V, p.28

V., page 28

 

V.
 



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  At dawn she came in through the stained-glass window to tell him that another Bondel had been executed, this time by hanging.

  “Come and see,” she urged him. “In the garden.”

  “No, no.” It had been a popular form of killing during the Great Rebellion of 1904–07, when the Hereros and Hottentots, who usually fought one another, staged a simultaneous but uncoordinated rising against an incompetent German administration. General Lothar von Trotha, having demonstrated to Berlin during his Chinese and East African campaigns a certain expertise at suppressing pigmented populations, was brought in to deal with the Hereros. In August 1904, von Trotha issued his “Vernichtungs Befehl,” whereby the German forces were ordered to exterminate systematically every Herero man, woman and child they could find. He was about 80 percent successful. Out of the estimated 80,000 Hereros living in the territory in 1904, an official German census taken seven years later set the Herero population at only 15,130, this being a decrease of 64,870. Similarly the Hottentots were reduced in the same period by about 10,000, the Berg-Damaras by 17,000. Allowing for natural causes during those unnatural years, von Trotha, who stayed for only one of them, is reckoned to have done away with about 60,000 people. This is only 1 percent of six million, but still pretty good.

  Foppl had first come to Südwestafrika as a young Army recruit. It didn’t take him long to find out how much he enjoyed it all. He’d ridden out with von Trotha that August, that inverted spring. “You’d find them wounded, or sick, by the side of the road,” he told Mondaugen, “but you didn’t want to waste the ammunition. Logistics at the time were sluggish. Some you bayoneted, others you hanged. Procedure was simple: one led the fellow or woman to the nearest tree, stood him on an ammunition box, fashioned a noose of rope (failing that, telegraph or fencing wire), slipped it round his neck, ran the rope through a fork in the tree and secured it to the trunk, kicked the box away. It was slow strangulation, but then these were summary courts-martial. Field expedients had to be used when you couldn’t put up a scaffold each time.”

  “Of course not,” said Mondaugen in his nit-picking engineer’s way, “but with so much telegraph wire and so many ammunition boxes lying around, logistics couldn’t have been all that sluggish.”

  “Oh,” Foppl said. “Well. You’re busy.”

  As it happened, Mondaugen was. Though it may have been only because of bodily exhaustion from too much partying, he’d begun to notice something unusual in the sferic signals. Having dexterously scavenged a motor from one of Foppl’s phonographs, a pen and rollers and several long sheets of paper, the resourceful Mondaugen had fashioned a crude sort of oscillograph to record signals in his absence. The project hadn’t seen fit to provide him with one and he’d had nowhere to go at his former station, making one up till now unnecessary. As he looked now at the cryptic pen-scrawls, he detected a regularity or patterning which might almost have been a kind of code. But it took him weeks even to decide that the only way to see if it were a code was to try to break it. His room became littered with tables, equations, graphs; he appeared to labor to the accompaniment of twitterings, hisses, clicks and carolings but in reality he dawdled. Something kept him off. Events intimidated him: one night during another “typhoon” the oscillograph broke, chattering and scratching away madly. The difficulty was minor and Mondaugen was able to fix it. But he wondered if the malfunction had been quite an accident.

  He took to roaming the house at odd hours, at loose ends. Like the “eye” in his dream of Fasching he now found he had a gift of visual serendipity: a sense of timing, a perverse certainty about not whether but when to play the voyeur. A taming, possibly, of the original heat with which he’d watched Vera Meroving in the earlier days of the siege party. For example, leaning in bleak winter sunlight against a Corinthian column, Mondaugen could hear her voice not far away.

  “No. Non-military it may be, but a false siege it is not.”

  Mondaugen lit a cigarette and peered around the column. She was sitting in the rockery with old Godolphin, beside a goldfish pool.

  “Do you remember,” she began. But then noticed perhaps the pain of a return home choking him more than any noose of memory she could provide, because she let him interrupt:

  “I have done believing in siege as anything more than military technic. That was well over with twenty years ago, before even your beloved 1904.”

  Condescending, she explained that she’d been off in another country in 1904, and that a year and place don’t have to include the physical person for there to be a certain ownership.

  It was beyond Godolphin. “I was advising the Russian Fleet in 1904,” he remembered. “They didn’t take my advice, the Japanese you’ll remember bottled us up in Port Arthur. Good God. It was a siege in the great tradition, it lasted a year. I remember frozen hillsides, and the ghastly nagging of those field-mortars, coughing away day in and day out. And white spotlights, moving over the positions at night. Blinding you. A devout junior officer with an arm gone and the empty sleeve pinned across like a sash said they looked like the fingers of God, seeking soft throats to strangle.”

  “Lieutenant Weissmann and Herr Foppl have given me my 1904,” she told him, like a schoolgirl enumerating birthday gifts. “Just as you were given your Vheissu.”

  Hardly any time at all passed before he cried, “No! No, I was there.” Then, his head moving with difficulty to face her, “I didn’t tell you about Vheissu. Did I?”

  “Of course you did.”

  “I hardly remember Vheissu myself.”

  “I do. I have remembered for us.”

  “ ‘Have remembered,’” with a sudden canny tilt to one eye. But it relaxed, and he rambled off:

  “If anything gave me my Vheissu it was the time, the Pole, the service. . . . But it’s all been taken away, I mean the leisure and the sympathy. It’s fashionable to say the war did it. Whatever you choose. But Vheissu is gone and impossible to bring back, along with so many other old jokes, songs, ‘rages.’ And the sort of beauty one had in Cléo de Mérode, or Eleonora Duse. The way those eyes turned down at the corners; the incredible expanse of eyelid above, like old vellum . . . But you’re too young, you wouldn’t remember.”

  “I’m past forty,” smiled Vera Meroving, “and of course I remember. I was given the Duse too, by the man in fact who gave her to Europe, over twenty years ago, in Il Fuoco. We were in Fiume. Another siege. The Christmas before last, he called it the Christmas of blood. He gave her to me as memories, in his palace, while the Andrea Doria dropped shells on us.”

  “They’d go to the Adriatic on holiday,” Godolphin said with a foolish smile, as if the memory were his own; “he, naked, rode his sorrel into the sea while she waited on the strand. . . .”

  “No,” suddenly and only for the moment vicious, “nor selling her jewels to suppress the novel about her, nor using a virgin’s skull for a loving cup, none of that’s true. She was past forty and in love, and he hurt her. Went out of his way to hurt her. That’s all there was to it.

  “Weren’t we both in Florence then? While he was writing the novel about their affair; how could we have avoided them! Yet it seemed always that I was just missing him. First in Florence, then in Paris just before the war, as if I’d been condemned to wait until he reached his supreme moment, his peak of virtù: Fiume!”

  “In Florence . . . we . . .” quizzical, weak.

  She leaned forward, as if hinting she’d like to be kissed. “Don’t you see? This siege. It’s Vheissu. It’s finally happened.”

  Abruptly then occurred one of those ironic reversals in which the weakling for a short while gains the upper hand, and the attacker is forced, at best, into a holding operation. Mondaugen, watching, credited this less to any internal logic in their discussion than to a latent virility in the old man, hidden against contingencies like this from the cormorant graspings of age.

&nbs
p; Godolphin laughed at her. “There’s been a war, Fräulein. Vheissu was a luxury, an indulgence. We can no longer afford the likes of Vheissu.”

  “But the need,” she protested, “its void. What can fill that?”

  He cocked his head and grinned at her. “What is already filling it. The real thing. Unfortunately. Take your friend D’Annunzio. Whether we like it or not that war destroyed a kind of privacy, perhaps the privacy of dream. Committed us like him to work out three-o’clock anxieties, excesses of character, political hallucinations on a live mass, a real human population. The discretion, the sense of comedy about the Vheissu affair are with us no more, our Vheissus are no longer our own, or even confined to a circle of friends; they’re public property. God knows how much of it the world will see, or what lengths it will be taken to. It’s a pity; and I’m only glad I don’t have to live in it too much longer.”

  “You’re remarkable,” was all she’d say; and after braining an inquisitive goldfish with a rock, she left Godolphin.

  Alone, he said: “We simply grow up. In Florence, at age fifty-four, I was a brash youth. Had I known the Duse was there her poet chap might have found dangerous competition, ha-ha. The only trouble is that now, nearing eighty, I keep discovering that damned war has made the world older than I. The world frowns now on youth in a vacuum, it insists youth be turned-to, utilized, exploited. No time for pranks. No more Vheissus. Ah, well.” And to a catchy, rather syncopated fox-trot tune, he sang:

  Once we could flirt and spoon,

  Down by the summertime sea.

  Your aunt Iphigenia found it terribly odd.

  To see us stealing a kiss there on the Promenade, oh

  You weren’t past seventeen,

  Parasol-pretty for me;

  Ah, could we but return to that season of light,

  With our puppy-love soaring like a gay summer kite,

  When it wasn’t yet time to think of autumn, or night;

  Down by the summertime sea.

  (Here Eigenvalue made his single interruption: “They spoke in German? English? Did Mondaugen know English then?” Forestalling a nervous outburst by Stencil: “I only think it strange that he should remember an unremarkable conversation, let alone in that much detail, thirty-four years later. A conversation meaning nothing to Mondaugen but everything to Stencil.”

  Stencil, silenced, puffed his pipe and watched the psychodontist, a quirk to one side of his mouth revealed now and again, enigmatic, through the white fumes. Finally: “Stencil called it serendipity, not he. Do you understand? Of course you do. But you want to hear him say it.”

  “I understand only,” Eigenvalue drawled, “that your attitude toward V. must have more sides to it than you’re ready to admit. It’s what the psychoanalysts used to call ambivalence, what we now call simply a heterodont configuration.”

  Stencil made no answer; Eigenvalue shrugged and let him continue.)

  In the evening a roasted veal was set out on a long table in the dining hall. Guests fell upon it drunkenly, tearing away choice pieces of flesh with their hands, staining what clothes they wore with gravy and grease. Mondaugen was feeling his usual reluctance to return to work. He padded along crimson-carpeted passageways, mirrored, unpopulated, ill-lit, without echoes. He was, tonight, a bit upset and depressed without being able to say exactly why. Perhaps because he’d begun to detect the same desperation in Foppl’s siege party as there’d been in Munich during Fasching; but without any clear reason, for here after all was abundance not depression, luxury not a daily struggle for life; above all, possibly, breasts and buttocks that could be pinched.

  Somehow he’d wandered by Hedwig’s room. Her door was open. She sat before her vanity mirror making up her eyes. “Come in,” she called, “don’t stand there leering.”

  “Your little eyes look so antiquated.”

  “Herr Foppl has ordered all the ladies to dress and make up as they would have done in 1904.” She giggled. “I wasn’t even born in 1904, so I really shouldn’t be wearing anything.” She sighed. “But after all the trouble I’d gone to to pluck my eyebrows to look like Dietrich’s. Now I must draw them in again like great dark wings, and point them at either end; and so much mascara!” She pouted, “Pray no one breaks my heart, Kurt, for tears would ruin these old-fashioned eyes.”

  “Oh, you have a heart then.”

  “Please, Kurt, I said don’t make me cry. Come: you may help me arrange my hair.”

  When he lifted the heavy, pale locks from her nape he saw two parallel rings of recently chafed skin running round the neck, about two inches apart. If surprise was communicated through her hair by any movement his hands may have made, Hedwig gave no sign. Together they put up her hair in an elaborate curly bun, securing it with a black satin band. Round her neck, to cover each abrasion, she wound a thin string of little onyx beads, letting three more loops or so drop progressively looser down between her breasts.

  He bent to kiss one shoulder. “No,” she moaned, then went berserk; picked up a flacon of cologne water, inverted it on his head, arose from her vanity, hitting Mondaugen in the jaw with the shoulder he’d been trying to kiss. He, felled, lost consciousness for a fraction of a minute, woke to see her cakewalking out the door, singing “Auf dem Zippel-Zappel-Zeppelin,” a tune popular at the turn of the century.

  He staggered to the corridor: she’d vanished. Feeling rather a sexual failure, Mondaugen set out for his turret and oscillograph, and the comforts of Science, which are glacial and few.

  He got as far as a decorative grotto, located in the very guts of the house. There Weissmann, in full uniform, lunged at him from behind a stalagmite. “Upington!” he screamed.

  “Ah?” inquired Mondaugen, blinking.

  “You’re a cool one. Professional traitors are always so cool.” His mouth remaining open, Weissmann sniffed the air. “Oh, my. Don’t we smell nice.” His eyeglasses blazed.

  Mondaugen, still groggy and enveloped in a miasma of cologne, wanted only to sleep. He tried to push past the piqued lieutenant, who barred his path with the butt end of a sjambok.

  “Whom have you been in contact with at Upington?”

  “Upington.”

  “It has to be, it’s the nearest large town in the Union. You can’t expect English operatives to give up the comforts of civilization.”

  “I don’t know anyone in the Union.”

  “Careful how you answer, Mondaugen.”

  It finally came to him that Weissmann was talking about the sferic experiment. “It can’t transmit,” he yelled. “If you knew anything at all you’d see that immediately. It’s for receiving only, stupid.”

  Weissmann favored him with a smile. “You just convicted yourself. They send you instructions. I may not know electronics, but I can recognize the scrawlings of a bad cryptanalyst.”

  “If you can do any better you’re welcome,” Mondaugen sighed. He told Weissmann about his whim, the “code.”

  “You mean that?” abruptly almost childlike. “You’ll let me see what you’ve received?”

  “You’ve obviously seen everything. But it’ll put us that much closer to a solution.”

  Quite soon he had Weissmann laughing shyly. “Oh. Oh, I see. You’re ingenious. Amazing. Ja. Stupid of me, you see. I do apologize.”

  Struck by an inspiration, Mondaugen whispered, “I’m monitoring their little broadcasts.”

  Weissmann frowned. “That’s what I just said.”

  Mondaugen shrugged. The lieutenant lit a whale-oil lamp and they set out for the turret. As they ascended a sloping hallway, the great villa was filled with a single, deafening pulse of laughter. Mondaugen became numb, the lantern went smash behind him. He turned to see Weissmann standing among little blue flames and shiny fragments of glass.

  “The strand wolf,” was all Weissmann could m
anage.

  In his room Mondaugen had brandy, but Weissmann’s face remained the color of cigar smoke. He wouldn’t talk. He got drunk and presently fell asleep in a chair.

  Mondaugen worked on the code into the early morning, getting, as usual, nowhere. He kept dozing off and being brought awake by brief chuckling sounds from the loudspeaker. They sounded to Mondaugen, half in dream, like that other chilling laugh, and made him reluctant to go back to sleep. But he continued to, fitfully.

  Somewhere out in the house (though he may have dreamed that too) a chorus had begun singing a Dies Irae in plainsong. It got so loud it woke Mondaugen. Irritated, he lurched to the door and went out to tell them to keep quiet.

  Once past the storage rooms, he found the adjoining corridors brilliantly lit. On the whitewashed floor he saw a trail of blood-spatters, still wet. Intrigued, he followed. The blood led him perhaps fifty yards through drapes and around corners to what may have been a human form, lying covered with a piece of old canvas sail, blocking further passage. Beyond it the floor of the corridor gleamed white and bloodless.

  Mondaugen broke into a sprint, jumped neatly over whatever it was and continued on at a jogging pace. Eventually he found himself at the head of a portrait gallery he and Hedwig Vogelsang had once danced down. His head still reeled with her cologne. Halfway along, illuminated by a nearby sconce, he saw Foppl, dressed in his old private-soldier’s uniform and standing on tiptoe to kiss one of the portraits. When he’d gone, Mondaugen looked at the brass plate on the frame to verify his suspicion. It was indeed von Trotha.

  “I loved the man,” he’d said. “He taught us not to fear. It’s impossible to describe the sudden release; the comfort, the luxury; when you knew you could safely forget all the rote-lessons you’d had to learn about the value and dignity of human life. I had the same feeling once in the Realgymnasium when they told us we wouldn’t be responsible in the examination for all the historical dates we’d spent weeks memorizing. . . .

  “Till we’ve done it, we’re taught that it’s evil. Having done it, then’s the struggle: to admit to yourself that it’s not really evil at all. That like forbidden sex it’s enjoyable.”

 

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