Stationmaster Fallmerayer

Stationmaster Fallmerayer

Roth, Joseph

I

The strange story of the Austrian stationmaster Adam Fallmerayer deserves, without a doubt, to be written down for posterity. He lost his life, which, let it be said, would never have been a glittering one-and perhaps not even a satisfying one-in the most extraordinary way. On all known form, he was not an obvious candidate for an unusual fate. And yet, it reached him, it took him-and he even seemed to give himself up to it with a certain pleasure.

He had been a stationmaster since 1908. Shortly after taking up his post in the station of L., two hours south of Vienna, he married the daughter of a Chancery Councilor from Brunn-a good woman, slightly dim, no longer in the first flush of her youth. It was a “love match,” as people used to say in those days, when marriages of convenience were the norm. His parents were no longer alive. In marrying, Fallmerayer followed not the voice of common sense but the cool prompting of his cool heart. He became a father-to twin girls. He had expected a son. It was in his nature to expect a son, and therefore to view the simultaneous arrival of two girls as an embarrassment and a setback, if not as an outright prank on the part of the Almighty. But as he was comfortably off and had pension rights, he grew reconciled to the bounty of nature, and, some three months after the birth, he began to love his children. To love them: in other words, to care for them with the traditional bourgeois conscientiousness of a father and a loyal official.

One day in March 1914, Adam Fallmerayer, as usual, was sitting in his office. The telegraph was ticking away incessantly. Outside, it was raining. It was a premature rain. Only a week before, they had had to shovel the snow off the tracks, and the trains had arrived and departed with appalling delays. Then, overnight, it had started raining. The snow vanished. And over the little station, where the dazzling, unattainable splendor of alpine snow seemed to have guaranteed the everlasting dominion of winter, there had now been for some days a kind of nondescript gray-blue haze, compounded of clouds, sky, rain, and granite.

It was raining, and the air was warm. Stationmaster Fallmerayer had never known such an early spring. The big express trains that went south, to Merano, to Trieste, to Italy, never stopped at his tiny station. Twice daily, the expresses swept past Fallmerayer, who stepped out onto the platform in his bright red cap to greet them; they almost demoted the stationmaster to a signalman. The faces of the passengers in the big windows blended into one indistinct gray-white mass. Stationmaster Fallmerayer had never really been able to see the face of a passenger heading south. And “the South” was more than just a geographical term for the stationmaster. “The South” was the sea-a sea of sun, freedom, and happiness.

Free rail travel for all the family was one of the perks enjoyed by senior officials on the Southern Railway. When the twins were just three years old, he had taken them to Bolzano. They had to ride on a local train for an hour to reach the station where the proud expresses stopped, and there they got out, got on, got out again-and they still weren’t in the South by any manner of means. The holiday lasted for four weeks. He saw rich people from all over the world-and it was as though the ones he saw were the very richest of all. For them, it wasn’t a holiday. Their lives were one long holiday. And as far as he could see-far and wide-the richest people in the world were not afflicted with twins, much less twin girls. In fact: it was the rich who brought Southernness into the South. An official of the Southern Railway lived in a permanent North.

So he went back, and went back to his work. The telegraph ticked away incessantly. And the rain rained down.

Fallmerayer looked up from his desk. It was five o’clock in the afternoon. Although the sun hadn’t gone down yet, what with the rain, it was already starting to feel dark. On the sloping glass roof over the platform, the rain drummed away just as incessantly as the ticking of the telegraph-and there was a cozy, incessant dialogue between man and nature. The platform, with its big blue paving stones, was kept dry by the glass roof But the rails, and between them, the tiny pieces of gravel ballast, glistened-in spite of the darkness-in the damp magic of the rain.

Even though Stationmaster Fallmerayer was hardly of a fanciful cast of mind, this day still struck him for some reason as a fateful day, and as he looked out of the window, he felt himself beginning to tremble. In thirty-six minutes, the express to Merano was due to pass through L. In thirty-six minutes-so Fallmerayer thought-the night would be at hand, a dreadful night. Upstairs, the twins were rampaging as always; he heard their footfalls overhead, tripping, toddlerish, and yet somehow brutal. He threw open the window. It wasn’t cold any more. The spring was coming over the Alps. He could hear the whistles of the shunting locomotives, as he could every day, and the shouts of the railwaymen, and the dull clattering buffetings of coupled wagons. Even so-Fallmerayer thought-there was something distinctive about the locomotives’ whistles today. He was an utterly ordinary man. And the oddest thing of all was the fact that on that day, in all these familiar, routine sounds, he thought he heard the inexplicable voice of an uncommon fate. But on that day there occurred the overwhelming catastrophe whose consequences were to transform Adam Fallmerayer’s life.

II

The express was already running slightly late when it left the town of B. Two minutes before it was due in L., because of some incorrectly set points, it ran into the back of a waiting freight train. The catastrophe had happened.

Hastily picking up a perfectly useless lantern that had been left on the platform, Stationmaster Fallmerayer ran along the tracks toward the place of the accident. He had felt the need to pick up some object or other. It seemed to him unacceptable to run toward the catastrophe with empty, as it were weaponless, hands. He ran for ten minutes, without a coat, feeling the steady lash of the rain on his neck and shoulders.

When he reached the site of the catastrophe, people had already begun carrying out the dead, the hurt, the trapped. The darkness was falling more rapidly now, as though night itself were in a hurry to be there for the initial impact, and to magnify the terror. The fire brigade from the little town arrived with torches that crackled and sputtered in protest at the rain. Thirteen carriages lay wrecked on the rails. The driver and boilerplate man-both of them dead-had already been taken away. Railwaymen and firemen and passengers were pulling at the wreckage with any tools they could find. The screams of the injured were pitifil, the rain poured down, the torches crackled in the wet. The stationmaster shivered as he stood in the rain. His teeth were chattering. He had the sense that he ought to do something like everyone else, but at the same time he was afraid he might not be allowed to help, because he might be to blame for the accident himself. There were a few of the railwaymen who recognized him and greeted him hurriedly in the midst of their work, and Fallmerayer tried to address them in a toneless voice that might equally have been a command and an apology. But none of them listened to him. He had never seemed to himself so utterly superfluous in the world. He was on the point of feeling sorry that he was not among the victims, when his aimlessly wandering eye lit on a woman who had just been brought out on a stretcher. There she lay, abandoned by the volunteers who had rescued her, her huge dark eyes staring at the torches nearest to her, draped from shoulders to hips in a silvery-gray fur, and quite evidently not able to move. The indefatigable rain fell on her large, pale, wide face, and the torchlight flickered over it. The face itself shone wet and silvery in the magical play of flame and shadow. Her slim white hands lay on the fur, unmoving as well, two beautiful corpses. The stationmaster had the impression that this woman on her stretcher was resting on a great white island of calm, in the midst of a deafening sea of noise and clatter, and that she even spread more calm. And indeed it was as though all the rushing, bustling people were doing everything in their power to avoid the stretcher on which the woman was lying. Was she perhaps already dead? Was there nothing more to be done for her? Stationmaster Fallmerayer slowly approached the stretcher.

The woman was alive. She was unhurt. When Fallmerayer bent down to her, she said, without awaiting his question-almost as though she was afraid of his questionthat there was nothing the matter with her, and that she thought she could get up. At worst, she had lost her luggage. She was sure she could get up. And she made an effort to do so. Fallmerayer helped her. He took her fur in his left hand, and with his right he took the woman by the shoulder, waited for her to get up, laid the fur over her shoulders, and then his arm over the fur, and so they walked the few paces over the gravel and the rails, neither of them saying anything, to the hut of a signalman nearby, up a few steps, into the dry and the warmth.

“Just rest here for a minute or two,” said Fallmerayer. “I have things to attend to outside. I’ll be back very soon.”

Even as he spoke, he knew he was lying. It was probably the first time in his life that he had lied. And yet, he didn’t think twice about lying. Even though he wanted nothing more than to stay with the woman, it was too terrible to stand before her as a useless idler, with nothing to do, while outside a thousand hands were assisting and rescuing. So he plunged outside-and to his own astonishment, he found he now had the courage and strength to assist and to rescue, to give a command here and a bit of advice there, and even though all the time he was assisting and rescuing and working he was thinking about the woman in the hut, and even though the possibility that he might not see her later was ghastly and terrible to him, still he continued to occupy himself at the scene of the crash, afraid to return to her too soon and so demonstrate his uselessness to the strange woman. He imagined her watching him and urging him on, and he soon regained confidence in his word and his judgment. He proved to be a swift, resourceful, and courageous helper.

So for two hours he worked, thinking all the time about the waiting woman. After the doctor and the medical staffs had tended to the injured, Fallmerayer set off back to the signalman’s hut. In passing, he told the doctor, whom he knew, that there was one more victim of the catastrophe sheltering there. Not without pride, he looked down at his scraped and bloodied hands and soiled uniform. He took the doctor to the signalman’s front room and greeted the woman, who seemed not to have stirred from the spot, with the cheerful confident smile with which one greets an old friend.

“Kindly examine the lady,” he said to the doctor. And he himself walked outside. He waited for a few minutes. The doctor came out and said, “A minor shock, nothing worse. She should probably stay here for awhile. Can you put her up in your apartment?”

“Certainly, certainly!” replied Fallmerayer. And together they brought the woman to the station, up the steps, to the stationmaster’s apartment.

“She’ll be completely recovered in three or four days,” said the doctor. At that moment, Fallmerayer wished it could be many more days.

III

Fallmerayer gave the woman his room and his bed. The stationmaster’s wife was kept shuttling between her and the children. Twice a day, Fallmerayer put in an appearance himself. The twins were under strict orders to keep quiet.

A day later, all traces of the accident had been removed, the usual investigation set up, Fallmerayer questioned, and the culpable signalman removed from duty. Twice a day, as before, the expresses rushed past the saluting stationmaster.

The evening after the disaster, Fallmerayer learned the name of the woman: she was a Countess Walewska, a Russian who came from the Kiev region, and had been on her way from Vienna to Merano. Part of her luggage was found and returned to her: black and brown leather suitcases. They smelled of leather and an unfamiliar perfume, the scent of which now dominated Fallmerayer’s entire apartment.

He slept-since he had given his own bed to the woman-not in the bedroom next to Frau Fallmerayer, but downstairs, in his office. Or rather: he didn’t sleep. He lay awake. In the morning, at nine o’clock, he entered the room where the woman lay. He asked her how she’d slept and whether she’d breakfasted, how she was feeling. Took a bunch of fresh violets to the vase on the sideboard where the old ones had stood, took the old ones out, stood the new ones in fresh water, and stopped for a moment at the foot of the bed. In front of him lay the woman, on his pillows, under his covers. He muttered indistinctly. With her large dark eyes, and strong white face, as wide as a strange, sweet landscape, on the pillows, under the covers of the stationmaster, lay the woman. “Won’t you sit down?” she said to him, every day, twice. She spoke German in a strange, low voice, with a harsh and strange Russian accent. All the splendor of distance and the unknown were in her throat.

Fallmerayer would not sit. “Excuse me, I’m busy,” he said, turned on his heel, and walked out.

For six days it was like that. On the seventh, the doctor told the woman she could travel. Her husband was waiting for her in Merano. So she went, leaving behind in every room, and most especially in Fallmerayer’s bed, an inextinguishable smell of leather and an unfamiliar perfume.

IV

That strange scent remained in Fallmerayer’s apartment, in his memory, yes, one could even say, in his heart, for much longer than the accident. And in the ensuing weeks, as the precise cause of the accident and a detailed account of the events were established in the course of the usual interminable public inquiry, before which Fallmerayer twice had to give evidence, he did not stop thinking about the woman, and, as if intoxicated by the scent she had left around him and on him, he gave almost incoherent answers to the most elementary questions. Had his duty not been comparatively straightforward, and had he not himself over the years become virtually a mechanical extension of that duty, he could not, in all conscience, have continued to perform it. Secretly, he was hoping for news of the woman with every post. He had no doubt that she would write, as was only proper, to thank him for his hospitality. And one day, a large dark blue letter arrived from Italy. Countess Walewska wrote that she and her husband had traveled further south. She was presently in Rome. She and her husband intended to go as far as Sicily. A day later, a pretty basket of fruit arrived for Fallmerayer’s twins, and Countess Walewska’s husband sent the stationmaster’s wife a bunch of delicately scented pale pink roses. It had taken her a long time, wrote the Countess, to find time to thank her kind hosts, but even after her arrival in Merano she had still felt shaky and in need of rest. Fallmerayer took the fruit and the flowers straight upstairs. The letter, though it had come the previous day, he kept back a little longer.

The fruit and the roses carried a strong aroma of the South, but to Fallmerayer the Countess’s letter was still more aromatic. It was a short letter. Fallmerayer quickly knew it by heart. He knew the exact position of each word. Written in purple ink, in beautiful, flowing strokes, the letters were like a beautiful swarm of exotic, slender, exquisitely plumed birds, soaring against a deep blue sky. The Countess had signed herself “Anya Walewska.” He had long desired to know the first name of the woman, and had never dared to ask her, as though her first name were one of her hidden physical charms. And now that he knew it, he felt for a time as though she had made him privy to a sweet confidence. Out of jealousy, and to keep its possession for himself, he decided not to show his wife the letter for another two days. Ever since he’d found out Anya’s first name, it seemed to him that that of his wife-it was Klara-was ugly. When he watched Mara’s indifferent hands unfolding the letter, the memory of the writer’s hands flooded back to him-as he had first seen them, motionless hands against her fur, two shimmering silver hands. I should have kissed them then and there, he thought. “What a nice note,” said his wife, and laid it aside. Her eyes were steely blue and dutiful; she didn’t even register any concern. Frau Klara Fallmerayer was able to transform even her concerns into duties, and to find a certain satisfaction in sorrow. All at once, Fallmerayer-never previously given to such speculations or insights-thought he understood that. And that night he claimed some urgent official task, steered clear of their shared room, and lay down in his office downstairs, trying to convince himself that up above him the stranger was still sleeping in his own bed.

The days went by, the months. A couple of colorful postcards winged their way north from Sicily, with hurried greetings. Summer came, a hot summer. As the holiday season approached, Fallmerayer decided not to go anywhere. He sent his wife and children up for a holiday in the mountains. He stayed behind and worked. It was the first time he had been apart from his wife since their wedding. He had hoped for too much from this period of solitude. It wasn’t until he found himself alone that he realized that that wasn’t what he had wanted at all. He combed through all the drawers, searching for the woman’s letter. But he couldn’t find it anywhere. Frau Fallmerayer probably had thrown it away long ago.

His wife and children returned. July was almost over. Then the general mobilization was at hand.

V

Fallmerayer was ensign in the reserves with the Twenty-first Rifles. As his job had some strategic importance, it would have been possible for him to ask, as a number of his colleagues did, to stay in civilian life a while longer. Instead, Fallmerayer put on his uniform, packed his case, hugged his children, kissed his wife, and joined his regiment. He handed over his duty to his deputy. Frau Fallmerayer wept, the twins cheered because they had never seen their father in army uniform before. Of course, Frau Fallmerayer did not fail to be proud of her husband as well-but only in the final hour of his departure. She kept back her tears. Her blue eyes shone with bitter conscientiousness.

As for the stationmaster himself, he didn’t feel the grim finality of these hours until he found himself in a train compartment with a few of his comrades. And even then, he felt an unexpected cheerfulness set him apart from the others. They were all officers in the reserve. Each of them had left behind a home and loved ones. Each of them was, just then, a wholehearted and committed soldier. And at the same time, each of them was an inconsolable father, an inconsolable son. Only Fallmcrayer had the sense that the mobilization had come along just in time to get him out of a hopeless situation. Of course, he felt sorry for the twins. And for his wife. Certainly, for his wife too. But while, when his comrades spoke of home, they revealed the deep tenderness they felt in every word and gesture, Fallmerayer felt that if he was to match them, he had, if not exactly to lie, then at least to put an exaggerated concern in his voice and eyes when he spoke about his loved ones. Actually, he would rather have spoken about Countess Walewska than about his family. He forced himself to remain silent. And it seemed to him he was lying in a double sense: firstly, because he wasn’t talking about what really moved him; and secondly, because when he did mention his wife and children, they were much more remote from him then than Countess Walewska, a woman from a hostile nation. He began to feel a degree of contempt for himself.

VI

He joined the regiment. He was sent to the front. He saw action. He was a brave soldier. He wrote the usual matter-of-fact field postcards home. He was decorated, was promoted to lieutenant. He was wounded. He was put in a field hospital. He was offered home leave. He turned it down, and went back to the front. He fought in the East. In the free time left him in between battles, troop inspection, advances, he began to teach himself Russian from books he’d happened to pick up. He was passionate about it. Surrounded by the stink of gas and the smell of blood, in the rain, in the swamp, in the mud, in the sweat of the living, in the reek of the moldering dead, Fallmerayer pursued the strange scent of leather and the unfamiliar perfume of the woman who had once lain in his bed, on his pillows, under his covers. He learned the woman’s mother tongue, and he imagined he was speaking to her, in her language. He learned endearments, sweet nothings, love whisperings in Russian. He talked to her. Separated from her by the whole of the World War, he talked to her. He questioned Russian prisoners. With hearing sharpened a hundredfold, he took in the faintest nuances, and his fluent tongue reproduced them. With every new sound of the foreign language he was learning, he was coming closer to the strange woman. He knew nothing more about her than what he’d last seen: a dashed-off greeting and a dashed-off signature on a banal postcard. But he felt her living for him; waiting for him. Before long he would speak to her.

When his battalion was transferred to the Southern Front, he found himselfbecause of his knowledge of Russian-seconded to one of the regiments that, shortly afterwards, were to make up the so-called Army of Occupation. First, Fallmerayer was employed as an interpreter at the divisional HQ, and then at “Information and Intelligence.” Eventually, he found himself near Kiev.

VII

Of course, he had remembered the name Solovienki. More than remembered it: the name had become familiar, almost a part of himself.

It was easy enough to find out the name of the estate that belonged to the Walewski family. It was called Solovki, and it was some three versts south of Kiev. Fallmerayer felt a sweet and painful clutch of excitement. He felt endlessly grateful to fortune for taking him off to the war and now bringing him here, and at the same time he felt a nameless panic at whatever it might bring next. The war, the offensive, his wound, the chance of death: what wishy-washy experiences these were, compared to what he was facing now. Everything to date had been nothing more than a-who knows? inadequate-preparation for seeing the woman again. Was he really prepared for every eventuality? Would she be at home? Wouldn’t the invasion of the enemy army have driven her back to some more secure place? And if she was living at home, would her husband not be with her? There was nothing for it but to go there and see.

Fallmerayer had a carriage made ready, and he set off.

It was quite early one morning in May. He rolled along in a light two-wheeler, past flowering meadows, on a winding sandy lane, through an almost uninhabited stretch of country. Troops were tramping and clattering around, doing their usual drills. Hidden up in the bright and lofty blue arc of heaven, the skylarks were trilling. Dense dark patches of pine forest alternated with the cheerful shimmer of silver birches. The fitful morning wind carried the sound of soldiers singing in their far-distant encampments. Fallmerayer thought of his childhood, of the nature he was used to in his own country. He had been born and raised not far from the station where he had served until the beginning of the war. His father before him had worked for the railways, as a junior official, a depot manager. All Fallmerayer’s childhood, and his subsequent life as an adult, had been filled with as many of the sounds and smells of trains as of nature. The locomotives whistled duets with the birds. The heavy smell of anthracite overlaid the breath of the fields in spring. The gray smoke of the locomotives blended with the blue clouds over the mountains to form a single fog of sweet melancholy and yearning. How different was this world here: it was at once cheerful and sad, no more gentle slopes with hidden bounty, the lilacs sparse, no full drooping clusters behind neatly painted fences. Low huts with low, wide roofs of straw like hoods over them, tiny villages adrift in the huge distances, almost hidden on the vast plains. How different were all the different countries! Was it like that with human hearts, too? Will she understand me? Fallmerayer asked himself. Will she understand me? And the closer he came to the Walewski estate, the more brightly the question burned in his heart. The closer he came, the more certain he was that he would find the woman at home. Soon, he was quite convinced that he was only a matter of minutes away from seeing her again. Yes, she was at home.

At the beginning of the little avenue of birches that lined the final climb up to the house, Fallmerayer leaped down from his carriage. He wanted to take the last few steps on foot, to spin them out a little longer still. An old retainer asked him what he had come about. To see the Countess, replied Fallmerayer. Then he would go and tell his mistress there was someone to see her, said the man, and he went off slowly, and in a little while came back. Yes, the Countess was at home and would receive him.

The Countess of course didn’t recognize Fallmerayer. She supposed he was just the latest of a succession of military visitors she had had to receive in recent times. She asked him to sit. Her voice, low, dark, and strange, at once shocked him and seemed deeply familiar, a familiar thrill, a well-known, rapturously welcome, yearningly overdue terror. “I’m Fallmerayer!” said the officer. Of course the name meant nothing to her. “You don’t remember,” he began again, “I’m the stationmaster in L.” She stepped nearer, took his hands, and there it was, he smelled it again, the scent that had followed him for time immemorial, surrounded him, cosseted him, hurt and comforted him. For an instant her hands lay in his.

“Oh, you must have so much to tell me!” exclaimed the Countess. He told her in the most cursory terms how he had got on. “And what about your wife, and your children?” asked the Countess. “I haven’t seen them,” said Fallmerayer. “I didn’t take any leave.” A silence ensued. They looked at one another. The rich, golden sun of early morning shone into the broad, low-ceilinged, whitewashed, almost bare room. Flies buzzed around the windows. Fallmerayer contemplated the broad pale face of the Countess. Perhaps she did understand him. She got up to draw a curtain in front of the middle of the three windows. “Too bright for you?” she asked. “I like it dark,” replied Fallmerayer. She returned to the low tea table, shook a little bell; the old servant appeared; she ordered tea. The silence between them was undisturbed: in fact, it deepened, until the tea was brought. Fallmerayer smoked. She was pouring the tea, when he suddenly asked: “Where’s your husband?”

She finished pouring the tea, as though she had to consider her reply very carefully. “Why, at the front, of course!” she said at last. “I haven’t had any news of him for three months. Correspondence isn’t possible anymore, obviously.” “Are you very worried about him?” asked Fallmerayer. “Of course I am,” she replied, “just as your wife is about you, I expect.” “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” said Fallmerayer. He stared into his teacup.

She had refused, the Countess continued, to leave the house. She was not about to flee, either from her own peasants or from the enemy. She was living there with four servants, a couple of horses, and a dog. Her money and her jewels were-she groped for the word; she had forgotten how to say “buried” in German, and she pointed to the ground. Fallmerayer said it in Russian. “Do you speak Russian, then?” she asked. “Yes,” he said, “I learned it, learned it in the army.” And he added, in Russian: “It was for you, to be able to talk to you, that I learned Russian.”

She told him he spoke it remarkably well, as though his last sentence had been nothing but a linguistic exercise. Thus she sought to defuse his declaration, turn it into a meaningless grammatical display. But her response showed him that she had taken his meaning.

I’ll go now, he thought. And he promptly stood up. Without waiting for her invitation, and knowing that she would put the correct construction upon his unmannerliness, he said: “I’ll be back.” She said nothing. He kissed her hand and left. VIII He left-and he no longer had any doubt that his destiny was beginning to fulfill itself. It is a law, he said to himself It is not possible for one person to be so irresistibly drawn to another, and for the other to remain indifferent. Her feelings are the same as mine. And if she doesn’t love me yet, then she soon will.

Fallmerayer discharged his duties with the habitual unquestioning efficiency of an official and an army officer. He took the decision to ask for a couple of weeks off, for the first time since he had joined up. His promotion to first lieutenant was imminent. He decided to wait for that to take effect first.

Two days later, he drove out to Solovienki again. He was told that Countess Walewska was out, and not expected to return till noon. “Well,” he said, “I’ll just wait in the garden.” And because no one dared throw him out, he was let into the garden behind the house.

He looked up at the two rows of windows. He sensed that the Countess was at home and had merely pretended to be out. And indeed, he thought he caught a flash of a pale dress, now in this window, now in that. He waited patiently, positively serenely. When it struck twelve from the nearby clocktower, he went back up to the house. There was Countess Walewska. She was just coming down the stairs, in a tight black high-necked dress, with a necklace of baby seedpearls round her neck, and a silver bracelet over her tight left cuff. It looked to Fallmerayer as though she had put on a suit of armor on his account-and the fire that had always burned in his heart for her now suddenly acquired an extra little flame. Love lit new lights. Fallmerayer smiled. “I waited a long time,” he said, “but as you know, I was glad to wait. I looked up at your windows from the garden, and persuaded myself I was blessed with the occasional glimpse of you. The time passed.”

Did he want some lunch, asked the Countess, since it was midday. Yes, he replied, he was hungry. But then, of the three courses that were served, he took only the most ridiculously tiny amounts.

The Countess talked about the outbreak of war. How they had hurried back from Cairo. Of her husband’s guards regiment. Of his comrades. Then about her childhood. Her father and mother. How she had grown up. It was as though she were desperately casting about for things to say, and didn’t even care if some of it was made upanything to keep the taciturn Fallmerayer from speaking. He stroked his little blond mustache, and gave every appearance of paying close attention. But in fact he was far more attentive to her fragrance than to what she was saying. His pores were listening. And anyway: her speech was scented too, the words she spoke. He could guess all she had to say. Nothing about her could remain concealed from him. What could she conceal from him? He could see right through her austere dress. He could feel his hands yearning for her, his hands felt homesick for the woman. When they got up, he said he thought he might stay awhile, he had the day off, and he would be taking a much longer furlough in a few days’ time, once he’d been promoted to first lieutenant. Where was he thinking of going? asked the Countess. “Nowhere!” said Fallmerayer. “I’d stay here with you.” She invited him to stay as long as he liked, today and in the future. But now she had to excuse herself, she had some business about the house.

If he cared to stay, there were plenty of rooms, they wouldn’t get in each other’s way. He took his leave. As she couldn’t stay with him, he said, he preferred to go back to town.

When he climbed into his carriage, she was standing on the porch, in her strict black dress, with her broad white face above it-and as he picked up the whip, she lifted her hand a little way, in a half-repressed gesture of farewell.

IX

Perhaps a week after this visit, newly promoted First Lieutenant Adam Fallmerayer was given his furlough. He told all his comrades that he was going home. Then, he went to the house of the Walewskis, moved into a ground-floor room that had been made ready for him, took his meals every day with the lady of the house, talked with her about this and that, indifferent, remote subjects, told her about the front, didn’t care what he talked about, and in turn didn’t listen to her when she spoke. At night, he didn’t sleep, just as he hadn’t slept those years before at home in the station building during those six nights the Countess had spent in his room, overhead. Once more, he had a sense of her over him at night, over his head, over his heart.

One night-it was humid, and a good, relieving rain began to fall-Fallmerayer got up, dressed, and went outside. A yellow oil lamp lit the wide staircase. The house was silent, the night was silent, the rain was silent, it came down as on soft sand, and its monotonous melody was the sound of the nocturnal silence. A step creaked. Fallmerayer heard it, even though he was outside the front door. He had left the heavy door open. And he saw Countess Walewska coming down the stairs. She was dressed as if for the day. He bowed silently. She came up to him. They remained in silence for a second or two. Fallmerayer could hear his heart beating. He thought he could hear her heart beating as loud as his own-and in time with it. The air seemed all of a sudden to have become heavy again, not a breath of wind came in through the door. Fallmerayer said: “Let’s walk in the rain, I’ll get you a coat.” And without waiting to hear what she would say, he plunged into his room, came out with his own coat, and laid it round the shoulders of the woman, just as he once had laid her far on that one, unforgettable night of the disaster, and then he laid his arm over the coat. And so they walked out into the night and the rain.

They walked down the avenue of birches. In spite of the darkness and the damp, the frail reedy stems glinted silver, as though lit up from within. And as though the silvery sheen of these tenderest of trees awoke a corresponding tenderness in Fallmerayer, he pressed his arm more tightly around the woman’s shoulder; he felt, through the stiff, sodden material, the yielding kindness of her body, briefly he thought he could feel it inclining toward him, even press itself against him, but a second later there was a wide space between them once more. His hand left her shoulder, moved up to her wet hair, brushed over her wet ear, touched her wet face. And a moment later, they both stopped as one, turned to one another, clasped each other, the coat slipped from her shoulders and fell heavily to the ground-and so, in the rain and the night, they pressed their faces together, their mouths together, and they kissed and kissed.

x

There was one occasion when First Lieutenant Fallmerayer was earmarked for transfer to Shmerinka, but after a lot of trouble, he was able to stay where he was. He was absolutely determined that he wouldn’t go anywhere. Every morning and evening, he blessed the war and the occupation. Nothing terrified him as much as a sudden return of peace. He thought of Count Walewski as long dead, either killed in action or murdered by mutinous Communist troops. The war simply had to go on indefinitely, and Fallmerayer for his part would happily serve indefinitely in this place and in this capacity.

Never again peace on earth.

Fallmerayer had fallen prey to exuberance, as happens in the case of people in whom excess of passion dazzles the senses, stifles insight, fools the mind. He thought there was just himself in the world, himself and the object of his love. But of course, quite heedless of him, the great and inscrutable wheel of the world was rolling on. The Revolution came. Fallmerayer, the amorous first lieutenant, hadn’t seen it coming.

Even so, as is often the way in situations of extreme peril, the sudden stroke of the hour of destiny roused his sleepy brain, and with renewed alertness he saw that he had to save the lives of his beloved and himself, and above all, to rescue their union. And since, what with the confusion brought on by the sudden turn of events, and thanks to his military rank and his specialist line of service, there were still a few means of assistance and even some vestiges of authority left to him, he wasted no time in deploying them. And so, in the space of the few days in which the Austrian Army collapsed, the Germans pulled out of the Ukraine, the Red Russians began their advance, and a resentful peasantry once again began to loot and burn the houses of the estate owners, he was able to organize two well-protected vehicles for the use of Countess Walewska, half a dozen loyal troops with guns and ammunition, and supplies to last about a week.

One evening-the Countess at this stage was still refusing to leave her houseFallmerayer turned up with his cars and soldiers, and with rough words and almost brute force compelled his lover to retrieve the jewels she had buried in the garden, and get ready to leave. It took all night. When the dull and rainy late autumn day finally dawned, they were finished, and their flight could begin. The soldiers traveled in the larger of the two vehicles under the canvas roof. A military driver chauffeured the other car, with the Countess and Fallmerayer in the back. They had decided not to head west, along with everyone else, but south. It was a safe bet that all the roads west would be choked with returning or fleeing troops. And who knew what further obstacles they would face when they reached the borders of the newly created states in the west of Russia! It was even possible-and this turned out later to be indeed the case-that new wars would erupt in the western successor states. And then there was the fact that Countess Walewska had wealthy and powerful relatives in the Crimea and in the Caucasus. Even under the changed circumstances, they could still turn to them for help, should that become necessary. And most important of all: a profound instinct told the two lovers that at a time when the whole of the earth was plunged into chaos, the eternal sea must be the only place that would guarantee them freedom.

Therefore, the sea became their first objective. They offered the men a sizable sum in pure gold to escort them to the Caucasus. And, in an excited but confident frame of mind, they drove off.

As Fallmerayer had prepared everything very thoroughly, and had allowed for all sorts of possible and unlikely chances and mischances as well, they were able to reach Tbilisi in very quick time-no more than four days. There, they paid off their escorts, keeping only the driver as far as Baku. A good number of Russians from the aristocratic and propertied classes had also thought to flee south to the Crimea. In spite of their original intentions, the couple avoided contact with the Countess’s friends and relatives. Instead, Fallmerayer endeavored to find a ship that would take them out of Baku to the nearest safe country. Inevitably, they encountered other families, more or less acquainted with the Walewskis, also, like Fallmerayer, looking for a ship to carry them to safety-and equally inevitably, the Countess found herself having to give false information about Fallmerayer and about the nature of their relationship. In the end, they were forced to acknowledge that they could not effect their planned flight alone, but only in concert with others in the same predicament. So they came to an understanding with a group of eight other people who wanted to leave Russia by sea. Finally they found the trustworthy captain of a rather unreliable-looking steamer, and made first for Constantinople, from where there were still regular sailings on to France and Italy.

Three weeks later, Fallmerayer and his beloved reached Monte Carlo, where the Walewskis had bought a small villa before the war. Now Fallmerayer thought he had reached the pinnacle of happiness and life. He was loved by the most beautiful woman in the world. More: he loved the most beautiful woman in the world. She, whose image had lived in him so powerfully for years, was always by his side. He himself lived in her. When they were together-and there was hardly an hour of the day in which they were apart-he saw himself hourly reflected in her eyes. The woman who, only a little while ago, had been too proud to listen to the voice of her heart and of her senses, this woman now had no other aim or desire in life than to be the mistress of Fallmerayer, a stationmaster of the Austrian Southern Railway, his child, his adored, his world. Countess Walewska was as perfectly happy as Fallmerayer. The storm of passion that had begun to grow in Fallmerayer’s heart from the fateful night of the accident at the station of L. now swept up the woman as well, bore her off, took her thousands of miles from home and habit, from the reality she had lived in to that point. She was transported to a wild and unknown land of feeling and thought. And this land was her new home. The things that went on in the big, disorderly world failed to concern them. The possessions she had with her were enough to absolve them of the need to work for several years. In any case, they were not interested in the future. If they visited a casino, then it was out of sheer exuberance. They could afford to lose money-and lose money they did, in accordance with the proverb that says lucky in love, unlucky with money. Their losses delighted them; as though they needed that old superstition to reinforce their love. But like all happy people, they were inclined to test their happiness, so that, if it held up, they might find themselves even happier.

XI

Even though Countess Walewska had her Fallmerayer all to herself, she still was incapable-as many women are incapable-of loving for long without fearing the loss of her beloved (for often it is a woman’s fear of losing a man that heightens her love and her passion for him). So, one day, even though Fallmerayer had given her no cause for any anxiety on that score, she began to ask him to divorce his wife and renounce his children and his job. Straightaway, Fallmerayer wrote a letter to his cousin Heinrich, who was a senior official in the Education Ministry in Vienna, saying that he had irrevocably broken with his past life. He had no desire to travel to Vienna in person, but was eager that a well-qualified lawyer be found to expedite the divorce in his absence.

By strange coincidence-so Heinrich replied a few days later-two years had just elapsed since Fallmerayer had been listed as missing. Since he had at no time given any sign of life, his wife and few remaining relatives all supposed him to have died. Long ago, L. had had a new stationmaster. Long ago, Frau Fallmerayer had taken the twins to live with her parents in BrUnn. It seemed simplest to remain silent, always assuming that Fallmerayer didn’t run into difficulties over passport or the like at any of the Austrian missions abroad.

Fallmerayer thanked his cousin, promised he would continue to write to him from time to time, and enjoined him to silence. He showed the correspondence to his beloved. Her mind was set at rest. She no longer feared Fallmerayer might leave. But, once gripped by the mysterious fear that Nature sows in the hearts of such ardent and passionate women (perhaps, who knows, to guarantee the future of the world), Countess Walewska desired to have a child with her lover-and from the moment the wish arose in her, she began to give herself over to imagining the excellent qualities of the child they would have together; she was, in a sense, devoting herself to it already. Impulsive and gay and quick as she was, still she saw in her lover-whose infinite love it had taken her own charming impetuousness to awaken-the embodiment of reasoned and thoughtful superiority. And nothing seemed to her more important than to bring a child into the world, a child that would unite her own qualities with those admirable traits of his.

She fell pregnant. Fallmerayer, like most men in his situation, as grateful to fate as to the particular woman who helped to bring it about, was beside himself with joy. There were no bounds now to his tenderness. He saw his own character and his own love unopposably confirmed. Life hadn’t yet begun. The baby was due in six months. Life would begin in six months.

In the meantime, Fallmerayer had turned forty-five.

XII

Then one day a stranger turned up at the villa of the Walewskis, a Caucasian by the name of Kirdzaschvilli, who informed the Countess that by some providential chance, and probably with the help of the icon of St. Procopius in the monastery of Pokrozhni as well, the Count had managed to survive the dual perils of war and the Bolsheviks, and was even now on his way to Monte Carlo. He expected to be there in about fourteen days. He himself, the envoy and erstwhile Ataman Kirdzaschvilli, was on his way to Belgrade on behalf of the Tsarist counterrevolution. He had now discharged his duty, and would go.

Countess Walewska presented Fallmerayer to the stranger as the faithful steward of the house. During the Caucasian’s visit, Fallmerayer said not a word. He escorted the visitor out of the house for a short distance. When he returned, he felt for the first time in his life a sharp sudden stabbing in his chest.

His mistress was sitting at the window, reading.

“You can’t let him find us here!” said Fallmerayer. “We have to run away!” “I’m going to tell him everything,” she replied. “We’ll stay.”

“You’re carrying my child!” said Fallmerayer, “It’s an impossible situation.” “You’ll stay here till he comes. I know him. He’ll understand,” replied the woman. From that time forth, they didn’t exchange another word about Count Walewski. They waited.

They waited, until one day a telegram came from him. He was coming on such-and-such an evening. They went to meet him at the station.

Two guards lifted him out of the carriage, and a porter came along with a wheelchair. He was put in the wheelchair. He held out his long, bony, yellow face toward his wife; she bent down and kissed him. With long, bony hands that were blue with cold, he kept trying, unsuccessfully, to pull a couple of brown rugs over his knees. Fallmerayer came to his aid.

Fallmerayer looked at the Count’s long, yellow, bony face, with its sharp nose and bright eyes, and the thin lips under the drooping black mustache. The Count was wheeled along the platform like one of the many pieces of luggage. His wife followed the wheelchair. Fallmerayer walked in front.

He had to be lifted into the car-Fallmerayer and the chauffeur did it together. The wheelchair was made fast to the roof.

He had to be carried into the villa. Fallmerayer took him by the head and shoulders, a servant took his feet.

“I’m hungry,” said Count Walewski.

When they laid the table, they learned that Walewski was unable to feed himself. His wife had to feed him. And when, following a grim silent dinner, it was time for bed, the Count said: “I’m tired. Put me to bed.”

Countess Walewska, the servant, and Fallmerayer bundled the Count up the stairs to his room on the second floor, where a bed had been made ready.

“Good night!” said Fallmerayer. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, his mistress plump up the pillows and sit down on the side of the bed.

XIII

And than Falmerayer left; nothing has ever been heard of him since.

-translated by Michael Hofmann

From The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, translated and with an introduction by Michael Hofmann. Copyright 1992 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch Koln and Verlag Allen de Lange Amsterdam. English translation copyright 2002 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Used by arrangement with W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

JOSEPH ROTH was born in 18 94 in what is now western Ukraine. He worked as a journalist in Vienna and Berlin until Hitler’s rise to power forced him to flee to France in 1933. The author of such celebrated novels as The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth died in Paris in 1939

Copyright New England Review Winter 2002

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