Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 2


Cincinnati, Sept. 10, 1935

Madame Marie-Claude Serrault was out shopping with her daughter, Annette. Since they would be arriving back in Paris only the day before Annette's school began, and Annette, aged twelve, had outgrown the previous year's clothing, it was necessary to get her some things in Cincinnati. This was no mean feat. Annette had shot up to adult size, in fact within an inch of her mother, but was, in most ways, still a child. To find things which would fit, which wouldn't be eyesores in Paris, and which wouldn't be too adult for Annette required both energy and imagination.

Annette had patiently tried on a good dozen costumes when her mother, still without having bought anything, realized that it was getting late. Having assumed in her Parisian way that taxis were always available, she was fortunate to find one.

Married to a banker who had business in New York and Washington, Marie-Claude had taken a side trip to Cincinnati to visit some rather distant relatives. The relatives had proven amusing and congenial. As a result, Marie-Claude and Annette had stayed longer than they had intended.

In Cincinnati, Marie-Claude found herself free to come and go as she pleased, with a home she could use almost as her own. She also had no responsibilities. All this contrasted markedly with Paris. She there had to live in the admittedly grand home of her mother-in-law, and she most definitely could not come and go as she pleased. She also had a long list of duties. These, while mostly social, were still onerous.

While Cincinnati wasn't quite Paris, it still seemed to her to be a highly desirable place. She had systematically searched out its beautiful parks with views of the river, its great houses, and the fascinatingly bizarre elements of its population. She had even found some acceptable restaurants and cafes in which she could sit with her daughter and her new friends.

Unlike most of her friends at home, Marie-Claude spoke excellent English. That, together with the fact that Cincinnati had never experienced anyone like her, caused her to receive many invitations. Of these, none were more valued than those from Charlotte Seydlitz.

Alone among the American women Marie-Claude had met, Charlotte had style. She could also be indirect. While hardly anyone could be as divertingly indirect and subtle as Marie- Claude, Charlotte had enough of that ability to talk for hours without ever making explicit the subject of the conversation. Marie-Claude needed such a woman friend. Only then was it possible to develop certain ideas and feelings which would otherwise float away unfixed into the vast obscurity of her semi-consciousness.

It was less clear to Marie-Claude whether Charlotte was capable of the sort of romantic passion which might, at a later stage, become important. Certainly, there was no present evidence of it. But, then, Charlotte was married to a German. Who knew what might happen under more promising circumstances? There were even nuns who had broken out of convents with, as it was said, a hell of a yell, and had then entered into the most extraordinary romances. Charlotte, with a little guidance from a woman of wider experience, might amaze her friends and acquaintances.

Quite apart from questions of romance, there was no doubt that Charlotte, in addition to her subtlety, had a definite thirst for new experience. Fortunately enough, it was a thirst which dove-tailed closely with Marie-Claude's own.

As she settled her pink silk skirt over her knees in the taxi and realized that it was already getting warm, Marie- Claude wished that she had, on this occasion, been direct enough to ask Charlotte exactly what to wear for a trip on the river. Had stockings and high heels been necessary? She wouldn't have worn them on an outing on the Seine, but this expedition was to involve dinner at a riverside restaurant. Besides, she never knew what to expect from Americans. They seldom wore evening dresses, but they then dressed up when one wouldn't expect it. She was glad, upon arriving at the Public Landing, to see that the others were dressed much as she.

Marie-Claude saw the rest of the party before they saw her. There was Klaus, of course. She had hardly been alone with him, but she did know that he had loyally and dutifully followed his mother when she decided to leave Germany and settle in America. Marie-Claude was not one who admired blind obediance to one's parents. On the other hand, she noticed, for the first time, that he had a nice smile.

Then there was the Englishwoman, Jill Herron. That was unfortunate. Marie-Claude had already seen too much of her. Since they were both foreigners and Europeans, Cincinnatians assumed that they would be congenial.

It was a little like all those badly prepared French dishes people insisted on serving one, even though the local steak with ears of sweet corn was so much better. Marie- Claude didn't like the English, and infinitely preferred Americans. This particular Englishwoman happened to be tall, blonde, and good looking. She had even been mistaken for Marie-Claude herself. That was an insult! While Jill might be physically attractive, she was, in other respects, a cow.

However, it wasn't a disaster for Marie-Claude to be mixed with someone she didn't like. It happened all the time in Paris, and she herself sometimes invited people whom she knew didn't like one another. It added zest to the occasion and opened up many possibilities.

Marie-Claude found it difficult to walk over the cobbles in her heels, but she went fast just the same, managing it more gracefully than most women could have. If she held Annette's hand as a safety precaution, it might be assumed that she was motivated by affection rather than a need for added balance.

Charlotte greeted her as enthusiastically as Marie- Claude could have desired, and they then introduced Annette to Charlotte's adopted son, Hans. Hans had just turned twelve, and was tall for his age, almost six feet. Charlotte had previously told her a good deal about Hans and his parents.

Klaus' cousin Elisabeth, Hans' mother, had been ill almost all the time from Hans' birth to her death. Some people said that she was a hypochondriac. Others said that some of it was an after-effect of Hans' difficult birth. Or perhaps it was a combination of alcoholism, hypochondria, and mental illness. She herself had claimed to have a "displaced stomach."

Hans' father, Siegfried Stuhlenkamp, had had a much simpler problem - nothing but straight alcoholism. He had effectively eliminated that problem by jumping out of his bedroom window with a noose around his neck.

The suicide was a nasty shock for the already unstable Mrs. Stuhlenkamp. Within weeks, she retired from civilian life completely, moving into an extremely expensive and discreetly named institution.

First provisionally, and then permanently, Klaus and his mother, Hilde, had stepped into the vacuum with regard to the two sons, Erich and Hans. Then, only a week after Klaus' marriage, Cousin Elisabeth died in her instutition under obscure circumstances. Most probably, that, too, was a suicide. Charlotte thus more or less inherited Hans, a seven year old, and Erich, a teen-ager.

Hans had been quite young during much of this period, and he seemed to be all right. Indeed, he was bright and cheerful, and it looked as if he would be nice to Annette.

The party was completed by the chauffeur and one of the Seydlitz maids, a girl called Lotte. Marie-Claude was used to seeing maids in black uniforms, and she first took Lotte, in her white uniform, for a nurse. But she soon found that Lotte's mission, far from stemming the flow of blood from cuts, would be to prepare snacks and drinks, and to lay the boat's table with linen and silver. Charlotte had a way of combining fun and games with elegance.

The motor launch was about forty feet long, narrow, and looked fast. The forward third was decked over with mahogany, behind which was a windscreen and steering wheel. The after part was open, but with a sun canopy rigged over the lavishly upholstered seats facing each other from either side. In addition, there was room for one large seat at the stern facing forward. Everyone agreed that Klaus should take this seat. On his right was Marie-Claude, while Jill and Charlotte sat on his left in that order. Between them all was the folding table on which would be placed food and drink.

The young people quickly chose seats farther forward, near the chauffeur at the wheel and the maid with her ice chests and wicker baskets. Whether they felt more comfortable with the servants, or were attracted there by the presence of food, wasn't easy to say.

The boat shot quickly in front of the bow of a lumbering side-wheeler, and turned upstream past a row of coal barges. After getting clear of the traffic, the cool reaches of the river began to unfold for the boating party.

A couple of miles upstream, they came upon a large steam tug pushing a row of barges against the current. The sternwheel thrashed so violently in the brown water as to suggest to Marie-Claude a prehistoric monster ramming its way through the primeval slime with hysterical movements of its tail. Somewhat at odds with that image were thick columns of greasy black smoke belching up from the twin funnels, and then settling on to the water. Once there, great banks of suspended grime drifted slowly in the light breeze.

Marie-Claude was about to point out to Charlotte what one passage through the smoke would do to their dresses when the chaffeur crossed some distance behind the stern of the tug and overtook it on the windward side. As the hydraulic noises of the paddlewheel were replaced by the clanging of machinery, a half-dressed figure staggered out of the boiler room, grabbed the rail, and spat overboard.

Catching sight of the Seydlitz party, the man shouted something which they couldn't catch, but which was obviously disrespectful. He also made a gesture which, while not one of the standard obscene ones, was wonderfully expressive. By the time the motor launch had forged ahead, the man indulged himself in maniacal laughter, patted himself on the top of his head, and added another gesture involving a cupped hand.

Klaus seemed to find the episode amusing, and waved cheerily to the man. Marie-Claude made as if to look away while keeping him in the corner of her eye. Jill looked straight at the man with interest, and remarked,

"I've noticed that those sorts of people in this country are so apt to make themselves felt. At home, they look silently down at their feet as one passes."

Marie-Claude was tempted to point out that in England it was the gentry who were likely to be loud, rude, and obnoxious, but said nothing. It was Klaus who said,

"The face of this country is much more likely to reflect the lower orders. No one has taught them to stay in the background and show respect."

Marie-Claude found herself liking Klaus despite the fact that he looked and sounded so German. She would have liked to agree with him in his attitude, but, unfortunately, she realized that, where he was basically egalitarian, her own instincts weren't far from those of Jill. Indeed, she felt even more strongly than did Jill that the lower elements of society should be repressed.

The only exceptions allowed were men who were sexually attractive and exciting. The man on the tug certainly hadn't been that. However, having read much about the English, it did occur to her that Jill might wish to be buggered by such a man. She was about to say something which had a definite, but barely decipherable, connection with this thought when Charlotte added cheerfully,

"As Klaus says, we've always had people like that. But Roosevelt's given them a new insolence. That man wouldn't have acted that way if Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge had been president."

This remark drew a laugh. Sill, it led to a fairly serious discussion of the socialism that seemed to be a growing power in Europe and, to some extent, in America. It was decided quickly that there was only a difference of degree between socialists and communists. As Charlotte said,

"They both want to take away our money. Communists would do it quickly, and might also kill us. Socialists would first get the masses to vote to take our money, and would then do it more slowly, perhaps giving us jobs as social workers in the meantime."

Marie-Claude replied,

"In France, it would be very quick and very passionate, the revolution all over again."

Klaus objected,

"Surely you wouldn't be guillotined if the communists won an election."

"It wouldn't happen on election day, but you don't realize how much ordinary French people hate people like my husband. Once the mobs began gathering on the streets, and the government did nothing to disperse them, they'd go into a sort of religious fervor."

Even as she spoke, Marie-Claude realized that the others weren't following her. Their experience was too different. America had its class distinctions, but there was no real class hatred. Even the man on the tug had been satisfied with being rude. By way of explanation, she added,

"It's partly our own fault. We're not gracious with ordinary people, and we've often rubbed their noses in the dirt. But it's too late to do anything about it now, and their vengeance would be terrifying if ever they got the chance."

Klaus replied,

"We have violent confrontations between strikers and strike- breakers, but they always seem to take place in the shadow of the factory gates. A half mile away, at the bank or drugstore, one of the strikers might hold the door for the wife of the factory owner. Even if he knew who she was."

Marie Claude laughed at what seemed to her the absurdity of such a scene. She said,

"It's quite different with Europeans. Everyone knows at a glance what class everyone else belongs to, and they don't go to the same places. I have friends, both men and women, who've been attacked on the street by communists, just because of who they are. I wouldn't go walking in most districts of Paris the way I can in Cincinnati."

Charlotte said,

"Germany was on the point of communism when Hitler came along."

A discussion of Hitler would have been awkward for Marie- Claude, particularly in front of Jill. Fashionable opinion in Paris, which Jill wouldn't have known about, held that the English would attempt to use France as a shield against Hitler. The antidote was simply to let him take France and go on to kill someone else, namely the English. While Marie- Claude wouldn't much mind having Jill's male relatives killed, she didn't wish to take up that stance publicly. She was therefore pleased when Hans came excitedly aft waving a pair of binoculars and said,

"Hey, Cousin Charlotte, there's an old colored man fishing up ahead who must be at least a hundred and twenty years old."

When Klaus finally got the binoculars focused for Marie- Claude, she did see a very old man sitting on the deck of a floating shanty with a bit of branch held out over the side. The unsuspecting gentleman on whom all eyes fastened as they drew nearer wore a wide-brimmed dilapidated straw hat under which his face was hardly visible. Below that he had on an old once-white undershirt and trousers raggedly cut off above the knees.

The physical basis of his existence proved to be two old skiffs lashed together, upon which was built a lean-to utilizing bits of canvas, metal, and wood. Jill asked what would happen to him in a thunderstorm, and Klaus replied,

"I imagine the structure's solid enough to hold together. It's also arranged so as to dump most of the rain water into the river. A little bailing with an old coffee can would see to the rest."

Hans asked,

"Does he live there in winter?"

"He may. I would imagine that he has a large collection of rags and builds a warm nest out of them. That slab of tin just outside the entrance to the lean-to would be for his cooking fire."

The wooded bank a little distance away obviously provided an inexhaustible supply of firewood, and there was tied up to the raft a tiny hand-made rowboat. Charlotte asked,

"He couldn't live just on the fish he catches, could he?"

No one answered until Marie-Claude herself caught sight of a tiny vegetable patch on a little plateau half-way up the bank. So that was the answer to that.

As if by mutual consent, there was a period of silence as the Seydlitz party passed the old black man. He, for his part, was utterly motionless. He remained in a relaxed posture with one leg sprawled and his back propped against his dwelling. The posture, if not the immobility, would have done credit to a teen-ager.

Charlotte finally said,

"This kind of scene probably hasn't changed in a hundred years. I expect that they used to let slaves retire in such circumstances."

Klaus replied,

"That man may manage quite well. He may even be happy."

Hans was still standing nearby. Marie-Claude had previously noticed that, more than Annette, he tended to alternate quickly between the exaggerations and fantasies of childhood and snatches of rather adult insight. Sometimes he did it within a single sentence.

"It might be fun for a few days, but not for a hundred years."

Jill and Charlotte had both looked at the man with interest, and with no sign of uneasiness. It seemed to be enough that he was supremely non-threatening, that he demanded no alms, and that he was being rapidly left in their wake. If anything else could be gathered about their attitudes, it would be that the man was an isolated figure left behind by modern society, a phenomenon of no social, political, or economic significance.

Marie-Claude hadn't been able to place the man in her own experience, but she had instantly known that most of the world's population had more in common with that man than with herself. She thought it likely that masses of such people would eventually take over the world, but she hoped that it wouldn't be in her time or Annette's. Just to be safe, it would do no harm to see that Annette had some way of supporting herself.

Around the next bend, the motorboat entered a long stretch with hills on both sides and virtually no signs of humanity. Charlotte called to the chauffeur, saying that it was time for lunch, and they slowed down and eased over toward the Kentucky shore. Hans helped the chauffeur with the anchor, and they were soon lying in the current fifty yards offshore while the maid set the table.

It seemed to Marie-Claude that the group would have made an excellent subject for an impressionist painting. The fluttery pastel-colored costumes of the women and the table laden with dishes and bottles of wine would fill the center of the painting with dashes of color. At one side would be the large gentleman with the straw hat, his head bent in polite attention to the ladies. At the other side would be the black and white of the chauffeur and maid against boat and water. Finally, there would be the two handsome youths with serious expressions, their heads together as they looked away from the rest of the party toward the source of the food.

The ladies, thirsty from the sun, drank more wine than they would have on shore. Klaus did justice to both the snacks and the wine. The conversation was filled with gossip of all kinds. Still, the character assassination was both good-humored and directed at persons not present. Since Klaus was only slightly acquainted with most of these persons, and the ladies didn't wish to forego their gossip on that account, Marie-Claude supplied him with thumb-nail sketches of the leading personalities.

At one point, Klaus remarked quietly to her that he was amazed at the extent and depth of insight on the part of all three women when it came to penetrating the armor of their acquaintances. It was true. Even Jill could spot a marriage that was in difficulty or parents who were losing control of their children. Charlotte could predict such difficulties before they occurred. Marie-Claude could herself re- construct, in her imagination, and then in words, all sorts of arguments and angry scenes which had, or would, take place behind closed doors.

It was now two in the afternoon. The young people, finally gorged with sweets, became restless. Charlotte suggested that they go for a swim. Then she wondered if they had eaten too much to swim. Both Hans and Annette insisted that they had hardly eaten anything. It was decided that it would be safe if the chauffeur kept a close eye on them and Annette kept hold on a life-ring. Hans, as a boy scout, had a number of merit badges in swimming.

Because of the discussion of swimming, the conversation turned quietly to Hans and Annette, standing forward just out of earshot. Marie-Claude remarked how nice Hans was with Annette. Charlotte replied,

"Thank God he's past the pigtail pulling stage. Did you ever do that, Klaus?"

"Oh yes. Then I seem to remember a stage where one was embarrassed around girls and didn't know what to say."

Marie-Claude looked appraisingly at the boy.

"Hans doesn't seem to suffer from that."

It was Jill who asked whether Hans had become interested in girls, adding,

"If so, he might be quite keen on swimming with Annette."

The others laughed, but Charlotte and Marie-Claude both explained that their young people seemed not to have quite reached that stage. It was easy enough to believe in Hans' case, but there wasn't very much that was childish about Annette. With her handsome rather grave face and pretty long legs which many a grown woman would have envied, it was hard to know if she were aware of her own attractiveness. Klaus, perhaps a little affected by sun and wine, commented that Annette's imminent coming of age would be an event not soon forgotten. Marie-Claude, who knew how much would depend on her daughter's eventual attractiveness, appreciated his remark deeply. She was hoping for a beauty, and was particularly sensitive to male reactions toward Annette.

For the moment, Annette and Hans stood in intent conversation, very likely with Hans telling Annette some more of his fanciful tales about the river and its surroundings. Marie-Claude suspected that his behavior toward Annette would have been more strident and less sympathetic in the presence of even one member of his scout troop, but she was thankful in any case. She also suspected that he might never have met a girl like Annette. While rather quiet, she listened to him carefully and smiled and laughed just often enough to encourage a male companion.

It suddenly, and rather painfully, occurred to Marie- Claude that Annette might turn out to be more like Jill than herself. Unless Annette changed more than her mother thought likely, she would never be described as vivacious, and wouldn't delight in playing elaborate conversational games. But she might still exercise an overpowering influence over a man, perhaps over a good many men.

As Hans took off his shoes and socks, Charlotte went forward and asked for his uniform so that she could fold it. Seemingly without embarrassment, he took it off and stood in his underpants while Charlotte fussed over some inflamed scratches she had noticed along his ribs. A towel was then held up, and he put on his bathing suit.

Annette, facing Hans from the other side of the boat, began to unfasten her dress with one hand while she held up a towel with the other. As she was having trouble managing it and Charlotte was still muttering concernedly over Hans, Jill went forward to help her.

Marie-Claude said to Klaus,

"I'm so glad that Jill is helping Annette. I could hardly undress my own daughter in front of a potential suitor."

"Yes. They may be a little young to understand it all, but the situation is rather suggestive isn't it?"

Marie-Claude tilted her head on one side and smiled as she replied,

"You must know by now that Charlotte loves suggestive situations. So do I. And nothing can happen with all of us here."

By this time, Annette, partly in view, was half out of her clothes and half into her bathing suit. Klaus said,

"I've been on French beaches, and it's amazing how you manage to change in public."

"Annette hasn't quite mastered it yet. But one's underclothes do show, and it isn't really quite as acceptable as it might have seemed to you on the beach. My mother-in-law would have a stroke if she were here."

"Would your husband mind?"

"Somewhat. But then he might be entirely occupied in looking at Hans. Isn't he slim and fine?"

Klaus paused only very slightly before replying,

"Yes. So is Annette."

Annette, now properly arrayed in her bathing suit, got quickly into the water. Hans dove after her, and Jill and Charlotte remained sitting on the rail watching the swimmers. Klaus then asked Marie-Claude about her mother-in-law. It was the question that she least expected to be asked. In some ways, it was the most unwelcome question imaginable. Except that, in another way, it was the one she most wanted to answer. How, she wondered, had this relative stranger penetrated so quickly to the thorn of her life?

Marie-Claude knew how unattractive venom is in another person, and she carefully kept it out of her voice. Instead, she was witty. The fact that the old witch had always coddled her son, dominated him, and destroyed him as a man did have its humorous aspects. It had created many situations which, when described in a certain way, were amusing in the highest degree. Indeed, this German-American gentleman with so little malice about him was moved to laughter a number of times.

Before she quite knew what had happened, Marie-Claude found herself, for the first time in America, disclosing the fact that she, unlike her husband, was not an aristocrat. Her family, she was quick to explain, had more capital than the Serraults, but that seemed to make no difference in certain circles. Circles which were, to be sure, mercenary enough to appropriate any money they could. They were also ones in which it was possible to virtually steal with one hand while crossing oneself with the other. To her relief and delight, she found that Klaus sympathized.

It was the way in which Klaus looked at her that convinced Marie-Claude that he understood, perfectly and completely. That is, he concurred in her view that her husband and his mother were both a species of snake who should be thrown out of their home and forced to beg in the streets. Klaus was, in fact, one of the nicest men Marie- Claude had met in America. She wondered if Charlotte properly appreciated him.

Klaus imagined the surprise the crews of tugs must have felt the first time they came around a bend at night and were confronted with a complete Japanese floating restaurant. The details had been faithfully copied from a Hiroshige print, and the cumulative effect was such as to suggest that the whole contraption had been towed all the way from Yokohama.

But, then, Klaus wondered if the astonishment of the boatmen could be any greater than his own amazement at the attitudes of his companions. As a follower of Kant, Klaus believed that the faculty of Reason was capable of supplying its own premises, and, even more than that, determining its own ends. In fact, it was also capable of integrating the rather different-seeming concepts of freedom and morality. The upshot was that the person who subordinated passion to reason could be free, good, and happy. It was hard to imagine anyone less likely to subordinate passion to reason than Marie-Claude Serrault. And, of course, she couldn't really be happy, much less free and good.

On the other hand, Klaus had learned to live with these sorts of complexities. Marie-Claude was only Charlotte taken one step further. The company of such women was delightful, and Charlotte, at any rate, in no way interfered with his life's work. Marie-Claude was undoubtedly a bad influence, but, of course, she would be gone in a matter of a week or so.

The multi-tiered restaurant appeared to be constructed almost entirely out of bamboo sticks. It also listed noticeably, but, as if to put a good face on doubtful engineering, it was gaily lit with Japanese lanterns of all colors. Landing gingerly, the Seydlitz party was conducted to a platform some eight feet above the water. Charlotte joked that they could easily swim to shore if the whole contraption fell apart or caught fire.

The dinner began with the most varied appetizers constructed out of little bits of raw fish, dried seaweed, and other unusual condiments. These were washed down with plum wine and saki, and even the young people were allowed small quantities of intoxicants.

Jill, evidently picking up on a previous conversation with Charlotte, was explaining why she wasn't going to leave her husband.

"There are so many people to whom it would have to be explained. The boys, Richard's parents, my parents. Even my sisters like him better than I do, and everyone would try to patch it up. Then, if we did stay together, there'd be endless gossip."

Marie-Claude, across from Jill, had been sitting somewhat sideways with her legs crossed and her neck arched back. Sometimes she had leaned forward excitedly to address something to the others, or to touch Klaus on the arm, but, for the most part, she had been content to be out of the center of attention. When Jill spoke, she immediately replied,

"We French are forever staying married to preserve appearances, but most of my friends in that situation take lovers."

"I probably would have if anyone rather nice had been interested. Generally, I seem to attract nasty greasy little men who smell of garlic. Many of them are bellboys in hotels."

Marie-Claude, for the first time, laughed like a schoolgirl.

"Yes, it's that direct cool stare. The interesting men have to be invited. They don't wish to be embarrassed by a refusal. It's only the bellboys who are past caring."

"Do you invite them often?"

"I haven't for some time. Anyway, I won't settle for anything less than a Napoleon, and there aren't any in this generation. I'll have to wait for the next one. And then I'll have only jewelry with which to dazzle my lover."

The conversation turned to the attractiveness of the leading politicians of the day. Stanley Baldwin was given short shrift, as were Leon Blum, and even Josef Stalin. Roosevelt was, despite his politics, given a certain grudging respect. Charlotte concluded:

"If only he weren't crippled. And then there's Eleanor. She's so ugly and awful. There has to be some doubt about a man who'd marry a woman like that."

Klaus drifted off mentally, both amused and appalled at the idea of judging politicians and statemen in these terms. It seemed that these women had no clear conception of the way they wanted the world to be. They could think only of relations between pairs of persons, sometimes a man and a woman and sometimes two women. As for the world surrounding those pairs of persons, it would simply have to be organized in such a way as to facilitate the desired relations, regardless of any larger consequences. Consequently, a political figure was judged on the basis of the kinds of excitement that might emanate from him and vibrate through the society.

Klaus was himself not sure of his political ground these days. Kant and Hegel had defended the Prussian monarchy, but that was surely a mistake, a misapplication of the principle of Reason. In his own purview of the panoply of possible worlds Klaus tried to abstract more completely from his own concerns, and from his geographical and historical position, than Kant had done. He was also guided by his view that the truth can be known, not only by the philosopher, but by anyone who makes a sufficiently intense effort to reason it out. Even his wife and her friends could progress in this direction if only they had a mind to.

Despite his efforts, Klaus had reached only a very few conclusions in which he was entirely confident. One of them was that Hitler's Nazi system was among the worst possible, even worse than Stalin's perversion of communism. Just then, he heard Marie-Claude say,

"Among all the pedestrians there isn't a single man on horseback. Except perhaps ....."

A sharp glance from Charlotte cut her short. It didn't escape Klaus, nor did the phrase, "man on horseback." He remembered it from his conversations with French officers after the war. It was something of a catchword among them, and it had a special meaning. It didn't necessarily refer to a cavalryman, nor yet a successful general, even when he rode his horse past ranks of cheering troops.

The man on horseback was, above all, the victorious general who returned to Paris, taught the snivelling civilian politicians a lesson, and crushed any communes that might have sprung up. But that was in 1871. No one in France could presently be viewed in that light, nor was there anyone in any major country who fitted the mold exactly. But there was evidently some such man who took the fancy of Marie-Claude, and probably Charlotte as well. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been that silencing look from the latter or the secret complicity that it assumed.

Who, Klaus wondered, was close enough to being a man on horseback to excite that kind of romantic attachment? It could conceivably have been Mussollini, but he rather thought not.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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