The scene is the Albrechtstrasse, the main artery of the capital, which runs from Albrechtsplatz and the Old Schloss to the barracks of the Fusiliers of the Guard. The time is noon on an ordinary week-day; the season of the year does not matter. The weather is fair to moderate. It is not raining, but the sky is not clear; it is a uniform light grey, uninteresting and sombre, and the street lies in a dull and sober light which robs it of all mystery, all individuality. There is a moderate amount of traffic, without much noise and crowd, corresponding to the not over-busy character of the town. Tram-cars glide past, a cab or two rolls by, along the pavement stroll a few residents, colourless folk, passers-by, the public—“people.”
Two officers, their hands in the slanting pockets of their grey great-coats, approach each other; a general and a lieutenant. The general is coming from the Schloss, the lieutenant from the direction of the barracks. The lieutenant is quite young, a mere stripling, little more than a child. He has narrow shoulders, dark hair, and the wide cheek-bones so common in this part of the world, blue rather tired-looking eyes, and a boyish face with a kind but reserved expression. The general has snow-white hair, is tall and broad-shouldered, altogether a commanding figure. His eyebrows look like cotton-wool, and his moustache hangs right down over his mouth and chin. He walks with slow deliberation, his sword rattles on the asphalt, his plume flutters in the wind, and at every step he takes the big red lapel of his coat flaps slowly up and down.
And so these two draw near each other. Can this rencontre lead to any complication? Impossible. Every observer can foresee the course this meeting will naturally take. We have on one side and the other age and youth, authority and obedience, years of services and docile apprenticeship—a mighty hierarchical gulf, rules and prescriptions, separate the two. Natural organization, take thy course! And, instead, what happens? Instead, the following surprising, painful, delightful, and topsy-turvy scene occurs.
The general, noticing the young lieutenant's approach, alters his bearing in a surprising manner. He draws himself up, yet at the same time seems to get smaller. He tones down with a jerk, so to speak, the splendour of his appearance, stops the clatter of his sword, and, while his face assumes a cross and embarrassed expression, he obviously cannot make up his mind where to turn his eyes, and tries to conceal the fact by staring from under his cotton-wool eyebrows at the asphalt straight in front of him.
The young lieutenant too betrays to the careful observer some slight embarrassment, which however, strange to say, he seems to succeed, better than the grey-haired general, in cloaking with a certain grace and self-command. The tension of his mouth is relaxed into a smile at once modest and genial, and his eyes are directed with a quiet and self-possessed calm, seemingly without an effort, over the general's shoulder and beyond.
By now they have come within three paces of each other. And, instead of the prescribed salute, the young lieutenant throws his head slightly back, at the same time draws his right hand—only his right, mark you—out of his coat-pocket and makes with this same white-gloved right hand a little encouraging and condescending movement, just opening the fingers with palm upwards, nothing more. But the general, who has awaited this sign with his arms to his sides, raises his hand to his helmet, steps aside, bows, making a half-circle as if to leave the pavement free, and deferentially greets the lieutenant with reddening cheeks and honest modest eyes. Thereupon the lieutenant, his hand to his cap, answers the respectful greeting of his superior officer—answers it with a look of child-like friendliness; answers it—and goes on his way.