Veszprém, Austria-Hungary. September 17th, 1914. The morning light was still of the luminous, diffuse type just before the sun cleared the horizon as the training squadron clattered up Var Street onto Castle Hill. The sound of a hundred and fifty iron shod horses trotting up a cobbled street between stone buildings was nearly deafening as it echoed and re-echoed. A few people looked out as they passed. A woman waved a handkerchief to the hussars from a window of Madame Kalmar’s establishment. Heads of troopers, Jozef among them, turned to watch her. But the sound of cavalry units riding up through the old town to the castle was too common now to draw any great attention from the town’s civilians.
“Hussars! Stay in line and keep your spacing even!” Sergeant Major Szabo shouted in a voice that carried right down the column of horsemen.
During training a partially reversed hierarchy applied, and the officers-in-training lived in constant fear of the moments when the sergeants stepped in to provide commands they themselves should have given. The sergeants were not actually in command of the cadets, that would have been an unthinkable violation of the distinctions of rank and structure which allowed the Imperial Army, in all its glorious and multi-lingual complexity, to function. But Jozef knew that assessments of the cadets’ performance flowed unofficially but steadily from the sergeants to Rittmeister Koell who commanded the training squadron and from him to the oberstleutnant in command of the reserve regiment as a whole.
Jozef took the sergeant’s words as the reprimand which they were meant to be and snapped his gaze back to the road and his zug. He barked orders to his the men, bringing them into precise order. The commands in Hungarian came naturally now, though he still found more general conversation in the language halting. The hussars edged their horses more precisely into line, and the squadron rode under the archway into the castle in parade ground order, backs straight, chins up, horses stepping precisely in line, no sign of the tiredness which Jozef felt after spending his few hours of sleep trying to find comfort on the lumpy ground cushioned only by his thin bedroll.
Oberstleutnant Zingler, who despite being over sixty himself and commanding a reserve regiment made up primarily of hussars whose girth and stamina were more suited to the hunting lodge than the front lines, yearned for the glories of battle which had been denied him during a forty-year career which had begun just after the disastrous Austro-Prussian War and stretched through the unsatisfyingly long peace up until this present moment. In the interest of building a less aged regiment which might eventually be posted to the front, Zingler had ordered that the cadets conduct overnight field exercises weekly.
Rittmeister Koell, who commanded the training squadron, was rather more typical of the reserve officers in the units headquartered in the picturesque stone fortress which was situated at the highest point in Veszprém, giving it a view out over forest slopes to the spa towns that lined Lake Balaton. Though a great believer in drill and precision, and able to carry off any feat of horsemanship while keeping his back ramrod straight and his shako at the correctly jaunty angle, Koell did not see any reason why turning the cadets into proper officers should interfere with his ability to eat breakfast in his favorite coffee house, spend the hour after dinner drinking slivovitz and smoking cigars over a game of chess at his club, and repose in the arms of his mistress at night. It was not in his character to disobey the oberstleutnant’s request, so instead he arranged the field exercises to interfere with his routine as little as possible. Every Wednesday, after he had taken dinner at a restaurant and played his game of chess at the club, the squadron assembled in the gathering darkness. They rode a short way north, into the lightly wooded hills, and then the cadets and troopers were ordered to make camp in field fashion: no tents, each man heating his own condensed coffee or rations over his own little fire should he feel the need to enhance the outdoor experience. Once the last inspections were done, Rittmeister Koell rode discretely back to the flat of Madame Deák, from whence he returned with military promptness at five-thirty in the morning to rouse the men and lead them back into the town in time for breakfast.
These proprieties to satisfy the oberstleutnant’s orders observed, the rittmeister devoted the rest of his time to that which he understood and appreciated: turning his cadets into the best horsemen that he possibly could. In this no shortcuts were tolerated, and with much soreness of back and leg, Jozef and his fellows had developed an ability in the saddle which would not have disgraced an imperial review.
The training squadron turned into the the regimental stables, the orderly rows of horsemen going through the huge doors four at a time. The long, cavernous stone building with its aisles of wooden stalls housed the regiment’s nine hundred riding horses. A second building, lower down on Castle Hill, held the larger draft horses and their carts, which, should the regiment be deployed on maneuvers or to the front, would carry supplies (including the massive quantities of fodder needed to keep the horses moving) once the regiment left the railhead.
Troopers had to feed, water and groom their own horses, but the officers turned that duty over to the grooms. Within fifteen minutes of riding under the arch into the castle grounds, Jozef and the other cadets walked back the other way, freshly shaved, their uniforms brushed. They turned into one of the cafes which stood just outside the military enclave’s gates. There was not an official officers’ mess, but the two cafes served that purpose, providing not only breakfast, lunch and strong black coffee served in tiny china cups edged with gold, but a place to receive mail, newspapers, and all the elements of civilized life.
“Have you heard this?” One of the officers of the Hungarian Honved was reading to a group from a copy of the local newspaper. The Honved was the militia of the Kingdom of Hungary, a completely separate force from the joint Imperial-Royal Army, which encompassed all nationalities. The castle served as the base for a regiment of Honved infantry in addition to the two Imperial-Royal regiments: Jozef’s own reserve regiment of Hussars and another reserve regiment of light infantry.
Peter Kardos, the lone Hungarian among the Imperial-Royal cadets, joined the group. Jozef hesitated on the periphery of the Hungarian speaking group, almost exclusively Honved officers, but the reading and discussion of the news article soon surpassed his limited ability with the language. He got a cup of coffee and joined a German-speaking group where officers were arguing as the to relative importance of successes against the Serbs along the Drina and humiliations at the hands of the Russians in Poland. The Czechs formed a third knot, the linguistic separation added to by the accusations, increasingly common in the German and Hungarian-language papers, that Czech troops were at fault for the recent troubles on the Polish front, running at the first sign of danger. Off in a corner, a Croat and a Slovak officer played chess and sipped coffee, united not by language or culture but by their isolation from all others.
“Excuse me, Cadet von Revay?”
The server was carrying a small silver tray with an envelope on it. “This letter was left for you, sir.”
Jozef took the letter, plain blue paper addressed in a precise hand that would have looked well in place on a map or technical diagram.
Cadet von Revay,
Since learning of our relation we have had so few chances to meet socially. Why don’t you come with me out to the family seat this weekend -- just an informal men’s gathering for some stag hunting and similar relaxations. My esteemed brother Henrik is hosting, and his women folk are all off visiting. I can promise you the best of everything and a chance to get to know us rustic members of the family.
Give Rittmeister Koell my compliments and tell him that I’d like you to leave with me at ten in the morning on Friday, to be returned by Monday evening.
Your Obedient Servant and Loving Uncle,
Baron Istvan Revay, Major
Jozef asked the waiter to bring him paper and pen and summoned up all his grammar school exercises -- “you have been invited to the country estate of a nobleman, express your thanks and acceptance in terms proper to a gentleman” -- to compose a suitable yet jaunty reply. After an hour and a number of sheets of paper, he was satisfied that he had produced a letter which looked as if it had been dashed off casually in five minutes by someone of effortless good breeding. He folded the sheet precisely, addressed it, and wadded the failed attempts into a tight ball.
“Give this to Baron Revay when he comes in,” he told the server when the man next brought him a fresh cup of coffee, taking care to light a cigarette with great casualness as he gave the instruction.
An invitation to the family seat to hunt stag with his uncles: at last he would begin to take his father’s position in society, and without the constant hovering and interference of his mother. Would his uncles think that he was like his father? He must see that they did.