A Short Story by Susannah Black
First, look at his bookshelves: this is always crucial. As soon as Székely was out of the room, Sofia headed to the shelves beside the office door—these all seemed to be galleys, and she spotted, with envy, the new Pierre Manent, of which she only had two sample chapters herself, and those in PDF. Then to the right he started with a jumble of historiography, four or five books of Egyptology, and then the pre-Socratics. It was, she had to admit, a very pleasing system.
It was, clearly, a working library—few leather bindings, and those few not recent and not for show; both hardcovers and paperbacks; they were not, for the most part, books that she could not have gotten on Amazon, or picked up back home at the Strand on East Twelfth, and many of them she did in fact have. Not nearly all, though. The spines of most were broken.
Two full shelves of the Loebs, more Greek and Latin, the red and green looking as they always did disconcertingly Christmassy, as though his shelves were taking part in the city’s own festivities. Fagles’s Homer next to Chapman’s; Dante in the vernacular, and, surprisingly, in Dorothy Sayers’s translation. A quarter at least were fiction, and half of those were contemporary, or at least twentieth century. She was amused to see Neil Gaiman, and three or four Terry Pratchetts. Now the shelves right behind his desk chair—
She heard the door open and then close. “May I borrow Laurus?” she asked without turning around. “I’d just bought it, before I came to Sicambria, and I didn’t bring it because I figured I’d be swamped by conference reading. Is it as good as that First Places review made it sound?”
“Better, and yes, you may. Now. It hasn’t breathed properly, quite—though that’s all right, I like the way this one changes as you drink it.”
She did turn around, then. The wine bottle was already open, and he carried the two glasses pointing downwards with the stems between his fingers. He put the glasses on the table beside the leather sofa, across from the fireplace. The fire had taken hold well, and was driving the chill out of the room, reflecting in the windows, and making the dusk outside seem like night. It did not, she noticed, melt the frost-roses on the windows, and the white silk shrug she wore over the black cap-sleeved dress was still a welcome extra layer. She’d brought it to make the transition from paper-giving-appropriate to cocktail-party-appropriate without having to bother to change clothes, and it had served well. He poured for both of them, the wine a dark red, offering hers. She took the novel off his shelf and walked over, placing it on the side table as well; took the glass from his hand.
“Well, to—” she raised her eyebrows in inquiry.
“Let’s say, to the Marqués Jose Maria Mendoza. And to … to détente.”
They toasted, and she took a sip. And then breathed it in, and sipped again.
He watched; she thought her pupils must be dilating. “What—this is your family’s vineyard, you said?”
“Pannonian viticulture goes back a very long way, and seems to have developed rather independently—the words we use to describe wine, and the words associated with its making, are not from the Latin. Your mother’s family had vineyards, too, you know, before the war. Tell me what you taste.”
“Um … maybe leather? But also honey. But—as though honey could be something that wasn’t entirely sweet.”
He nodded. “They call it Bikavér—Bull’s Blood. There was a battle, in the sixteenth century, against the Turks; the then-Count broke open the casks to give to the soldiers, to warm them before. The wine spilled onto their beards and clothes, and someone started the rumor in the Turkish camp that the Pannonian armies drank the blood of bulls for strength.”
She walked back over to the bookshelves, running her fingers over the bindings: Frederic Morton; John Lukacs; Stefan Zweig. “Information warfare … Most people alphabetize, you know.”
“Yes, I’ve always found that impossible. Imagine Arendt and Heidegger that many shelves away from each other.”
“Not to be thought of.… Do you know the story about Strauss propositioning her when she was still with him, and her turning him down?”
“Yes, and probably for the same reason that you do—Father Lindsey told me.”
“Ha! Yes, exactly. At a Sunday dinner. Telling the anecdote as though he had been there. And just think about what would have happened if she hadn’t.”
“No Iraq war?”
“Well, no Angelo Codevilla, at any rate. And no Michael Anton.”
“But also no Origins of Totalitarianism; he would have made her something of a Zionist, at least.”
“And no Zuckerts, no James Schall …”
“No First Places, surely. No Althaus Trap House on Nineteenth Street, no Sunday dinners.”
“Where would either of us have learned where in a Lutheran Vespers you sing the ‘Salve Regina’?”
“And where would Father Lindsey’s mean cat live?”
“Well, his nice cat too. And no review of Laurus.”
“And then what would I have to read tonight?”
“Not, as you say, to be thought of.” He was smiling; she felt herself doing so too. She could feel the wine; it was, she thought, making her giddy rather than relaxed.
“Which apartment did you have for your fellowship?” she asked.
“Second floor, right at the top of the stairs.”
“But you didn’t try for the third year?”
“Well, I was never going to stick with journalism. It was a lark, before graduate school. I knew I would eventually have to go back; I was never going to be an academic either. There’s the estate, for one thing, but the family’s seat in Parliament—I beg your pardon, the Assembly—had been vacant for long enough, at that point; my father died just before I left for university.”
“It’s a shame. Your dissertation was fascinating, and well done.”
“You read it?”
“Desire and justice in Plotinus and Oliver O’Donovan; how could I resist? But you’ve found other things to occupy your time.”
“In my second term, the new administration needed a Minister of Information. Pannonia was not, I would say, run with the greatest expediency, under Czartorisky—and I know you agree, you wrote one of the op-eds in favor of Vastag’s new government, when we came in. There was so much to be cleaned up. Corruption, neglect, deindustrialization—and of course foreign interference: Russian oligarchs buying up our utilities. And then American extremist groups trying to hold conferences in our hotels, German antifa coming in in response, to play at Nazi-fighting—children, all of them. Street-fighting, in the city of my birth! It was chaos.”
“‘Bad people on both sides’—very even-handed of you. It was you, I take it, who got Spencer blacklisted by the Visegrad Group.”
He inclined his head.
“Well—thank you for that, in any case. I was fairly certain.”
“I do what I can.”
“You’ve been busy.”
“But, as you know, I still do find time to write.”
“American magazines of opinion are not peer-reviewed journals.”
“I appreciate your concern for my CV,” he said, the irony light in his voice; “if we are to publish or perish, I’ll take that concern to mean that you don’t want me to perish, which is awfully heartening. But after all, I’m not in a tenure-track position; I write what is needed, now.”
“Yes, and Augustus Krantz finds it in his heart to publish you.”
“And you find it in yours to respond, incessantly. And the Post finds it in the steel gears of what passes for its heart to publish your complaints …”
“My entirely justified criticisms.”
“It’s not that I have not considered these things, you know,” he said, his voice calm, reasonable. “I have read every one of your pieces. Carefully. And I have in fact taken them to heart. But even you must admit that without order, there can be no justice, that if there is no sovereign whose will reigns, all things solid melt into air, all things dissolve into endless petty bickering.”
“Not all means to impose order are legitimate,” she replied, heated, “Which you know; you yourself wrote that what Czartorisky had done to the gypsies was vicious, defining internal enemies as hosti. How is what you do to the Syrian refugees different? Weaponizing Girard and calling that justice. All this strength is weakness, if you marshall it in defiance of true justice.”
“I can quote the tragic poet as well, Dr. Adams. ‘Headstrong, deaf to reason! She has never learned to yield. She has much to learn. The wildest horses bend their necks at the pull of the smallest curb.’”
“You know that the will of the sovereign must be bound to the good of his subjects—there is such a thing as tyranny, and you know that a tyrant may be overthrown.”
“And it is of this that you accuse me, incessantly and in print. I’m sure you’ve dined out well on your so-noble defense of the Open Society; can you deny that you enjoy the praise you get for your attacks on me at those DC cocktail parties?”
She flushed. “I write in good faith, and half of it, I don’t even think you’d disagree with.”
“Half of it, I do not, and that half, I am attempting, in my own way, to implement. You’re impatient.” He ran his hand through his hair, irritation in his eyes. “Do you really think that the measures that I have had to take in these last two years to help turn Pannonia into the country it is today—do you think they amount to tyranny? Look at our family policy—Matt Bruenig would be the first to approve; I’ve taken pointers from his white paper. Compare our birth rates to those of Austria—compare our industry. And you’re wrong to blame me for the refugees. You’re wrong in what you think I’m doing—first of all, your rhetoric blames me for the way they were treated under Czartorisky; you conflate the two.”
“I don’t. You have been better. But you’ve made no reparations to those he mistreated, not beyond a couple of high profile cases—”
“I’ve started a new office to deal with reparations for those who were abused under the last administration. I told you, Sofia, I have taken your criticisms into consideration—”
“—and you’ve kept the borders effectively closed. You must have read Pater Edmund’s piece on migration and the universal destination of goods; how can you justify that?”
His jaw was tight. “I am attempting to take all these things into consideration. We will not accept the quotas that Merkel demands, because we can’t; if I did, I would be wronging those people who are already here, to whom I had already pledged my protection, including earlier refugees; in any case, the demand was far down when Vastag came in. We’re doing what little we can to aid Assad, to help stabilize things in Syria, which is more than I can say for your president; his people seem to want things to stay a wreck. And we don’t, for example, keep refugees in camps, either. Miller’s particular delight in that vice would never take hold, here. We have changed policy; we’re trying to reunite families—The Unionist had a piece, recently, talking disapprovingly about what they called chain migration—and beyond that, we send refugees to Berlin, to Paris—they are happy to take them. We know who we are, and who are ours.”
“And who are yours? What would the Dacians say, if you told them that the Magyars were the only true and proper natives of this place? What would the Huns say? Or, for heaven’s sake, the Slavs? Migrations happen; they’re part of what it means to be in history and not at its end; they’re not a product of decadent modernity. What would you have, a frozen end-state, everyone sorted behind his own proper border, everyone knowing his place, with no struggle, no change, no life? That wouldn’t be only the end of history, but its death—”
“—Just as dead as Kant’s perpetual peace, and not that different. Sofia, do you think I disagree? But you—”
“And the Székely—your own people—should they be turned out of Romania to make it a pure Romanian state? Czartorisky supported a Pannonian Autonomous Zone, even though he would have been appalled at any parallels here—”
“Yes, and I support the Autonomous Zone as well, and I would not reject the idea of other such regions here. His project is not mine, and you are being unjust. I’m not aiming at anything so hallucinatory as ethnic purity. Do you think I read Herder and tremble with longing?. That’s not the point, and you know it too; I’m not such a fool. And I’m not attempting some kind of cultural Magyarization either. The Orthodox churches are open and thriving, and so are the synagogues and mosques. I’m aiming at creating a polity, with the peoples who have been given to me, all of them, doing as best as I can for them. What else can I do, for all the barbs of the journalists, and their tears?”
“Oh by all means, let’s discuss what you did to those two French journalists. The good of the many can’t be bought at the expense of the pain of the few, inflicted however unjustly. You’re no utilitarian, Székely, whatever else you are.”
“I don’t claim it can. But neither are you a utilitarian, to think that the good can only come from the most immediate and lowest pleasure and the least pain. You know better than that, Dr. Adams. There is a good that can come out of pain, even good for the one who suffers it. Only slaves think otherwise. It is not pleasant for the little girl to practice the piano, but she becomes a woman who plays—I will say it—magnificently. Don’t speak to me as though you didn’t know this.”
“You were at the house-concert on Sunday?” Her face felt hot.
“I was. Your ambassador invited me; he knows my appreciation of such things. The Erlkönig: a very interesting choice. But Schubert and Goethe both would be on my side in this, you know: both the excellence of the person and the common good can require measures which are not in their first experience pleasant.”
“But the good of public tranquility doesn’t outweigh the need for justice—how can you say that imprisoning those journalists was anything but cynical raison d’état? There’s no common good without justice.”
“What duty towards them have I failed to carry out? They served the minimum term to which they could have been sentenced, and have been released, sent back to Paris with a little light martyrdom to their credit. I’m sure they’ll make good use of it. You filed a piece, I believe, two nights ago, reporting on my talk at the conference in very inflammatory terms. And having gathered information, somehow, to which I myself did not have access, which I find concerning … If I were to apply the law against subversion to you—which you have on my soil now, arguably, violated—in what duty towards you would I be failing? Have you a ‘right to free speech,’ all of a sudden, which you’re going to begin to whine about? Don’t disappoint me, Sofia. Is not the repayment of a debt just? Isn’t justice giving to everybody what she is due? And what would you be due, having endangered the order of my country by your reckless moralizing against my measures? What would be my duty towards you?”
“You know I wouldn’t claim a right to free speech in those terms. You’re dodging. You’ve done little enough, so far to shift Czartorisky’s model—cruelty was part of statecraft for him; you’ve reformed that but not renounced it.”
“Who are you—Judith Shklar? Are kindness and cruelty your only two poles? You know that there are other goods than kindness. You know that the good is not always the nice.”
“And maybe my criticism, too, is of the nature of pain that aims at a good. I don’t think you’d have sought me out at the conference if I’d been one of the Junior League Ann Coulter knockoffs who wrote fangirl pieces at The Unionist about Czartorisky for his whole term.”
“Yes. I also know that the easiest way is not always the best, and that being surrounded by advisors who only agree, who make no protest, has been the downfall of many a magistrate. And anyway, what sport is there in that? No … if you had been one of them, Sofia, you most certainly would not be here now. I also know that my good does not lie along the path of least resistance.” He took a breath. “But—détente. This is not what you came here for, and your glass is empty. May I?”
She nodded, her head spinning, and he filled it again, and his own. “The book.”
“Mendoza. Yes, it’s right here.” He unlocked a drawer in the desk, brought out a box of buff book-board, with red ties, put it on the table in front of the couch. “You’ll want to take some time with this, I imagine. Feel free.”
She put down her glass on the side table, far from the book; sat down. Untied the cords, let the book-board fall flat out of its box shape. The codex inside was bound in dark leather, the title stamped in gold. Unconsciously, she rubbed her hands on the skirt of her dress, and touched the leather gently. She took off her shrug—it was warm enough, now—and balled it up into a makeshift book-rest, letting the cover fall open on it. Paged through to the title page, automatically making mental notes of the typography and materials.
“This—thank you. I may need to come back tomorrow, if it’s really alright with you. Obviously to deal with it properly would take much longer, though.… My flight back is on Saturday. How did you come to have it, anyway?”
“Well, apparently he was staying in my family’s country place when he was writing it. Billeted there, the story is, unofficially, at the bidding of Ferdinand III. This was 1640, through the early part of ’41, or thereabouts. The family are descendents of Corvinus, you see, though a cadet branch; children of the Hunyadi, and there was always the worry that we would get irritated with the Habsburgs and become ambitious.”
“Irritated with the Habsburgs—God forbid. So he was a spy?”
“That is a blunt way of putting it. But a scholar, of course, and so he made good use of his time there, and completed the draft of his Politica; my ancestor had a very small run printed and bound. He took the manuscript with him when he left, of course, but the Count kept one of the bound copies.”
“And you said there were additions in this version? Things he edited out later?”
“Yes, and which he had only learned as he was staying at Székely Var.”
“What are they? I mean—what will I find?”
“Would you like me to tell you, or would you like to read for yourself?”
“Tell me. I’ll read for myself also, but tell me.”
“All right. But I do ask as well that you spend the time on the text. It has had very few readers, over the centuries, and even fewer close readers.”
“Of—of course. You know I will. You said you were planning to have the book scanned? That would be helpful, if you could have those scans sent to me—it will take much longer than I’ll have here, obviously.”
“It is time you should take, in my judgment, given your interests. And you’re not teaching next semester.”
She started. “How do you know that?”
“Dr. Adams!” He was affronted. “I do command the intelligence apparatus, such as it is, of a medium-sized Central European country, after all. The identification of upcoming sabbaticals is in fact within our capacity, as making an educated guess about a political philosopher’s research trajectory is within my own.”
She looked at him warily. “You know this particular text is … well, I would be … extremely grateful for those scans.”
“There are things that can’t be learned from scans,” he said, looking at the book as it lay, open, on the table, “ways of reading that take a more direct engagement … Still. This is the outline: you know his method: he was, as best he could, imitating Aristotle, examining the various political arrangements and modes of rule throughout Europe, to try to tease out what he understood as the underlying structure of the jus publicum Europaeum, the common law, founded on what he described as jus symbiotica, symbiotic right. He was a good-enough Catholic, but he had been reading Althusius nevertheless; he thought him a legitimate development of the Thomistic tradition, for all he was of the Reformed church.”
“Well, so do I, as you know. But Althusius didn’t quite have the scope that he had.”
“It was an ambitious project. He has a systematizing mind. And no one since has had access to the … specialized research that Mendoza did.”
“So what was it he found here? What were the sections that he edited out?”
“Well. He had the peculiarities of his hermeticism, with all its obsession with numerology: he’d read in Laertius that Aristotle had chronicled the political arrangements of 158 cities, though of course only the Constitution of Athens survives. He seems to have been convinced that, just as the tradition says that there are either precisely seventy or seventy-seven true nations, true ethne, there are precisely 158 different basic forms of political arrangement—he includes leagues and federations and treaties as well as cities and states; he’s not aiming only at listing what were arguably complete communities.”
“Of course—he counts the cantons of the Swiss as one form and their Republic as another; and he includes ten kinds of wartime alliance and ten kinds of peace settlement … but in the Politica as we have it, there are—I think there are 150? I remember someone hypothesizing that he was going according to the number of the Psalms …”
“He had documented 150 before he came here. Here, he found … well, other forms.”
“What other forms?”
He stood up, restless all of a sudden, moving over to the desk, lightly touching the globe in its stand as he passed it; picking up an antler-handled knife from where it sat ready to open letters.
“Pannonia has had, for her whole history, what I would describe as an unusually cordial and orderly political relationship with a variety of … you could call them non-state actors. When I halted the persecution of the Rom, the gypsies, that had been going on under Czartorisky, I was only acting in that tradition, really. One of the political forms Mendoza documented was the alliance we have—and had—with the Rom. It’s a shame, really, that he felt the need to edit that one out: It was the Empire and then later the national government that was responsible for breaking those terms, that form of symbiotic right. I sometimes wonder whether, if Mendoza’s Politica had included what he wrote about that form of alliance, the Habsburgs and the nationalists might have taken good counsel from it.”
“But you said there were 158 forms … ? He would have been looking for more?”
“Yes.” He tested the point of the knife against his fingertip, put it down, looked up at her. “He found them.”
There was a pause, and she met his eyes; he was looking at her with … she wasn’t sure. Something like trepidation. Something like hope. And something else.
“What are they?”
“Well. There’s another group, or rather, a series of peoples, which, not unlike the gypsies, has its own parallel political existence, its own order.”
“There are many names for them, of course. And it’s usually best not to say any of those names, and so I won’t. But our tradition—the tradition of my family, which Mendoza observed, as well as that of several of the other families in Pannonia, and in Austria, and in the Germanies, and elsewhere—was to treat with them, and to cement that alliance by fostering. Every time it was practical, the eldest son of one of their own four high families here was fostered in in one of ours, whenever there was an eldest son of one of our families to be fostered in return. Often, each would take a woman from the house or city of the other to wife; and so peace was maintained.”
“Are you talking about—”
“Have a care. As I say, it is better that you don’t speak any of the names that you could, of that people. They are sensitive to the sound of the name of their kind, as well as to their own personal, family, and tribal names, and would hear.”
She walked over to the window, looking out on the city, as electrified and modernized as Vienna, now. The differences that remained, the mark left by communism, were invisible in the dark: the Schönbrunner Gelb of Sicambria’s public buildings was a trifle shabbier than on those of Vienna; the shop signs in Pannonian and in a sort of generalized Romance language that could be Latin or Spanish or something in between. From the window, here, in the upper city, perched on the higher west bank of the river, she could see down into the touristy blaze on the other side. St. Istvan’s, and the Christmas market in front of the Basilica, awash in strings of white lights; the opera house; the restored buildings of the inner city. Between the two lay the river, the moon’s path reflecting on it, the three bridges, traced with light, delicate chains linking the two cities. Faintly, the red port light of a tug pushing a barge upriver. The fire behind her was burning lower, and she could smell the smoke. She took another sip of wine.
“And this is what Mendoza wrote?”
“He spoke to the then-Count at great length, and he made many other acquaintances in that house, as well, who were uniquely helpful. What he learned about, and what he described, was an elaborate structure of law and treaty, which had developed, primarily after Romulus Augustus’s deposition, in parallel with the laws and treaties of Charlemagne’s Empire and the lands beyond—into the Ottoman Empire; in England and particularly in Ireland. He found, among the twenty-odd tribes of this people, precisely three political forms: thus, documenting them, plus their league amongst themselves, plus the three kinds of covenant that each had with—well, with their local … exoteric, shall we say … political community, would bring his work to numerological completeness, would get him to 158. That convinced him that he was right about his whole scheme. It seems a bit of a stretch, to me; most particularly because he threw in two dozen or so political forms from Africa and India and East Asia, and even two from the Americas, but it’s absurd to think that he had enough knowledge to make some kind of actual global survey; it was always much more useful as a document of the political forms of, more or less, Christendom plus a decent bite of the Muslim world. But then I was never very convinced even by Bad Uncle Leo’s numerology.”
She laughed, shakily. “Nor should you be. So … what happened? Why did he edit out those sections? And when?”
“Well, first of all, he was, for all he was a Christian and a hermeticist and a humanist, also a diplomat. And what he saw was not just the full flowering of this system, this common law of the whole of Europe, both above and below, but also the beginning of its breach. He edited those sections out after 1648, when he saw what had happened.”
“Westphalia …” she whispered.
His eyes were, in the firelight, shadowed. “The Peace was not signed with those—those peoples. They were not invited to the negotiations. The diplomats of Westphalia were … not in all cases acquainted with their existence, and where they were, they had no room for them in the system they were creating. One of the few exceptions was Bernardino de Rebolledo, whose aide Mendoza was; but his word was not enough to convince the great powers that delegations from those other peoples should be invited. And in many cases he dared not even bring up the idea: Axel Oxenstierna had vowed himself and his line to destroy those peoples where he could, and the only thing staying his son’s hand was that, rationalist that he was, he didn’t believe they existed, and the papal nuncio convinced Bernardino that Count Johan should be kept in ignorance. His father’s sword had shed enough of those peoples’ blood, in service to Queen Christina …”
“Do they bleed?” She asked it in a low voice. “Reports differ, after all.”
“Oh, they bleed, Sofia; they do bleed. The world of the Westphalian system is a brutal simplification, which incorporated the brutality it sought to eradicate … It is the understanding of Pannonia as a nation-state in that sense that has been the hardest to undo, in the new regime.”
“That could be the title of a piece,” she said, absently, finishing the second glass of wine. “It should be, if you ever wanted to write this. ‘A Brutal Simplification.’ For American Convictions, maybe. Except that it’s an explicitly anti-nationalist position … But you can’t have a polity in an international system based on the nation-state that refuses that framework, can you? What is it you think you’re trying to do, anyway? … TAL might take it.” He filled her glass, and his own. “And after the Peace?”
“He hid them. He was afraid—he had served in the New World, you see, in Florida and then in Mexico. He had seen the sociedad de castas, that insane rationalization of the mixing of peoples, with its obsessive concern for limpieza de sangre; he’d seen the particular distortion of soul which that caused, in everyone involved. And he was afraid. He hid word of them, and of their laws, and of the friendships we’d had, and the family lines that had intertwined, by editing them out of the final edition, the one that’s come down to scholars. He tracked down every copy of that first printed edition he could, and burned them; my ancestor’s was the one he could not get his hands on. And as time went by, more and more people forgot, or misunderstood, or didn’t realize what it was that they knew … The forgetting was so quick. Within a generation and a half, the only people who remembered were the religious orders—mostly Jesuits—who had some of those people as catechumens, or who were ministering to the families and tribes among them who had already been received into the Church—and grandmothers telling stories.”
“They were—you’re saying there are Catholics among them?”
“The fruit of the Counter-Reformation. Until then they had been unconverted. There’s a tract by St. Francis de Sales in the Vatican library calling the Church’s neglect of their evangelization a scandal, implying that the Lutheran schism was in part God’s judgment on that negligence … In any case, when the Grimms came around asking questions, a century and a half later, there were so few who could tell them what they were looking for, and most of those unwilling to talk—and even fewer were the families who still would honor the terms of the fostering.”
“Fostering is not the way it is told, you know.”
“No, well, of course when so many of the old families forgot, these other people did not forget. And so they would … you might say, unilaterally foster.”
“Kidnap children, and leave in their place—”
“Leave their own children, to be raised. But again, they don’t think the way men do, not entirely. If a child is not watched over, before his baptism or his circumcision, by the women of the house, that child may be taken, and one of their children left. In the same way, they don’t consider that they are stealing cattle, if they take a cow that has wandered outside its fence, and has no brand. If the farmer has failed in his duty to the animal, failed to effectively establish his ownership through appropriate signs, then that beast is in the commons, and may be taken by one who would establish more effective ownership and make better use of it. If a girl is let by her father, a woman let by her husband, to wander the hills or the town, she is likewise, in a very technical sense, fair game. They never—well, very rarely—do what in their own eyes is illegal, or even unjust. Still, with the changelings, that was never what they wanted. But some of the high families of those peoples believed that such children, when they were grown, would at the least be the basis for a future of open diplomacy, of a reintegration of these two Europes.”
“Has it worked? John Milbank certainly seems to be setting great hopes on it.”
“Ah—he’s going to get himself in trouble on Twitter, one of these days, speaking out of turn … I will have a word with him.”
“Hah. Good luck.”
“It won’t be the first such case. My great-grandfather had to have a word with Kantorowicz after he got hold of the original manuscript of the Frederick II biography.”
“What, he’d included a map showing under precisely which peak in the Kyffhäuser Mountains he’s asleep?”
“It wasn’t quite that heavy handed. But he was persuaded to make some edits, for the sake of prudence.”
“Interfering with scholarship. Lovely family tradition.”
“Asking scholars to consider the ethical implications of their work is hardly oppressive. Academic freedom doesn’t free one from the burden of tact for the sake of the common weal, and asking Milbank to think before he tweets is hardly the coercion of the academy. But you had asked whether the strategy was working, this cobbled-together hidden diplomacy, the continuation of fostering by other means.”
“It has provided the basis for continuity, when the time comes, I think. The unofficial honors and dignities we have been able to extend to each other, the quiet exchanges we have been able to make with each other, have helped as well. It was those people, you know, who hid our Jewish children, during the War. The Jewish children of Sicambria, and of much of the rest of Pannonia. Can you guess how it was done?”
“I forfeit my guesses. Tell me.”
“One of their musicians piped them away from their parents’ houses, over the course of one night. This was June of ’44, before the coup, but when the deportations began. The parents didn’t know for certain what had happened, but rumors spread, for whatever degree of comfort they afforded, after the SS came the following day. They hid them until February of ’45, when it was safe for them to come out of the mountain. Often they ended up in refugee camps, of course, and it was a brutal slog to try to find what families remained for them, mostly in America and England, by that point. My great-grandfather spent a good fifteen years of his life in that work.”
“How—how decent of them.”
“Well, don’t get too excited. Almost universally, opinion in the high families of those people was on the side of Pius IX in the Mortara case. They’re legalists, you see. The Mortara boy’s illness had occasioned what would otherwise be an overstep by his nursemaid, but her actions in the moment were just. And then the boy had been baptized, and so he belonged to the Pope. It’s the way their minds work, you know.”
“Do I—do I know that?”
“Well, think about what you know about people like this, however distorted the stories. Beauty’s father plucks a rose and owes the Beast either his life or his daughter. Tam Lin owns lands, and any woman who rides across them without leave owes him her debt; he himself is doomed as a tithe to the underworld, but may be redeemed if the mother of his child holds on to him through all his transformations. Thomas the Rhymer takes the dare of the lady in the green mantle and kisses her, and is stolen away; he’s given the gift of prophecy and the curse of being unable to lie, and the lady is very concerned to get him back home before the seven-years’ tithe to the underworld comes due again. Persephone eats six pomegranate seeds and she must, legally, stay with Hades six months of the year. So often, people don’t know what they’re doing … But there are, of course, plenty of obligations which we have to which we do not consent under what you might call conditions of perfect dispassionate lucidity. But when do such conditions obtain? Should I ask whether this is the system that I would have established if, behind the veil of ignorance, I had not known whether I would be born one of them or one of us?”
“Please,” she said, half laughing, “no Rawls, you’ve made your point. As though we can be other than we are—”
“—or can know or should know our ‘oughts’ separately from the ties that already bind us, the obligations under which we find ourselves …”
“But what you are describing is not the obligation of—of a child to his parents, or of you to your ruler even if you don’t vote for him—you’re describing obligations that bind because of … something like a violation of a law.”
“A violation of a law, in some cases; the acceptance of a gift, in others; failure to guess a guessable riddle; the details differ. There are several ways that a right of that kind can be established. They could have known, should have known, all of them, if they had paid attention; paying attention to the stories, and to the laws in stories, is part of prudence, part of wisdom, and those who neglect that prudence pay the price. Persephone should have realized; and the law is what it is, whether we will or no, whether we have agreed to it or no, and where that writ runs, under the mountain and under the city, it insists on its rights.”
“Why then did they help hide the Jews? How did they understand what they were doing?”
“I will not say there was no kindness. They have kindness, that people, of their own kind; you would experience it as capricious, I think. Their kindness and cruelty are both driven by their desires, which are insistent. What is not caprice, with them, is the obligations they take on. They understood the courts and cities of Europe as having extended guest-friendship to Jews, over several centuries, which had been accepted, and so primarily saw the Nazi regime as a violation of the law of hospitality. They took up and, in the one small instance of this city, fulfilled that obligation of hospitality, which the descendents of the Westphalian system had violated. It was a bit like buying and paying off a debt. And of course by ’44, Sicambria and its suburbs had taken in Jewish refugees from Germany, from Austria—at least eight thousand from Slovakia alone; and their children too followed the Piper that night. And so that debt they bought was held against those countries too, not Pannonia alone. There were other instances of rescues of this kind, usually of children, in other cities. Not in Vienna, though.… The Nazi government tried very hard to cover them up.
“That gives them … well, the power it gives those people over the Westphalians, especially over the Germans, and over the United Nations, from which they were also excluded, they have only begun to exercise. They play a very long game, these people, and they take the law of hospitality very, very seriously indeed. When two of their lords of equal rank meet, they will dine together and drink together in a common place, in a field or in a public house—restaurants are extremely useful for this.”
“It seems so urban.”
“Those people are no more rural than yours are, Dr. Adams. As often will they live under a city as under a mountain, although—under is a crude way of putting it. In between is more accurate. When they live under a mountain, that mountain is bigger on the inside. In a city, they will live in the interstices, the places that are unnamed by the civic authorities, that are not on the common maps. You might think of their city houses as embassies, places where their law and not the law of the host city commands.”
“And they would never receive each other in such embassies?”
“Not where any bargain was to be made, certainly. Not where there were stakes. For one to be received by another in his house would be for the guest to accept his host’s lordship, to bind himself. Thus, the importance of the public sphere, physical public spaces. All exchanges must be equal, for them, and on neutral territory; the same goes for treaties and agreements between our two peoples. That’s why the fostering of children always happens when two boys who are more or less agemates are available to be exchanged equally; the boys are brought up to take each other’s place and avocate, either overtly or covertly, for their own people in the other’s courts. The way it worked before Westphalia, and the way it may work again, is that that embassy is known, at least to some, and serves the good of both; there can be, there has been, a true common good between both.
“But, as I say, it must be an equal exchange. They have something of the same understanding of information exchanged. Where hospitality is accepted only on one side, or where information is given only on one side, another kind of bond is formed. To give information is to indebt the recipient, with a very specific set of ways that that debt may be repaid. To offer hospitality is to offer protection and to be bound to extend it; to accept it is to receive that offer of protection, and to be bound to the rule of the house.”
She looked at the book, open, on the table in front of her. She looked at her wine, the third glass nearly gone, its lees red in the firelight. She looked up at his eyes.
“Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes—” She whispered it, like a question, like a gambit—“Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,/This bird of dawning singeth all night long;/And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;/the nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,/no—” she broke off.
He smiled, almost sadly. “A valiant attempt. He knew a thing or two, that Bard of yours. But ah, Sofia—you Americans, always rushing things! It’s not Christmastide, not yet. It is, still, Advent.”
Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. She is an editor at Mere Orthodoxy, Plough Quarterly, Ad Fontes, and Fare Forward. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.