Roman Ráž: Lázeňské dobrodružství (Adventures at a Spa)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
Early that evening Evžen’s telegram was handed to me by Mr Kovařík, when he came in for his two pints. It read: Mother dying.
I had not seen her for so long that at first I was hardly able to picture her. She was nothing more in my memory than that black spot in the dark kitchen heating up a full pan for father’s tea. I kept seeing her in that single situation, bent over the stove. No matter how hard I tried I could not recall a single nice time we’d had together once I’d grown up, and yet I knew there were times she’d placed a tender, coarse hand on my hair to brush it out, saying “little one”, as I pressed my face into her skirt, motionless, until her hand had wandered over my head, wishing that moment to last a long time, an awful long time, perhaps forever…
That had once really happened and it was one of the nicest things from my childhood, even though my later memory only offered me Mother at that stove, tight-lipped, sickly and silent, looking like a shadow in the kitchen corner.
It was with this in mind that I got on the packed morning train. Frightened by events, many of the guests were hastily making their way home, so it was only with difficulty that conductor Fanouš Vyoral found me a free window seat.
Mrs Hamšíková ran out from the door, shouted at her husband not to raise the lever yet and passed several hot home-made buns in white napkins to me through the little window. Then Hamšík raised the lever anyway and the train set off. “Some awful things are in store for us”, Mrs Hamšíková managed to shout as waving, she vanished round the bend at the prince’s sawmill along with the entire station.
The Vienna express was full of officers. They conducted themselves with loud self-confidence as they walked down the corridor with that famous elastic gait, inspecting the ladies in the compartments. I withdrew into myself and pretended to sleep, wishing to think about Mother, but my thoughts kept running off in all directions. Four days previously Serbia had rejected the Austrian ultimatum and a day later our government had broken off diplomatic relations. We expected a war that was short, as short as possible, but war nonetheless. I knew nothing about it. I only knew it from those enormous picture calendars, and I remembered stories from school reading-books that described valiant military acts and famous military campaigns. None of us had actually lived through a war. It was so remote and foreign to us that we spoke about it with embarrassment and an indistinct fear – definitely not with the genuine horror that engulfed us a couple of months later.
The first thing that caught me out in Vienna was the fear. It came out immediately on the platform as I saw the number of people hurrying and shouting. Some old women tottered forward towards the carriages, gripping bundles of newspapers, bawling “Extraausgabe!” and stuffing them into the hands of those alighting. Anybody who had seized a newspaper opened it out straight away, read the headlines, forgot his luggage, excitedly turned to his neighbour, hurriedly communicated something, even if he had never previously set eyes on him, shouted at others around, grabbed hold of his cases, confusedly raced ahead, only to stop again immediately for the boys offering him an “Extraausgabe!” of other newspapers, “Ein großer Sieg! Extraausgabe! Nieder mit Serbien! Nieder mit Russland! Es lebe der Krieg!“5
Rain-soaked flags drooped from their poles, while a brass band in one corner of the platform played Wacht am Rhein. People struggling along had to stop, the men doffed their hats and waited until the end of the piece, when an enthusiastic Heil went up and they applauded.
I felt lost in that delirious swarm. I didn’t know how to get out of the uproar. I wanted to escape, but I didn’t know how or where.
Evžen elbowed his way through to me as I leant despondently against a lamp post gasping for breath. He took one of my hands, grabbed my bag from out of the other and energetically dragged me along past the carriages.
“They’ve all gone mad,” he yelled, “hurry up, every hour counts!”
We ran out in front of the station.
“We won’t get a cab. We’ll have to go by tram or on foot!”
“On foot then,” I gasped. The idea of a packed tram struck me as awful.
Evžen pressed forward. Only with the greatest effort did I keep up with him. More often I lagged two or three steps behind. My head was buzzing, I was perspiring and breathing with difficulty. Out of the shop windows I was being observed by Franz Josef I, Wilhelm II and oftentimes besides Umberto I wormed his way in too. Our steps also traced out the face of Commander-in-Chief Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, who barely looked up at us as he studied his map of the Balkans. The bookshops were deluged in maps of the countries where the victorious battles were evidently to be waged. Resplendent on every street corner were the freshly pasted imperial manifestoes To My Peoples…
We kept coming up against uniforms. Every Wiener seemed to have a uniform at home, which he was now wearing on the packed pavements. These uniforms clearly acted as magnets on the women, who besieged every soldier and decorated every officer. They clung to their arms, looking down at me with contempt. Now and then they treated my haste with witticisms and derisive calls. Sabres clanked against the pavements, automobiles honked, trams rattled, flags fluttered and music played in every park and on every other corner. On a statue pedestal a red-bearded man was standing in a Jäger shirt and speaking to a handful of listeners. “If the foreigners are hoping for dissentions within the Reich then they are making an awful miscalculation!” The Emperor does not see parties or nations, just his loyal subjects, the Germanic and Slavonic races, also vorwärts!“
We had to wait until a procession of army veterans passed by with their sticks and crutches on their way to the Ministry of War somewhere.
It was not until we were at our Ottakring that I breathed a sigh of relief. The nearer we got to home, the calmer I became, even though the worst of my journey still lay ahead.
Here, too, flags were everywhere, as were pictures of the Emperor in the shop windows, but people were not making a display of their uniforms or their enthusiasm. Women stood around in front of the grocery shops conversing excitedly, but there was apprehension in their faces rather than any pleasure. The scraps of words that I gleaned suggested flour and potatoes had gone up in price. As a result people in the twentieth district were said to have broken into several shops.
Over the entrance to our house a flag was flying, but the courtyard gallery was the same as I had always known it. On the first floor stairs I caught that same smell of cabbage that had brought about so many disputes among tenants during my childhood. Everything suddenly struck me as so plain and ordinary, just like in the days when I used to rush from Mayers’ with a two-litre bottle of wine, so that Mother could begin father’s radical treatment.
Breathless, Evžen halted in front of the battered top-floor door. Only now did I notice how exhausted he was. He had certainly not shaved in the last three days, his shirt collar had long lost its whiteness and the middle button of his shirt was missing.
“If he hasn’t come back yet I might just kill him,” he whispered.
Then we went into the kitchen. Here I detected a strange, rancid smell that repelled me. It was even worse in the room. Mother was lost in one of the double beds beneath a high counterpane. Her face was even smaller and yellower, entirely hollow, but still outlined by her striking black hair. Lank and greasy as it lay dishevelled on the pillow, it remained beautiful. It struck me as odd that hair is the only thing remaining, though its owner has long disappeared. I fixed my gaze on it, so as to avoid the expression on her face, which so clearly betokened death. My eyes then slipped down to the foot of the bed, where her chamber pot was covered in a newspaper emblazoned with the headline: Ultimatum!
A woman stood up from her chair by the table and embraced me. I recognized her as our neighbour Hermgess, who had once revealed that mother spoke to herself. I felt a tear on my face.
“Has she died?” I asked her quietly, convinced that all my haste had been in vain.
Hermgess shook her head.
“She’s still waiting for that,” she said aloud, so much so that I took fright. She noticed my apprehension and assured me that mother was not aware of us.
But here she was perhaps mistaken, because Mother immediately opened her eyes, looked directly at me and said in a weak voice, or more of a breath: “It’s good you’re here”.
So I did not actually say anything to her.
For a long time after that I blamed myself for my incapacity and my emotionality, which took me so much by surprise, depriving me of strength and preventing me from telling Mother what I had been meaning to: how I had always liked her, how often I had thought about her, how I was doing well at the spa, what a happy marriage I was in and how she could be proud of me and my two children. I didn’t manage one single simple word. I didn’t thank her on my own behalf or on anybody else’s amongst us, or for anything she’d done for us. We had always kept asking her for things and she did everything she could totally as a matter of course, while we never repaid her anything at all. I rubbed a ringlet of Mother’s hair in my fingers, as if enabled by this to express what I had not found the strength to, and instead of concentrating on thanking her or on prayer or anything fine, I wondered how it could be that not a single one of those hairs was gray. It was this lock of hair that I then cut off in the belief that I would keep it safe at home. I slipped it into an envelope, but when I got back to Slaňany I never found that envelope.
Evžen walked around the little room testily.
“I’m off out to look for him again,” he snapped resolutely.
I took fright at the idea that I would have to stay behind. Yes, I fell into a panic fear of the death that had come down here. I looked pleadingly at my brother and neighbour. Hopefully, they would forgive me, I thought, but whatever they thought, I was not going to stay there.
“I’ll come with you,” I shouted, “please, take me with you!”
Hermgess clearly did not understand.
“But you’ve only just come, ” she said in surprise, “stay with her…”
“No, no,” I gasped, “we have to find him quickly.”
Evžen understood my anxiety and helped me.
“She won’t die before we bring him! Come on! “
“At least let her breathe her last,” Hermgess objected, but I was already standing ready at the door.
Away from here, from this smell and this horror!
I’d breathed in the hot air so deeply that my head was spinning. It was all the same to me which direction Evžen took and where we were going. It probably didn’t matter to me if we found my father either. As soon as we started walking, Evžen explained that Father didn’t know how serious Mother’s state of health was at all. Since the assassination at Sarajevo he had scarcely been home, evidently spending most of his time at the Arbeiterheim in our sixteenth district, as well as at the Czech Workers’ Centre in the fifth. He had not been home at all since the day of the ultimatum, when Mother’s health took a marked turn for the worse. She started vomiting, unable to keep down anything she had eaten. Her neighbour had called Evžen and the doctor, but he held out no hope.
On street corners small groups of poorly-dressed people pressed around placards, reading out the decrees and calling out aloud the years that had been recruited.
“My year is being called up too, ” said Evžen, as if just by the way. “You’ll have to deal with everything yourself from tomorrow.“
I shuddered and fell into total panic and despair. I felt like crying, but couldn’t raise a sob and remained motionless. I imagined my dead mother beneath the high counterpane, my despondent father, the crazy city in uniforms and myself, lost in all this confusion, while at home my husband was surely preparing to enlist and expected me to properly look after the business and the children, who were crying as they bade me farewell and perhaps were still crying as I stood reading one of the decrees and shaking like an aspen leaf.
“Come on then,” Evžen appealed to me. “Pull yourself together. There’s a lot of work to be done!“
Father was not at the Arbeiterheim. We heard they had all headed off for Linke Wienzeille in front of Arbeiterzeitung, to find out at last what they had to do.
I only half took things in. I didn’t understand exactly where we were or where we were going. Evžen could see this in me, because all that exhausting way he tried to explain Father’s behaviour to me. He seemed to me to want to make any old excuses for him, even though it was clear that nothing at all could justify Father’s absence from home. His year was obviously not being recruited. He was staying home, so he had all the more reason to look after Mother.
I did not understand much of what Evžen was saying. Father was supposedly going to meetings and raising the decision made by workers’ parties in Basel for Social Democrats to use all means to prevent war. Words like internationale, congress, demonstration and general strike had no effect on me whatsoever. I did not understand them and did not wish to understand them.
“Him and his rotten politics,” I exclaimed. “It killed Mother, and it’ll destroy us all!”
Evžen took me by the hand.
“Calm down,” he said, soothingly. “Right now his rotten politics is our only salvation. If the socialists pulled it off there would be no war.”
I stared at him so uncomprehendingly, so incredulously, and evidently so stupidly that he burst out laughing.
“Come on then,” he said in a quite pleasant way. “Don’t worry about it any more!“
And again he stepped out in front of me, and again we were hurrying along!
I realized from what Evžen was saying that not only did he understand Father’s politics, but he actually went along with them. This dandy from the amateur theatre dressing rooms, who had left home because of disagreements with Father, this supporter of greater Austria, was looking for hope in a father who he used to think just wasted time chattering at meetings that never came up with anything useful.
It turned out that Evžen was not the only one who sought hope in the anti-war protests. Thousands more jostled in front of the Austrian Social Democrats’ headquarters. Rain-soaked they huddled together, united by the same words and the same expectations. They looked to the door and the windows of the building, as if at any moment something might appear there to save them. To save us. I say “us”, because at that moment even I succumbed to the belief that something of that kind was possible. The crowd drew me in. Evžen and I were sucked in deeper and deeper. We heard the voices of thousands of men and women. I became one of them, wanting what they wanted, seized by the same excitement, suddenly convinced that the decision over our salvation was to be made here. I was determined to await the moment the door to the building would open and somebody would come out, responding to our beseechful wait and telling us what was to be done.
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” the crowds chanted.
But the door remained closed. Somebody said the doorman had disappeared too. Where? Why? A shout rang out that the party leaders were being put in jail, followed by an objection that nobody would dare to raise a hand against our leaders. People were convinced that behind those closed doors and windows the leaders were agreeing on how to prevent the war. “They’ll call a general strike,” some predicted, “they’ll publish a manifesto,” others called, “we’ll go out onto the streets and link up with the barracks. We’ll take the Arsenal!”. From time to time individual cries came together in a great chant that rang out far and wide.
“Down with war!! Long live the Socialist International!!! Long live Viktor Adler!! Speech! Speech!”
Nobody has yet appeared at the door or windows or on the balcony. It’s no longer raining, the sun is setting and the excited faces are suddenly paler and more drawn. Evžen and I elbow our way left and right, trying to get as near as possible to the door of the building. If we are going to find our father somewhere then it cannot be anywhere else but here. I prick up my ears to listen out for his angry voice. Whenever anybody yells to encourage the crowd I get the feeling it’s him. During those two hours in which I no longer feel my legs, my head is throbbing and weakness compels me to lean against everything around me I glimpse him maybe ten times. But in error! Neither Evžen nor I actually spotted him. I can only thank the people around me that I was still standing, indeed that I was still going. An impenetrable forest of solid trunks supporting me, they have long lost their faces. And then I no longer see or hear anything…
I must have fainted. When I open my eyes again it is dark all around. I am lying on Evžen’s lap on a bench somewhere.
From the nearby Linke and Rechte Wienzeille comes the murmur of thousands of voices, the sounds of tens of thousands of footsteps made by the most tenacious, still waiting for a miracle during the hours of night.
“You slept like a baby,” says Evžen, the relief and even pleasure evident in his voice. I sit up straight away.
“We’re going home,” he smiles tiredly.
“And what about father?”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“There’s no point. Seems there’s no point to anything. I have to be at the barracks in the morning.”
He helps me up and leads me away slowly and carefully…
Behind us the chanting can be heard:
“Speech! Speech! Speech!”
5 Great victory! Extra! Down with Serbia! Down with Russia! Long live war!