The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 5)

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Cafe Museum (Adolf Loos, 1899)

(For part 4, go here.)

The streets were deserted. Jessica still found it hard to understand how a capital city could be so quiet at night, all good Viennese tucked up in bed by ten o’clock. A single car passed her as she strode past the Technical University, but apart from that she was alone, her heels tapping out a steady staccato beat over the distant ebb and flow of traffic. Her heart was knocking against her ribs.

The trees were still bare, their black branches casting long shadows in the streetlight as she hurried between them. The Secession loomed ahead of her, a white monolith crowned by a glittering globe of golden leaves, looking more than ever like the temple of some forgotten hermetic religion. As she drew toward it, the vast Karlsplatz unfolded before her. During the day it was little more than an enormous roundabout buzzing with cars and trams; stepping onto it now felt like embarking on a trek across a desert. The pavilion on the other side seemed impossibly small and distant. From her current vantage point, Jessica couldn’t see anyone nearby. Part of her hoped that the professor was hidden around a corner. Another part of her hoped that he had stood her up.

As she drew closer, she saw a tall, black-clad figure standing on a patch of pavement washed by the beam of a streetlight. Even from a distance, and even though he scarcely resembled the man she’d met that afternoon (although it already seemed like the distant past) she knew it was Schmetterling, but as she approached, she felt as if she were only really seeing him for the first time.

He had shed the guise of the absent-minded academic like a discarded chrysalis. The shapeless jumper and corduroys had been replaced by impeccable evening dress under a long cloak whose edges fluttered lightly in the breeze. The tousled curls had been combed straight and shone blue-black under streetlight and moonlight. His sharp features looked more hawklike than ever, his expression still disconcertingly neutral with that even more disconcerting touch of amusement hovering at the corners of his thin lips. When Jessica came to a stop in front of him, she found herself craning her neck to meet his eyes: he was a good foot taller than she was.

‘So, Herr Professor,’ she said, sounding jauntier than she felt. ‘Here I am.’

‘Indeed.’ He quirked an eyebrow. ‘I knew I could depend upon you.’

Jessica bristled at his self-assurance. ‘I take it the deal’s still the same? You take me back to 1914, I have a week, I meet you here at midnight a week from now and you bring me back. Right?’

‘That’s the deal.’ She couldn’t help noticing he made no mention of a rule that couldn’t be broken. ‘Now, if you’re ready?’ She nodded. He extended his right arm. ‘Take my hand in both of yours.’

She stepped into his space, drawing herself up as tall as possible to minimise the height difference, and closed her hands around his offered one, shivering as the three hands formed an interlocking cage of bones. ‘Good girl.’ He brought their hands close to his body, at the level of his heart. ‘Now hold tight and whatever happens, don’t open your eyes until I tell you to.’

Jessica barely had time to obey before she felt Schmetterling whip his cloak over her head and she was falling, falling, unable to discern anything but darkness behind her closed eyelids. All around her she could hear the sound of beating wings and feel the rush of cold air. She channeled every bit of her awareness into the painfully white-knuckled grip of her hands on the professor’s to try to block out the fact that there was nothing, nothing at all, under her feet.

And suddenly, without warning, her feet hit solid ground and she was standing, willing her knees not to buckle, shaking like a leaf and gasping as if the wind had been knocked out of her. Unthinkingly, her eyes still tightly shut, she dusted herself down, straightened her coat, reached up to check the state of her hair (the end of one plait had been knocked loose). She gradually became aware of a low chuckle in her ear.

‘You can open your eyes now,’ Schmetterling said, sounding as calm and faintly amused as ever.

Jessica’s first sensation upon opening her eyes was disappointment. They were still in the Karlsplatz, it was still dark and cold – had Schmetterling tricked her? As if anticipating her thoughts, he tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Turn around.’

Jessica pivoted on her heels to face the old Karlsplatz station. Only it wasn’t old anymore. The gold and white paintwork gleamed. It was brightly lit from within. A stream of smartly dressed people was bustling in and out of the open doors. They’re going home from the opera, she thought. She gazed around wildly. A tram was grinding past, wires sparking. The quality of the streetlight was different – warm and golden, no longer the white coldness of sodium lights. On the other side of the square, the brightly lit windows of Café Museum were filled with people in animated conversation.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it,’ Schmetterling observed, as Jessica stood silent with wide, shining eyes, drinking it all in. His voice snapped her out of her reverie and reawakened her distrust.

‘Yes, very,’ she agreed, ‘but how do I know this isn’t some elaborate trick?’

Schmetterling gestured to the bag slung over her shoulder. ‘Look in your wallet.’ She drew it out and opened it. The small sheaf of euros was gone. She found herself holding crown notes instead, the values printed in the eight languages of the Habsburg Empire.

‘Okay, I believe you,’ she said faintly.

‘In that case, shall we be off?’ He gestured across the square in the direction of the café.

Jessica noticed something very odd as they crossed the square and passed knots of opera-goers. ‘Professor,’ she called out, racing after him and catching him by the sleeve, ‘why is everyone speaking English?’

Schmetterling stopped and waited for her to catch up. ‘Oh, they’re not,’ he replied. ‘You’re speaking German.’

It was a statement simultaneously so ridiculous and so logical that Jessica could hardly keep back a startled laugh. So all those movies about time travel had it right, she mused. Before she could continue that train of thought, however, she suddenly found herself standing in front of the café, Schmetterling holding the door open for her.

I am about to meet Egon Schiele. The thought made her falter and suddenly feel faint. Jessica recalled how a few months previously, her friend Amelia had dragged her to a French film festival for a screening followed by a Q&A with Louis Garrel, her favourite actor. Jessica had rolled her eyes at Amelia’s breathless anticipation, unable herself to see any appeal in Garrel’s looks, which reminded her of overripe fruit, or his acting ability, which consisted of a repertoire of three or four different ways of pouting. Now she felt a certain sympathy with her friend. It wasn’t that she had a crush on Schiele, far from it, but the shock of being on the brink of meeting her artistic idol – especially when such a thing should never have been possible – and the fear of making a fool of herself was making her knees weak and the blood roar in her ears. ‘A minute, please,’ she begged the professor. Luckily, he seemed to require no further explanation and let the door swing shut.

She finally pulled herself together and nodded. ‘I’m ready.’ Schmetterling swung the door wide and ushered her inside.

Jessica’s first sight of the café several days ago, abandoned and dark, was instantly effaced by the warmth and light surrounding her. The lamps glowed brightly on pale green walls and marble tabletops. Despite the hour, most of the tables were taken, their occupants mostly men, many of them in shirtsleeves as if they were at home (it was, after all, a second home for many of them, she remembered). Before she could stop herself, she ran a hand over the graceful curves of one of the red-painted Thonet chairs, chairs that she had only ever seen on a plinth at the Museum für angewandte Kunst, sad and lifeless. She had little time to contemplate the chairs, for Schmetterling was leading her toward a table in the centre of the room.

‘Well, if it isn’t Karl!’ a hearty male voice boomed. Jessica whipped her head around to face the speaker, a stocky, balding man with grizzled hair and beard whose face was creased by a broad smile, and struggled to school her features into something resembling nonchalance. Their interlocutor was none other than Gustav Klimt.

‘Indeed it is,’ the professor returned, smiling and nudging Jessica forward. ‘May I introduce Miss Jessica Rosen, an art critic recently arrived from New York.’

‘I hope she’s a friendly one,’ Klimt retorted, not without humour, holding out his hand.

Jessica took it and in a rush her voice came back to her, warm and steady. ‘Herr Klimt, I can assure you I am. I came to Vienna specifically to see your work and that of a few of your colleagues. I admire it tremendously.’

Klimt winked at Schmetterling across Jessica’s head. ‘She can stay.’ He beckoned to a waiter to bring two more chairs and gestured to both of them to sit. ‘If you don’t mind my saying so, miss, your German is excellent.’

‘I had the best teachers,’ Jessica shrugged modestly, ducking her head to hide a smile that threatened. She took her seat and Klimt took charge of the introductions. She found herself shaking hands with Kolo Moser, Alfred Roller, and a critic whose name she had come across once in her research and then promptly forgot. And then… and then…

Egon Schiele (photograph by Anton Josef Trčka, 1914)

Schiele was sitting at Klimt’s left, but somehow she hadn’t noticed him until the older artist introduced him. She was immediately struck by how utterly like and yet unlike he was to her image of him. He was slight and angular, his shock of chestnut hair stood straight up from his forehead as if alive with electricity and his ears stuck out. His eyes were brown too – so much for all those self-portraits with blue eyes! – but shot through with green, his gaze still and piercing. What she hadn’t expected at all was how young he looked. She remembered that Anton Josef Trčka had taken his famous portraits of Schiele that very year, but now she saw that the photographs added a good ten years to him. She suddenly felt old beside him, despite an age difference of only two years, and the thought came to her unbidden that in another two years she would have outlived him. The hand he held out to her was sinewy and sensitive, well kept apart from the flecks of dried paint under the nails.

For one terrible moment Jessica was overwhelmed both by crippling shyness and the insane urge to say something completely inappropriate like I already know what you look like naked. She fought it down well enough to look Schiele straight in the eye and say, ‘It’s an honour to meet you, Herr Schiele. I love your work.’

Schiele’s expression clouded over instantly. ‘You cannot be serious,’ he sneered.

Jessica flinched as if she’d been slapped, but she held her ground. ‘Oh, but I am,’ she insisted. ‘Why would I joke about that?’

Schiele snorted. ‘Miss Rosen, nobody loves my work apart from the gentlemen in this café and a few others dotted about Vienna. And certainly no women, I can tell you. It’s too much for their delicate sensibilities.’ His mouth twisted bitterly. ‘Why should you be any different?’

If Jessica had ever spent time fantasizing about how a conversation between her and Schiele would go, having to convince him that she genuinely admired his work would not have been an occurrence she would ever have considered: his letters and his private writings all seemed to convey an unshakeable sense of self-belief, even in the years when his work was scorned by nearly everyone. This angry vulnerability caught her off-guard. How could she answer it? She couldn’t very well reveal that she came from a time and place where his works weren’t regarded as manifestations of moral turpitude but as masterpieces – aside from exciting disbelief, she was fairly sure that might violate one of Schmetterling’s mysterious rules.

‘I can’t speak for all Viennese women, Herr Schiele, since I’m newly arrived,’ she began, her tone warm and vehement. ‘But I can tell you that what I love about your work is that you wield your pen and your brush the way a surgeon wields a scalpel. You’re merciless and tender at the same time. You cut through outward appearances and show people’s souls as they really are – battered, bruised, aching and flayed but so alive.’

Jessica was profoundly disconcerted to find that as she wound up, the entire table had fallen silent. Schiele was gaping at her, all trace of derision wiped from his face. The silence was broken by Klimt applauding, his expression ironic yet appreciative.

‘Bravo, Miss Rosen,’ he grinned. ‘You’re one of us now.’

As if a spell had broken, the tension around the table dissolved and Jessica was drawn into the conversation as if she had always been a part of it. They laughed and joked and argued passionately about everything, and she was amazed to find herself holding her own.

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, of course. Klimt cast an appreciative glance over her, pink with laughter and eyes sparkling, and remarked slyly, ‘How is it that such an attractive young lady has so far escaped marriage? Or is it that your real reason for coming to Vienna was to find a husband?’

Jessica flushed and gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to reply with a similarly disobliging remark. ‘I don’t think my fiancé would be at all pleased to hear you speaking to me like that,’ she said delicately, slipping her hands under the table to surreptitiously swap the ring on her right hand to her left and wondering what Declan would think of his sudden involuntary promotion from boyfriend to betrothed.

Now it was Klimt’s turn to redden. ‘I beg your pardon, miss.’ He cleared his throat. ‘What manner of man is your fiancé?’

‘He’s a musician,’ she replied with no small amount of pride.

‘In the orchestra or the opera?’

‘No…’ Jessica found herself racking her brain for an answer that would make sense. She couldn’t possibly explain that Declan sang and played guitar in a band that fused traditional Irish music with jazz, especially given that jazz didn’t yet exist, much less that he was a graduate student in musicology writing a thesis on a group of works by Schoenberg… that also hadn’t yet been written. ‘It’s hard to explain. It’s … new music.’

Thankfully, that seemed to satisfy him, and the conversation drifted off in another direction. During a lull, Jessica glanced over at a table on the far side of the room. Its only occupant was a big, rawboned young man whose head looked as if it had been hewn from a block of wood with a few quick, brutal strokes. With his hollow eyes and slumped shoulders, he was the picture of solitude and misery. She felt her skin prickling with familiarity the longer she looked.

‘Is that Kokoschka?’ she whispered to Schiele, whom she was now sitting next to.

‘Yes, but I don’t recommend talking to him just now,’ he murmured. With a furtive glance in Kokoschka’s direction, he whispered, ‘Love life troubles.’ Jessica nodded in commiseration. This must have been about the time his affair with Alma Mahler was in its final throes. ‘Anyway, only Trakl dares speak to him and we all know he’s completely barking mad.’ With one more sympathetic glance, she left Kokoschka to his thoughts.

It was nearly three in the morning when the party broke up. Jessica had secured invitations to Klimt’s studio and Bertha Zuckerkandl’s salon and made arrangements to meet Schiele with his portfolio the next afternoon at the café. As they stood up, she idly noted that Schmetterling had disappeared without her noticing, but she refused to worry about it: after all, she wasn’t meant to see him again for a week. She was too giddy with delight to care much, anyway.

Her attempt to return to her hotel on foot was greeted with consternation. ‘You can’t, miss! It isn’t safe! It isn’t proper!’ her tablemates chorused. She groaned inwardly, realizing that being a time traveller didn’t spare her the full Viennese 1914 treatment of women.

‘Oh, please, it’s only a short walk. I’ll be fine,’ she protested.

A young man she hadn’t yet been introduced to came forward. ‘It’s all right, miss, I’ll find a cab for you,’ he said. He had a round face and irregular features, kind eyes and a warm smile. Again that prickling sense of familiarity. ‘I’m sorry, we’ve not been properly introduced. Joseph Roth.’

Just when I thought this evening couldn’t get any better! Jessica rejoiced. ‘Oh, gosh, I –‘ she stopped herself just in time. She’d been about to tell him that The Radetzky March was one of her favourite novels. And, of course, it wouldn’t be written for another two decades. ‘I’m… honoured to meet you,’ she wound up rather lamely.

‘Really?’ Roth chuckled. ‘I’m only a student. These gents are kind enough to let me be a hanger-on of sorts. Anyway, here’s the cab. Until next time!’

Jessica allowed herself to be bundled into the cab, gave her address and within minutes found herself crossing the same threshold she’d left hours – and ninety-six years – before. The sleepy porter handed over her key without a word. She stumbled into her room and tugged off her boots before collapsing on her bed fully dressed and falling into an exhausted, happy, dreamless sleep.

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