Cassandra Blaine laughed too much. She tossed back her pretty head so that her golden hair caught the dusty shaft of brilliant sunlight streaming in through the open windows that overlooked the terrace. The Danube River shimmered below. Her delirious laugh broke at the end, so shrill it seemed dangerously close to hysteria. I’d known girls like her whose artificial laughter suddenly ended in collapse, girls who then confessed trivial sins no one cared to hear.
The few late-afternoon folks scattered about the café looked over, some amused, others annoyed, most indifferent. The beautiful heiress, young and privileged and frivolous, demanded all eyes find her, celebrate…smile…applaud. But her careless laughter rankled in the quiet Budapest café where customers whispered as they downed glasses of sherry or bitters. A table of American women, frail spinsters in amber beads and silk Spanish shawls, sipped strong coffee with whipped cream, the only sound the tinkle of spoons against cups. A wizened Hungarian in a black beret rustled the pages of a newspaper he’d taken from a bamboo rack. In the kitchen behind a closed door someone dropped a plate, and it shattered. A man’s deep voice swore, a tepid German curse, followed by an English “Damn!”
“Edna, for heaven’s sake.” Winifred Moss touched my elbow. “You’re staring.”
“I know what I’m doing, Winifred. When people choose to perform, I watch them. I’m supposed to.”
Winifred snickered. “You notice that all the wrong people have tons of money.”
“And translucent porcelain skin,” I added. “God’s ways con- tinue to mystify me.”
Winifred sat back, pleased with her comment. Both of us watched as Cassandra’s chaperone placed a censorious hand on the young woman’s elbow and leaned in, whispering. An old woman, this pencil-thin companion, her gray curls worn under a frilly lace bonnet, her black cotton dress trimmed with too many schoolmarmish ruffles across the bodice. She obviously considered her position taxing, if impossible. Cassandra, her laughter abruptly stopped, glared back, her eyes bright with the power she exercised over the hired servant.
Winifred confided, a little too loudly, her brassy voice heavy with sarcasm, “That poor woman wishes she could slap that bratty girl.”
The old Hungarian man, his pinched face buried in a news- paper, slid the sheets down and glared at Winifred, who could have cared less. She stared back, challenging. He grunted and looked down.
Of course, no one in the Café Europa recognized Winifred Moss, the famous—or should I say infamous?—suffragette, by way of the London battlefront. I’d met her two years ago when she spoke to a women’s group in Chicago, invited by Jane Addams and Lillian Adler to address the question of the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement in America. A rabble-rouser, this fierce, independent female, she took a soul off guard—at least she did me. Blunt, forceful, opinionated, she narrowed her eyes at a world that defined her as…well, inferior, second class, the drudge in the kitchen.
I saw a woman perhaps fifty, at six feet taller than most men, with a long, drawn, horse face behind thick spectacles, unlovely, but somehow…handsome. It was her eyes, I insisted—galvaniz- ing, a hard-coal black that held you, froze you in place. Every so often, absentmindedly, she ran her fingers through her rat’s nest pompadour, a stand of iron-gray hair that matched the black Mother Hubbard smock she always wore. I’d liked her when we chatted briefly in Chicago, and thought her speech to the settle- ment house stimulating and relevant—though I still believed suffrage in America was a struggle impossible to win. I’d seen the red-faced drunken men with their hateful gestures and catcalls when women marched down Michigan Avenue for the cause.
“We have no choice,” she’d told me then. Now, resigned, she sighed. “Such girls”—she actually pointed at Cassandra— “defeat our cause.”
I sat back and wondered whether my brief sojourn in Hungary with the redoubtable Winifred Moss—twenty years my senior—had been a wise move. Two nights ago we’d taken the night train from Berlin, arriving early the next morning into picture-postcard Budapest with its fairy lights illuminating Castle Hill, its exotic Moorish architecture, its air redolent with perfume from the beds of lush-blooming roses.
I’d abandoned my mother in Berlin, an act of rebellion I’d doubtless regret, and at times I quaked at my rashness. We’d had a nasty, spitfire spat that left a bad taste in my mouth.
“You can’t go gallivanting across Europe by yourself,” she’d screamed. “What will people say?”
So be it. Touring Europe with Julia Ferber required Herculean stamina, patience, and an aversion to cold-blooded murder. In America my popular short stories, happily published in Every- body’s, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan, gave me a name and bags of golden coins, and my mother had suggested…you and me, the two of us, mother and daughter, Europe. London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Munich, Berlin. Well, she was still in Berlin—and she maintained that I should be at her side. At thirty, I was too old for rebellion—or was I? I knew we would do battle over my behavior. Perhaps I’d been hasty in agreeing to make the trip.
My mother had become suddenly—and noisily—fascinated by her oldest brother’s family, pleasant enough folks, surely, but smug burghers, plump, red-cheeked, slap-you-on-the-back Berliners who circled Julia Ferber as though unearthing a rare gem. I found the hearty bluster of these Germans trying.
I sat for a portrait with painter Clara Ewald, an engaging older woman with a fiery but delightful tongue. I visited her small cottage nestled in the Bavarian Alps where, one afternoon, I met Winifred Moss, Clara’s friend, who was stopping on her way to a holiday in Budapest. My mother had hinted we’d visit Budapest in hopes of connecting with family of my long-dead father, born in Oylso, near Eperye, a village outside the city. We’d received a letter from one of his distant cousins, inviting us to an afternoon visit. But Julia Ferber suddenly balked at leaving the coziness of German hospitality—at which time Winifred Moss, eyeing my mother with a baleful, unforgiving eye and spotting my own restlessness, suggested that I be her companion for a two-week sojourn in Budapest.
“A woman cannot travel alone without criticism,” she told me. “Men don’t realize a solitary woman, even with ostrich feathers in her hair and shiny brass buckles on her shoes, is an Edwardian Amazon.”
Which was why, impulsively, I boarded the night train to Budapest, arriving in the picturesque city along the Danube early in the morning. The Marta taxi took us to the Hotel Arpad, a ramshackle dowager edifice—Winifred’s choice, of course. A string of hotels on Maria Valencia Street fronted the Corso overlooking the storied Danube—the Hungaria, the Bristol, the Duna, and the Carlton—all sparkly and polished in the early- morning sunshine. Not so the shabby Árpád. Winifred often stayed there and found it “homey.”
This ancient hotel of choice for English-speaking travelers—mostly journalists, businessmen, and a smattering of rich Americans on the Grand Tour—the Árpád overlooked the murky yellow river—the Danube was not blue, notwithstanding Strauss’ lovely waltz. Elegant rooms with heavy but faded damask cur- tains and worn oriental carpets, creaky featherbeds that sagged in the middle, ancient white enamel faucets that creaked and groaned, and a bathtub so deep I considered requisitioning a fireman’s ladder to descend and rise from it. The light fixtures sputtered and hissed, the lights dimmed and then brightened, and I fully expected to be wrapped in a blazing fireball in the middle of the night. But Winifred loved it—worshipped its echoey old rooms. I would come to cherish the place because such faded grandeur was as comforting as an old antimacassar inherited from your favorite grandmother.
Idly, the two of us drifted through our sightseeing days in and out of the threadbare Café Europa on the ground floor of the hotel. Its massive French doors opened onto a terrace surrounded by scarlet roses, acacia trees, and manicured shrubbery. I understood that Winifred needed solace—succor. She was battle-scarred from her days protesting with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant suffrage group brutalized by the club-wielding London police. Jailed, one of a group of women on a hunger strike, Winifred had been force-fed by sneering men, a funnel jammed into her throat, beaten, humiliated in her cell, forced to watch a friend sexually violated. During a protest march she’d been knocked to the ground by a policeman on a horse, and witnessed another woman, the sister of a member of Parliament, trampled to death. Stunned and shattered, she’d retreated, but I’d noticed her raw dislike of most of the men she encountered. She’d traveled to
Germany and now Hungary to escape their faces.
Sometimes in a restaurant she cringed when a man rudely addressed her.
It broke my heart.
Now Winifred nudged me. “Your dreadful friend.” She pointed to the open French doors.
Harold Gibbon was barking orders at some unseen person behind him, but stopped, flicked his head forward like a jittery woodpecker, and walked toward Cassandra Blaine. Something stopped him—perhaps the chaperone’s imperious shudder gave him pause—so he veered away and slid into a chair at our table.
“Ah, Miss Ferber. Miss Moss. We meet again.”
I glowered. “Sir, you were here at this very table for breakfast.
Intrusive, opinionated…” “Doing my job, dear ladies.”
“The scurrilous Hearst syndicate…”
“My bread and butter.” He grinned and withdrew a pad from a breast pocket of his wrinkled seersucker suit. A rose was pinned to his lapel, faded now, with a petal in danger of falling. He removed the summer bowler from his head and placed it on an empty chair.
A skinny, wiry man, shorter than my five-foot height, with jutting bone, freckled parchment skin, a pointy Pinocchio nose, and a Grimms fairy-tale chin to match, Harold Gibbon was that horrid new breed of yellow journalists invented by William Randolph Hearst—a mid-twenties city boy, brash, garish, gossipy, annoying, a second-generation Richard Harding Davis without the sartorial splendor. Harold was a gnat of the Fourth Estate, one impossible to swat. I’d met him two years earlier at the 1912 Republican Presidential Convention in Chicago when I’d covered the event for the George Matthew Adams newspaper syndicate with William Allen White and others—and Harold, the frisky newspaper reporter, interviewed us. Now, meeting him by chance in the Café Europa as we ate chewy bacon pogácsa and sipped black coffee laced with whipped cream, he’d assumed we were old friends.
“I scarcely know you, young man,” I’d told him.
That had surprised him, his eyes bugging out, “But we have met.”
“I meet many people, young man and—”
He’d interrupted. “But Americans gotta stick together in a strange land.”
Now, leaning back in his chair, he grinned at us, a simpleton’s look. “I’m starting to think I’m not wanted here.”
Winifred had little patience with the pipsqueak. “Is there a reason you keep glancing toward Cassandra Blaine, Mr. Gibbon?” “A cynosure, I’m sure you’ll agree. And her upcoming wedding will be world news. If I can get past that dour guardian, I’ll get me an interview.” He beamed. “Another coup for me.”
“Is that why you’re in Budapest?” I asked.
He leaned forward, withdrawing a packet from his vest pocket. Quietly, his eyes flitting around the room, he rolled a cigarette with one hand while fiddling with the monstrous ginger-colored walrus moustache he sported, so expansive it nearly touched the shaggy muttonchops he’d stolen from Grover Cleveland, though I doubted his knowledge of American presidents went back to the previous century.
“I’m here for real news, even though an American marrying into Austrian nobility might be a banner headline.”
Winifred sneered. “How romantic.”
Winifred, I’d noticed, had stiffened when the man joined us, closing up her face, her dislike obvious.
He stared at her, tickled. “Ain’t it, though? Folks eat this malarkey up, truth to tell. Yellow-backed dime novel stuff. Graustark adventures in the feudalistic backcountry.”
He leaned in confidentially. “I love it—really. Tinged with a bit of scandal, this wedding.” He nodded toward the young girl. “Cassandra Blaine, only daughter of Marcus and Cecelia Blaine, wealthy Americans occupying the entire top floor of this fleabitten old hotel, though you rarely see them. Daddy is Connecticut insurance—vice president of Aetna, and a major stockholder of Colt Firearms in Hartford. Mommy is Newport and yachts and Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred in Manhattan. Living in Budapest for the past year now—just as I have, in fact. He’s working with Hungarian investors on insurance opportunity, overseeing the construction of a building on Rákóczi.
“And fickle, spoiled Cassandra falls for the handsome Hun- garian Endre Molnár until, at Mommy’s command, she finds herself betrothed to Count Frederic von Erhlich, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s distant cousin, hunting companion, and all- around gloomy stick-in-the-mud. A marriage orchestrated in the ballrooms of Vienna, though probably not at Hofburg, the Emperor Franz Josef ’s private castle. End of story.”
“No,” I said, “it seems to me the beginning of a sad story.” “How so?”
I shot a look at the American girl with her elaborately coiffed hair studded with whalebone hairpins. Her arms covered with too many jangling gold bracelets, her diamond earrings glittering. She was dressed in an expensive Nile-blue chiffon day gown that exaggerated her narrow waist and high bust.
“From what little I’ve seen of Miss Blaine—two days now, occupying that same table under the cruel eye of her keeper— she’s none too happy with an arranged marriage.”
Harold smiled. “It’s very popular in this part of the world. The transatlantic marriage of an impoverished nobility and nouveau-riche American girl.”
“That’s not my point, sir.” I smiled back. “That young girl seems to laugh too much, and too loudly, mostly, I think, over nothing—or at nothing in this shadowy café that strikes me as worthy of such…hysteria.”
Winifred was scowling at Harold. Earlier she’d told me—her voice harsh and cold—how much she disliked the brash young man, all breezy American strut and rah-rah-Teddy-Roosevelt- vigor. Now, rattling her coffee cup, she tried to dismiss him from our table. “Mr. Gibbon, perhaps you’re sitting at the wrong table? Your nose for news fails you.”
He wagged a mischievous finger at her. “Ah, the famous suffragette, arrested by London bobbies for assailing the prime minister, her picture in the London Times…and the American short-story writer, her too-serious picture recently in the Talk of the Town—sooner or later you’ll both have a story to tell me.” A heartbeat. He tapped his foot nervously. “The Hotel Árpád may have electric lights that sputter, windows that rattle in the night, mice scurrying in the old walls, and a hiccoughing telephone that goes dead when you need it, but it’s a hotbed of gossip and intrigue and”—he pointed to Cassandra, who was frowning at her guardian—“front-page news back in the States.”
“You never answered my question, Mr. Gibbon. Why have you been exiled here?” I stared into his eager, bony face. A ferret, I thought, some jittery little forest creature, all buck teeth and watery eyes. But I saw something else there: a cunning little boy,
Tom Sawyer whitewashing a picket fence perhaps, the unloved boy of the village who could be funny and charming—and wanted the world to look at him. That crooked smile under so emphatic a moustache and outsized beak nose. The flashing hazel eyes, unblinking, or blinking too rapidly, the sense of absolute wonder there. Wily, this reporter, and not to be cavalierly dismissed.
Harold was nodding at a portly man sitting nearby. “Simp- son of the New York Tribune,” he whispered. We watched as Mr. Simpson was joined by another man who was dapper in a summer Prince Albert coat, a pince-nez, an enormous cigar clutched in his fingertips.
“Important, that man.” Harold smirked. “Or at least he thinks he is. Jamison. The New York Times.”
Winifred sighed. “You visit Budapest and you are surrounded by Americans.”
Harold grinned. “Sooner or later anyone hungry for English-speaking folks finds his way to the Café Europa.” He pointed to a rack of international newspapers. “Sixty papers, mostly English, but also German, French. The Morning Post from London, three days late. Even”—a shocked look on his face—“the Hungarian and Austrian papers. Budapesti Hirlap. The Vienna Reichspost. The Berlin Vorworts.” A heartbeat. “I’ve been here over a year now.”
“So you said. But, once again, why are you here?” I probed. “Certainly that scoundrel Hearst didn’t send you here to cover the morganatic marriage of Cassandra Blaine and Count Frederic von Erhlich.”
He chuckled. “That’s a bonus, really, though such marriages are stale news now.” He carefully rolled another cigarette, taking his time, peering closely at the tobacco. “I’m here to chronicle the end of it all.”
Winifred, impatient, rolled her eyes. “The end of what?”
He waved his hand toward the bank of windows overlooking the Danube. “The final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The end of Franz Josef ’s long and awful sixty-something-year reign. Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The Serbian Question. Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexed in 1908 by Austria without so much as a by-your-leave, an insult to the Serbians living there. The Serbians hungry for vengeance. War. Serbia, a thorn in Austria’s side. The rabble-rousers in the streets, the anarchists, the stink bombs, assassination of local officials, the—”
“And you’re convinced it’s ending?” I interrupted.
“The empire is a crumbling massive weight, the most untalked-about secret. Franz Josef recently had a bout of pneumonia, probably dying soon, and this…this Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a nasty piece of snobbery, ready to reign over its decline and fall. Read Gibbon—Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” A foolish grin. “Another inquisitive Gibbon. I plan to write my own Decline and Fall of the Austrian Empire.”
Raising his head, he sniffed the air. “You can smell the decay.” I smiled. “That’s just this hotel crumbling around us.” “You seem so sure of things,” said Winifred.
“I smell war now. Hearst smells war.”
“Well,” I said, “he did help to bring about the Spanish-American War—”
I went on, “Is that why you’re here—to help push Europe into war?”
A mysterious smile. “They’re doing a pretty good job of it by themselves, no?”
“But what’s your reason?”
“I’m a restless man, a wanderer. I put my ear to the ground and listen for the drumbeat. It just happens that a man like Hearst—a man who believes in banner headlines—hires folks like me. I’m the kind of guy who looks at the world and says: You, talk to me.” His eyes flashed. “Somebody’s gotta be a war’s Homer. Why not me?”
“Why Budapest? Why not Vienna?”
He didn’t answer for a moment. Then, slowly, in a stage whisper, “Franz Ferdinand is very unpopular here because the Hungarians know the heir to the throne—der Thronfolger—despises them. Hungarians don’t like being yoked to Vienna. After 1867 they coerced the emperor into a dual monarchy—Austria and Hungary, but that black-and-yellow Habsburg flag rankles the good Magyar patriot. Vienna is closed in tight, folks avoiding reality, lost in dreamy Strauss waltzes and strolling the Ringstrasse under the rows of lime trees. Here—well, people talk in private, huddle in coffee houses while they sip apricot barack. Perhaps the war will begin here.”
Winifred was shaking her head. “True, Serbia is rearing its head these days, a country still angry about the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But a small kingdom, afraid of Austria’s thrust and power?”
“Serbia wants a port on the Adriatic it will never have, though a Greater Serbia demands it. That upstart kingdom will never let go of its impossible dream. Serbia will always be the world’s mosquito, insignificant, but eternally buzzing in your ear. Every so often you have to swat it.”
I laughed out loud. “World politics in a nutshell, according to Mr. Gibbon.”
“So,” Harold continued, “I’m here to watch the world fall apart, bit by bit.”
Suddenly, with an abrupt thrust of his arm, Harold waved across the room, snapping his fingers, and a man rushed to our table.
“Mr. Gibbon, sir?” The man bowed and stood too close to Harold.
“Dear ladies, you’ve met Vladimir Markov?”
Winifred and I shook our heads. I’d seen the café proprietor bustling about, a quick smile on his cherubic face. The roly-poly man, eyes enlarged by thick spectacles, in his late fifties, dressed in a vaguely funereal black cutaway suit, wore an elaborate scarlet cravat bunched at his neck, an incongruous puff of dandyish color.
He grabbed my hand, and then Winifred’s, and kissed each. The Old World Küss die Hand rankled my small-town-girl American soul. Winifred squealed, unhappy, and Mr. Markov, confused, apologized to Harold but not to us.
“A pleasure,” I mumbled.
Amused by our discomfort, Harold grinned foolishly and spoke to Markov in German—which I understood. “American women cannot be touched.” Then, surprising me, he warbled in rapid-pace Hungarian with Markov, who bowed repeatedly, answering him. “Igen. Nem. Igen.” Yes. No. Yes. “Nem értem.”
I’d mastered a smattering of Hungarian, an impossible language, I’d come to realize, though I struggled with a Baedeker phrase book at night in my rooms. A runic confusion, neither Germanic nor Slavic, but after a week or so of guttural German, blunt-edged, the spontaneous flow of Magyar struck me as melodious, each word accented on the first syllable—perhaps I was wrong—but with a lyrical power that soared, ending every periodic sentence with a whiff of marrow-deep melancholy.
Markov and Harold chatted on in Hungarian, the proprietor deferential in his repeated bowing, and both kept looking at Winifred and me.
“He offers you wine,” Harold finally said. “For the beautiful women.”
Winifred grumbled. “Then he’d best wait until they arrive.” Markov addressed us in choppy English. “This is home”—he waved chubby fingers around the room—“to the American and British visitor to our lovely Budapest.” He snapped his fingers and an old waiter in a white linen jacket brought a bottle of Tokay and three glasses.
A slender boy, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, in dark pants and florid red cravat, stood nearby and waited, a pitcher of water cradled against his chest. Markov nodded. “György, come.” The boy moved closer. “My wife’s nephew, from Russia like me, but new here. And green as spring lettuce.” He chuckled. “He has never seen Americans before he arrives a week ago. He stares with open mouth.”
“We don’t bite,” I noted, smiling at the skinny boy with the prominent Adam’s apple and colicky black hair a little too greased and polished. He bowed at me, tipping the pitcher so that the water spilled onto the marble floor and worn oriental carpets. Markov berated him quietly and then apologized—again to Harold—and the boy stepped back, scratching his neck nervously. Harold chatted in Russian now—another surprise—and burst out laughing. “Markov says little György is fascinated by Cassandra Blaine, the American girl with the golden hair. The laughing girl, he calls her.”
Rudely, we all turned to glance at Cassandra, who was dipping a spoon into some chocolate ice-cream confection, and György, realizing we’d learned of his infatuation, turned scarlet and spilled more water. Lips pursed, Markov pointed to the kitchen door. The boy scurried away.
Markov spoke to Harold. “Too sad, my situation. A favor to the wife. You know how that is.” He winked. “A peasant boy, used to cows and sheep and digging winter potatoes. The necktie—she is a noose on a young boy.” He shrugged his shoulders, backed away, headed to check a large copper tea samovar on a sideboard. “A good sort,” Harold told us as he watched Markov pour tea. “A diplomat. He smiles at everything. You ask him about Franz Josef and Serbia or Albania, anything political, and he smiles and bows and backs away. He’s Russian, so you never know what he’s really thinking.”
Winifred spoke up, a trace of pique in her tone. “Are you interviewing everyone for your own Decline and Fall of the Austrian Empire, Mr. Gibbon?”
He smiled and winked at her, improperly. “Well, anyone who’ll talk to me. The landed gentry rule Hungary, even over the nobles. But the workers are the ones who’ll tell you the true story. The unvarnished truth. The vendors in the flower market. The attendants in the mineral baths up on Mount Gellért. Newsboys hawking papers. The Gypsies in their camps. The Jewish storekeepers, the café owners, the grubbing artists.”
“Jews?” I asked.
“You’re in Judapest, ma’am. That’s what the current mayor calls it.”
I said, my voice hollow, “My sad father’s home.”
“Yeah, well, it isn’t the aristocracy that’s got the rhythm of this city, let me tell you. It’s the old lady who wanders into the gulyás restaurant peddling her violets from Matra mountaintops. She understands that war’s coming. The Gypsy violinist with his czigany music and rat-tail cigars. The Serbian men in scarlet capes and sashes.”
“Yet you linger here, Mr. Gibbon. In this café. With us.” I pointed to the expansive French doors, open now to the flagstone terrace spanning the quay that dipped down toward the Chain Bridge and the Danube.
“Café life, Miss Ferber. Look around you.” He pointed to a man with a high flat forehead under slick wavy hair smoking a cigarette in an elaborate holder jutting from a goose-quill stem, wearing an ill-fitting jacket buttoned up to the neck and high- buckled boots.
“István Nagy, a poet. He’s always here. He watches the for- eigners. He hates us. He writes bitter art-nouveau verse about the fall from grace of the new man in the new century. The New World—that is, the rich Americans—comes to gloat at the fin de-siècle decay of an empire he stupidly adores. He longs for the days when Vienna was one grand ball that went into morning. The pre-Lent carnivals with masks and flirtation, Strauss waltzes played from the bandstand.”
“How do you know this?”
He ignored me. “And there.” He pointed to a corner table where two young men sat with an empty wine bottle, two glasses, and a chunk of dark bread, both holding sketchbooks. “The modern Hungarian artists, followers of that zigzag nonsense done by Matisse and Picasso and their ilk in Paris. The short one—the one who looks like a carnival clown with a lopsided grin—he’s Lajos Tihanyi. His father was a friend of this café’s owner. They linger here, him and his buddy, the tall lanky boy, Bertalan Pór, and sketch…us…everyone. That’s all they do. They’ll sketch you and you’ll look like you’ve been twisted into a salt pretzel, your head not where it’s supposed to be. Three arms, maybe. I don’t know. People as cartoons. It’s beyond me, but I’m just a working scribe. Tihanyi is deaf and dumb, so you will hear him sputter and groan, utter garbled sentences. Bit of a temper, in fact, easily rattled. He’ll sneer at his friend, but this Pór is a calm sort—nothing gets to him. He smiles and makes peace. Frankly, I’d kill the clown.”
Winifred held up her hand. “Stop, Mr. Gibbon. Please.”
Harold arched his voice. “The avant garde, them two.” He whispered. “Like everyone else, they’re waiting for the death of Franz Josef. Der alte Herr.”
“Sir,” I began, “you impugn…”
“We’re a circus act for them, truth to tell.”
I glanced at the two young men, both absorbed in their sketching, glancing up now and then toward the open doorway, their chalk rolling over their pads.
Suddenly, grunting, Harold jumped up, twisting his body like a wobbly top. Eyes wide and flashing, he stammered, “Guess it’s time to question the lovely damsel.”
With that pronouncement, blurted loudly enough to turn heads, he rushed to Cassandra’s table. He stood so close to her that it caught her chaperone off guard. The old woman nearly toppled back in her chair. She squawked and put an iron grip on Harold’s forearm. Harold, purposely ignoring her and half-bowing to Cassandra, blithely introduced himself—“Harold Gibbon, Hearst syndicate, reporter”—and requested an interview. Every eye in the café found him.
Cassandra, sputtering, looked to her chaperone and squeaked out a feeble, “Mrs. Pelham, you—”
But at that moment the redoubtable Mrs. Pelham, doubtless a veteran of caring for innumerable charges, deftly retrieved a summer parasol conveniently hidden, and jabbed Harold’s side. He yelped like a recalcitrant puppy and backed away. Mrs. Pelham spoke through clenched teeth. “How dare you, you brutish mongrel?”
At which Winifred let out an unfunny laugh.
Harold slunk back to our table, slumped into a chair, and offered a grin to the audience he’d gathered. “You gotta try, no?”
“Mr. Gibbon,” I began, “perhaps you should—”
But the giddy, ridiculous moment ended abruptly as a group of men entered from the terrace and stopped. Harold sucked in his breath.
“What?” I demanded.
“Endre.” One word, hummed softly. “Who?”
“Cassandra’s lover. Her old lover. The man she abandoned after her horrible mother contracted her out to Viennese aristocracy and a pathetic, worthless title. A friend of mine. Endre Molnár.”
The young man stood in front of his band of friends, all of whom had stopped their chatter, his eyes resting on Cassandra, who self-consciously touched her exquisite hair. Silent now, Endre watched her. He was tall and lanky and dark-complected, his black eyes set under a high forehead, his black hair swept back and down his shoulders—very Heathcliff, I thought. A swashbuckling moustache over razor-thin lips. A granite face, strong, rigid, shadowy. His smoldering stare radiated melancholy. Dressed in polished high black boots, blue trousers, and a white linen shirt that contrasted with his bronzed skin, he dominated the room, ruled the space. Every eye turned to him. Even Winifred, frowning at the melodramatic moment, stared.
One of the men with Endre leaned into his neck, but Endre shrugged him away, and spoke loudly in Hungarian.
“What?” I asked Harold, my linguist at hand. “He said he belongs here—his friends come here.”
Mrs. Pelham sputtered unhappily as the room watched Endre’s rigid body. Even the two artists laid down their sketchpads, and waited. Cassandra Blaine, perhaps not realizing what she was doing, had stood, one hand gripping the table, her body swaying. Mrs. Pelham reached out, demanding the girl sit down, but Cassandra, a catch in her throat that we all heard, pushed her away. She sobbed out loud. Cassandra was staring at Endre, and he at her. It was marvelous, I thought, and melodramatically beautiful, this moment out of, say, an Offenbach operetta. Or even Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, all the rage a few summers back. Or The Gypsy Baron. I expected to hear a plaintive Gypsy violin, maybe, a drumbeat, a wail from an unseen singer. A stage curtain, dropped.
But then, the spell broken, Endre turned away sharply, his face mournful but dismissive. A coldness there, calculated. And, in a flash, he disappeared back out onto the terrace into the late-afternoon shadows and golden sunlight glinting off the Danube. We stared, all of us, mesmerized, at the empty space.
“Well…” Winifred began.
Harold’s head was twisting around like a dervish, unable to focus.
Turning, I spotted György standing by the kitchen door, dripping water onto the floor from the pitcher he seemed unable to control. I followed his startled gaze. In the shadowy entrance to the café, near the corridor that led to the hotel lobby, stood a tall, burly man with a dark beard, a derby on his head, arms folded over a barrel chest. I jumped. Though everyone else was gazing at the empty doorway to the terrace, the man was fiercely focused on Cassandra. My throat went dry, my heart pounded. The boy looked scared, which I understood because the man reeked of menace, danger.
When I looked back at the entrance, no one was there, just shadows and dim light. The man had disappeared. And for a minute I doubted what I’d seen there. But a shaft of fear passed through me as my eyes drifted back to the hapless Cassandra, crumpled over her table.