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'Fallmerayer the Stationmaster' by Joseph Roth


Introduction by Aidan Cottrell-Boyce


Roth wrote this story in 1933, soon after he and his partner – Andrea Manga Bell – had fled Germany for Paris. “Don’t fool yourself,” Roth wrote to his friend, Stefan Zweig, “Hell reigns.”


The story is filled with the kind of narrative hijinks that you might expect more from a thriller than from a love story. When Stationmaster Fallmerayer first encounters Countess Walewska his obsession seems completely unwarranted and this obsession is sustained by a dogma, a kind of stalker’s code:


“It is a law, he said to himself. It is not possible for one person to be irresistibly drawn to another and for the other to remain indifferent.”


When he finally tracks the countess down, when he arrives at her house, we expect the stationmaster’s fantasies to be dashed. The countess engages in small talk and gently deflates his gauche and ungainly advances. But then something totally unforeseen happens. She loves him back. She invites him to stay with her and - when the time comes - she invites him to flee with her. When her husband returns from the war, it is not - as we might expect - the countess who jilts the stationmaster but vice versa. It is a story, in part, about that most terrifying character of all: the fantasist whose fantasy is fulfilled.


It is also a story about the erotic and intoxicating power of chaos. The love affair begins with a train crash. The train crash whisks the provincial stationmaster into a whirlwind, a whirlwind which - when the war comes and the revolution afterwards - never lets him get back home. But as the chaos continues the stationmaster prays that it will never end. At the front, surrounded by death, surrounded by desire, the stationmaster, “every morning and every evening” blesses the war and becomes “terrified of the sudden return of peace.” 


Of course it is precisely these states of exception - the train crash, the war - which allow the stationmaster to get his chance to win the countesses heart, and perhaps his love for the countess is what gives him the courage, the singlemindedness, required to withstand duress. But the ending of the story throws all of this off balance. When he has a chance the stationmaster leaves the countess. 


Fantasy – the hope that things which cannot be, are – is intrinsically chaotic. A fantasy which is not chaotic is not a fantasy. In Germany, in 1933, Roth understood this better than any of us ever will. But in this story he seems to go one further, asking whether chaos is the price of fantasy, or it’s reward.





Fallmerayer the Stationmaster


TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN BY JOHN HOARE


I

The remarkable destiny of the Austrian stationmaster, Adam Fallmerayer, deserves without a doubt to be recorded and preserved. He lost his life, a life which, incidentally, would never have been brilliant — and perhaps not even satisfying in the long run — in the most bewildering way. Based on all the knowledge which people can have of one another, it would have been impossible to prophesy an unusual destiny for Fallmerayer. And yet it came to him, it seized him, and he even seemed to give himself up to it with a certain pleasure.

He had been a stationmaster since 1908. Soon after taking up his duties at the station at L, on the southern line, barely two hours distant from Vienna, he married the worthy, but somewhat limited and not particularly youthful daughter of a senior chancery official in Brums. It was a “love-match,” as it used to be called in those days when “marriages of convenience” were still customary and traditional. His parents were dead. When Fallmerayer married he nonetheless obeyed the very sober dictate of his very sober heart, not the promptings of his common sense. He begot two children, girls and twins. He had expected a son. It was fundamental to his nature to expect a son and to regard the simultaneous arrival of two girls as a painful surprise, if not as a hostile act of God. Since, however, he was secure from material worries and entitled to a pension, he accustomed himself, within a bare three months of the birth, to this bounty of nature, and began to love his children. To love: in other words to care for them with the overwhelming bourgeois conscientiousness of a father and a worthy official.

On a March day of the year 1914 Adam Fallmerayer was sitting, as usual, in his office. The telegraph ticked ceaselessly. Outside it was raining. It was an unseasonably early rain. The previous week they had still had to shovel the snow from the tracks and the trains were arriving and leaving dreadfully behind time. One night, all of a sudden, the rain began. The snow vanished, and opposite the little station, where the unattainable and dazzling splendor of the Alpine snow had seemed to praise the eternal lordship of winter, an indescribable blue-gray haze had for some days past blended clouds, sky, rain and mountain all into one. It rained, and the air was mild. Fallmerayer the stationmaster had never experienced such an early spring. The express trains which were heading south, to Meran, to Trieste and Italy never stopped at his tiny station. The expresses rushed unheedingly past Fallmerayer, who twice daily put on his brilliant scarlet cap and strode onto the platform to salute their passage. They almost degraded him to the level of signalman. The faces of the passengers behind the big windows melted into a gray-white pulp. Fallmerayer the stationmaster had seldom been able to descry the face of a passenger bound for the south, and “the South” meant more to the stationmaster than a mere geographical definition. “The South” was the sea, a sea of sunshine, freedom, happiness.

Certainly, a free railway pass for the whole family’s holidays was to be numbered among the rights of senior officials of the southern railway. When the twins had been three years old they had journeyed to Bozen with them. They had taken the slow train for an hour to the station where the proud expresses stopped. They had climbed in, climbed out, and found themselves still a long way from the south. Their leave lasted four weeks. They saw rich people from all over the world and it seemed as though the very ones whom one saw were by coincidence the richest of all. They were not on leave. Their life was one long holiday. As far as one could see — far and wide — the richest people in the world had no twins; particularly not girls. And anyway it was the rich people who really brought “the South” to the south. An official of the southern railway lived permanently in the deep north.

So they traveled back and took up their duties afresh.

Fallmerayer looked up from his desk. It was five in the evening. Although the sun had not set it was dusk already, because of the rain. On the glass canopy of the platform the rain beat as unceasingly as the ticking of the telegraph, and it was a comfortable, uninterrupted dialogue between science and nature. The big, blueish flagstones beneath the platform’s canopy were dry. But the tracks — and between the tracks the little stones of the gravel — glistened despite the darkness in the moist magic of the rain.

Although stationmaster Fallmerayer’s nature was not endowed with much fantasy, it nevertheless seemed to him that this day was quite particularly pregnant with Fate, indeed he began to tremble as he looked out of the window. The express to Meran was due in thirty-six minutes. In thirty-six minutes, so it seemed to Fallmerayer, night would be absolute, a night to be feared. Above his office, on the first floor, the twins were running wild, as usual. He could hear the patter of their childish and yet rather brutal footsteps. He opened the window. It was no longer cold. Spring had come down from over the mountains. One could hear the whistle of engines shunting, as one did every day, and the calls of the railwaymen and the dull thudding shock of the coupled wagons. All the same, today the locomotives had a special whistle, or so it seemed to Fallmerayer. He was quite an ordinary person, and nothing seemed odder to him than thinking he detected on this day, among the usual and quite unsurprising noises, the sound of an uncommon destiny. In fact, it was on this day that the terrifying catastrophe happened, as the result of which Adam Fall merayer’s life was to be completely altered.



II

The express had already been announced as a little late on leaving B. Two minutes before it was due through L it collided, as the result of a set of points being misplaced, with a stationary goods train. The catastrophe was there. Hastily grasping some entirely ineffective lanterns, Fallmerayer the stationmaster ran along the tracks towards the site of the disaster. He had felt the need to grasp some concrete object. It seemed to him out of the question that he should run towards the trouble with empty, as it were weaponless, hands. He ran for ten minutes, coatless, the rain whipping ceaselessly against his neck and shoulders.

By the time he reached the scene of the accident, people had just begun to pull out the dead, the injured and the trapped. It grew darker than ever, as if night itself were hurrying to do justice to the first shock and to increase it. The fire brigade came from the little town with flares which crackled and hissed as they fought to beat off the rain. Thirteen coaches lay splintered on the tracks. They had dragged out the driver and his fireman. They were both dead. Railwaymen, firemen and passengers labored at the wreck with anything they could lay their hands on. The injured cried piteously, the rain poured down, the flares hissed. The stationmaster was freezing in the rain. His teeth chattered. He had the feeling that he should be doing something, like the others, but at the same time he was afraid that they might prevent him from helping because it was possible that he himself might have been responsible for the accident. Now and again one or other of the railwaymen who knew him greeted him fleetingly in the urgency of their duty, and Fallmerayer would attempt tonelessly to say something which might equally easily have been an order or a prayer for forgiveness. But nobody heard him. He had never before felt himself so superfluous on this world. He was just beginning to regret that he himself had not been among the victims, when his eye aimlessly fell on a woman who had just been laid on a stretcher. There she lay, abandoned by her rescuers, her great dark eyes bent on the flares nearest to her, covered to her hips in a silver-gray fur coat, and obviously in no condition to move. The rain fell incessantly on her pale broad face and the light of the flares flickered over her. Her face gleamed, wet and silvery, in the magical interchange of flame and shadow. Her long white hands lay on her coat, motionless also, like two wondrous corpses. It seemed to the stationmaster that this woman on her stretcher was lying in a great white island of peace in the midst of a deafening sea of sound and fury, that she even emanated silence. In fact, it seemed as though all the hurrying, busy people wished to make a detour about the stretcher on which the woman lay. Was she already dead? Fallmerayer the stationmaster slowly approached the stretcher.

The woman was still alive. She had been uninjured. As Fallmerayer bent over her she spoke, before he had asked her a question, almost as if she were rather afraid of his question. There was nothing she needed and she thought she could get to her feet. At worst, she had nearly lost her luggage. She could certainly get up. And she at once made as if to do so. Fallmerayer helped her. He took the fur over his left arm, placed his right arm around her shoulders, waited until she was on her feet, laid the fur over her shoulders and his arm over the fur and so they went, without a word, a little way across the tracks and the rubble into the nearby cottage of a pointsman, up a few steps and into the dry, bright warmth.

“You sit quietly here for a few minutes,” said Fallmerayer, “I have work to do out there. I’ll be back soon.”

At the same instant he knew that he was lying, and probably for the first time in his life. Nevertheless, the lie seemed natural to him. Although at that moment he could have wished nothing better than to stay by the woman, it would have seemed terrible to him that she should regard him as someone useless who had nothing better to do while outside a thousand hands were helping and rescuing. So he went out quickly and found, to his own astonishment, that he now had the strength and courage to help, to rescue, to give an order here and advice there. And although he could only think of the woman in the cottage, as he helped, rescued and worked, and although the idea that he might not see her later was gruesome and frightening, he still stayed and worked at the scene of the catastrophe, out of fear that he might leave much too soon and thus expose his uselessness to strangers. And as they followed him with their eyes and stimulated him to greater effort, so he quickly gained confidence in his word and his good sense and revealed himself to be a nimble, clever and courageous helper.

He therefore worked for something like two hours, constantly thinking of the waiting stranger. When the doctor and the nurses had given the necessary first aid to the injured, Fallmerayer turned back towards the pointsman’s cottage. He quickly told the doctor, whom he knew, that over there was yet another casualty of the accident. He studied his battered hands and torn uniform with a certain self-consciousness. He led the doctor into the pointsman’s room and greeted the stranger, who did not seem to have moved from her chair, with the cheerful and intimate smile which one reserves for old and close friends after a long separation.

“Examine the lady!” he said to the doctor, and went to the door. He waited outside for a couple of minutes.

The doctor came and said, “A little shock. Nothing more. It would be best if she stayed here. Have you room in your house?”

“Certainly, certainly!” said Fallmerayer. And between them they led the stranger into the station and up the stairs to the stationmaster’s living quarters.

“In three or four days she’ll be perfectly sound,” said the doctor.

At that moment Fallmerayer wished she needed many more days than that.



III

Fallmerayer turned over his room and his bed to the stranger. The stationmaster’s wife shuttled busily between the invalid and the children. Twice a day Fallmerayer looked in himself. Stringent orders were given to the children to keep quiet.

By the following day the traces of the accident had been dragged to one side, the customary inquiry instituted, Fallmerayer interrogated and the guilty pointsman dismissed from service. Twice a day, as before, express trains tore past Fallmerayer at the station.

The evening after the disaster Fallmerayer learnt the stranger’s name: she was a Countess Walewska, a Russian from the Kiev area, traveling from Vienna to Meran. Part of her luggage turned up and was brought to her; black and brown leather suitcases. They smelt of cuir de Russie and unknown scents. The whole of Fallmerayer’s quarters smelt of them.

Now that he had lent his bed he did not sleep in Frau Fallmerayer’s, but down below in his office. This meant he did not sleep at all. He lay awake. Towards nine in the morning he visited the room in which the strange woman lay. He asked if she had slept well, whether she had breakfasted and if she felt well. He would take fresh violets to the vase on the sideboard on which the old ones had stood before, remove the old ones, put the fresh ones into fresh water and then remain standing at the foot of the bed. Before him lay the strange lady, on her pillow, under her bedclothes. He mumbled something inaudible. On the stationmaster’s pillow, beneath his bedclothes, lay the strange woman with her big dark eyes and white, strong face, as remote as an alien but sweet landscape. “Do sit down,” she said, twice each day. She spoke the hard, alien German of the Russians, in a deep, strange voice. All the splendor of the far off and the unknown was in that voice. Fallmerayer did not sit down.

“Excuse me, but I have a lot to do,” said he, turning about and leaving the room.

So it went on for six days. On the seventh the doctor advised her to continue her journey. Her husband was awaiting her in Meran. So she went on her way, leaving behind her in all the rooms, and particularly in Fallmerayer’s bed, an inextinguishable trace of cuir de Russie and some nameless scent.



IV

This remarkable scent stayed in the house, and in the memory, not to say the heart of Fallmerayer much longer than did the catastrophe. And during the weeks which followed, during which the boring investigation of more precise facts and more detailed origins of the accident pursued their routine course and Fallmerayer was heard a couple of times, he never stopped thinking of the foreigner and gave almost confused answers to plain questions, as if he had been made deaf by the perfume she had left around him and to him. Had his duties not been comparatively simple and he himself not virtually become over the years an almost mechanical part of the service he could not in all conscience have continued in his duties.

Secretly he hoped that each mail would bring news of the stranger. He had no doubt that she would write once, if only to thank him for his hospitality and as a matter of courtesy. And one day a big dark blue envelope did arrive. The Walewska wrote that she traveled further south with her husband. At the moment she was in Rome. She and her husband wanted to go on to Sicily. The following day an elegant basket of fruit arrived for the twins and a bouquet of very delicate and scented white roses for the stationmaster’s wife, from Countess Walewska’s husband. It had been a long while, wrote the Countess, before she had found time to thank her kindly hosts, but after her arrival in Meran she had taken some time to recover from her shock and she had needed to convalesce. Fallmerayer carried home the fruit and flowers at once. Although the letter had arrived a day earlier, the stationmaster nonetheless held onto it rather longer. The scent of fruit and roses from the south was strong, but to Fallmerayer it seemed as if the scent of the Countess’s letter were even stronger. It was a short letter. Fallmerayer knew it by heart. He knew the exact position of each word. Written with big bold strokes in lilac ink, the letters stood out like a lovely host of slender birds in strange plumage, swooping across a dark blue back ground. “Anja Walewska,” ran the signature. He had long been curious about the stranger’s Christian name, as though this name were one of her hidden bodily charms, but he had never dared to ask about it. For a while, now that he did know it, it was as though she had made him a present of a delicious secret. And out of a jealous wish to keep it for himself alone he only made up his mind two days later to show it to his wife. From the moment that he knew the Walewska’s Christian name he became aware that his wife’s name — she was called Klara — was not beautiful. As he saw with what indifferent hands Frau Klara unfolded the stranger’s letter, the hands of the foreigner came back to his mind, just as he had first seen them on her furs; motionless hands, two gleaming, silvery hands. I should have kissed them then, he thought for a moment.

“A very nice letter,” said his wife and put the letter aside. Her eyes were steel blue, conscientious and not in the least concerned. Frau Klara Fallmerayer had the ability even to raise worries to the level of duties and to derive satisfaction from feeling concerned. It seemed to Fallmerayer, to whom ideas and insights of this sort had always been alien, that he was suddenly aware of this. And that night he gave as a pretext some urgent official duty in order to avoid the room they shared and to lie down to sleep in his office, where he tried to persuade himself that the foreigner was still sleeping above him, in his own bed.

Days went by, and months. Two picture postcards flew in from Sicily, with fleeting messages. Summer, a hot summer, arrived. As the time of his leave approached, Fallmerayer decided not to go anywhere. He sent his wife and children to the mountains in Austria. He stayed behind and continued to attend to his duties. For the first time since his marriage he was separated from his wife. In the quiet of his heart he had promised himself much too much from this solitude. Only when he found himself alone did he begin to realize that he had no wish whatever to be alone. He rummaged in all the drawers; he was looking for the stranger’s letter. But he could no longer find it. Frau Fallmerayer had perhaps destroyed it long before.

His wife and children returned, July drew to a close.

Then came general mobilization.



V

Fallmerayer was an ensign in the reserve of the twenty-first battalion of Jäger. As he occupied a relatively responsible post it would have been possible for him, as for a number of his colleagues, to have remained for a time at home. Fallmerayer alone put on his uniform, packed his kit, embraced his children, kissed his wife and rejoined his regiment. He turned his duties over to his deputy. Frau Fallmerayer wept; the twins were jubilant to see their father in a different uniform. Frau Fallmerayer did not fail to be proud of her husband, but only at the moment of departure. She dammed her tears. Her blue eyes were full of the bitter consciousness of her duty.

As far as the stationmaster was concerned, it was only when he found himself in a compartment with a few comrades that he first appreciated the grimness of this hour of decision. In spite of which it seemed to him that a quite unreasonable gaiety set him apart from all the other officers in the compartment. They were officers on the reserve. Each of them had left a home he loved. And each of them at this moment was a keen soldier. Each of them at the same time was a desolate father, a desolate son. To Fallmerayer alone it seemed as if the war had freed him from a situation with no prospects. Assuredly, he was sorry for the twins. Also for his wife. Certainly, for his wife, too. But whilst his companions, if they began to speak of home, would by look and gesture reveal all the warmth and tenderness of which they were capable, it seemed to Fallmerayer that in order to emulate them, once he began speaking of his own family, he must put even more gloom into his voice and aspect. In fact he would much sooner have talked to his comrades about the Countess Walewska than about his own home.

He forced himself to silence. And it came to him that he was a double liar: first, because he withheld what was nearest his heart; second because now and again he spoke of his wife and children, from whom at that moment he was further removed than from the Countess Walewska, a woman from an enemy country. He began slightly to despise himself.



VI

He reported. He went to the front. He fought. He was a brave soldier. He sent the customary hearty letters home on service letterforms. He was decorated and promoted to lieutenant. He was wounded and sent to hospital. He was entitled to leave, which he declined, and returned to the front. He was fighting in the east.

In his time off between actions, inspections and assaults he began to learn Russian out of books which came his way by chance. Almost lustfully. In the midst of stinking gas and the smell of blood, in rain, in morasses of mud, amidst the sweat of the living and the miasma of the decomposing dead, Fallmerayer pursued the alien whiff of cuir de Russie and the nameless scent of the woman who had once lain in his bed, upon his pillow, under his bedclothes. He learned this woman’s mother tongue and imagined that he spoke with her in her own language. He learned terms of endearment, inflections of meaning, subtle Russian hints of affection. He would talk to her. Separated from her by the whole of a great world war, he would still talk to her. He conversed with Russian prisoners of war. He tuned his ear a hundredfold, marked the most delicate of intonations and copied them fluently. With every new inflection of this alien tongue he drew nearer to the stranger. He knew nothing more of her than what he had last seen: a fleeting word and a fleeting signature on a banal picture postcard. But he lived for her, waited for her and intended soon to speak with her. Because he spoke Russian, and because his battalion was drafted away to the southern front, he was transferred to one of the regiments which, a little later, were incorporated into the so-called Army of Occupation. Fallmerayer was first posted to Divisional Headquarters as interpreter, and subsequently to the “Information and Intelligence Bureau.” His final destination proved to be in the Kiev area.



VII

The name Solowienki he had indeed remembered, and more than remembered, for it had become familiar and native to him.

It was very simple to discover the name of the estate which belonged to the Walewski family. Solowki was its name and it lay three versts to the south of Kiev. Fallmerayer was stricken by a sweetly oppressive and painful excitement. He had a feeling of infinite gratitude towards Fate which had guided him through war to this destination, and at the same time a nameless fear of all that it was now preparing for him. War, going over the top, being wounded, the nearness of death; all these were quite shadowy events compared with what now faced him. All that had befallen him had merely been a preparation — perhaps an unavailing one, who knows — for his meeting with the woman. Was he truly armed against all eventualities? Was she in fact in her house? Had the advance of an enemy not driven her to a place of greater safety? And if she were living at home, would her husband be with her? At all costs he had to go there and see.

Fallmerayer had the horses harnessed and drove off.

It was a fairly early morning in May. The light, little two-wheeled waggonette drove past flowering meadows along a winding, sandy country road through an almost deserted neighborhood. Soldiers marched clattering and rattling along it on their way to their usual training exercises. Hidden in the bright, high, blue vault of the sky, larks were trilling. The thick, dark, belts of little pinewoods alternated with the bright and merry silver of the birches. The morning breeze brought from a great distance broken snatches of soldiers’ songs from outlying encampments. Fallmerayer thought of his childhood and of the countryside of his own home. He had been born and raised not far from the railway station for which at the outbreak of war he had been responsible. His father, too, had been an employee of the railway, a minor employee, a storekeeper. Fallmerayer’s whole childhood, just like his later life, had been filled with the sounds and smells of the railway, as of the sounds and scents of nature. The locomotives whistled and he held duets with the jubilation of the birds. The heavy smoke of the brown coal settled over the scent of the flowering meadows. The smoky gray of the tracks blended with the blue haze over the mountains to form a mist of nostalgia and longing.

Things were very different here, at once gay and melancholy. No friendly farms here, perched on gentle falls of land, few lilacs to be seen, no saxifrage nor pennywort nor coriander behind fresh painted fences. Only squat huts with wide, deep roofs of thatch resembling cowls, tiny villages lost in the immense landscape and almost invisible even on these plains. How different countries were! Was it also true of the human heart? Will she be able to understand me, Fallmerayer asked himself, will she be able to understand me? And the nearer he came to the Walewski estate, the more fiercely burned this question in his heart. The nearer he came, the more certain he grew that the woman was at home. Soon he had no doubt that he was only separated from her by a matter of minutes. Yes, she was at home.

At the very beginning of the sparse avenue of birches which marked the gently rising approach to the main house, Fallmerayer jumped down. He walked up the drive so as to spin out a little more time. An old gardener asked him what he required. Fallmerayer replied that he wished to see the Countess. He would announce him, said the man, went slowly away and soon returned. Yes, the Countess was there and awaited his call.

The Countess Walewska quite understandably did not recognize Fallmerayer. She took him for another of the many military visitors whom she had had to receive recently. She invited him to sit down. Her voice was deep, dark and foreign. It was familiar and frightening at the same time. But even his fear, even the shiver, were dear to him, welcome, warmly welcome to him after unthinkable years of longing.

“My name is Fallmerayer,” said the officer, “and you will naturally have forgotten the name.” He began again, “You may recall it. I am the stationmaster at L.”

She came over to him and grasped his hand. He smelt again the scent which for countless years had pursued him, which had surrounded, enclosed, tortured and consoled him. Her hands rested for a moment in his.

“Oh tell me, tell me!” cried the Walewska. He told her briefly how it had been with him.

“And your wife and children?” asked the Countess.

“I’ve not seen them again,” said Fallmerayer, “I’ve never taken leave.”

Whereupon a short silence ensued. They looked at one another. The young forenoon sun lay sleek and golden across the room which was broad and low-ceilinged, whitewashed and almost severe. Fallmerayer looked quietly at the Countess’s broad pale face. Perhaps she understood him. She rose and picked a gardenia from the middle window of three.

“Too light?” she asked.

“I prefer them dark,” said Fallmerayer.

She went back to the little table and rang a small bell. An old servant appeared. She ordered tea. The silence between them did not relent; it grew, rather, until the tea was brought in. Fallmerayer smoked. As she poured his tea he asked suddenly, “Where is your husband?”

“At the front, of course,” she replied. “I have heard nothing more from him for three months. We can’t even correspond now.”

“Are you very worried?” asked Fallmerayer.

“Certainly,” she replied, “and no less than your wife probably is about you.”

“Forgive me, you are right. That was really stupid of me,” said Fallmerayer. He stared into his teacup.

She had debated with herself, continued the Countess, whether to leave the house. Others had fled. She would not run, either from her peasants or from the enemy. She lived here with four servants, two saddle horses and a dog. She buried her money and her jewels. For a long time she searched for a word. She did not know the word for “buried” in German, and pointed towards the ground. Fallmerayer said the Russian word.

“You speak Russian?” she asked.

“Yes. I learned it. I learned it at the front.” He went on in Russian and added, “I learned it on your account, for you. I learned Russian so that someday I could speak to you.”

She assured him that he spoke admirably, as if he had only uttered that pregnant sentence in order to indicate his ability as a linguist. In this way she deflected his avowal into an insignificant exercise in style.

“Now I must go,” he thought. He stood up at once and without awaiting her permission, and knowing full well that she would interpret his discourtesy correctly, he said, “I will come back before long!” She made no reply. He kissed her hand and left.



VIII

He left, and never doubted that his destiny was beginning to fulfill itself. It is a law, he said to himself. It is impossible for one human being to be so irresistibly driven towards another, and then for the other to remain barred against him. She feels what I feel. If she does not love me now, love me she will.

Fallmerayer carried out his duties with his unfailingly sure reliability as an officer and an administrator. He decided provisionally to take a fortnight’s leave, for the first time since he had reported for duty. His promotion to Oberleutnant was due within a matter of days. He wanted to wait for that.

Two days later he drove to Solowki. He was told that the Countess Walewska was not at home, that she was not expected before noon.

“Well, then,” said he, “I’ll just wait in the garden.”

And since no one dared to tell him to go, they left him in the garden at the back of the house. He looked up to the double row of windows. He sensed that the Countess was inside the house and had issued orders that she would not receive visitors. In fact he thought he saw the shimmer of a pale dress, first at one window, then at another. He waited patiently and was quite relaxed.

As it struck noon from the church tower he entered the house again. The Walewska was there. She was just coming downstairs in a narrow, black, high-necked dress, with a thin necklace of little pearls around her neck and a silver bracelet at her tight left sleeve. It seemed to Fallmerayer that she had put on armor because of him, and it seemed as though the fire which burned constantly for her in his heart had now borne another strange little blaze. Love was lighting fresh candles. Fallmerayer smiled.

“I’ve had a long wait,” he said, “but I was glad to wait, as you know. I looked up at your windows from the garden and pretended to myself that I was lucky enough to glimpse you. And so I passed the time.”

The Countess asked if he would care to lunch, since it was just the right hour. Gladly, said he, since he was hungry, but of the three courses which were then served he only ate ridiculously small helpings.

The Countess told him about the outbreak of war, and how they had returned home post haste from Cairo. She told him about her husband’s regiment of Guards; about his comrades; after that, about her youth. It was as if she were searching desperately for stories, as if she were even ready to invent them — anything so as to prevent the silent Fallmerayer from speaking. He stroked his little fair mustache and seemed to listen attentively to everything. He was, however, listening much more attentively to the scent which emanated from the woman than to the stories which she told. His pores were listening. And in any case even her words were scented, and her language. He sensed, anyway, everything she could tell him. Nothing about her could remain hidden from him. What could she hide from him? Her formal dress hid nothing of her body from the knowledge of his eyes. He felt the desire of his hands for her, the desire of his hands for the woman. As they rose he said that he thought he would stay a little. He had leave today and was taking a much longer leave in a few days’ time, when his promotion to Oberleutnant came through. Where did he think of going, asked the Countess.

“Nowhere!” said he. “I should like to stay with you.”

She invited him to stay as long as he liked, that day and later. But now she had to leave him and see to a few things about the house. Should he wish to come there were ample rooms in the house, quite enough for them to have no need of disturbing one another.

He took his leave. Since she could not stay with him, he said, he preferred to go back into the town.

As he climbed into the waggonette she waited on the threshold in her strict black dress, her face broad and white, and as he took up his whip she gently raised her hand halfway in a greeting that was at the same time determinedly restrained.



IX

Roughly a week after this visit the newly promoted Oberleutnant Adam Fallmerayer was granted his leave. He told all his comrades that he intended to go home. Instead he took himself to the family home of the Walewskis, moved into a room on the ground floor, which had been prepared for him, eating every day with the lady of the house, and discussing this and that, things far and near, with her, told her about the front and paid no attention to the content of his stories, let her tell him stories and never listened to her. At night he did not sleep, could no more sleep than he could at home in the station building, years before, during the six days which the Countess had spent over his head, in his room. Now, too, he was aware of her at night above him, over his head, over his heart.

One night — it was sultry and a good soft rain was falling — Fallmerayer got up, dressed and went out in front of the house. Above the wide well of the staircase burned a yellow petroleum lantern. The house was still, the night was still, the rain was still, as though falling on fine sand, and its monotonous murmur was the voice of night’s very silence. All at once a stair creaked. Fallmerayer heard it although he was standing outside the door. He looked round. He had left the heavy door open, and he saw Countess Walewska coming down the stairway. She was fully clad, as by day. He bowed and said nothing. She approached him. And there they stood, in silence, for a moment or two. Fallmerayer could hear his heart beating, and it seemed to him as though the woman’s heart were beating as loudly as his own, and in time with it. The air seemed suddenly oppressive, not a breath drew through the open door. Fallmerayer said, “Let’s walk in the rain, I’ll fetch you my coat.” And without waiting for her to agree he rushed into his room, came back with the coat, slipped it across the woman’s shoulders and then put his arm over the coat, just as he had done with her furs, that time, that never-to-be-forgotten evening of the disaster. And so they went out into the night and the rain.

They walked along the drive. In spite of the damp and the dark, the sparse, slender trunks of the trees shone silvery, as if lighted from within. And as if the silver gleam of these, the most delicate trees in the world had awoken Fallmerayer’s heart to tenderness, he drew his arm closer about the woman’s shoulder and sensed through the hard, damp material of the coat the yielding richness of her body. For a while it seemed to him that the woman leaned towards him, indeed that she pressed herself against him and yet, barely a moment later there was a clear distance between their bodies. His hand left her shoulders, felt its way upwards to her damp hair, crossed her damp ear and face. Next moment they both stopped, as one, turned towards each other and embraced. The coat slipped from her shoulders and fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Thus, in the rain and the dark, they came face to face, mouth to mouth, and kissed each other for a long time.



X

At one time Fallmerayer was to have been transferred to Schmerinka, but by great efforts he succeeded in staying where he was. Every morning and every evening he blessed the Army and the Occupation. He feared nothing so much as sudden peace. As far as he was concerned, Count Walewski was long dead, killed in action or murdered by mutinous communist soldiers. The war must go on for ever, and so must Fallmerayer’s service, in this place, in this posting. Nevermore peace on earth.

Fallmerayer had unconsciously been lulled into over confidence, as can happen to many people whose over whelming passion blinds their senses, robs them of perception and corrupts their intelligence. To him it seemed that no one existed on earth but him and the object of his passion. Obviously enough, however, the mighty destinies of the world proceeded without heeding him. The revolution came. To Fallmerayer, Oberleutnant and lover, this was entirely unexpected.

In spite of this, as often happens in moments of acute danger, the mortal blow struck by this fateful hour sharpened even his drowsy wits, and he quickly realized and became doubly aware that it was a question of saving his own life, that of his beloved woman’s and above all of rescuing their common valuables. The general confusion into which these sudden events had thrown everything had still left him, thanks to his rank and special duties, access to enough material and armament; he hastened to make immediate use of them. And so during that first couple of days, when the Austrian army was collapsing, the Germans were pulling out of the Ukraine, the Red Russians were beginning their advance and the newly risen peasants were attacking the houses of their previous overlords by fire and plunder, he succeeded in placing at his disposal two well-guarded cars belonging to Countess Walewska, along with half a dozen trusty soldiers with arms and ammunition and enough provisions for a week.

One evening — the Countess was still hesitating to leave her house — Fallmerayer appeared with a truck and his soldiers and with strong language and almost by main force compelled his mistress to dig up the treasure which she had buried in the garden and prepare for her departure. This took a whole night. As the dim, dank light of the late autumn morning began to grow they were ready and their flight could begin.

The soldiers were in the larger of the two cars, which had a canvas roof. An army driver was in charge of the private car which followed the first one and in which sat the Countess and Fallmerayer. They decided not to head westwards, as everyone else was doing at the time, but to make for the south. It was safe to assume that every road in the country leading westwards would be jammed by retreating troops. And who was to know what to expect at the frontiers of these newly created states? It was still possible — and this turned out later to be the case — that fresh hostilities had broken out on the western borders of the Russian Empire. Besides which Countess Walewska had wealthy and powerful relations in the Crimea and in the Caucasus. Even in these changed conditions help was to be expected from them, should it prove necessary. What was important was a sharp instinct in both the lovers that at a time when Chaos itself ruled the whole earth, the eternal sea must offer the only freedom. The sea, above all, must be their very first destination. To each of the men who were to escort them to the Caucasus they promised a sizeable sum in pure gold. And so they drove on in high spirits, and a not unnatural mood of excitement.

Since Fallmerayer had organized everything very well, down to every possible and improbable contingency, they succeeded in reaching Tiflis in a very short time — four days in all. Here they released the escort, paid them the agreed reward and just kept on the driver as far as Baku. Many other Russians from noble or upper middle class families had also taken refuge in the south and in the Crimea. In spite of their original intentions they avoided meeting relatives and being seen by acquaintances. Fallmerayer was much more occupied in finding a ship which would take him and his mistress clear out of Baku and into harbor in some less perilous country. In the process it was inevitable that they should meet other families, more or less acquainted with the Walewskis who, like Fallmerayer, had hopes of finding a ship to save them. Inevitable, too, that the Countess should have to lie about Fallmerayer’s identity and her relationship to him. In the end it became clear that to achieve the kind of escape they aimed at, it would be necessary to make common cause with other people. They therefore joined up with eight others who wished to leave Russia by sea, finally found a trustworthy captain with a somewhat decrepit looking ship, and sailed to Constantinople, from which city vessels were still sailing regularly to France and Italy.

Three weeks later, Fallmerayer and his beloved mistress reached Monte Carlo, where the Walewskis had bought a little villa before the war. At this moment Fallmerayer felt himself to be at the zenith of his life and happiness. He was loved by the most beautiful woman in the world. Further more, he loved the most beautiful woman in the world. Where for long years the powerful remembrance of her had lived in his memory, now she herself stood constantly at his side. From her he derived his life. At every hour he saw himself reflected in her eyes when he was near her, and there was hardly an hour of the day when they were not near one another. This woman, who, such a short time before, had been too proud to obey the desires of her heart and her senses was now blindly and willingly given over to Fall merayer’s passion, to Fallmerayer, a stationmaster on the Austrian southern railway. She was his child, his mistress, his world. Countess Walewska was as happy as Fallmerayer. The tempest of love which had begun to grow in Fallmerayer’s heart since that fateful night at the station of L, carried the woman with it, dragged her away, removed her a thousand miles from her origins, from her customs and from the reality in which she had lived. She had been borne away into an utterly alien land of thoughts and sensations. And this land had become her home.

What happened in the great unheeding world was no concern of either of them. The treasure which they had brought with them ensured a life of leisure for several years to come. In any case they took no thought for the future. When they visited the gambling rooms it was from excess of high spirits. They could afford to lose money, and lose money they did, as if to justify the old saying: lucky in love, unlucky at cards. Every time they lost they were enchanted, as if they needed the superstition to be sure of their love. But like all happy people, they were inclined to put their love to the test, and when it survived it, to make their happiness still greater.



XI

Even though the Countess Walewska had her Fallmerayer all to herself she was nonetheless incapable of going on living — few women can — without the fear that she would lose the man who had inflamed her love and passion. Therefore, although Fallmerayer had given her no cause to do so, she one day began to demand that he divorce his wife and give up his children and his service. Adam Fallmerayer wrote at once to his cousin Heinrich, who occupied a high position in Vienna at the Ministry of Education, and told him that he had abandoned his former life once for all. Since, however, he did not wish to come to Vienna he would prefer that a competent lawyer take charge of the divorce.

A remarkable chance — thus wrote his cousin Heinrich some days later — had led to the fact that Fallmerayer had already been posted missing some two years previously. Since, in addition, he had given no sign of life, he had already been consigned to the ranks of the dead by his wife and his few blood relations. For a long time a new stationmaster had been in charge of the station at L. A long time ago Frau Fallmerayer had gone with the twins to live with her parents in Brums. The best thing to do would be to continue keeping quiet, always provided that Fallmerayer did not experience any difficulties with Austria’s represent atives abroad in the matter of a passport or anything similar.

Fallmerayer thanked his cousin, promised in future only to write to him, asked him for his silence and showed this exchange of letters to his mistress. Her mind was put at rest. She no longer trembled for Fallmerayer. Only, once infected by this mysterious anxiety, which Nature plants in the souls of women as deeply in love as she was, (perhaps, who knows, in order to ensure the survival of the world), the Countess Walewska demanded a child by her lover, and from the moment at which this desire arose in her she began to give herself up to imagining the outstanding qualities of the child; even, up to a point, dedicating herself to serve it unswervingly. Unthinking, careless, carefree as she was, she nonetheless recognized in the lover, whose boundless love had first aroused her lovely, natural and uninhibited disposition, an example of sensible reflective man. Nothing seemed to her so important as to bring into the world a child which would combine her own qualities with the incomparable qualities of the man she loved.

She became pregnant. Fallmerayer, grateful, as are all men in love, to their fate, as to the woman who has helped them fulfill it, was beyond himself with joy. His tenderness knew no bounds. He saw both his love and his own personality irrevocably confirmed. Now, for the first time, he was fulfilled. Life was yet to begin. The child was expected in six months. Only then would life begin.

Meanwhile Fallmerayer had reached the age of forty-five.



XII

One day a stranger appeared at the Walewskis’ villa, a Caucasian called Kirdza-Schwili, who informed the Countess Walewska that thanks to a fortunate destiny and thanks, probably, to a particularly venerable portrait, dedicated in the monastery of Pokroschnie to the blessed Procopius, the Count Walewski had escaped both the hardships of the war and the Bolsheviks, and was now on his way to Monte Carlo. He was to be expected in about a fortnight. He, the messenger, formerly the Ataman Kirdza-Schwili, was on his way to Belgrade in the service of the Tsarist counter-revolution. He had now carried out his duty. He wished to proceed.

Countess Walewska introduced Fallmerayer as the faithful régisseur of her household. While the Caucasian was there Fallmerayer kept silence. He accompanied the guest part of the way. On his way back he felt for the first time in his life a sharp, sudden pain in his chest.

His mistress was sitting by the window, reading.

“You can’t receive him,” said Fallmerayer, “let’s run for it.”

“I shall tell him the whole truth,” she replied. “We shall wait.”

“You are carrying my child!” said Fallmerayer. “It’s an impossible situation.”

“You’re staying here until he comes! I know him! He will understand everything!” replied the woman.

From then on they did not discuss Count Walewski again. They waited.

They waited until, one day, a telegram arrived from him. One evening he arrived. They both fetched him from the station.

Two guards lifted him down out of the coach and a porter brought along a wheelchair. They placed him in the wheelchair. He held his yellow, bony, tight-drawn face up to his wife. She bent down to him and kissed him. With his long, blue, icy, bony hands he kept trying unsuccessfully to pull up two brown rugs over his knees. Fallmerayer helped him.

Fallmerayer saw the Count’s face; a longish, yellow, bony face with a sharp nose, light eyes and a narrow mouth, over which grew a drooping black mustache. They rolled the Count along the platform like one of the many pieces of luggage. His wife walked behind the wheelchair, Fallmerayer walked ahead. Fallmerayer and the chauffeur had to lift him into the car. The wheelchair was stowed on top of it.

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

“I’m hungry,” said Count Walewski.

As the table was set, it turned out that Count Walewski was unable to feed himself. His wife had to feed him. And as, after a gruesome and silent meal, the time came for sleep, the Count said, “I’m sleepy. Put me to bed.”

Countess Walewska, the servant and Fallmerayer carried the Count to his room on the first floor, where his bed was prepared for him.

“Goodnight!” said Fallmerayer. He waited long enough to see his mistress setting the pillows to rights, and how she seated herself on the edge of the bed.



XIII

At this juncture Fallmerayer left; he was never heard of again.






Aidan Cottrell-Boyce was born in Liverpool. His writing has appeared in the White Review, the Guardian and Granta. His debut novel The End of Nightwork was published in 2023.


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