An Unlucky Number
I was just thinking of something Mamma told me only a week ago, soon after my Irish grandmother had left to return home. The conversation in the drawing-room of Morštejn, my parents’ castle in Bohemia, had been about so-called mixed marriages. In due course we ended up turning to that of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, who had married — against his uncle, the Emperor’s, wishes — a woman who was socially beneath him, although she was born of perfectly respectable Bohemian aristocracy: the Countess Chotek von Chotkowa und Wognin… or Sophie, as we knew her. A ‘mere’ Countess ranked well below a Royal Duke.
Grandmamma, that canny, and quite adorable, old lady — whose own marriage was a mongrel mixture of native Irish and the English imperial aristocracy — put the cap on the discussion, according to Mamma, by declaring: “After all, all marriages are between men and women, and you can’t get much more mixed than that.”
I sat musing on this because beside me was an empty seat. Trying to get Karel, my husband, ever to attend anything with me was virtually impossible. I was severely questioning our compatibility. All Prague had been clamouring to get seats for this gala evening at the German Opera, and I felt guilty now owning a vacant one — especially as we had 16, 17, and 18, in the second row of the Grand Balkon. Fortunately, Mamma was with me, sitting on my other side, as otherwise I could not have come unescorted. In my evening bag was Karel’s wretched telegram. I hadn’t even bothered to read what his excuse was this time, just that he was
UNAVOIDABLY DETAINED STOP
I wondered if I should leave it on the seat as my excuse. And his shame. Stop.
There was nothing for it but to distance myself from the gaping emptiness of unoccupied plush and gilt by my side and look about me. The auditorium with its tiers of boxes was still lit by a giant gasolier, not yet electrified. Down in the stalls, men were leaning over their seats to chat, and the hum and buzz of their conversation rose to fill the great space with its satisfying wealth of stucco ornamentation. A mix of parfums streamed from hair and clothing, mingling with the more mundane odour of the illuminating gas. A confusion of sounds rose from the pit as the orchestra tuned up — a noise guaranteed to stir in anyone’s breast the fierce excitement of anticipation.
Society ladies were fanning their bosoms in our balkon. Indeed, it was hot, and how much I was enjoying this simple, basic, pleasure…a whole sublime evening of it stretching ahead almost to infinity. Thanks to the sale of the Fenix Theatre, I had money to spend on installing central heating in our rented palace — it was to have been completed before winter, but was now well on its way to being ready next month, in March, when temperatures would begin to rise again. I thanked Providence that I had not worn the dress I have trimmed with chinchilla. Even so, I was beginning to perspire a little, so unused had I become to such warmth. The late Empress Sissy had firmly believed that perspiration brought on freckles. She had also said that wrinkles begin at thirty. That was more troubling; only a year to go before I would have to start straining my eyes in the mirror every morning.
With a subtle twitch of my fan, I acknowledged the nod of Mr Pinkerstein, who appeared to have a whole box in one of the better positions close to the proscenium. I always thought of him as a charming rogue, and always counted my fingers after shaking hands with him. Yet, I was certain he could count those same fingers in front of me and convince me there were eleven!
Thanks to him, I had done well out of the Fenix Theatre affair. Being Jewish, he had taken all the criticism for closing the place. The district committee of local worthies had then strengthened its resolve to complete its own theatre, to be called The Royal Vinohrady, on Purkyńovo Square, and to be much more splendid than the Fenix ever was. Karel’s view on the matter was that Jews only take decisions that make financial sense; that they have no shred of romance or sentiment. Pinkerstein had explained to me, at our last interview, that if a ‘romantic’ enterprise is allowed to fail financially, then ‘one loses a hundred percent of the money and all the damned romance or sentiment wasted in it — so where’s the good in that?’ There was some sense in this view.
From time to time, Mamma sneaked glances across to my bosom, itself a study in artistic décolletage, on which was pinned the emerald and diamond brooch that had arrived last June by special messenger from London. I had never encountered a King’s messenger before. He was a dapper Englishman with a good suit and bowler hat, yet a hard, strongly lined face, a Mr Henderson. On unwrapping the package, a handwritten card had fallen out:
with grateful thanks for saving our life
and that of our nephew.
How delightfully understated for a monarch!
Mamma was basking in the regal glory of the brooch, although I suspected that nobody here actually knew its provenance. Not that I hadn’t received some discreet recognition by those in the highest places who had been put in the know, though — of course — none of those events of last year ever reached the newspapers. The controlled smiles of recognition I received across the theatre were answered not only by my gentlest of acknowledgements but also by Mamma’s rather broader (and am I permitted to say coarser?) movement with her own fan. Thus we both answered in our own ways old Eleonora von Ehrenberg, who always dressed in dark purple silk, and also the Viennese lady whose name I had quite forgotten and who was sitting with Princess Lobkowicz, here with her husband Prince Ferdinand just in front of us, in the first row. The Princess herself turned, as if adjusting her stole, and awarded me a faint smile.
The orchestra at last was quiet, ready to begin the overture. I glanced down at my programme and caught the names of Eugen Wiesner and Rudolf Kafka before the lights dimmed and the gas jets finally popped all into darkness. Following a rousing and thrilling piece which I did not recognise, the great curtain finally began to draw upwards, revealing the stage which was bright with new electric arc lighting, although buzzing quite audibly. The great Kafka entered an empty village scene in a splendid musketeer costume and there was a cannonade of applause. The actor, before uttering so much as a line or a note, stormed triumphantly from the back stage to the footlights as the ladies’ satin bodices creaked at the seams as they leaned forward in adulation. Such is fame.
It was just at this moment that there was a commotion in the balkon. A gentleman was trying to find his seat, causing ladies and their menfolk to rise while he squeezed past. I had been under the impression that admittance was not allowed once the orchestra had started the overture — that latecomers had to wait until the first interval. I glanced at Mamma, first catching merely the whites of her eyes in the darkness, hoping as hard as I could that it wasn’t Karel creating such an unfortunate stir. Then she languidly arched a single eyebrow — something I had unsuccessfully practised mimicking for years before my marriage, but alas! I was not cut out for the sardonic.
In the confusion of my neighbours having to rise, and a dress getting caught as the seat cushion tipped, I hardly noticed that a figure did indeed slump awkwardly into Karel’s empty seat. I was so angry I could not even bear to look at him. Ours was certainly a mixed marriage.
“Countess, I am sorry to disturb you…” — I heard a loud whisper. It was a voice I knew and it wasn’t Karel’s. I turned.
It was Inspector Schneider’s.
• • • • •
A few moments later, having extricated ourselves with even more commotion from the balkon, I found myself with the young inspector in the first-floor foyer. It was not fully illuminated and was deserted except for waiters setting out drinks glasses for the interval. All he had told me was that there had been a gruesome murder and the body was on the Abt’s Rack — the Prague name for the Petřín Hill funicular railway, derived from that of the Swiss engineer who had designed it.
I was of course flattered that the Police Department should deem me someone to consult. I admit I was at rather a loose end after the excitement of those heady days of last year. Only a small matter had been brought for my attention in the interim, but then very few people actually knew of what had happened at Marienbad and around the Fenix Theatre. This was evidently an important enough affair to drag me from the opera.
“You see, Countess, we think you may be involved in this in some way,” he announced. “Or at least you may know the victim.”
“Oh.” So I wasn’t being involved as a result of my talent for solving criminal mysteries. I felt a little deflated. “Oh, really?”
“There was nothing to identify the victim.”
“But what did he look like?”
“We don’t know. He’s been decapitated.”
Oh, dear! This was indeed a frightful and serious business. “How ghastly,” I found myself exclaiming, but I could have no idea of just how ghastly it might be.
“This is what’s so unusual. His pockets had been emptied, although oddly his watch and chain had not been taken. The only thing we found on him was tucked into the corner of his waistcoat pocket: this tiny slip of paper.” And here Schneider produced the torn corner of a page.
“And written on it, Countess, is your telephone number.”
I examined it. The paper was the exact shade of green used for the Telephone Directory, and indeed, on the other side of it was part of a printed page number — ending in a 6. Yes, it was my telephone number scrawled there in pencil. I didn’t like the fact.
“My dear Inspector… yes, I own it is my telephone number. But then there are plenty of other four-figure numbers the deceased may have had cause to keep: a lucky lottery number, a laundry number, a… er… share certificate…” I was quickly drying up. He was right, of course. What else could it be? Unless… “And was he from Prague?”
“We have no idea.” He could see what I was about to say: “Also, I cannot tell you if the telephone books in Vienna or Berlin are the same shade of green, either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I noticed that Schneider was turning his hat in his hands — a sign I had recognised of old. Not a good one, either.
“And was the murder committed on the Abt?” I asked, trying to broaden the scope of the discussion.
“We don’t see how it can have been.”
“And the body now?”
“Still there. Until we have finished formalities and photographs have been taken.”
I could see from the window that snow was gently falling onto Angelova Street. It hadn’t been when I’d arrived at the theatre. New snow — which could so permanently cover vital evidence… it was even covering a bill-poster as he sloshed paste from his pail onto a wall of previous advertisements, well situated to catch theatregoers as they left. Impudent fellow, I thought. May the snow melt down the neck of his rough tunic. I could clearly read the text of his advertisement since it was set in bold block letters. Doesn’t he understand, I was thinking, that those patronising the opera would hardly be likely to want to see The Great Orsini — Master Illusionist?
“Don’t you think I should view the body?” I could at least ascertain whether or not the victim could possibly have been someone I might know — if only from the quality of his shoes or his suit or gloves. In any event, his general build might be familiar. For the moment I discounted the fact that the very sight might be utterly repugnant. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to look at all.
“I was hoping you would come, Countess. I have a fiacre waiting outside.”
• • • • •
Downstairs, Schneider helped me with my cloak. I was mildly furious that my new black chiffon opera gown would now not be admired coming down for the intervals. Naturally, I could not wear it again — someone might have seen it! Unfortunately, Karel was still paying for my wardrobe. Generous as kings were with jewels and thanks, they did not understand the realities of everyday survival. And, as yet, Karel hadn’t thought to balance my wifely expenses against the income derived from the Fenix Theatre sale.
Along the way, except for a short delay while I called in at home to get out of my dress and change my shoes, I tried to find out from Schneider all that was known about the murder. Three men had boarded the up car, which had crossed with the down one, and three men had left at the Petřín Hill Station. One of these men had been, apparently, drunk — or so the ticket clerk thought — and was supported on either side by his companions. The down conductor was certain that only one man had boarded at the top, but he was unable to give any further details of him. In fact, he thought he had been a slight man, which certainly the corpse was not. The poor conductor was suffering from shock.
Only one event had been remarkable on the short ride: the down conductor had not only slowed at the passing place of the two cars, but had momentarily stopped, causing both cars to do so, as a figure had darted in front of the train, crossing the line a few metres in front of the car.
Müller had been most concerned for my welfare as I left Jindřišská Street, so much so that I hadn’t dared ask for a lantern. I had wondered if a rope would be necessary, but requesting either would have sent him into paroxysms of worry. At least I hardly ever had to explain myself to Karel: oh! ever-absent Karel. That was some relief — even explaining oneself to a servant was hardly something I should be deigning to do, although strangely I was. Dear solid, reliable Müller; perhaps I should have asked him to come along.
When I came out of the palace in my warm fur-lined cape, hands in mittens and almost sensibly shod, Schneider was standing there running a finger round his collar. Another nervous gesture of his I remembered. I looked at him for a long moment, in fact waiting for him to open the fiacre’s door. My withering glance had the desired effect. I think he flushed red right up to the roots of his fair hair… unless it was just the poor light. He still had that gauche look of youth about him, but I knew he was more experienced than he seemed — and quite used to handling a deadly weapon, if not a woman.
“The telephone number…” he began. I felt he was about to repeat himself. How tiresome of him.
“I agree it is the number of an instrument here,” I said, hurrying to the point. “But have you thought it could also be the combination of some safe containing fabulous stolen jewels, or the passcode of a bank account where misappropriated funds have been deposited?”
“For example…” I added, my fortitude weakening slightly.
He finally held the door open for me. “But for your limitless imagination, we would never have cracked last year’s mystery…”
“We?” I questioned. Hmm. How stories embroider themselves in less than twelve short months.
• • • • •
The lower station of the Abt was a hive of activity and ablaze with light. Kerosene lamps had been brought in to supplement the few electric globes there and to add to the dim glimmer of the gas-lamps along Újezd Street. Schneider paid off the fiacre and turned to me.
“Are you quite sure you wish to view the corpse? It’s a fearful sight.”
I nodded my assent.
The photographer was just setting up his apparatus. The doctor who had been examining the ghastly remains came running across to the inspector: “There’s something else,” he declared. “The corpse is also missing his right hand.”
“And where were these amputations done?” Schneider asked.
“Not on the Abt. After death, but only about an hour or even less, I should think, before the body was moved here.”
There was a bright flash as the first of the pictures was taken.
I didn’t need to get any closer to see the thing. I had been trying my best to be brave, but that was fast failing me.
“So, now then, Countess,” said Schneider, changing his tone, suddenly coldly official, “you still say you have absolutely no connection with this man?”
Oh, now I understood. His amateur psychology was that I should see both the full horror and enormity of the crime, and then admit that I did know the man in some way.
“Officer,” I replied straightly, “had I the slightest knowledge of him, I should have told you so at the outset.” I did not add “and what do you take me for?” — or slap him in the face! Taking umbrage would get us all nowhere. Better to be practical. “So what about the men who left the body, Inspector?”
“They were well away by the time we were called…”
“But their tracks?”
“Since the Abt isn’t able to run at present, I have arranged other transport to the top station to investigate, although the snow…”
It was true, but the flakes were falling only lazily through the night air. There was a chance that tracks made three or four hours ago would still be visible. With Schneider and his men walking around, those footprints at the top would be quickly obliterated. It was the accomplice who ran across the line halfway up who interested me… the diversion.
“Well, if you are sure there’s nothing you can add, then I shall get a fiacre for you…”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said as huffily as I could manage in four words and turned on my heels. Luckily, a consignment of uniformed men arrived, presumably those detailed to search for footprints at the top station. If the Nebozízek Tavern decided to open its doors for them up there, it could probably do very well serving them hot grog on a night like this, and this might preserve the footprints a while longer. But, no. I would stick to the diversion, halfway up.
In the ensuing hustle and bustle I was able to slip away unnoticed. A man from the Abt company was filling more kerosene lanterns. I simply approached him and picked up one which was already alight. Being absolutely brazen is often the subtlest way of achieving one’s aims.
There was a path of sorts following the line of the funicular up the hill. The climb was steep and taxing, and soon the lights and activity of the bottom station almost disappeared. Petřín Hill — or the Laurenziberg, as it was known in German, after St Lawrence’s Church whose domes and spires had formerly been the crown of the hill before the great iron tower was erected — well, the hill was strangely silent. I had never been there at night, and certainly never unaccompanied. The blanket of snow was weirdly iridescent even in the darkness. The branches of the park’s trees were now weighted down with snow, which was dusting the thick steel cable that pulled the cars up the funicular’s steep incline. Eventually, I reached the passing place, where the track widened to allow for the two cars, side-by-side.
I paused to catch my breath, looking out over the city with its lights twinkling — the furthest horizon being the slopes of Vinohrady, dominated in daylight by the spiky twin spires of the modern St Ludmila’s church. After this moment’s respite I turned to business. It was not difficult to find a set of footprints crossing the track and to find how this person had approached from the direction of the Castle District — those prints now almost lost under the snow which had subsequently fallen — and how he had waited near a tree, stamping his feet, so I presumed, against the cold. I searched this area intensely in the hope he might have dropped a cigarette end or knocked a pipe out on the tree, but no. Then there was the dash across the Abt’s tracks, alarming the down car’s driver, followed by the man’s doubling-back. The footprints returned roughly in the direction he had come.
There seemed to be no other footprints in the vicinity of the passing place, or marks which would have indicated a body being dragged along. All I could do now was follow in the tracks of the mystery man who had momentarily stopped the Abt.
I wasn’t able to tell if he’d followed a normal pathway or not, as such features were already buried under much earlier snow. Here and there I was able to discern the footprints in precise detail. Bending over with the lamp, I could make out that the imprint of the left foot was less clear than the right. Perhaps this meant that the man walked with a slight limp, his left leg being a little lame? And the more I examined that less-distinct print, the more I thought the left shoe to be slightly turned-in to the right. I was surprised that I could learn so much from a footprint when I had assumed the task to be mostly of matching footwear. From the soles of the man’s shoes there was nothing to learn, except that the sharpness of the heel’s outline, especially with the right shoe, suggested they were either new or recently re-cobbled.
Over the next half hour I followed this man’s path past the ghostly snow-clad orchards which were planted above the formal gardens of the Lobkowicz and other noble palaces. The trees looked like those of some petrified forest from a children’s fairy story. The journey, the sights, and the task were fascinating rather than frightening as I was sure my quarry was trying to distance himself from the scene of the crime, rather than to tarry.
I had visions of the scene at the top station where the three sets of incriminating footprints would by now be lost under the clumsy boots of the Prague Police Department. My would-be ace detective, poor Schneider, must by now be — I sincerely hoped — regretting how he had given his countess the brush-off. Fancy him implying I had some incriminating knowledge of the victim! Phooey!
Even in the night’s blackness I thought I could make out the dark shapes which would describe the geography of the bowl in the hill I was passing through. Behind me would be the tall — and now unlit — form of the Rozhledna Tower, close to the cluster of shapes which would mark St Lawrence’s. Over to the left would be the dark bulk of the Strahov Monastery. Still moving my mostly imagined gaze in a clockwise direction, I should have caught the huge dark rectangular form of the Czernin Palace, now a barracks, and, further round, beyond a few more palaces, the spires of St Vitus’ Cathedral crowning the castle. Indeed, I could just make out the far-off glimmer of lights from some of the castle’s many windows.
My way took me almost in a line towards the old Czernin Palace. It must have been a full hour since I left Schneider at the lower station. Snow had long since decided to squeeze itself into my ankle boots, and my arms ached from carrying the lamp before me. Ice had formed a delicate lace in that part of my hair open under the hood of my cape. Although I was feeling quite exhausted by the time my way took me through one of the park gates and out onto Úvoz Street, I felt a renewed sense of energy as my feet slid on the reassuring cobbles of a city thoroughfare.
A flight of steps leading between two buildings connected Úvoz Street with the much higher Loretánstká Street. Halfway up was a landing and the entrance to a tavern, of the kind used by the grooms and stable-lads from the nearby grand houses. The footprints headed for the door of this place and then, as if changing his mind before entering, my invisible target had headed back down the steps again and hurried (I could see this by the greater length of stride) once more down Úvoz Street.
Here and there the prints were lost, but I would soon pick them up again. However, at the junction with the broad way to the castle, I encountered a mass of foot and hoof prints and I lost him. Dejected, and not for want of effort to see if I could make out my slightly lame man with newly heeled shoes, I made my way down Nerudova Street to try to get a fiacre at Radeckého Square. On the corner of the street was painted its old German name, Sparrengasse, a name that derives from the steep climb to the castle — so steep that one had to spur on even the strongest of mounts.
There were usually two or three fiacres lurking beneath the rather grand, larger-than-life statue of General Radetsky, standing on a shield borne by his soldiers, and on the crook of whose war-like arm, or in the bronze folds of the flag that he held aloft, beleaguered pigeons sheltered from the icy wind. They had my deepest sympathy; I was frozen.
Finally, I attracted the attention of a common cabman, who doubtless first assumed that I was some lady of easy virtue (the presence of the dowsed kerosene lantern I held was probably responsible for his change of opinion) when, leading out of the mass of snow and sludge churned-up by horses and wheels, I noticed the familiar footprints pressed into the firmer snow covering the pavement. They were unmistakably the same as those which had led me from Petřín Hill. I asked the cabby simply to follow me. In his estimation, I passed from erstwhile dubious lady to certifiable lunatic.
The footprints led through a small street into Maltézské Square, so beloved of the poet Rilke in his recent lyric verse, passing by the statue of St John at the centre and leading directly to St Mary’s-below-the-Chain, the church of the Maltese Knights. The street passing the church’s gothic portal had many foot-tracks through the snow and for a moment I lost him again, but luckily, St Mary’s has a peculiar history. At some stage the nave of the church of the Hospitallers of St John of Malta became ruined. Beyond the gothic west façade, set between two truncated towers that would have looked more at home in Normandy than Bohemia, the old nave was now open to the sky. What had once been the chancel was now the whole church, with its own large baroque doorway. I was stopped from going further by the iron gates closing the old nave from the street, but beyond I could see the footprints leading across the stone flags… good, clear prints as the ancient walls sheltered the space from the wind — then turning left and into a stout door which led directly into the palace of the Knights of St John adjoining the church. The snow was no longer falling and the ancient gothic arches, which once had echoed to the vespertine plainsong of monks, were bathed in a pale shroud of moonlight. In other circumstances it would have been romantic.
There was nothing I could do at this time, it being far too late to rouse a gatekeeper or guardian of the palace, so I vowed to come back in the morning. I had some result, at least, from my labours of the evening. I climbed into the fiacre which sped over the night-dark Charles Bridge, past its statuary gallery of saints and martyrs forever frozen still in baroque animation, and across the cobbled expanse of the deserted Old Town Square to get me home.
Exhausted as I was, I asked Müller, who seemed as relieved at my safe return as if I had come back from remotest Africa or had escaped white slavery in the Balkans, to get me the telephone book from what we called Karel’s Business Room—although, au contraire to my husband’s version of the situation, I counted this room nowadays as my own.
In my boudoir I rustled through the telephone book’s green tinted pages. I was turning to each of those whose numbers ended in 6. And there it was. The corner of page 56 was missing, torn off exactly as the scrap of paper Inspector Schneider had shown me. I would have no need to ask Schneider to see that wretched morsel again — it was clearly taken from my book. I felt sickened and I just wished I could think of an explanation.