A.D. Old College, Michelmas.[One is certain that the story begins here — R.A.D.]
I see you, in the retina of my soul, holding my book in your pornographer’s hands, hardly taking in its thoughts for the constant guilty interruptions. Furtive glances about your person, along shelves perhaps, catching the glint of the thieves’ mirror. To look up and spy somebody that has espied you; to vex a shelf-creeper by your lumbering, hulking presence; fear and anger are the most deliciously intense of emotions, are they not? Searching corners of the long room for eyes, and swamped by dirty images.
I write to project my image, but are you, invisible audience, appropriate to it? No, my limpid, pristine image is for a bottle in the sea, a bank vault downtown, or the thundery fireplace of an author’s grate. My aim is shared pleasure, not exculpation. I do not know you; how can you know me, the conditions I have endured? You sit there, comfortably ensconced, I imagine, in your apolaustic existence, smugly putting yourself in my boots, to greater advantage, no doubt. Oh, no doubt. But you are not me and we — the doer and reviewer — can never be ad idem. We are not history. History is not understanding. History is not empathetic.
We, none of us share a system of values except in form, as a matter of convenience. And we make up our own stories every day. The clay figures that we factors turn out defend us from guilt, from responsibility. It is rarer to make aggressive fantasy, the dangerous province of capital crime. Moreover, the fictionist lacks puissance because he shies away from perilous facts and is, perforce, vulnerable to commercial
Correction: the fantasy is dull. Ordinary biographers buckle to the blunt edit. But those who have really done something cast a shadow over a record and retain control of it.
The will is nothing but practical reason , says my venerable, sick green epitome peppered with slips from the campus library [Kant, “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals“, (1785)] and I ask: are men operated by reason, or are they autistic en masse? If the Will is reason in action, what I am charged to do, must be what I reasonably do. (A reasonable facsimile of Kant’s signature, underscoring a modestly proud dedication to yours truly, graces the frontispiece that I selectively show to my dullest students). I select, in sum; all memory is selection.
I am a survivor. Through a life filled with hurdles, I have grasped the fundamental key to self-preservation — adaptability. To vary one-self so as to suit the environment and to utilize any one or thing to that end. (Thus I comply with the Leviathan’s fifth natural law of mutual accommodation, or compleasance). One can have no allegiance except to the idea of continuity of the self. Otherwise, one can have no inflexible principle to guide in the dark, no foolish notion of permanence. Nothing is forever, not posterity, not even the — what is the American phrase for halalhorges? “Death rattle”.
Oy, what a day at the brain factory! Wearily, wearily, wearily, wearily, life is but a dream… When I practice my monologues in the mirror (Memory — speak!), I always imagine my peroration and exit. Never slump at the lectern and watch them file out, no, stalk out on the ether of your last words and let their later imposition be at least an effort; let them come to you. The coy smile in the quad, the tentative smile which connotes aposematic mimicry of the campus tramp, the come-hither-and-teach-me smile of the precocious dullard smart enough to predict her disastrous grade average; in my wanderings, never have I encountered such vigorous amusement, and mild temptation, as obtains in the modern lady dilettante. So opinionated, so full of tirades, so sadly bereft of facts, ideas and experience. We must let them have their say. The fashion at present? Casuists and sophists bicker about degrees of morality — there are no absolutes. The question is not how to die, nor how to live. You think you have outgrown the smoke and mirrors of the Church. You wield a secular virtue in loco parentis. Great Leagues of Nations chide, hector and lecture, scold our excesses. They settle matters, because they know.
It is very noisy as I recite this. I have a handsome apartment on Riverside Drive. The modern cacophony accompanies me. I hear traffic floating up, I hear an alarm. There is a radio playing nearby but I cannot make out what the program is. My head aches in the muggish air. Even with my radio switched on and warmed up, I strain to tell what is going on. My American is now competent but I am not yet assimilated. Not as yet. I am biding my time, budding within an academic grove. Practical reason demands this, and possibly something more.
This shambles we live in they call the new order, a droll measure of calm wrought by the efforts of great men. No more shall we suffer the global concupiscence for blood, the agony of little countries caught in it. As Tacitus puts it; Solitudinem faciunt, paten appellant – they make a desert and call it peace. But men’s squabbles never resolve frilly; a cicatrice remains, liable to later breach, until one antagonist decimates the other. Of the residue, one must measure objectively to appreciate, and thus I harangue my students. I suggest to them that the notion of a winner is necessary for civilization. Necessary but not sufficient — not without a loser. If, for example, Mehmed II decided to exterminate the remnants of the Byzantines, as he should have, and presided over a greater empire for a time, he’d not have himself a civilization. Not until the meek inherited by appealing to the lazier and greedier aspects of human nature, so carving out a civilization. An opposition, loyal or not, some conflict, is required to turn a horde into a society. And if it not available, it will inevitably grow, so that ultimately, the game is never over, never safe. The entire history of man is conflict, competition, and struggle. Why else the various palliatives — in art, religion, and political thought — designed to soothe and distract us, to suggest that there is more to our wearying and abrasive existence? Such walk in hand with the horsemen of the apocalypse. Why, there has been a confused and largely pointless conflict that dragged all worthy nations into hazarding their treasure, but who believes the claim that it is the last war? None that study history or man.
Some time ago, I conveyed these thoughts to my colleague on campus, Professor Saul von Artemis. I had inveigled the great and worthy scholar into preparing a world encyclopedia of comparative barbarity for publication during the centenary celebrations of the university. The good doctor begged off at first, saying the task was too great. I cajoled, flattered, soothed and convinced him, saying that all he need do was to produce a compendium, a mere report card of human abuse and the intermeddling with mans’ metaphysical “rights”. Artemis relented and commenced a thorough treatment, taking each nation in alphabetical order, with cross-referenced emendations incorporating political and geographic changes to names and borders. In his Teutonic way, he became hilariously mired in detail. The notes he left behind reveal a growing despair, stemming from more than mere failure to meet a deadline.
The manuscript fell into my hands after Saul repressed himself. It stops after Belgium, and that section is difficult to read because of the dried blood and grey matter on its pages. Nevertheless, there are fragments of value. A brief essay on the genealogy of morals; a priceless diagram encapsulating Dr. Saul’s attempt to codify a new (amoral) moral criteria, so as to give an objective grounding for his value judgments and selections of material, and, finally, an irresistible “Table of Comparative Atrocity”, which grades various historical shifts according to the dear man’s personal analysis. I revel in this straw for my bricks. I will seize these scraps and knead the chaos of the past into a beautiful, terrible shape of my own, that would be familiar to dear dead Saul.
From my desk, through blinds drawn against the heat, I can see a kislany, a young girl, walk from Riverside Park in the late afternoon sun and enter Edgar Allen Poe Street (somehow apt!). She is far too young for an old salt such as me. When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, etc. I have put away childish things. The only young I go near mostly are the kejnos. I must be careful in my new environment. A doctor in the legion etrangere told me, not, you understand, in a professional setting, he thought I had satyriasis, but I insist to myself, it is not frequency I crave. It is variety I must have. I believe that most men would agree.
I have held jocular debates on such issues in the staff club, in the Stork club, and of late at countless kaffee kranzchen in Queens. There is fine alcohol, there is flirting, and gossip in these three shrines, but only at Ruth Drucker’s apartment is there Bridge. And the audience is enraptured with me, the provocative theories I foist upon them, whilst holding forth. The ultimate application of such blue prints will be the Faculty. The lower animals hear, but we listen, we remember (importantly, we can also forget) and there is an erotic abundance in such connections. In connecting rooms and nooks we wander, seeking gratification. In front of me at present are an empty pack of gaspers and a page chock full of doodles. Please excuse me, I must go and promenade myself in search of some cigarettes and maybe a sandwich at what we Americans call a “drug store”. Imagine that!
I have returned later than expected. No, it is not what you are thinking; get thee from the gutter. I decided after dining to venture to the cinema, the big one on Sixth Avenue. Crime and Punishment, would you believe. Dostoyevsky for dunderheads. Still, one must support one’s countryman – Lazlo Lowenstein- though he be a quite crafty fugitive from what he would defame the European madness, who changed his name in honor of the brave new free young land of opportunity he’d adopted. Peter Lorre -wonderful choice of name. Was it his, I wonder?
There should be a department store where one can buy a new name, a new persona. I, too, have suffered a name change, as you have by now no doubt brightly surmised. Perhaps you (the unknown victim of my effusions) are wondering whether an evening at the cinema is not a preferable entertainment to this coy selection of half disclosures. I do not blame you. Do not, I beg of you in turn, criticize me. This account is not prepared in my native tongue and involves revelations of an intimate nature. Moreover, one is not accustomed to full candor – survival is a game of half-truth, of feints and gestures, the steady, deliberate, deceptive, moving of pieces on the board.
I must accustom myself to feed you the choicest morsels and so I will not tell you my true name, just yet. I hoard my rooks. I was once and in future will be known as Hofmann. I was born in 1872, but no, the date of one’s birth is of such astrological significance that I will defer that detail also. I am so softy, dear reader; Bear with me if you can so bear, please! 1872, in Hungary, in that beautiful rebus comprising two medieval Magyar towns on either side of the Danube, or Danu, as I would have called it before my Anglo-Saxon phase. An empire with all the trappings of the stable state, though even frozen peas will hop about when you boil them. My father was a physician. A respectable Budapest doctor. In fact, he was also known to the police, but in the most proper form, as an expert of sorts, in the field of anatomical pathology. Still, I say expertise (so easy to simulate) is nothing without experience!
I recall, as a boy, looking with wonder at my father’s anatomical textbooks and delighting in the fact that someone had given all the organs, tissue and bones individual names and descriptions. There were pictures of an anonymous man in one book with all his skin and in some cases, flesh, torn away by the artist, with little numbers assigned to various remaining bits and pieces, numbers which corresponded to a list printed on the following page. I would flick the pages back and forth, fascinated, identifying each and every morsel of the man, feeling that I could get his measure in the accumulation of tube, blood, water, bone, soft and hard tissue.
I well remember – so fresh in my mind that it obscures more recent or sensational events – my elation and despair at father’s involvement in a murder inquiry when I was ten impressionable years old. A young girl had been strangled near a village to the east, in Tisza-Eszlar, where the Tisza River flows. Police were baffled because the girl had no shoes. You may say “I can think of several extremely obvious reasons why she might be found unshod”. I wonder if you correctly concluded, however, that in this instance her feet were missing. My father, Dr. Kiss – there! one starts talking and forgets how prone are we to reveal more than we intend – had the honor to be consulted by the Hungarian police in their stupid jackboots; in company with Professor Eduard von Hofman, then the highest authority in forensic medicine, who had come all the way from Vienna. I forget why so much was made of this little tragedy. Perhaps the victim’s family was in some way important. Imagine though, the fuss a ghoul of a ten year-old might make of the affair! The matter dominated my consciousness for weeks. I bragged about my propinquity to death in the school- yard; in the town-square; in the back streets; in short, everywhere I had an audience. And I found that if one developed a talent for telling of the grisly details, without self-aggrandizement, one became liked, well liked. I used that to advantage later in life. I set my soul on joining that expedition to the east. I implored my put-upon mother to allow me to go. I told my father lies to coddle his vanity – I wished to augment my knowledge towards a career in his footsteps, and so on. But my parents were implacable about my remaining at home and attending school. “This is where you must first gain learning before you concern yourself with its practical application” was the pompous rejoinder. Oddly enough, I think my father wavered slightly over the refusal to have me accompany him and the Professor. My impression at the time was that he was the weak link in the chain barring my path. Mother, oddly – that weak and vague creature, with all the lack of reason and logic emblematic of the fair sex – was violently opposed from the start. She would say that I was not to be mixed up with such evil. I vividly recall her crossing herself and saying “evil” many times over. My dejection was immense. Cheated of the spoils, reduced to a vicarious adventure, having boasted of my imminent trip to the scene of the crime, only to be left behind in humiliation, I crept about in the hope of avoiding my friends for as long as possible. I disliked being the object of ridicule as much as anyone. I see it all now in sepia tones – little Bela wandering down to the river (our house was located near to the Margaret Bridge)… throwing stones across the water in the late afternoon light…cuddling and stroking a stray cat…
Enough. I refuse to fall into the malign clutches of nostalgia. It is not palliative to recall the baleful glare and banshee demands of these beasts, peasants with aristocratic airs. These cats require correction. The point is that from this moment, I became as neurotic, as finicky as that poor cat. I took to washing my hands repeatedly at various times in any given day. I have large hands and it takes many slivers of soap to clean the massive palms and fingers, and the coarser the task, the more soap and stone I use, till my hands are red as if from discipline, as red and raw as the day I squeezed that reproachful cat’s throat, repeatedly but only in play.
As well, I found that nobody taunted me for my foolishness. Why? Everyone had forgotten about it, no one was interested-no one gave a damn, as they say here in low circles or when the bottle is empty … nobody cares enough to punish except in quite limited circumstances. A key discovery.
Not so long after this anti-climactic event, another took place that the alienist would seize upon. Late one evening my father came home, satisfactorily fatigued from a day of condescension, paused in the parlor to remove his coat before coming in to boss us around for a short while before dinner, whereupon his head exploded. I believe that is the layman’s phrase for what we medical men call apoplexy. From the sitting room, I heard the noise of father sitting down and went to examine him. He spoke slowly and silently to me — held out his arms in supplication. He looked down; foam started to speckle and bubble at the corners of his troctolite mouth. My mother shouted, then moved into frame and attempted to loosen father’s collar and tie, accidentally banging his head on the floor, precipitating a facial spasm, the last animated look he gave to us.
Funerals are incredibly dull, especially if you are not emotionally engaged by the departed. Father was bower-bound, in a travesty of rest, his reclining face painted like a tavern sign. Psalm 23 was intoned, and I kept thinking that I did not want to dwell forever in the house of the Lord; found green pastures and still waters dull; had no interest in eating with my enemies; certainly was not inclined to bask in the shade of the shadow’s valley. There were much more appealing paths, surely.
I began my attack on the stars by gathering books and papers on their myriad configurations. All stars are quite useless, but I felt that I would have the universe’s measure, too, if I could attain all knowledge of their set positions while I, sound in mind and body, could roam at will. The sheer power and distance of them sanctions all digressions. My studies led in all sorts of directions. For example, I toyed with astrology. Even amidst the false stars of this city, I do. Belief gives the key to the truths these arts supply. Ultimately, my restless and facile mind naturally found philosophy, a bridge over streams of learning, which pared away the world as foisted upon us by others. It is a fascinating piece of gnosis, serving no purpose other than to allow one to lord it over people who dare undertake the hard work of mastering a discipline. I refine my skills in this regard, for later use at cocktail parties, the homes of my colleagues, and, close to campus, the Minetta Tavern.
A capable agent provocateur uses tiny shards of dissent to foment dissent, which grows into calamity; I filled my spiritual lacuna with blasphemies, which multiplied. As the loftiest institutions crumble like Moloch if no need for them is perceived, so, I preach, do tolerance, faith, compassion and understanding dissolve, once objectified as illogical; they are reduced to shibboleths, curios of history. What I am endeavoring to explain is my flight from nonsense, my sense at the dead foot of father’s grave that the omniscient absolute isn’t, or wasn’t. And as there is no moral concept unconnected with god, once you accept that they are the same stuff by definition or history, then you break free the chains of the ways of the world; Bound to the transcendental conceits only as a matter of practical convenience. If one is practical, one can be free in a single bound.
But I leap forward and it is time to put me down. As they say in the old country, Viszontlatasra!
Hello again, machine. You stare at me in disgust at my habits but I have explained already my limitations, I think. Though a novice; though a busy man, I strive not to descend into the episodic. It is singular how the moments when we are at peace, content with our lot – when we cuddle warmly up to a current love, do a precise and important piece of work, enjoy I Pagliacci, or a fine meal, lovingly prepared and presented, shared with amusing companions and helped along with wine – can be so banal in retrospect. I bore myself with all that so one can well imagine how dull it is to verify dead and remote switches of happiness. I bore you, psycho-analysts! No, spare you that, I shall. Instead, I will tell how my mother and father betrayed me. I was as young as a teenager can be, unilaterally enrolled in an antisocial tennis club. Wasn’t very good, didn’t fit in and crumbled in stylized combat. Mixed poorly. Why (when?) had I been sentenced to this? Why the blank-stared edict? “You play at Toth Tennis Club tomorrow. Won’t that be fun.” I’d trudge from the court door, sprint to my implacable enemies’ headquarters, hoping to catch them unawares, inscrutable masks askew. Their secret, silent, fanatical hatred of me naked at noon, when the hideous night people are weakest. Then run, cheated again, up to my room. Afterwards, amid an uneasy truce, the matter was never referred to, like some wounding conflict of yore. My father was rather good at tennis. He had the grave, vacant, intense stare of the keen amateur. He willed to win, as a demigod should. His demolition of me in games he called education.
Lunch for my birthday. Whiskey, water, wine. I get a surreptitious slurp from mother. Father jiggles his glass, watches the viscous film flow and ebb, says inanely that “We’re very catholic in our tastes.” Until I was twenty, I thought that meant that they only drank whiskey, water, wine. I tried to ease mother’s viduage by producing a little magazine (two volumes in a single afternoon — the third and last a year later), entirely derivative, covering topics dear to a sensitive youth’s heart. She cherished them. I was “special,” not “like other boys”, laboring for her and not simply for her sake. One day, not out of pique, I graced the pages with naughty pictures and so destroyed them. Mother did not, however; she gamely preserved the tarnished treasures, which I burned after discovering them among her relics.
I dawdled at university, frittering away time and money in fruitless, fin de siecle campus pursuits whilst deciding whether and what to do. The formal science of the human body had lost its luster for me. No doubt for spite at my father, for not sharing his last grand adventure but one. Instead I communed with other wastrels and read verse and ontology, attended plays, sang songs, drank when in funds and yes, also caroused. My progenitors had gone the way of all soft tissue by the time it became apparent that academic pursuits did not loom large in my near future.
How we value education later on, though! How we regret not applying ourselves earlier! Had I bothered in youth to understand the unproven verities, rather than simply encapsulate them, I should occupy a Chair at this academy and not just a seat. On the other hand, I am finding that a shallow knowledge attracts a smuttily facile brand of student. I strut around Washington Square, holding a brightly jacketed book in my claw — not a tattered Beyond Good and Evil, but some “girls’ book”, such as The Indomitable Darkness Rising Over Laurels by Miss Davina Cloud, or Myra Breckenridge’s Gazelle Feet Scuff the Snow — soon a small crowd gathers, then begins the twittering amongst the coffee cups, then lo and behold!
Possessed of a miserable estate, I drifted into the whitesmith’s trade. Managed to blow steam into a metal bath. Clean the silvery-white stuff so the blue tinge gleams through. Up to accounts. Flattery by body language.
Mr. Kodaly had a big range of products; tinplate, alloys, bearing metals, coatings, Pewter. He liked my gloomy competence, took me into his confidence. Eventually, I spurned his meager offer of a promotion to assistant manager and set up in competition. His diversification sank him, along with whisperings that he froze his tinplate for maximum sheen, thereby poisoning the food canned therein. Who knows if there was truth in this. So I could buy stock and plant cheaply from his ruins, and flourish. From Oroszlany, near the Bakony forest, I made good, cheap tinplate for use in canning and nothing else. My way of giving the good peasant folk on the plaines de Hongrie what small creature comforts they could not grow, while ensuring I was paid, unlike a doctor, at the time of the transaction. And in cash, the wonderful certainty and anonymity of cash, the untraceable cache of the man of straw.
And there were temptations upon such plains, as had abounded for another infamous, unregistered doctor of legend. So it went and I became a part of the little town’s community, but made sure to preserve my parents’ apartment in Budapest. I could ride a horse to the railway station and go into town for business and stay for several days, if I wished. It was a charming place for entertainment of all kinds – near the Margaret Bridge where the Danu forks and with views of the split-city, including Parliament and the medieval castles. Delightful. Old friends tended to drift away, of course, fading like the humor of student romps; young scholars go out into the world with a purpose and vigor not conducive to nostalgic cliques; but there were always new friends to replace them and in turn be replaced. Probably because my visits to the capital were perforce sporadic, I appreciated and even fostered a healthy turnover.
I should not like to give any impression of anything other than a life of youthful probity at this stage. Indeed, but for my rather unfocused intelligence, my sybaritic and finical nature, I consider myself then to have been a somewhat normal young man, in a normal age, in a normal country. Of an empire that has now run its race, as they all do, although my adopted abode gives the semblance of perpetuity. But my mind is wandering, as it is wont to do in this city of magic. I peek from my window at the Hudson River and think of boat trips, of journeys over water – the frolics of youth, the shambling gambols of my dotage wend along the Hudson, and I can’t see for the tall buildings what is in-between. Ugh. I will not prepare my lunch at home. This is as good a time as any to wipe my eyes and clear my head. I shall walk towards Central Park and forage, maybe even have a drink, the writer’s perpetual friend, with my meal. Then one may decide to go on or not. It is not as if I need to invent my material – it is all there somewhere, simply awaiting transcription. The process should be easier than it is proving.
I am returned and what is more, fed and watered, albeit at a dirty and superior establishment. The food and the whisky which, believe it or not, New Yorkers insist on drinking with everything, has put recollective fire in my belly.
In the early days of the twentieth century, I underwent a minor psychological crisis. It seemed to me that I suffered from coldness around the heart, a chronic condition. I’d slake my thirst at the social trough and withdraw, exhausted by the game. I had no difficulty with social skills but the very facade of society was wearing me thin, straining me out. For example; one evening in 1908 I attended a ball at an estate on the Balaton Lake, near the town of Tapoica, which the rich parents of one of my old university chums, a fraternity member, owned. One had to wear tails and act very demurely in sight and earshot of the ladies. One had to stand around often and indulge in tedious political talk. That night, I remember, there was much feigned excitement over Our Glorious Dual Empire’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The host, Tibor Csiky, a slight and pink colored fellow who adopted an air of invincibility on his grounds, held forth at length in support of the Habsburg infamy. Twenty-nine years later, I can still picture him clearly, in his black tails, white gloves and bowed necktie, medals and chains dangling jauntily near his lapels at the correct parallel to his mustache, the western end from my frame of reference. A number of mutual friends were present and many, especially the poorer of them, gave close attention to the old man’s discourse while I cast around for somebody more companionable. Given the chance to speak, I might have boldly scoffed at conquest and smugly replied with the certainty of ancient youth; ‘sic transit gloria mundi.’ Looking back with the hind wit of the party-goer, I should have said that the conqueror, the true conqueror, never discusses his last triumph; he eternally looks to the next challenge.
At last our interminable tutorial was ended and we students were let out to play. In an excess of altruism, I selected a very homely girl, Theresa Madach, who thought it was charming to play the fool – she giggled, tapped her toes as if playing phantom hopscotch and gave wildly unresponsive answers to my silly questions, not because they were so silly but because she was incapable of listening to anyone actually attempting to converse with her. If we had had in those days a radio set on hand, she could have sat in front of it, all day and night, staring and blinking in bovine wonderment, perhaps engaging the machine in unresponsive conversation.
The evening was warm and she became quite flushed after a couple of waltzes. I suspect that she had drunk more than her customary fill of champagne. We went out into the garden to enjoy the moon’s splendor on the lake and I pointed out some constellations for her. She gushed interest.
Perhaps at this juncture I should give some description of myself at the time. For various excellent reasons a portrait of the current visage ought to be deferred. In 1908, when I was thirty-seven, my hair was thick but already turning slightly grey, although this was masked by the military shortness of the cut then fashionable among manly men. I admit to no great pulchritude; my facial features were (are) large but at least proportionate to each other; I have been told, by my ex-wife, when she was my wife, that she found my large dark brown eyes attractive. This is the only aesthetic compliment I have ever received without payment. I am not a tall man but have large shoulders and hands, which, unfortunately, tend to dwarf my trunk and legs in an ape-like manner; the simian aspect of my gait and posture is a matter of infinite filial reproach.
In the event, the most handsome available version of me won the foolish heart of Theresa Madach that night and I had her amidst the evergreen trees of Bakony, abutting the lake. She complained that I had been too rough; I apologized and offered the excuse of passion. By that age, I confess that mere lovemaking had begun to pall but the drive of lovemaking grew apace. It was the one aspect of me that caused slight alarm.
I was socially inept. So I realized as I gave a false Budapest address to the sweet girl. I had not gone to this ball, an affair of no small social significance, for the society it contained. No, as a patient visits a quack to have a boil lanced, so the motive in this case was pure desire of service. I looked about the world in microcosm, whirling to the strains of The Beautiful Blue Danube, considered it without great merit or even attraction and settled for the most available vessel upon the shelf. I had no wish to be with people for the sake of being with people. I did not feel superior, not then; rather, apart.
But why should I mind this? Do I mind, or care? Nowadays, of course, when our communities are awash with images of sex, (even anchorites are not permitted solitude in their deserts, they must be lecherously pestered) who may presume to affix the label of sexual mania? Which jury (how I long to be called as a juror!) dare convict X of the crime that all too often shrieks its name? We are troubled by these questions only because nothing much has been going on. And I still feel different, apart, but only when I do not feel bored.
It took a good deal of my remaining gumption to appear later that night in the balmy smoking room and pretend to savor the evening’s rounding-out, over excellent cognac and a rousing chorus of “God bless the Hungarians” (Isten aldd a Magyart). Jozsef Csiky handed me a cigar with a wink, adding to my suffocating discomfort. I knew my disdain of the pack’s clamor well enough by now.
This I built upon, in my thirty-eighth year, by marrying Maria Virag, in my home town of Oroszlany. She worked at the shop where I had commissions and seemed to be that rare creature that evoked small talk from me. She was twenty-three when we married; with hindsight’s sagacity, she was too young for marriage. Marriage to me.
She was born on the twelfth day of March, 1887 and helped form her peasant family unit until the father became too crippled to work profitably. Then she went out into the wide world of a Hungarian village, mis-counting pengos and sending wrong orders for her exasperated employer, flirting with customers very prettily in her brightly colored hand-made dresses.
I told her about myself, About her astrological history; Budapest, which she had never gone near, and anything else I could think of likely to be unfamiliar to her, which covered a great deal of experiential territory. She impressed me as astute in her instincts of people and indeed, it seemed to me that her boss was manipulated with consummate ease and skill. She, in turn, seemed fascinated by my eclectic, if shallow, knowledge and made no pretense of her desire to acquire it through possessing me.
Small, dark, buxom but unfortunately, fulsome on occasion, Maria’s charm consisted of ambition, appetite and self-awareness. She wanted whatever she could get out of life to the extent she was often bigger than it, at least as far as it went in Oroszlany or in my bedroom. Her insatiability was fatally different to mine. “What are you thinking of now?” she would moan, her soft voice masking the hard edge of enquiry driving it. Panther-like, on all fours, she’d loom into my view in the study, where I might be working (or re-working her attempts) at the accounts, or in front of my telescope; in an armchair, reading A Critique of Pure Reason, the newspaper, or nothing at all. I deflected all enquiry as to my thinking with polite aplomb. She was voracious however – she wanted to snaffle up every morsel of life as the hungry cat licks its plate clean. The tedium, the monotony of it all became clear when, finally, the small talk ran out. She was Henry Ford to my Friedrich Schlegel – the past was as invisible as the future. We’ve said all there is to say. Key phrases repeat themselves in an inflexure of boredom. “I love you.” “Do you love me?” “Of course, Darling. Always.”
This account is not intended to form part of your desert island collection. You can put it down at your convenience and fix a snack or take it to the gramophone store (there is an excellent one, incidentally, down in Greenwich Village). That is, if I choose to authorize its posthumous pressing. In giving forth a still life from my marriage, I act for myself and if I choose to let you in on my private reminiscence, it will be at my whim and on my terms. You are not included in my story. You have no way of knowing my wife Maria; she is dead and gone, alas, and whether she ever existed remains solely verifiable by me.
Our wedding had the elements of low farce. Maria naturally insisted upon combining the epic grandeur of a production by Cecil B. De Mille with the run-of-Camille. This spawn of a washer woman showed her leanings and learning, in setting a standard of matrimonial celebrations that would make the Habsburgs blush from shame, and gape in awe. And this in a country town where beer bottles and carp set on a stump masqueraded as haute cuisine.
Maria (and her mother) tested their estimates of my prosperity to the limit – the thankfully modest nuptials gave way to a feast of biblical proportions. She seemed to be a popular girl. The entire gamut of the cross-section called humanity as represented by Oroszlany had representation, including the Mayor himself, who partook of a sensational platter load of wild pig, partridge, hare, pheasant and venison, as well as dish after dish of the more stodgy goulash and fish courses. The Mayor ate as if his leadership would be measured out in empty plates; their number and clearance a matter of honor. He was also accorded the prize of a place at the main reception table, whereat my fingers twitched throughout the course of the evening in autonomous desire to clamp my hands around his throat just as it was full of masticated morsels of food, thereby blocking access of air to his grotesque head and sparing the community the remainder of his administration. Over many years since have I often felt similar benevolent urges to rid humanity of various meretricious examples of these hectoring, lecturing pests, and it is interesting, to me at least, to speculate how my name might now be synonymous with those heroes of history had I chosen a different path.
But it was Maria whose behavior stole the show trial. She dispensed pretentious homilies to all and sundry mingled with the feasting revelers in the manner of a crowned head and generally carried on like a cross between an empress and a concubine. She attained the ne plus ultra in condescension. I had a sense of sympathetic amusement, peeping through the bourgeois screen of my conventional embarrassment; already I had devised plans to remove her from Oroszlany and to minimize her mannish promiscuity. Thus I thought that she was entitled to make a fool of herself- and me- on this day, of all days, when the overwrought are indulged.
We went to a remote village on the outskirts of the Bakony Forest. It was a very small community, a kiskozseg, much smaller and more priggish and further away from Budapest. I explained to the lamenting wife of mine that Czinkota offered me greater opportunities to foster my business and she was mollified by the fact that the village lay on the railway line to her City of Dreams. It was a picturesque little spot, which remained largely untouched by emergent technology, daunting to even the most dedicated rustic. This seminal move of mine took place in February of 1912. I was then aged forty years; my wife was a lissom young lady going on twenty-five. But before I can introduce you to those who dwelt in this charming Brigadoon near the Little Alfold, I feel the need to fortify myself with sleep. So, go to bed, please, go to bed.
There were not more than five hundred people living in Czinkota when we arrived that dark-grey, damp and dreary winter. The train had paused uselessly at all of the abandoned, unwanted stops — Maria insisted on reading all their signs — till it came to (how did my street’s eponym express it?) “a singularly dreary tract” in the heart of the bowels of the country. The village constable, Trauber, cannot have been overly stretched in the performance of his duties; he appointed himself the unofficial welcoming committee to meet our train. We had been the only ones to emerge from it, which accentuated the intense feeling of desolation that I craved. The cold and the lifeless trees helped. Maria must have shared this feeling – she was sensitive to atmospherics — A portent? Trauber had a strong face, suggesting he had been good-looking as a youth. Time had done its usual job of vandalism on him; red and fleshy patches had been painted in, making of the delicate water colors an oily, Father Christmassy arrangement. Tall, portly and ponderous, he was the very epitome of the beat cop, as they call them here. In a big overcoat and woolen mittens knitted, I expected, by his good woman, he stamped and clapped and lumbered in our direction, saluting and shaking hands and helping with our cases.
I had arranged a car, which awaited us; Trauber suggested we load our possessions into it and then travel as passengers in his official automobile. Evidently, he knew where our new house was and where my business premises were being established. I began to wonder if he was also the President of the local Convocation of Guilds (Chamber of Commerce to you).
We came through town, clinging to the edge of its grand boulevard, made of mud. Some buildings had broken their moorings, drifting into the surrounding grey-green. There was a thoughtful silence as the car plunged back into it.
“You will be very impressed with your new house” Trauber blathered to us, not realizing that I at least might have already seen it before buying it. “It is the largest in town and has quite spacious rooms, a small stable and grounds.” Our convoy, made up of the only two motor cars in the area, was proceeding along the main road, past small white cottages with thatched roofs. “I think you will also find the people here to be friendly and sociable. Our hospitality is a byword in these parts.”
“I must say that privacy is essential much of the time for both my business and health” I remarked coldly. This bonhomie had to be nipped in the bud, but met a hasty “perfectly, perfectly”, showing little sign of so doing, a frown actually creasing his brow, “But the folk here are not meddlesome. They are welcoming only when appropriate.”
And much of the following months involved more such congress dances, striking a balance between holding one’s distance without being resented as aloof, constantly erring by degrees at the game, and bending back in rectification. One also had to work to keep up Maria’s absurd notion that we were some kind of feudal overlords.
My trips to Budapest developed into a smooth routine. The business virtually ran itself, just as it later did, into the ground. This left me with abundant time to develop a number of hobbies. I still used prostitutes regularly, but began to yearn for a form of society, some companionship, that went beyond a mere sexual compact. Preferably a slice of complex life, yet one over which I had absolute control, and could terminate, re-create, replicate, or replace, at my caprice.
I found my dead parents’ old apartment ideal for this purpose. Roomy and comfortable, it served well as a meeting place and a base for other sorties when I had affairs of importance in the capital. The only bug in the sugar bowl was Maria, who, bored by her engagement in the provinces, began to pine for a chance at strutting in the lights of the Big Smoke. She reminded me with force of my promise to take her on one of my trips and it became a matter of deciding when, rather than if, I would make good on it. Fortunately she did not press me to revisit her own town, which she regarded as passe; her friends and relatives there fit only for the sport of envy, by which emotion she supposed they were consumed after receipt of each one of her glowing and mendacious letters.
Glancing back as I am, old age, anonymity and comfortable circumstances enabling me to indulge in what is quite novel, I perceive that I under-estimated Maria. Having correctly identified her rapacity (it takes one to know one!) and formed a jaundiced view as to her general character, I complacently considered that she would adequately serve and represent me, causing little trouble, as long as her material and matrimonial needs were regularly replenished. Having been blessed, or cursed, from puberty with limitless mechanical drive, I saw small burden in ravishing her every night, apart from the coping with an endless stream of idiotic drivel. I would hear of her excesses second hand, usually through compliant employees, annoyed customers and regulars at the tavern where I drank and lunched. Although the tales were told, in an unduly florid way perhaps, to engage my attention or respect, one could readily see that there was truth in them, and that the tantrums masked an underlying need for greater attention than Maria felt she was getting. Her erratic conduct in my presence also suggests evidence of a gap in our relations; she appears to have been trying to signal to me that she lacked attention, or love. I don’t know, however, what might I have done about that, even if the signs had been made clear to me. The stream cannot rise above its source.
Perhaps I should have started this account as at the autumn of 1912. That is when it became clear to me that Maria had taken a lover. My life, till then, had not prepared me for what followed. In point of fact, I might well have continued to drift along the lazy river of pretend toil and false affection but for the treachery of my wife. For there is no division of labor as far as infidelity goes and besides, my wife existed for what I gave to her, not for what she took for herself. This hateful man, Bihari – I can barely write his name out upon the page — appeared in town from nowhere, replacing the flies of summer, under the pretext of searching for work. I do not know, even now, where Maria first met him, but it is likely she did so in the course of her daily rambles to loot and pillage the shops of the town. I imagine that he inveigled some dolt to employ him as an assistant, or bumper of goods, and he either made some coarse remark that she pretended to deprecate, or arranged an assignation; more likely both, for he was nothing if not bold. This hateful man – I will describe him for you, as I recall him on the few occasions we met until Christmas, when he and Maria eloped.
I insist on being scrupulous in terms of the physical description. He was what the ladies’ magazines would call attractive – slightly above average height, a full head of brown hair, wavy but thickly so; Chiseled features with a Neanderthaloid brow, the kind some ladies associate with virility, and small ears. I have no doubt that he was “known” to police, and his whereabouts are now, I imagine, well established. He was a conscienceless man who felt no compunction at robbing others – they have means of replacing their losses, he reasoned, where he had nothing – to each what he can get away with. In the popular sense, a rogue, transient by choice, not from lack of means or work; he seemed to have no dearth of either in that line; traveling from one wicked opportunity to the next. One weary Friday afternoon, I had been attending to business of a most tedious kind. I arrived at home to find Maria sitting in a most unnatural fashion for her, very correct, at the table in the parlor with tea things (in disarray) and the gentleman in question. He was sitting erect, absurd in his work clothes, and treated me to a stare of obsequious defiance. They both made a great show of rising and greeting me. Bihari was introduced to me as a helpful man from the mill engaged to effect some repairs to the timber work about our house.
The introduction affected the heartiness of some victorious football team; the fact Maria was making this effort for me was the first germ of suspicion to invade. Second, the giving of this tradesman tea and cakes and inside the imperial household to boot! It really smacked of subterfuge, so while Maria hustled her man to the door to complete his estimate of the work needing to be done on the exterior of the house, I absent-mindedly picked up and noted the stone cold state of the half empty teacups. It is easy to suspect a wife’s desire for another and unlike most women who are discreet in everything but love, mine had no discretion whatsoever. However, there is a difference in between suspicion and verification, for we battle against the former valiantly to protect our bourgeois cocoon from penetration by the latter. It mattered, you see, to me a great deal that Maria appeared faithful, even though we had started to bore each other only two or three months into our marriage.
So I took no action immediately. Instead, I hurled myself into work and paid personal calls on a number of my customers in the village and surrounding areas. I made a point of speaking to the good folk of Czinkota about what a good chap this Bihari was. About the splendid job he was doing at my home. Referring to him by his Christian name and ignoring the uneasy, meaningful looks cast in my direction by the worthy locals, who appeared to have information to which I was not privy but lacked the courage to share it with me.
I was quite sure of the affair at the time I came upon their absurd little coffee-klatsch. That was one thing – to have it thrust in one’s face was another. The two lovebirds tended to suspend interior work in favor of the exteriors till later in the day. This was in case I came home for lunch, but carryings on commenced well before the late afternoon, when I might either look in en route to the tavern or drink a bowl of soup before returning to work, if I felt unusually motivated. By four o’clock in the afternoon he was invariably to be seen emerging from the house, hefting his belt as if in satisfaction of a big meal, and wandering aimlessly about. Or else he’d furtively pick up a saw or axe and loiter about the trestles he’d set up in a vain attempt to portray a man thinking of cleaving nothing but wood. So much I spied from my vantage in the wooded area to the side of the house, elevated upon a hill and shielded from the purview of all but the squirrels. After a time on these lonely vigils, during which I indulged myself with a series of set moods-fantasies of murderous rage, sorrow and torment, stoic martyrdom, righteous disappointment and so on- I would carefully decamp, return to my car hidden in woods a mile away and then make a great show of appearing, all hail-fellow-well-met, make a solemn and respectful tour of the works, plaudits tendered trowel-like, and kudos for Maria cooed and kissed upon her forelocks with manly tenderness as, arm in arm, we would walk about our estate and plan even grander projects for the handy, indispensable Paul; a folly here, perhaps, or a rotunda for warm days and picnics; an extension to the stable to keep a number of horses or store the automobile safely under the weather; anything to keep my darling happy and my enemy close. Then we went inside and as Maria pretended to potter about, cleaning (which she had clearly already done, hurriedly), I sauntered up the stairs and threw off my jacket, donning a tunic that I wore around the home for comfort. Whilst doing so, a rake of the bedroom revealed neat and tidy order at odds with the negligent clutter in which my love was most at home, which constituted, in the main, her usual best effort ahead of the maid’s equally slovenly bi-weekly attempts. Furthermore and most damning, my keen and prominent nose detected the unmistakable scent of stupration. Here, by the way, is a tip from the stable, dear eaves-dropper; put out the eyes and cut off the ears of your cuckold, by all means, to cover your adulterous tracks, but don’t forget to also break his nose because nothing can stink up a room as can a man’s and woman’s illicit love.
As Christmas drew near, I told Maria I had to spend several days in Budapest on business, a beautifully true statement. I asked her if she would like to accompany me, holding genuine interest in her answer. I had parried her requests to be taken there for so long that I half believed, half hoped (?) that she would assent to the pleasures on offer. Naturally, this imp of the perverse did not. Feigning vexation, she observed that “one of us has to stay and keep an eye on Paul’s progress while the other is gallivanting around the streets of the capital”. Marking my card, however, she vaguely promised to accompany me “sometime soon” and with more precision, inquired as to the time and date of my proposed return.
“Oh, I shall be back by Christmas Eve,” I replied, a misleading but nonetheless beautifully true averment. “Do not fear, my dear. We shall be able to attend the party at Berszenyi’s. In the meantime, please keep out of the cold and make sure Paul doesn’t slacken off while I’m gone.”
“I’ll see to it.” Oh, faithful pup!
On the appointed day, December 18th, I set off in the car with my bags to the railway station, having explained to Maria that I had arranged storage of the car there so I could return in due course without inconvenience to her. Once again she extracted confirmation of my availability for the Yuletide celebration and suggested that I send a wire confirming the time of arrival so she could ready herself. I amused myself by toying with the notion; then placated her irritability by agreeing. The late afternoon was magically chill, carving ice sculptures out of every available substance, even one’s breath. The sun had frozen over, it seemed, but the snow still dazzled, so my progress was very slow. Regretfully, I failed to reach the railway station. About a mile or so from the edge of my property, I turned around on the mushy road and motored slowly back towards it, lamps unlit. The chance of meeting another car was literally one in five hundred and as for pedestrians, not much less remote. In the event, I did not. With some interest, I reflect that my preparations failed to allow for the possibility.
The car trundled for thirty yards or so along my private road and then veered violently off it into a gap in the trees and behind a thicket. Even without the cover of the gathering darkness, it was now virtually invisible. I then warmed myself up with some brisk physical exercise, covering up the traces of the motor’s detour; this took time. That accomplished, I put on a greatcoat from the trunk, and set off through the woods to the house. It was almost dark and I could see, beyond the trees, the great dark bulk with sparks of light winking out of various parts of it. Even if Bihari had been a good and trustworthy worker, he should have downed tools for the day. There was certainly no sign of activity about the curtilage and the lower windows had been shuttered against a heavy snow.
I stepped across the sweep of open ground that lay before the main entrance to the house. In the turmoil of that stormy night, with the moon not yet out and by my reckoning only to show a sliver of itself, I had no need to be furtive. No one would be standing at the windows awaiting my arrival with pipe, slippers and a warming drink. The snow kept falling-my exertions had been superfluous. All tracks would be covered. I wiped my boots carefully on the mat, silently removed, lightly shook, my overcoat. My spare keys admitted me. All was quiet downstairs apart from the low crackle of a fire gasping for fuel. The drawing room was in disarray – a dress was slung over a wing armchair, a pair of men’s shoes on the floor. By the fire were champagne glasses and to my horror, two empty bottles of vintage Pommery. The swine had dipped into my best sparkling wine! I became very angry indeed and proceeded to the stairs, en route to confront the two of them, first removing my boots. I think I forgot to mention that I had earlier relieved the woodpile outside of the axe, which I carried in my left hand as my right slid up the stairway rail. Ah, yes, the devil is certainly in the detail, and my omission causes me to consult the clock, which shows that the morning has passed. I apologize for my imminent indulgence; it is Wednesday and on Wednesday I take a taxi to the Waldorf-Astoria for lunch. I very much enjoy the salad they serve there.
Pausing on the landing I could hear a muted commotion coming from the bedroom, impolite and insistent, unlike the stately hubbub of the dining room where I have just sated my hunger. Mild cries could be heard, groans – all the resonance of coition. Slipping around the corner of the upstairs hallway, one could see that one dim lamp only was lit in the bedchamber – Good! That will set the mood nicely!
Do you know that, sitting here on the other side of the world, on the other side of time, I can still see them? God may have given us souls but surely the memory was supplied thanks to an original idea by Lucifer – it is the greatest single bar to repentance. He was lying on her and they both appear to me now to have been curiously flaccid, at peace in their partnership, serene symbionts, as it were. His axe, however, was hard and sharp and I embedded it deeply in the back of his head, where the base of the skull connects to the nape of the neck; my blow had so much force that the skin of Maria’s forehead under him was broken, sparing her the horror of comprehension. Then some further, consolatory blows. Then rest.
I had urgent chores to attend to before catching my late train to Budapest. I am in something of a quandary about it, you might care to know; having expended so few lines on the death of my beloved, it seems unseemly to sketch at length the housekeeping details attending the crime. But I should strive to leave a full account; how do I know what matters will be of use to posterity? First, I wrapped the bodies up in two heavy blankets. These I bundled into the trunk of my car, which I fetched from its hiding place. I then utilized a laundry list of fabrics to clean up the mess with the fervor, eye for detail and anxiety to excel which would have put our house maid to shame. Who would have thought them to have had so much blood in them? Moreover, a tub had not caught all, ha ha.
Driving about a mile in an easterly direction from the house brought me to a little glade of sloping land, surrounded by conifers. Strangling my wife, to ensure I was not committing the crimen exceptum of premature burial, I interred her with her sweetheart – the snow was thin on the slope and the soil easily moved. Having for some reason formed a conceit to retrieve them later, I paced out the distance from the graves to a large split fir tree on the clearing’s eastern rim and then motored grandly back to the house. It was only about seven o’clock; I would have time to dine before my train! Returning to the house, I started to set some potatoes on the slow boil and carried out a final clean and tidy in the bedroom, replacing the clothes and bedding with new material that carried no puddles of wet blood all over it. At the back of the house were several sheds and a clearing for bonfires – I built one, and in the smoky meniscoid light, burned all lesser forensic evidence of death. I took care to leave the bottles, glasses and other clutter undisturbed however, except for Bihari’s shoes, which he would not need again, naturally, but which he would have taken upon his decampment. I then retrieved some of my luggage from inside the car- moved from the trunk to allow the lovebirds to ride in comfort- and put away some of my things adjudged surplus to requirements. I jammed as much of her expensive clothing and damned pairs of shoes as I could into one large suitcase and manhandled it out of the house in readiness for a trip to the city. The jewelry would come too, but separately.
Maria had made a goulash of orgic splendor to mark the day in celebration; there was some left, which I enjoyed with my potatoes. The fire was now low enough to leave safely and a final sweep of the house, attended by some finishing touches here and dramatic flourishes there, satisfied me of the perfection in my arrangements. Then I left for the bright lights and spent the night in my compartment on the train reflecting, not on the ugly scenes I have just painted – I turned those over in my mind to assure myself no detail had been neglected whilst motoring to the station – but rather on the use to which I should in future put my new found freedom, so infamously and unexpectedly thrust upon me. Brooding upon this in my flat, it seemed to me that I was, by the grace of the star-crossed lovers, released from the constraints of normal social deportment; if played correctly, I should be able to evoke sympathy for my wretched abandonment whilst at the same time receiving condonation for any little peccadilloes I might acquire.
The immediate and pressing business awaiting me was the horrendous Christmas Eve function held by Mr. and Mrs. Berszenyi at their house. The perfect forum for unveiling the new me. All the local persons of importance would be in attendance, including Trauber, the town gossip. Spurn the champagne; drown in the pathos. Any disapproval you might be entertaining would have been lost, my new friend, in admiration for my performance – gliding into the party in my old tails between my legs, stony-faced; declining a proffered tray of honey-colored crystal, explaining, in exquisitely unconvincing fashion, that Maria was not feeling herself that evening and was not fit to attend; regarding the social intercourse with somber detachment and making book with oneself as to how much time would elapse before Trauber bumbled over, to ask with devastating tactlessness, if all was well. He waited ten minutes. “I gather your wife is unwell? Such a pity at this time of year.” His manner gave out unmistakable emanations of inquiry and I seized the opportunity. “Dear Constable, I know better than to try and fool you. For reasons of decorum, I have not been entirely truthful with our hosts. All is not well, however; may I burden you with my confidence, as I know you will respect it?” He goggled and nodded. “Maria appears to have fallen under the spell of our workman Bihari. When I returned from Budapest yesterday evening the house was empty and there were signs of a hasty departure. She left me a note saying that she was going away with this man.” I paused and looked up from the floor at his face – rapture shining through the show frown of concern, the clicking of tongue on teeth in disapproval – “She has taken all her things-she has left me, Trauber.” This said with the simple dignity of a proud and blameless man.
The policeman put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed in manly consolation. “You must not blame yourself” he intoned superfluously. “Perhaps she will come back. After all, she is young…” I adjusted my features to assume a less morose aspect.
“Do you think so? I wish, at least, I knew where she was. This man Bihari, he surely cannot have many means to provide her with any sort of proper comforts. I would die for the chance to even be able to wire her some funds; at least to let her know I am ready, willing and able to take her back with no recriminations.”
“You must keep calm and be patient” cooed Trauber. “She will be in contact. It is not feminine to simply cut off the past thus…” (here spake the perennial petit monde bachelor!) “…I will make some discreet enquiries if you wish without formally requiring you to make a report at this stage.”
I brushed the man’s arm in a gesture of gratitude which went beyond words and added, “Perhaps you might wait for a few days. If, as you suggest, she does get into communication with me…” I paused significantly.
“I understand” replied Trauber, nodding like a toy. “Please let me know of any developments and I will do all that I can when you wish me to do so. In the meantime,” (this said while glancing fictively around him, as would Conrad Veidt later in Der Reigen, but without the latter’s sense of nuance) “I will not tell a living soul.”
The late afternoon sun is sailing over the river, turning my broad grin into a grimace as I squint into it from; let’s call it, the thirteenth floor. Why do I grin? Because I have a picture in my head of Trauber (what has become of him, I wonder) – rushing home to tell his mother the scuttlebutt of the party, including and especially my dolorous news. In doing so he would not, I must concede, be breaking his vow to me, as even then I could not by any means class Elena Trauber as living nor possessed of a soul. She would sit there in her parlor, impassively calculating how she should share with the world – that is, the old crones of Czinkota – the morsels fed her by the dutiful son. Thus, I had no difficulty in creating the established facts of the desertion by my heartless consort. No wailing in the town square nor lamentations about the market place were needed, simply a sad shrug of the shoulders when a villager would ask, ever so delicately, (manner triumphing over form), whether the hussy had come groveling back from her dirty little adventure.
She was dirty, to be sure. I dug her up on New Year’s Eve (a celebration of sorts) and placed her into a large petrol drum, from a group of them kept at my works in connection with the manufacturing of tin products. Its contents transmogrified into undrinkable alcohol of special purpose — not poppy, nor mandragora, nor even antimony. The undeserving Bihari received similar respectful treatment. I still cannot explain why I decided to preserve my handiwork in this way, other than that I toyed with the idea of using my tin-works to expunge all evidence of this grotesque couple. But I quickly decided against that, only partially, I think, on the grounds that my disloyal and nosy staff might discover the truth, or at least grow suspicious. As for the preserving of the handsome young lovers in drums, it may well have been driven by a small degree of creative pride, an exhibitionism not wholly suppressed by virtue of my confidence in the incompetence of the forces of Law and Order. The two drums I reburied within the glade. With the arrival of the year 1913, I had formed my resolution of action. During the rest of that relentless winter I arranged the sale by private treaty of my Budapest apartment to a man called Hofmann, a conveniently shadowy figure to whom I could entrust business with absolute discretion. I placed certain newspaper advertisements, of which more later, and started collecting more drums through the business. It was not difficult to explain this to the alert Trauber, with whom I now dined regularly and counted as one of my best chums. With the Balkans on fire, a simpleton could see the wiser crowned dogs of Europe straining at their leads, flecks of foam in their craws a-forming. I told Trauber that petrol would inevitably be rationed if war came, and I needed to be able to continue to run the business – I stored about ten each at work and home.
Eventually, it became clear that Maria was not coming back to me. I went to Budapest to see her at a restaurant, by pre-arrangement; the gulls eggs and white wine were excellent. I showed my friend the gendarme a letter from her, posted in the capital, written in her painfully childish scrawl, which made clear her intransigence. In time, the good people of the village got over their obsession with her perfidious acts and began to treat me with the robust normality accorded a born bachelor, or a man long widowed. I took in a housekeeper. Mrs. Kalman was old and not, thankfully, a part of the town’s chattering classes. She was sympathetic to my plight, which had been put before her with simple dignity, and expressed a profound contempt for any female of appropriate age who separated from their husband by any means other than mortality, “Any woman who forsakes her husband and does not stand by her sacred covenant to God deserves not to live” she snorted.
My newspaper advertisement read: “Mr. Bela Hofmann is a lonely widower seeking female companionship.” It invited letters, preferably accompanied by a photograph, to a poste restante in Budapest. Hence, the social life of Hofmann sprang like a phoenix from the ashes of the humble village tinsmith – my own Tales of Hofmann became a very busy journal indeed.
Relationships without work are an art form, a craft I have mastered. The rewards are reaped on campus. I did not, by any means, pioneer the “A’s for lays” scheme so prevalent at the university, but if I do say so myself, my efforts have set a new standard. These days, in fact, I am resting on my laurels.
My first tale concerns the widow Schmeidak. She wrote in reply to my newspaper advertisement. I do not have any source material left, alas – one must travel light and all of the letters were left for others to marvel at – but my memory serves pretty well as to the general tenor of hers, which came to me about March;
Mrs. Christina Schmeidak presents her compliments to Mr. Hofmann and requests the pleasure of your company for luncheon at 1 o’clock on 15th March.
How well I remember holding the azure tinted missive in my hands – smelling its lilac scent and eagerly scanning the details it gave of our meeting place. Hitherto; that is, since my forty-first birthday, I had been reliant upon the prostitutes of Budapest and, on sad and irregular occasion, those few tame sirens, cigany [gypsies] mostly, who plied their rough and ready trade in our charming backwater.
It was time for more meaningful encounters. The ides loomed – I bounded out of my train carriage at the station and took a cab, feeling extravagant, to the appointed rendezvous. This was a smart restaurant not far from the Parliament house on the river. I was a student again, entering the place with careful aplomb. Imagine my throb of disappointment at discovering a dowager of about sixty years, sitting and inclining her head in my direction like my mother, beckoning me to table!
Mrs. Schmeidak, in contrast, seemed delighted. “My dear boy” came the imperious address. “But you are so young! I had imagined a more venerable gentleman, he who had lost his wife to the ages.”
“It was a tragic circumstance, Mrs. Schmeidak” I countered, resolving to stay and at least make the best of it. I had already caught the unmistakable whiff of the well-to-do. “It is rather painful for me to recount, as a matter of fact.”
“Of course, of course” she fluted as I returned her hand to her and sat. She appeared sanguine at my distress, anxious to move on to other things. “And you must call me Christina, my dear. I hope formality won’t be necessary, especially if we are going to become friends?”
“I hope so, Christina” said I into her eyes, full of promise. “I very much hope so.”
Lunch was more than satisfactory. The woman was rich and furthermore, showed little disinclination to spend, at least in her present mood. I warmed to the task, if not the subject, and by the late afternoon we were conversing in an intimate and amused fashion, her laughter ringing throughout the now empty dining room. I had re-discovered my charm! Also, something I had become aware of in my forty odd years of experience; the promise of pleasures to come invariably provides greater satisfaction than the delivery of them. Not that I expected to have any difficulty in that department – if it came to the point, one could screw up one’s face, hold one’s nose, clamp the eyes shut, all metaphorically of course; think of the Empress and so on. One technical aspect of events should perhaps now be dealt with, my friend. (I assume a man is reading this, probably a police officer of some sort – Trauber, possibly, my old Nemesis!). So I can speak frankly. I have, to put it mildly, always had an abundance of fecundity. I first learned this in early, messy experiments of youthful auto-eroticism. To be blunt, I stood a better chance of accidentally yanking the intromittent organ free of its stanchion than of running out of puff. Or steam, or whatever euphemism is most apt.
Therefore, I had no anxiety about the need to sing for my supper if it came to that. Aesthetics aside, I could have just left one of my regular Budapest girls and descended on the good widow’s doorstep for more, if she so wished. And I suspected that she did. But I did her the kindness of playing a little hard to get, wringing my hands for the late lamented Maria Hofmann, treating her with the courtly good manners of a nephew about a rich aunt, constantly frustrating amorous opportunities with polite disclaimers. I was Clarissa Harlowe to her Robert Lovelace. Eventually, I had invited her to dine with me at the flat – one of the more presentable whores agreed to tog up and play the cook, serving a surprisingly agreeable saute de lapin au cidre, together with a saucy Roumanian red wine.
Ignoring the knowing gaze of my helper, I paid and discharged her in the kitchen, impressing upon her the need for discretion, and dangling the prospect of further work as long as she behaved. Then of course one had to set to work – a task calling for finesse rather than stamina. I carried the day and from that moment saw the way forward to ensure the realization of my financial security. The widow Schmeidak was just the beginning. I could count on the benefaction of a city of widows. A veritable ambush of trusting, compliant widows. Vistas of wealth without work spread out before me in a plain of calculation; an imaginary cotillion, replete with jewelry dripping from the skeletal fingers and arms of the near departed. Better still, I discovered to my mild surprise, was that the plain, the dance floor, was drenched by a river of blood. Now I will share a secret with you. It is fun to kill people. Yes, yes, it is, I insist. All one needs is a beginning in order to shed the aversion of the bourgeois. Coupled with that – an understanding of evidence and the means to ensure one is not encumbered with any. There can be no room for qualms about the sanctity of human life; how could there possibly be? All that history teaches us contradicts this silly notion. If you require more argument, friend, I offer this; think of all the alleged human beings you have encountered in a single day and ask yourself; “which should be spared?”
Repulsive as it now seems and sounds, I became the widow Schmeidak’s beau. I spent long hours with her but took care not to pass must time in public view. She granted me power of attorney so that her business could be conveniently conducted as I attended to mine. After two idyllic months, I invited the grande dame to venture into the scenic splendors of the Lake district with me, explaining that I had certain mercantile matters to see to and how “jolly” to combine pleasure with it. The balmy Hungarian summer was in full swing and fortunately the rejuvenated relict agreed with alacrity. I have found that axe murder is too messy to be justified. One doesn’t want to be red-handed. Certainly some kind of weapon can come in handy, especially if your quarry is expected to put up a fight or there is, for some reason, a small margin for error. However, the cleanest means of disposal, for me, remains strangulation. It combines a raft of advantages.
First, it entails no noise. The expiring prey is reduced to the thrashing of limbs and low gurgles, which are unlikely to be of concern if you have selected a discreet locale at which to conduct the transaction. My hands are large and were thus admirably suited to this method.
Secondly, there is not a, at least appreciable, spillage of blood and other bodily fluid. This saves an awful lot of time and fuss.
Thirdly, it is an intimate way to end a relationship. That is, in practical terms one can approach the target, professing affection, without revealing one’s intent until the last possible moment. So it is preferred in the context of springing a surprise.
Finally, there is a real tang of puissance in the hand-made destruction of another. To gaze into the despairing eyes of the wretch expiring in your manly grasp, to perceive her registering that this is checkmate, all agog as you increase the throttle; this, for me, creates a salad of emotions the flavor of which is superior to sexual climax.
The first stirrings of summer saw us bound by the Budapest train for Czinkota where I maintained a “hunting lodge.” Depersonalized for want of a woman’s touch, the house had a lustral atmosphere, created by the antiseptic vigor of the Spartan, Mrs. Kalman. She was not there on the day we arrived; I had arranged matters thus; but as time went on I felt no fear in introducing a host of my new found friends to her, for she had that wonderful quality so rare amongst those who serve – the tolerance of indifference. I had taken a great deal of trouble with Christina. Many hours had I feigned enthusiasm regarding her idiotic table talk – much effort had gone into disentangling myself from the oppressive web of her social circle – a season of panting had I expended on the gracious lady, now, thanks to my cautious financial and other preparation, herself expendable.
In light of these premises, I garroted her forthwith, before she had time to sit down on the sofa. I had sportingly allowed her to remove her fair coat, however. I regret to disclose that no titanic struggle ensued, no battle for the life I snared – she went to her reward with the resignation of a zebra surrounded by lions. This is why, I feel, that there is so little for me to say now about her or many of the other incidents. They were just pieces of business, of no great moment; I believe that my achievement and the purpose of setting down this record lie in the quality of my planning and the accumulation factor.
Voila. I had dealt with Schmeidak. The ground was not yet too hard for easy digging so I sauntered out to my favorite glade and made good work with pick and shovel. By the time I returned it was still very much light, so I passed the rest of the afternoon stripping the corpse and bundling it into one of the drums that I stored in a shed adjacent to the house. I added an alcohol preservative again, as I felt by then a genuine collector’s pride at my burgeoning catch of meat, which tugged at both heart and loin as much as the thrill I felt at later realizing the worthy woman’s assets. These were considerable. Even while quietly hoisting the heavy drum from the trunk and rolling it merrily into its waiting twilight tomb, I underwent zestful shivers of calculation at what the full extent of her fortune might be. Ultimately, her clothing, jewels and other bric-a-brac fetched a pittance, for I was hardly at liberty to offer for sale through the usual channels. A great deal of it I moved back to the city, where numerous items served as gifts for the various members of my ‘staff’ from the demimonde. There was a gratifyingly large amount of money, though. I withdrew it all from her account under the authority of Herr Hofmann’s power of attorney and placed it in one of those handy anonymous holdings provided by the numbered accounts men on the Rue de la Corraterie. From 1913 to date my stocks have continued to grow there, detached from and insulated against all manner of strife. It pleases me to inform you, even through the distance of this to-be-hermetically-sealed journal,that my fortune, augmented by further deposits of various kinds over the years, is now immense, and that does not count the riches of experience.
You now hopefully have an insight as to the prototype of my modus operandi, honed and adapted as it was according to the dictates of circumstance. By the time Isabel Varga entered my apartment in Budapest, in the winter of 1913-14, I had amassed eight full drums – five in the glade and three in a secured room forming part of my cellar, whither Mrs. Kalman had no need, nor interest, to go. As far as she knew, the cellar held wines and spirits, more things holding no interest for her other than as yet further items in the catalogue of man’s vices, for which infamies his gender was predestined to Hell.
For the sake of completeness, I suppose I should attempt a catalogue of my own and supply details of the occupants of said drums.
Aside from the paramours, touchingly side by side in the silvan setting and Christina, the glade also blanketed Zita von Hayek and Alida Haas. The latter was a local girl with no family ties; she was thought by Trauber to have drifted on to greener pastures. She had been saving for some time to settle in Vienna. I relieved her of both nest-egg and travel bug; she was not well-off, but winsome.
Hayek was a Budapest woman who had become estranged from her husband and was clearly emotionally labile as a result. Her overwrought letter to me stressed her interest in a platonic friendship – also, she insisted on a secret rendezvous, so as not to cause undue matrimonial complications. Naturally, this suited me mightily. Because of her fears and hopes, which overlapped and intertwined, thus undercutting the integrity of each individual impulse, she would yearn to see me in order to bolster her morale by virtue of the ability to show herself off in the company of a suitor. But she’d then send word in cancellation of a tryst, for concern over discovery, which might ruin her prospects of reconciliation. She was a marionette of mixed maneuver – her emotional strings were worked by a committee, not a single puppeteer.
In a little tea shop at the end of a cul-de-sac, we spoke in a hush about the prospect of further meetings. By now I was thoroughly sick of her; two weeks of prevarication and melodrama provided my fill. She even lost any luster for me as a sex object although her figure was fine and her dark hair and eyes, smoldering crazily, were striking. I had resolved by the time of the tea chat to best lure her away by providing a sort of psychological counsel and help her to appreciate whether she wanted to reconcile with Mr. Hayek and if so, how.
“Do you know, I predict that he is only now starting to realise what a mistake he has made. Men are like that – take the dog’s bone away and for the first time he shows great concern for it.” (I sit and watch this faltering actor play in the window of that tea shop — why does he waste his time so? And this dreadful fidgeting!)
“Your problem is essentially one of tactics“: I continued, hardly daring to believe it was I delivering such slop. “You hope to win him back but the question is how to convince him to give in without feeling he is losing face.”
“I suggest you go on a journey for a while. Somewhere in the country. Away from Budapest. Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for him as well as you. Drop hints among your less discreet friends that a gentleman has invited you to take a trip. Stress that everything is above board, that you are going as a traveling companion, not as a lover. Extol the public virtues of the man but do not reveal his identity to anyone. That is crucial. It will pique his interest sufficiently to reaffirm his love for you.”
At this last remark, while she chewed over its implications in deadly earnest, I took a large bite from a piece of sachertorte and gulped the tea to keep from breaking into sustained and hysterical laughter.
I must say, it was never expected that she would follow my recommendations to the letter. I am certain that she told some cronies about kind Mr. Hofmann. I understand that the fact of her visits to that elusive gentleman’s flat was known to the local authorities. This did not matter much in the final analysis, the point being that she decided to come away to the country with me, having first been persuaded to “quarantine” her investments from those of her husband by placing them in my Swiss account on trust. This, I indicated to her, would signal an intention on her part to attain a measure of independence from the clutches of her boorish and domineering husband and would also put him in a quandary of doubt as to the extent of such intentions. That achieved, she became drum number five.
I met Sofia Biro by chance at Lake Balaton, where I took a well-deserved vacation in the summer of 1913. She was a charming young woman but suffered from an excess of virtue. Her proud parents had allowed her this jaunt as part of her “coming out”, but stipulated that any such emergence would take place under the watchful eye of her imperious Aunt Gordana, who acted as a haughty chaperone. The challenge was thus to distract the aunt and disentangle the girl, who although of no great personal means, wore a ruby necklace, which my connoisseur’s eye perceived to be of great value. I amused myself by introducing Mr. Hofmann to the ill matched pair at lunchtime, with elaborate, even stiff, formality and courtesy. Showings no interest in Sofia, I chatted with her minder about scenic spots and lake activities; offered to drive them around part of the water’s body, if they so wished, in my motor-car. Eventually, given the lack of interesting people in our hotel at the time and the attraction of a car, they assented. I gave them a most pleasant and proper afternoon’s entertainment and paid compliments to the pair in equal measure, retiring gracefully from the fray after our return to the hotel. Whilst returning with Miss Biro to the automobile to collect her mislaid gloves, however, I took the gamble of offering to drive her to a nearby club to experience some night life, suggesting that she might ostensibly retire for the evening after dining, claiming the day’s sport had tired her, and then meet me near the car so that we could slip away without unduly alarming the family chatelaine.
The young lady fell in with these designs readily; I cannot say if there was an attraction as such, but she clearly relished the prospect of adventure. No doubt the plan was to see if any younger men might make her acquaintance for later sojourns. Still, she was pleasant company as we motored in the summer moonlight that beamed twixt the pine trees, as though it came from a projectionist’s booth.
I had no illusions that she would focus on me if we chanced upon some gay night spot; there would be music, smoke, color and movement – her pretty young head would be turned every way but across the table towards her irritated host, so I stopped in the middle of the deserted grove and strangled her on the spot. The vigorous thing managed to emit an eerie cry before she was smothered, crackling like tin when it bends. Some of my luggage, (for I had checked out that morning, thoughtfully packing the trunk full before the lake frolic), then came into the car’s compartment, so as to allow Sofia sufficient room to snuggle into the crawl space of the trunk for the long drive back to Czinkota. There, I relieved her of chic party dress and ruby necklace before she made barrel number one in the basement (which is what they here call a cellar) her permanent home.
Whilst stripping the body in preparation for storage, I tried to evoke the first stirrings of necrophilous curiosity. For certain technical reasons, it was not practicable to carry out any research along these erotic lines, as the subject had made a long journey from the resort, but I decided to explore any leanings in this direction as soon as a fresh opportunity arose. This soon occurred in the form of barrel girl number two; Anna Nemassy was the name she claimed, although with cigany, who can tell? She was a coarse and plain girl, with a raw vein of sensuality in her. She turned up at the house one afternoon in autumn, begging or seeking work- apparently Mrs. Kalman had turned her away with the assistance of a yard broom and she had waited till that good woman had ventured into town for supplies before troubling my door knocker. I suavely invited her in and parried her knowing smirk by hearing out, in all due solemnity, her tale of hard times and need for funds “to buy food for my child.” I seriously questioned whether she had any children, sub silentio of course, and clasped my hands together in the manner of a country squire while pondering what if any assistance I could offer in the form of tasks or alms. I established that she was alone and living in squalor on the edge of the village. She hoped to make her way to the spa resort of Sarvar, to the north-west of the Balcony Forest, where her family worked and thieved. She met the mild enquiry as to the reason for and circumstances of her current whereabouts with evasion. However, I was satisfied that she had indeed been thrown on her own resources for the moment and accordingly I directed her to return the next day, my housekeeper’s being off.
Again, she smirked; I almost found myself pleading my honorable intentions. After all, it was she who had stayed away until the coast was clear of servants. Yet in retrospect her reaction was correct – I was entertaining lascivious thoughts: my motives were not charitable nor designed to keep the peace. I had already determined to have the wench – it was merely a matter of deciding whether to do so inter vivos.
On the next day, in mid-morning, she returned, having been given a lift part of the way from the village in a trap. She had gathered some lavender which she charmingly presented to me; I lay them aside and took her easily in my arms, determining then and there that I would know her pre-mortally, both as a comparison with (no, I did not delude myself that I was conducting research!) cadaverous congress and so as to achieve a pleasurable surge in extremis. It behoves me to record for the ages that she was, by far, better the first time. It was with a feeling of relief that I sent her packing to the cellar. Perhaps it was a test with inadequate control. I had tested my mettle nevertheless, by sampling of the basest and most diabolical urges, and come through cleansed of self-doubt, purged of evil curiosity and confirmed as normal. How far it is possible to calculate normality, none may say.
I break off here and observe that he who holds this writing will find relief from the compendium of death. If he is an investigator seeking to clear up cases of missing persons, he certainly can skip ahead but would not an investigator, even and perhaps especially an historical one, hold some interest in matters of motive and method rather than restricting himself to mere tabulation? Perhaps you have already leant back in your armchair, commenced to fiddle with your fixings, after branding me an evil man. But that is a simpleton’s charge. Very-well. You can pick or choose from it later, as the simpleton makes the three or four safe and intelligible choices that determine his life.
The end of an eventful year was closing in and Christmas filled everyone with foreboding. The powers were spoiling for war and all was uncertainty. Particularly affected by the talk and mood was my friend Constable Trauber, who had not hitherto displayed great degrees of sensitivity. I dined with him, evenings of robust humor and good cheer (at the tavern): we would speak in the course of a working week but once or twice, on the rare occasions when I appeared in town upon the pretense of business affairs. Trauber had no incentive to make for hone at the end of another stagnant day and listen to his mother’s gossip – it would have made her life seem far more vital than his. So I got his gossip first – a bland smorgasbord of trivia from his feckless rounds. Occasionally, a stray bubble eddied along the wet table top towards me – a new young woman in town looking for work, details of crimes or disappearances from the capital or other places where things happened – these details Trauber would furnish wistfully, with an air of regret at his non-involvement; much like a young lad denied access to dart: secrets of the criminal side by his father a generation earlier.
One Friday Trauber came by my house, an unusual occurrence. He reported a prosaic matter to me, damage to windows at the rear of my works, doubtless the criminal master stroke of school boys. Even for Trauber, this was small beer. So I thanked him heartily and invited him in for refreshment, expecting him to accept. As Mrs. Kalman scuttled about gathering the despised drinks, he warmed to the real purpose of his visit, which turned out to be social. Unaccustomed as he was, a halting invitation issued from his abashed face. The occasion was, of all things, a fishing expedition (he might have conducted one more profitably in my cellar with a warrant and a “jimmy”!) for the coming weekend. He had the use of a cottage near a tributary of the Raba River and all of the necessary equipment, he explained with enthusiasm, but it would be inappropriate to use his official vehicle to convey us to the spot. At this he paused and I sewed up the conversational gap by accepting with pleasure and offering my car for the jaunt.
In the cold dead light of the following Saturday afternoon we bumped and lolloped over the track leading to our fishing redoubt, bordered on all sides by scrub except for an open space sloping down to the water. A small boat shed covered an immaculate skiff and inside the cottage, the quarters were superior to most homes in Czinkota. We stood in the doorway, grips in hand, reverential. “This is my District Captain’s place,” Trauber commented. “He is very particular.”
We settled in, lit a fire and took the boat out for a preliminary pass. We expected no sport. It was not the time of day for serious fishing, so we concentrated on burnishing our rusty rowing skills and appreciation of the scenery. Even in the dying light, the edges of the landscape’s figures were hard and clear; the sweet grey-green of autumn not yet been daubed with snow. It was freezing, and conversation duly clenched. I did not mind; so comfortable were we in each other’s company that any words of substance at that moment would have been rude.
The fire was burning nicely when we returned. In front of it we gorged ourselves upon bread, cheese and beer. I produced a brandy that enveloped our heads with a filmy glow; only then did something resembling discourse emerge. Trauber initiated it, haltingly; he seemed finally to be shaking off a fug of preoccupation that had shrouded him for most of the day.
“You are a man of the world, Kiss. May I presume to seek some advice from you concerning a matter in which I am something of a novice?”
“As you know, my reputation is not that of a ladies’ man.”
“Well, I have finally found someone for whom I care very much.”
“Really? Good for you! Is she local?”
“Yes, the new secretary to my Sergeant, Eva Lajos.”
“I do not believe I have had the pleasure.”
“But you have with….” Trauber halted in mid-sentence, appalled. He took a hefty draught of brandy, gulped, coughed, breathed ponderously and tried again. “I mean, you have a certain way with ladies, a certain knowledge you might say! I wonder if you could suggest the best way of going about… making my feelings known to her.”
“My dear fellow! There is no textbook wisdom for this type of thing. The best guide is your own instinct, you know.”
“But, but…even given that, Kiss, surely there are some basics you could impart?”
“Well, I’m willing to try to help you, not that you probably need it. First, you must tell me about the lady.”
Miss Lajos, it transpired, was junior to her suitor by seven years, blonde, brown-eyed and comely – chillingly efficient in the office but warm and kind nonetheless. She had come from Budapest; her transfer here was something of a promotion, but the posting was likely to be a temporary one; competent secretaries with country service being at a premium. She also had in short space of time built a reputation for meticulous standards of honesty, a quality vital to the credibility of the police force. Forgive me for this fifth form panegyric – I merely pass on Trauber’s doe-eyed analysis in summary – my stomach is not strong enough to recount to you his every stupidity verbatim, even were I able to so do. But there were some toothsome tidbits. The lady was an apt pupil, a voracious reader. She had told Trauber of an experimental novel she was writing, where the narrator turned out to be a bottle of fish sauce. She liked to ski. She wore long dresses. Adored eau de Cologne. She wanted to learn how to shoot. He was teaching her.
I trawled for such dross along the sea-bed of Trauber’s mind. This trust, a kind of knowledge, is the key to betrayal, allowing you to turn what others impart to you against them.
“Well, Trauber,” I said at length. “All I can say is that she sounds like a remarkable woman – singular in fact. I suggest that you bring her to dine at my house, the both of you as my guests. Trauber made noises of polite protest that I dashed into the fire.
“Nonsense my good fellow! Shall we say next Friday evening at 8 o’clock and I will arrange for my car to collect you.” Trauber, eyes shining with excitement, abandoned his semblance of a demurrer.
Early the next morning we cemented our androcentric bond by way of a hard morning’s fishing. The sport was exhilarating; using conventional bait, we amassed in the bottom of the skiff a dozen beautiful green and white mottled pike in the space of a couple of hours. I grazed the scuppered morsels with a lazy foot, studying the writhing flesh as does a shaman his trophy entrails. Hummed some Horace to the tune of an old folk song— “A woman faire for parts superior, ends in a fish for parts inferior.”
I trailed a bottle of Polish vodka from the back of the boat to warm us while we worked – at that hour, chunks of ice grew on the line. Leaning back after a final swallow, with lunch performing death throes at our feet, one could appreciate Trauber, shoulders straining over the oars. What you saw is what you got. For that precise reason, I also found it beyond my powers to respect him and this, I suspect, may have led to the formation of a wicked plan on my part to play Cyrano de Bergerac to his girl’s Roxanne, assuming she measured up to expectations.
She did – albeit not to the level of Trauber’s laudation – who could? But ambition undid her. The cloak of it she wore shone brightly enough to render my dinner candles obsolescent at table the following Friday. Trauber gazed at her like a moonstruck hound, rubber tongue carefully masticating as the eyes darted thither for approval; he made very little noise. It was left to me to drop the occasional pleasantry as an entracte to her dramatic flourishes, which dominated the evening.
It became abundantly clear that Eva regarded the constable rather as she might the draught horse he often rode on his rounds – a fact, part of the force she served, a functionary under the control of her boss, Sergeant Piros – not a dream boat lover. Her quick intelligence showed in the amused and impatient glances she made in his direction, before turning hack to me and resuming some monologue about her plans. The slight frown creasing her peaches-and-cream -face or the arching of a brow, as if to ask me why the poor man was here instead of waiting outside in the car where he belonged. The only way to her heart, as far as Trauber was concerned – short of sexual assault – would have been to convince her that he was either Franz Ferdinand incognito or newly designated as Commissioner of Police and due to start for Budapest on the coming Monday, a feat beyond the imaginative powers of our great romantic Mihaly Vorosmarty, let alone my poor wretched friend. So one can well imagine that any scruples I might feel about taking this minx off Trauber’s unsullied hands — a debatable presence — dissipated. If she were to disappear, she should do so in the face of the honest policeman’s indifference. Her ambition, specifically, her obvious hankering for a return to the bright lights of the capital, served well here. First, however, the young lady had to deal with the old love before starting anew.
In a private chat with the young lady – I floated by the police station one early afternoon when my friend would be tarrying over a free luncheon somewhere – I pointed out his feelings for her. Her silvery laugh rang through the semi-deserted office and I laughed, too. After we calmed down, I told her that it really fell to her to put him out of his misery and warn him off. She was not in the least distressed at this proposal and raising her eyebrows, looked at me archly.
“And you?” she inquired. “What do you think of me?”
I smiled two smiles, one for her and one completely inward in nature. “Let me tell you after you deal with Trauber. Perhaps we can discuss it in Budapest: I have to go there for business soon and you may desire to accompany me. I know that will give me great pleasure.”
And so, just one Christmas after my personal torment, I found myself cast as father-confessor to our village constable, whose lamentations (Eva’s rejection of him, I later learned, had been delivered most brutally) had little of the tact or calculation attending mine.
“Would you like me to talk to her?”
On a train to the city, in a first-class carriage, we discussed the matter until the squalid little buildings of our backwater had fled from sight. And I admit freely that our talk was conducted in a tone of levity, levity unsuitable for a serious book of reminiscence.
And of course Trauber was forgotten. In a city of delights, his amusement value diminished rapidly. Eva Lajos and I held those highly charged, witty and significant colloquies one reads about in novels, where the author imagines himself, in character, as a combination of Balzac. Liebniz and Plato, realized in gold relief. She was not acquisitive unless you count the accumulation of experience. Eva was determined to squeeze what she could out of life. As they say on this gigantic little island, she was a good-time-girl. It must therefore be of some consolation to her memory that she extracted the maximum juice from the husk of her existence before laughing all the way to my country cellar, In the midst of life we are in death; so says a book of great literary ingenuity, containing rich narrative and many flourishes of no literal significance. Trauber was very good about her sudden decision to leave so she could avail herself of an opportunity in Vienna. He gloomily reflected to me over a lunch time beer that he would have bored her in the end, had they made a match of it. “She is so much more alive than I.”
“Perhaps. But I’m sure she will regret discounting your attentions. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, do you know.”
Dear me. I have been chattering for hours, all through the night, in fact. I usually sleep like a dead cat. Admittedly, having commenced this account and seeing the reels of strange, surgical looking tape wind into satisfying stacks, one feels the grip of momentum, the urge to plough on; a Wagnerian imperative to build upon what is built and build again. Regretfully, I will have to do so without the luxury of some editor, or literary agent, to advise me on the judicious trimming of embarrassing or prolix material. My dears, let’s not carp about linguistics or style!
I am enjoying this tour of my Hall of Shame. So far still to go. Breakfast, I think and then we come to the inevitable Christmas Eve party held at casa Berszenyi, where I first made acquaintance with Mrs. Varga, my perfect specimen. She was one whom I might have spared. A widow, a sizeable inheritance. About forty, she had a charmingly intense aura, yet, a serene nature. She glided up, as I stood at the party’s edge like a wallflower, silently observing the comings and goings (Trauber was sitting it out that evening, nursing his wounds) and effortlessly made the effort with me.
“You looked so assured I wondered why you were standing here all alone.” This she said with an invincible assurance of her own. “Madam, I find that if one signals a lack of reliance upon the passing social parade, then one stands a good chance of attracting the attention of a like-minded person.”
“Well, I see you have thought about this.”
“Although it is far less open the case…”
“Don’t you think these charming…”
“…Kiss, Bela Kiss at your service” I swept before her as part of a low bow. “My wife has left my life, alas. Forgive me..?” “Isabel Varga” with the glove-encased hand out to Kiss. “I am delighted to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, Madam, mine to monopolize.”
She had no escort for the seasonal ordeal.
“…I married young, to a Major in the Imperial Army. He was accidentally killed during an exercise some years ago.”
“I am sorry, for him.”
“We had, frankly, exhausted…”
“Since then, I have lived alone in Budapest…”
“…Near Viden, the English Park”
With a parting look fit to stir the admiration of Tantalus, she withdrew. I immediately sought the tedious company of Berszenyi, put myself through the humiliation of begging a letter of introduction. She had married a Major; never mind! What she lacked in riches she made up for in genuine charm, a much rarer commodity. I felt once again the thrill of the chase, but an added frisson obtained. Would she be spared?
Why not? I had accumulated a reasonable fortune. I could marry this creature, so much better suited to me than poor Maria! We could settle in Budapest and enjoy a life of leisure and treasure. She was experienced enough to forbear to scold any indulgence in sexual peccadilloes on my part – she might even welcome them! As she seemed jaded and jaundiced in the face of the conventional.
I summoned forth, in the night glass full of phantom revelers, an agreeable vista of fixture images – Oh, unhappy dreamer!
We made an arrangement to meet and several days later, powdered and primed in a new dinner suit, I sallied forth from Hofmann’s lodgings and flagged a carriage to the English Park to collect Madam, my belle amie and I dined well that evening but Tantalus appeared again. He was up to a new trick; Isabel Varga was rich. What a bonanza! Good looks, smarts, loads of class, pots of money. Some kind of “broad” as they would exclaim so earthily in these plain-spoken parts. I felt giddy with champagne and possibilities; told myself to exercise caution. A dangerous temptation loomed. She was less trusting than the others, due to her own meretricious dishonesty, a definite reserve I attributed to lack of practice. In fact, she was as cold and callous as I could be. In times of trust and harmony, I loved this. In the winter’s dark, she shone upon the streets as we tripped like spoiled children, sybarites-in-arms. We always met and parted on neutral ground. She paid; I paid – that got a little hard to take. I made polite objections from time to time. “You want to play the host with my money, is it not so?” I would smile a negative at this unfair but beautifully true hazard.
Towards the end of a frosty January in that milestone year of 1914, I returned to Czinkota, ardor dimmed, rather flummoxed. The widow, Varga, had been tiresomely coy; her reticence and reaction to the frustration obviously evoked in me by this, more redolent of schadenfreude, than chastity. Resolving to conquer my vexation by treating Isabel as a long-term project, I returned to less complicated exertions, entertaining a number of local ladies with a gusto and frequency which startled my tongue-clicking housekeeper. I conducted these affairs within the laws of the land. The beat of drums remained muted; One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. I whiled away the time in the glare of Kalman’s disapproval and Constable Trauber’s envy. I had also re-activated my newspaper advertisement, signifying myself simply “Hofmann”. Once installed again at the house, I sifted through letters collected from the poste restante; there were several possibilities. I would have shelved these, doubtless (this is a poignant and regretful memoir!) had developments with the Varga turned out favorably.
I remember; it was early February and I had gone to the city on various errands and pleasurable pursuits. In my collection of Hofmann mail there was an envelope which caught my eye – it was pink with a light blue border, scented, a large monogram in the corner- no low class billet d’amour, this; the script appeared exceptionally accomplished. Unwrapping it eagerly, I felt much like the child on Christmas morning, expecting a new toy after eternal good behavior, instead uncovering socks and underclothes in the false dawn.
My rude shock, in my quavering, betrayed hands, read thus;
I was moved to reply to your letter, having also known the melancholy of loss. I am a widow, still in my thirties; anxious to find a friend with whom I can share the joys of life and overcome past sorrows. If you are of a similar age, Mr. Hofmann, perhaps we could meet – the loss of a loved one is always best shared with a friend. I look forward to your reply and meantime, remain,
Isabel Varga (Mrs.)
P.S. Perhaps you would be good enough to enclose a photograph with your reply?
I had to laugh, in spite of the monumental treachery, at the gall; the bitch had asked for a photograph!
The way ahead was clear to me now. So I prepared a reply on good, anonymous, cream note-paper and dispatched it to the good woman’s address;
Thank you for your letter and the kind thoughts therein. I would very much like to meet you. I note with interest your place of residence and an idea occurs to me which I will boldly place before you in the hope it does not cause offense. On the evening of the following Saturday, I am attending a Venetian Masked Ball in honor of the 65th anniversary of the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. The ball is to be held at Castle Durniok at 9 o’clock and before then, I am hosting a small soiree for several society friends at my apartment nearby. It would enchant me if you saw fit to enhance our little delegation with your gracious presence. In case of your acceptance, I will dispatch a carriage to await you at 8 o’clock, which will bring you to me.
Please be assured of my discretion. I anxiously await your reply and remain your humble and sincere servant,
Eduard de Saint Germaine von Hofman.
I reasoned that the bombastic names, suggestive of a title, would prove irresistible to the woman. As an additional fillip, I enclosed a photograph of my old friend, Bihari, in a respectable suit, looking very handsome and distinguished. Whether Maria had arranged this keepsake or not, I had hoarded the image since coming across it among her dispensable effects; it was timely to now play this card and set a knave to catch a cheat.
My courier came back within the hour, bearing a note of delighted acceptance, and so I gravely dictated to him a formal receipt to deliver at his leisure. So now to settle back and plan the evening’s entertainment — it must be an intimate affair, celebrated with style and mischievous élan.
First, a carriage was arranged. The question of a driver was trickier. The coach company offered one, of course, but I begged off, I needed someone reliable, since I could not very well do it myself and risk spoiling the delicious surprise on the face of the dear lady; oh the ecstasy and stupefaction upon her beholding the true identity of her host! Furthermore, one lacked the preternatural powers of the mythical rogue from Roumania – I wanted seamless delivery of my desire to the door. Of course, that was quite inconsistent with the fancy of me hopping on and off the trap, changing in and out of beards, hats and smoked-glass spectacles, opening doors and banging them shut like a farceur at the opera. No, the job needed someone else. I found just the man in the ponce brother of a town girl. He was refreshingly immune to curiosity. On the day of the big night, I would bring my estate automobile to town. All I needed now, as a last flourish, was a costume. I selected from a dramatic haberdasher’s a vivid red, blue and yellow harlequin with matching half head mask.
I look at the comforting heaviness of my apartment door, it is thick enough to muffle anyone foolish enough to rain blows upon it. Anyway, there is an electric doorbell, an ingenious thing, just another of the marvelous devices one has in the New World.
My Budapest door – I am trying to picture it at this moment, although my stomach is yowling for its lunch – had a knocker; Tibor Kuprin, who called out “Mrs. Isabel Varga” and then scarpered, by arrangement.
“Dear lady! Be at liberty to enter freely, if you please.” I intoned, with a low sweeping irony.
Varga wandered in a little way, dressed in crinoline and holding a small mask to her face. She looked about the room vaguely as I shut the door and exclaimed “Oh! I am early!”
“No madam” I corrected, whipping off my mask and producing my poor substitute for a harlequin’s lath, a Spanish garrote, “You are late.”
From there, things were simplicity itself. Instead of irksome detail, suffice it to say that a short trip in my motor car to the Varga home was made, while she rested, and I tidied up for her. The proper task of any executor. She had pengos hidden everywhere!
With that (and her books of banking) I, in conventional attire, took my leave of her charming lodgings and returned to salvage my reputation as dutiful host. It was a slow evening, I am afraid – the two of us, quite flat – no dancing, champagne or small talk. I slipped out in a lull to pack the automobile with various travel requirements and, at about four o’clock in the morning, quietly eased the spent reveler into the trunk. The trip to Czinkota was a little dull, but I retired with the sun bright and a gladdened heart, blocking out twinges of remembered pain. Later I withdrew the tramp’s substantial savings, a neat but relatively safe piece of hocus-pocus; looked in the mirror and made a compact with my reverse-image never to get tangled in emotional nonsense again. I would be positively logical henceforth. Isabel Varga taught me a valuable lesson, I concluded, as I rolled a fourth full drum into the locked cellar.
I maintained links with my Budapest trollops; kept up with the Czinkota tarts; continued to sift through a myriad letters, from lonely women pining to Hofmann with fervent hearts.
And collected drums – I continued to amass the things, each containing a pickled carcass, anatomically pristine apart from throttle damage and my bank coffers swelled from the informal inheritances of the dear, generous, departed hordes. I must say that, in retrospect, it surprises that someone in authority did not twig sooner to the rate of disappearance amongst these people. Then again, there were always other things to worry about. I always took care to ensure the ladies had not been overly indiscreet. Of course they might, while chattering away, have dropped heavy hints about a new suitor, Herr Hofmann, but one could easily ensure, whilst administering their estates, that diaries, notes, any reference to the elusive lover were protected from prying, prurient eyes.
My amiable doorman, Lars, who never reacts to newspapers, would require some elementary instruction here; for the benefit of him and his ilk, I will elaborate upon late worries.
On the 28th June, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew to the Emperor and heir to his dual throne, was shot dead by a mad Bosnian (a tautology), the lunatic Princip. The old Austrian King, his great machine of an empire choking, shredding and crumbling away from endless Balkan squabbles; his wife, son and plump successor taken from him, decided to teach the Slavic rabble some manners. He would wreak order upon the cloak of chaos. He gave the Serbs an ultimatum, an offer they could not accept. Since the Serbian Government and character would never allow their so-called sovereignty to be breached, they refused. Actually, they probably didn’t, but no matter: by then everyone was Lucheni, spoiling for a fight.
So, a month later, my country was at war with the little band of barbarians; in short order thereafter, every other European power made like flies on dung.
The only sure thing one can say in retrospect is that the expectation of a short war was widely held. The men would be back within a few weeks, having crushed the despised puppets and duffed-up Russia, with the Kaiser’s eager assistance. I had no special astrological insight into the matter, but of course the conflict posed dangers and possibilities. So I took some basic precautionary steps against the exigencies of life;
• I bade Hofmann sell my apartment in Budapest;
• I deposited cash reserves into my numbered Swiss account;
• I applied for passports under a variety of names;
• I quietly sold my Czinkota house to a business associate from Budapest who wanted a country place to which to retire, and leased it back from him; and
• I destroyed all the photographs of myself that I could find.
However, I could not bring myself to burn the plaintive letters from my harem of admirers; nor obliterate the evidence of the drums. Human waste disposal is actually easier said than done, by the way – the modern mortuary attendant has a host of tools at his disposal to aid the reconstruction and even identification of the most degenerated mortal remains. Still, one could have tossed the casual match into drums filled with alcohol – enabling each of them to assume the form of neat little crematoriums – pounding the residual bone to dust. Straightforward work, a tad unpleasant, perhaps – but I did not cavil at that.
No, I must admit, freely and of my own will, that I was rather proud of this achievement of mine; it was more attractive to control its discovery than expunge it. So I left the drums to lie in my cellar and the surrounding countryside for posterity, confident that could plot one or two moves ahead.
The letters, too; I kept them locked away in the study, far from the negligent purview of Mrs. Kalman, who possibly could not read them, chanced upon – her eyesight, and faculties generally in sad decline. She was as near the end of the road as the Emperor. I used to sift the correspondence in private moments, for amusement. Thus did the past speak to me- ardent hopes and dreams, polite entendres – it was too much to callously destroy these poignant effusions. I no longer have them; they molder in a police file in Hungary, ready for exhibit in the unlikely event of a trial, but I can remember the roll call of the authors.
I have touched upon several of the ladies in my past. It is enough to record in summary fashion the other fifteen occupants of Drumsville, as they would doubtless name it in this neck of the woods.
There were Judit Nagy and Theresa Rakosy, from Budakeszi, on the outskirts of the city; and Klara Szabo, who hoped to make her way to Court at Vienna (I spared and dashed her hopes); these three completed the crowded cellar. I take it they were the first to be liberated after my new incarnation.
Local girls included Magda Tolnay, Marta Tamassy, old Maria Somogyi and the troubled and wayward daughter of a Magyar Count, Kristina Balint, who had run away from home – an abject lesson to young rebels.
Richer fare from the capital comprised Thea Koltai, who had an eye-patch and a cigarette holder, Zara Andrassy, who insisted on copulating in the traditional configuration of the beasts, thus depriving me of the pleasure of seeing her face at the critical moment; Anna Deak, upon whom her father lavished gifts and money but refused permission to study ballet in Vienna, and Marguerita Nemeth. From quasi prosperous regions near Czinkota came Katerina Luttwak, Luise Hegadus from Tatabanya and Jana Kadar, whose husband was serving in the Imperial Force, leaving her nothing to do. Last, but certainly not least, the enormous Rita Juhasz, from near the Mecsek Mountains – I could maintain no pretense of amorous notions, since anxiety that she may not fit into a drum dominated my ideation.
This selection lolled in the shade of the glade on my country property. Altogether, I had accumulated twenty-four full drums by the latter stages of the year. In November, when it became apparent that a new broom of some kind would sweep through our pleasant, carefree land, my hastily tendered offer of service was gratefully accepted. I was off within hours to the Serbian Front, to battle the forces of darkness.[EDITORIAL NOTE
We probably know all we can about Bela Kiss. From the testimony of witnesses painstakingly assembled by the Hungarian police, the French Sûreté and New York Homicide Squad, this much is clear — He was born about 1872 and became a tinsmith and amateur astrologer. Compared to most of his countrymen, he married late, and settled with his young wife in Czinkota, circa 1912. Town cronies and former legionnaires recall his habit of picking imaginary particles of detritus from his clothing: they also suggest that he needed a woman once every few days, at least.
He must have felt safe enough, far from the grisly discoveries made at his old house, to produce this horror of a panegyric, with its light and airy tone, overweening arrogance and self-pity (beware!) seductive bigotry and rampant egotism.
The Kiss litany of death is as follows;
Zara Andrassy, Kristina Balint, Paul Bihari, Sofia Biro, Anna Deak, Alida Haas, Luise Hegadus, Rita Juhasz, Jana Kadar, Naomi Kalman (?), Maria Kiss, Thea Koltai, Eva Lajos, Katerina Luttwak, Judit Nagy, Anna Nemassy, Marguerita Nemeth, Officer Pilowski, Theresa Rakosy, Christina Schmeidak, Maria Somogyi, Klara Szabo, Marko Szamuely, Marta Tamassy, Magda Tolnay, Isabel Varga, Zita von Hayek.
Twenty-six people at least, most strangled, one shot, one stabbed, two smitten with an axe. Seven stored in a cellar, seventeen buried in drums, two men left to rot. Clearly, Kiss is worthy of major study. In addition to the impressive swag of victims, this killer’s attitudes fascinate — upon matters as diverse as war, education, miscegenation, philosophy, fraud. Herr Hitler lost a henchman par excellence in Kiss, a rogue who combined a rare intelligence with complete cynicism vis-à-vis humankind.]
In chaos there is freedom. I never felt freer than during my distinguished service in the Imperial army, a force of men forming the military arc of the greatest shambles in our time. The dual monarch of Austria-Hungary, a bespectacled old goat with white whiskers, sat with gleaming pate and walrus moustaches hiding his hare lip which twitched, at his little rug-draped desk. Once, he posed in his riding boots and hunting hat, weapons at the ready. He had mellowed into the Great Clerk of the Kingdom. The ink had run dry. Meanwhile, underlings in the two countries, chalk and cheese, squabbled over who (snooty Teuton or morose Magyar) would oppress the various Slavs, Poles, Czechs, Roumanians, Slovenes and Ruthenes unlucky enough to comprise an integral part of the teeming morass.
An empire is a curious animal. Its unhappy subjects suffer no more or less than other entities politic. But the same great wrinkles show in the forehead of all collapsing empires; the erasure of cultural purity and the loss of confidence, or the capacity for trust. Those lines will out, despite powdery pounds of pomp and circumstance. We had, by the way, the finest uniforms on parade in Europe. And when ageing ends in the death throes, the throng can be seen wallowing amid the abundance which signifies the end of all national enterprise. No society, certainly not my own dear one, has yet overcome the curse of abundance. The lice grow and multiply upon any new hair and skin. This is why periodic conflict is valuable; to bleed, to de-bride, to trim, and to prune – so long as the implements are not overworked!
I found myself, on enlistment, in a division pushing at the Serbian front, through the winter slush, my training provided on the job. These Nazis have the right idea – racial mixtures are invariably disastrous. This was never more evident than in the Balkans, where I fought people who were supposed to be on my side, where former allies sold themselves to the Entente for the promise of treasure and territory, and where the wrong word, inflection or order of crossing oneself was the difference between safe passage and a slit throat.
I was in one of the many offensives against Belgrade. Our planners had evidently not foreseen the repercussions of an attack on this capital. Strange, for almost any place is easier to take than hold. By December, having plucked the ripe fruit from the tree with the loss of 100,000 men – a mere bagatelle – we found ourselves in untidy retreat, scooting back along the banks of the Danube and the Tisza, and occasionally drenching our suspect boots in those mighty waterways. The military genius behind this effort, General Oskar Potiorek- whom I was once privileged to see – apparently felt that his army could justifiably shuttle back and forth between Belgrade and the border, between charge and retreat, for the duration of the conflict, thereby relieving our German allies of the threat of the Serbs, surely their least feared opponent. To call him an idiot of immense proportions was to understate the obvious drastically. Not that I very much cared about the wider political questions of who won what and how they held their gains. My plan was to ensure that I was well placed to side with the angels.
The Captain in charge of our battalion, Nadasdy, was not much better than the overlord. In the interminable journeys back and forth, this disappointing progeny of a Hussar would cast eyes longingly eastward and calculate his imminent success in the campaign. This assured as soon as our forces were augmented by the ever-reliable old ally, the Roumanians. Only someone with his considerable sense and sensibility could perceive the love and affection with which we were regarded by the Rom, as we sallied forth through the Iron Gate on the way to or from our camp in the Transylvanian Alps. The direst premonitions of hags could not have worried sense into his world-view. A pity that the vicissitudes of war stopped me from being present to witness his imbecile expression, upon the entry into the fray by our old churns, on the wrong side, but I have spent several harmless hours of entertainment picturing it since then, always, of course, on the assumption that as at the autumn of 1916, he still had a living jaw to drop.
Our numbers dwindled rapidly throughout the eighteen months of Gunner Kiss’s war. Attrition by casualty, desertion, capture, plague, sheer criminal negligence – all the various bad jokes of battle by which countries winnow their superabundant throngs – played their part. By the time of my vainglorious death during the spring offensive against the Italians, the blood of our apology-of-an-empire was decanted, lees wetly lumped into a festering pile.
During the dull days, between tinkering with our feckless equipment and trading, la nevo, amongst my comrades-in-arms, there was plenty of time to appreciate my own position. Situation hopeless but not serious, as they say in books. Carlyle noted that it is singular how long the rotten will hold together, provided you do not handle it roughly and whilst that is beyond debate, it became clear to me that the Hapsburgs were finished, irrespective of whoever ultimately triumphed. This meant a Hungary ruled by some foreign coalition, or worse. Any of them might provide more efficient government.
I had to allow for the possibility that my little collection was, at that very moment, being appreciated by others. A simple plan — gravitate to he who wins — may be difficult to execute. War can promote yet impede movement. Border guards personate vigilance. Passport offices become more officious. It is not easy to stroll around, unremarked and. unmolested. Chutzpah is required to parley with enemies and hostile friends. This is where the letter of introduction and universal system of credit (baksheesh) play their indispensable roles. Even if the whole world came to be ruled by one omnipotent iron-clad fist, this currency would pass muster. It would flourish, as does the adventurer in times of conflict, which is why a certain type of fellow is seduced by war. There is violence to high purpose, lying as a. necessity, travel as a cheap thrill, untrammeled leisure. Deep thinkers are in short demand.
I became good friends with an engineer, Andras Bathory, a Trauber-figure. He had swallowed the propaganda like a newly born bird receives its mother’s vomit and it pleasured me to tear down his papier mache edifice of army lies and newspaper puffery. He liked to dwell on the splendor of the image, evoked in the conceit of men from different races, classes, religions even, fighting together to further the ideal of a united empire, in which civilization was irresistibly advanced. I would then brutally de-construct this foolishness by pointing out a little history and the contemporary objective facts. Needless to say, he was never convinced; no one ever is.
Dear Andras’ spirits always rose when we were pounding the opposition with a fusillade or marching back in the direction of Belgrade. I concurred in this, since an advance generally meant more freedom of movement and the chance at liaisons with the locals. Trade was a welcome diversion from the terror and the tedium – I could buy a goose and a girl without tender; the holstering of pistol, the sheathing of sword sufficient consideration. Andras looked upon my activities with disdain but nevertheless acted as lookout; even he could have no moral squeamishness over roast goose. “You can’t make communion without breaking a few Jews”, I’d say, and the staunch Catholic in him had to agree.
The killing was too remote on the whole. There was no fixed front; rather a continuous flow, tidal skirmishes. Apart from discharging a limited number of long range artillery guns, there was little for an old warrior to do but pack and unpack, a prelude to moving on or back. This was reassuring, for though close-in killing was known to me, I was not so vain as to regard myself as experienced in close combat. It was prudent to make oneself appreciated as reliable but not noted as heroic. Heroes get noticed; they also get obliterated. Contempt is the healthy antithesis of heroism. Here, too, was proof of my normality. Unlike the disconcerting Bathory, dreaming stickily of death in battle safely behind the lines, I saw only prone infantrymen with heads or limbs removed, and found them dull and uninspiring. They looked ridiculous and smelled horrible, their purulent torsos arrayed like discarded vegetables, a sad indictment on our lack of organization and attention to detail. The badly wounded should have joined them, in my view. One couldn’t expect storage or disposal of the dead to attain the standards of my prototype, given the numbers, but the haphazard efforts to cover or occasionally incinerate the piles of rotting dead fell far short of a reasonable fighting division.
Be all that as it may, for two years our lot had the best of the scuffles. By the autumn of 1915 we had a competent general – Mackensen – overseeing things and for the first time marched out from Temesvar with an actual idea of how to hold our gains. As usual, we took Belgrade in a week, but this time our forces were sensibly led and sufficiently stocked to keep going. We drove the bedraggled Serbs into Montenegro, collecting along the way tens of thousands of them, who saw surrender as the price of a square meal. Still we swept on, into Montenegro, over it and, to celebrate the New Year properly, into Albania. A trickle were saved from annihilation in reaching Avlona, where they hooked-up with the Italians, who’d come into the war in May of the previous year after dithering over who was likely to win.
I came to agree with their forecast, even when the Bulgars sided with us, so they could have a swipe at the fleeing Slavs – the Central Powers had thrown everything at the enemy and no breakthrough had come. Our empire was bogged down in the Balkans and Germany was fighting everyone else. Divisions were being transplanted from front to front. The Germans needed support in Galicia, so off went a number of our forces in an easterly direction. By spring we had been diverted to the campaign against Italy and in the aftermath of a stalled offensive near Graz, I seized my opportunity.
The rash Nadasdy had ordered our unit to engage the enemy in a little valley and smugly introduced his tactical refinement of the day, a gun mounted on the back of a horse-drawn wagon, “for increased maneuverability”, as he put it. The dawn was greeted with a continual volley from our guns. Then, sensing advantage, we moved forward with our revolutionary “fixed-yet-portable” weapon. I consider that our Captain was probably on to something with this idea but it was certainly disastrous to attempt an experiment with it in the field. As we trundled down the rutted, undulating track towards the enemy the gun proved impossible to aim; instead, its reverberations panicked the draught horse, which reared and then stumbled into a verdurous ditch, taking the wagon and gun with it. Unfortunately, as the gun overturned, it came down upon Bathory like an eagle on a hare, pining half of him to the ground – his upper half rolling messily free. The crew ran for cover as the Italians, sensing some disarray in our ranks, cautiously started to advance under the cover of the tree line.
There was not much time to waste. Momentarily alone, the troop rushing for its fortification behind the hill, I went to my friend’s form lying in the undergrowth, removed his badge and identification number (replacing them with mine) and set a live grenade under his helmet. Then I turned and ran directly at a barranca carved out of the slope by some tributary of the Mur – a web of watery rills span out of it in all directions, some into woodland. Into one of these I disappeared, so quickly that it is not possible to recall whether I heard – or noticed – the report of detonation, as any features identifying my comrade Andras were removed.
By nightfall it was clear no one was in pursuit; I would be marked down as missing in action. In due course, our base hospital, located, inexplicably, in Belgrade, would receive notice of the death, in battle, of Gunner Kiss. I correctly surmised that Trauber might learn of this tragedy through official channels — and process the data as part of his first solemn duty, to stay and protect order in Czinkota, where he would be resisting, most properly, the siren lure of bloodshed. There will come a day when one can’t run away from that, but not yet.
I went north. Vienna was the obvious place to sit out the insanity, a place of genteel amusements, far from any front. I could make my way through the countryside as a patriotic messenger who needed to report to Imperial Headquarters as a matter of critical urgency. Once there, wounded hero or respectable citizen – one or the other – could plan at leisure a trip westward, to Switzerland, perhaps.
It is late and I tire from the effort of recollection. One must strain to grasp the details of the distant past. Worse still, it is difficult to tell a linear tale, especially where momentous events are racing along serpentine trails. My untrained voice itches to tell of travels in the land of the double-headed eagle, but I sense that something of value will be lost if it stays awake a minute longer.
I know of certain events in Czinkota, following my gallant demise, from information gained through contacts in Budapest, as well as press reports. A degree of reconstruction is unavoidable. So my tale will have to be laid upon its slab, salted by the fecundity of my recall.
Around August 1916, a unit from a regiment of Austrian cavalry enters Czinkota as part of a commission to scour the countryside for materiel to aid the war effort. (Our Romany-speaking chums have yet to blunder into hostilities against us, hence food, ammunition and petrol cannot be plundered from them). Petrol is one of the desirable commodities, the Captain explains to village constable Trauber; he responds by helpfully recalling how one of their own lamented fallen presciently stored drums of fuel before departing for the front.
Leading the men to the now abandoned Kiss factory, Trauber finds no drums and speculates that they have been either used or moved to the Kiss residence for safekeeping. The contingent makes its way there; finds the place abandoned (Mrs. Kalman having passed away some time ago). I can see the sheds being searched and Trauber rubbing his chin in a dissatisfied way, upset and embarrassed by the sidelong (and in some cases, direct) glances of inquiry he feels burning into the back of his skull. “War is no joke, you know old man. We’re not here for a jaunt in the country after all!”
Entry to the house is forced in the name of the war. At least there may be some kind of provisions or equipment that can be regarded as ceded to the State from the deceased warrior. I can see Trauber, standing on the rug in the main parlor, looking about in a wistful and respectful manner, slightly guilty at this transgression of a dead man’s chest, feeling every inch a grave robber, citing necessity as a balm to soothe himself, soldiers running around the house, laying hands on what may be looted.
My radio set is playing in the background – a beautiful selection of classics, palliative when summoning painful memories. The mnemonic music is an overture; an obbligato to the search. Yes! Rachmaninoff – the Prelude in C minor; a perfect accompaniment! Finally, they descend to the cellar – neat, clean, not much here – “what about that door?” Entry forced in the name of the war; Ah! Here we have some drums! Those hoarded by the canny tinsmith. “Load them up!” is the order but our fine imperial myrmidons put their suspect spines out of place attempting to lift the drums, two on each. Down comes one with a crash on to the stone floor (as the music swells), and producing a crowbar, the commander jemmies open its lid. I see the men standing like dummies, crowded around seven drums with their seals breached, staring at the contents – seven naked lovelies, all garroted and neatly pickled. I see Trauber agape, his attention particularly taken with the barrel containing Miss Lajos, his late amie de cour. Trauber implores the soldiers, who show signs of wishing for pastures anew – perhaps the front might be a safer place – to hasten back to the village and summon the doctor and the Police Sergeant. This the band of militia agree to do with alacrity as they depart in a hurry, not even bothering to drain off the alcohol as fuel for the coming conflicts. (‘Such a mean old man, not to share!’) Meanwhile, Trauber tears the house apart, anxious for revenge (I should have left him a note that the girl was no loss), and finally comes upon the bureau in my bedroom, containing letters from a multitude, replying to my newspaper entreaty. I suppose there may be some psychological and prurient interest in these letters; I cannot of course reproduce them – one would require a subpoena to do that – but I believe I can convey their gist, the monotony of tone;
I would fain meet you but it is difficult to get away. My parents confuse love and devotion with keeping me under guard and they scrutinize suitors with the keenness of birds of prey. I wish so much to meet a man of the world, who has seen the world! I cannot even get to Vienna, where I hope to study dance – my father lavishes trinkets upon me but starves me of oxygen and hope. Please send me a private note by having a package delivered to my maid, Lotte; she will pass it on to me and ensure it is not tampered with.
Yours in anticipation,
Consider this amusing, semi-literate note:
Liebe Herr Hofmann, allow me to introduce myself. I am – with many experiences and journeys- a mature lady of fifty-eight years. My dear late husband Albinus +God rest his soul! + passed over last June 15th and I must now move on through earthly shades until I can join dear late Albinus in the light whither we are all going, those of us whose souls and deeds of doing are praiseworthy, is it not so? It is with companionship in view and thoughts of soul – understanding that I write to you in answer of your advertisement. You see my photograph – effectuated in Vienna.
Liebe Herr Hofmann you are I know a most discreet and fine gentleman and will honour a lady as she should.
Theresa Rakosy (Mrs.)
Or the haughty apprehensiveness of the virago, Thea Koltai, revealed in her note;
We shall meet and appraise each other; I shall not enquire as to your history but will be pleased nevertheless to hear of it. As to myself, I despair at outliving three husbands and need someone stronger, with whom to face the future….
At the moment, I am courting a femme formidable, a Jewish princess from “Lon Gisland”. Shapely, small and with a face full of eyes, she cheerily dismisses the so-called important and has a healthy disregard for Yankee boilerplate. I enjoy bantering with her about European politics (she is, of course, constitutionally allergic to the National Socialists.) I cannot convince her that the Weltanschauung of the Nazis is so necessary, so desirable. The most stylish of survivalists, they do not submit, but dominate! She is cynical about their motives without genuinely disliking them on that ground. The idiocy of communism she finds more idealistic; not in a practical, Coolidge-sense, but within its arrogant, spendthrift, bankrupt notion of forcing the universe to share. But she is one of those slightly scary, urbane, non-hysterical Americans, who understand the difference between Verona and Vienna, between jam and jelly, between friends and neighbors, between guilt and innocence. She is my current work in progress. Drawing the mountains behind the Madonna, an idealistic acolyte, making the business of influence, mentorial shaping, she is a rare pleasure come to me late, but in time and unexpectedly. An exquisite mode of satisfying both sides of the personality, in the same journey, a miracle. See thou tell no man; but go thy way.
There are times when the woman looks at me coolly, a gentle challenge, and I know that she knows in these moments, everything. We hold each other in our gaze, glances assuming the central aspect of the sport; then one of us breaks free and the epiphany is over. I find such moments thrilling. Immediately afterwards, I feel resentment and violation — entertain the notion that we have tired of one another. And yet I have no great impulse to act on this impulse. I find myself strangely tolerant of this tender monster, needing correction. I also have this feeling, an instinct if you will, in the ether, that everyone knows; that I am being watched by everyone and all of those faces expect me to ask some obvious question and reveal my ignorance. Sometimes, a panic comes upon me, in the apartment, at a show or in a restaurant, in the lecture theatre. I am then all of the sudden reduced to animal status, under threat, a common or garden pet sitting on a high window ledge, uncertain where to jump.
I wonder how long it took my friend Trauber to work out that there were more letters collected in the bureau drawer than bodies in the cellars; unless he plundered my wines and consumed them while reading my mail that point would surely have leapt to even his mind. He had some idea that more than seven drums had been delivered. I like to think that he jumps to his feet and at least starts a search around the property before his superior arrives.
This might be late in the day – Trauber has poked around the house and surrounding buildings again, before someone a tad more perspicacious comes upon my little map tucked in the drawer with the letters. Who amongst us does not love maps, those little sketches encapsulating whole worlds? This identifies a glade; not its precise location, but surely it is only a matter of hours – perhaps the better part of a day at most – before the type of enclosure represented by me is matched by the small and scenic slope, up which clamber the policemen and their retinue of volunteers and snoops. I can hear the music swell again, as men trudge into the gloomy patch of tree-bordered ground with picks and shovels. They hang their jackets from branches and roll up their sleeves to just above the elbow. Lanterns are lit in the gathering darkness and hoist by the lazier and greater in rank. A period of concerted digging ensues, in total and respectful foreground silence. And then, to the corresponding clash (!) of cymbals, the edge of a shovel strikes something metallic and unyielding. Then another shovel sings and another – men redouble their efforts in the golden lamplight, digging and shouting; superior-ranked officers come as close as they dare amidst the swinging utensils, glancing at each other, as if in search of verification that this is not a dream; at length the workers lean on their shovels, panting, as moon and lamp create a glowing field of drum tops, some leaning crazily like old tombstones; eighteen in all.
I see poor Trauber – perhaps he has dug madly – collapse into a sitting position, head on knees, exhausted, weeping for Miss Lajos; for the general departed; for the opprobrium likely to attach to the man on whose watch the slaughter happened – his sleeves rolled up and sweat and dirt soiling them in the balmy summer evening; the split tree grinning and whispering, mocking him in the breeze. My poor, dear, departed friend.
I do not have an intimate knowledge of police procedures. I imagine that, robbed of the thrill of pursuit and avengement, the police concentrated upon identification of the little drum girls, classifying the various pieces of evidence, notifying Budapest authorities, next of kin and so on. I hope my poor friend was spared, or at least survived, any investigation into his own role. He could hardly be blamed, I think, for having introduced one of the victims to the prime (only) suspect. As to any suggested want of vigilance on Trauber’s part, Mrs. Kalman could have corroborated the extent to which the cunning Hofmann concealed his affairs – a pity for him that she is in no condition to do so.
Only later was I able to appreciate the sensation these grisly discoveries caused. I remember my disinterested feeling of surprise when scanning the newspaper accounts of the matter. The populace, the press reasoned, having known nothing of the character of the unfortunate victims, would lap up the opportunity to indulge in a little gratuitous hand wringing – nothing was made of their profound venality, nor their almost direct complicity in their own destruction. No! All blame was attributed to me. There were absurd editorials, warmly calling for the stripping of my meager military decorations, and for my body to be exhumed and reburied, in the standard manner of treatment for the heretic, in unconsecrated ground on a Friday night. Luckily, this small piece of impotent fanaticism passed over without galvanizing the authorities to act; had they done so, I might not now be preparing this memoir in such extreme comfort.
I was able to gather some of the press bumph of the affair for posterity. Le Grande Blague, an international paper of record, published a piece that can be regarded as fairly typical;
“Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when the bodies of forty people were brought to Budapest Central Mortuary for post mortem examination. Traffic was held up for almost three hours as the grim cortege made its way through the inner city.
One observer was heard to enquire as to whether the dead had been transported from the military hospital in Belgrade, such was the extent of the carnage represented by the corpses in what is stated to be the sum total of the victims of the mass murderer, Kiss.
Dr. Istvan Ecsedi, chief forensic pathologist, has today released preliminary findings; nearly all of the deceased were garrotted – the violence of the method typical of the work of a low class criminal, the strength employed that of a well-fed lunatic, the execution that of a professional. On some occasions, the doctor stated, the women were put to death by the killer’s bare hands, on others, an instrument of some kind, reminiscent of a Spanish garrotte, had been employed.
The contents of an excessive sleeping draught had been found in the stomach of one elderly woman but apart from that, no poisons or medications appear to have been brought to bear by the desperado Kiss in order to subdue his innocent victims before concluding his evil work.
The most sensational information to be gleaned from pathological findings relate to the young man and woman killed by a vicious blow from a sharp object of some kind. They are thought to be Maria Kiss, wife of the homicidal maniac and her companion, Mr. Paul Bihari. The illicit pair are (sic) likely to be the victims of a “fit of jealous fury” which, it is speculated by informed sources, may have triggered a rampage by the betrayed and deceived rogue. When asked why the naked bodies had been preserved in alcohol, Dr.Ecsedi replied that such questions were a matter for an alienist. This correspondent, however, ventures the opinion that…..”
The newspapers in America are unbelievable. The gall of them. At present, they are hysterical about some Boston hack, a foreign correspondent in Potsdam. He turned up in his incinerated car, handcuffed, gagged, with a bullet hole in the back of his fat head. I’ve read his work. He is an avowed opponent of the regime there, a smug and complacent hand-wringer, and friend of the Hebrews. If news of his cherubic, aerated face, poking from the tent of his shirt, doesn’t send a message to the fourth estate to exercise restraint, nothing will. Anyhow, the general tenor of that report is, I think, sufficiently clear. A file would be created, filled with technical and empirical information, graced with the usual inductive rubric emblematic of the police mentality; and closed. Nowhere to go with it, after all – the only suspect blown into next week, to smithereens, leaving the investigators to conclude that he got what he deserved or redeemed himself, one or the other; perhaps finding the time to offer repentance skywards before the cart toppled or the shell hit.
Which leaves us where precisely? Near Graz, heading for the capital of the Empire, some eighty miles north east. Follow the Mur River, as muddy as its name suggests, and sneak into the ancient fortification of the Styrians, upon Schlossberg. Plenty of block-headed Austrians around there to befuddle!
I came upon a charming hostelry with a view of the Uhrturm. It was early evening; still light. Drinkers and flies were making the most of the warm weather outside in the garden. I strode past them into the dark interior, as if on important official business, and demanded supper from the innkeeper. He was a kindly dolt with a wooden leg, who betrayed some surprise at a man wanting to consume beer, cheese and sausage indoors, (a lethal mix) but all quibbles dissolved in the face of my imperious manner. I had “maps to study in connection with a mission entrusted to me by General Mackensen,” after all. These I did actually pore over whilst gobbling the dark morsels, having torn them from an atlas in the Graz lending library not an hour before. I faced a fairly stiff march of it – eighty miles, as the crow flew, but over some steep terrain, a test of my military fitness. Then the Murz, river of romantic Austrian nomenclature; through the Alps via the Semmering Pass, a strategic bivouac at Wiener-Neustadt, before a train trip in style to Style-Central. calculated, looking at the cleanest of my maps, that I could make the journey in about seven to eight days. Then again, the Kaiser thought he would have the world in a few weeks.
The Mur is not navigable north of Graz, unfortunately. Hence, the next day, I set off on foot along its banks. The day was pleasant and there was a fairly good road heading in my direction, interspersed with picturesque villages, which dispensed rustic sustenance and hospitality. There was a pleasant distance from fronts and few signs of war’s ravages. I began to enjoy the jaunt, spending time mulling over various plans and ruminating over the raft of contingencies which might bear me away from my ultimate objective. The road left the river but would join it again, so I followed the bank, keeping out of the warm high sun. The willows were contorted by their hugging of the river frontage but high and lush enough to throw a dappled cover over my path – until I stopped at a farmhouse set slightly back from the water’s edge. Straightening my hat and adjusting my uniform, in I boldly marched. “Good afternoon, Fraulein! I am Lieutenant-Colonel Rainier, attached to the Fifth Magyar division of the Imperial Army! I conduct an important mission for His Royal Highness, Emperor Franz Josef, and am en route to Vienna. Will you aid me, so I may carry out my orders?” This nonsense I rapped out in impeccable militareze.
As luck would have it, the fat and compliant dotard, wiping hands frantically on apron, waved me in to the house as though I bore the Holy Grail. In fact, she was smarter than she looked and had asked, perhaps innocently, several uncomfortable questions before her husband arrived (he really was stupid) and swept the good woman into the kitchen to prepare a meal. Fortunately, I could evade his lazy curiosity by tapping the side of my nose enigmatically. Whereupon he would wink and launch into a tirade. His text; How We Are Losing the War, which he was pleased to deliver throughout the following hour, during which I demolished a schweinschaxe, the meat virtually dripping from the bone. Toasting the health of my hosts with my schnapps, I offered a silent cheer to myself at the joys of becoming a military free agent. The food and hours were certainly vastly superior to those of the regular company to which I had been attached when officially alive. Herr Schnitzler even managed to produce some cigars he had been saving for “a special occasion” and, when alight, we discussed the logistical problems of my northward course.
“I assume your plan is to make for Bruck an der Mur, Herr Lieutenant” he gasped, as we lolled in chairs near the shining river. Unlike his wife, he’d neglected to ask why my uniform failed to match my rank. “That is so” I declared with simple dignity, savoring a long pull at the enormous Trabuco cheroot and sipping cold Franconian wine – the fellow had done the war effort proud. “I can ride there with you, Sir. You will make much better time that way.” “That would be splendid, my good chap!” The old yeoman stood, and then bent, in an antalgic fashion, over my map on the small table between us. “Let me see…from Bruck you can follow the Murz by land or water but the river bears north west for many miles before running to its source; the Scheealpe.”
I tried to make sense of this information. “So if I take to the river at Bruck and follow its northerly course, I would be going upstream?” “Yes.” “I see.” The man was full of information but shy on brains, as I pointed out earlier. “May I respectfully suggest that, whether you proceed by water or land from Bruck, that you leave the sight of the river at Murzzuschlag and gain access through the mountains by the Semmering Pass? Then may you head for Wiener Neustadt, from whence travel to Vienna becomes easy; at least, so I am told.” He looked somewhat bashful to reveal he had not been to the capital. “Is there easy access through the pass?” “Apart from the railway tunnel that goes right under the mountains, you can walk through the pass if the mood takes you. In any case, Herr Lieutenant, you may travel by train from Murzzuschlag.”
“That would seem to be the obvious course” I mused aloud, wondering whether it might not be more desirable to take my time. Plucking a piece of zwieback from the table as though it was a bridge card and devouring it, I asked Schnitzler if I could buy one of his horses for the journey beyond Bruck. He looked interested and promised to consider it. I told him that while he was thinking about a price, he should add fifteen percent on account of a very slight delay in payment per army reimbursement, but that I would provide him with an official promissory note on behalf of the Imperial forces. His mouth watered when I added that he would inevitably receive a special commendation after I-submitted-my-report,-touching upon his generous assistance.
A short time later, we set off on two reliable old nags, the inestimable Frau Schnitzler having furnished us with haversacks bulging with provisions. It was a sunny afternoon, quite superb for horse travel, and the old man made an amiable companion, his prattle tending to the factual, which suited my thirst for knowledge of this surrogate fatherland.
“Liesl packed some alpenstocks in case you decide to walk the Semmering. She is very foolish – I told her over and over that you would take the train but she said they may not be on schedule, due to the war. My wife can be rather foolish sometimes Herr Lieutenant.”
“I don’t think she is so foolish, Schnitzler. For various security reasons I may well take the course she suggested.” I didn’t want to share a train with a contingent of returning warriors, for instance. “Is the ass reasonably straightforward?”
He hesitated; I wondered if he had seen it. “It is not so very high – like a saddle over the mountains. You will need the stocks, however!”
We re-joined the road, which had returned to clutch at the river’s edge. Making good time, we approached the outskirts of Bruck before the darkness and made for a tavern. My companion was able to conduct some business in the town next day, and so could justify a night away from his home. “Anyway, Herr Lieutenant, it will be too dark to head back now- and I still have to fix a price for that fine animal which has borne you thus far.”
We selected the Gasthof Gemuethlichkeit and demanded food and lodging from yet another dim-witted and crudely calculating Austrian, Eberhardt. He stumbled off heavily to arrange two rooms while his fleshy daughter brought beer and rindfleisch garniert to us in an alcove. Here we settled the business with the horse; I bartered with the man at some length for amusement but he did not resent it, pointing out that I had a duty to the Empire to see that a fair price was set. Calling for paper from the corpulent Mizzi, I wrote out an official note of exchange for my companion.
Austria, May 1916
PAY to Hermann Schnitzler or bearer on demand or presentation the sum of one hundred (100) Krones value received.
Signed, Lieut.Col. Rainier, 5th Division.
To; Headquarters of the Imperial Army, Vienna.
In return, the stout fellow gave me a confirmation of ownership of the horse (I explained to him that the document should cite me rather than the government, to ease any further transaction pertaining to the creature) and we parted that evening at the doors of our respective rooms.
I next faced the question of how to best proceed before an official started asking questions or Schnitzler attempted to redeem his promissory note. Preferring the intimacy of smaller towns at that stage of my life, I set off for nearby Kapfenberg, about three miles to the north east, along the river Murz. It would put a little distance between me and the helpful rustic; I had told him to wait at least seven days before “cashing” the note, but no one ever does, is that not so? The day warm and sunny, unlike my disposition; it was a tightrope I was walking, with no platform or net in sight. I was far too old to be enjoying my freedom. The fugitive’s freedom is literal but not real. I have never reflected, and do so now only for the salve of completeness, on the choice I rejected. Maria and I would have come to an understanding; she would send Bihari packing and we’d leave each other free to pursue their hobbies with tolerance and disinterest. That ennui might have seemed a comfort to me in times of trial, but at such times, better to keep one’s head clear of useless thoughts. I never before looked back and never shall again, for apart from the waste of time, that aspect pales in comparison to the happy ending that I enjoy and expect.
Some material has been omitted here. It was thought that the possibility of any illumination shed would yield to the distortion and lack of cogency represented by what is, frankly, embarrassing and scandalous, if not obscene. For the records, and for what it is worth, we shall offer a summary.-
Mr. Kiss has chanted the lurid details of a dream; he sits atop a mountain of writhing, naked flesh, that appears to comprise the entire corpus of the remembered dead, re-imagined as children, or barely adult forms. To his left is a massive compendium of the World’s wisdom, the massive boards sandwiching such blocked in arcane gold figures and symbols. To his right is a massive collection of the personal library of Tiberius, up-dated to Victorian times and bound in bone-colored calf-skin. His love of knowledge is represented, in this dream, by his balancing a volume on a knee and supporting it with left hand, whilst he gorges on fried chicken wings, six of them, using the right.
So, this is a dream within a dream — the monologue appears separately to the recordings overall. There are some ghastly doodles that apparently incarnate some of these fantasies as well. How such ‘conjoined’ works made their way across the world is a matter of speculation. The Antarctic Hitlerites have never satisfactorily explained why their man, en route from Norway, would disembark at Antarctica rather than Mar del Plata.
By Kapfenberg I had acquired a bad limp and a touch of typhus, the result of wounds and harsh life at the front. By avoiding any comrades-in-arms, especially those with superior rank or enquiring minds, I meant to enter the sister capital as a war invalid, from heroic and distant campaigns, to settle down somewhere quiet and cozy while the conflict ran its course, perhaps a suite at the Hotel Imperial,? Of course, there would be certain formalities to endure. Vienna was the clerical office of the Empire, presided over by the royal clerk in his blue uniform and dubious medals, the continent’s finest horseman! There were a million bureaucrats in Vienna and they were even more in harness than usual by virtue of war – strapped to their desks through long days and nights, checking, writing, issuing, obstructing. I wanted nothing to do with them and their reverence for Das Ministerium, if I could help it.
By nightfall, after some relatively hard going by Poppi, I came to Murzzuschlag and found lodgings easily enough. I had planned to take my time there and sound out the best way of getting over the Alps. Herr Schnitzler’s information had struck me as rather dated at best. Also, I wanted to buy some civilian clothes so to blend in better, as the need arose. Picking at some average Palatschinken, I mulled over the situation and squelched a passing fancy to vanish into the country, taking shelter in some secluded boarding house. This notion struck me as dull and impractical (such hermits always attract attention, especially in out-of-the-way places) and likely to cast me as a deserter or conscientious objector. I wondered again to myself if a cautious trek across the country to Switzerland was as daunting as I had formerly concluded. I decided that it was. So the best plan became the only plan; to hide out in the anonymity of Vienna’s cold and narrow streets until civilization was restored to me, wherever that might be. Fate had other plans, however.
Having sold Poppi for a song, I was making my way to the railway station and idly daydreaming about the burgeoning stock of Viennese widows, when catastrophe struck.
“That man there, halt!” I pretended to be deaf, a legacy of gunnery. “Gunner!” It was not to be a successful strategy, so I turned and gave off my best salute. Before me stood a dandy of a Major, gleaming boots and buttons but not, regretfully, medals. A highly waxed moustache made him appear sour and suave at the same time. “Well, my good man, just who might you be and what is your business?” I wince at this awkward and hectic moment of recollection. When confronted and guilty, never blink or smile. Dissembling requires endurance. I rapidly considered my options. Even had we not been in the middle of the street, it was not practicable to shoot the man and adopt his identity. I did not rate highly my chances of impersonating an officer of the Austrian army – at least, not here. And to cut-and-run, whether leaving him standing or not, would cause a hunt of massive proportions to be whistled up. So it became a question of going with my old war dog act, or dreaming up something else.
Snapping my smartest salute in the fop’s direction, I crisply bawled at him. “Gunner Bathory at your service, Sir!”
“Thank you, and what are you doing here?”
“En route to Vienna to report and rejoin my company, Herr Major!”
“Indeed! Which company?” The smart-alec was amusing himself, and was in no crashing hurry. It was clear more information was required.
I invented some for his benefit. “From the fifth army under General Mackensen, Sir. We were re-assigned to the Italian front after dealing with the Serbs. I was wounded and separated from my unit near Graz and have been heading north to Vienna for further orders.”
“I see. Well, my unit is in the process of returning to headquarters by rail and I will be delighted to offer you passage with us.” This was a favor I did not need, but to protest or prevaricate would have been suicide.
“Thank you Sir!” I yelled, rapping out another muscle tearing salute. “Shall I accompany you now?” The ember of hope that he would actually direct me elsewhere was quickly extinguished — the clever fellow would do some checking before he accepted my story. His face told me he suspected me of desertion – if found guilty of this outrage, I would be swinging from a noose more summarily than at the hands of a Czinkota lynch mob!
“Yes, I think that would be best. Accompany me to our temporary quarters while I make certain enquiries and then you shall join us on our train journey to Vienna. ‘s gibt nur a Kaiserstadt, ‘s gibt nur a Wien, eh?” I offered a silent prayer to the mythical deity that my grimace was taken as a smile, while my neck screamed from nodding.
I knew that the “enquiries” would take quite some time, so there was no immediate danger; the suspense lay in gauging just how crafty this vain peacock was. On the train, he did not actually place me under arrest but I was kept in very close sight, by two unfriendly types, who looked keen for a chance to shoot me in the back if I made a break for freedom. So I amused myself by exhausting my limited supply of innocent banter, luxuriated in the smoke of my last cigar in front of their greedy gaze and enjoyed the tremendous scenery of the Austrian highlands, interspersed as this was by numerous tunnels and viaducts.
We passed under Semmering (at least poor old Poppi would be spared the inevitable heart attack attending its crossing at three thousand or so feet) and eventually the iron cavalcade shunted into Gloggnitz amid a cloud of steam. Here, I gathered from the unsmiling ones, we were to change trains – our next departure was on the morrow and the Major (whose name I had discovered to be Stacher) had devised a little folly in his mind that the unit would bivouac nearby for the evening. He, of course, would supervise proceedings from a suite at the Hotel Radetzky.
This seemed the obvious chance to decamp. But I was going to Vienna anyway – I was fairly certain that Andras’ good name could hold out a little longer in the Byzantine labyrinth of Austrian bureaucracy – and to be a fugitive in Gloggnitz did not seem to me an advantageous role to play. So I decided to wait and play the cheery Magyar fool; ingratiate myself with this Beau Brummell of a Major and even catch the opportunity, if it arose, to play Hamlet to my minders’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or rather,Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Under the stars of Empire I heard their hushed hisses. “He looks too old for a foot soldier – too old to be a deserter too.” “What, do you take him for a spy?” “Why not? He seems too smart by half. He could have stolen that uniform!” “It fits him like his own. What is he spying around here, the scenery? Go to bed, Miton.” I, too, closed my eyes, a small fox smile creasing the war-torn features. This faded, as I drifted into uneasy sleep with dreams of violent reprisal.[EDITORIAL NOTE
The publication of this remarkable record, albeit monotonous of tone, and archaic in style, suggesting someone writing in an adopted idiom, and episodic in substance, constitutes a wealth of information which will afford a new appreciation and understanding of the ferocious nature of man. Priceless insights into the mind of a diseased soul, never traced, can be found here. The author lives in a time when accounts told rather than showed, and this comes as something of a relief, for who can show, as did a Shakespeare? It will give immense solace to the criminal psychologist, to pore over this memoir and ponder that coffin, cellar, array of coptic jars or other morbid integument in which this killer may be found.]
Morning came; we left our gay surroundings and continued our journey – after chugging into Wiener Neustadt we marched to the Castle Babenberg. Here I was summoned to an audience with Stacher’s superior, a Colonel Schmerz – he sat, surrounded by the late-gothic trappings of his office. His great desk looked to me as though it existed to serve as repository for his natty collection of weird oddments rather than as a place at which to write. I remember a black raven cast in metal with hinges located at its neck, by which the head could be flipped back, to reveal an inkpot. Another feature was a large metallic spider which breached its bloated body to allow the deposit of cigarette ash, and a collection of jeweled letter openers, all laid out in ordered row.
While I made an oblique study of Schmerz, he bade me stand by a low gilt table while he sat in an easy chair and peered at my face. He held papers but I reasoned (correctly, as it thankfully turned out) that these were unlikely to relate to me, this military academy holding Austrian records only. The Colonel was a mass of affectations and the papers were part of the act. Finally, at the moment he judged sufficiently atmospheric, he spoke, in a curiously high pitched voice.
“Bathory…first name, Andras…”
“There is no need to address me, Gunner Bathory – I was not addressing you.”
“Recount to me your situation, please. Your unit and command, where you were situated, what action was seen, and so on.”
I gave him a hefty serving of the by-now-well-known-to-you lies, ensuring that I kept as closely as possible to the objective, or at least verifiable, truth. During this time Schmerz stared at me as though I was some kind of zoo creature – I fervently hoped his demeanor reflected an empty, not an open, mind, one that would tend to accept what it was told through sheer laziness. Perhaps he feared natural Hungarian suavity, mistaken for fiendish and treacherous Italian decadence.
His credulity was gratifying. “You will leave with Major Stacher’s men by train tomorrow” he said, while I expelled air from my lungs as naturally as possible. “I order you to report to headquarters in Vienna forthwith so that you can be assigned to such duties as are deemed fit for you. Dismissed.”
“Yes Sir!” I gave the beautiful old goat my most polished salute.
I still have those orders which mein Schmerz kindly reduced to writing. They command Gunner Andras Bathory of the Imperial Forces (Magyar) to report to Headquarters in Vienna for re-assignment. Official papers confirming my identity and mission, more valuable than gold. Even if word circulated to the effect that the Gunner was a deserter, here I had evidence of separation by evil chance from my unit to confute the vicious lie. No shirker, that Bathory! I had finally restored my friend’s good name. Thanks to this embodiment of the dying empire, with his easy tolerance of lies.
And so to beautiful Vienna, playground of the Aristokraten and cultural center of Europe. I had longed to see the place as a boy, and now I was going to do it. My father had charmed me with second hand tales of its wide and beautiful streets and plazas, its magnificent buildings and superior culture. I would have a culture shock of my own in its narrower than expected streets.
We disembarked from our next train in the capital. Despite the granting of leave for a day upon our arrival, I had resolved to go through the motions until opportunity knocked. Confident of my papers, I spent my leave with the grim-faced twins at a premier Viennese bordello, where I was also able to make discreet telephone contact with my banker in Geneva. Thanks to my war, investments were booming, as were the environs of Vienna in those last heady days of the Empire.
A great flood tide of events washed over us, convincing me that my future was with the Entente. Our Rom friends joined the war on the other side; this was no great threat per se but it stretched thinner our sparse troop numbers. By the time the old Emperor had written his last memorandum, it was clear that the Central Powers had missed their chance to sue for a favorable peace. Their resources had been expended to the point of bankruptcy and by the end of 1917, I began to toy with the idea of making a move. The sheer size of the conflict meant that the reprisals would be King-sized. It started with the Kaiser and moved onto to whoever was condemned by blood to succeed His Majesty, the Old Goat. The tide of vengeance would trickle down, because you can’t simply lay down a gun and forgive the man who has been shooting back. So keep the door ajar.
The interim was more than satisfactory. Vienna was Venusberg to the hedonist I had become – myriad entertainments on offer at debased prices. You could keep abreast of the doings of the haut monde by glancing in the Salon Blatt; and follow the low life in the Lustige Blatter; eat royally at the Hotel Imperial or Sacker’s (noodles in fresh butter, paprikahuhm or Halaszle, a fish soup, from home, kaiserschmarn with extra powdered sugar, and exquisite Apfelstrudel – ah!), visit the Burgtheater or Kunstlerhaus if in search of culture, or see a moving picture in the Prater Stern. More elemental treats reposed in the ladies; whether single, widowed (my favorite) or “bist meine liebe, kleine Frau,” they were nearly all lonely, the men away at war, locked in rooms of the bureaucracy, under the ground, or coughing their lungs out with the “Viennese disease,” in some dank and dirty hospital. For the purposes of this personal record of mine, I should note that my behavior in the company of these women was befitting of an officer, if not a gentleman. I had done with childish things, and furthermore, I did not feel sufficiently comfortable, in my new milieu, to begin collecting anew!
For the times were not comfortable, nor relaxed. The Empire listed badly; in 1918 the Central Powers began to retreat on a number of different fronts. There were food riots in Vienna and Budapest. This last piece of information from home was imparted to me, in great secrecy and solemnity, by Otto Kerzl, my aide-de-camp. As with most of the important information that year, he had learned such grave news by reading the Wiener Journal- even the lusty patriotism of that organ had wavered. I captured the spirit of the times by displaying an unaccustomed austerity, staying indoors at night and brushing up on French, English and for cover if need be, Roumanian. A rich, crippled Roumanian exile from the ravages of war seemed to have a nice ring to it. Meanwhile, the fates kindly assigned the foreigner duties as a liaison officer, coordinating various units of mixed race for the greater good of the struggle. This meant consuming and often wearisome toil but it kept me well away from the front or anyone likely to know of my troubled past. Again my plans were rent asunder by the winds of war. I had been directed to form a squad from my motley band of clerks and translators to take part in police action about the poorer quarters of the where the rioting had been fierce. This I did successfully; indeed, the sight of the men cracking the under-nourished heads of those weak from months of rations gave me an intense thrill – I felt young again. Occasionally, I would wade in personally. There is nothing as psychologically liberating as the dispassionate and merciless domination by violence, atop horseback, of a group of defenseless foreigners. All the better, if one has a legal warrant to so do. Unfortunately, my success undid me. Having presented a report to my superior officer, Major Hoher (who liked me immensely because I went out of my way to assuage, then feed, his fears about ambitious underlings) to the effect that rioters had been engaged in the Mariahilferstrasse and near the Kaiserstadt and dealt with, he beamed and announced what he was pleased to call “good news”.
“You are promoted to Captain, my most excellent and trusted subordinate. And that is not all… Captain Bathory, I am able to charge you with a most important mission. Word has come to me of similar riots and unrest in the Hungarian capital, and due to the pressing need for military personnel there to fight at the various fronts, I have volunteered your special squad to help stamp out the unrest in our sister city. Yes, my friend! You are to return home!”
Filling the appalling pause that followed, Hoher slapped me heartily on the back and chuckled. “Don’t thank me, Andras … one glance at your face is reward enough. You are to gather your men and proceed in three small craft by way of the Danube. You must then present to Colonel Szechenyi who will brief you fully on the task at hand.”
“I have here your papers and incidentally, I must ask you to make ready to leave tomorrow — I am sorry that there is no leave before-hand but no doubt, with your usual efficiency, there will be time for pleasure after your business is completed.” He giggled insanely and struck me on the back again. “And no prize for guessing the first order of amusement!”
Going to his desk, he took two cigars from a box and lit me. Luxuriating in the pall of blue smoke, he smilingly reflected at the ceiling. “I wish I were so fortunate to be heading for home with a promotion and entrusted with an important errand for the Empire. Do you know, I have not seen my family in Linz since 1916?”
“Really.” This was the only response I could faintly muster.
“Oh yes. It is very trying to try and coordinate order, to assist in our national effort, without the close proximity of one’s loved ones. You have no family, I think?”
From Bathory’s endless monologues about himself, I knew him to have been single (and probably a virgin). “Just my dear mother in Szentes.”
“Hmm, well you must say hello to her for me. Tsch, tsch, tsch, a bachelor, eh? You have all my envy, my good fellow. Well, here are your papers. Your transport will be awaiting you from first light.”
I can safely claim to have had an interesting war. When the admittedly loose shackles of civilization are let slip, all sorts of interesting sights crop up. A horse, maddened by shrapnel in the air above, running straight into a large tree. Men running with a stretcher to help a fallen comrade, being shot, men running to collect them, being shot and so on, like an Austrian joke that never ends. Close combat in which picks and shovels, and even dirty water, were the only weapons to hand on either side…Yes, one can certainly admire the extent of mans’ ingenuity and spirit, amidst such a desperate and heroic venture.
The voyage of our trinity of boats was uneventful enough, initially, and there was ample time to ruminate upon the reception we – and I in particular- might receive on arrival. The majority of my crew considered the whole enterprise to be a lark of unrivalled jollity and an occasion for much sport and spoils. My second in command, the morose Pilowski, took charge of the navigation and saw to our sister vessels, as I sat like Jason, pondering what lay ahead. The “beautiful blue Danube,” snaking before us, gave forth a metallic green hue which melded with the desolate swamps marked by the odd stunted willow. The wind, soughing through their foliage, completed the mournful and lonely atmosphere enveloping us once we had passed Poszony. Pilowski scanned the river banks in the wuthering gloom for a likely spot at which to moor. “There, Captain,” he announced, pointing to a nook betwixt the trees. We berthed and set watch; ate some ordinary tinned beef and retired. In the early hours of morning, with the sun still to find us, my faithful off-sider woke me with a rough shake of the shoulder. “The boats are gone!” he hissed.
I peered around what had been our campsite; it was as he said. Our loyal band of recruits had put aside their differing backgrounds and resentments of yore, uniting in desertion. Thoughtfully, the poltroons had left one vessel behind – it was hidden in the trees and also by the water, having been sunk by a boot-sized hole in its bottom.
The maneuver was audacious enough to earn my admiration in spite of myself.
“Az isten szerelmere!”
“Well, we are about half way to our destination. I suggest we rest awhile and then set out for Komarno, which is on our side of the river. It is a stiff march – perhaps three days-worth – but the land is gentle so as to make our progress fairly easy and who can tell what aid we may conscribe. We’ll deal with the question of disemboweling the deserters later.”
“Should we not return to Vienna for reinforcements?”
“No, I don’t believe we shall be able to raise them so quickly and we’ll waste too much time in returning. It is better to press on and see what we can assemble upon our arrival.”
So on we pressed, stumping by the river’s broad banks, which rose to form cliffs over the water as we wended eastward, each step bringing us closer to the great southerly bend in the Danube. The country grew wilder and was matched by the river, which broke into tributaries and then converged in one great tide again.
It became difficult to follow the course of the waterway too closely, but I did not wish to stray too far; one could keep bearings by it and I had begun to formulate a plan, in which it would serve as my accomplice.
In single file we trudged into a stiff wind. I rejoiced in the fact that at least it would make for slow progress upon the water by our treacherous friends – on the other hand, I had no real wish to run into those who had handed me an opportunity. Apart from them, there was little prospect of contact with anyone in the dreary stretch of land ahead of the river town I had set as our immediate goal, apart from the odd farmhouse which would be well set back from the water, for flooding.
It would only be a matter of time, I knew, before we saw signs of activity that would herald a free supper and some shelter. With this in mind, I exhorted the dogged Pole to press on and make as much ground as possible before the first night on our own, in the expectation that it would be our last. He was a dour fellow and duly shuffled ahead, his large frame acting as a wind-break against the biting easterly.
Our bivouac was a poor affair – we nestled in the crook of a hill, out of the worst of the wind – and we could make no fire. Provisions were also low; our comrades had accounted for the best and largest morsels of these. Chewing moodily on a stale piece of bread, Pilowski expressed the hope that our former friends would choke on the purloined food. It was the warmest sentiment I had ever heard him utter.
Next morning was uncommonly fine. The wind had dropped; the temperature had risen. I managed to get a small fire started and we enjoyed some real coffee, which I had secreted about my person during preparations for the mission. My companion cheered visibly and saw no objection to my suggestion that we wash away some of the ravages of travel in the safer side eddies of the river. He stripped himself naked and boldly lunged in, puffing and blowing like a seal.
I sauntered to the water’s edge in a more deliberate fashion, waiting for him to approach and report.
“How is the water?”
“Fine,” he gurgled before standing and squeezing drops from his hair.
“Good,” I replied and shot him through the chest with his service revolver.
I will push pause here because a delicious breakfast beckons at one of my favorite restaurants, Schapiro’s, around the corner. Long a gourmand, I have freely fallen into the American habit of consuming a large morning meal.
Remembering the solitary feast made by Captain Andras Bathory upon the banks of the beautiful blue Danube, after he had shot mutineer Zbigniew Pilowski, does not help me fight back the pangs. Actually, it enhances them. He was a worthy fellow, for a Pole.
Before I leave this sordid part of my account, however, it behoves me to set it right – mutineer Pilowski shot brave Captain Bathory, surprising the war veteran while he was bathing and foully murdering him, doing him down into the deep dark icy waters of the hiemal Danube. The smoking pistol lost, cooled by the river in a spot far from the tangled form of its putative marksman. Not a chance for the killer to expiate his wicked deed, licking some dying blood, and spitting thrice. So, onward to fresh rolls and coffee, potatoes and smoked salmon!
Colonel Szechenyi would receive this missive;
“Mutiny in special police squad en route to Budapest for riot detail per orders of Major Hoher in Vienna – Mutineers led by second-in-command Sergeant Z. Pilowski. Expedition leader Captain A. Bathory feared killed. Some members of party fled to the south, others in direction of Vienna. Am pursuing – Private Thurzo.”
Given the greater strategic problems facing the mighty minds of the kingdom, it was never to be seriously doubted that the miserable survivors of this infamous affair would fall between the stools. The stout Thurzo, who entrusted the old farmer just outside Komarno with the delivery of the message to the nearest relevant authority, is presumed to have vanished in pursuit of the war criminals. But then, there are so many criminals to track after a war, are there not, and the wanted are often nothing to do with its start, or its prosecution. A return to civilian life was in the cards, despite the orders from Major Hoher, which I retained as a double indemnity. The war was running late – in September, Bulgaria surrendered. Turkey followed. Then Austria. Finally, Germany. The Kaiser ran like a boy and lived, while Count Stefan Tisza defiantly stayed at home, and was shot like a dog. Throughout the towns and villages of the Hungarian Danube, there rang stories and rumors of riots, invasions and betrayal. Beautiful chaos. With our historic friends, the Roumanians, marching west in a tawdry grab for spoils, and the vengeful Serbs to the South, one’s options were limited. I decided to loiter in the relatively quiet hamlets, slightly to the west of Budapest, from where the fruits of defeat in the capital could be gathered. Count Mihaly Karolyi had been installed as President of our ad hoc Republic. This gentleman vowed to repel the barbarians, and restore order. In this, he was to prove about as successful as had been Kerensky. Magyar Nepkortarsasag – the Hungarian People’s Republic – was, despite its grandiose title, a thing of straw. It could not beat back the invaders, nor impose order. Bela Linder, Karolyi’s Defence Minister, from the Parliament whence all else had fled, re-called the troops in late November, and none took heed of him. Authority must never seem to be making up policy on the run; still less should it make up policy on the run. The Roumanians were at the Tisza River; there were riots in the streets of Budapest; soldiers teamed with students against the police; the notional King, Charles I, had been virtually told to jump in the lake. But as the Austrians would say, “Dos honma von da Republik” – blame the Republic.
This was all rich grist to my mill. Confusion lends opportunity to the steady of nerve and cool of head. I needed to travel to the capital, however, in order to enhance the prospect of a safe and discreet departure for greener pastures. By the time I had cautiously advanced on the old town, at the Pest side, the Communists had taken control. They liquidated all the “enemies” of Marxism, as Communists do. Bela Kun, a runt with the face of an enormous, rabid rodent, unleashed his henchmen, led by Tibor Szamuely, upon the cowering populace, already punch-drunk from rationing and defeat.
By a perverse contortion of chance, the old foe came to the rescue. Kun, his appetite whetted by domestic blood-letting, decided to assert himself by launching an attack on the Roumanian forces to the east, in a fickle and idiotic attempt to regain lost territory. Apparently, communists need to build empires too. By July 1919, the hated enemy was in Budapest, and Kun had fled to that Workers’ paradise, Vienna. It was now a pressing matter to get out, and from my pied-a-terre near the river, I finalized my plans to decamp poste haste.
My investments, recently topped up, were in a very healthy state. I had made a trip into the commercial quarter, drinking in the heat and smells, while carefully picking my way among cut throats and Bolsheviks. There to inquire into tickets for the Simplon-Orient Express, to take me from Belgrade to Lausanne, whence I could amble around the lake to settle in a villa, somewhere near to my money. I also collected a steamer ticket for Belgrade, thinking my marching days were behind me, and had dined well in Buda before slinking back over the Margaret Bridge to Pest, under the cover of darkness. Whereupon, one of those coincidences, which inhabit novels read by ladies in afternoon drawing rooms, occurred.
Post war, I had developed a quick but casual, hunch-and-crunch gait, designed not to attract attention. Incidentally, I was generally happier in damp weather, where you could thrust your hands in the pockets of an overcoat and jam a hat on, to keep the rain out. This night, however, was warm and balmy, with a full moon shining in the water. There seemed a surfeit of light this night, as if I had walked into some degenerate work by the English savage, Turner. In my view, daylight is not as broad, or as conspicuous as the so-called cover of darkness. A man approached on the same side of the bridge as I. He was ambling, unhurried. In retrospect, his gait (disordered but not antalgic; no old soldier, he) seemed oddly familiar. We passed each other and, to my eternal regret I paused and looked back to find him doing the same. His face caught the full glow of the moon, grotesque in its contortion of comic shock. It was, of course, my old boon companion, Trauber.
I turned and walked away, keeping a good pace but forcing myself not to break into a trot, as small boys do when avoiding large ugly dogs. Trauber did not pursue me for a long time – there were no pursuing footsteps in my ears, until he shouted “Hey!” and began to sprint after me. By that time, I was within sight of the river bank, with almost thirty yard’s head start. It is easy to get lost in a medieval city and easy to lose pursuers – that is an integral part of its design. By darting in and out of a maze of narrow, dark streets and alleys, I was able to secure entrance to my hide-away, despite being far less fleet of foot than was the worthy policeman. He was, no doubt, hampered by a combination of surprise, rage, beer (which explains the slight list in his progress upon the bridge), and natural stupidity – nevertheless, he would clearly make up for these deficiencies on the morrow, so I knew my departure, due in two days from the Central Quay, would be perilous.
Ssssssytch! [Is that how to spell that emanation?-Ed.] This was serious. Trauber would mobilize every policeman in the city to hunt for me, and because my plans had not accounted for capture, the case that would be brought against me would be damning. I had really flung evidence in the faces of the authorities with contempt. The barrels in the basement, the letters and bodies of the various correspondents, Maria and her boyfriend, these would take some explication. I keep telling myself that the barrels were a stopgap. Once things had quieted, they would roll into the workshop and be set aflame, any resistant contents smashed with sundry processing tools in my employ. Boring work to boring purpose. I tell myself, the happenstance of war changed those plans. But I tarried…why did I tarry? I have no answer.
I’m taking my girl out tonight. She always complains that we never go anywhere. Some soufflé of a show, of largely incidental quality. I should regard Titus or Tamurlaine as better fare — something not for everyone. Unlike world capitals in the Old World, this city is based on inclusion, and the tyranny of the insider.
Mention of the emperor who dealt harshly with bearers of bad tidings reminds me of my own difficulties.
I was as terrified as a Robespierre in Thermidor, a lobster in the cooking pot. In difficult situations such as this, I find that my natural talent for dissimulation aids me greatly. So, for example, when Miriam, or one of her friends, denounces me as a Nazi sympathizer (laughingly, but always with an edge) I fall back on the academic ruse of pretending an intellectual fascination with the mechanics and polemics of the Reich, while finding them morally repugnant.
In other cases, in emergencies, one resorts to more basic feints. Therefore, on the morning of the 3rd August, in brilliant sunshine, Eduard Dire, Professor of Philosophy at La Sorbonne, climbed the gangplank of the river steamer “Danu Delta Queen”, with weighty steps. His rickety progress accentuated his advanced age, as well as the burden of a battered valise full of philosophical tomes, purchased en route and hastily marked; “Dire — ex Libris.” His splendid old wardrobe relics plundered from the attic of an apartment building in Pest in a fever of terror. Fortunately, fitting badly, in other words, perfectly. As the aged scholar presented his ticket, he could not but help notice the constables loitering near the booking office on quay side. Trauber, as luck would again have it, was not among them but even had he been, the old man would have passed without hindrance. Off we shoved, sending imperious waves in the direction of the wharf rats and scoundrels picking pockets. Belgrade beckoned, and a first class sleeper to milk chocolate heaven. A few days on the beautiful blue Danube to still the nerves, recall the art of relaxation, and learn the science of exaltation! So pre-occupied was I with Joachim’s The Nature of Truth, it was not till the second fine dinner aboard, that a Hungarian police officer was noticed, whereupon the robust old chap promptly lost his appetite for analysis or food. The man was not Trauber, so there was no need for immediate panic. However, he might possess greater deductive resources than my old friend. A measure of concern was in order. He was clearly not along for the ride. Passenger list in hand, he roved the deck and public areas, hoping for some clue which would justify his conducting a search of all cabins.
Figuring that I would attract less attention moving about than skulking indoors, I promenaded, taking care to keep out of the high winds howling about the decks. My hat was a constant worrisome irritation, sitting precariously atop a nest of false hair. I endeavored to hold it in place with antique gestures, deriving some perverse pleasure from my role, studying the movements and manner of other old fossils about the boat. Overcoming the upset of nerves, I gobbled my meals as old men do, taking pleasure in the especial disgusting way all table manners, learned in childhood and lectured thereafter, are abandoned. Adopting this cavalier rudeness of the living dead gave me aesthetic pleasure, as well as repulsing unwelcome company.
The acid test was applied on the last day of the journey. We had, midmorning, docked at the town of Novi Sad, before navigating the last leg to our destination. It was another sunny day, I recall, with a high wind. I had found a chair on the deck that bathed in the sunshine, but was relatively tucked away. Along came the rendor, walking in a way that suggested he was enjoying his holiday, carefree and relaxed. He stopped and inclined his head. “Good morning, Sir.” I cleared my throat, elevated my nose from The Varieties of Religious Experience and replied, absently, “Oh, er, yes good morning to you, my boy!”
“I see you have found yourself a little nook.”
“Yes, yes…why, may I ask, have we stopped?” I had practiced my didactic at mealtimes and so on during the voyage, but felt nevertheless that it would be as well to get the fellow talking rather than listening.
“Do not be distressed, there are some passengers that wish to embark at Novi Sad; there will be a delay of not more than an hour or so.”
‘Really? I wonder if there is anything to see in the town. Are we allowed to go?”
“I doubt it; there would be a risk of passengers returning late and besides…” He paused, as though he husbanded a secret. I peered at him in an encouraging way…” I would have to vet anyone leaving the vessel, as part of my duties” was the theatrical pronouncement.
“I see?!” I shrilled excitedly, in order to mask my growing alarm. This swine intended to grill each passenger as they left the steamer in Belgrade. I clambered to my feet and tottered to my cabin, there to revise my itinerary yet again. Less than fifty miles from Belgrade, and caught like a rat in a trap! Worse, cornered like a rat by a playful cat.
I know not to this day whether the policeman saw through my disguise and so gave me notice, sanguine as to his kill, or if the information advanced to me had been purely fortuitous. Whatever the answer, I decided it was time to disembark (if I could) and take in the pleasures of Ujvidek, as a Hungarian would refer to this dank little canal town.
“Tamo daleko, daleko kraj mora…Tamo je Srbija.” Hearing that banal Yugoslavian ballad floating from above the deck, it occurred to me that a Magyar would cut no ice in the Serb Kingdom, particularly here, but at least the authorities might not have received the briefing on me which no doubt had been transmitted to the capital.
Adjusting the folds of his absurd frock coat, therefore, stuffed with money and papers, Monsieur Dire hobbled to the gangway, waving his ticket, and muttering that he must get to a telegraph office as a matter of critical urgency.
The boatswain caviled at the request with a horrified expression. “But we set sail in less than three quarters of an hour!”
“I’m well aware of that and I shall return, but I must first send an urgent telegram to my colleagues in Paris.”
“It is not possible, Sir. There is not sufficient time and we cannot escort you once you leave the vessel.”
“That is quite alright, I assure you.”
“May I help?” came the smooth inquiry. It was my new churn, the Magyar policeman. “Dr. Dire”, he hailed me, with a deferential, half bow that barely fell short of mockery. “Do I take it that you want to disembark?” This with an earnest gaze, betraying (to me) an ominous message. I felt convinced he had seen through my imposture.
Applying the policy of enthusiastically co-opting the support of my myriad nemeses, I gave a bravura of the majestic don. “Ah, my boy! You must aid me. It is of vital importance that I send a telegram – Perhaps you could direct me to the nearest telegraph office so that it may be sent before the boat leaves?”
“I was trying to suggest that the ticket office here could take down the details and see that the message is sent without undue delay” put in the company representative unhelpfully. Motioning to the officer, whose name was Marko Szamuely, I rapidly embellished a series of further lies. One could not trust these Balkan countries, it was explained sotto voce; the message I had to send was highly personal and great importance attached to its expedition. I expected him to assent and he duly did, but because he hoped to secure my holograph note for transmission by telegraph, which he doubted not would be incriminating.
He obviously intended to watch me closely as we proceeded into the town to carry out my business, but I do not think he ever anticipated that I would attempt to flee. I expect that my elderly appearance reassured him on some unconscious level.
“The charge-d’affaires at the steamer line ticketing office has given me directions to the nearest telegraph post, er.. Dr. Dire” he trilled (I was by now working up to a healthy dislike of the fellow). “I will ensure you may send your message and return to the boat in plenty of time to continue the journey.” It was a challenge, one to be taken up tout de suite. I was almost exhilarated by our pas, in the ongoing danse macabre.
I hope Novi Sad has enriched itself and grown since 1919. Then, it was a pitiful place, a large foundry. The advantages of this were legion to an elderly gentleman in distress, like me, however. The narrow streets basked in shade. The townsfolk kept to themselves – no dangers of being accosted in the open obtained, at least in the daytime. People left well alone, allowing private business to be done with a minimum of fuss and interference. Hence, as we wended through the dim back streets, Szamuely guiding me from behind, one iron hand on my left elbow, I felt free to whip out my old army jack-knife and insert it neatly into him, between the lower ribs. By the time I had worked it out with my boot, he was already sliding down the wall with a thixotropic grunt. There was a little time to salvage his wallet and watch before they became soiled; then I strode as fast as my ridiculous character could credibly bear, until at least a mile of shady alleys separated me from the atrocity.
The horror of it all comes flooding back to me – no-one, no one individual trying to make his own way, could be subject to such constant repression, restraint and challenge. As I sweated blood in those malign alleyways of that desolate country, fleeing desperately to a new life God knew where, an ironer voice commanded, or commended, me to a collegial life, a bold new direction. And after I had doffed the more inconvenient of my venerable garments, using them to return my weapon to its pristine condition, before hurling them down a drain and assuming again the semblance of a gentleman of leisure, I found my immediate destiny, whilst anxiously peering out of an obscure tavern’s murky window. Upon the building opposite, a starkly emblazoned poster, heralded deliverance from my relentless pursuers and a portent of the near future…recruiting bureau of the legion etrangere.[EDITORIAL NOTE
Colonel Le Sage subjected me to a rigorous examination of my age and antecedents while he scratched at a yellowing form.
“Thirty-seven. I beg your pardon, thirty-five.” Cogito, ergo sum.
“Just so. Nationality of Father?”
“With whom? Let me assure you,” he continued, seeing me hesitate, laying down his pen momentarily, “that I ask this question simply as a matter of interest and to gauge your level of military training. The French Foreign Legion has no prejudices against your background, nationality, even criminal record, if any. All we ask is that you fight with ferocity for France.”
Under his encouraging gaze, I gave the semblance of candor. “You see, mon Colonel, it has been difficult for me…I was engaged in the struggle with the Magyars…when the enemy took Bucharest I managed to escape with some comrades to the south-west, where we joined the Allied Orient force in Salonika, whence we subdued the Bulgars. After that, I re-joined my unit and took part in the post-war hostilities against Hungary. We took Budapest. Unfortunately, my superior did not approve of my treatment of Red Magyars, so I was cashiered.” I winked conspiratorially. “So, I travelled southwards again, in search of a unit that might appreciate my services.”
Le Sage’s opinion of me seemed to be improving in leaps and bounds. “Well, Hofmann, subject to the physical, it shall be a pleasure to welcome you as a legionnaire.”
And a pitiless physical it was, too, designed to winnow the less fit cutthroats and brigands. I had also to supply dabs, “for our files,” but since my record was unblemished, and since the reason for this condition precedent was solely to aid French law authorities, it was a small price for admission. By nightfall I was sleeping in a dormitory, one hand on my wallet and the other clasped around my knife.
Le Sage explained that his unit would shortly join a regiment bound for Rabat. A stiff march of it was promised, through friendly Serbia and other Slavic fiefdoms to Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian Coast. “We sail the Adriatic, pass through the Strait of Otranto, over the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean, to Gibraltar and out into the North Atlantic. You cannot say that you will not see the world at France’s expense!”
This said with an empty chuckle. Ten days later, in my new, ill-fitting uniform, I took my place in the motley unit, headed by foot south-west across the Balkans. This course pleased me, for it took us away from Belgrade, where an elderly academician and Hungarian policemen would be the subject of some inquiry. The latter would turn up soon enough, of course, and as for the old man, surely he had fallen victim to a gang of apaches who had done for his escort and spirited him away for their own nefarious purposes. It would not be thought that he had, in a fit of romantic idealism, run off to join the Foreign Legion.
O tempora! O mores! Man progresses only in the discipline of chaos. Someone in Brooklyn has been poisoning the hot dogs. Police have failed to locate the culprit. Surprisingly, sales of hot dogs at Dodger Stadium, after an initial slump, have ballooned. This is linked to a new game, ‘red-hot-roulette” that is enjoying a cult status amongst the nation’s young. Where is the gain? Such degeneracy must chill even the spines of barbarians.
I look upon my service of La Belle Francaise with pride and affection. Amongst comrades from many misunderstood walks of life. There was a grim creature named Nestor, a Macedonian who played the bland prankster on our travels. After ferrying the Danube and following the Drina River as it cut a path between the Dinaric Alps, we came upon a small collection of huts in which produce was offered for sale. Nestor promptly set fire to one of these, and in the ensuing confusion, made off with a brace of hares that greatly enlivened our camp table. Another fellow I recall with fondness was an Algerian, Houari Talib. A tiny man, he could talk at length on any conceivable subject, and was held in high esteem for having convinced a French officer to give his motor car over for safe keeping; Talib immediately drove it to Constantine, where he traded it for passage to Marseilles. He had been double-crossed, inevitably, and was back in service after a suitable period of chastisement. He left no doubt however, a terrible revenge would be wreaked if he got half a chance. His whole face, frozen in the fire, took on a homicidal gleam of pleasurable imagining when he spoke of the treachery; not just the narrowed slits but teeth, forehead, nose, even the tips of his ears. Then he would snap out of it and look crestfallen, in shame at having been taken. And he’d return to a monotonous stream of random facts. He looked just like Goebbels, perhaps a little swarthier.
Campsites were jolly affairs. The Commander was indulgent about drink – we could imbibe as much as we could keep down, as long as every man was fit and ready to move out in the early morning. Often, there came a call for a story or song, and I was generally happy to oblige, having in my repertoire tunes from a number of different countries. Also, I had a smattering of poetry; the rousing kind of ballad that benefits from lusty delivery, which rhymes and scans, and a stock of stories of various travels which I passed on for amusement, changing names and countries for self-protection. I came to find myself reveling in my own performance. Certainly, it was the height of foolishness to entertain my comrades-in-arms with stories of garroting. But I had begun a term of complacency. Never did I kid myself that I was a criminal genius. I had been clever. Yes, but my struggle had been lit by friendly stars.
We sailed for Morocco as part of the 3rd Regiment. Clambering aboard ship, I felt a momentary twinge of anxiety…a chap watching us from the deck looked eerily like Trauber…but all was well. The voyage was a repeat of our bivouacs spread across the Balkans (sans the women) and I took my chances to augment my reserves of pocket money. My nerves were somewhat on end because of an item appearing in a French newspaper in ship’s mess. Graced by the lurid headline, “search for Magyar Lunatic widens”, it read;
“BUDAPEST, Tuesday. Hungarian authorities have issued a photograph of Bela Kiss, the mass-murderer of Czinkota, whence amazing scenes were first brought to the World by this reporter. Believed to be responsible for well over twenty deaths, Kiss was spotted crossing the Margaret Bridge recently and an all-points bulletin has issued for his arrest. The authorities are debating the posting of a reward for Kiss, thought to be lurking in the south of Hungary. He is described as middle-aged, with a very short, military haircut, large facial features and hands. He is said to be finicky by nature and a womanizer. Police advise that he is dangerous and persons should not approach.”
Fortunately, the accompanying photograph was terrible, one taken for posterity at the tin-works. It featured my grey overcoat and hat more clearly than my face. Nevertheless, all of them went overboard in short order.
We docked in the light of a blood red sun. The temperature had increased during the voyage; it seemed we had descended into a kind of Torrid Zone. This feeling quickly dissipated on the sun’s setting – it became very “crisp” indeed…the ground beneath our feet felt raw and hard. There was a moon up, as sharply defined in the sky as a piece of gold cardboard in a collage. Thus Morocco, the land of harsh opportunity, and before I begin this part of my reminiscences, I feel that I must fortify myself with a succulent brunch, and walk that off back to my apartment. A memoirist without notes needs fuel.
Ah, Morocco! Beautiful Sultanate! Place names which resonate, which, seventeen odd years on, give one a thrill – Fez, Tangier, Casablanca, Marrakech…the enormous palace of the Sultan, at Rabat. The magic resides exclusively in the labels. A dirtier and less prepossessing place one could not find. I doubt not but the sulfurous sewer that was Morocco continues to putrefy and slide back into the 12th century, where it belongs. Please take it from me, in all seriousness – you do not wish to visit it. It has no charm. It has no cultural life worth ten francs. It has no cuisine; just a filthy, turgid cauldron of stewed chicken and mutton swathed in salt. I write this, admittedly, having just gorged myself on magret of duck in spiced cherry sauce, with frites fried in goose fat, at the Algonquin (note how western civilization venerates the indigenes by appropriating their language!)
It has no pleasant scenes, among its barren plains and mountains. Even its trees are as dry and lifeless as bones in the sun. It has no noble stock, being assembled of Berbers, Semites and blacks, plus mixtures of these, who live by thieving, begging, whoring and slaying. The sole civilizing influence is in the form of the French administrators, who are here because they lack the talent for service in their mother country, or do penance.
Our duties were easy enough…the garrison regiment acted as a police militia, keeping order, tracking criminals on the run, gun and drug smugglers and other pirates, who shuttled back and forth upon the Mediterranean. We had to keep an eye on rebels, as well, natives who played at sabotage for Mohammedan purposes. After four months, through efficiency and literacy, I became adjutant to the Lieutenant, Henri Jobert, a small precise man with a wax moustache (or so it seemed.) Jobert had me handle his letters, keep his files neat and in correct order, while he chased butterflies around the hinterland. The anteroom where I was stationed became a menagerie of preserving jars, nets, diagrams, bottles of formaldehyde, boards wounded with little pins, on which were crucified various colorful beasts, dispassionate and no longer forgiving.
Jobert knew exactly what he was doing; he had an impressive library of works on Lepidoptera and numerous charts of the likely regions for fresh meat. He longed to discover a new example of the species, and devoted an increasing amount of time to this quest, as I assumed more and more of his responsibilities. Gradually, and with his tacit consent, I moved my work into his impressively large room, whilst he pored over his brightly hued corpses in the nook adjacent. Thus happy state of affairs gave me license to arrange for my own comfort, and that of various chums, who in turn acted as point men, as they would call them in this country, on various outings to take in the pleasures of the In addition, I now had official access to such police information as the Surête thought fit to supply. Such material usually took the form of a compendium of deserters, which served me greatly on one particular occasion.
Houari Talib liaised between the gun-runners of Marseilles and the dusty outpost of the Third Republic. Through judicious placement of documents before a pre-occupied Jobert, one issued, for a small stipend, official notes of passage for unmarked caches of weaponry. My colleague and I asked no questions as to the ultimate destination of these shipments. In all probability, they ended up at some legitimate terminus, so as to provide necessary aid and relief for peace-loving freedom fighters. If these passionate good men do not acquire their weapons through legitimate channels, and so ensure: the receipt of guns which shall not blow up in their faces, they will be forced to go elsewhere, to unscrupulous traders who neither know nor care of the integrity of the goods, and the struggle. Take, for example, the dirty little war in Spain at present. To effectively exploit that internecine struggle, we would have to overcome our reservations about the loyalists, so that trade could occur with both sides (through appropriately partisan intermediaries.) If you can’t understand the opprobrium in which suppliers of weapons are cast, when they are doing nothing but meeting a basic human need, just remember that it is unnatural for men, even bystanders, to remain neutral.
My coffers swelled. I drew my soldiers’ pay and followed the military tradition of spending the bulk of it immediately on wine, women and song, wasting the rest. Each Friday, I also attended the premier (in fact only) maison du banc in town, Banque Francaise, to deposit the much greater wages of my ventures with Talib. We even started a gambling operation, initially based around horse racing at Fez, but eventually extending to game-fights and what the British call “coursing”, on the island of Madeira. It is terrifying to recall how big our business became. Soon, I was making myself known to the bank as a civilian and transferring deposits to my Swiss account. Therefore, I had to befriend and oil the local Manager, Jerome Feuillade, a Parisian of low scruple, who was pleased to ignore currency restrictions imposed by the Resident General, for a small consideration. In Morocco, everything was negotiable.
At the garrison, I came to know a thrasonical Italian mercenary, Ottimo de Massimo, who had been rusticated from the Black Hand, due to volatility and volubility. He spoke warmly of his days in America, and first evoked my curiosity about it, “We supplied liquor to dry States.”
“You bet. Time to time, we had to fix somebody’s wagon, but mostly easy.”
“Where were you based, Ottimo?”
“New York. I loved that town.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Told to leave …. You bet.”
De Massimo painted dizzying word-pictures, in his thick accent, of the World’s Capital. I resolved to see her when the time was ripe. I was fifty, a watershed. With my commercial activities booming, and the end of my tenure approaching, it would be a perfect time to descend on Manhattan, and take up a life of style and comfort, in a place where the past did not exist, except in museums.
As always, my plans did not fructify quite as I had imagined. In 1923, amid the searing heat of a North African summer, Jobert spoke to me from the massive desk in his office, an uncommon position for him.
“Hofmann, I have orders to send an officer to Tangier to collect a prisoner. Much as you are needed here, I cannot think of anyone more reliable.”
“Thank, you, Sir. Who am I to escort?”
“A deserter named Le Clerc. He is to face a Court Martial here.”
“Shall I take some men to accompany me…?”
“Ordinarily, I would willingly assign some men to you, Hofmann. But we are nearing Ramadan and, as always, that means trouble. Also, I have to relieve units encamped at Ouarzazate. But I am told he will be no trouble and you can feel free to restrain him if he gives you any.” This sounded like louche fun.
“What are the transport arrangements, Sir?”
“Camel power, I’m afraid. They will supply fresh beasts at Tangier. Report to Major Combray.”
The task was a jollification of a high order. A jaunt along the coast, of about one hundred and seventy miles to “El Kelba,” a detour to the Kasbah for some rest and relaxation; then collect my compliant prisoner, whom I could gently torment on the return journey. Atop a glum ruminant, employing recurrent cries of “Balek,” I negotiated the way through Rabat’s swarming streets, and along the stony majesty of the North African coast. To ward off the sun, I’d draped some of Jobert’s dark butterfly netting over my Legionnaire’s cap, in the fashion of a burnous. The heat of that year’s summer was very fierce; one of the men at Ouarzazate, a Scotsman, we had heard, had become insane from a mixture of kif and lack of rain, running off into the desert, screaming “Let it come down! Let it come down!” I personally enjoyed the heat. The cumbersome uniform kept out the dust and retained the warmth, so that by nightfall, when the chill crept into everything, I had a duvet of tepidity.
On the third day of the peregrination, Tangier loomed before me – a drab speck of lint twixt sea and sky. The sand of its depressing harbor was pocked and dirty as the white buildings, with their medieval crenels indented in the parapets and glass-less windows. I made straight for the pointed arches of the native medina, and paid a young Moroccan ponce to look after my camel, while I sought refreshment in the Cafe Humanite.
The officialdom in which I was cloaked earned me the seat underneath the fan, and swift response to my demands for iced champagne and escargot. While engulfing and devouring, I had the proprietor bring in my little friend; he was dispatched to a house nearby, where Domingos Ramos lived. He joined me, and we made a merry meal; afterwards, we repaired to Club Saramago to play cards. The Portuguese had to quell a small insurrection on our arrival – the European patrons alarmed at the sight of a legionnaire, the natives resenting it.
Ramos was enthusiastic about prospects for business development. “This country is a citadel” he declared, “A haven for wealthy fugitives. I tell you, all we need is another war.”
“I would think that there is no hurry.”
“Understandable for one in your position, nevertheless, it is as I say.”
“You do not seriously foretell this?”
“Who can say? Europe’s boundaries are not set in stone; they can be re-aligned, with blood for ink.”
“Well, meanwhile, what would you say if I told you I had received an offer for my share of our little concern?”
His lazy grin tightened as he struggled to confront this information.
“That is to say, I have had approaches, but fended them off, in deference to you.”
“Who has approached you?”
“Ottimo de Massimo.”
This was quite false, but Ramos would never seek to verify the fact, even indirectly, with the Italian, a sworn enemy. He suppressed recoil and managed from between clenched teeth to ask what my inclinations were. “Oh, I am indifferent, my dear fellow, indifferent. What about you?”
“I would prefer to remain in partnership with you.”
“Knowing your feelings for my Neapolitan comrade, that is not high praise, Dominigos. However, I will discourage him if you wish. Nevertheless, there may come a time when you must think about a price.”
Now to turn in for the night. With a wide choice of billets, I decided to earn some credit with Major Combray and present to the local garrison. The Spartan atmosphere of the barracks did not give me the most comfortable slumber available in Tangier, but joy in austerity was a pleasure I looked forward to leaving far behind in a matter of only half a year’s time, when my five year stint was determined.
The fourth day dawned. I shared a crude but filling breakfast with the Tangerine warriors before calling on the Major. He proved to be that ubiquitous species – the outpost mediocrity. He puffed himself up whilst barking out commands to me, amounting to nothing but that which my written orders already contained. I pretended to be hearing them for the first time, and gave him a stare of dog-like wonder; this seemed to please him.
“Hofman, here are the reports concerning Le Clerc, for use at his Court Martial.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I must stress that, while the prisoner is not considered dangerous, he is extremely slippery. He actually managed to talk some Berber Guardsmen into helping him slip out of his unit at Ouarzazate.”
“Really?” The man sounded like a fallen comrade of mine, from many wars ago.
“So you must watch him carefully, not let him out of your sight, nor relax at any stage, until he is safely delivered to the brig. Do not let him speak to any natives, or he will cajole them into turning against you.”
I must confess to having become increasingly intrigued by the reputation of this grand schemer and looking forward to an entertaining trip home, blithely informed the Major that I had a number of errands to run before setting forth on the return journey. This was strictly true, but they were personal errands. I dined with Ramos again, encouraging him to grapple with the problem of buying me out. I paid a visit to Thomas Cook to inquire about passage to America. I sampled anew the delights of the Kasbah. Here, by flashing a modest amount of francs instead of dinars, you could eat a four-course meal, smoke a Cuban cigar, consume a case of French champagne, have two strumpets attend to your every caprice for the night, and stake the rest on roulette. Eventually, of course, one had to report to the garrison and collect the infamous Le Clerc. He gave me such a surprise that I, accustomed as I was to concealing emotion, almost started. Rather than the calculating, grizzled veteran one had imagined, the intransigent captive turned out to be a lean, gawky, shambling youth with a foolish smile and vague, inoffensive manner. He was what the British call “gormless.” Or so it appeared. He was at pains to be civil to me, although it was obvious he had had a hard time of it recently — the skin under the left eye still blue, a smeared bandage on his nose made him even more foolish. He offered his hands to me for binding; as it was what I would have done to inculcate confidence and complacency; I obliged him by applying cuffs.
As our camels strutted from the cacophonous streets of Tangier, Le Clerc, struggling to control his animal with hands tied, struck up a conversation. “Captain Hofmann, where are we headed?”
I saw no harm in releasing this information. ”Rabat, for your trial on a charge of desertion.”
“That is a complete misunderstanding, I assure you.”
“Oh, please don’t feel you have to make your case to me, Le Clerc. I have no authority in relation to the case, let me assure you. And I’m certain that you shall receive a full and fair hearing before the firing squad is convened.”
He gulped, visibly and audibly. There was no questioning the enormous value he set upon his neck. “But you must have a care to see justice is done, Captain. It is in the interests of all legionnaires that that occurs!”
“Well, Le Clerc…” I paused, savoring the pleasure of the gaoler, “… Justice, as I understand it, is a somewhat subjective and relative term. For example, some might say that Justice resides in the gallows being fashioned for you at present. Naturally, you, on the other hand, would take a view of the term that is diametrically opposed to this. It all depends upon your point of reference.”
“Captain, how can I convince you of my innocence?”
“By avoiding all discussion of it.”
We camped at Larache; I took a room in an obscure billet, and my companion went to sleep chained to the stable door. The next day was very blustery – the heat was blistering. Le Clerc complained frequently of his bonds and general dilemma, but without bitterness, and in keeping with my stricture of the previous day, he avoided all further reference to his alleged lack of guilt. We progressed slowly under the conditions and the camels became increasingly petulant. I gave the brutes a rest at the river mouth near Port Lyautey, where we found some shelter from the gathering storm. As it was almost three o’clock in the afternoon, I decided to make camp there.
While the wind howled around and over us, keeping time to the growls of our transport, Le Clerc told me something of himself.
“I have lived in Algeria for years, Mon Capitaine. I was too young for the war.” He snickered. “The Legion seemed the answer to my prayers, a mission in my life.”
“You joined the First Regiment in Algiers?”
“Yes. We were sent to Syria after its formation. But the trouble really started when we returned to Algeria. They accused us of collaborating with Communists.”
“What became of that?”
“Nothing. There was no evidence. But they posted me to Morocco and I had had enough of being victimized, so –”
“You decided to desert.”
“Well….” Le Clerc gave what the lady novelists term a “gallic shrug”.
“Why then are you to be tried in Rabat?”
“My advocate thinks it to my advantage to appear before people who do not know me.”
“What was your plan of escape?”
“I thought it might be thrilling to make for the coast and buy passage on a smuggler’s boat to Marseilles, but our unit was crawling all over the waterfront by the time I was ready to make a break. So instead, I headed south. But they caught up with me in Marrakech. Next time, I will go by water to France. Once you get out of Africa, they forget you.”
“Indeed? ‘Next time,’ eh? eh? Not a bad oraison funebre!”
By five o’clock, the sun was blanketed in a veil of dust, and the horizon took on a lurid hue. I produced a bottle of Pedro Ximenes for my secret sharer. Under the influence of the sweet liquid, I made him a confidante of sorts, telling him an assortment of stock tales of garroting and rape. There was no question in my mind that this fellow was as safe as could be, considering his imminent execution. Truth to tell, Le Clerc’s effete mannerisms – wide-eyed stare, his look of what I was pleased to consider as awe, lubricated the clacking of my tongue and hence more detail was given than if the telling had come from some oaf of a homicidal maniac. A more prudent mass-murderer might play his cards considerably closer to his chest.
No matter, my companion wasn’t going anywhere. I gave him unto the safe hands of Lieutenant Jobert the next day, with the papers. A glance at them confirmed my suspicions that Le Clerc had been too modest. He had neglected to tell me (as had Combray, I recalled with some resentment) of the legionnaire whose throat he had cut in Marrakech, before his apprehension – there was no question in the penalty. If Lucifer was short of a limb, he was going to have his collection increased in the near future. I thought this been my last adventure as a serving officer – indeed, in any capacity. At the unofficial age of fifty-one, I’d had my fill of excitement. It was too comfortable retirement in the United States that one looked forward as a just reward for the various travails of life.
Skimming over booklets filled with information, I luxuriated in the ideal of a world as lassez faire as Morocco, but with a greater cultural base. A boisterous parting from my unit, Jobert wishing me well in his grave but kind manner, wistfully enquiring if I could stay, regulations could be relaxed to enable him continue his butterfly-chasing. In the many spare moments behind my Lieutenant’s desk, I playfully revised my itinerary, settling at last upon a passage to France. I wanted a long and leisurely sojourn there. Then would the wine country pass my first-class window, and the channel, and the sea.
Christmas 1923, my last in that desolate land. The barracks shivered in a chill wind off the North Atlantic – dust fell like snow at a ski-resort. Jobert had gone home to Avignon for the season, leaving me in charge. There were some desultory papers, to sort for the New Year. Having all but tidied my superior’s desk, I happened to see the latest brief of police matters. The item that engaged my interest ran as follows;
“Legionnaire Le Clerc (#3379) has escaped from custody at Ouarzazate, where he was being held pending sentence for the crimes of desertion and murder. He is dangerous, having garroted his gaoler with a silk stocking. His current whereabouts are unknown, although it is thought that he may head into the Sahara in the hope of evading justice. The garrison commander is requested to post notice of Le Clerc’s escape and prominently display the photograph of the killer in the town. The offer of a reward is thought by the Surête to be appropriate in this case, given the gravity of the escapee’s crimes and the motivations of the natives.”
Az Isten szerelmare! Is there no end to complications? Carefully burning the notice and photograph, I recorded that my actions comprised the posting of them in the town. No check would be made; no one could gainsay publication. The absence of any notice, if noticed, would be put down to enthusiasm for the-reward. As for the wily Le Clerc, I expected him to gain his freedom or die quietly in the attempt. I had only three months of my contract to discharge.
As a matter of fact, by the time my departure was less than six weeks away, I had all but forgotten the reedy youth, and his awkward grin. It was back to day-dreaming of the Medaille Militaire, being a cattle baron in Arizona. Then a report from the Surête floated across Jobert’s escritoire.
“Three days ago, Inspector Fandor laid by the heels one Henri Le Clerc, deserter from the North African regiments of the Foreign Legion. Le Clerc, who will be also charged with two murders, was detained in Marseilles. He has approached this office offering information for which he seeks to be spared;
1) Concerning Tomas Naffe, notorious smuggler of guns and drugs, believed to be based at Malaga;
2) Regarding the infamous Algerian rebel, Habib Boumedienne; and
3) Concerning a legionnaire named Hofmann at the Rabat garrison, who entertains his fellows with colorful accounts of murder and mayhem, which are drawn from life. The physical description given is of a man of forty or more years, large features, an Eastern European accent, and saturnine manner. Our enquiries are continuing. Rather than conducting any investigation personally, please advise by return if any legionnaires under your command fit the above identification.”
Time gave just enough of itself to permit a wire to be sent to Paris. “No one at Rabat or encampment in Ouarzazate answers to description. Please send further confidential details code-marked Pierre”. Not particularly inspired, I’ll admit – still, the operation had to be conducted under Jobert’s nose, and with haste. Looking back, I take some pride in the steadfast control kept over my nerves. Perhaps I gave just a twitch when bashfully confessing, to my superior officer, to having a sweetheart in Paris who might be sending me a telegram or note soon. He was predictably indulgent, and solemnly promised to respect the confidentiality of such communications, should any arrive on his watch.
This was useful, because I now had to beg leave to enter the town on urgent business. France had lost its luster for me, all of a sudden. Spain or Portugal seemed the better course by which I could get to South Hampton. However, a ship did not leave Rabat for Lisbon until the 13th. I needed an earlier departure to be at least available. But the only other passage on offer was to Gibraltar or Marseilles, by way of Algiers, that put me in too much propinquity, for my comfort, to a past I wished to forget. No, there had to be a third way. I put a trunk call to Ramos, in Tangier.
“My friend, I am anxious to survey our various operations in Madeira. When can I get there?”
“I have a boat that leaves at dawn every morning from Tangier; it goes to Funchal. But are you still seriously contemplating selling your interest? I have not had time to examine my wherewithal.”
“Ramos, if you can arrange for your boat to collect me tomorrow near the military pier at Rabat before it heads to Madeira, you will find me accommodating in the matter of price, I think.”
I converted spare cash into pounds and escudos. I wrote a heart-rending letter to the sentimental Jobert, asking for release from the Legion on compassionate grounds and telling him that, in anticipation of his assent, I had embarked on a journey of personal crisis. The kindly commander would show consideration to the sweetheart he fancied I had found in the autumn of life. If he passed on the note, with orders to track me down, he would give me a head start of a week or so. This out of gratitude for my administrative efforts on his behalf, and in keeping with his sporting instincts, by which even butterflies had a chance to escape.
Besides, if harder heads assumed the chase, they’d search in Paris and Bucharest. And once Pierre Hofman’s identity became known, who knows where they would look?
Friday dawned; it was the seventh day of the month. Rabat was peaceful, the horizon serene. Dressing in civilian clothes, I took what they here call a grip, and slipped out of the garrison. Nodding at Talib, who had volunteered for the watch that evening, I took my leave of the old rogue. I did not feel like a deserter as I free-wheeled down to the wharves. I had done the uniform proud, contributing to the ceaseless flow of smooth, corruption-free administration and tolerant governance that was the rule of France in North Africa, a beacon of Western Civilization in this God-forsaken salad bowl of strange beliefs and lunar landscapes. It was goodbye to all that, not au revoir, and yes, I felt something approaching genuine satisfaction.
Waiting to meet me were two dubious boatmen in an even more questionable vessel. Laboring over a heaving sea to the Portuguese Island on the Aniki-Bobo brought back to me the acute unhappiness I invariably felt away from terra firma; fortunately, the voyages to come promised smoother sailing. When disgorged from the bucking craft, I met another disreputable looking associate of Ramos.
We ascended wet steps carved into the cliff, to a boathouse perched on a narrow promontory. There, with a magnificent view over the rock garden of the Atlantic, its terraces drenched with brightly colored plants, I waited while the man rifled through a bureau. He produced a one-page agreement, assigning my interest in the Madeira Gaming Company Limited to my Portuguese colleague, for nominal consideration, and a brown envelope containing one hundred thousand francs, ten percent of which I gave him back.
The sun drowned. Thitherward Lisbon. Chugging over dark but friendlier seas, there was ample time for mulling over travel plans and regrets. I should have liked to see France. Those Frenchmen, with whom I had become familiar, appealed to me with their haughty defiance, tolerance of rascals and allergy to cant. The skeleton crew dealt cards and produced a whiskey bottle. I raised the stakes with a flask of Malaga and all was well. I let them win, and begged off when they brought out a chessboard. I wanted to review the dizzy affair. My stomach, tempered by war and other sensations, stoutly weathered the swing of hammock below decks, and the lurches of worried calculation. It was fair to guess that the Surête knew of Kiss. A man would be dispatched to investigate in Tangier. Hopefully, the worthy Jobert would not have it too hard, snared in the net of Magyar reproach. From there – who can tell? They’d scour the colonies, post wanted notices in Paris, perhaps Bucharest (without enthusiasm), grill the legionnaires, and mark the file “active,” whilst coming to a dead stop. No, I could not work up a sweat about my pursuers, for the trail was too cold to those to whom I mattered most. Other countries had their own causes célèbre. There was a palpable insularity and apathy in Europe then, quite unlike the nosy and arrogant behavior on the Continent one reads about in the newspapers these days.
The good Trauber might nail a Spanish doubloon to the mast, but none would sail for him. Sail is what I did. Anxious to be off as swiftly as possible, I clambered on a cork boat floating for South Hampton, a thousand miles away. Next week and a half, a new man sauntered onto the docks, and among the long frocks and cloche hats queuing for the “never-stop railway.” It was the famous drizzle, sweeping in from the Channel that convinced me to reject the sightseeing possibilities and book the earliest passage to America. I learned later through Talib, who wrote to my poste restante, that the Surête had taken my reputation seriously enough to set watch – men cueing for channel crossings and railway tickets. Naturally, it was the desertion that offended them, rather than a pile of dead Hungarians. A wondrous indifference attended my departure from Albion. The Cunard White Star Line asked no questions – I produced a wad of pounds and was issued a first-class ticket.
I am back from the telephone. The good woman is coming here, would you believe. These echoes of reminiscence shall need to be stowed, locked up with my master key. Speed is of the essence.
I really am used to my solitude, hence the vague disorientation. The only other living occupant of significance was Salazar, the stray I took in; it tired of the pretense of friendship before I did.
And at night I wander, insomnious; apartment objects glinting in light from the auroral glow, radio air closer than ever, in order to identify her as a foreign noise and shudder. Standing in the dark like a beast on the road, waiting for the headlight of the big black car to pierce the gloom. The French windows flung open, admitting icy winds, which call strange names. Wild laments, trees bending in salutation. And would I curl my lip and let the roar of the crowd wash her over?
We set sail on the good ship Honeydew and five weeks later as the dawn broke, entered the magnificent harbor of New York. The density of the buildings, the artificial shadows, the self-obsessed mass of humanity, cheered me immensely in its augury of anonymity. Here, one could merge and get on with business. From the side of the great vessel, drinking in the splendor of the National Biscuit Company, we were herded onto a tug-like ferry, which labored over the soup-dark water to Ellis Island. After shuttling at snail pace under the outside canopy and filing into the red and white façade of the reception building, we were told by a small man, with a big megaphone, to wait in the great hall of the registry room for processing. Amidst the pungent aroma, I honed my new identity to a rare smoothness and sharpness. Finally, the distance between the melancholy official sitting at the table forming the end of row three, and me, shortened to nothing, and it was time to spin my tale.
“You don’t look Italian.”
“I’m from the north, Lake Como. You bet.”
Too young to be that perfidious Magyar, with whom I had been confused, much older than a legionnaire, absent without leave. This was my reckoning.
“I have none, signore. My papers were confiscated, by the English bastards. Molto furioso, no? You bet.”
I glanced at the aggressive set of the functionary’s jaw, hoping for signs of empathy, at least for some enjoyment of a ripe performance.
“Too bad – well you’ll have to be detained until…”
I broke in hurriedly, holding my right palm upwards solemnly, fingers pointing to heaven as if preparing to cross my heart.
“Basta. I understand padrone. I do have some papers, you bet,” and moving the hand from its declamatory position, fixed it within my coat, producing my Cunard ticket, in which was concealed two hundred pounds. Slapping this on the table and airily waving my free hands to shoo away embarrassment, I affirmed, loudly and clearly, that “I came to this wonderful country for hundreds of reasons.”
The exemplar of civil service drew near the polyglottal writing with one arm, while reaching beneath the table with the other for a blank form of induction, which he stamped and handed over.
“Take this to the line for the medical examining rooms and complete it before you go in with this pencil.”
“Do you need a Special Emigrant Ticket?”
“Ah, no, just directions to the Waldorf-Astoria.”
“That’s on 34th Street. You can get a cab there once the boat takes you into town.”
The examination failed to elicit any trace of infection. By its cursory nature, the doctors – if doctors they were – would be unable to successfully weed out lepers. It was even easier to enter the land of the free than it was the legion. Happily, the rites of passage nowadays are fiery. Foreign cattle are subjected to more than a tongue depressor and torch. It is not so easy to acquire citizenship, as I did while still living in a suite of the Waldorf. The comedy is over.
I missed voting for President Coolidge, but I was able to blame others for Mayor Walker. By the time I cast a jubilant return for my countryman, La Guardia, I had assumed lodgings on Riverside Drive. This outstanding man is stamping out violence and corruption in New York and as such, deserves my whole-hearted support. He has international savvy as well, and baits the revisionist intellectuals who inspect Potemkin conditions in the empire of the bear, and return, exclaiming “Hosanna!”
My country has a lot to learn, but at least it has a minimum of things to un-learn. Uniquely placed to dominate world affairs (while Europe dreams, oscillating between extremes of lunacy, stopping now and then at some absurd mean; refusing to embrace the logic of the National Socialists), it need only break out of its cocoon of naiveté and spread its formidable wings across the Atlantic. Inured from the degradation of the War, immune to the shifts and vicissitudes of currency fluctuations, America can construct a nascent hegemony that will overshadow the corruption of the European imperialists, and contain the colored hordes. This opportunity is unique in the history of mankind, and should not be squandered. I wish I were young again, to ensure that it is not. Of critical importance is the destruction of that most vile of American crucibles, the “melting pot.” Race is the template needing to be re-configured if progress is to be made. The class wars, the wars of faith, are as nothing to the battle against the different shades of grace. We have nothing to fear but them.
I set out first to assimilate. That involved taking the New Yorker, of course, an urbane publication somewhat akin to the Wiener Journal, but written by a better class of Hebrew. On many occasions had I contemplated forwarding a contribution, but held back, from natural reticence and a feeling of cultural isolation. Besides, a by-line attributed to “Caravaggio” would simply not do.
I ventured a demolition of metaphysics, under the pseudonym “Dean Forbes-Carter,” which was rejected. But by the time I obtained citizenship (and a position) in the name of “Professor Max Hoffmann,” it was, frankly, no longer soigne to be associated with that periodical, though vital to be conversant with it, in order to remain part of the “push.”
I became a follower of the New York Yankees and an ardent admirer of El Bambino. I joined the Stock Exchange Club, which turned out to be a fortunate affiliation because, owing to a friendly tip in the fall of 1929, I divested myself of enough U.S. Steel, General Electric, Anaconda Copper and Montgomery Ward shares to avoid obliteration.
In the name of my lucky nom de plume, retained in the face of all logic, I enthusiastically embraced the fruits of democracy. I contributed to the La Guardia campaign. I joined the Republican Party, and railed against Hoover’s election, on the ground of incompetence, and against Roosevelt because he was a Communist. I wept when my beloved Waldorf was demolished, and cheered when it was re-built. I had a seat in the box when the Mayor conducted the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. In short, I embraced the World’s Capital, and it adopted me.
People complain about the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York City, and it is true that if you trip along Fifth Avenue, or Times Square, or Grand Central Station at rush hour, everyone seems to be making a concerted hullabaloo. But this is just the commerce of a great city, I feel. The mass of humanity represents solidity, opportunity, friendly anonymity. One can lose oneself on the streets of Manhattan – no one minds anyone else’s business. The city is a devastating leveler, constantly reminding us, like Stalin, that we should not be too solemn about life, especially in this insane epoch. Finally, as in all great cities, you can pay to belong.
As I gaze out at the Hudson from my apartment, the ceaseless hum of river and traffic providing a reassuring backdrop, it seems to me that millions of my fellow Americans have stories to tell, too, of how they got here, and of the hurdles they overcame. There is a strong feeling of cohesion, of shared experience, among the European refugees, who struggled to make this place their home, and find happiness here. Here, where I have no more need to run, I welcome the wonderful sense of belonging, which is the essence of citizenship. I cherish the incomparable feeling of what in English is called tranquility, but which in the old country has the more sonorous term, nyugalom.
This is the environment I inhabit and the life at last achieved – Nyugalom.
[This story is taken with minor emendation, from “Tranquility.”]