Authors: Sandor Marai
Carol Brown Janeway
A Division of Random House, Inc.
In the morning, the old general spent a considerable time in the wine cellars with his winegrower inspecting two casks of wine that had begun to ferment. He had gone there at first light, and it was past eleven o’clock before he had finished drawing off the wine and returned home. Between the columns of the veranda, which exuded a musty smell from its damp flagstones, his gamekeeper was standing waiting for him, holding a letter.
“What do you want?” the General demanded brusquely, pushing back his broad-brimmed straw hat to reveal a flushed face. For years now, he had neither opened nor read a single letter. The mail went to the estate manager’s office, to be sorted and dealt with by one of the stewards.
“It was brought by a messenger,” said the gamekeeper, standing stiffly at attention.
The General recognized the handwriting. Taking the letter and putting it in his pocket, he stepped into the cool of the entrance hall and, without uttering a word, handed the gamekeeper both his stick and his hat. He removed a pair of spectacles from his cigar case, went over to the window where light insinuated itself through the slats of the blinds, and began to read.
“Wait,” he said over his shoulder to the gamekeeper, who was about to leave the room to dispose of cane and hat.
He crumpled the letter into his pocket. “Tell Kalman to harness up at six o’clock. The Landau, because there’s rain in the air. And he is to wear full-dress livery. You too,” he said with unexpected force, as if suddenly angered. “Everything must shine. The carriage and harness are to be cleaned immediately. Then put on your livery, and seat yourself next to Kalman on the coachbox. Understood?”
“Yes, Excellence,” said the gamekeeper, looking his master directly in the eye. “At six o’clock.” “At half past six you will leave,” said the General, and then appeared to be making some calculation, for his lips moved silently. “You will go to the White Eagle. All you are to say is that I have sent you, and the carriage for the Captain is waiting. Repeat.”
The gamekeeper repeated the words. Then the General raised his hand, as if he had just thought of something else, and he looked up at the ceiling but didn’t say anything and went upstairs to the second floor. The gamekeeper, still frozen to attention, watched him, unblinking, and waited until the thickset, broad-shouldered figure disappeared around the turn of the stone balustrade.
The General went into his room, washed his hands, and stepped over to his high, narrow standing desk; arranged on its surface of unstained green felt were pens, ink, and a perfectly aligned stack of those notebooks covered in black-and-white-checked oilcloth commonly used by schoolchildren for their homework. In the middle of the desk stood a green-shaded lamp, which the General switched on, as the room was dark. On the other side of the closed blinds, in the scorched, withered garden, summer ignited a last blaze like an arsonist setting the fields on fire in senseless fury before making his escape. The General took out the letter, carefully smoothed the paper, set his glasses on his nose and placed the sheet under the bright light to read the straight short lines of angular handwriting, his arms folded behind his back.
There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long-ago day and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “
years,” he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he went back to staring anxiously at the letter with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”
He seemed calmer now, and began to walk up and down. The room had a vaulted ceiling, supported by a central column. It had once been two rooms, a bedroom, and a dressing room.
Many years ago—he thought only in decades, anything more exact upset him, as if he might be reminded of things he would rather forget—he had had the wall between the two rooms torn down. Only the column holding up the central vault remained. The castle had been built two hundred years earlier by an army supplier who sold oats to the Austrian cavalry and in course of time was promoted to the nobility. The General had been born here in this room.
In those days the room farthest back, the dark one that looked onto the garden and estate offices, had been his mother’s bedroom, while the lighter, airier room had been the dressing room.
For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.
He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.
The windows in the south wing gave onto the park with its chestnut trees that stood in a semicircle in front of protruding balustrades held up by fat stone angels, and bowed down over the balconies in spring in all their dark-green magnificence, lit with pink flowering candles. When he went out, it was to the cellars or into the forest or—every morning, rain or shine, even in winter—to the trout pond. And when he came back, he went through the entrance hall and up to his bedroom, and it was here that he ate all his meals.
“So he’s come back,” he said aloud, standing in the middle of the room. “Forty-one years and forty-three days later.”
These words seemed suddenly to exhaust him, as if he had only just understood the enormousness of forty-one years and forty-three days. He swayed, then sat down in the leather armchair with its worn back. On the little table within reach of his hand was a little silver bell, which he rang.
“Tell Nini to come up here,” he said to the servant. And then, politely, “If she’d be so kind.”
Nini was ninety-one years old. She came at once. She had rocked the General in his cradle in this room. She had stood in this room as the General was being born. She had been sixteen then, and very beautiful. Small, but so well-muscled and calm that her body seemed possessed of a secret, as if her bones, her flesh, her blood concealed within them some essence, the secret of time or of life itself, a secret that could neither be told nor translated into any language, since it was beyond words. She was the daughter of the village postmaster, she was sixteen when she gave birth to a child, and no one ever discovered the identity of the father. When her father beat her and threw her out of the house, she came to the castle and suckled the newborn child, because her milk was plentiful. She came with no possessions other than the dress on her back and a lock of hair, tucked in an envelope, from her dead baby. That was how she presented herself at the castle. She came in time for the birth. The General had his first taste of milk at Nini’s breast.
So she lived in the castle silently for seventy-five years. Silent and smiling. Her name flew through the rooms as if the inhabitants of the castle were trying to draw one another’s attention to something. “Nini,” they said, as if to say, “How extraordinary that there’s more in the world than egoism, passion, vanity. Nini . . .” And because she was always in the right place, nobody ever saw her; and because she was always good-humored, nobody ever asked her how it was that she could always be good-humored when the man she loved had abandoned her and the child who should have drunk her milk was dead. She suckled the General and raised him, and seventy-five years went by. From time to time the sun shone over the castle and the family, and at such moments of universal well-being people were surprised to notice that Nini was smiling too. Then the Countess, the General’s mother, died, and Nini took a cloth soaked in vinegar and washed the cold, white, sweat-streaked forehead of the corpse. And then one day they brought the father of the General back home on a stretcher, for he had fallen from his horse. He lived for another five years, and Nini took care of him. She read French books aloud to him, saying each letter because she couldn’t speak the language, and stringing them together until the invalid made sense of them. Then the General got married, and when the couple returned from their honeymoon, Nini was standing waiting for them at the entrance. She kissed the hand of the new countess and offered her roses, again with a smile. It was a moment that the General remembered from time to time. Then after twelve years the new countess died, and Nini tended the grave and the clothes of the dead woman.
She had neither rank nor title in the household. Everyone simply recognized her strength. Aside from the General, nobody knew that she was over ninety. It was never a topic of conversation. Nini’s was a power that surged through the house, the people in it, the walls, the objects, the way some invisible galvanic current animates Punch and the Policeman on the stage at a little traveling puppet show. Sometimes people had the feeling that the house and its contents could, like ancient fabrics, fall apart at a touch and crumble to nothing if Nini were not there to hold them together with her strength. After his wife died, the General went on a long journey. When he returned a year later, he moved into his mother’s room in the old wing of the castle. The new wing, in which he had lived with his wife, the brilliantly colored salons with their French silk wall-coverings already fraying, the great reception room with its fireplace and its books, the staircase with its antlers, stuffed grouse, and mounted chamois heads, the large dining room with its view from the window down the valley and over the little town to the distant silver-blue shapes of the mountains, his wife’s room and his own bedroom next door, were all closed and locked at his orders. For thirty-two years following the death of his wife and his return from abroad, the only people to enter these rooms were Nini and the servants when they cleaned them every two months.
“Sit down, Nini,” said the General.
The nurse sat down. In the last year she had become old. After reaching ninety, one ages differently fromthe way one aged at fifty or sixty: one ages without bitterness. Nini’s face was rose pink and crumpled—such is the way noble fabrics age, and centuries-old silks that hold woven in their threads the assembled skills and dreams of an entire family. The previous year she had developed a cataract in one eye, leaving it gray and sad. The other eye had remained blue, the timeless blue of a mountain lake in August, and it smiled. Nini was dressed as always in dark blue, dark-blue felt skirt, simple blouse. As if she hadn’t had any new clothes made in the last seventy-five years.
“Konrad has written,” said the General, holding up the letter. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” said Nini. She remembered it all. “He’s here in the town,” said the General very quietly, the way one conveys a piece of information that is of utmost importance and extremely confidential. “He’s staying at the White Eagle. He’s coming here tonight, I’m sending the carriage to bring him. He will dine here.”
“Where here?” asked Nini calmly, allowing her blue eye, the living, smiling eye, to cast its gaze around the room.
For the last twenty years, no one had been received here. The visitors who sometimes arrived at lunchtime, gentlemen from the regional government and the city council, or guests who had come for one of the great shoots, were received by the steward in the hunting lodge that was kept ready no matter what the time of year; everything was organized for their welcome: bedchambers, bathrooms, kitchen, the large informal hunters’ dining room, the open veranda, the rustic wooden tables. On such occasions the steward presided at the head of the table and extended hospitality to the hunters and officials in the name of the General. Nobody was in any way offended by this, everyone knew that the master of the house did not appear in public. The only person to enter the castle was the priest, who came once a year, in winter, to inscribe in chalk the initials of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar on the doorframe. The priest, who had presided at the funerals of the family. Aside from him, no one. Ever.
“The other side,” said the General. “Can that be done?”
“We cleaned it a month ago,” said the nurse, “so it surely can be done.”
“Eight o’clock. Can it be done? . . .” he asked again anxiously, in an almost childlike way, leaning forward in his chair. “In the great dining hall. It’s noon already.”
“Noon,” said the nurse. “I will give the instructions. Air the rooms until six o’clock, then set the table.” She moved her lips silently, as if counting up the time and the tasks to be completed, then said yes with quick confidence.
Still leaning forward, the General watched her closely. Their two lives were slowly trundling and bumping along their way, inextricably linked in the rhythms of great old age. Each knew everything about the other, more than mother and child, more than husband and wife. The intimacy that bound them was closer than any physical bond. Perhaps it was a matter of mother’s milk. Perhaps because Nini had been the first personto see the General as he was born, at the moment ofhis delivery, in the blood and slime that accompanyall mankind into the world. Perhaps because of the seventy-five years they had lived under the same roof, eating the same food, breathing the same air, sharing the slightly musty atmosphere of the house and the same view of the trees outside the windows. And all of it lay too deep for words. They were neither brother and sister nor lovers. But there are other ties, numinous ones, and of these they were aware. There is a kind of consanguinity both closer and more powerful than that of twins in a mother’s womb. Life had melded their days and their nights, each knew the other’s body just as each knew the other’s dreams. The nurse said, “Do you want it to be the way it used to be?”