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Authors: Frank Tallis

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

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BOOK: Vienna Secrets
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nephew and assistant, Fabian; Councillor Burke Faust; and Hofrat Holzknecht were seated in one of the upper chambers of the town hall.

The agenda had been dispensed with, and a large pile of documents had now been signed and stamped with official seals. Hofrat Holzknecht was going over the paperwork, while Fabian distributed cognac and cigars.

“All in order,” said Holzknecht. The title with which he was distinguished—Hofrat—had been introduced in the eighteenth century for high officials. It had come to represent not only social elevation but the power to dispense favors (or what the Viennese referred to as

Schmidt and Faust—both councillors of the same rank—were political allies, but they were not friends. Faust was, on the whole, indifferent to Schmidt. Faust was a pragmatist, and Schmidt’s personal qualities were largely irrelevant as far as he was concerned. The reverse, however, was not true. Schmidt was acutely aware of everything that made up the person of Burke Faust, and each constituent part inspired resentment. He resented Faust’s diamond ring, his expensive wristwatch, and his edelweiss tiepin; he resented his spotless frock coat, the smell of his Italian cologne, and his relaxed, superior attitude; he resented his spacious Hietzing villa, his full head of hair, and his family fortune. But most of all, he resented the fact that Faust was almost certainly going to get the job that he, Schmidt, wanted—a key position on Mayor Lueger’s special advisory panel.

Faust had recently created a stir by writing an article for
Die Reichspost
on the “social question,” an eloquently argued piece of polemical writing that not only found a sympathetic audience among the mayor’s inner circle but impressed the “Lord God of Vienna” himself. Mayor Lueger needed the services of a talented propagandist, and, luckily, one had appeared. Faust had started writing his piece as soon as old Horngacher had announced that he was retiring. Schmidt had to admire Faust, albeit grudgingly. He was a consummate opportunist.

Schmidt took a cigar and held a match to its tip. He ensured that the burn was even, and then put the match out by waving his hand violently in the air. He dropped the match into a glass ashtray and stared at Faust, who was conferring with Hofrat Holzknecht.

How Schmidt wanted that job.

The successful candidate would become a confidant of Mayor Lueger, would be introduced to important people and be granted significant powers. An ambitious man might even use this privileged position to cultivate more general support among the party membership. Mayor Lueger would not last forever. His eyesight wasn’t so good these days, and there were rumors about his failing health. In the fullness of time a replacement would have to be found.

Schmidt sniffed his cognac. The fragrance seemed to enter his skull and excite his imagination. He thought of Mayor Lueger’s theatrical public appearances, his gold chain of office flashing in the sunlight, his entourage of laborers, civil servants, nuns, priests, and altar boys, the members of his inner circle, with their special green tailcoats with black velvet cuffs. Even when the mayor opened a factory, he managed to create a sense of occasion. Spectacle! How Schmidt longed to slip his arms into the silk-lined sleeves of such a tailcoat. But it would not be him going to the tailor’s. No—it would be Burke Faust.

Still, Schmidt consoled himself, although he might never get to be mayor, he might still get his villa in Hietzing. He had recently learned that money could be made quite easily—if one was prepared to enter into negotiations with the right people. Mutually provident arrangements could be agreed upon with no initial investment, merely the promise of a little “political” protection, should the need arise. They weren’t the kind of business associates he could welcome into an office at the Rathaus, but their views on social justice were not that different from his own—or the mayor’s, for that matter.

Faust was leaning back in his chair, voicing his opinions in a languid tenor. Schmidt listened carefully so as to pick up the thread of his argument. He didn’t want anyone present to think he had been “dreaming.”

“I fear that the mayor is becoming complacent,” said Faust. “The issue of their status has become a tool, a means to an end: a device used to get the attention and support of the lower middle class. Of course, he’s still willing to denounce glorified moneylenders like Rothenstein, Wittgenstein, and their
but none of this hot air leads to municipal reform.”

“He’s even consulting them these days,” Schmidt chipped in. “I heard that he actually met with Cohen to discuss one of his new building projects.”

“It’s no good,” said Faust. “We can’t denounce them in the morning and invite them for tea in the afternoon. He’s playing a dangerous game.”

Schmidt rose from his seat and went over to the window. His breath condensed on the glass, and he had to wipe the moisture away to see out. Beyond the Rathaus park stood the Burgtheater. It looked particularly beautiful, its windows glowing from inside with a warm amber light. Rain was falling, and the street lamps were surrounded by haloes of luminescence.

Schmidt recalled one of the mayor’s most famous speeches.

If you go to the theatre, nothing but Jews. If you walk on the Ringstrasse
nothing but Jews. If you go to a concert, nothing but Jews. If you attend a ball, nothing but Jews. If you go on campus, again, nothing but Jews…

Schmidt’s lips twisted to form an ironic smile. The Burgtheater was showing a play written by a Jew. Faust was absolutely right. Mayor Lueger had lost his early zeal. Yet the public still had an appetite for such fiery rhetoric. Schmidt thought of Faust’s article and sighed. The rhythms were reminiscent of Mayor Lueger’s old speeches, written when he was still hungry for power: insistent repetition, like a fist banging on a door—brooking no refusal—and metaphors so striking, so just that no one could deny the truth of his vision.

Faust would get the job—and he might even be mayor, one day. Faust was an obstacle. Faust was in Schmidt’s way.

“Only ten years ago,” Faust continued, “the program for reform was accepted by everyone: removal of the Jews from the civil service, medicine, law, and small business. Only ten years ago, these proposals were taken very seriously indeed. Now look at the state of our most important institutions.”

“There have been some successes,” said Hofrat Holzknecht. “There aren’t that many of them in the civil service, and we’ve managed to limit admissions to the gymnasia.”

“But it’s not enough!” said Faust.

“Well,” said Hofrat Holzknecht. “Should you ever find yourself in a position to revive the mayor’s flagging program for municipal reform”—his expression became arch and knowing—“then you would be assured of support from my bureau.”

Schmidt felt his heart beating faster. It was so unfair. Holzknecht was acting as if the decision had already been made.

Holzknecht blew out a cloud of smoke. “It won’t be easy,” he continued, “to fight this new complacency.”

“Of course it won’t,” said Schmidt. “That is why we need something to capture the public’s imagination.” He wasn’t going to let Faust have a coronation. Holzknecht should realize that Faust wasn’t the only councillor with ideas. Schmidt paused, hoping that his silence would be sufficiently cryptic to elicit a further question. His ruse was successful.

“What do you mean, Schmidt?”

“I mean that there is only so much one can do to persuade the electorate with economic and social arguments. Sometimes you have to engage their emotions. Somebody once suggested to me that what we really need right now is another Hilsner.”

Fabian, having already distributed the cognac and cigars, had been sitting quietly reading a newspaper. However, he had been half-listening to the conversation, and now he raised his head quizzically.

“Hilsner, uncle?”

Schmidt smiled at his nephew and then turned to Faust and Holzknecht. “He’s only eighteen… one forgets.” He came away from the window and sat down next to his nephew.

“Leopold Hilsner, dear boy. He killed a nineteen-year-old virgin and drained her body of blood. It’s what they do. Christian blood for their bread. The scandal started a very healthy debate in the popular press… It got people thinking.”

“Is it true, Uncle Julius? They really do this?”

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s true,” said Schmidt, his eyes glinting mischievously.

Fabian looked confused.

“No, Julius,” said Faust, “I think you can be more emphatic than that. They are a superstitious and backward people. Whenever a child disappears—particularly in the rural areas of Hungary and Galicia—the local communities are quite right to suspect the tinkers and peddlers passing through from the east. I can assure you, young man, ritual murder is a real phenomenon. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Read the Reverend Joseph Decker’s
A Ritual Murder
or Father August Rohling’s
The Talmudic Jew
. They are chilling works that deserve a place on every right-thinking person’s bookshelf.”

Schmidt’s jaw tightened with irritation. He had read neither of these tracts. Faust always seemed to be able to back up his arguments with scholarly references. It was particularly riling because Schmidt, unlike many of his colleagues, had made a thorough study of Jewish lore and was relatively well informed.
Know thy enemy
was an epigram he lived by.

“That’s all very well, Schmidt,” said Holzknecht, “saying that we need another Hilsner. But you can’t expect something like that to happen just when you want it to.”

“No,” said Schmidt. “My point exactly! You can’t!”

The men exchanged glances.

Holzknecht possessed a very expressive face. At first his lineaments showed doubt. Surely he was mistaken, surely he was investing Schmidt’s response with too much meaning; however, the balance of his judgment was tipped by Schmidt’s rising eyebrow. Holzknecht’s doubt turned to amusement, and his features communicated an amalgam of surprise and approval.

The silence was broken by Fabian.

“Uncle,… Brother Stanislav is dead.” The young man pushed the paper toward Schmidt. “The Piarist monk, remember? We met with him last month. We had to talk to him about that
in Leopoldstadt.”

“Stanislav—dead?” said Faust. “I don’t believe it!”

“Murdered,” said Schmidt, without inflection.

“Murdered?” cried Faust. “Dear God!”

“It says he was decapitated,” said Fabian.

“Schmidt, give me that,” said Faust, reaching over and pulling the newspaper out of Schmidt’s hands. Faust’s eyes moved from side to side as he read the column. “Dear God! I don’t believe it. He was a good man… a truly good man.”

“Yes,” said Schmidt, “but he wasn’t admired universally.” He looked innocently at the ceiling. Then he dropped his gaze and caught Holzknecht’s eye. He saw that he had hit his mark. Hofrat’s face, expressive to the point of transparency, revealed that he was reassessing Schmidt. Perhaps they had underestimated him and his application should be reconsidered.


Dr. Max Liebermann

We had arranged to meet at the natural history museum. It is a favorite haunt of Miss Lydgate’s—and mine, of course. She tarried longest in the geological halls and became utterly absorbed by the meteorites, identifying the exhibits by their technical names: “ordinary chondrites,” “carbonaceous chondrites,” “achondrites,” etc., etc. It amused me, the way she gazed at those gray-black rocks with the same covetous, lingering gaze that other women reserve for diamonds. Indeed, she hardly noticed the precious stones when we passed through the gem hall. We both admired the Knyahinya meteorite, which is reckoned to be the largest in the world (or at least, the largest one to be displayed in any of the world’s museums). It weighs almost six hundred sixty pounds and fell in Hungary. The fiery arrival of the Knyahinya meteorite is celebrated in a canvas panel by Anton Brioschi above one of the doors.

Miss Lydgate said, “How extraordinary that this object, which has traveled between worlds—through the vast emptiness of space—should, in the fullness of time, find a resting place here, in a cabinet, in Vienna.” Needless to say, I was minded to agree. It is an extraordinary thing. From where did this great lump of rock originate, and how far did it travel before crashing into Earth? The mind can scarcely imagine such an epic voyage.

When we arrived at the empress Maria Theresa’s mechanical planetarium (an exquisite piece of eighteenth-century craftsmanship), Miss Lydgate fell into a meditative state. She was frowning a little—her lips pressed together—and while she was thus distracted, I positioned myself at a distance, just far enough to steal a few glances (inconspicuous glances, I hope) at her figure and hair. The shame that accompanies such improprieties has now become dulled through repetition: the self-loathing is less acute and is diluted by a vague feeling of tired resignation.

Without turning her head (she was not aware that I had moved away) Miss Lydgate began to speak. I quickly came forward from behind my observation post. Her contemplation of the immense distances traveled by the Knyahinya meteorite had clearly prompted her to reflect on the great size of the cosmos. She was speaking of Bessel, the German astronomer, who had demonstrated that even the nearest stars were unimaginably distant. I asked her how he had achieved such a feat of measurement, and she replied, “By observation of the parallax.”

My incomprehension must have been obvious, because she immediately invited me to participate in an instructive scientific exercise. “Hold your finger a few inches away from your nose. Then look at it first with the left eye, closing the right, and then the right eye, closing the left.” My finger appeared to jump to the left. “Now repeat the procedure, but this time hold your finger at arm’s length. Notice that there is still movement, but not so much. The smaller the parallax, the farther the object.

Apparently, by using this simple principle as applied to the apparent movement of stars, Bessel was able to determine the distance from Earth of 61 Cygni, which proved to be much farther away than anyone had previously expected. “Sixty-four trillion miles,” said Miss Lydgate (she has a remarkable memory for numbers). In Miss Lydgate’s estimation, Bessel’s accomplishment ranked among the greatest in all of science.

“Against the backdrop of the universe, our great globe is but an insignificant speck.” She looked at me with characteristic intensity. Her eyes captured and condensed the blue fire of the gas jets: whereas others might have been disturbed by the size of the universe, and conversely human insignificance, Miss Lydgate seemed—how should I put this?—quietly satisfied. The terrifying enormity of the universe was humbling, and therefore its contemplation was virtuous.

But what am I to make of all this? I can no longer consider our frequent engagement in conversations of this kind entirely innocent. They have become a substitute for natural, physical intimacy. We talk—but dare not touch. Our erotic instincts have become frozen in an arctic waste of cerebration. Do I flatter myself? Does she really desire me, as I desire her? And why has this conversation about the great size of the universe stayed with me? We spoke of many things, but it is this conversation that I now recall most vividly. Was she trying to say something to me? Was there hidden meaning in all this discussion of meteorites and stars? Unconscious encouragement? “Given the vastness of the universe, must we be so respectful of social observances? Does any of it really matter?” Was it a disguised appeal? Or is this just wishful thinking on my part? Am I reading too much into what was nothing more than innocent erudition?

I am reminded of young Oppenheim. We were discussing Freud’s dream book in Café Landtmann, and Oppenheim said that he thought it shouldn’t have been called “The Interpretation of Dreams,” but rather “The Over-Interpretation of Dreams.” Sacrilege, but he has a point, and I had to laugh. What am I to do? It is all so very complicated. Yet there is more to my inaction than a fear of embarrassment or rejection. She is sensitive and fragile. I know that—perhaps better than anybody. Human actions do not have cosmic repercussions. Our pathetic little dramas unfold—great rocks fly through the heavens, and planets wheel around the sun. All true. But disparities of scale—however large—do not justify recklessness. Besides, who is to say that the stately progress of stars is any more

BOOK: Vienna Secrets
12.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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