[I wrote this journal in three sections. I never started reading a new section until I had finished writing about the previous one, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]
11 July 2016
To page 142 – the conversation with Dr Condor
I’ve reached the point where the narrator, Lieutenant Hofmiller of the Austrian Cavalry, has just agreed to spend the next two hours talking to Edith’s doctor. He wants to find out not only the truth about her chances of recovery – this was her father’s earnest request of the young man the previous day – but the true nature of the family he has so far taken to be of the ‘Hungarian nobility.’ The doctor had almost choked when Hofmiller used that phrase, and he hints that the reality is very different. Now, so that the lieutenant doesn’t hear an embroidered version from some unreliable source, he will tell him all about it. The chapter ends, as they make their way to a wine bar that stays open late, with this:
‘Ever since becoming so strangely entangled with the Kekesfalva family, I had been anxiously hiding any thread in the tangle that might lead others to the labyrinth which, I felt, was enticing me into new and ever more mysterious depths.’
The young lieutenant, not rich, has become embarrassed when his colleagues begin to tease him about his new-found aristocratic friends and their expensive gifts to him. Not only has he become ‘entangled’ in paying daily visits to their invalid daughter; he finds himself, for reasons he can’t quite fathom, having to make light of this new association amongst his friends. Their banter is friendly, but it makes him uneasy….
These first hundred or so pages have been about how Hofmiller has found himself so quickly bound up with a family he has only recently met. But it’s the intense tone of the telling that makes it interesting, related as it is by a man looking back ruefully on his own behaviour twenty or more years later. A framing device sets it up: a writer has met Hofmiller in 1938, and it’s this writer who is now presenting the tale as it was told to him. Zweig is always careful with dates, and reminds us that this is a time when it is already clear that another war is coming. Hofmiller, we know before the writer even meets him, had found a brief fame when a heroic action in the Great War led to him being awarded the highest honour for bravery. When he finally meets the writer he is dismissive of his own heroism – tens of thousands of others must have been as brave, he says. He has always hated what he considers his undeserved fame, and he left the army as soon as he could after the war.
He also lets us know that his attitude to himself and his own heroism was formed before the war. (The action of this first section of the novel takes place in the spring and summer of 1914. What was I saying about important dates?) When he begins to tell his story, it is clearly something that happens as a result of his first invitation to a dinner party at the Kekesfalva castle that is so formative. Even before he gets there there’s ‘a hitch at the very start – I suppose one should be superstitious and pay attention to small signs and omens….’ It makes the first few chapters quite difficult to read, because we know that something that will change him forever is going to happen. But we don’t know when. Is it going to be as a result of his accidental faux pas, when he invites the invalid to dance before he realises that such an invitation would seem like an insult? (His lateness, a result of that ‘hitch’, meant he had not been properly introduced. Zweig is careful to set things up properly.) She responds with loud sobs that he fears will draw the attention of everybody at the party, and he makes a hasty exit he immediately regrets….
The narrator’s industrial-strength embarrassment is one of the things that makes it so hard to read. Another is dread. I’m always over-sensitive to the plight of characters heading for some kind of fall, and it’s a part of Zweig’s skill that we never know what form the fall, if that’s what it is, will take. Will Hofmiller, as he fears, be made a laughing-stock or, worse, be ostracised for his insensitivity? We might doubt this, but I, for one, wondered how on earth he would get through it. Surely not by way of the hugely expensive flowers he sends to the girl and her beautiful companion? Surely not by sending his card and paying a visit? Won’t those things only make matters worse? Won’t the flowers – dread thought – be taken to imply some other feeling?
In fact, yes, his hasty stratagems have exactly the right effect. He is invited to visit, again, and the whole family seem keen to interpret his desperate attempts to dig himself out of his hole as the mark of a sensitive soul. Ah. We might see other motives, but he doesn’t. He is young and unpolished – he has already told us of how his practical-minded parents pushed their children into whatever career would sort out their futures, and he is keen to remind us now of how his formative years have been spent in the male world of the barracks. He has known women – Zweig makes it clear that this was deemed to be an expected part of army life – but only once (or twice?) was it ever a half-serious commitment, soon ended and forgotten.
Soon he is becoming used to the praise he gets from Herr Kekesfalva, Edith’s father, from the invalid herself, and from her beautiful companion, Ilona. Edith is supposed to have been crippled by a riding accident, but a ‘bacillus’ has been mentioned and the symptoms sound like those of polio. Now, the highly-strung girl – Hofmiller, 25 himself, speculates that she might just be eighteen – clearly begins to benefit from his company, and Hofmiller learns to believe in the generosity of his own nature. But this is being told by his older, wiser self. He constantly puts the reader on the alert to take his younger self’s high opinion of his own behviour with a big pinch of salt. Even at the time, incidents back at the barracks – where, over the weeks, he spends less and less of his free time – remind him that he is really no more generous than he ever was, that we should be sceptical of his discovery in himself of a capacity for pity. He feels he has become a different person, but really he is an innocent in unknown territory. His kindness has been appreciated, and Edith’s father is keen to make the visits carry on. He believes he has learnt compassion, when all that has happened – as he narrates this, he is quite explicit about it – is that he is being responded to warmly for the first time in his life. In fact, kindness he didn’t really feel – we know why he sent the flowers and paid his visit – is being praised to the skies.
He doesn’t realise how dangerous it is, whilst all the time the reader is wondering how much deeper he is going to be drawn into this situation fraught with the emotional neediness of the different family members. Edith, after five years, still can’t get over the loss of the physically free, athletic life she had before the accident. Ilona, the woman Hofmiller was immediately attracted to the first time he went to the castle, must be more than ready for the life that awaits her with the fiancé she is quick to mention very early on. And the father…. He is becoming a more and more complex character as time goes on. Hofmiller is astonished at his kindness from the start, too naïve to see how having a lively young man in the place has transformed its deadened, exhausted atmosphere. But Herr Kekesfalva, old before his time, is suffering from something beyond the worry his daughter brings him. Dr Condor tells Hofmiller as they leave the castle that he is nothing like the man he used to be.
‘His eyes fill with tears at the least little thing, the slightest new fear drains the colour from his face. It’s particularly alarming to see a man who used to be as thrusting as energetic as Kekesfalva giving up like that…. It doesn’t bode well when hard men suddenly turn soft – I don’t even like to see them become kindly.’
The ‘soft’ Kekesfalva is the only one we’ve met, but it’s now possible to see that the motives behind his actions might be far more calculating than those of a worried old man. Right from the start of the novel, the idea of entrapment has seemed a possibility, but Herr K’s apparent sincerity and quickness to become tearful has made such a thing seem unlikely. But who’s judging? The middle-aged narrator is always keen to remind us of the naivety and unreliability of his younger self’s opinions of anything, and whenever he expresses a view on anything or anyone we reserve judgment. Now, this reader at least is wondering just how much the young man has got wrong. The doctor has detected a change in Edith, as though she has been getting a second opinion. She is behaving, for the first time in a long time, as if she has found a reason to recover. Hofmiller, of course, can’t guess the truth behind this. But the clues given by his older self, and the solemn definitions of what real pity does and does not consist of, are enough to make the alarm bells ring louder than ever.
Pages 142-297 – to Edith’s long letter
The letter isn’t quite five pages of italics in the book, although Hofmiller describes it as sixteen pages of hasty scrawl. He’s received it from the hysterically overwrought young woman he’s always wanted to think of as a child but who, earlier in the day, has done all she can to let him know that he has to stop thinking of her that way. He’s had hours to think about the horrifying truth of being the object of a love that he can’t possibly return, and wonders whose plight is worse, that of the innocent object of unrequited passion, or of the poor creature he has spent enough time with for her to imagine that he might love her. Isn’t a woman making herself more vulnerable than any male lover by opening up her heart in the way that Edith just has to him? Won’t the betrayal be all the worse if he can’t find it in himself – and he really doesn’t think he can, however guilty he feels for allowing this to happen – to at least pretend? Before he had been able to make his way hastily from the castle, Ilona has confirmed to him that Edith has harboured feelings for him almost from the start. And all he has done – in all innocence, he tries to tell himself – is treat her with concerned pity.
As always in this novel, he’s being disingenuous. The lead-up to this moment has been an unintended betrayal, one that he only recognises as such when he sees the consequences. Without really thinking about it one way or the other, he always ends up going for the easy option, and this leads to the building up of expectations. And, through carefully constructed plotting, Zweig adds layer upon layer of circumstances that make any idea of extrication from this ‘tangled web’ – the phrase appears in this translation – appear quite impossible. He’s stuck with the guilty thought that whatever he does, one or both of them is going to be made terribly unhappy. Edith has even shown him the scars from an earlier suicide attempt, and while pretending in her letter not to put any pressure on him now – she is full of regret about having come across as far too needy – she reminds him that there will always be a way out for her if things don’t turn out right.
I should rewind to that conversation Hofmiller has with Dr Condor after they leave the castle not long before midnight. They go to a bar with private cubicles and, by way of a story told by Condor over two hours – his train is to leave after 2.00 a.m. – we get 50 pages of expository detail about the man who is now ‘Baron’ Kekesfalva. The first 40 pages of it are almost relentlessly sordid. The ‘Baron’ was a poor Jew called Kanitz, making his way first by being a small-time dealer and fixer. He works hard, the deals and fixes get bigger, and after twenty or more years of climbing the ladder and now doing work for the rich and famous, he has made enough money to be comfortable. You wouldn’t know it – he dresses in the same old clothes he’s always worn. Ok.
Travelling on a late train one night – and this is the first of many lucky chances that fall his way over the next day or two – he overhears a story. A lawyer has made a lot of money by allowing the sole beneficiary of a disputed will to lose most of her fortune to the grasping relatives. She had been the long-suffering companion of the dead woman, last of the Kekesfalva line, and all she is left with now is… the castle. Kanitz isn’t far from there – another lucky chance – and he finds the shrinking violet of a young woman feeling completely out of her depth. Her manager has gone off for the day so Kanitz realises that whereas he’d only gone there to buy up some of the pictures and porcelain for a song – he’d done some work for the old woman, so knows its true value – he might be able to buy the whole castle. Everything just seems to fall into his lap – in fact, ‘All this was going his way at dreamlike speed’ – and soon he’s tricked the young woman into selling him the place at something like a quarter of its true value. She thinks he’s doing her a favour.
Can you guess where Zweig is going with this? Of course you can. To his own surprise, the woman’s almost tearful gratitude to him for taking the place off his hands makes him feel certain emotions that we’re very familiar with in this book already. Is it guilt he feels? Pity? Compassion? He can’t sleep, not because of the excitement of moving in for the kill as on the previous two nights, but because he remembers those grateful cornflower-blue eyes of hers. By the next morning, only having meant to send her some flowers before she sets off for some distant relatives of hers, he’s made her an offer of marriage. And by the time they’ve been living at the castle a short while, he’s a changed man. He manages the estates so well he starts to make real money, but he’s discovered emotions in himself he’d known nothing of before. And soon there’s the patter of Edith’s tiny feet.
Which, finally – but only after they are making their way to the station – brings Hofmiller to his question about the prospects for Edith’s recovery. Condor is honest – there’s never been any real improvement – but is insistent on the presence of hope in any case. He cites examples of illnesses that were once incurable – and a Swiss doctor who has recently brought about a miraculous-seeming cure for a man as paralysed as Edith. In four months he is now walking as normal…. Inevitably, it’s the hopeful aspects of this that Hofmiller relates to Kekesfalva when he meets him unexpectedly outside the barracks. He must have been waiting for hours, Hofmiller realises, and the easy option for him is to give the exhausted old man something hopeful to take home with him. He thinks he might have slightly over-egged it, but where can be the harm…?
Next day it comes home to him. When he goes for his usual visit to the castle, Edith is singing with Ilona – he’s never heard that before – and soon she is laughing and talking in a way that he doesn’t recognise at all. Good, he thinks, Condor’s hopefulness has got through to her. But he doesn’t feel so good when it emerges that her father had gone to talk to her at something like three o’clock in the morning, and that by the end of the night they are both convinced that in a few months’ time she will be completely cured. Ah. But… Kekeslava has arranged a treat for next day, an excursion in the old princess’s century-old carriage. It turns into a long set piece – scenes often take the form of oblique, or not so oblique metaphors – in which they happen upon a peasant wedding, complete with Gypsy band. It’s a glorious day, and Hofmiller focuses on the happiness his fudged presentation of Condor’s opinion has brought about.
Hah. We can immediately feel the pressure tightening when he is told of the telegram waiting for him when he gets back to his barracks. It’s from Condor, obviously, and he needs an urgent meeting. We guess before he tells Hofmiller, in the same secluded booth at the bar, that they are going to have to let Edith and her father know the truth. He has discovered that the almost miraculous treatment developed by the Swiss doctor is for a different condition, and will not be suitable for Edith. Condor is surprisingly kind to Hofmiller, apparently able to understand how easy it was for a young man, inexperienced in the ways of patients and their impossible hopes, to exaggerate the prospects. But this is the conversation in which Condor defines the two kinds of pity that had formed an epigraph to the book. One is ‘not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone’s pain.’ The other, ‘the only kind that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.’
What was I saying about pressure? It’s clear which kind of pity Hofmiller has been showing. Condor, who knows all about the second kind from his own marriage to a blind woman who reportedly shows no gratitude, tells him that if he isn’t prepared for the self-sacrifice they will have to stop this now. Hofmiller – who, of course, knows nothing of Edith’s feelings for him at this point – tells Condor he’s willing to take it on. She and her father, he argues, will be felled by a sudden dashing of their hopes, so… why don’t they go along with them for a few weeks? Condor lets himself be persuaded, and goes to the castle to tell Edith that treatment can begin in Switzerland very soon.
Next day, as always, Hofmiller occupies his mind with the routine demands of military life. His conversation with Condor makes him feel quite complacent – he can move on from the mistake he made when he raised too much hope, because there’s now a plan. Hah. Whenever Hofmiller starts to feel ok about things, alarm bells always ring. And, he being the innocent that he is in spite of everything, is completely unprepared for Edith’s behaviour when he goes to the castle as usual. It doesn’t come straight away – when things don’t go according to plan in this novel it’s always like a slow-motion crash, with every moment of Hofmiller’s mortification laid out flayed and raw for us – but it’s mortifying.
Edith wants to be affectionate, to show him how transformed she is by the good news that Condor brought the night before. (Ring, ring go the bells….) She is on the tower terrace she only visits in her best moods, and she is beyond happiness. She speaks exultingly not only of the near future when she will be cured, but to visits he will be able to make to her in Switzerland. He is taken aback, and tries to deflect her by letting her know how little money he has, and how he can’t just take weeks off at will. She can see through this, obviously – we get the whole conversation, verbatim, and see how she notices every evasive nuance – and when he tries to treat her in a patronising, big-brotherly way, she won’t have it. She bridles at his calling her ‘my child,’ not a phrase we’ve particularly heard him use before. She can see through his polite evasions and quickly edges over into petulance – at first she forbids him ever to visit again – and then into a more and more dangerous mood. This is when she tells him about her previous suicide attempts, shows him how easy it would be even for her to clamber over the balustrade and fall to her death. By the end of the scene she has flung the laden tea-tray at him and left him mortified and speechless.
That isn’t the end of it. He is going to make his way guiltily from the castle, but Ilona intercepts him. Her description of how she and Kekesfalva have done everything in their power to help Edith through the last five years brings us back to the big theme of how pity distorts human behaviour – and puts yet more pressure on Hofmiller. Will he go and visit Edith in her bedroom? (The alarm bells are almost ringing themselves off the wall.) He does, and it’s a disaster. She demands a little kiss for being a ‘good girl’, and responds to his peck on the forehead by pulling him down and kissing him passionately on the mouth. The truth of it has finally begun to come home to him. He leaves in a kind of daze, thinking about how he can possibly go through with the pretence when his visits mean so more to her than he ever realised. He thinks about how somebody loves him passionately, for the first time in his life – and then he opens the letter from her that has arrived by the evening.
Page 297 to the end
That letter from Edith is another turn of the emotional screw. Just when you think it’s become unbearable – and it’s one of the features of this novel that Hofmiller’s first-person narration describes every last detail of his mortification, taking us into the darkest corners of his guilt-ridden psyche – Zweig adds something else to make it worse. Sometimes the reader – this reader, anyway – might become exasperated by the wrong moves that Zweig has his faux-innocent narrator make. No-o–! you cry out as he gets something else wrong, and often I felt manipulated by Zweig’s careful accretion of character detail and plot. But those ultra-intense moments, told in an almost stream-of-consciousness style and in the present tense, ensure that the reader feels all Hofmiller’s mortification and dread alongside him, and despite any occasional objections as you read, you can’t help being carried along. Someone at a discussion group recently told me that a modern critic described the book as ‘an emotional tumble-drier.’ Yep.
Because, of course, following Edith’s letter it gets worse. We’ve always known this story is going to end badly because of the shame felt by the middle-aged Hofmiller looking back on ‘an event’ before the War. Praise for his supposed heroism seems like a mockery to him, and all we’ve been able to do is try to guess exactly how he is going to make that final wrong move that will haunt him for the rest of his life. In fact, what Zweig does is add the final ingredient needed in a novel that depends so much on unlucky developments in the plot. But by the time the final bitter twist arrives, the events leading up to it are so consistent with every aspect of character that we’ve seen in everybody so far that we’re convinced. Finally, just as Hofmiller finds it in himself to live a life according to Condor’s second definition of pity, the opportunity is torn away. ‘Frighteningly gripping … intoxicating’ goes the quote from Ali Smith on the front cover of my paperback. You bet. And Hofmiller’s long road to self-discovery takes him to some even darker places than before.
As always happens in this novel, circumstances prevent any kind of considered response to the letter. A former ne’er-do-well and black sheep of the regiment has married into money and, as always, his sentimental return visits call for big celebrations. It’s a torture for Hofmiller, and his colleagues wonder whether he’s all right. He isn’t, obviously, and things don’t improve when he sees another letter has arrived during the evening. Edith, in a short note, retracts (or makes a show of retracting) everything. It doesn’t help at all, because it’s exactly the sort of hysterical, impulsive thing she’d dash off. What to do? Answer, if you’re an author like Zweig: force your hero into a corner. Next morning, still as preoccupied as ever, he has a key role in some high-profile exercises with the colonel closely watching. Suddenly there’s chaos. ‘Somebody’ – Hofmiller doesn’t realise who, of course – must have given a wrong order. And this time, the public dressing-down from the colonel is just too much to bear. As the words ‘escape’ and ‘away’ keep echoing through his head, Hofmiller decides to resign his commission.
He probably wouldn’t really have contemplated it had he not accidentally met that former ne’er-do-well on the road. He resigned, didn’t he? He can provide some advice, can’t he? He does – and the advice is that the consequences are so appalling he’d be mad to do it. Except Hofmiller persuades him he really has made up his mind, so the man decides to help him instead. Oh dear. He takes him to Vienna to check with his wife, who is clearly the business brain. She says yes, they will be able to do something for him… so he writes out his resignation. The end. He’s out of there, forever.
Only joking. Really, he tears the letter up after a meeting with his conscience – sorry, with Dr Condor, fast turning into the Jiminy Cricket of this novel – after the doctor makes him realises that he will effectively be committing murder if he simply disappears from Edith’s life. What he must do – there’s nothing left of the alarm bell but a uselessly spinning mechanism lying in a broken heap on the floor – is go back to the barracks and carry on with the visits for one more week. Edith will be leaving for Switzerland then, and surely he can keep up the pretence for just seven more days?
Either Condor has made a terrible mistake or he’s decided that he needs to make Hofmiller carry out the promise he made the last time. (Or the time before – who’s counting?) Condor isn’t infallible – he hadn’t guessed anything of Edith’s infatuation either – so maybe he really does believe that another week will do it. Once she’s at the sanatorium, she can be let down from her hopes step by step, and she will learn to live with her disability. Hah. What really happens, following three days of Hofmiller trying to parry Edith’s ever more urgent demands on him, is that things come to a head, again. (Does this sound repetitive? Maybe it is, but each reiteration of the same fundamental problem feels worse than the last.) Again, Hofmiller says something to Edith, who can tell that he is only visiting her out of a sense of duty. She catches him out when he refers to the ‘three and a half days’ that are left before she leaves and, quite rightly, she accuses him of counting down to the day he will be free of her. He leaves, mortified, again. But he tells Ilona he will be back next day. He only has three visits to go, after all.
What can Zweig throw at him this time? First, a telephone call from Ilona to tell him that Edith is unwell and that he needn’t come next day. And, when pressed, she tells him Edith has cancelled the planned visit to Switzerland. There’ll be no point now, nobody to become well for. No pressure then. But the barracks phone booth feels terribly hot. The routine banter of his colleagues makes him bawl them out. He feels he can’t go on – we’re told this explicitly – and… what? He asks the regiment’s horse-fancier if he can try to break that skittish new thoroughbred of his. Which, in one of the novel’s weirdest metaphorical interludes, is what he does. He’s powerful, he can do this. Hah, again. On the road back from the barracks he sees Condor and Kekesfalva in the car – and they don’t stop to greet him. What’s going on? Never mind, clearly something is, and ‘Condor won’t let me down.’
Later he goes up to his room and there, he thinks, is Condor waiting for him. Except it’s Kekesfalva, who has climbed all those stairs despite his age and infirmity. And he subjects Hofmiller to the most blatant moral blackmail yet in a novel that’s full of it. At one point he’s literally down on his knees pleading with Hofmiller not to give up on Edith. Over several pages, he basically lets Hofmiller know that what is needed to save not only Edith but her father, for whom otherwise ‘nothing matters now’, is for him to return her love for him. If only he will promise… and so on. Hofmiller will have none of it until, watching the defeated old man make his way out, he takes pity on him. Not realising the implications – when does he ever? – he lets Kekeslava go home with the promise that when Edith returns, cured, he will be there for her.
When he visits next day there’s general jubilation. Yes, Edith will go to Switzerland, and she is radiant as she receives him. But, as usual, Hofmiller doesn’t realise how his promise has been presented not only to Edith but to the whole household. Even the old retainer is in tears. Does he finally get it when Edith secretly places a ring on his finger? Possibly, but probably not. As he leaves, he is full of the kind of self-congratulation that always comes before a hard fall in this novel. He’s been God this evening, spreading sweetness and light (or whatever) all around, and he can leave a happy man. But no. He hears a row in the room he has just left, as Ilona tries to dissuade Edith from trying something. Then he hears with horror the ‘click-click, click-click’ of her crutches behind him – and then, with a superhuman effort based only on sheer will, she lets the crutches fall, takes an unaided step towards him… and another… and has almost reached the doorway when she falls. Unlike the others, he doesn’t rush to her aid.
Can it get any worse? Of course it can. When he gets back to the barracks it’s suddenly become common knowledge that he’s become engaged to the crippled heiress. He can’t bear the sarcasm, which becomes more and more pointed until… he denies it. Wherever they’ve heard that story, it’s a lie – and his colleagues’ congratulations now that he’s told them he isn’t going to marry for money the crippled daughter of the filthy Jew who cheated so-and-so and so-and-so is worse than their original sarcasm. But – and how many times has this happened? – he can’t go back now. By the time the evening comes to a close he’s decided to do the only honourable thing left to him – he’s going to shoot himself.
This being the Austrian army, there’s a correct procedure for this, and he intends to follow it. It will take most of the night, writing letters, sorting out his affairs, and he has convinced himself he’s ready to do it. But, by chance – yes, another one – the colonel is nearby and Hofmiller decides that it would be the honourable thing to let him know. The rough-mannered, play-it-by-the-book colonel is a human being underneath, and tells Hofmiller there’s another way they can play this. And, just as Hofmiller has decided to ignore everything the man has said, the colonel makes him promise ‘on his honour’ not to shoot himself. Nothing ever goes right for our boy. The plan is for Hofmiller to leave the garrison town early next morning on an emergency transfer to the middle of nowhere. The colonel will make sure that there will be no scandal: all the men present when Hofmiller denied the engagement will be forced to promise never to say a word about it.
It nearly works. Except none of it does. The pacing of the last few pages becomes almost frenetic as one thing leads inexorably to another. On the train, he decides that he must see Condor during a break in the journey in Vienna. The doctor needs to explain things to Edith. But Condor is out and won’t be back until after the connecting train leaves…. Hofmiller dashes off a five-page letter, under the unseeing eyes of Condor’s wife. (In an earlier scene, we discovered that she is not an ungrateful woman at all, concerned only by the unceasing work her husband does for the poor, for almost no money.) He tells the doctor he must go to see Edith ‘at once’, underlined three times and re-stated again and again. Condor must tell her the whole sorry story, explain his cowardice…. As he writes, he decides that Condor must also tell her that if she can forgive his terrible behaviour, the engagement is most definitely on. He might have made the promise insincerely, knowing that anything based on Edith’s recovery is meaningless. But now he knows that only this commitment will save her. And he’s ok with it. At a station further down the line, to make sure there can be no misunderstandings, he sends a telegram telling Edith that he sends his ‘warmest good wishes’ and that Condor will tell her the rest. But there are disturbances, the telegraph office seems beset with difficulties….
Can you guess what’s going on? Both Condor and the telegram arrive too late to save Edith. She has heard all about Hofmiller’s terrible denials because the man who told the story to his army colleagues also told half the town. The promises exacted by the colonel were useless. A telephone call from Condor about his efforts to save her life after her suicide attempt reaches Hofmiller’s hotel, but is cut off before he can reach the phone…. He spends a night of useless agony because, it transpires, Condor cancelled the call because she was dead. And next morning, Hofmiller discovers why the wires have been almost blocked: the heir to the throne has been shot in Serbia, and… the rest is history.
What can Hofmiller do for the next four years but throw himself into every dangerous situation he can find? And what good will it do him? It may be that after the War, everything before it seems petty, trivial, so that even his sense of guilt has faded a little. Except… some years after the War, a key arbiter of all things moral makes one final appearance, by chance, sitting near Hofmiller at the opera. Condor is the one living man who has seen into the darkest recesses of his soul – Kekeslava died days after Edith – and, unseen by him as he hides his face some seats along from him, Hofmiller decides to leave the opera-house at the first interval. The novel ends with his rueful recognition of a hard truth at that moment: ‘since that hour I have known that no guilt is forgotten while the conscience still remembers it.’