The train halted, various railway-station noises sounded and additional passengers grappled into the carriage. The Soldier, dozing in the half-empty train, looked up irritably and took his feet off the seat opposite. The other four soldiers heading for Prague also came-to and straightened up a little. The soldier didn't know the other four, they were from different formations and forces, they had first met on the train, and whilst the solidarity of a common fate united them enough to share a compartment, they did not chat much. It was likely that of the five, some were travelling to Prague without leave, and in the mental climate of Cepicka's army, where grassing was encouraged, and rewarded, it was preferable not to exchange information for this- that- and a host of other obvious reasons.
The Soldier had come the furthest on this train, almost from the border, and so had the most comfy seat by the window, but he was also the most worn out and aching from the juddering journey. He whiled away his time lazily watching the passing landscape, snoozing and smoking, in daydreams and insubstantial deliberations.
From time to time he spoke tersely with the other soldiers, to make it seem less like he was becoming aloof or something. He wasn't on leave, he was going for a check-up on his lungs at Hradcany, seeing as he had been coughing and losing weight for some time now, with subfebrile temperatures toward evening. It had been a protracted business, after the initial assumption that he was trying it on they admitted him to the sick-bay, then they examined him in the district military hospital, where they confirmed he was trying it on - and then despite the negative findings of the military experts he kept on coughing and wasting away, stoking up his furnace for the evening, until finally the unit's doctor, postgraduate Platoon Commander Hrachovina, got the brilliant idea that Private Parma might have something wrong with his lungs and referred him to the central military tuberculosis unit in Prague, Hradcany. Mushypeas, to translate his name, was later to become a consultant at the town of Most, so let it be known hereafter that incompetent doctors are not exclusive to English-speaking countries, albeit probably more numerous there percentage wise. So what? After all, it was the aforementioned mushy peas that had differed from the other higher-ranking health-chiefs and reached the correct and blindingly obvious diagnostic hypothesis, thus attaining the status of the proverbial one-eyed among the military medical institute of the blind. Idiocy has a long tradition in military medicine for all that, as shown by the Good Soldier Schweik, and less blatantly in other gems of Czech literature.
Given the context of these semi-catholic tales let me say I always wondered how someone bleeding to death could consummate a catholic marriage, and by all accounts with a virgin bride, as one reads George and Angela doing in the closing chapter of Wandering, penned by the military doctor and Colonel of the Medical Corps, Jaroslav Durych. The relevant mechanism in Homo Sapiens is, as well known, dependent on bloodflow, as opposed to, say, a drone bee's pneumatic equipment, so that a shortage of blood equates to non-performance, the body in its wisdom having a hierarchy of priorities, something a doctor, irrespective of religious persuasion and military rank ought to know, surely.
Let us not digress, however.
Private Parma enjoyed a smoke here and there on his journey, even though he knew he probably had something wrong with his lungs. Apart from being a compulsive smoker, who couldn't stop, he was resigned to things: you might say that Parma was a bit of a desperado. His life, once full of promise, had received such a blow from the Comrades for no reason at all that he almost didn't care whether he would live on, or otherwise. From this we may conclude that Parma was a kind of wimp, for he had not been in a concentration camp, no, not even conscripted to the Black Barons, but serving with the ordinary infantry, and all the commies had done so far belonged to the sphere of class-deposal, in his case relatively humanely delivered. He had no cause for despair, not he. But some people are just spoilt, aren't they.
As for the illness itself, Parma was ailing with neither tuberculosis, nor cancer, but mere psittacosis. Parrot-disease had established itself in his lungs causing a mild and chronic pneumonia. He had not cought this disease from parrots, as the name would suggest, but rather from hens, more exactly from a hen-house, out of which he had at one time been shelling the enemy with blanks, on military exercises.
However, none of this is known at the time of these events to those in question.
Back to the here and now, with the train stopped and the peasants pouring in, Parma grudgingly taking his feet off the seat opposite and sitting up a little. On the formerly empty seat opposite appeared a number of uneventful figures of a markedly agricultural disposition, with their typical visages and distinct sweat-and-manure pong. There was some crone in a shawl with a vaguely russety-haired nine-or-so year old girl and a cardboard box, from which a hen's head was scouting about, then a wisened old man whose face resembled a drying pippin with hands huge and hard-laboured, like the front paws of a molerat.
In his toothless jaws he held a pipe made from some knobbly or knotty wood, reminiscent of the style of Auguste Rodin. He did not smoke it, he just sucked on it from time to time, cold. Either he was too poor for tobacco, or too senile to remember to light it. The pipe, in all its carbuncledness complemented the little old man exceptionally well.
Grannie and Niece sat by the window, opposite Parma, the knotty Old Man settled down at the other end, so he could prop himself against the corner.
The middle of the bench seat was free.
So the last passenger looking for an empty seat sat there, diagonally to the right of Parma, yet more or less facing him. He, too, seemed rather rustic and quite nondescript at first. Parma, who was already dreamily nodding off paid no attention to him.
The train jolted and monotonously shunted along through sad and uninteresting countryside. It was overcast and felt kind of inhospitable.
A little later Parma woke from his slumberings with the feeling that he was being intently watched by the man opposite. He turned toward him and watched him back.
The Man was indeterminate in age, grimly grey-dressed. He seemed slightly bowed over, a mild hunchback, but solidly built, like a dwarf grown larger-than-life. He had a fleshy, hard-to-describe face with a long, broad and entirely straight nose, full lips and a strong jawline. His forehead made a kind of overhang above the nose, like a cliff, but not like the usual eyebrow ridges some men have. The forehead seemed smoothly massive, definitely like an overhanging rock. The Man was a dark brunetto with unhealthily yellowing skin. Curiously out-of-keeping with the generally countrified impression was that he had no sun-tan. He might well be a shopkeeper or artisan who spent most of his time indoors, in some little shop or workshop, most probably a little below ground. His cheeks and chin were strongly blue-tainted by a dense but clean-shaven beard. He had straight dense black eyebrows, apparently grown together in the middle but shaved above the nose, to remove and mask the fact. His eyes, black, deep-set and far apart were fixed hard on Parma. It seemed he never blinked. At first Parma just found it a bit odd but soon the man's fixed gaze became unpleasant. He felt an Anxiety, a fear of something unknown, yet clearly belligerent, while at the same time his head felt oddly dizzy. His field of vision was closing in, as if it was already dusk inside the train, by now all he could see clearly was the Man's face and all else receded into mist.
He remembered something he'd once been told by an occultist, that to protect yourself against the Evil Eye, something the occultist firmly believed in, all you had to do was clench your thumbs in your palms: apparently this broke some biomagnetic loops or indeed closed them, or something - Parma didn't remember that part. At the time, listening to such spiel had made him laugh, but now it seemed the situation had arisen and the time had come to try it out, so why not.
He gripped his thumbs firmly in his hands. Maybe it was just self-delusion or maybe he really had closed some circuits - but the relief he felt was immediate.
The anxiety stopped, his head no longer felt light and dizzy, the train was well lit once again. He now looked back at the evil little man boldly, almost provocatively, placing his palms in his lap so the hunchback could see them. On the Man's face appeared an almost imperceptible smile, that of a chessplayer acknowledging his opponent's counter-move. Parma suddenly felt protected, covered by some kind of invisible bell the hunchback couldn't penetrate, despite probing its perimeter.
Whereas before he couldn't take his eyes off the man he now calmly leant against the table and gazed out of the window, where an everyday Czech landscape passed by, passably interesting. His hands were still held tightly shut around his thumbs. But the evil-eyed hunchback was not giving up easily. Parma could feel him locked on with his piercing eyes, soundlessly pleading and dictating: "Open your palms, open your palms, you must open your palms." Parma heard nothing, but felt the man's mental contents titrating into himself, the man's slow, indomitably steely will.
"I will not, I will not open," Parma kept saying to himself. This battle of wills took up some indeterminate time, reminding Parma of a tug-of-war, or holding back a door against an outside intruder. Nonsense, he wanted to tell himself, I must be cracking up, there simply is no such thing - hypnosis is a scientifically recognised fact but requires direct verbal suggestion - never have I read or heard - on the contrary I have read a direct refutation that will could impact directly on will, mind on mind, without words, with no intermediary physical agent - but the feeling that the hunchback is soundlessly speaking to him, merely by act of consciousness, by act of will is quite evident and concrete. If so, the Hunchback was able to influence Parma even now, while Parma was looking out of the window, so one didn't even need eye-contact with the evil eyes for the purpose. Parma was sweating, but continued to resist and nothing more happened for ages. Some time later, it seemed the Hunchback changed tactics:
Parma started to feel a desire to smoke. In order to light up and evacuate a cigarette he'd logically have to release the magic lock. Parma therefore decided to postpone smoking indefinitely. He was a habitual smoker yes, but not yet so far gone that he couldn't deny himself a cigarette if need be. Like most people he withstood the urge to smoke in the theatre, at a concert, in church etc., these days, as a soldier, for two hours at a stretch when on guard duty - when he did sneak a smoke on duty it was just daredevilry, to show to himself and others that military rules and regulations are all the same to him, that he's not afraid of being found out; but once he had showed his mettle this way he saw no reason needlessly to keep tempting fate. He managed not to smoke on guard duty for a couple of hours - it isn't further than a couple of hours to Prague - even if the hunchback were to keep them company till then. But the craving to smoke grew stronger and stronger. It was bigger and bigger, gigantic, horrific, never in his life had he wanted to smoke this desperately. Oh - to reach into the pocket, take the pouch out, the feeling of the thin paper sliver between the fingers, to light, to inhale, that sensuous light scratching in the bronchi - and all of it within reach! - bah, it's all nonsense anyway, there's no evil-eyed hunchback, what am I worried about? It's all imbecility, old wives tales, childishness - here I am needlessly smacking my lips for the sake of some crazy, imagined sensations. My imagination is playing tricks, my fantasy is loose, that's all it is! So what if it isn't - I want to smoke more than anything, that's that - to hell with the little creep!
While he was thinking like this, he sensed tobacco for real. Right under his nose was an open packet of twenty, enclosed in a large black-haired hand. "Here you are, Soldier, take a smoke!"
Like a man stupefied Parma opened the magic grip and reached for a cigarette. The Hunchback offered him a light and his black eyes shone with mirth. He had won.
It appeared that from that moment Parma was truly in some kind of hypnotic trance, because in his later attempts to reconstruct events he found the time interval between lighting the cigarette and the train stopping seemed to be missing from his memory.
The train slowly came to a halt. They were in a sizeable town. The Hunchback got up.
"Come" he prompted. Parma followed him, sheep-like, zombified.
He had no idea why he was doing it, he had no awareness that he was supposed to be going on all the way to Prague. He would have left his belt and cap on the train, the Hunchback had to point them out to him. Clearly he didn't want the attention of some officer drawn to a soldier not dressed by the rule book.
Like an imbecile, Parma followed the low-set, angular figure.
Out, along the corridor, the steps down off the train, the platform in the large buzzing railway hall under an enormous glass roof set on a cast-iron, ornamentally Austrian fin-de-siecle construction - further and further from the train they made their way through the crowd. The Hunchback weaving through, Parma behind him like an automaton.
They stopped at a refreshments kiosk. The Hunchback bought a bottle of beer, had the saleswoman open it for him and was offering it to Parma:
"Here y'are, Soldier, take a drink!"
But at that moment Parma stopped in his tracks. As the saleswoman lent forward something glinted in her cleavage and drew Parma's attention. The saleswoman was wearing a little cross, gold it may have been, gilded perhaps, or made of some yellow metal even. The image brought Parma round. Some vague ideative constellation was aroused in his mind, more a mélange of images and feelings than clear-cut thoughts, akin to that state just before sleep, just before waking or in a dream: indistinct, archetypal, childishly primitive and yet for all that, or because of that, clearly proper and true feelings and suspicions.
The sales-assistant was a young lass with light-coloured hair, blue eyes and a clean, regular-featured oval face. As she stood there next to the Hunchback the two of them seemed to embody an archetypal image, Angel & Devil, Light & Darkness, Good & Evil. On her neck the golden crucifix glistened - ho ho that fiendish gold so bright has sides that cut and points that bite - he recalled the fairytale of his childhood, the moral that one must never accept anything from creatures of darkness or they would gain power over you, he remembered the proferred and accepted cigarette, how the Hunchback had uttered the equivalent phrase: "Here you are, Soldier, take a smoke!", as now he was saying "Here y'are, Soldier, take a drink!". Like some kind of rite, just like those fairytales where things repeat with subtle changes, usually in threes. He sensed that until he accepted the third gift, which hovered waiting in the future, he'd still be able to back out, but if he accepted the second he would enter deeper into the fiendish little man servitude than he was into already, having taken the first offering.
He didn't know why, he just felt it. All of this and much more, albeit indecipherable and condensed shot through Parma's mind in the brief instant between the flash of the cross and the opened bottle advancing: "Here y'are, Soldier, take a drink!"
Parma did not extend his hand for the bottle, instead he stepped back. Something was struggling to the surface of his befuddled mind, some long-buried recollection of something he had heard or read, once upon a time.
Parma signed a large cross in the air before the Man and, as in a dream, recited:
Ecce crucem Domini,
fugite partes adversae!
Vincit Leo de tribu Juda,
radix David, alleluia!
The bottle smashed on the concrete platform, the glass and beer splattering all around.
When Parma looked up from the shattered bottle, the man wasn't there any longer.
Parma felt suddenly awoken from a dream.
Looking up he noticed the conductor whistling at the head of his train, now about to leave. He ran towards it on unsteady legs and had barely jumped on when the train started moving.
Parma walked through the train searching for the compartment where he had been sitting, for only now did he recall the briefcase with his things for the hospital that he had left there. He meandered through the passages and opened doors with his arms extended before him like a somnambulist.
And as he was coming to his senses, so his former scepticism began to make a comeback: Why had he departed in the man's wake, he wondered, definitely not because of any hypnosis, there's hardly likely to be such a thing and if so, then he, Parma, is immune to it anyway. He stepped out onto the platform with the man because he wanted to buy a beer, pure and simple. But he didn't want the man to buy it for him, it got smashed in a fit of pique. And then there was no time - Parma had to come back quickly and get aboard so the train wouldn't leave without him.
Hypnosis dragging him off the train, indeed. Why would that man want to drag him off anyway, if he had wanted to, which he hadn't? What would he want with him, what would he need him for? Some kind of abuse? - Ridiculous, absurd! Orámaybe to murder him, like that Haarmann guy in Germany, so the story goes - Crap! Leave that to the Germans, or the English, or the French but definitely not to the Czechs! Triple crap! Or maybe to make him commit some crime by hypnosis? How stupid. That just doesn't happen, except in pulp fiction. -
So - because the man had no earthly credible motive it follows that he did not drag Parma out anyhow and anywhere, not least because he could not manage such a thing, no way. It had been an attack of queasiness - from - from the heat - he's weakened, after all, that's why they're sending him to the hospital. But he went out onto the platform of his own free will, to get a beer. That's what happened and no mistake. No bullshit!
Finally he found the compartment he'd been sitting in. He'd almost given up hope of finding them, so far forward, how very far back he'd followed that man.
"Aah, there you are, mate," the other soldiers greeted him.
"We were startin' to think we wouldn't see you again, thought the hunchback had whisked you off somewhere. Well, good riddance to him! The little prat had eyes like gimlets."