“The Last Temptation”

by Peter Newall

Colonel Karol Stoch sat slumped at the heavy wooden desk, his uniform tunic unbuttoned, his belt hanging over the back of his chair. The gramophone by his elbow was playing a piano piece. It might have been Chopin, he wasn’t sure. The thick black shellac discs, much used, were lying in a pile next to the machine when he took over these quarters, and he put them on the turntable as they came to hand, without looking at the worn labels. They all seemed to be slow, sad waltzes.

For two weeks now he had been living in this ground floor room of the officers’ mess, which before the war had evidently been one of the better houses in this provincial Galician town. For two weeks his regiment had been quartered here, two weeks in which his men had done little more than sleep, eat and sit about dazedly. They had been sent to the rear under orders to regroup and train after fighting through the whole summer. Stoch did not push them too hard. He knew that after four years of war, ordering sick, exhausted men to train was a fantasy that only headquarters officers could entertain.

He looked round the room; the mismatched pieces of furniture, the scribbled-on maps that almost covered the faded green patterned wallpaper, the carpets overlapping haphazardly on the wooden floor. The fighting had passed early and lightly over this remote southern region of the Habsburg Empire, and the house had remained more or less intact.

Most of the contents of the room – the desk, the torn divan beneath the window, the gramophone – were relics of the time before the war. They had been left by his predecessor, whom he had met but whose name he had now forgotten. And no doubt his predecessor had in turn inherited them from another even more forgotten officer, perhaps adding to them in the piecemeal way that occurred in wartime. You didn’t choose things, they chose you, they were in the quarters you were allotted or you got them from someone when he was posted away or killed, or they were brought on a cart by the quartermaster and you didn’t ask where he had found them.

For two weeks now he had used the room and its furnishings as his own. When he left, somebody else would use them. Like him, they would know that however solid they might appear, all these objects were ephemeral, almost non-existent, because in wartime everything can be visited at any time by sudden, random destruction. A thing didn’t survive in wartime because it was valuable or beautiful or useful; it survived or didn’t survive depending on where it was when a shell landed, whether it was in town W –, which had been bombed, razed and deserted, or town P –, ten kilometres further west, which had been only lightly shelled and where people still lived something resembling ordinary lives.

What is preserved to us as history, as civilisation, is the result of such casts of fate repeated many times over, leaving a few chance fragments, Stoch reflected. Troy, Carthage, Byzantium, almost everything destroyed. So it was absurd to put any value on an object; you might as well rest your boots on an inlaid table top or light cigars from pages of a manuscript folio, it would all be trampled in the mud in the end.

He looked at the big map tacked to the wall opposite the desk. The map was a joke, of course, because it was printed before the war. It showed borders that had vanished the moment war was declared. Patches of colour, pinks and purples and greens, claimed to tell you which country controlled particular cities and villages and mountains and bridges, when in fact that control had since changed hands several times. And in many cases, of course, the villages and bridges had simply ceased to exist.

True, the map also showed rivers and roads and railways, but even with that it was no real help to you, because it didn’t show you the location of the enemy, which was the one thing you absolutely had to know. And if somehow a map were printed that showed you where the enemy were today, at this moment, that didn’t mean he would still be there tomorrow and not somewhere else altogether. Between you and your supply column, for example, or on the heights overlooking your position, shelling you with ten-centimetre howitzers.

Stoch knew that when his regiment was sent back into battle, lives, including his own, would be lost or not lost more or less by accident. He had known for a long time that his life went on day to day only by chance, and would sooner or later be taken from him by chance. And because he knew that, he had long ago abandoned any idea of going home.

Even if his home town had been spared, even if his house, with his bedroom on the first floor overlooking the apple orchard, his cadet uniform hanging in the wardrobe and his schoolbooks in the tin trunk behind the door, still stood, even if his dog Schwartzie were still alive and waiting for him, it did not matter; he knew that he would not live to see any of it. The war would go on until chance had caught up with all of them. That was simply what war required; by its nature it couldn’t continue without people being killed.

You did not talk about these things in the mess, but he knew that the others felt the same. Early on they had all carried photographs of their wives and sweethearts with them, and many had believed not only that they would see these women again, but that it would be the most important thing in the world to see them again. And early on men spoke of going back, after the war, to be engineers or doctors, or to write books, or to manage their estates.

Now, although some of them still kept the stiff sepia photographs in the breast pockets of their tunics, it was only out of superstition. Now they all, even the dullest, knew that they would not be going back. And they all knew that to speak of a life outside the war, even to think about such a thing, was an open invitation to the Fates.

The music finished. Stoch wound up the gramophone and lifted the heavy needle arm back to the beginning. The long crackling hiss that preceded the music was itself somehow comforting, and he sat back in the chair and felt the pain in his shoulders diminish. Then the notes of a piano emerged, thin and strained from the dusty record spinning on the turntable, but filling the room nevertheless, the waltz circling round and round and returning to its beginning and repeating itself, just as the days and years before the war had repeated themselves, calmly, unhurriedly.

This record, this romantic, melancholy melody, would in those days have been played in this very room by the young belles and young men of this small town. Provincial people, self-contained, slightly clumsy, shy; in that last summer before the war began, in the drawn-out afternoons and evenings, the men already in uniform, the women in long muslin dresses, midges dancing in the late sunlight at the open bay windows. Faces flushed, hesitant gloved hands held out one to another, bottles of chilled wine glistening with condensation, rows of glasses on a white linen tablecloth, after nightfall a chandelier glowing – Stoch looked up; yes, there was a small dusty chandelier still affixed to the ceiling – lighting their unassuming revels.

A foolish dream, an idiotic fantasy, thought Stoch, to summon up those days, they were an illusion, a play, a children’s pantomime in which nobody had his head blown off or his guts torn out or had to kneel on a slimy green corpse, nobody heard a man screaming after a shell landed, nobody shat his trousers as machine gun fire raked over his head. The time before the war is a time that never was and never will be again.

He realised that the music had finished; the record was hissing and clicking as it revolved. He swung the needle arm back onto its brass hook. That was enough music. He heard a noise outside, a horse whinnying, and a minute or so later boots in the wooden corridor, then a knock on his door. His orderly entered with an envelope. Stoch slit it open, read the orders which were the same as yesterday’s orders – to remain where he was with his regiment but to maintain readiness – and dismissed the soldier.

Now Stoch could tell his junior officers that they would be staying here for at least another twenty-four hours. He buttoned his tunic, put on his belt and took his cap from the table.

Outside it was warmer than he expected. The late-morning sun was drawing the last of the green out of the autumn leaves, and the air was soft and hazy. The streets smelled of damp earth and horse dung. The orange-tiled roofs of the houses were fresh and clean.

He decided to go first to the piquet at the edge of the town, a company commanded by Lieutenant Lehotský, who came from Stoch’s home town. Lehotský’s older brother Imre had been Stoch’s best friend for their three years at cadet school. Imre had been killed in the first weeks of the war, and now Stoch could no longer remember his friend’s face, only that he had looked a bit like this younger brother. Without calling for his orderly, Stoch mounted his horse and rode down the street.

It was an old market town, with a large open square at its centre. A church took up one side of the square. At some earlier stage of the war its spire had been hit by artillery fire; it was now a broken-off stump, and red bricks, some still mortared together in blocks, lay haphazardly about at the base of the church walls. The roof, though, was intact, and the church was used for services every day, with a regimental Mass on Sundays, which most of the troops still attended.

Passing the square, Stoch rode at a walk down a long, wide street lined with houses and small shops, all closed up, some pockmarked by rifle-fire. The trees that had once shaded the footpaths in this part of the town had all been cut down, leaving a pitiful row of short bare stumps. The street looked forlorn even in the golden sunlight.

Stoch had seen no-one since he set out, neither his own troops nor local people. But as he reached the end of the street, he heard voices; men arguing. He reined in. The voices came from behind a high stone wall, beyond which he could see a roofline. He rode over to it at a trot. Behind the wall a single-storeyed but substantial villa stood in a small park, unseen by a pedestrian passer-by.

The garden was thickly overgrown. Dark green vines choked a row of fruit trees. The windows he could see gaped open, their wooden shutters long wrenched off. As he looked, two men came around the side of the house pulling a heavily-laden hand cart. They wore workmen’s clothing. One was berating the other in a dialect that Stoch did not understand. For a moment he watched them, then one of them noticed the mounted officer, hissed at his companion, and both men dropped the long hand-poles of the cart and ran off, back around the side of the house and out of Stoch’s sight.

What civilians did in a garrison town was technically not Stoch’s responsibility, but he disliked disorder and the two were so obviously guilty of something that Stoch felt compelled to look at the cart they had left behind. He dismounted and led his horse around the corner, looking for an entrance to the grounds. A big wooden gate was chained shut, but he found a small garden postern that had been forced open. Looping the reins over the gatepost, he went inside.

It was nothing more sinister than looting. The cart was full of household goods; the two had broken into the place and loaded the cart with what they could carry. Pots and pans, one or two suitcases, some chairs, what looked like bundles of clothes; things taken more for use than profit. Anything of real value would have been taken much earlier.

There were a couple of rolled carpets underneath the rest of the load, and on impulse Stoch turned back the corner of one of them. Once he saw its pile, he used both hands to tug the roll out from beneath the things piled on top of it, heedless of the dust that reached his eyes and nose. Once he had it out, he unrolled the carpet until it was spread on the ground next to the cart.

Stoch knew what he was looking at; a Bakhtiari carpet, a very old, very beautiful Bakhtiari carpet, in the panelled garden pattern, dark reds and blues, delicate greens and browns, set on a clay-white background. He had worked in Persia before the war as an engineer in the oilfields, and he had seen many fine carpets, but nothing like this, nothing of this age and quality. How such a carpet came to be in this Galician outpost was no doubt a story in itself, a story that would now never be told, one of a million private and public stories simply erased forever by the war.

Stoch had learned that to have the slightest regard for any object in wartime was stupid and dangerous, because any attachment distracted you from the instinct for survival that the war, and the Fates, had woven in you like a fine thread. To keep your fingertips on that thread, to stay lucky, to stay alive, was difficult enough, impossible enough, without concern for anything inanimate, whether it be a baroque cathedral or an illuminated manuscript or even a good saddle.

But this carpet was so unexpected, so perfect, that Stoch could not simply dismiss its existence, as he had taught himself to dismiss all the other things he had seen consumed by the war.

It can be done, he thought, I can carry it back across my saddle, I will be able to look at it with pleasure this evening, admire it so long as I am here, and it can go with me when I get posted. I have only a trunk and a folding bed, and the sergeant will ask no questions about loading a carpet onto the baggage wagons. It is impossible to leave such a thing here. Its owners may well never return, and anyway here it will be stolen, or worse, destroyed. I owe it to those who made this carpet, those who brought it here, those who understood its worth, to preserve it, even in the middle of this war.

Stoch looked down at the subtle and intricate pattern of the carpet. Within some of the enclosed gardens forming its pattern grew pairs of small conical trees, pomegranates, perhaps. In others cool fountains played on a dais, tall amethyst vases standing beside them. Vines wound round the garden walls, throwing navy blue shade. Peacocks turned their crowned heads on long green necks. Small pink flowers – were they mandarin blossoms? – filled every other space. In the corner panel nearest him a big-eyed gazelle raised its muzzle to eat at a trailing branch. Stoch could almost hear the water, smell the blossoms, taste the fruit. No, not almost. He could. He was there. He lay in dark shade beneath a tree, within the safety of stone walls that were warming in the Persian sun. All manner of pleasurable things lay around him, just out of his sight. He had only to relax, to close his eyes, to drift away from here.

Stoch drew in a deep breath. So now you have become so stupid as to be blind to this snare, he berated himself, looking down at the carpet. Begone, tempter! I know where this temptation leads, how this thing will end.

After four years of war, having risen from ensign to colonel, having seen so many die, having himself somehow survived so long, the hardened, cynical officer who has resisted every temptation thrown up by the war finds one temptation irresistible, this last temptation, this carpet. He takes it and makes a place for it in his quarters and in his heart, and when he is sent again to the front, he stubbornly keeps the carpet with him, even in his tent. And the carpet lets him believe that there is something other than the war. And that belief is the crack in the impenetrable shell of luck he has created around himself.

The enemy attack in force, his regiment is ordered to retreat, he runs toward his horse but pauses for a moment, only a second, thinking to rescue the carpet, the thing more important than the war. In that moment of distraction a rifle cracks, a bullet through the head, the handsome young officer lying dead on the dusty ground, metres from his horse and safety, his sightless eyes open, fixed on the carpet, the beautiful Bakhtiari carpet.

The closing page of a Biedermeier novella, Stoch thought sourly, to be read in a drawing-room, sugary with cheap, predictable irony, a man dies because of the thing he loves. But it is also the truth, it will happen in exactly that way, because softness of that kind is the difference between surviving and not surviving. Everyone knew the story of the captain of artillery who hesitated for a minute to bombard a church tower where a sniper was hiding, and who because of his hesitation was shot dead by the sniper. Perhaps it was even true.

Stoch looked down once more at the carpet, spread out on the rank grass in the autumn sunshine. He straightened up, flexing his cramped shoulders, and walked slowly toward the postern gate. Even if I don’t take it myself, I could tell the quartermaster sergeant this carpet is here, he thought, a last flicker of temptation. He sighed. That will mean that it will after all be taken back to the officers’ mess, and it will cast its spell over someone else. And he, I can foresee, will lose his life for the carpet, and it will be my doing. No, I will not. It must stay here.

But now I understand why this carpet was shown to me, why I personally was exposed to this temptation. Precisely because I know how beautiful this carpet is, I know that if I save it; it will seduce someone and cost them their life. It is precisely because I recognise its worth that I can resist the temptation, resist it myself and on behalf of all the others.

Of course to history, to civilisation, to the future, this carpet is worth more than a man’s life; it is a masterpiece, while by contrast, for the last four years, men’s lives have been thrown away as lightly as dandelion dust, and the future will neither know nor care who they were. But I am not answerable to the future; I am alive now, and it is my duty to try to stay alive, even though I know that is hopeless, and I cannot give my life for this carpet, nor allow anyone else’s life to be given for it.

Stoch walked out through the narrow garden gate. As he unhitched the reins, his horse shook its head and snorted, the bridle rings jangling in the soft air. He mounted and rode off at a canter toward the northern edge of the city, toward the piquet. He did not look back.