The Thief Comes
On a violent, black winter evening, Baron Ferdinand Harsanyi in Paris received a telegram from his wife in Vienna. It was delivered to his lodging on the Rue de Saint-Simon, and by candlelight at his desk he read its three words, I AM ILL.
"Will there be a reply, monsieur?"
The messenger, an old man, shuddered from the cold and stood close to the fire. The heavy coat of his uniform seemed to do little to warm him. Outside, hard gusts of the tempest outside assailed the window. It rattled and shook in its casing and the wind whistled through it. These were the only sounds inside as the man stood shivering and the Baron Ferdinand sat, uneasy as the storm.
Finally, the baron took the form and touched his pen to the ink bottle. "Today is Monday?"
He scribbled, WILL LEAVE TOMORROW ARRIVE THURSDAY. "There, take that."
The messenger returned reluctantly to the night, and Ferdinand stood and began to pace the room. His steps were silent on the thick carpet, a slow tread that soon became quicker and more troubled. His path was wall to wall beneath two portraits, one behind his desk, of the Austrian emperor, and the other opposite, of a woman. At last, he stopped beneath it. The woman, in her youth, with long black hair and striking features, was wearing the fashions of an earlier time. The baron faced her, looking up; he was two hard decades at least past his own youth.
His valet appeared.
"We'll depart tomorrow for Vienna. I'll call on the ambassador at his residence this evening to ask his leave."
The cold gale had swept the Rue de Saint-Simon clear of men and light. Above the wind's howl, shutters creaked and half-loose things beat against hard walls.
Yet even against the hurricane blackness, curtained light crept from the buildings, side against side, lining the lane. No shaft of it touched the stones of the street. The glimmering windows were only pictures framed in night of the rooms and the lives hidden like jewels from the thieving storm.
It was upon this wailing sheet of shadow that Baron Harsanyi opened his door, its light spilling even onto the pavement, capturing an island from the blackness. He stepped onto the small square. Then he closed the door and the light surrendered back to the dark.
But the baron did not surrender himself to night. He wrapped his thick cape about him and advanced into it.
In a warmer season it would have been a short, pleasant stroll to the Rue de Grenelle. In the cold, he still chose to walk. A few carriages passed, and no one on two legs. For most of the way he was invisible in the shadows, the only witness of the war between the powers of the air and the strongholds of earth. He reached the Austrian Embassy and pulled the bell; it was a short but chilling wait for the front gate to be opened.
Prince Richard von Metternich, ambassador of Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austria, to Louis Napoleon, emperor of France, stood by the mantel in his private apartments, a goblet in his hand and a hot fire dancing at his side.
"Your Excellency." Ferdinand Harsanyi bowed.
The room was warm and close and fitfully bright. Flames roared in hearths at either end, and candle flames floated in their silver holders.
"Baron. What brings you out on a wretched night?" The prince's careless posture was in contrast to the baron's military straightness. His youth and finery were, as well; he was barely forty, and his emerald satin jacket shimmered like cat eyes.
"I must request your leave to return to Vienna."
"As you wish, of course." He set aside the formality with a gesture. "A personal matter?"
"My wife is ill." The baron's attention was pulled aside, toward the far hearth and the two chairs beside it. All the light made the shadows blacker, and the shadows leaped with the fire.
"How unfortunate," Prince von Metternich said. "My wife just visited her a few weeks ago when she was in Vienna. Did your wife tell you? Possibly not." The prince glanced toward the far fireplace, indecisive, but then shrugged. "They are such good friends. I'll not delay you. Please give my regards to the charming baroness, and my hopes for a speedy recovery." He gestured again in dismissal.
"Thank you, Your Excellency." Baron Harsanyi paused. His hair was gray iron and close-cropped. He would have been handsome as a young man; now he was hidden. "Do you have any instructions for me?"
The ambassador pretended surprise. "Instructions?" His head seemed to always be in motion, tilting, swaying, nodding.
"I'll be in the capital. Do you want me to convey any messages?"
"You would take precious hours from your poor, ill wife for a tedious visit to the Foreign Ministry?"
It would have been easier to see without such light. And over the growling flames, there had been another slight sound coming from the opposite fireplace.
"I would have the opportunity. If you wish." Ferdinand spoke slowly and carefully. "I would be expected to call on the foreign minister. It would be an affront to him on your behalf if I do not."
"And he would deserve it!" The ambassador's own fires flared. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "But if I wish to insult the foreign minister, I should do it myself." His demeanor changed again, to give the baron his full attention. The mocking tone was gone. "Be innocuous, be bland, and say nothing. Tell him the usual, that relations between France and Prussia are as difficult as ever, and we have fears the current crisis may make them even worse."
"Which particular crisis do you mean, Your Excellency?"
"Pick one, any of them. Make one up if nothing new has happened by the time you get to Vienna. There's always a crisis between France and Prussia." He lifted his hands in annoyance. "The Spanish throne if you need a particular one. But ..." The ambassador became more forceful. "Stress that this embassy is diligently working to calm the French government. Because the greatest harm would be that the ministry gives us instructions. You know as well as I, Baron Harsanyi, it is very delicate at the moment, and I think it is best for us to manage it ourselves. There will be war between Paris and Berlin within the next twelve months, I'm sure of it, but it's far better for the Austrian government in Vienna to not meddle. Be careful what you say."
The baron was satisfied. "I understand, Your Excellency."
He stared more closely at the chair facing the far fireplace, but the shadows were too deep. Prince von Metternich drew his attention away. "And will you also visit the office of the Army General Staff?"
"If possible. Again, it would be an affront not to. An affront on my behalf."
"I have no instructions to you about that. What will you say to them?"
"As the military attaché to the embassy in Paris, I will report to them on the state of the French army. That will be all that is necessary."
"Armies are useful, in wars and for other purposes, but they do not interest me." Prince von Metternich shrugged and his careless manner returned. "Perhaps this will be one war that Austria will avoid losing."
"I hope, Your Excellency, that if a war does come between France and Prussia, that Austria would not participate in it."
"Quite, Baron. That is the only way Austria ever avoids losing. We had our own defeat by Prussia four years ago and that is enough."
But now Baron Ferdinand was sure. Of the two heavy chairs that were set by the far fireplace, one was not empty. Prince Richard saw that Baron Harsanyi had seen. He smiled, as if he'd just remembered the two of them weren't alone. "Monsieur Sarroche?" he laughed. "You have been discovered."
The man stood and displayed himself in the tricking light. He was needle-like, short and very thin. Even his nose was long and pointed and unpleasant. His hair was the only feature about him that was abundant, brown and longer than was fashionable. "Monsieur." He bowed slightly and briefly. Baron Harsanyi stiffened, even more.
"Baron Harsanyi is the military attaché assigned to the embassy," the ambassador said. "And Monsieur Sarroche is an official of the French government in their Bureau of Armaments."
"I already know the pleasure of the baron's acquaintance," Monsieur Sarroche said. His voice was also unpleasant.
The baron remained silent.
"Of course you would know him," Prince von Metternich said. "I should have realized. The baron makes it his business to know everything admirable about the French army. Perhaps, Baron, you can guess the reason for the monsieur's visit."
Baron Harsanyi broke his stiff silence. "I wouldn't guess."
"Then perhaps you actually know. Monsieur Sarroche is here to discuss the French government's desire to make purchases from Austria."
"Military materials," Sarroche said. "As Your Excellency suggests, we may have great needs very soon."
"And we were just getting started," Prince von Metternich said, "when you were announced; I had even thought I should ask your assistance. But of course you are in a hurry to prepare for your travels."
"We particularly want mercury." The Frenchman spoke abruptly. He was watching Baron Harsanyi very closely.
"I really do feel as if I'm the one who's stumbled into the conversation," Prince von Metternich said, now pretending amusement. "Do you know something about, um, mercury, Baron?"
"The baron knows a great deal about mercury," Sarroche answered for him. "Austria's largest cinnabar mines are at Idria, in Slovenia, on the baron's estate."
"Cinnabar?" Prince von Metternich asked. "Not mercury?"
"Cinnabar is the ore; the mercury is produced from it," Baron Ferdinand said. "And mercury is used to manufacture mercury fulminate, which is an explosive. But the mines are on my wife's estate, not mine."
"Oh, that's what those mines are? We've known your wife for years, but I never could remember what exactly it was they dug out of the ground there."
"Yes, your wife's estates," Sarroche said to the baron. And then, slowly, "I am so greatly sorry to hear that she is ill." He let the silence hang, then added, "But not entirely surprised."
The baron inhaled sharply.
"Yes, it is unfortunate," the ambassador said, not taking notice of Sarroche's last comment. His always mocking smile was sympathetic for a moment. "And how long will we be without you? A week? Two?"
"A week, I hope."
"A week then." The lights in the prince's eyes narrowed, and his head, moving like an adder, turned straight toward him. "That would be only two days at her side? Will it be enough?"
"Three days. I hope it will be enough."
"Take what time you need."
"And when you return," Sarroche said, "we will continue our discussion."
On the return to his apartment, the wind had decreased and a heavy snow fell. Where the lights of windows and streetlamps had before not penetrated the black, now their radiance had the slow white flakes to illuminate. Every light became a floating globe of falling grains.
With even greater speed, the baron retraced his steps. Inside the front hall of the building, he knocked on the concierge's door.
"A carriage," he said. "Fifteen minutes."
"Zoltan," the baron said at the door of his apartment. "We're leaving tonight. Quickly. We'll catch the last train." He looked out the window. "I hope the snow doesn't block the tracks."
"Ten minutes," Zoltan answered. He had black hair, straight down over his heavy brow, and a similar mustache over his mouth, and he wore a clerk's short coat over his loose white shirt and burly shoulders. He bowed and left the room.
Ferdinand's motions were fast and urgent. He opened a drawer of his desk and quickly removed papers and sorted them into a portfolio. In only eight minutes Zoltan had pulled a trunk from the bedroom and a smaller portmanteau from his own room. Baron Harsanyi searched the room with his eyes, looking for anything else to be taken.
A knock sounded on the door, its echo smothered in the drapery and carpet.
"The carriage, master," Zoltan said. A boy, the concierge's grandson, had brought the driver to the apartment.
The baron gave the boy a few sous, and Zoltan and the driver lifted the trunk and the portmanteau through the hall and down the stairs.
The baron blew out the last lamp, took his portfolio, and locked the door of his dark apartment behind him.
For the final time that evening, Baron Harsanyi ventured out. The snow was not yet deep and the carriage wheels cut through it without resistance. The first corner was the Quai d'Orsay, and they rode for a time along the left bank of the Seine. The road was well lit, and even the gaslights on the far bank were visible. The carriage turned onto the Pont de la Concorde and crossed the Seine; then they were on the other bank, beneath its lights, and the d'Orsay side was faint beyond the snow and fog. The whole river smoked and curled and cloaked itself and its banks in vapor.
On the right bank they still followed the water, on the Quai des Tuileries. The gardens were on their left, and then the bulk of the Louvre, and then on their right, the Ile, and barely, the blunt spires of Notre Dame ghostly in the snow. They turned on the Boulevard de Sebastopol and the river was lost behind them.
The new boulevard was as straight as a cannon shot, which was part of its purpose, to break up the nests and warrens of neighborhoods that had always bred uprisings and unrest.
But the boulevard's other purpose was to make Paris wondrous, and the long lines of lights and endless lines of gray stone mansions and bright windows and the sinuous lines of pedestrians on the sidewalks, and carriages on the paving stones, were beautiful and glittering, a street of light.
Then Boulevard de Strasbourg continued Sebastopol's line, and soon the grand front of the Gare de l'Est train station was in sight. But before they reached it, the baron spoke to the driver, "Turn here."
They turned onto the Boulevard de Magenta and then a second time onto a small side street; the sign said Rue de Valenciennes. They stopped at the third building, once but no longer a house. Now a small brass plaque was set beside the door that read, Partington and Manchester, Ltd.
One light glowed in the uppermost window. Despite the late, dark hour, the baron rang the bell and knocked, as well. There was no answer, but he was undeterred. He continued to knock, and finally the door creaked open. A wide, pasty face looked out.
"What is it?" the face asked in English-accented French.
The baron's English had only a slight accent. "Mr. Henry Whistler. Where is he?"
"Not here!" The clerk changed to English. "Not now."
"Is he in Paris?"
"No, sir. He's away."
"I'm not to say, sir."
"Is he in Vienna?"
The white face hadn't nearly the guile to deny that the baron's guess was the truth.
"I thought as much," the baron said, and turned away.
In an even greater hurry, the baron rushed into the station, leaving behind Zoltan and a porter with the trunk. Though the night had long been dark, it was still before nine thirty and the last trains were standing at the platforms.
"Two first class to Strasbourg," he said at the window.
"Yes, monsieur." The agent eyed him with suspicion. "You are Prussian, monsieur?"
"That isn't your business."
"It is the business of the police," the ticket agent answered. "I am required to ask. Travel by Prussians must be reported."
"I am Hungarian and I am a diplomat of the Austrian Empire."
"Very well, sir! Your tickets!"
The baron turned to go, but then he paused.
"Perhaps I should ask for an apology, for being mistaken for Prussian."
The agent scowled, but caught a gleam of humor in the dark eyes, and smiled. "I will apologize to an Austrian. To be called Prussian, it is a terrible insult, is it not?"
The suburbs of Paris fell behind and the moon rose over the train's eastward course. The farms and villages of the valley of the Seine crowded the track, and the train and the fields each sped past the other in the night, very close but different worlds.
The falling snow was left behind. The fields were silver white from the train's windows; the windows were gaslit yellow from the snowy fields.
At midnight the train stopped at Chalons, and at four in the morning in Nancy. Finally, the winter day dawned as the track rounded the heights of the Vosges Mountains and came to rest at the platform in Strasbourg.
Baron Harsanyi waited in the first-class lounge, wrapped in his heavy coat and unnoticed by his fellow passengers.
"What did you think?" he asked Zoltan, beside him.
"The rails are single track. Every kilometer from Paris."
"When the war begins, how long would it take Marshall Frossard to bring his first fifty divisions from Paris to the Rhine?"
"The first five, one week," Zoltan said. "After that the trains get too confused and the mobilization is a swamp. The trains can't run both ways on the same track."
"The Prussians have four double-track lines from Berlin. Trains both ways at the same time."
"They would move twenty divisions in ten days."
"But their army is conscripts. They'll have to be called up from their farms and villages. Their mobilization would take longer." He looked out at the night. "And the French would have the Vosges Mountains as a defense, and the fortresses in Froeschwiller and Forbach. It won't be easy for either side."
"It will be murder," Zoltan growled.
The train that departed Strasbourg en route to Munich wound slowly at first through the half French and half German spires and villages of Alsace. Then gathering speed it launched onto the Rhine Bridge, a kilometer of iron trusses and spans. The sharp lines were blurred by the mists and fogs rising from the river.
"One company of dragoons would take the French side," Zoltan said. "Then the Rhine is nothing to stop the Prussians."
"That's not Prussia," the baron said, nodding to the approaching bank. "It's the Grand Duchy of Baden. Baden isn't allied to Prussia yet."
"It's all German."
Halfway across, the train began to slow, and well onto the eastern bank in the village of Kehl it stopped. The passengers waited as officials of the Grand Duchy passed the length of the cars, verifying passports. Outside the baron's window, two young guards stood on the platform of the station with rifles.
"Your papers, please?" The compartment door had opened, and a white-haired guard waited politely. "Austrian, yes, they are all in order. Thank you." He laid his hand on the compartment door.
"A moment," Baron Harsanyi said. "You're an old man to have to work hard, and in the cold."
"The young ones are drilling. It is the training."
"Like those?" He pointed out the window at the guards.
"Those two, yes. All those young ones are drilling and practicing."
When the door was closed, Zoltan shook his head.
"The rifles they have? Zundnadelgewehr." He spoke the German contemptuously. Then he returned to Hungarian. "Needle guns. They are trash."
"The Dreyse factories are supporters of Prime Minister Bismarck. He won't let the army change to a new rifle. Even here in the south, they haven't changed. The French rifles are far better. Quite accurate."
"The Chassepots rifles," Zoltan said. "I hit a target at a thousand meters. The needle guns only four hundred."
The train started and they began their journey through the south of Germany. After two hours they'd crossed the narrow waist of Baden and entered Württemberg. The black shadows of the German forest enclosed them.
"The forest of the Grimm tales," Baron Harsanyi said. "Did you know, in English, grim means austere and frightening? To see the place, that name is fitting."
"I don't know English."
Before noon they had passed Stuttgart and in the early afternoon they crossed the next frontier, into the Kingdom of Bavaria, and in the evening they came to the capital, Munich.
"Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria," the baron said. "Von Bismarck and his Prussia have all Northern Germany in their hands, but these three Southern German states are still on the fence. The question is whether they will join a war with France. They have an alliance, but it only comes into effect if France declares war first."
"France would be foolish to attack," Zoltan said.
"Von Bismarck is a genius at making other countries do foolish things. That's why he's been so successful as Prussia's prime minister."
"If France attacks, all Germany will fight against her."
"There is no Germany," Ferdinand said. "They are all separate countries. Bavaria has its own kings, the Wittelsbachs, and they don't like the Prussian Hohenzollerns."
"So far, they have their king, and the Prussians have their king, and Hanover and Brunswick and Baden and all these little places," Zoltan said. "The people, they want one Germany. They always have. Where Germans are, that is Germany."
"The French will never allow Germany to unite."
"Unless they are forced."
"So, war is inevitable?"
"Only God could stop it."
They ate dinner in the station restaurant in Munich. At nearly midnight, they boarded the overnight train from Frankfurt. Zoltan slept, but the baron was lost in remorseless thought, staring out the windows at something beyond the Danube valley.
The day was well begun as they reached the outskirts of Vienna.
Beneath high, steam-shrouded arches of steel he stepped from the train onto the Vienna Westbahnhof platform. The station was crowded with passengers.
"A carriage?" Zoltan asked.
Ferdinand shook his head. "It's too early to arrive."
"The household will be awake."
But the baron was looking out the front doors of the station, toward an opulent marble building. He turned back to Zoltan. "I want to wait until the children have left the house. Check the bags here at the station. Then take a cab to the house. Don't go in, though. Wait at the corner where you can see who goes in and out, and don't let them see you. Wait for me. I'll be at least an hour."
Once Zoltan had left him, Ferdinand stood for a moment on the front steps of the station. Other people passed by, aiming for the imposing building directly across the street. Gold letters set above the second row of windows read Imperial Hotel.
He walked up the steps and the door was opened for him by a doorman. Inside, wealthy travelers ambled between the door, the front counter, the stairs, the dining room, and among the chairs and tables of the lobby.
At the desk he paused, and then asked, "Is Mr. Henry Whistler in this morning?"
"Just a moment, sir." The clerk studied the hundreds of squares in the wall behind him. Some of the pigeonholes had keys in them, some letters and notes, and some were empty. "Yes, he is in," the clerk said.
"Please have a message delivered to him."
"Yes, sir?" The man slid a sheet of paper forward, but the baron shook his head.
"Inform him that Baron Harsanyi would like to speak with him in the lobby."
The clerk nodded and rang a bell on the counter. A young man in hotel uniform sprang forward.
"Inform Mr. Whistler in room 225 that Baron Harsanyi wishes to speak with him in the lobby."
Ferdinand took a seat in a leather armchair in a far corner, and waited.
"My good baron!" The language and deep musical voice were English. The man was in a gray wool suit and bowler hat, with an ivory-handled ebony walking stick in his hand. His clothing was simply quiet and affluent, but his face was conspicuous. His cheeks were ruddy and his nose rounded above a bushy white mustache, and his eyes were very sharp. "Good morning! What an absolute surprise."
"Good morning to you," the baron answered.
Mr. Whistler sat beside him. "Quite a shrewd guess to find me here." Most of his smile was hidden behind the mustache. "But you're a shrewd man. And you're in Vienna to see the baroness?"
"I am here to see her."
"It was a guess that you'd find me here, wasn't it? Or did she tell you I was here? No, I doubt that." He smiled again, and for a moment the eyes were wickedly amused. "She's ill, you know."
"I do know."
"She was unable to see me yesterday," Whistler said. "I met with her three days ago, and she didn't seem well."
"She won't sell you any cinnabar," Baron Ferdinand said. "You've wasted your trip."
"I hope I haven't. But it seems to be a slim hope."
"Why did you even try?"
"We'll just say I'd heard a bit of a rumor that the wind might have changed."
But Whistler just smiled even more broadly. "And besides, you refuse to talk to me in Paris. It was worth a try to come here. And when she did talk to me, three days ago, she was as unfriendly to me as you have been." The sneering look reappeared in his eyes. "It must be the one thing in which the two of you are in agreement."
Ferdinand met his look with one just as sharp. But he responded calmly.
"Tell me what you proposed to her."
Whistler stared into Ferdinand's eyes for a moment, and his smile faded. "Why do you want to know?" He waited, and then said, "Perhaps I should have stayed in Paris after all. Was that where the new wind was blowing from?"
"I still don't know which wind you mean."
"I heard through one of my agents that Austrian cinnabar might soon be coming on the market. Are you the seller, Baron? I had assumed that it would be your wife."
"The cinnabar mines are part of my wife's estate," Ferdinand said. "She would have to agree to any sale."
"But you are her husband, and women have no legal rights to sign contracts. You have to sign it for her."
"I wouldn't accept anything against her wishes."
"You accepted your posting to Paris. But I suppose that wasn't against her wishes." Whistler tapped his fingers together, considering the baron's blank stare. "If your wife is ill and can't speak for herself, you might presume to speak for her." The sneer disappeared as he studied Ferdinand's face. "The French government has an urgent, desperate need for mercury fulminate and I would like to sell them some."
"The French have their own facilities. They can produce fulminate without buying it from you."
"But our good friend Monsieur Sarroche has no mercury to produce it with. There are only two sources in Europe large enough and developed enough to supply enough cinnabar ore: the Spanish mines at Almaden, and your Idria in Slovenia. Spain is even more unfriendly at the moment. Partington and Manchester will buy the cinnabar from you, produce the mercury fulminate in our own factories, and sell it to the French. You and I will both make a comfortable profit." He allowed another smile. "Herr Bismarck and Louis Napoleon are creating fortunes right now with this war they're trying to start against each other. Why not take our share?"
"The war may not happen."
"What could possibly stop it?" He paused. "Nothing. There is nothing more certain than war."
"You would sell the fulminate only to the French?" the baron asked.
"Not to the Prussians, if that's what you mean."
"That is what I mean."
"I would not sell it to Prussia. I can't," Whistler said. "Unfortunately, von Stieff has the whole German market all to himself. And the Austrian government would never allow the cinnabar ore to be exported to their greatest enemy anyway." He frowned in thought. "But I could find a way. War and greed are the two constants of human nature. For the right price, I'm sure I could find a way."
Baron Ferdinand ignored him. "So, again, tell me what you proposed to my wife."
"Here we get to it, don't we?" Whistler shook his head. "But I think I'll keep my cards to myself. First let me know if you can convince your wife to sell cinnabar to me. Or"—Whistler was back to smiling—"if you simply decide to sell it over her objections."
"I wouldn't do that."
"Don't tell me that your tender regard toward her prevents you from acting against her wishes. I wouldn't believe you."
"Austrian law doesn't give me complete freedom to act," Ferdinand said. "My wife does have some rights concerning her property."
"Then you'll have to start convincing her."
"That is my concern."
"It is, and you'd best get at it." Whistler frowned, and the mocking had returned. "The war won't wait, and the French are impatient." He stood to leave. "Sarroche has sent his own agent after her, you know, here in Vienna at the moment."
"That's another card I'll keep to myself."
"You'll know where to find me, Baron," Whistler said, not answering. "I'll leave for Paris tomorrow. In the meantime, I wish your wife a speedy recovery." He leaned forward. "Or at least a speedy resolution. That would make things easier, wouldn't it?"
"What have you seen?"
Zoltan stepped back from the corner. "No one has entered."
"Have the children left?"
"Your son left as I arrived. On a horse."
"He's riding. And Therese?"
"She left ten minutes ago in a carriage. It came to get her."
"Who was in it?"
"I couldn't see."
"Most likely a friend. Then I am ready to arrive."
They both got into the cab that Ferdinand had brought from the train station. "On to the front door," Ferdinand said to the driver. Then he spoke to Zoltan. "I may go back out after the children have returned. Go to the stable and reintroduce yourself to the grays."
And then they had covered the last thirty meters to the front door. The house was stone and brick, as elegant and quiet as the street. With his cloak billowing unheeded about his shoulders, Baron Harsanyi stepped into the snow and mud and then onto the wide steps and up to the oak doors.
He opened them, and the sound echoed through the empty hall before him. He stood only a moment on the threshold and then walked slowly to the stairway and even more slowly upward. Doors above him opened.
"Master!" A servant woman met him at the top.
"Where is she, Maria?"
"In the bed. We expected you tomorrow. Today is only Wednesday!"
"Where is Rudolph?"
"He is out, and Therese, also. They would have been here if we had known you were coming."
"How is my wife?" he said, starting toward her bedroom.
"Sleeping. She is better than yesterday, less shaking."
The baron stopped. "Shaking?"
"When was she awake?"
"Two days ago when we sent the telegram, and a little yesterday. She's breathing better than yesterday, too. The doctor says it is influenza. He says another week—"
But he passed her and came to the closed door.
"When will Rudolph return?"
"By noon, master. He's riding."
"She was with ... with a friend. She's buying a hat."
His hand was on the door and he drew himself straight to open it. When he gently had, he stepped into the room, slowly and hushed but with no hesitation.
It was dim in the bedroom. Only a thin line of light entered through the drawn curtains. The shaft fell on the bed, on a heavy white coverlet that was like the snow outside, formed it seemed by the wind into a drift from foot to head, and at the end another mound of pillow blown against the headboard.
On the pillow her head lay still, and beside it a braid of dark hair. Her face was as white as the sheets. Her eyes were closed and only slow gasping breath showed that any life still coursed within.
He stood over her.
There was a sound behind him. "Master?"
He didn't turn. "Leave me, Maria. Close the door."
The echoes quickly died and he was alone with his wife. He knelt close and studied the pale complexion and listened to her fragile breathing. She was still very much the same as the portrait in his apartment in Paris; age hadn't changed her.
"Irene," he said, but there was no motion.
A ticking clock on the mantel was the only sound in the room. He glanced at it, then looked more carefully around the room. The walls were papered satin white with delicate gold-flowered columns. The furniture was heavy and old-fashioned, also painted white with gilded ornaments. Four red candles, two on each side of the bed, burned brightly. Their red was the only strong color in the room.
The fire in the fireplace was well kept; he crossed the room to the hearth and shoveled as much coal into the box as would fit.
He returned to the bed. He caressed his wife's cheek, feeling the dry parchment skin and measuring the heat of her blood and feeling it pulse. He even touched her eyelid and drew it open. He stared into her eye, and she stared back at nothing.
He drew back the cover from her shoulder and arm. He knelt, found her hand and grasped it in his.
Still holding it, with his other hand he took a handkerchief from his pocket and laid it out on the white cover. The cloth was dark red like a stain on snow, the same color as the candles. He folded it twice, into quarters, all with his one hand as his other held hers.
He took a deep, weary, sorrowful breath.
Then he cupped the handkerchief in his free hand and gently, firmly, held it down over his wife's still mouth and nostrils.
A tremor shook the bed as her frail body unconsciously struggled. He maintained his pressure; no air could pass into the lungs. Her hand in his quivered.
Her eyes fluttered open.
Then they closed. The struggle hadn't been long. There was a final shuddering and she was still.
Even so, he kept his palm in place for moments longer. Then he released her and now there was no breath at all, and no pulse in her veins.
He stood for several long minutes watching her, his own face hard and still as hers. Then he pulled the cover back over her arm and stepped away.
"I will be in my study," he said as he closed the door behind himself.
Maria was waiting in the hall. "Did she know you?"
"No. She didn't wake." He started slowly down the stairs. "And I tended the fire. There will be no need to disturb her. When the children return, send them to me."
The baron's study was small and sparsely furnished. One wall was shelves of books and one held only the door. In the corner of the other two walls, beneath a window, was an old, worn desk. Its antique character and archaic carving matched its owner.
The baron was seated at the desk. The portfolio he'd brought from Paris was unopened on it. The only other objects on the desk were an ink bottle and a blotter. Unmoving hours had gone by and it was noon.
A knock sounded on the door. He opened the portfolio, took out a paper, and held the pen over it.
The door opened. "Father?"
He stood from his desk and moved to embrace the young man standing uncertainly in the doorway, briefly and formally. They matched eye to eye in height and in width of shoulders, but the son was still in his first clean strength of manhood. His hair was jet-black and curling; he was square-jawed and dark-eyed and unweathered.
Rudolph stepped back. "I didn't know you were coming today. I would have been here."
"I changed plans."
"Have you seen Mother?"
"Of course, at the very first moment I arrived. She didn't wake."
"She'll recover. She's strong."
"Yes, I know. She will. You've grown, Rudolph."
The son's eyes glowed. "Yes, sir."
"And your schooling? She writes that you still plan to attend University in the fall."
"Yes, Father. At the Institute, here in Vienna. Mother has made all the arrangements."
The baron's eyes were unreadable. "And to what end?"
"There will be a position in the foreign office."
"A good Austrian, Rudolph. Like all your mother's family."
Rudolph's uncertainty, which had never entirely been absent, returned. "Yes, Father."
"And not the army?"
"Mother insists on the foreign office."
"And your wishes?"
"A career as a diplomat seems honorable. I would be following your footsteps."
"I'm not a diplomat. I'm a soldier."
"Well, yes, Father, of course, but—"
"I'm serving the ambassador as a military advisor."
Rudolph was silent, a silence that lasted very long, until another voice broke it.
Rudolph stepped away to make room. Baron Harsanyi embraced his daughter in a true fatherly embrace.
"What are you doing?" she said. "You came early."
"I have business with the ministry."
"And have you seen her? She's in bed."
"Yes, I have. She didn't wake."
"I want to ask her about hats." She was like her mother, with a rounded face and gentle features betrayed by sharp eyes. Her hair was like her brother's, black and curling, even though it was very long.
"Maria said you were getting a new hat," Ferdinand said.
"Yes, it's being made. What are they wearing in Paris, Father?"
He paused. "Soon you'll come and see for yourself."
"Come to see? Paris? Oh, Father! I couldn't! Mother wouldn't let me."
"We'll ask her when she wakes."
"I can't leave until she's well."
Rudolph had stood still through their entire conversation.
"If you don't need me, I'll be at my studies."
"Yes, go ahead. And I'll be going out."
"Through the evening?" Therese asked.
"Through the evening, yes."
"Go," he said to Zoltan. "Get moving."
The baron leaned back in his seat. The paving stones were well placed and flat, and the landau with its springs cushioned the ride, but even so, the speed was jolting. Yet he was too deep in his colorless thoughts to brace himself, or to notice as he was thrown against the side.
"To where?" Zoltan asked.
"Yes, master." The whip cracked, lightly, and the matched gray pair of horses lunged forward.
Baron Harsanyi suddenly realized their speed. "Slow down!"
The reins were pulled and the carriage slowed.
"Take time," the baron said. "Take all the time you can. Anything to delay our return." Then he thought. "The Foreign Ministry."
The horses slowed further and with them the city passing. Now they were part of the streaming multitude. They passed the Belvedere Gardens and Palace, and the Schwarzenberg Palace, then swerved smoothly onto the wide promenade of the RingStrasse. The grand façades of the ministries and mansions, brick and marble gray, added to but did not surpass the majesty of the broad boulevard itself. Each straight segment was flanked by its own great edifice: the Opernring and the Opera; the Burgring and the Kunsthistoriches Museum on one side and on the other the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace itself, gleaming white and gold in the white snow and whiter sunlight. Behind it the gardens slept beneath their blanket of snow.
Then the Parliament on the left, then the Burgtheater on the right, and then the University. And Baron Ferdinand Harsanyi returned to his fog of restless agitation. He shifted from side to side on his seat until he forced himself to be still. Even then, nothing in him was still. And finally they reached the Foreign Ministry building.
"Baron Harsanyi." Count Friedrich von Buest slowly raised his head and eyes from his desk. A fringe of white hair circled the head and dove down into extravagant sideburns. When his eyes finally reached the baron's, they were large and watery light blue in a wrinkled face.
"What brings you to Vienna?" His voice was reedy and lethargic, like an old organ that leaked air.
"My wife is ill." By force of will, he kept his eyes straight forward.
"My greatest sympathy," he said with no sympathy at all. "It is fortunate that you are here. I wish you to take instructions back to Prince von Metternich in Paris."
"I am the military attaché," the baron said. "I may not be qualified to—"
"I know who you are. I don't want this to be connected with any official channels in the Foreign Ministry."
"Next month the Archduke Albrecht will visit Paris."
"The emperor's uncle?"
"He must be kept from any communication with Louis Napoleon."
"We will make every effort."
"The archduke is an old, foolish man. He has no understanding of the political realities. He hates the Prussians, and ever since the battle of Koniggratz, he has called for an alliance against them between Austria and France. He may make any outlandish statement or promise to the French government." He looked sharply at Ferdinand. "Are you paying attention?"
Ferdinand tried to. "Yes, sir. The ambassador can make it plain that the archduke does not speak for the Austrian government."
"It must not be plain. The archduke will be insulted and call on Emperor Franz Joseph to intervene here in the Foreign Ministry. That would create a crisis, which we cannot afford. I can't send this message through normal Foreign Ministry dispatches, or the archduke may hear of it."
"I understand, sir."
"And do you have any messages from Prince von Metternich?"
"Concerning the Spanish throne—"
"I don't want to hear it. Whatever he says is just as likely a lie or a trick, coming from him. And he wouldn't listen to anything I said to him, either. But he'll know what to do with Albrecht. In that, he and I will be in complete agreement. And I'll tell you yourself, Baron, don't trust von Metternich. But you know him. You know his wiles."
The baron didn't answer.
"You are dismissed," the foreign minister said.
"Now where?" Zoltan asked.
Ferdinand had just left the office of the General Staff of the Army. It was still only late afternoon.
"Around the Ring. Just keep going. Anywhere."
They returned to the RingStrasse and Zoltan set the gray horses at an easy pace.
The streets and the day passed.
It was dark and had long been, the dark of a crystal Vienna winter night, not the dark of a Paris snowstorm. The streets were still full despite the bone-snapping cold.
"Enough," the baron said finally. "Home."
It was the first that Ferdinand had spoken in all the past hours, and it had taken a burst of strength to say it. As they traversed the wider streets his agitation increased, just as it had in the apartment in Paris, and though there was no place in the carriage to pace, still his unease was apparent. As finally they reached the corner of his own Hegergasse, he spoke out.
Without a word, his servant stopped the carriage and waited.
"I do not want to arrive at my door this evening."
"To a hotel then, master?"
"No. Not that. It has to be done. Go on. I just dread it."
Submitting to his master's mood, Zoltan stirred the horses to walk slowly toward the building halfway down the block. But they did approach, and the house was blazing in light with every window bright, even as they were draped in heavy black curtains.
"The house is in mourning," Zoltan said.
"My wife is dead. Go ahead, go forward."