Mór Jókai: War’s patriotic pelf: a slaughtered army tells no tales
From God is One (1876)
Translated by Percy Favor Bicknell
The mysterious workings of the commissary department are beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. Therefore let it suffice us to take only a passing glance at those mysteries.
Benjamin Vajdar was enjoying a tête-à-tête with the Marchioness Caldariva after the theatre.
“Well, what has my cripple to report of his day’s doings?” asked Rozina. “Is all going well in Italy?”
“We signed a contract to-day for supplying our army there with forty thousand cattle,” was Vajdar’s reply.
“Ah, that will make about two hundredweight of beef to a man,” returned the other, reckoning on her fingers.
“Not an ounce of which will ever reach them,” said the secretary, with a smile; “but we shall make a couple of millions out of the transaction, – a mere bagatelle for Papa Cagliari, however; not enough to keep him in champagne.”
“A very clever stroke of yours,” commented the marchioness, with approval; “and I can tell you of another little operation the prince has in hand just now. Bring me the morocco pocketbook out of my writing-desk, please.”
Vajdar limped across the room and brought the pocketbook. Rozina opened it and drew forth an official-looking document.
“Here is a contract for so and so many bushels of grain to be furnished to the army. You see it foots up a large sum, but the profits won’t be so very great, after all, owing to the recent rise in prices on the corn exchange.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” interposed Benjamin, with a knowing smile. “Who will ever know the difference if a quarter part of the total weight is chaff and clay? It will all grind up into excellent flour, and when the soldier eats his barley bread or his rye loaf it will taste all the better to him. There is nearly half a million florins’ clear profit in the transaction, at a moderate estimate.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” laughed the beautiful Cyrene. “So the soldiers must eat half a million florins’ worth of chaff and clay to enable Papa Cagliari to take his morning bath in champagne.”
“Well, what of that? It makes, at most, only two florins’ worth to a man, and the soldier who loves his country ought to be glad to eat two florins’ worth of her soil. Has the prince any other contract under consideration?”
“Yes, a very important one. He has procured an order that the troops in Italy shall wear for their summer uniform cotton blouses instead of linen, and he has the contract for furnishing the material.”
“But the prices named here are very low,” objected Vajdar, reading from the paper Rozina had handed him.
“Ah, but let me explain. The cotton is to be thirty inches wide, with so and so many threads to the warp – according to the specifications. But what soldier will ever think of counting the threads in his blouse, or know whether it was cut from goods thirty inches wide or twenty-eight? So, you see, with a little trimming here and a little paring there we can make a good hundred thousand florins out of the job.”
“But are our tracks well covered? Is there no risk in all this?”
“Fear nothing. There are eyeglasses that blind the sharpest of eyes.”
“How if there are some eyes that will not be fitted with these glasses?”
“Again I say, never fear. A victorious campaign covers a multitude of sins.”
“And a lost one brings everything to light.”
“Not at all. A slaughtered army tells no tales…”