Authors: Leo Perutz
Translated from the German
by John Brownjohn
An Imprint of
First published in Germany in 1928
under the title
Wohin Röllst Du, Apfelchen
Published in Austria by Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna, 1987
First published in Great Britain in 1991 by Harvill
© Paul Zsolnay Verlag Gesellschaft m.b.H., Vienna, Hamburg 1987 English translation © HarperCollins Publishers 1991
BRITISH LIBRARY CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION DATA
1. Fiction in German. Austrian writers, 1900-1945 -
I. Title 833'.9i2
Where are you rolling, little apple . .
Russian marching song
There had been an unforeseen roll-call in the railway station's big medical centre, but that was the last piece of excitement. From Moscow onwards the journey proceeded without incident. When Kohout produced the dog-eared pack of cards from his pocket and suggested a game of pontoon, insisting that they owed him a chance to get even, they all joined in, including Feuerstein, who had fainted on the platform while their names were being called.
Emperger, who was in charge of the communal purse, got out at Tula and bought some bread, eggs, and hot water for tea. He even rustled up two bars of chocolate. His return was accompanied by the announcement that he had bidden Russia a final farewell and shaken its dust off his feet for ever more. He was now on neutral soil, he said, because he couldn't regard the hospital train as Russian territory.
Vit¬torin's face darkened. Was Emperger implying that he wouldn't return to Russia under any circumstances? What if the choice fell on him? Was there some ulterior motive behind his remark? Was he hedging his bets after all - was he subtly and unobtrusively hinting that he didn't feel bound by their agreement?
He looked up from his cards but could detect nothing in Emperger's face, with its prominent, utterly expressionless eyes, that might have confirmed his suspicions.
It was impossible! They had all made a solemn pledge. "I swear, as an officer and a man of honour . . ." - that was the form of words they'd used. There could be no going back, not now. Perhaps Emperger had been unaware of the implication of his remark - perhaps he'd simply spoken without thinking. If so, it would be quite in order to deliver a friendly rebuke.
Vit¬torin laid aside his cards and buttoned his tunic, but he was still debating what to say when Lieutenant Kohout forestalled him.
"Sounds to me like you're trying to duck out," he said. "One of us will have to go back, you know that. What's to say it won't be you?"
"You misunderstood me, Kohout," Emperger told him. "Of course one of us will go back, but this is the last time Mother Russia will see me as a prisoner of war. If I do return, I'll be a free man. There's a difference, you have to admit."
"I've made a mental note of the name Selyukov," said Feuerstein. "I'll never forget it as long as I live. You can count on me."
"The whole thing's settled," Professor Junker protested from his window seat. "Why rake it up again? Here we are, enjoying a nice trip in a nice, clean, almost European-standard railway carriage. Why spoil it by reminding us of that man?"
Vit¬torin shut his eyes. There's no question of entrusting Emperger with a mission of such importance, he told himself. Emperger's a mummy's boy: soft, spoilt, and thoroughly unreliable. A good comrade, though, and a nice enough fellow in other respects. Plucky too, perhaps - after all, he did win the Silver Medal Second Class - but what a womanizer! The man thinks of nothing but his amours. Lisa, Magda, Frieda from the skating club - I've had to listen to his amatory reminiscences a hundred times. Night after night, when we'd finished our game of chess, off he would go: "Ah, those were the days!" That was his invariable prelude. Then it was Eva or the civil servant's luscious wife or Lilli from the Kaiser Bar, who always nibbled his lips. He thinks he's irresistible. Anyway, he isn't all that plucky in spite of his Second-Class Silver. He wasn't keen to come with us at first. "You'll see," he kept telling us, day and night, "we'll never get beyond Omsk - we'll get stuck there." Now that we're actually on board the hospital train, he's putting on airs and playing the train commandant. No,
I'll make sure Emperger doesn't win the vote. The Professor is equally out of the question-he wasn't an officer. "Indispensable to the world of scholarship" - that's what I'll say if someone suggests him. Kohout? With his stiff arm? That only leaves Feuerstein. I'll have him to reckon with, admittedly. He's a cunning devil - a born survivor. Whatever he wants, he gets. That fainting fit at the station was an act, you bet. He doesn't have any papers - not even a medical certificate. I doubt if he'll stand aside for me without an argument. He's got money, too - in fact he's supposed to be really well-off, an industrialist or something. Still, that could count against him, his money and his occupation. I'll point out that anyone who takes on a job like this should have no ties. Feuerstein would spend the whole time thinking of his factory and the business he might be missing. No, I'd better not say that or he may . . . After all, he's supposed to be putting up the money. We need Feuerstein, so I mustn't offend him. Kohout is bound to vote for me. I can depend on Kohout . . .
"What the devil's the matter with this train? Are we going to be stuck here for ever?" Kohout exclaimed. "Hey, where's Emperger? Can't you shut the window, Professor? There's a howling draught."
The Professor was whiling away the time by calling out
- to the peasant women lining the platform. Emperger returned with news.
"A minor mechanical fault, that's all-nothing serious. They should have it repaired in half an hour. Do you know who the old gentleman in the next compartment is? A Tsarist court official - a grand duke's son-in-law who escaped from St Petersburg by the skin of his teeth. He possesses nothing but the clothes he stands up in - the Bolsheviks robbed him of everything else, or so I was told by the lieutenant attached to the Danish Red Cross. Anyone care for a beer or some cigarettes? Another hour and we'll be in Ukrainian territory. We're all entitled to five weeks' leave, the lieutenant says. We have to put in a request at the depot."
"Of course we'll get some leave," Kohout growled. "We don't need your lieutenant to tell us that. Let's get on with the game. Who's bank?"
"Yes," Emperger pursued, "but first we have to spend three weeks in quarantine at some rotten little hole in Podolia. It's no mere formality - can't be avoided. How about that for a nice surprise, Professor?"
Professor Junker shrugged. Kohout shuffled the pack, waited for someone to cut, and dealt.
"Your girl-friends will simply have to do without you for another three weeks," he said. "Meantime, you may as well sit down."
"When did you say we cross the border?" asked Vit¬torin.
"An hour from now at most."
"Kohout, time to sort out our things."
Kohout rose, reached for the luggage rack, and got down the wooden army suitcase containing his and Vit¬torin's belongings.
"All right, split 'em up," he said, shifting from foot to foot and wringing his hands in his characteristic way. "Straight down the middle, no more sharing."
Vit¬torin opened the suitcase and deposited his things on the seat: toilet articles and underclothes, a Russian smock, a fur coat with an astrakhan collar, and a pair of calf-length felt boots - unwearable at home, but a pleasant memento of his time in Siberia. Then came a skilfully woven horsehair necklace strung with four Chinese silver coins. Next, letters from his father and sisters. Vally was an infrequent correspondent, but Lola, the elder, had written punctually on the first and fifteenth of every month. Franzi Kroneis's letters were bundled together and tied up with string. "My Dear Boy ..." They all began like that - he had no need to look at them. The ill-written letter on the top was from his brother Oskar. He unfolded this missive and proceeded to reread it.
"Dear Brother, it's ages since I wrote to you, my dear Brother, but please don't be angry with me for being so inconsiderate. Now for some news of my doings. For some time now I've been taking lessons in German, shorthand, correspondence and French from a teacher at the business school. That's four lessons a week at two kronen the lesson. I also have homework to do and practise the piano in my spare time, not that I get much. Let's hope this everlasting war ends soon, and that you, dear Brother, will be able to come home. We received your dear letter dated January 16th, and were very concerned to hear of the poor conditions you're living in. Another thing: I go to the theatre and even attended some of my fellow students' parties during Carnival. Now that this letter has brought you so much news and set your mind at rest, my dear Brother, I shall close with affectionate regards. Your loving brother Oskar."
Vit¬torin smiled. His little brother, who had still been playing cowboys and Indians when the war broke out, would soon be a grown man himself.
Next, the red exercise book containing his Russian vocabulary lists. Several issues of the mimeographed camp newspaper. A pad of colourful Chinese writing paper. A leather waistcoat, an English grammar, a Tungus cap. A wooden ashtray carved by a fellow prisoner in the dragoons. A packet of cigarettes, and, carefully stowed away at the very bottom, the two faience vases with bird's-head handles, the white dragon on a blue ground, and the glazed green china bowl. He had acquired these pieces for next to nothing, but Emperger, who knew about such things, said they probably dated from the Ming period and were all extremely valuable. The china bowl alone was worth at least fifteen hundred roubles.
Vit¬torin bundled everything up in his fur coat and secured this makeshift bedding-roll with a strap. Then he lit a cigarette.
The train got under way again. Professor Junker waved his handkerchief and called
Feuerstein confessed that he hadn't really believed in the mechanical fault. He'd been convinced that a telegram had arrived from Moscow, and that he would be plucked off the train at the last moment. The past half-hour had given him a nasty turn. Had anyone noticed?
"I did," Kohout told him. "You were as white as a sheet."
Emperger proceeded to do his accounts. No more joint expenditure being foreseen, he was delighted to announce that, thanks to his careful husbanding of the communal exchequer, he was in a position to reimburse each contributor to the extent of seventeen-and-a-half roubles. No receipt would be required.
Now, however, the solemn moment had come. Vit¬torin produced a notebook and requested the travelling companions who had for two years been his room-mates at Chernavyensk Camp to give him their addresses.
Emperger, as he already knew, lived in Prinz-Eugen-Strasse - naturally, since it was Vienna's most elegant quarter. He was also in the telephone directory. Kohout, wringing his hands, declared that he had no fixed abode at the present time, but that a letter addressed to the Café Splendide in Praterstrasse would always reach him. That was his regular Viennese haunt, and he looked in there once or twice a day.
Vit¬torin inscribed the four names in his notebook, and beside them their owners' military rank, civilian occupation, street and house number. Beneath them, in big, bold capitals, he wrote: "Mikhail Mikhailovich Selyukov, Staff Captain, Semyonov Regiment."
That completed the first step: everything was down in black and white. Mikhail Mikhailovich Selyukov had now to contend with a close-knit organization, a league of five men who had defined their objective and were prepared to make any sacrifice in order to attain it. The matter would have to take its course.
The train pulled into Ryekhovo, its final destination. Two Bolshevik officers, their peaked caps adorned with the Soviet star, were pacing up and down between tall stacks of timber. Standing beside the water tower on the other side of the station was an Austrian sentry with rifle at the slope and bayonet fixed. A big brown dog was roaming among the freight cars and two peasants were hauling a hen-house ladder across the tracks. The door of the station commandant's office was open.
A Honved major with pepper-and-salt side whiskers emerged, and the lieutenant from the hospital train stepped forward to present his report.
While waiting for the Vienna express in the station buffet at Cracow, Vit¬torin caught sight of a lieutenant at the counter wearing the aiguillette and black velvet revers of a dragoon regiment. The lieutenant gave him a friendly, familiar wave. By the time Vit¬torin responded, which he did in a rather stiff and hesitant fashion, the dragoon officer had come over to his table.
"Well?" he demanded, and Vit¬torin saw that it was Emperger. "Surely you don't expect me to introduce myself? Fancy staring at me like that! Couldn't place me, eh? Seems you only know me when I'm trudging around in a
and felt boots; when I look like a human being, you don't. Ah no, my dear fellow, my eskimo period is over and done with, thank God. And you, what are you up to? How are you? Back from the depot already?"