I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits.
Today I make for Breitenburg: a town of mean size compared to Salzburg, I assure you. As I write to you, I am waylaid at the border town of Neuhaus-Schaerding. These fat Bavarians love only one thing more than their beer, it would seem: hassling a man wearing the uniform of the Imperial fusiliers! Nevermind that there’s a war on with the French with their vile Convention and we’re supposed to be fighting on the same side! My coachman is arguing heatedly with the Bavarian border-guards now. But to Breitenburg! It also lays on the Empire’s borders, but across the Danube and thence several days’ carriage ride through the forests of Bavaria. I have never yet been there myself.
You must wonder what occasions me to make such a journey when certainly my duties to the Emperor weigh heavily upon me in this time of war. The good Count Berthold von Breitenburg took ill some time ago. It was brought to my attention three days ago that his condition had become quite dire and that I was mentioned in his will. I have never met this man, though I know him to have been a fast friend of my father. I am left to conjecture that it is for this reason that he has summoned me. Mayhap he believes that my presence might cause him to recollect some fond memory of his days spent with my father, and thus may positively avail his health. For my own part, Willi, though perhaps it is in vain, I hope to learn something of my father from this man, who had known him so well.
I know I need not remind you of
the unspeakable pain I feel because of the great chasm that existed between
my father and I when last he and I spoke. That was five years ago, Willi.
Can my father already be resting in his grave for five years? And can it really
be five years since my brother and I too have parted company because of it?
I arrived at Breitenburg around dusk, where I rented a room at the local inn for my poor coachman and gave him such money as would afford him pleasure for the evening. After making the proper arrangements, I continued on horseback to the Count’s estate.
I made great haste in my journey to Breitenburg, yet alas, I have arrived too late to meet the Count von Breitenburg. The night prior to my arrival, he apparently reported feeling some improvement in his condition, which his expert physician, a remarkable German from Prague who had also been my father’s physician, corroborated through scientific medical tests. He was left alone for the evening and was discovered dead by one of his chambermaids this morning. I tried to speak to the girl, but she was quite hysterical and incapable of conversation.
I have been given luxurious quarters near the rear of the mansion. It is from this room that I am writing to you. All is dark; the servants have all gone to sleep.
Today I have gained some insight into the life of the late Count von Breitenburg and, you may be interested to know, perhaps thereby, also into the life of my own father. You will recall that my father spent his last quick years in the company of this man. Indeed, that the two together seldom ventured beyond the Count’s estate, even to obtain confession or partake of the sacraments at Breitenburg’s parish church, is a fact plainly attested to by all here with whom I have spoken.
I requested of the manor chamberlain permission to peruse his late master’s library. He acquiesced, albeit with such considerable reluctance that it was obvious to me that he had some objection but was holding his tongue. As he guided me down opulent halls lined with paintings of the von Breitenburgs to the library, I pressed him on the issue.
After not too much goading, he explained to me that when the Count von Breitenburg yet lived, orders were issued to the household staff that no living soul was to be permitted therein, save my father and the Count himself. Neither he nor anyone else in the Count’s employ knew why access to this room had been forbidden, but given the solemnity with which the instruction was given, disobedience was out of the question. Since the Count took ill, the room has been in disuse; I will be the first to have entered it. The chamberlain’s discomfort was obvious. He did not accompany me into the room, preferring to attend to “other pressing matters” elsewhere.
The hinges creaked upon the set of heavy, oaken double-doors. I don’t know what I expected to see as the portal opened before me. Perhaps a rich drawing room with some gaming tables and the like by way of entertainments. Nothing had prepared me for the grand scale of the room. It was as if the Emperor’s quarters in Vienna had been magically been transported to this drab Bavarian backwater!
But it was a sad scene of splendor; the magnificence was belittled by decay. The brilliance subdued by darkness. My impressions. Let me explain.
The great drapes sagged before the windows, their heavy velvet folds laden with a thick layer of dust. I walked slowly to the windows and parted the curtains. Sunbeams stabbed into the room for, if the chamberlain’s report was true, the first time in several years. Drab white flakes shimmered and drifted in the brilliant rays. The dust was a palpable presence in the room, thick as sand, covering everything with an Arab desert of neglect. The sweet smell of pipe tobacco still hung in the air, along with the smell of cocoa from the Americas.
The library was well furnished with a large oak desk, numerous cabinets and highboys, two large, overstuffed armchairs with ottomans, an expensive rug, and several stools and ladders which, I suppose, were positioned for the purpose of permitting access to the higher shelves that lined the walls.
I’ve never seen so many books in one place, Willi! Until that moment, I don’t think I ever realized how imposing and intimidating so much knowledge in one location can be. It looms over you. All of the walls were lined with books, from floor to ceiling. Massive volumes, Willi. And old. Most of the books were very old. A rather cursory examination of the books revealed that few indeed had been written in the Germanies. Almost all were in Latin or Greek and appeared extremely old – perhaps several hundred years old. The pages were yellowed, dusty, tattered. Not a book I examined appeared untouched. It seemed instead that all had been read thoroughly and showed evidence of exhaustive handling and examination. And many were not even printed by a press but rather written by hand. Many were also written in Italian, probably during their renaissance. Some few were written either in French or Flemmish; I couldn’t tell. You know Willi, that I speak no other language than my mother-tongue and some Hungarian, but even so, I was able to tell something of the content of these papers.
And there was something else that was peculiar, Willi. In the center of the room – I daresay the very focus of the room itself – was a large and very sturdy wooden table. It had no embellishments whatsoever. It reminded me uncannily of the operating tables such as would be found in a surgical theater in Vienna or any other large city.
The desk, ornately carved, was filled with many papers that I realized upon inspection, were written in two hands. The first I take to be that of the Count von Breitenburgs, the second, Willi, is unmistakably the hand of my father! Some were even written with a trembling pen owing to the palsy that overtook him just before he died. So it is true: this is the room to which my father and the Count had retired for so many evenings, had spent so many waking moments, concealed behinds veils of secrecy immeasurably thicker than the dusty curtains that had for years blocked the light from reaching this place.
Reams of pages were filled with their writing. It looked clipped and hurried.
God steady my hand that I may write to you.
The dueling pistols were brought out to us. We stood on the stone steps of manor house. As spring rainstorm hung low over the mountains. It was approaching. Distant thunder boomed. The air was charged. We chose our weapons.
God save me. The rain began to fall slowly as Richardt and I stood back to back. With every pace, it began to fall harder and faster. I held my pistol in such a way that my hand covered the power so that it would not get wet. I knew that Richardt would not know this technique, having never been in the army.
His powder was wet, therefore, and when we turned to fire, his weapon would not discharge. I knew that it would not, and so allowed myself time to take careful aim. Jesus.
I ran to him. Held him. His blood ran thin in the rain.
My brother has fallen.
I have slain him.
The late Count, may God have mercy on his soul, was thence conveyed to the smallish chapel on his estate, where his body remains even as I pen this letter.
I’m equally as adept with a pistol as with a musket, knife, saber, or bayonet.
I had come here hoping to reconcile myself to my deceased father. Now my insipid sibling seeks to bar me from that which I desire, precisely as my father once did.
This woman, Konstanz -
Willi, how can I describe it to you? My love for this woman is as a silent compass that guides my every thought.
She is no hysterical wench. Her manner is so meek. She constantly averts her eyes, and she says little. Her demeanor belies
I whisper her name over and over. Konstanz.
Now, as I look back upon these black words on parchment, they seem so empty to me. It is my weakness; I cannot match words to my feelings. It is something extraordinary.
What action does one deny himself when caught in the throes of love’s torture?
I marvel at the fools!
Fratricide! Fratricide! Captain Carsten von Mauerkirchen of the Imperial Fusiliers – a fratricide!
Her animation was the vile deceit of charlatans. Passionless devotees of science and reason.
Just as an invalid desires to change his position in bed, with the hope of obtaining relief
Between the mirror and the heart there is but one difference: the heart conceals secrets, the mirror dies not.
You have always known my philosophy about women Willi. Man and woman: an oak and graceful ivy.
You too knew my father. Here was a man of such complete self-control that he could not give way to his emotions, if he indeed had any.
You and I Willi, have lived out lives according to the maxim that hate is the strongest foundation upon which to build one’s life because it is more constant than love. It is for the sake of this, our apothegm, that we have each chosen the profession of arms as our calling.
We have always argued that the finest soldiers do not fight because they love what is behind them, but rather fight for their hatred of what is in front of them.
I cannot but feel the cold fingers of my “enlightened” father playing on my throat when I blow out the candle at night. I find myself alone here.
Why have you not written me back, Willi?
Willi: tremendous news!
In the presence of the Count’s Manor chamberlain, the Constable of Breitenburg and several of his officers, the town Mayor and his Clerk, the parish priest, myself, and my brother, Count von Breitenburg’s Last Will and Testament was opened. The parchment was sealed with wax, imprinted with the crest and arms of von Breitenburg.
General of His Majesty the Emperor’s Armies, the Duke von Innsbrueck has sent me a letter of inquiry regarding my conspicuously prolonged absence from the field. He requests my presence forthwith, at the head of a column of my troops.
What shall I say Willi?
I won’t lie to my Emperor’s man.
I shall tell him the simple truth.
Love detains me.
Stare like a reproach from heaven accuse
Bread and wine: peace and love
Cruel irony, farce, subversion, duplicity.
That faith is harder to shake than knowledge.
“Feeling quite refreshed, are we sir?”
I replied that I was not.