Seven riders left the city at dusk, toward the setting sun. They left through the west gate, which was no longer guarded. They held their heads high, for they had nothing to hide, in contrast to all those who had fled the city. They were not fleeing. There was no treason among them, and nor was there hope. They permitted themselves no illusions. Thus were they armed, hearts uncluttered and spirits scintillating coldly like crystal, for the journey which awaited them. They were going on the order of the margrave. By his order they had been set in motion, and the youngest of them, who was not yet sixteen, was humming a tune…
The one who led them, an unattached colonel-major, the Count Silve de Pikkendorff, had been received by the margrave the previous night. Through the city’s deserted streets, he had had to light his way by a torch, clasped in his raised grip, up to the castle. The gas had been cut months ago, and the glass and burners of the lamps broken. With the rising wind, doors and shutters rattled against the walls of the empty buildings, though there were few left in the abandoned city to be bothered this strangely noisy solitude. Yet some families lingered, in their carefully fortified houses, curtains drawn, shutters fastened. The only apparent sign of life was the pale yellow glimmer of a lamp, slipping through a gap in a curtain as it was shifted by some inner occupant, peering at the passer-by, before being hurriedly and fearfully closed. These were the last loyal subjects of the margrave. As long as light flickered from the castle, however dimly, so too would theirs remain lit. This was the sole certainty left to them, and their sole expression of it.
As he climbed the cobbled hill, Count Silve thought he heard a baby crying. His clattering boots fell silent as he stopped to listen, searching for the window from which came this precious chagrin, this little life echoing in the night. Choked by emotion, he drank in the sound of tears, as a desert castaway drinks a miraculous, life-saving rain. How many children had been born in the city in the last year? A count would have been brief, but nobody counted the sadness and despair anymore. A woman began to sing a melancholy lullably, in an old mountain dialect, her voice occasionally breaking in a sob. Then the song stopped. The baby must have fallen asleep. Silve continued on his way.
He crossed the leisure quarter, a little higher in the town. It would once have been raucous with music and shouts, all windows lit up, from which perfect girls would have been leaning out, calling men with their beautiful white arms. The place was now all but silent and forgotten. One light, however, shone on the corner of a darkened street, like a memory in the night. Behind the glass, a young woman was waiting. Anyone in the city who mattered had loved her. Dressed in a white bodice with a plunging neckline, a silk skirt fallen about her feet, her black hair loose, and lying languid in an armchair near a glowing fireplace, she dreamed with her eyes open. Silve pushed open the door and entered.
“Why didn’t you leave with the others?” he asked.
“And follow those dogs? No. Let them sleep with their women, but never again with Fédora. Silve, show me a little tenderness.”
For a moment, he took her in his arms, and traced his lips over her face, whispering simple words to her. It may be said that the love received was worth only the love given.
“The margrave is waiting for me,” he continued, separating with his hands the two bare arms which had been draped around his neck. “When I come back from the castle, I will return. I may be a long while.”
Fédora dropped a log on the fire, which resumed its crackling.
“Don’t be too late,” she said. “See my supply of wood. It won’t last until the morning. After that, it will be cold.”
The street which climbed up to the castle passed beneath the walls of the prison, pierced with barred windows. The double doors to the compound were hanging open, and led into a deserted inner courtyard. Nobody manned the guard post, nor the four corner watchtowers which surveyed the outside. Prisoners and guards had disappeared, the latter no more worthy than the former: they had ended up fraternising, taking advantage of the margrave’s neglect. The door had been unlocked from the inside and all had escaped. Now they were wildly pillaging the countryside. The latest reports from most of the province’s mayors, seen some weeks earlier, spoke of villainy. Since then, nothing more had been heard. At the police headquarters, a little further ahead, an equally heavy silence reigned, disturbed only by the squeaking of the rats nesting among the documents. Here the agony had lingered, feeding on anarchy. There had been settling of scores between police officers. Death had swelled his ranks, by murder even more than by the epidemic which gnawed at even the most hardy of the city folk. There too had the law of numbers played its game. The corrupt had found themselves masters of the place, then had fled the city, a vein of gold which had been exhausted. The police superintendent, rich to the point of obscenity, had not survived the pillaging. Acquitted by a complicit high court during its last session before the great scattering, and on the order of the convalescent margrave, Count Silve had executed him personally. This evening the colonel-major, hastening up the steps which led to the cathedral forecourt, halfway to the castle, once more considered, without remorse, the pure joy he had felt in discharging his pistol into the skull of the wretched man.
On the pediment of Saint Aulick’s cathedral, named for the city’s patron saint, the founder of the dynasty, a rose window of the Last Judgement – at least, what was left of it – glimmered faintly in the night. The archangels no longer had their faces, and all that remained of almighty God was his raising hand of justice, held in place only by a few stalks of lead. The vandals, bored, had taken themselves elsewhere to sate their appetite for destruction, and the next gust of wind would bring it down. With its stained glass windows now gaping, open to the icy air, the only life around the great nave was the rustle of black owls and their unseen flights around the pillars. It seemed all the more vast, now that it had been so completely ravaged. As the supplies of coal and firewood no longer arrived at the city from the provinces, the neighbouring university, the police, the Treasury Hotel and several other feckless institutions had fed their fires with its chairs, choir stalls and enviably-carved Renaissance-era confessional booths. It was their vengeance against the church. The cardinal archbishop, his arms crossed before the high altar, had barely saved the sculpted altarpiece, dating from the 10th century, upon which Saint Aulick was offering his hand to the Lord Christ and the Virgin Mary. As the religious effects were being looted, he had refused utterly to suffer the smallest scrap of wood to be taken to fuel his own fire, and shortly thereafter, he had died of cold, and of grief, in his small monastic room in the episcopal palace. His old housekeeper in her cornette, from the Auxiliatrices de Marie, had been warming her cracked hands on a bowl of soup she had been offering him. He had been a saint, and a good man. No one had noted his death, least of all the margrave, who had never thought of him as more than a kind of ecclesiastical marionette with his protocols, welcoming him on the forecourt of his church in his capa magna, his tassled hat and his red socks, intoning words that generations of margraves had known word for word. Before what remained of the officialdom of state, he had been buried under the slabs of the high altar, in the company of his antecedents. There had not been time, before the marble workers had left, to engrave his name and its honours in stone. As the world turned, he would be forgotten. God alone would remember.
Entering the cathedral, Count Silve noticed a light at the back of the choir. This light was reflected in the last shards of the rose window. On his knees before the Blessed Sacrament, dimly-lit by a half-dozen candle stubs, a man was praying. Hearing the steps behind him, the man rose and turned, quickly drawing from his broad sash a cavalry pistol, which he levelled at the newcomer.
“Ah. It’s you, Silve.” he said.
By the violet of the sash and cassock buttons, as well as by the cross on his chest, Silve knew him to be a bishop. A young bishop. Monseigneur Osmond Van Beck, City Co-adjutor, had barely passed thirty-five, the same age as himself.
“Did I frighten you, Osmond?” the count asked.
The bishop smiled.
“You know well that you did not. I shoot straight, and true. I would not have missed you.”
“Indeed,” returned Silve. He gestured with a hand at a corpse lying in the shadows. It still clutched, in its stiff grip, a sawn-off hunting rifle. “Who was that?”
“An Amanitian. Some still lurk around the city. Those who have nothing to lose, knowing they are already lost.”
A hallucinogenic mushroom whose particularly destructive effects included aggression and the illusion of invulnerability, the Amanita Oronaise, having ravaged the youth of both East and West, had made its appearance in the city and the wider country several years ago. Hesitant to undertake any drastic measures while there had been time, the margrave had resisted it only perfunctorily. With the complicity of the police, and certain monied powers, the Amanita Oronaise was cultivated in greenhouses in the capital by various gardeners. Its devotees had formed a sect that was at once both organised and anarchic, and the ranks of whose members, the Amanitians, were unceasingly replenished. This was in spite of the fact that, within a few months to a couple of years, the mushroom killed all those who indulged in it. There was no remedy, and no exception. Of all the evils that beset the City, this was not the smallest.
“A boy,” remarked the count sadly.
“An animal,” replied the bishop. “A moment’s choice. It was him or me. I could have donned a martyr’s crown. I need only have hesitated. Up there the Lord would have welcomed me, and life down here is not much joy. But in service of the Lord, here on Earth, which of us was the more useful? This wretched boy, or me?”
“And God gave you the answer?”
“Time was short. I answered for Him.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Certainly not,” replied Bishop Osmond, with an unfeigned indifference, “though I would in any case be unable to make a confession of it. Aside from me, there are no more priests in the city. The last left yesterday. He was the hospital chaplain. He ran through the sick wards at a gallop, granting a wave of general absolution as he passed, and then, abandoning his stole, he dressed himself as a civilian, and vanished. I went up there this morning. It’s horrible. All those people are dying. What can we do?”
“Nothing.” answered the count.
He and Bishop Van Beck had known one another a long time. In happier times, they had together escaped the city’s lounges and high society, and ridden together across the surrounding countryside, with its sandy flatlands studded with beeches and birches. They had sat on a tree trunk, beside a fire, and shared a roasted hare. They had the same way with words, that is, they were frugal with them.
“It is the hour of salvation,” continued the bishop. “You’re in luck. The beadle is also gone, and the sacristan is dead.”
“The margrave is waiting for me,” said Silve. “Around him, too, lies a desert.”
“One moment, please. Ring the bell. A lone man can ring the smallest one, the Bumblebee. It’s the red-braided rope.”
“You think anyone will come?”
“I doubt it.”
The bishop raised his arms, offering his outstretched hands to the sky.
“To call Him. He makes Himself scarce, these days…”
“Where are you spending the night, Osmond?” Silve asked, “After I see the margrave, I’ll have much to tell you.”
“At the sacristy. I have a camp bed there, and a fireplace, and a solid door with a lock. I also found some benches, so I will keep warm.”
At the top of the bell tower, the count untied the red-braided rope. As the clapper began to swing, a great flock of owls took flight. The bell rang out over the empty city. To Silve, the cathedral bells, even when they had all rung together, had never seemed so loud as this one did now. He rang so determinedly that at one point the bell-rope was gently lifting him into the air, just as they had all done when he and his classmates at the nearby Military Athenaeum had earned the privilege of ringing them. Many an enraptured boy had flown on the bell-ropes. He found his heart warmed by this memory, and indeed also by seeing Osmond again. The bishop was an oak. Nothing could tear him down.
A bell, once rung, continues to ring for some time. It carries on, alone, sounding between increasingly long pauses. One thinks it is over, and then the clapper hits home one more time, and perhaps another. One says the bell dies. The Bumblebee was a long time in dying, and as it died its peals accompanied the count’s march through the rising, empty streets. Before the tall gates of the military governorate, the sentry-post was abandoned, as were the neighbouring barracks of the cavalry, infantry and artillery. To ensure the margrave’s protection with his few remaining men, Silve had withdrawn them all to the castle the previous day. Of the three regiments which had garrisoned the city, he had eight officers, among them four commissions, and eleven men. Half were locked in the citadel. The game of watches and guardsmen meant that there were now rarely more than two men patrolling, in almost total solitude, the length of the battlements, their one hundred and fourteen cannons each engraved with the margrave’s coat of arms. The other half formed the defence of the citadel. Silve reached the guardhouse at the entrance and announced himself, barking into the night.
A shadow appeared at the peephole.
“I’ll open the gate for you, Monsieur le Colonel.”
As he waited, it occurred to Silve that over the course of the day in the once gay and bustling city, whose warmth had charmed all visitors, he had heard only four voices: those of the mother and her baby, of Fédora, and of Osmond. This then was the fifth. It belonged to a young officer, dressed in the black tunic with scarlet trim of the margrave’s cavalry. Carefully closing the heavy gate – Silve found himself having to assist, as the young man was alone – he then introduced himself.
“Lieutenant Richard Tancréde.” He looked apologetic. “There aren’t enough of us left. Major Wilbur has been acting governor of the castle since Governor Moreno’s death. He has ordered that officers be placed on duty rosters alongside the men.”
“I also can’t escort you further, Monsieur. My orders are to remain here, and I shan’t be relieved for several hours.”
“No matter. I know the way.”
Once upon a time, buglers would have relayed their call from post to post, all the way to the castle’s central courtyard, announcing the arrival of a colonel-major summoned by his sovereign. Once upon a time, he would have been escorted by the duty lieutenant, a quartermaster, and three cavalrymen, sabres drawn, all the way up. He would have been saluted through all three gates by white-gloved officers. Once upon a time, an honour guard in ceremonial uniform would have paraded before the steps of the peristyle, where the governor himself, the right hand of the margrave, his private secretary, as well as a cloud of valets and huissiers in chains of office, would have awaited him. Once, the margrave’s black and gold standard, with its three silver alerions, would have flown proudly from its high pole on top of the ancient keep, lit by the crossed beams of four spotlights. As the gas had run dry, the late Governor Moreno had ordered that a pair of beacon fires be lit on top of the keep, as had happened in times of invasion, when the embattled populace could draw comfort and courage only from the assured presence of its sovereign. Each could reassure himself simply by lifting his eyes toward the castle and its keep crowned with flame, which proclaimed that it was not over, and that hope was not lost. Then the wood too, had run out. The standard still flew throughout the night, but now made its presence known only to the castle’s remaining occupants, and then only when it slapped in the wind. Furthermore, save for a few remaining faithful, it had lost its symbolic strength, now exciting even hatred. A frenzied and irrational hatred, appearing from elsewhere and nowhere, both uncharacteristic and unprecedented in the city. On the margrave’s last birthday, many had still put out the traditional flags. Yet rapidly, the same morning, lawless bands of Amanitians, joined by disorganised – or perhaps organised, for nobody knew – groups from outside the city, as well as some more able-bodied patients from the hospital, had attacked the houses of those who had dared fly the flag of the sovereign, sowing panic in their wake. One had even climbed the cathedral bell tower, tearing down the standard, and hurling it into the void, to the wicked glee of the mob below. The gendarmes had fired warning shots, before breaking and fleeing in a rout before the stampede. An hour later at most, the city’s great tradition had been no more, with shutters closed and doors barred, and armfuls of flags, torn from windows, had lain in the streets.
Climbing briskly, and noting as he passed the empty sentry boxes at the three gates, Silve reached the grand courtyard along a passage planted with beeches. He walked on a thick carpet of rotting leaves. For want of gardeners, the park was no longer maintained. As he crossed the courtyard with its high peristyle overhead, lit now by a single torch, he felt his heart sink. Once, amidst a symphony of lights, a white curtain would have been imperceptibly pulled aside, at a certain window on the ground floor, belonging to the margrave’s private rooms. Behind this curtain would have been revealed the glowing smile and dazzling blonde hair of Myriam, the margrave’s only daughter. Myriam, who would have welcomed him with a furtive hand gesture, an innocent breach of protocol, before letting the curtain fall back. Myriam who loved him, Myriam whom he loved, and Myriam whom had been sent away from the city by her father at the beginning of the epidemics.
At the foot of the steps, two figures were waiting for him. Silve recognised Major Wilbur, a loyal old soldier who had seen it all. He looked ghostly in the silver-grey tunic of the margrave’s infantry. The other was only a little younger. The death which stalked the city carried off the young more than the old. It was Biron, the head huissier, in his black coat and neckchain.
“How is his Serene Highness?” Silve asked Wilbur.
“It is cold, and he is thin, yet he remains in good health. But he no longer speaks, and stays shut in his library. He reads. He seeks answers. He spreads out great maps. I send him meals. He eats little, and quickly, as if he believes time is running out. Even though time, Monsieur le Colonel, is the one thing we have no shortage of, and little use for. Since this morning he has been pacing back and forth. Then he called for you. He seems to have made up his mind about something.”
“I’ll go to him,” said Silve, shrugging off his greatcoat, as protocol demanded.
Biron interrupted him with a gesture.
“His Serene Highness asks that you keep that with you. The corridors are like ice, and the rooms hardly better. Monsieur le Colonel, I’ll escort you.”
One behind the other, they passed dark and empty rooms; the Huissiers’ Office, and that of the castle governor, the Ambassadors’ Room, the Privy Council Chamber, the Privy Seals’ Office, their lifeless interiors lit only by the kerosene lamp which Biron held high. The portraits of successive margraves emerged from the dark, and again returned to it. Aulick the Second, who had repulsed the Huns; Aulick-Frédéric the First, who alongside Godefroi de Bouillon had led the assault on Jerusalem and had seized the Gate of Zion, been the first to enter the city, yet had refused any fief in the Holy Land, and had returned in penury after healing and freeing his captives; Welf-Frédéric the Fourth, who had put an end to serfdom, and Welf-Frédéric the Ninth, who had fought at Lepanto, on a galley of the Order of Malta, equipped at his own expense; Welf the First, known as Welf the Generous, who founded the hospital after having undertaken a lengthy journey to seek advice and benediction from Vincent de Paul; Aulick-Frédéric the Fifth, vanquisher of the Mountain Chechens…
It was a courageous and compassionate dynasty, of moderate ambition, but one whose power and influence was felt far beyond its borders and modest population. It was not beneath the great men of the world to seek the advice of the margraves of the city, and the oppressed knew that there they could find justice. Under normal circumstances the castle’s rooms would never be empty. The diplomacy of the margraves worked in favour of a general good.
The final room, before the staircase which led to the private suites, was for the aides-de-camp. Elegance, good humour, courtesy, and duty. Young officers of the garrison each served their turn there, never numbering fewer than six. Visitors liked to stop there a while for the company, and even the most austere would leave it with a smile. Now a single candle shone from the six-branched chandelier, illuminating a lone, young man, sat on a sofa reading, wrapped in a frogged greatcoat. As the colonel-major entered, he leapt to his feet and presented himself.
“Cornet Maxime Bazin du Bourg. Regiment of Artillery.”
“What were you reading, my boy?” Asked Silve.
“Kostrowitsky, Monsieur le Colonel.”
Wilhelm Kostrowitsky, the greatest poet the city had known. Silve closed his eyes, and recited:
“I wintered in my distant past
Returning with the Easter Sun
To warm my icy heart…”
Cornet Bazin continued for him:
“My memory, my keel and mast
Have wicked tempests we outrun
enough to raise a glass…”
“How old are you?” Asked Silve.
“Twenty, Monsieur le Colonel.”
The age of conquest, of great expanses, of farewells without returns. Silve sighed. There was also honour in serving with the last of the rearguard, in a dying world.
“Will you be here long?”
“All night, Monsieur le Colonel. Mine is the final watch.”
Stood on the first floor landing, overlooking a long corridor, the sentry, a brigadier, swayed gently in a doze. He was leaning on his rifle, butt to the floor.
“Get some rest,” Silve told him, indicating with his hand a sofa in a corner. “I will wake you when I leave.”
As they reached the end of the corridor, Biron gave two smart raps on one of the doors. This discreet knock, which alerted without irritation and warned without insistence, was the result of forty years of practice and a velvet wrist. The old huissier was very proud of it. A bell rang in response. Biron opened the door and, with an extreme artistry, somehow both advanced and slid into the room. He announced Silve in a quavering voice:
“His Excellence Monsieur le Colonel-Major Silve de Pikkendorf.”
Then he retreated lugubriously from the room, muttering to himself:
“This castle attacks the throat. My voice is going…”
“Approach, Silve. Come here. Come warm yourself. Wilbur found me some peat. By the Lord, I accepted it. I cannot govern if I am frozen.”
His quip was accompanied by a sad smile. His Serene Highness, Welf the Third, Margrave of the City, had always been a man to state the strict truth of matters. He did not try to force fate by disguising such truth. This cautious attitude explained why he had been so hesitant over the last year. With his dry comment, he was admitting the present state of affairs: Beyond the castle walls, he no longer governed anything, or anyone. Silve ignored the remark. Placed on a pedestal table was a daguerreotype, in a silver frame, of Myriam. It was no official portrait. In her jodhpurs and riding jacket the young girl, standing beside her horse, seemed to smile twice over at Silve; once with her mouth, and again with her eyes. It had been taken after a walk they had been on together, and it had been he who had offered it to the margrave.
“Your Serene Highness, have you had news of Mademoiselle?” He asked.
Thus was the princess known.
“Let’s drop the protocol, if you please,” said the margrave. “Under the circumstances it would be foolish of me to insist on it. The last I have heard from Myriam was more than four months ago. A brief and poorly-deciphered message just before the last telegraph line was cut. She had reached Sépharée (a fortified border post far to the North), and was preparing to cross the river when the bridge across the border was cut off. We don’t know by whom or how. The message didn’t say, but did observe that the border post opposite, that of our neighbours, the République des Vallées, appeared completely abandoned. The message ended there. I immediately sent a patrol, with relay horses and twenty days’ supplies. Only one man returned, and even he didn’t reach the city. He was found with his throat cut three leagues from here, naked as a worm. There hasn’t been a repeat attempt. Come here Silve, please.”
Ceasing his pacing, the margrave was standing before a long table, on which an immense map was unfurled. The capital was placed to the south, with its port a few leagues away, and connected by a road and railway. Occupying the whole eastern part was the mountain, with its contours carefully marked, and with dotted lines describing the paths and altitudes of the principle summits and passes. In the centre lay a vast plain, seeded with towns and hamlets marked with towers. It was the beating heart of the country. It was also its field of honour, and the sanctuary of its memories. The great part of the decisive battles the margraves had faced in defence of their city had all been fought on this plain. To the west and north-west, at last, was the great forest, and to the north, the river, and the fort of Sépharée. Three margraves had hunched over this very map, which dated back a hundred years, though to which had recently been added – this time by the hand of Welf the Third – tracks of red and blue asterisks which trailed out from the capital and designated railways and telegraph lines. Now, the margrave had crossed and hatched out various parts of the map in black pencil. He explained:
“The railways to the north, south and west are cut. No trains have arrived or left in six months. At the station the equipment is no longer maintained. The trains are out of commission. The telegraph lines are all gone, not that it would change anything if they weren’t. There are no Morse operators left, either in the city or here at the castle. As for the port, the dockers stopped working and took over the harbour master’s office. Their numbers have shrunk, but either way, the port is empty and there are no ships. There is no word from our embassies overseas, nor from any foreign port. One of our last fishing boats, which was seeking refuge with the Syrtes while being attacked by cannon-fire, saw the quarantine flag flying from their semaphore main-mast. Even from the plains there is nothing. We know nothing but what we learn from the north wind. Once it brought us the sounds of the church bells from the villages. Now, there is only silence. The outside world is mute, apparently as empty as the chambers of this castle. The ambassadors left when they learned of Myriam’s departure. I do not blame them. They must have thought I would follow her. None of them took the time to inform me, save for my old friend the ambassador from the Republique des Vallées, who said something curious: “This is the end of the world of dreams…” I imagine he meant by this that the world no longer needs anything of us, not even our dreams. Perhaps it never needed anything from us? Or may it even have been us who dreamed that it was so? This is what we call the destiny of nations. By their illusions they fall…”
He paused a while, pensive. Then he bent over the map, and traced a circle around the city, encompassing the citadel and castle.
“This is what we are reduced to, Silve.”
He then turned toward an immense display case, which occupied one of the room’s four walls.
“And here are our last subjects.”
The collection of puppets, for that was what the case held, was known throughout the whole world. Once a year, over a week, it was exhibited in the city museum. In the 1750’s, Margrave Welf-Frédéric the Seventh had brought back its first pieces from Venice, where the doge Francesco Loredan, an illusion-master, had welcomed him as a guest of honour at the puppet theatre in the ducal palace. It was installed in the attic rooms, as was common in the Venice of the time. This occasion had been the source of successive margraves’ passion for puppets, as a sort of counterpoint to power. No margrave since had evaded it. They had themselves designed costumes, sets, and faces. Margrave Welf the Third, in particular, had had a talent for scripts, and new plays were performed over the course of the exhibitions. The charm and originality of the little characters was in the fact that they were made, with an exquisite attention to detail, to resemble real people in the city from all walks of life, from the cardinal to the water carrier, from the margrave to the soldier, from the noble lady to the prostitute. The people were delighted to recognise themselves. Once a year, at Christmas, the margrave invited the best pupils from the city’s schools, a hundred children from seven to thirteen years old, for a puppet show followed by a sumptuous meal.
The previous Christmas was when it had all begun.
The children were quietly seated, and the margrave, according to custom, had given them a short welcoming speech, which had drawn unusually muted applause. The performance began. The story was that of an awkward and unlucky baron, persecuted by because he had dared to admire a beautiful and noble woman, who was also coveted by a powerful rival. In the second act, he was transformed by the flick of a fairy’s wand. He triumphed over all obstacles, he evaded all traps, he mocked his adversaries and the margrave gave him the beautiful girl, who fell into his arms with the blessing of the cardinal, and with the admiration of the people. The costumes were ravishing, the puppetry executed perfectly, the intrigue well-balanced, the whole thing edifying and well-conducted. It had been served by a clever script, full of humour and feeling. It fell completely flat. The young audience remained stoney, and those who seemed at first to enjoy themselves were quickly cowed by the silence of their classmates, as if they were afraid. When the curtain fell, the explosion happened. First there came a broadside of jeering, combining insults and blasphemies. Standing and stamping their feet on their armchairs, the children hurled obscenities of which nobody could have believed them capable. The stage was then stormed, and the set trampled, reduced to its wood and fabric, which the children continued to smash and shred in a fury. They stripped the puppets, tore off their limbs, and crushed the heads with their heels. When everything in the theatre had been destroyed, then, like a hurricane, they swept into the neighbouring dining room where the buffet had been waiting for them. One valet was pushed from a window, and the others fled. They left nothing of the plates and glasses but broken shards. The wall tapestries, depicting the great battles the city had fought, disappeared under a hail of cream, soup and syrup. Amidst the mob, there seemed to be no leader, only a terrifying rivalry. The guards were called. Youths leaped onto the backs of soldiers, gouging at their eyes with knives and forks. The men that restrained them were bitten until bloody. The children kicked and screamed. The soldiers found their uniforms ruined, buttons and lapels torn off, as they dragged the children, one by one, by their feet, arms and hair, into the yard, where they threw them onto the pavement. They sprang back up, threatening and cursing. Then, still howling, they descended the streets sloping down toward the city, watched with astonishment and fear. Then, all of a sudden, the riot ended, and each child made his way back to his home, almost as if nothing had happened at all. The father of one of these children, who had seen the horde from his windows, was waiting outside his house, and welcomed his ten-year-old son with a determined slap. As he prepared to deliver another, he met his son’s eyes, and what he saw there terrified him. His raised hand fell to his side, and he meekly went indoors. As to the reasons for the riot, nothing could be drawn from the children. Not one would answer. They hid their secret with the wall of stubbornness which is typical to children, and which renders them more inscrutable than the deaf and mute madman. Perhaps they themselves did not know. A learned Jewish doctor in the city spoke of “unconscious origins of conduct intractable to conscious logic”, and “of conflict transference and neurological symptoms caused by an excess of repression beneath the weight of social and moral expectations”. Before this opinion from so high an authority, against which none could argue, the margrave demurred. Even worse, the Church also offered no comment, for fear of having only obscurantism to offer. The margrave ordered no punishments. A few days later the schools reopened, and teachers, by common agreement, avoided all mention of the incident, which they feared might rekindle the flames. Outwardly, nothing had changed, but those teachers who refused to deceive themselves now knew they had before them almost as many foes as friends. This was an omen, and others followed…
The margrave opened the case, and chose a puppet of himself, in the uniform of a colonel of the cavalry regiment. He made it play for a moment, at the end of its strings.
“There are moments where I ask myself,” he said, “which is the real side of my life. Is it here, in this display case, among a people connected to me, who resemble me, and who have the same dreams I do? Or is it when I try to rule resigning myself to the truth? The real Welf the Third, Silve, is this one.” The puppet, in his deft hands, saluted. “I’ve known it for some time. I hope that you will find him, when you come back, along with his loyal subjects. The other Welf the Third is an illusion. Just look at me.”
“Come back? What do you mean?” asked Silve.
“I mean you are going to leave now, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. You are going to leave the city. Life is almost over here. Indeed, for the most part, it already is. The world has not stopped turning. The sun has not stopped rising. It is time to see outside what we know and do not know. First inside our own country, and then outside our borders. What is it like out there? What is the meaning of it all? It is undignified of this city to wait passively for the end without seeking a way out. This is the order I give you.”
“But yourself, Monseigneur?”
“I wish I were not myself. I shall wait here, in my glass case. You are still young enough for hope, Silve. Leave as soon as possible. Free yourself from this disaster.”
“Must I go alone?”
“It is not an escape. It is an expedition. Just as in the time of great discoveries. You are in command. Choose six companions. I approve your choice in advance.”
“Because I have in my stables seven healthy horses. That is all. I am giving you them. One piece of advice, Silve: Take the bishop. He will be more useful to you than to me. If I should die, I will make my own peace with God. We all now do. Take also my two young lieutenants, Tancréde and Bazin du Bourg. It would be pitiable if they stayed. I see them withering away where they stand, and then youth itself begins to repulse me, despite myself. It is nothing but an enigma and a hidden reproach to me. I now wish only to be surrounded by the old. Wilbur and Biron are both my age, and have as long left as I do. We will pretend to exist, we three, and it shall last as long as it lasts. We will amuse ourselves, and stay alive, perhaps until you return. Do come back, Silve. Please.”
Silve looked at the margrave, and saw that between them was an ocean of uncertainty, and that it grew larger every moment. He took his leave.
“Take this letter,” the Margrave said, handing him a sealed envelope. “You will deliver it to my daughter Myriam, to whom it is addressed. If you do not find her, then after a decent delay – that, I leave to your judgement – open it. It may have something to say to you, too. Come here, Silve.”
They embraced one another awkwardly, trying to deny any emotion they felt. Just as he had promised, Silve woke the brigadier sleeping on the couch. Six chevrons of red wool on his sleeve indicated thirty years’ service. A half-dozen decorations were sewn on his breast. Silve recognised the ribbon of the Croix du Mérite Militaire, the Medaille de Welf le Troisieme, the Croix pour Actes de Courage, as well as a faded black and gold ribbon which he recognised, after a moment’s effort, as the Médaille d’Honneur d’Aulick-Frédéric, father of the current margrave, whom had died twenty-nine years previously. This ribbon was embellished with a silver bar bearing a name. Silve, approaching him, bent forward and read, as the brigadier puffed out his chest: ‘Chechens’. It was followed by a date. While he had been a child at this time, he would had been old enough to have taken an interest, and yet he could not remember any campaign in recent history led against that most ancient tribe. The military annals mentioned no such campaign. The last to which they made any reference had been led by Margrave Aulick-Frédéric the Fifth, who had ultimately subjugated the warrior-people of the mountain after a final battle, almost two hundred and fifty years ago. The Chechens no longer existed. Some had been converted, or at least assimilated. The others, with their last emir, had emigrated, far beyond the mountain. The desert had swallowed them. Their language was no longer spoken. Their customs survived only in the ethnology department of the city university. Silve was, therefore, astonished.
“Explain this one to me, Brigadier. You fought the Chechens?”
“Fought is not the word, Monseiur le Colonel-Major. There were a few shots in the dusk, exchanged at a distance, we didn’t come face-to-face.”
“So you have seen them?”
“Shadows, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. Silhouettes on horseback, silhouettes carved on a mountaintop, just before the last pass.”
“Did you chase them?”
“Those weren’t our orders, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. Besides, they outnumbered us. Maybe a hundred…”
“A platoon of fifteen men.”
“And were you decorated for that?”
“Yes. I didn’t expect it. The affair really didn’t deserve it. But Captain Kostrowitsky nominated all fifteen of us.”
“Kostrowitsky! Capitaine Kostrowitsky? The poet?”
“I don’t know if he was a poet, Monsieur le Colonel-Major, but it was he who led us. He seemed to be familiar with the Chechens. He told us about them that evening, at the camp, and certainly he spoke well. We would have listened to him for hours.”
“He was making up stories.”
The brigadier regarded him uncomprehendingly.
“Why would he have deceived simple soldiers like us? And why then did he leave again, alone, once we returned to the city? He asked the colonel for permission to leave for personal reasons, but to me, he said: ‘I’m going back’. He died out there, as sure as I am alive. Monsieur le Colonel-Major, you don’t die for something you made up.”
The mystery of the disappearance, thirty years previously, of Wilhelm Kostrowitsky had never been solved, and nobody had ever mentioned Chechens. His body was never found. It was doubtful that much effort had been made to find it, in the interest of avoiding official funerals, with fanfares and ponderous speeches. It was probably better that way. One must be wary of chasing poets beyond the mirrors behind which they have slipped. A stele bearing his statue had been raised in a group of birches in the city’s public garden. Schoolchildren learned by heart the first four lines of one of his poems, which had been engraved there as an epitaph:
“An eagle from angels’ heaven did fall
My memory there you’ll see
Let flicker these lamps hereafter all
As you whisper a prayer for me…”
“What’s your name, Brigadier?” asked Silve.
“Vassili, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. Brigadier Vassili Clément. Scout Squadron, Regiment of Cavalry.”
“Very well, Vassili. Do you have a family?”
“I had one. I prefer not to talk about it.”
“In that case, would you volunteer for a patrol? A long patrol. Fifteen days. A year. I will lead this patrol, and I have a duty to tell you that I don’t know when we shall return.”
“Perhaps never, Monsieur le Colonel-Major.”
This did not appear to have concerned the brigadier. His green eyes gleamed with pleasure beneath the grey brushwood of his brows. Soldiering probably passed from father to son in his family. Stalwart, bluff and devoted… even his name, Vassili, just like that of Pikkendorf, or Wilbur, put him among the first race of men, who came from the north with Margrave Aulick the Second to carve out a fief in these lands.
Silve repeated himself:
“I said only that I did not know.”
“As you will, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. Regardless, I am your man.”
“Thank you. I am going to make sure you sleep tonight. You will need it soon. At dawn, you shall report to Cornet Bazin du Bourg. We leave in the evening.”
Back in the lounge, still reading beneath his candle, Bazin du Bourg was waiting. Silve adjusted his question.
“If I asked you to come with me, voluntarily, on a mission far beyond the city, for an unknown time, would you be leaving anyone behind here who would regret your leaving?”
“Yes, but that would not be important. I should sooner ask myself whether I would leave behind anyone whom I myself would regret leaving.”
“And would you?”
The young man was silent for a moment.
“If it is voluntary… The answer is no.”
If there had been any hesitancy, it was quickly dissolved as the Colonel-Major revealed the objectives of the operation, and the importance it might have. Bazin listened eagerly. The horizon was suddenly widening.
“This might never end,” he said. This thought seemed to lead his spirit into grand daydreams.
“We start at the beginning, if you please,” Silve cut him off. “Come with me. We shall go and see the horses, and what equipment we can find in the castle stores. I am charging you with the material preparations. You have a blank cheque from His Serene Highness for any requisitions necessary. In all events, we are are bringing only what we can carry with our saddlebags, holsters and hooks. We shall be living off the land.”
The stores in the castle’s outbuildings were no longer guarded. Their heavy iron doors were secured with enormous locks, for which Major Wilbur brought the keys, threaded on a ring. He opened the first door, which moved with a terrible rasping.
“They all need greasing, but who will do it? After you leave, there’ll be only fourteen of us at the castle.”
This was not a reproach. The old major did not complain. He noted simply that in order to maintain any semblance of service it had been necessary to abandon some essential duties, such as the guarding of the citadel or that of the margrave’s antechamber. How, with so few men, could the apparatus of power be sustained? It made him realise that the margrave was like a prince in exile, surrounded by a loyal few, determined to make him forget, by their illusions of protocol, that he was a sovereign dethroned. There was no despair from Wilbur. Like General Bertrand on St Helena, he had found his life’s calling.
The first store visited was the armoury. The ledger mounted on the wall indicated that the carbines in rack F had been inspected six weeks previously. The ledger held no further entries. Some were a little flecked with rust, but the triggers and slides were in perfect order. They chose seven of the latest models, in service with the margrave’s cavalry. In the absence of a quartermaster, Major Wilbur wrote the requisition himself and had the colonel-major sign it. This was absurd given the collapse of the state, but Wilbur held to this formality, as if a dead society might survive by the observation of posthumous rites. Silve signed the other requisitions at the saddlery, and at the uniform store. He chose as a uniform for his small troop the black tunic of the cavalry. It bore scarlet edging, and came with a fur-lined, black winter cape, so large that it protected both horse and rider from the elements. This uniform was well-known even in the remotest reaches of the country. Not long ago, the people had respected it. Though few in number, the margrave’s cavalry had through long years embodied the arm of the state and its protection. Perhaps some would remember it, Silve hoped. But it was a double-edged sword. The power of the symbol could act in reverse. It was a risk he would have to run. Seven soft, cantled saddles and as many canvas tents completed their equipment. Finally, the dwindling garrison supplies were shared equally between the patrol and the remainder of the garrison itself. Each had a little tea, coffee, chocolate, soldier’s biscuit, tobacco, dried meat, rice and water purification tablets, as well as a few flagons of gin, which they decanted into their flasks. Rats scurried between their legs.
“Last week,” Wilbur noted phlegmatically, “they would not have been so bold. Their frontiers are moving. I shall have to move what’s left to somewhere safe in the castle.”
The good news was discovered in the stables. Whinnies of joy greeted them. The seven horses were superb specimens, full of life, stamping impatiently in their stalls, their hides brushed and glowing, their manes combed, and newly-shod. The racks were full of fodder, yet they could see that it was the last of it. A small, squat man, slant-eyed and dark-skinned, and marked by his uniform as a non-commissioned officer of the margrave’s stable guard, was attacking one of the final bundles with a pitchfork.
“I know you,” said Silve. “You are Abaï.”
The man acknowledged him with a nod.
“And the last time we saw one another, it was a year ago, on a hunt. It was you who tracked the game. We killed three roe. We haven’t hunted since.”
The little man cracked a smile. He had white, pointed teeth, and a short, grey beard on his chin.
“You are alone here?” Abaï nodded once more.
“And it’s you who works the horses? You groom them, care for them and feed them? You care greatly for them, that is plain. These beasts seem in excellent health.”
“You know we are going to take them?” The smile faded, but this time the little man spoke:
“It is better that you take them. In two days, they will have nothing left to eat but the grass pushing between the flagstones in the courtyard.”
He spoke well, but with the throaty accent and nasal tone typical of many Asian tribes. His had wandered, in the distant past, on the frontiers of races and faiths, finally to arrive, reduced to a half-dozen clans, and settle under cover of the great forest some fifty or hundred years before the founding of the city by the second margrave. Abaï was an Oumiate. Tireless hunters, fishers, foresters, riders and rangers, equally at ease in the trees or on the ground, the Oumiates had pledged allegiance to the margrave so long as they were left to live by their ways and, as they were few in number, and the surrounding country was sparsely populated, this arrangement had always worked well. Wild, but respectful of those who respected them, they were not averse to service. Old wars had seen Oumiate archers enlist under the margraves’ banner. Outdoorsmen and trackers, close to Nature, knowing the ways of animals by instinct, gifted with a keen sense of right and wrong which often rendered them reliable. Men of their word, and of few words, they were a balancing element, a kind of imaginary force which people enjoyed shrouding in mystery, all the more for rarely seeing them. At one time, children adored them and played at being Oumiates in the public gardens. Their shaman’s marionette had a proud place in the margrave’s cabinet.
“What will you do now?” Asked Silve.
Abaï did not embarrass himself with formalities.
“Follow my horses. You’ll need me.”
Silve looked at him thoughtfully.
“Abaï is right,” the old major interjected. “He knows other paths. Take him with you… Sign here, Monsieur le Colonel-Major, if you please. For the horses. Afterwards we shall close the building. Administratively, the margrave’s stables will no longer exist.
He surveyed the immense room, and its two rows of empty stalls, fifty apiece, decorated with bronze horse heads, trophy weapons, pennants taken from the enemy and full-length portraits of great stablemasters, among which whom there was a Pikkendorf in his mailcoat, his helm under his arm. Their steps echoed from the floor as if they were in an empty and lifeless cathedral. A few pieces of fodder and straw dotted the floor of the silo, at the back of the room.
“The rats will have nothing to nibble,” observed Wilbur. “I suppose, Monsieur le Colonel-Major, you will also be taking Lieutenant Tancrède, the guard on the first gate?”
“He is a cheery young man, full of spirit,” the major continued, “it didn’t seem so lonely with him. We shall miss him. The margrave was very attached to him. He reminded him of his lost son. And now, the margrave will lose him too…”
This time he could not keep the emotion from his voice. The prospect of patrolling the gloomy corridors and deserted battlements of the castle alone, without the hale and hearty presence of Tancrède at his side; of taking his meals without facing him in the mess; of reminiscing for nobody but himself, in the silence of his own mind; of hearing nobody, other than quavering old Biron, wishing him a good morning or evening in the tone of youth to which life seems eternal; to know, up there, that the margrave brooded in his library without the refuge of Tancrède’s conversation; all these things weighed infinitely upon him, and he had at that moment realised it. Pulling himself together, he spoke:
“When are you leaving, Monsieur le Colonel?”
“Tomorrow, at dawn.”
“Everything is ready. I will scavenge the mess supplies, and prepare you breakfast. It will not be said that you left without the castle’s salute. That will always be so.”
Returning to the guard post at the gate, Silve found Lieutenant Tancrède stamping his feet in the cold. He briefly gave him the news and his orders to be ready.
“As you command,” said the young man simply, in his powerful voice, adding emphasis with a sharp click of his heels which seemed suddenly to banish the silence. Silve reflected that it was true. With Tancrède, all was life.
“Have you any regrets?” He asked him.
“Should I have any, Monsieur le Colonel?”
“I don’t think so. The margrave himself recommended you to me, which is proof both of his esteem and his affection.”
“Am I free to refuse?”
“You are not.”
“Then I have no regrets.” Tancrède concluded.
“But all the same, poor man… I am going to tell you something, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. When His Serene Highness would summon me, to play chess or chat, or share his supper, I felt that when I entered, an invisible presence would flee. It was Death. Death does not like me, Monsieur le Colonel.”
“The margrave knows. He told me so. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The cathedral doors were not locked. In the lengthy course of the vandalism, the lock had been shattered. Silve pushed on the heavy panels and entered the building, waking several pairs of owls, which flitted between the pillars. On the high altar, a little red lamp flickered. Silve took a knee, and made a habitual sign of the cross. Taking in the absolute solitude which surrounded him, he calmly repeated the gesture, and focussed his thoughts on it. Nothing stirred in him. God seemed not to have any need for him. A boy was sleeping in a corner, curled on a pallet of blanketing. His face seemed familiar. He could not have been more than fourteen, and was cradling a sawn-off carbine in his arms as if it were a loving sister. The city armouries had been looted. The children had become feral, each the enemy of all. In his sleep, the boy wore a beatific smile, yet Silve was suspicious. As he stepped forward his eyes never left the boy, his hand resting on the butt of his pistol. The vestry door was double-bolted. He knocked. Bishop Osmond Van Beck opened it. A tall fire burned in the grate. The dry wood of a choir pew crackled in a flurry of sparks. It was hot.
“We are leaving, I suppose,” said the bishop.
“Tomorrow. How did you know?”
“It was the only possibility. See, I already have my boots and pistols, and my pack is ready. God has left already.”
Opening the high altar tabernacle, he took from it a steel ciborium in which lay several wafers.
“Did you know it is Sunday today? I gave Mass this morning, and blessed twenty wafers. I needn’t have. Nobody came. We shall share them.”
This they did. Then, the bishop blew out the lamp, and the Eternal Presence was extinguished. The boy turned in his sleep. He murmured: “God… Oh God…”
“And tomorrow, where are we gathering?” Demanded the bishop.
“From the castle, at dawn.”
“The best hour! A good horse, a lungful of fresh air, and eternity…”
At Fédora’s house, the light above the door was still lit, but the drawn curtains indicated that the lady had a visitor. Such was the custom in this part of the city. This made Silve de Pikkendorf smile a smile of genuine delight. So all was not yet dead in the city. He did not even need to knock. Fédora opened the door immediately.
“You are reckless,” he said. “What if it had been someone else?”
“It couldn’t have been. The others slink around. Only you dare stomp around in your boots in the middle of the night. You, and the other one there…”
“Has he been here long?”
“Three hours,” said Fédora gaily, her eyes glowing with pleasure.
“My compliments, Monsieur. Who are you?”
“The young man had hastily arisen, reddening like a child while haphazardly knotting his tie and throwing on a uniform jacket, the collar of which displayed the insignia of the Military Athenaeum.
“Cadet Stanislas Vénier, Monsieur le Colonel-Major. I was just leaving.”
Silve knew the Véniers, one of the great families of the northern province, of whom many had been mayors. One rarely saw them in the capital, but they educated their children there.
“Leaving, to go where?” Asked Silve.
This response took Silve aback.
The young man gave a snort of contempt.
“There are ten cadets left at the Athenaeum. I tried to gather them, but they are hiding, like rats.”
“In that uniform,” said Silve, “you won’t get five leagues from the city. You’ll be killed.”
“I’m not changing it. Besides, Monsieur le Colonel-Major, I wouldn’t be easy to kill. I am a shooting champion, a master of both sabre and epee, fourth dan in five Japanese martial arts, have a gold cross in night-fighting, and have already made my first kills.”
“When was that?” Silve asked.
“Just now, on my way here. Three men attacked me. Two are dead, the other ran. It was my baptism in blood. A holy day!”
As he said this, and as if to include her in his tale, he looked proudly at Fédora, who gazed intensely at the young man with an undisguised admiration. The fight could not have been the only baptism of the evening. Silve saw that the cadet Stanislas Vénier had just made quite the entry into life, and one entirely at odds with the times.
“How old are you, cadet?” He asked him.
“Fifteen and eleven months, Monsieur le Colonel-Major.”
The boy was a good six feet tall, with broad shoulders and the long, powerful arms of a cavalryman, as well as a mane of golden curls. Silve was quickly warming to him. Six men, he had already. This one would be the seventh. There was a moment of silence.
“Do you read Kostrowitsky?” Silve finally asked.
The question surprised the young man.
“Um… of course… a little.”
He recited the famous epitaph engraved on the plinth in the public garden dedicated to the national poet:
“An eagle from angels’ heaven did fall, my memory there you’ll see…”
Silve interrupted him.
“Everyone knows that one. Something else?”
The boy hesitated. Silve pressed him.
“Well? The first verse that comes to mind?”
The boy spoke slowly, as if the words did not come easily:
“A woman, a rose no more…” He then faltered awkwardly. It was Fédora who continued:
“A woman, a rose no more
My thanks that the last is through
On my love I now close the door
Now you are one I never knew…
… That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve chosen well, Silve. Take him, he deserves it.”
“So be it… Cadet Stanislas Vénier, I do indeed have something more to offer you than an unworthy and pointless death…”
He explained to him the situation in a few sentences:
“… Report to the castle, one hour before dawn.”
When the seven met the following day, Major Wilbur had kept his promise. In the Ambassadors’ Chamber, a buffet had been prepared which was nothing short of what had once been the margrave’s customary hospitality: Genever shaken in crystal flagons, Champagne, Sirte caviar, reindeer sausage, dried beef, smoked trout, venison and hare pâtés, pickled onions, cakes of walnut and of pine cone, jam made from cranberries from the mountain, a cheese so hard that one needed an axe to crack it open, and fine slices of buckwheat bread, dark and dense, tasting of the forest. These last items represented more than mere bread and cheese, but a kind of national symbol by which both rich and poor might recognise their countrymen. There were white tablecloths and ceremonial crockery bearing the margrave’s coat of arms. The torches were burning welcomingly, and great logs in the grate infused the room with a wonderful warmth. In the courtyard, equally well-lit, stood the seven horses. They were saddled and their broad flanks were covered by twin saddlebags stuffed with victuals and ammunition, as well as tent-rolls fixed to the cantles. The leather and buckles of their harnesses gleamed as if ready for the parade ground. An honour guard had been drawn up before the peristyle, arms at the ready. To form it, Wilbur had had to strip the walls and the gates, abandon the citadel, and empty the offices of their remaining secretaries, yet the little troop displayed a fierce pride. Everyone present, both of those leaving and of those remaining, was conscious of the charade. None was fooled by this brief moment of grandeur, that he was doing anything other than bravely playing at being himself. The three silver wings of the margraves on their black and gold banner floated over the ancient keep, illuminated by two bonfires whose flames were reflected in the clouds above, burning the last of the wood reserves. Tomorrow, almost nobody in the castle would stay warm, but Wilbur had promised; promised the garrison’s salute to the riders.
The margrave, dressed in white with plates and cording, carried himself gravely, as if at a solemn hearing. Each of the seven men wore the black, scarlet-edged tunic of the Regiment of Cavalry, his cloak swept back and held by a golden chain around his collar. In better times, the young girls of the city were enraptured by this uniform. The elderly head huissier, Biron, officiated with a liturgical gravity, leading each rider in turn, and by rank, before the margrave, where he was presented by Major Wilbur.
“His Excellence the Comte Silve de Pikendorff, Colonel-Major, Military Governor of the City.”
A click of heels. A handshake. His Serene Highness Welf the Third showed no emotion. He contented himself, as usual, with a few words, describing his total confidence in the Colonel-Major for the difficult task ahead. Silve replied, in the same manner, that this confidence honoured him, and that he was determined that he would not disappoint the margrave. Everything, ultimately, that need be said under such circumstances.
“His Lordship Monseigneur Osmond Van Beck, Bishop Co-adjutor to the City.”
The bishop too had donned a cavalry uniform, keeping nothing but his crucifix and amethyst ring. A little ballet of convention played out, with the margrave genuflecting, and the prelate then guiding him back to his feet. The margrave spoke pleasantly, softening his formality without breaking it.
“Ah, Monseigneur. Look at you now. A soldier.”
“With the permission of Your Serene Highness.”
This was all. There was nothing else to say.
“Cornette Maxime Bazin du Bourg, of the Regiment of Artillery.”
“You have been an exemplary aide-de-camp,” said the margrave. “I will miss you. But we will meet again. You have your book, yes? The one you always carry.”
“Kostrowitsky? Your Serene Highness, I…”
The margrave did not listen to the reply. The question was purely formal, a simple gesture of interest falling from the lips of a sovereign. It required no comment. Outside, it had begun to snow. With a heavy heart, the margrave thought of his empty city, of the destiny which eluded him, of the youth that was leaving him and from which he must separate himself, so that he might sink finally into solitude with nobody to hold him back. He tried with the very force of his soul not to let slip the mask of protocol.
“Lieutenant Richard Tancrède, of the Regiment of Cavalry.”
“My God, how much he looks like him…” thought the margrave, his mind on his dead son. He held back the words which came to him, of affection, of memories of conversation, of heartfelt complicity, which would have burst wide the gates of incontrollable emotion. He said simply:
“Brigadier Clément Vassili, of the scout squadron of the Regiment of Cavalry.”
“Ah, there you are, old Vassili.” said the margrave. “You are departing, too?”
“And what a departure, Your Serene Highness!”
The old soldier’s warmth made him smile, as did the way he seized the margrave’s outstretched hand, and wrung it like a pump lever.
“Stable Guard First Class Abaï.”
“Sergeant Abaï,” corrected the margrave. “Please accept this in recognition of your promotion.”
As he said this, he slipped into Abaï’s hand a double-aulick of gold. Such was the custom. The Oumiate stuffed it into a pocket, wondering what the devil use it would be to him, once he returned to his forest.
Finally came Stanislas.
“Cadet Stanislas Vénier, of the Military Aethenaeum.”
The cadet clicked his heels, straight as an arrow, chin held high; a perfect young machine.
“Since your mission will lead you northward, you will no doubt be seeing you father,” said the margrave. “Give him my compliments. I esteem him greatly, and the immeasurable service which your family has always rendered the city.”
No doubt… No doubt… There was no doubt he did not believe for a moment in this unlikely reunion, in the far depths of a province of which nothing was now known. The old Vénier must be dead, and long dead by now, murdered by brigands or crushed with all his own beneath the smoking ruins of his castle. Stanislas knew it too. He considered their fates dispassionately.
“Nothing will keep me from delivering your message, Your Serene Highness.”
With that, it was over. Each had played his role. The margrave briefly sampled some slices of dark bread, praised the quality of the cheese, as was expected, and toasted with each of them while exchanging pleasantries. After this he retired, leaving his hosts to attack the buffet in earnest, and the event, which could previously almost have been mistaken for a garden party, changed immediately in nature. They realised they were hungry, and that such a spread would not be before them again for a long time. Perhaps never. They ate, their teeth now cutting through the pleasantries that had filled their mouths. Nobody spoke of their mission. In the grate, the fire dimmed. The bread-basket was empty. The candles went out, one by one. It had been necessary to cut them in order to fill the chandeliers. When the bottom of the last bottle had been bared, and when the last plate of nut cake had been shared, Silve gave the order to leave. With his stomach full, and his soul elsewhere, none had any further desire to linger.
In the courtyard, the armies of the dead and of the living saluted one another, and the falling snow seemed already to separate them: those who were staying, and those who were leaving. The silhouette of the margrave was cut for a brief instant behind a window on the first floor, then the curtains were closed, just as for weeks had been those of Myriam. Colonel-Major Silve de Pikkendorf shook the hand of Major Wilbur, noticing in doing so that it was ice-cold. He gave the order to mount. This command cascaded into a rush of familiar sounds; clicks, whinnies, boots and hooves scraping the flagstones, giving life one last time to the castle, before it was plunged indefinitely into silence and solitude.
The bonfires glowed still at the top of the ancient keep, lighting the banner of the margraves. It would not be long before they went out.
Seven riders left the city at dusk, toward the setting sun. They left through the west gate, which was no longer guarded. They held their heads high, for they had nothing to hide, in contrast to all those who had fled the city. They were not fleeing. There was no treason among them, and nor was there hope. They permitted themselves no illusions. Thus were they armed, hearts uncluttered and spirits scintillating coldly like crystal, for the journey which awaited them. They were going on the order of the margrave. By his order they had been set in motion, and the youngest of them, who was not yet sixteen, was humming a tune…
From the shadows beneath the vault of the gate, as the horses’ hooves struck the paving sharply, a voice was raised:
“God keep you…”
It was the voice of a man. It expressed only weariness. No conviction seemed to drive it, and nothing in this invocation suggested the least confidence in God. After so many decades, so many centuries, had God exhausted Himself? Had Man begun to bore God? The created or the creator, with which had it started? Nobody knew anymore. Nobody cared anymore. There remained only a habit containing the memory of an emotion long lost. It was audible in the voice of the trembling man.
“God keep you…” The man, a forgotten watchman of the Margravine Gendarmerie, took a pace forward under the vault, almost touching the chests of the beasts and the boots of their riders. The gleaming hides of the horses gave off a palpable heat, mingled with the odour of strong and healthy animals. One of the riders was breathing heavily, with a savage joy which left the man desolate as he stood, left behind. As he watched them leave, he sensed momentarily that with them was leaving Life itself.
“God keep you, until our return…” replied the leading rider, Colonel Silve de Pikkendorf.
Without a doubt, they would not return. Without a doubt, they would never return. Without a doubt also he knew it, and without a doubt each of the six others knew it also, down to the young man with blonde curls, who was not even sixteen and who gaily hummed a tune, tasting the frozen air of the falling night as if he were a gourmand. This was of an inexplicable prescience. It was of the same nature as the “rest in peace” with which the sleep of the dead has been rocked since the dawn of the sacred, and which has never been knowable.
Only the first rider had replied. The other six remained mute, focused on their puffing horses. They had nothing more to say to those they were leaving behind; nothing to gain from them, nothing to hear, nothing to guess of their feelings. Behind them they left nothing and no-one. The man for whom the Colonel-Major had spared a few words was nothing to them. They did not even glance at him. The man had only time to note the splendour of their mounts, and the richness of their harnesses, the quality of their dress, the cleanliness of their clothing, the way they held themselves high, the pride in their posture and, finally, the silver-butted carbines in their leather holsters, and the long black mantles, heavy drapes of fur stretching down to the rumps of the horses. The man lowered his gaze to his own person, and found himself to be dirty, small, ugly, pinched and starved. He searched in the depths of his heart for the remnants of old malice and, having discovered it there, still ready to serve, he understood for a second time that with those leaving, went Life.
Colonel-Major Silve de Pikkendorf spurred his horse to a gallop along the straight road which led from the city, followed by his companions. Cadet Stanislas Vénier alone lingered, for a brisk about-face and a goodbye gesture, which could equally have been addressed to the silent city, or to the memory of Fédora which, already, was blurring. This gesture was but the product of youthful elan, nothing more. Not even a regret. Perhaps an insolence. Three more seconds, and he thought no more of it, rejoining the other riders at a gallop. His black mantle became confused with the night extending over all. His blonde curls whipped in the wind of the chase like a comet, which quickly in turn disappeared before the eyes of the man left behind.
The man contemplated the night, or perhaps the life which had vanished into it. The snow which was covering the ground and the road had erased the galloping of horses from the world of sound; the horses which had passed the vault of the gate and whose hooves had clacked upon the paving. The seven riders were gone also, and in an instant, into a thick silence. The man listened. The sound of distant and sporadic gunfire, over the horizon, had also died away. The signs of death were signs of life, and this was their essential function also. From the city no further sound could be heard; the crying baby, the young woman who sang, the bronze Bumblebee of the cathedral, the garrison bugle giving orders. The man could hear nothing at all.
It was the hour of the guard change for the watchmen of the gendarmerie. One watchman, alone, at the western gate, which was now unguarded only on paper. The man waited. Nobody came. One last time he turned toward the straight road, searching with his eyes for the blonde comet, praying that there still remained some movement in the night. If a hope is stretched enough, its final imperceptibility is rendered all the more powerfully precious. Finally, discouraged, chastened by eternity, he let his eyes fall back to the snowy ground. No prints marked it. Not the smallest trace of a hoofprint. There remained in the snow not the faintest trace of the passing of the seven riders.
The watchman, in absolute solitude, walked to the cemetery, and lay down in a tomb.