Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 4

A Project

On the long trip back to Cincinnati, the three males stood forward at the wheel while the three ladies, sitting aft, talked about them. Some remarks were made about Martin, and his possible motive in getting Lotte drunk (no one had been fooled on that score), but that subject was only of limited and passing interest. More was said about Hans, but the comments were both favorable and a little guarded on the part of Jill and Marie-Claude. It was only Charlotte who admitted worries about the early influences on him.

It was this discussion of Hans' background that led to a discussion of Klaus' related German background, and then of Klaus himself. Marie-Claude joked,

"A French person's first question about another person always concerns the father. Who was Klaus' father?"

Charolotte replied,

"My mother was fond of pointing out that Klaus' father was the Graf von Seydlitz, a member of the old Junkers nobility. Like so many of her remarks, it concealed more than it revealed. He was a tall doddery old man with silver hair and very little outward personality. Apart from his atrocious accent, he could've been anybody from anywhere."

Jill said,

"Most nobilities are like that. People get excited about meeting the duchess of so-and-so, and then, when they have, they say, 'But she was so ordinary.'"

Charlotte replied,

"The Pomeranian and East Prussian aristocrats were mostly worse than ordinary. They were never more than glorified pig farmers with a strong, narrow, and peculiar talent for war. They may have known how to die in battle, but they didn't know much else. On the whole, they were better with animals than with people."

It appeared also that the members of that class, at least according to Charlotte, were not above raping the women of foreign lands during campaigns, raping Polish women at all times, and even inflicting their beastly attentions on their own peasant women.

The women of that same aristocracy, again according to Charlotte, were often extremely tall bizarre creatures with the features of prehistoric animals. They were only marginally less dangerous than the men. Until recently, the primitive state of medicine and sanitation in rural Pomerania often caused them to die in childbirth. Even when they survived, they did so without art, poetry, or grace.

At the end of this litany, delivered with Charlotte's customary humor, Marie-Claude objected,

"We French have had our experiences with the Prussians, but surely Klaus is the opposite of all that."

"Yes. That's because of his mother, Hilde. The Seydlitzes were so incompetent at running their estates that they had to marry Klaus' father off to the daughter of a rich Ruhr industrialist, a man who had started as a tavern keeper. He was dead by the time I came along, but he seems to have been a pretty civilized man. Hilde was certainly a civilized and cultivated woman."

"Was she the one who decided to bring the family to America?"

"Yes. I think she made all the decisions. It sounds dominating, but her husband really was hopeless outside of Pommerania. Klaus was twenty-nine at the time, and could've remained in Germany. But he was very loyal to his parents."

Marie-Claude was now more curious than ever, and asked,

"Did his mother arrange your marriage?"

Charlotte, seemingly a little embarrassed, but still laughing, replied,

"Our two mothers arranged it."

That caused a polite stir. Even in Europe, arranged marriages were a thing of the past. Neither Jill nor Marie-Claude had known anyone who had actually had their partner chosen by their parents. Jill asked directly,

"Did you know that you'd be marrying Klaus before you even met him?"

"Yes. And the same for him. We could have backed out, of course, but we still hardly knew each other before the engagement was announced."

Marie-Claude, fascinated, wanted to know exactly how such a thing could have occurred. The story came out by degrees.

The two mothers, Irene and Hilde, had met through some amalgamation of garden clubs that spanned the distance between Philadelphia and Cincinnati. This meeting seemed to have occurred somewhere around 1921, only a couple of years after the arrival of the Seydlitz family in America. Hilde, despite her gardening, was having trouble overcoming the war- time prejudices. Irene, for all her shortcomings, had the sort of lineage and social confidence that allowed her to simply ignore the anti-German feeling of the time.

The women continued to correspond, and met occasionally. The odd thing was that neither ever introduced her friend to her family. Hilde's visits to Philadelphia were always in connection with business or gardening, and she stayed in a hotel. Irene never once brought her home.

The secret friendship of Irene and Hilde would have been as trivial as it was peculiar had it not led to the marriage. As Charlotte said,

"I've never been able to unravel the nature of the friendship or the need for secrecy."

Marie-Claude said,

"I can imagine doing that. My husband's something of an embarrassment, and a very demanding one. He'd insist on being the center of attention, and it's easier just to leave him out."

"Well, it's true that Hilde's husband was really presentable only in Pommerania. He was kept largely sequestered even at the wedding. I subsequently found out that he could be loud and rude. But, still, Hilde could've been brought home in Philadelphia and introduced to my father and myself. Daddy was a bit of a bore, but he wasn't so bad as to require concealment from his wife's friends."

Jill said,

"I am surprised she didn't want Hilde to meet you. You must have been your mother's great pride."

"We had a complex relationship. I hadn't married by the time that I was thirty, and it disturbed Irene greatly."

"You must have been asked many times."

"I headed off most of the proposals before they came."

Marie-Claude concluded,

"So your mother became desperate and tried to arrange it herself. But she was afraid that, if you met Hilde, you might not want to marry her son."

"There wasn't anything about Hilde that anyone would have objected to."

"No, but there might have been something about her to suggest that her son wouldn't be very romantic."

"Well, there was that. Hilde was very practical and matter- of-fact. There wasn't anything about her to suggest passion."

Marie-Claude saw it all clearly in her own mind. She wondered only why Charlotte had agreed to marry Klaus when she did meet him. As she was deciding that she couldn't ask that, Charlotte said,

"Klaus and I've compared notes, and we think it was Irene who first suggested the marriage."

Jill said,

"That's an act of intimacy between two women. It's like sex at one remove."

Charlotte replied, rather tartly,

"I think it was a matter of money rather than romance. They wanted to marry their fortunes."

Marie-Claude was caught by surprise. She replied,

"But, of course! That was what was romantic for them! Much more romantic than smelly little grandchildren. But they thought that, for you and Klaus, it would have to be another sort of romance. And so they were worried and worked in secret."

Charlotte admitted as much. Both women had ended up as managers of their respective family fortunes, and both had done extremely well. It wasn't unnatural for them to have treated those fortunes as their children, even in preferance to their real children.

Marie-Claude now thought she knew why Charlotte had married Klaus. Charlotte had believed that she'd be able to manage Klaus as her mother had managed her father. And, of course, Klaus did give in over all the little things. But that was only because he had something more important on his mind, Marie-Claude couldn't make out quite what.

By this time, the lights on one of the hilltops of Cincinnati were visible, and the women drifted forward to have a better look. Marie-Claude found herself paired with Klaus and said,

"Charlotte's been telling us about the way you came to be married."

Klaus laughed.

"Yes. It'll probably be the last arranged marriage in America. Decisions were made about the icing on our wedding cake before we even met one another."

"What did you expect Charlotte to be like?"

"I expected that she'd be rather plain and no longer very young. But that she'd be very dutiful."

"So you had no idea that you'd be marrying a great lady at the height of her beauty?"

"Not the slightest. I was quite alarmed when I met her."

"So Charlotte's mother must have allowed your mother to have a totally false impression of Charlotte, and yet your mother still consented."

"Well, you see, I still hadn't entirely recovered from the war. I had almost been killed once, and then, in the last offensive of 1918, I was severely wounded a second time. In the twenties I was still very surprised to be alive at all."

"So you didn't feel inclined to start a family?"

"No. Many of us who survived had little inclination to find wives. For months on end, and even years, that war taught us one lesson over and over again. Don't attack. Wait. Fortify. Watch. And then watch some more. Be like a rabbit, ready to take alarm at the slightest thing. Never let oneself be carried away by optimism or euphoria. Dig deeper. Extend the trenches. Pile in more sandbags."

Klaus was laughing as he finished speaking, but Marie-Claude replied seriously,

"That must have produced an entirely different mentality, even in people who were cautious by nature."

"It did. In all of us on both sides. Then, when the war was over, the prudent man found himself bachelor quarters. If they weren't underground, he barricaded them with sandbags. He then mounted guard with the same fastidious care that had so often saved his life."

When Klaus finished, Marie-Claude was laughing as well. She replied,

"I see why you didn't marry earlier. But why, then, later?"

"I was somewhat less nervous by that time. Also, like all soldiers, I was superstitious. We all lived on luck. I thought it would be unlucky to disobey my mother, a woman who was herself lucky enough to have always been right."

"I see. So, long after the war had ended, you got your orders again."

"Yes. I set dutifully off to Philadelphia even as I was shaking in my shoes."

The image of Klaus embarking on matrimony affected Marie- Claude strongly, but she wasn't sure just which feeling it aroused in her. Before she could say anything, Hans joined them and began to talk about railways. She would have drifted away, but she gathered that Hans and Annette had had some sort of adventure. It sounded alarming, but, fortunately, not sexual. In any case, Annette, now sound asleep, had obviously not been injured.

Marie-Claude was again about to leave Klaus and Hans alone when she realized that this thing of railways that they shared was more probably more important to each than anything else. As she remained, Klaus explained,

"There's a war coming, and the railway system in Cincinnati is so over-taxed that it barely functions in peacetime."

"And you hope to improve it?"

"Yes. We've thought of some re-organizations that would probably do it. If only anyone in power would listen to us."

Hans was, meanwhile, talking about German submarines. He was very excited, and was describing what would happen when a torpedo hit an oil tanker.

"There'll be a huge explosion, and parts of the ship and bodies will come down miles away."

It was obvious that Hans loved explosions no matter who was being exploded. Klaus again explained,

"We have a very vulnerable procession of tankers carrying oil from the Gulf to the northeast. If that traffic is seriously interrupted, the oil will have to go by train. The main route will be through Cincinnati, and that'll make the problems here even worse."

Hans was now talking with Martin, and Marie-Claude said to Klaus,

"Hans seems to be very concerned about these problems."

"Yes. Of course, railways are only a means to an end. But I'm beginning to talk with him about the more important things."

"I'm sure you'll make a philosopher out of him, little by little."

"He's now a devotee of the Boy Scout ideology, which isn't bad, but isn't as reflective as it might be."

Neither the philosophy nor the railways were exactly Marie- Claude's sort of thing, but she could see that a great effort would be required to solve both sorts of problems. And, of course, it was appropriate for a man of Klaus' wealth and stature to set himself great projects.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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