The Butterfly’s Wing is a short story I published on Dreams on Paper in ten installments over the course of a year (July 2012-July 2013). Here it is, complete, if you’d like to read it in one go.
‘Ein Stück Esterhazytorte und ein Melange, bitte.’
Jessica Rosen closed her eyes upon the waitress’s retreating back and released the breath she hadn’t quite been aware she was holding. She let her head tip forward into one hand, her still-flushed cheek hot against the curve of her palm. It was still hot when the waitress laid a small silver tray in front of her and slipped away before she could gather her wits quickly enough to murmur ‘Vielen dank’. After a week in Vienna, German still felt as awkward on her tongue as a child’s too-large first pair of shoes.
She busied herself with rearranging cake, coffee and their accoutrements on the small marble tabletop. Demel had become her refuge of choice after sessions in the Albertina’s study room, and on this particular day refuge seemed more a propos than usual. For the hundredth time that week, she found herself wondering what had ever possessed her, back in New York, to choose Egon Schiele’s self-portraits as her dissertation topic, and why doing three weeks’ research in Vienna had seemed like such a wonderful idea at the time.
Spending hours over the drawings at the Met, the Neue Galerie and a couple of commercial galleries had in no way prepared her for the morass of bureaucracy, confusion and humiliation that was the Albertina print study room. First there had been the hurdle of obtaining permission to view the drawings at all, which had required a letter from her advisor two months in advance of her visit. (When she mentioned this to a fellow student, she met with a roll of the eyes and ‘Yeah? Just be glad you don’t work on Dürer.’) Then being informed by a couple of students ahead of her that it smoothed the way a great deal if one brought gifts for the study room supervisor, who apparently had very expensive taste in tea. (‘What is this, Russia?’ she muttered to herself as she stood in line to pay for several tins at Kusmi Tea.) The worst surprise awaited her when she arrived. The tea-connoisseur study room supervisor seemed to be an invention. The study room was staffed instead by two gruff, bearded Myrmidons who proudly informed her that they didn’t speak English. And also that she was not to be left alone with any of the drawings.
Jessica had always considered examining a drawing to be the most intimate experience anyone could ever have with a work of art. Having someone leaning imperiously over her shoulder while doing so was bad enough in itself. Having one of those boorish attendants breathing down her neck while she looked at Schiele drawings, infinitely worse. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen his drawings, of course, but some of the ones in the Albertina, seen in the flesh, were an amalgam of cruelty and tenderness that almost crushed the breath from her lungs and left her eyes smarting with unshed tears. If ever there were drawings she wanted to be left alone with, these were they.
So it was hardly surprising that this morning’s session had been the last straw. Knowing as she now did the workings of the study room and its surly guardians, Jessica had put off as long as possible viewing one of Schiele’s rawest self-portraits – the artist naked under an open black coat and masturbating, his look of hollow-eyed despair at stark odds with his gesture. She steeled herself as the elder and more uncongenial of the two lifted the drawing from its box and placed it on the easel in front of her, then, drawing a deep breath, she turned her head and, in the combination of mime and shaky German with which she’d managed to establish some sort of détente over the last several days, ground out, ‘Bitte … ich möchte …’ she paused to fish in her memory for the right verb and then it tumbled out in a rush, ‘allein sein mit dieser Zeichnung.’
‘Das ist verboten,’ her tormentor replied with what she could have sworn was audible smugness, folding his arms. Great, she thought, either he now thinks I’m a deviant who can’t be left alone with a drawing, or he gets some sick satisfaction out of watching me squirm.
‘Bitte…’ she tried again, with a vague, expansive gesticulation, feeling the blood begin to rise in her cheeks. She was met with a brief shake of the head and a raised eyebrow. She turned back to the drawing with an angry toss of her head, but her cheeks gave the lie to the show of defiance.
Jessica hated how easily she blushed. It had nothing to do with prudery, just an unfortunate meeting of shyness and genetics. Under long copper-red hair her skin had a translucent pallor in which the slightest blush bloomed like drops of blood spreading in a bowl of milk, the effect heightened by the almost painful delicacy of her features and the dark grey of her eyes. A succession of mean-spirited boys (and a few girls) in her elementary school had delighted in taunting her into crimson-cheeked tears. The print room ogre, she thought, was just an older version of her classmates.
An interminable quarter of an hour later, she nodded to the man to bring out the next drawing. He was definitely smirking when he removed the first self-portrait. ‘Danke,’ Jessica muttered, mentally adding, sadist.
The light clink of the spoon in her cup as she stirred a lump of sugar into her coffee was finally starting to take the edge off her nerves. So was each delicately crumbling sliver of torte (she was discovering that she had a hitherto unknown capacity for coffee and cake, and that in Vienna, sugar and caffeine had a soothing effect quite the opposite of what they had at home). The worst past, she admitted to herself that the disastrous session in the print room hadn’t been so much the cause of her bad mood as a symptom.
She was disillusioned with Vienna. Yes, that was it. She’d spent years reading about it – in its glory years – and looking at its art – also from its glory years. Vienna in 2010 was far removed from the glitter, the danger, the intellectual ferment she found in Schiele’s drawings, Klimt’s paintings, Freud and Wittgenstein and Zweig. Of course she’d known that it had never really recovered from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and two world wars, at least in a cultural sense, but it was one thing to understand the fall on an intellectual level and quite another to land there and realise that in some sense, time in Vienna had stopped in July 1914. It was a backwater. A prosperous, self-satisfied, proudly provincial backwater.
What bothered her most, though, was the way the city traded on its past – a poisonous mixture of cynical greed, disrespect and selective amnesia. Walking along Kärntnerstrasse on her first day, she came across a chocolate shop whose window flaunted boxes of truffles decorated with The Kiss and – the horror, the horror – Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Knee. Café Central had a kitsch statue of Peter Altenberg sitting at a table in its midst and she was willing to bet that none of the tourists conversing over overpriced cakes were engaged in the intellectual sparring matches of times past. Café Museum, which she’d dreamed of visiting not just for its Adolf Loos interior but because it had been Klimt’s and Schiele’s preferred haunt, was closed for repairs for the foreseeable future, just a few forlorn overturned bentwood chairs visible through the window. A team of contemporary artists had converted the Secession into a giant mini-golf course, which she wouldn’t have minded if they’d left the Beethoven Frieze alone – but they hadn’t. It had been impossible to see the frieze properly for the course and impossible to contemplate it in peace for the tinny Muzak. (She’d left an irate comment in the visitors’ book and felt a certain grim satisfaction in seeing that hers was far from being the only one.) And every time she passed a street, monument or square named after Karl Lueger – there were far too many – she felt a cold wind blow through her heart. She wasn’t at all religious, would have jokingly described herself as a Jewish atheist, but the constant reminder that she was in a city that apparently saw no problem with continuing to lionise Hitler’s idol hardly endeared her to the place.
Just then, in the midst of her unhappy reverie, an unexpected sound cut through the hum of conversation and the scrape of silver on china – a low tenor that seemed to be coming from the neighbouring table.
Jessica’s neighbour had impossibly long legs folded under his tiny table and a pile of scores stacked on top of it. He was dressed with the studied carelessness of a student – a loose charcoal-grey woollen jumper over olive-green corduroy trousers – and at first glance she took him to be about her own age. The longer she watched him out of the corner of her eye, the more she began to question that first impression. The mop of unruly curls, a black so deep it verged on blue, gave him an air of youth, but his sharp cheekbones and the way his pale skin was drawn tight over his features were anything but boyish. There was something of the hawk about his profile. His eyes were half-closed in concentration and one hand was beating time with a pencil as he sang under his breath from a score propped open in front of him:
Und seine Zweige rauschten,
Als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
Hier find’st du deine Ruh’ !
Die kalten Winde bliesen
Mir grad’ ins Angesicht;
Der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
Ich wendete mich nicht.
Nun bin ich manche Stunde
Entfernt von jenem Ort,
Und immer hör’ ich’s rauschen:
Du fändest Ruhe dort !
She recognized the haunting melody of Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. The warmth and bustle of Demel in the afternoon seemed to dissolve under the bleak chill of the song of a poet lost in a winter landscape, all the more poignant for being almost whispered, the singer seemingly unconscious of his surroundings.
The last measure faded into silence to be replaced by the scratching of a pencil and the shuffling of scores. Jessica was about to turn away when she felt something lightly strike her foot – the pencil had fallen and rolled across to her. Without thinking, she picked it up and held it out to the singer, realising too late that this meant another awkward exchange.
‘Entschuldigen Sie, bitte – ’
‘Thank you.’ His speaking voice was cool and melodious, with the barest trace of an accent. ‘To whom have I the pleasure of owing the rescue of my errant pencil?’
His turn of phrase was so extravagant that Jessica thought he might be mocking her, but after a week without anything approaching a proper conversation (the pantomime-and-pidgin-German negotiations with hostile print room attendants didn’t count) her shyness and her inborn New Yorker’s wariness of strangers had far less of a hold over her. ‘Jessica,’ she replied, ‘Jessica Rosen.’
‘Enchanted.’ He held out a hand whose long fingers and knobbly knuckles could easily have been the branches of the linden tree he had been singing about. ‘Professor Karl-Franz Schmetterling.’
‘Professor of music?’
He arched one fine black eyebrow. His eyes, fully open, were a pale, piercing grey that, like his hair, leaned toward blue. ‘If you like.’ It was an odd remark, she thought, but she let it pass. ‘And yourself, miss? What brings you here from America?’
Busted, she groaned inwardly. It wasn’t as if her accent and her clumsy German didn’t already give her away, but one never liked to be taken for an ugly American. ‘I’m doing a PhD in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York,’ she explained. ‘I work on Schiele. I’m here on my first proper research trip.’
‘Ah.’ He fixed her with a thoroughly disconcerting stare. ‘And how are you finding our fair city?’
The way his gaze seemed to pierce right through her suggested that in this instance, honesty was the best, if not the only feasible policy. ‘Well, Herr Professor…’ she began, gathering her nerve, ‘it’s a beautiful city, really and truly. The architecture, the museums, the cafés – I could hardly ask for better…’
Schmetterling snorted softly. ‘I sense a “but” there.’
Jessica’s shamefaced laugh died away as a sigh. ‘Yes, I suppose there is. I don’t want to offend you, but…’ and before she could stop herself, she launched into an impassioned account of the many ways Vienna had disappointed her. Part of her expected the professor to bridle at her criticism but his cool stare never wavered.
‘The worst thing about Vienna is how, well, dead it is now,’ she wound up. ‘It’s one thing to know that it was once the centre of the universe – well, one of them – and calmly appreciate what remains, but part of me can’t help wanting more than anything to have experienced it myself. I want to go to a real exhibition at the Secession, not some reconstruction. I want to sit at a table next to Schiele and Klimt. I want to hear Mahler conduct at the Opera, I want to walk in the gardens of the Belvedere and watch Freud and Jung debate the nature of the unconscious, I want…I want to see it all alive.’ Too late she realized how much her voice had risen and how preposterous her wish was, and she fell silent, blushing furiously.
Schmetterling rested his chin on his steepled fingers and fixed her with his steely eyes.
‘What if I told you that you could?’
Jessica stared at him, waiting for the punch line. But none came. In the face of his unaltered expression she dissolved into the incredulous laughter of someone who has been asked to believe one too many impossible things before breakfast.
‘I suppose next you’re going to tell me you have a bridge you want to sell?’ she gasped, struggling to rein herself in and torn between disbelief, anger that the professor should have taken her for a fool and more than a little fear that she had found herself in the company of a madman. The rudeness of her reaction hit her belatedly and the first blush was overlaid with another fiercer one.
Yet when she dared meet Schmetterling’s eyes he hadn’t flinched, was gazing at her with the same disconcerting equanimity. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘No, Miss Rosen. I assure you I mean every word I say. I can indeed show you the Vienna you wish to see. No unwanted bridges included.’
Jessica grimly bit down on another paroxysm of laughter threatening to shake her. ‘I knew it! The music professor business is a front. You’re a mad scientist. Have you got your time machine parked out back?’
This time one corner of Schmetterling’s thin mouth quirked into something resembling a lopsided smile. ‘I’m not a scientist, no. But it wouldn’t be the first time someone has called me mad.’
Something in his half-smile inspired an answering one and made her lower her guard in spite of her better judgment. ‘Okay,’ she found herself nodding, ‘suppose I believe you – and I don’t, I really don’t – how does this work?’
‘It’s very simple.’ The professor propped his hands on the pile of music. ‘If you choose to take my offer, you’ll meet me in front of the old Karlsplatz station tonight just before midnight. I will take you back to the day and year of your choosing. No machine involved, although I’ve been told the method of travel is bothersome to those who suffer from vertigo. You will have a week to spend in Vienna as you please, at the end of which I will meet you at the same spot and bring you back to the present. Only a single night in our time will have passed.’
Jessica found curiosity getting the better of her doubt and distrust. ‘That’s it? No strings attached?’
‘Oh yes,’ Schmetterling murmured, almost as if to himself, ‘of course, there is one condition which, if broken, will prevent you from returning to the present.’
He lifted one eyebrow again. ‘That, my dear, would be telling.’
‘That’s hardly fair!’ she protested. She wasn’t entirely surprised to meet with maddening silence and a half-smirk. ‘Look, I can behave myself in the past. I’m hardly likely to do something stupid like bring my computer back with me, am I?’ A shrug from the professor. He clearly wasn’t going to give anything away so easily. Was it worth the risk of not knowing what condition she might break?
‘Well then. Now that you know the rules, what date will you choose?’ he asked.
Jessica did some quick mental calculations. ‘I want to go back exactly ninety-six years from today.’
‘Let’s see,’ Schmetterling mused, ‘The first of March, 1914… that gets you here just ahead of the start of the war. Of course, that means you miss Mahler by three years. And Freud and Jung are no longer on speaking terms by this point.’
‘That’s all right,’ Jessica countered, ‘Schiele is the main thing. 1914 was one of the most interesting years of his career. That, and just… seeing Vienna on the brink.’
‘The last blaze of glory before the deluge, eh?’ She nodded.
‘Oh – one practical question.’ She fought down the niggling voice in her head that was cautioning her against getting carried away. ‘Where am I going to stay in 1914 Vienna? I don’t really relish the thought of sleeping on a park bench, and I know all too well what used to happen to women who did.’
‘The flat you’re staying in used to be a hotel. There will be a room booked in your name,’ Schmetterling replied.
‘How convenient.’ No sooner had the words left Jessica’s lips than a chill ran up her spine. How did he know where I’m staying? ‘Glad that’s settled,’ she continued, fighting to strangle the panic she felt and play it cool. ‘I’ll see you on the Karlsplatz later. Or maybe not. I have some thinking to do.’
The professor turned his thin half-smile on her again, his nearly colourless eyes glinting. ‘In that case, until later. Or maybe not.’ He reached into his pocket. ‘Here’s my card.’
She took the card and turned it over, unsurprised to see that it contained no address, no phone number, no contact information of any kind – simply ‘Professor Karl-Franz Schmetterling’ printed in immaculate copperplate on a black-edged square of thick laid paper. How very like him.
‘Right,’ she mumbled, pocketing the card and rising to her feet, her brain in a turmoil that put that of her morning at the Albertina in the shade. When she bent to hoist her bag, she found the professor once again bent over his music as if lost to the world. She swung it over her shoulder and strode off, a slight stumble in her step betraying her confusion.
When she went to the till to pay, she was told that her bill had already been settled.
Jessica turned the collar of her coat up against the early March chill and glanced at her watch. Just a few minutes past five – an awkward part of the day, too late to go to a library or museum, too early to go home and make dinner. In any case, her mind was in too much of a whirl to contemplate sitting still. She rounded the back of the Albertina and found herself heading into the Burggarten.
Despite the hour, the park was nearly empty, apart from a few scattered groups of student sitting on the grass and the odd businessman striding purposefully along the path toward the nearby tram stop. She took one of the paths and followed it unthinkingly, her pace both restless and distracted, until she drew level with one of the two great glasshouses. She’d eaten dinner in the Palm House the evening before, already tired of the monotony of bread, cheese and salad at the tiny kitchen table in her flat, and rather enjoyed watching the play of artificial light and shadow in the palm leaves as she sipped a glass of Grüner Veltliner, but she hadn’t noticed the neighbouring glasshouse – it had been dark when she arrived. Now she glanced up at the sign above the door, which read SCHMETTERLINGHAUS.
She shivered involuntarily as she looked closer. From the outside it looked identical to the Palm House but sure enough, there were butterflies flitting among the palms and vines. It’s as if he’s following me, she thought. She leaned her forehead against the glass and stood watching the butterflies until standing still became too cold, trying to marshal her thoughts, weighing the pros and cons of accepting the offer of a stranger – who seemed to know far too much about her, and who she was fairly sure was a con artist, a madman or both – to let her see Vienna in its pre-war glory, given that her safe return was dependent upon her not breaking a rule he refused to tell her about.
If she was honest with herself – and now, alone in the cold Burggarten in front of a glasshouse full of butterflies, she had no other choice – she’d already made up her mind as soon as he uttered the words ‘What if I told you you could?’
She straightened and shook herself. If she was going to accept Schmetterling’s invitation, she would need to go home and pack.
Home, at least for the past week, was a studio flat in a side street off Mariahilferstrasse that Jessica was borrowing from a friend of a friend of a professor. She eyed the façade of the building with new interest – so this was once a hotel – as she fished for her keys.
Once inside she was confronted with a problem she had thus far never encountered. How does one pack for a trip to another time? She flung her bag and herself down on the sofa and considered the question. After a few minutes she was certain that at least she’d figured out the Professor’s one unbreakable rule.
It must be ‘no introducing anachronisms’, she decided. She slid her computer out of her bag. She could happily go a week without it, especially if that week involved meeting Schiele. She rifled through her wallet and pulled out every bit of plastic, replaced it in her bag and dumped out her rollerball pens with a sigh. Those she was going to miss.
Clothes presented something more of a challenge. Jeans were clearly out. Luckily, she had decidedly retro taste and a preference for black that would have earned her a reputation for eccentricity anywhere other than New York, but was in fact only a reaction against the prescription of blue-green as one of the few acceptable colours for redheads. She opened the wardrobe and started pulling things out at random. A long black dress. Another one that probably strained at the bounds of 1914 propriety in terms of length – it ended at mid-calf – but whose black-and-white pattern hovered somewhere between Art Nouveau and Wiener Werkstätte. A long black skirt, a white blouse, a plum-coloured wool cardigan. Her coat was black wool with a high round collar and silver braid, Napoleonic in style – she hoped wearing it in a city that he’d invaded in the relatively recent past didn’t constitute a major faux pas. She slipped out of her clothes and into the dress, pulling on her boots – high and black with louis heels and a row of buttons up the sides (they were purely ornamental, but she hoped no one would notice the zips.) She drew a sigh of relief as she carefully folded the rest and packed it in her bag. That hadn’t been so bad.
Jessica stood in front of the mirror in her new 1914 guise and realised she would have to do something about her hair, which at the moment hung down her back in a long curtain. She racked her brain for the fashion of the time in Viennese hairstyling and could only think of the massive puffy chignons worn by the sitters in Klimt’s portraits. A brief experiment on her own hair was not a success. Finally she settled for plaiting her hair and winding the plaits around her head – the sort of complicated style she loved but seldom had time for. She fastened the plaits in place with a handful of hairpins and tucked the box, still half-full, into her bag.
It was only half-past seven – more than four hours before her rendezvous, and in any case it wouldn’t take her more than fifteen minutes to reach the old Karlsplatz station. May as well check my email, she decided.
The only new message was from Declan, her boyfriend.
Thanks for the ‘break a leg’ for my gig tonight… I’ll miss seeing you in the audience. I promise not to debut the new song until you’re back!
I’m really sorry you’re finding the people at the Albertina so impossible. All I can say is don’t let the bastards grind you down… easier said than done I know.
Two more weeks and then you’re home. Look after yourself until then. I miss you.
Jessica pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, guilt and anxiety struggling within her. How was she going to reply? Dear Dec, Had an interesting day. Met a strange and possibly crazy man at Demel who sounds like Alan Rickman and claims to be a time traveler. By the time you read this, I’ll be ninety-six years in the past. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be back tomorrow unless I somehow happen to break a rule he never told me about, in which case it was nice knowing you? She gazed at the screen, letting the characters swim before her eyes. At that moment she would have given anything to close her eyes and wake up in her own apartment in New York to Declan gazing at her worriedly from under his black fringe and telling her in his soft Cork accent that she’d just had a very strange dream.
Uttering a silent prayer that this wouldn’t be the last email she ever sent him, she opened a reply.
Thanks for trying to cheer me up – it does help. I had a particularly tough day at the Albertina, but I think my research is about to take an interesting turn. I’ll be able to tell you more tomorrow.
There, at least I haven’t lied and I hope I haven’t made him worry, she thought, closing her computer.
She tried, with varying levels of success, to while away the remaining hours – reading (a lost cause), listening to music (her host’s taste inclined heavily to Schubert, although she was relieved to note that the Winterreise was nowhere to be found in the stack of CDs), restless pacing. At last, she glanced at the clock for the umpteenth time and saw that it read 11.40. She jumped up and slipped on her coat, standing before the mirror to button it. A pale, taut but resolved face surmounted by a crown of red plaits stared back at her.
Jessica squared her shoulders and looked herself in the eye. ‘Once more unto the breach,’ she whispered. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder, let herself out of the flat, and turned her steps in the direction of the Karlsplatz.
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.
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.
The days that followed produced so many moments that would have had Jessica gaping or laughing in disbelief that she had no choice but to treat them as utterly ordinary.
The morning after she arrived in 1914, she found herself crossing the threshold of Klimt’s studio. She was mildly disappointed to find no trace of the legendary harem of nude models lolling about while the artist sketched, and wondered if he had dismissed them for the morning on the pretext that the sight would be improper for a young lady of good breeding – indeed, apart from his one unfortunate remark about her marriage prospects the first evening, his manner toward her had been unfailingly courtly, although leavened with hearty good humour. The only sign of the models was a pile of sketches on a table in a corner which he had tried to distract her from by showing her the canvases currently on his easels – a landscape of the Attersee that resembled a mosaic of jewels and a pair of portraits of a mother and daughter, the figure of the mother half-laid in against a riot of colour, the daughter standing with feet planted wide apart on a curiously matte pink ground. The squat, solid figure of the mother and the sylph-like girl whose unwavering gaze and square jaw bespoke a mixture of shyness and stubbornness sparked a connection in her mind.
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Mäda Primavesi (1912)
‘Mäda and Eugenia Primavesi?’ she asked before she could stop herself.
‘Quite right!’ Klimt replied, startled. ‘How did you recognise them?’ She mentally slapped herself, mumbling something about them being friends of one of her uncles.
One morning, strolling along the Ringstrasse near the University, she saw coming toward her a sturdy middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard deep in conversation with two younger men, punctuating his remarks with emphatic jabs of his cigar. Although he bore little resemblance to the frail, shriveled, bespectacled grandfather of popular imagination, she immediately knew who he was. Since she could hardly detain him and gush like a star-struck teenager, she settled for nodding politely in his direction as he passed, which he was too enrapt in the finer points of his own argument to even notice. Now I know what my epitaph will be, she thought wryly. Jessica Rosen: She was ignored by Freud.
Another morning, feeling frivolous, she paid a visit to Schwestern Flöge and spent a good two hours trying on dresses. To her surprise and delight, Emilie Flöge herself waited on her, and Jessica found her attention torn between the strangely austere flamboyance of the dresses, with their flowing lines and layers of black and white pattern, and the perfect oval of the couturiere’s face, so familiar from paintings and photographs, and the resignation that shadowed her kind eyes.
Emilie Flöge (photograph by Madame d’Ora, 1909)
‘That dress looks very well on you, madam,’ she observed as Jessica admired her reflection – she had on a loose, airy lawn with a stylized butterfly print that looked as if it might have been the work of Dagobert Peche. Jessica’s pleasure quickly turned to consternation when Flöge continued, ‘Shall I have it delivered to your hotel?’
For one instant the temptation to say yes nearly claimed her, but then the obvious objections – the cost, the fact that she would never be able to wear it in her own time, much less explain its presence – forced common sense to prevail. ‘I – I’ll have to ask my fiancé first,’ she stammered, blushing furiously.
‘Yes, of course,’ Flöge nodded, her tolerant smile unwavering. In the moment before she turned away, Jessica glimpsed the filigree of silver in the soft puffs of hair framing her face, the tiny webs of crows’ feet springing from the corners of her eyes. As she changed back into her own clothes, her choice of excuse tormented her, a thoughtless reminder to Flöge of two decades of disappointed waiting and being held at arm’s length by Klimt, always ready to bed one of his models but never regarding her as anything other than a chaste goddess in Wiener Werkstätte robes.
Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of the Wind (1914)
Another afternoon, feeling particularly foolhardy, she accosted Georg Trakl in the café and broke into his solitude with a boldness that came from she knew not where, ‘I’ve been told you’re the only person on speaking terms with Kokoschka. How about taking me to his studio?’ She nearly turned and fled when Trakl swiveled his brutal mask of a face in her direction, his eyes swimming in a drugged haze, but he seemed to be in a good enough mood to mumble, ‘Okay, okay, let’s go.’ A painfully awkward ten-minute walk later they were standing in Kokoschka’s studio looking at The Bride of the Wind propped on an easel, a few patches of paint still wet. Kokoschka stood leaning against a table to the left of the easel, his head drawn in between his hunched shoulders, eyes downcast. He acknowledged their entrance with the briefest of nods. After Jessica had gazed her fill at the two floating figures at the centre of what looked like a whirlwind of rags and shards of ice, she murmured her barely audible thanks and edged out the door. Kokoschka had not spoken a single word.
Most of her time, though, was spent across a table at Café Museum from Schiele, trying to talk, listen and scribble notes all at once. The headwaiter learned to keep an eye out for the pale, serious young woman in the military coat with the crown of red plaits and would gesture her toward Schiele’s table with a polite ‘This way, miss.’ She felt a niggling guilt at having done nothing to correct the impression that she could help him make his name in New York, but he seemed pleased enough to have a sympathetic ear – once he had gotten past his skepticism about a woman being capable of admiring his work – that he quickly warmed to her.
After scarcely an hour in Schiele’s company she was reminded of Gainsborough’s complaint about Reynolds – ‘Damn him, how various he is!’ – but where Gainsborough had been referring to his rival’s art, Jessica felt the words applied more aptly to Schiele himself. His art seemed all of a piece but trying to understand the man himself was like trying to grasp quicksilver. The wounded pride and angry vulnerability she had witnessed on first meeting him were only two of many facets. Sometimes, as when she reminded him that he had just this year been offered shows in Brussels and Rome and he shot her down with a tirade about how Vienna itself would never give him the recognition he deserved, the bitter sense of entitlement made her want to kick him under the table (even if she inwardly agreed with his grievances). Sometimes he could be self-important, sometimes unthinkingly cruel. Other times he girded himself with a brittle, sarcastic self-assurance that she suspected hid a shyness as strong as her own. Given a topic that fascinated him, he lit up with passion, his eyes flashing and his sensitive, mobile features transfigured. He could be unexpectedly kind and courteous – especially, she was both pleased and vaguely unsettled to note, toward her.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery – given the nature of his art and his reputation for taking himself so seriously – was that he had a keen sense of humour. Jessica, early on, managed to say something that amused him and although she would be hard pressed to remember just what she had said to provoke it, she knew she would never forget his reaction.
Schiele had painted and drawn himself frozen in all manner of grimaces, but Schiele laughing was an even more alarming sight. The laugh itself was convulsive, somewhere between a cackle and a gasp, but the transformation it wrought on his face was extraordinary. His lips drew back to reveal both rows of teeth (which were all present and correct and startlingly white and sharp), the skin at his temples strained almost to breaking point, his eyes constricted to razor-thin slits. Jessica resolved not to knowingly say anything witty to him as soon as she remembered to breathe again.
‘You know,’ he mused toward the end of their first daytime conversation, ‘you’re nothing like a Viennese. Talking to you is just like talking to a man.’
Jessica was torn between smiling and rolling her eyes at the backhanded compliment. ‘Thank you for that – I think,’ she replied drily.
Being treated like a man had its advantages – she could fearlessly approach topics that would otherwise have been off-limits – and its unexpected downsides. She found herself shoehorned into the role of confidant more than she might have liked. Once, in the midst of discussing his models, specifically Wally, who had been his girlfriend for the last few years, Schiele tossed out nonchalantly, ‘She’s good fun but I’m beginning to think it’s time I started seriously considering making an advantageous marriage. You understand, to a good middle-class girl. There are two sisters who live across the street from me I’ve got my eye on. Either one of them would fill the bill. What do you think?’
Jessica’s first impulse was to say Sometimes I think you’re a real heel, Egon, but she found her thoughts turning to the work that Wally and Edith, Schiele’s eventual wife, would inspire – Wally, raw, confrontational and angst-ridden, Edith, tender, more measured, more mature – and settled for responding wryly, ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out.’
Egon Schiele, For art and my loved ones I will gladly endure to the end! (Self-portrait as prisoner) (1912)
Some of the best moments she spent with him were those when he drew forth his portfolio from under the table and spread out drawings. She had asked specifically for self-portraits but was surprised and touched to see that he had included a few of Wally, wondering if the shy pride that suffused Schiele’s face when he spread them out had more to do with his girlfriend’s beauty or his own talent. If she had rebelled at having someone stand over her while she examined the drawings at the Albertina, having Schiele himself at her elbow was quite a different experience. Although he was eloquent in conversation, he seemed to prefer to let his work speak for itself, and had an uncanny way of seeming to fade into the background once he had laid a drawing in front of her. The first half of his short career unfolded before her eyes – the brutally distorted, grimacing nudes he had drawn four years previously, many of them haloed in streaks of white gouache, the more recent self-portraits in the guises of preachers, ascetics and martyred saints. On the fourth day he gave her a token of how much he had come to trust her by laying before her, without a word, the two self-portraits he had drawn during his spell in jail two years before. Jessica stared at them wordlessly until she lost all track of time, and then finally gave way to an impulse she had never been able to honour at the Albertina: she laid her head on her hands and wept silently. When she raised her head, she found Schiele staring at her with an expression composed equally of awe, cautious respect and perplexity, his eyes silently asking Where did you come from?
Despite his generosity in showing her sheaf after sheaf of drawings at the café, she couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment at his not inviting her to his studio. She was keeping a careful count of the days she had left before she was due to meet Schmetterling again.
Time was getting short.
A few rays of early March morning filtered through the gap in the heavy curtains in Jessica’s hotel room. She blinked and stirred drowsily, body and mind still adrift in the no man’s land between sleep and waking.
As had happened every night apart from the first since she’d landed in 1914, she had been dreaming of Declan. Since they had met two years ago, this was the longest they had gone with no communication – or rather, the longest that Jessica had gone. Often, when she was alone, she found herself wondering about his location in time compared to hers – assuming, of course, that Schmetterling had been telling her the truth about the passage of time in the present as compared to that of her stay in Vienna, 1914. As her fifth day in the past dawned, what part of his evening was it? Was he still leaning against his kitchen sink with his guitar case propped next to him, downing a hasty mug of tea before heading out the door? Bantering with Frank, the bassist, as they set up the amps? In the middle of the band’s signature song, a new arrangement of ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ that took him into the highest reaches of his head voice? (Jessica had never forgotten her shock, the first time she heard him sing, at discovering that soft-spoken, unassuming Declan had a three-octave range that ran from a gritty growl at the lower end to an ethereal keening in the upper register.) Or was he slumping into bed, drained but contented? Unbidden the image of the ancient conception of the universe as a series of nested spheres came to her – she and Declan each on their own sphere, spinning past each other at different rates. Time is out of joint.
Jessica cracked one eye open a little further. Sitting on the corner of the wardrobe was a butterfly, slowly opening and closing its black-veined white wings in a beam of sunlight.
I must still be dreaming, she thought. How on earth could a butterfly get into my room, let alone at this time of year? She stumbled out of bed, ran icy water in the sink, splashed her face.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, there was no sign of the butterfly.
Two hours later she was sitting across from Schiele at their usual table when he pinned her with his gaze and said, a propos of nothing, ‘I want to draw you.’
Jessica nearly choked on her coffee. ‘Excuse me?’ she spluttered, trying to swallow and settle the cup in its saucer without adding to her consternation by knocking it over.
‘You heard me.’
Jessica studied his face closely. By now she felt she knew him well enough to tell the difference between his serious and playful moods. She couldn’t find a hint of mockery in his expression.
‘Okay,’ she said slowly and carefully, ‘as long as I get to keep my clothes on.’ She instantly regretted her words when Schiele exploded into his wild, unhinged laugh.
‘Oh, the very idea,’ he snorted, wiping his eyes and gradually getting hold of himself.
Now it was Jessica’s turn to bristle. ‘What, do you find me that unattractive?’ It really wasn’t her day, she reflected ruefully, because that set him off again. Finally he stopped laughing long enough – and now she realised that it had been, on some level, nervous laughter – to look at her very seriously and say,
‘Miss Rosen, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive woman. You are also not the sort of woman I would ever draw like one of my models.’ There it was again, she thought, not without a twinge of sadness, his compulsion to shock bound up with the unbreakable shackles of convention. At least the knowledge gave her back a measure of composure.
‘In that case, go ahead,’ she replied, assuming that he would take out the sketchbook he always kept in his jacket pocket and draw her on the spot.
‘Oh no, not here,’ he protested, sounding faintly horrified. ‘I haven’t got my watercolours. You’ll have to come to my studio.’ Jessica didn’t know which part of what he had said to be more stunned by – the fact that she would be seeing his studio, or that he wanted to use watercolour. Watercolour meant he didn’t consider the drawing a sketch, but a finished work. He pulled his watch from his pocket and pursed his lips, making a brief calculation. ‘Come at two, the light will be good then.’ He fished out his sketchbook, tore out a page and scribbled the address on it in his firm, slanting hand. ‘You’ll have to take the train. Oh, and… do you have anything to wear that isn’t black or white?’
Jessica did a quick mental inventory of her meagre time-travelling wardrobe. Of course, the plum-coloured cardigan – which for some reason she hadn’t worn since her arrival. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘Wear it.’ It wasn’t a request, it was a command. He gathered up his belongings and stood up. ‘See you at two.’ Before she could react, the door was swinging shut behind him.
She didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed when she called the waiter over to settle the bill and found that Schiele had left her to pay for his coffee.
Jessica moved through the next few hours in a haze. A man said hello to her in the street as she left the café and only five minutes later did she realise that it had been Joseph Roth and she’d ignored him. She tried reading one of the newspapers on the racks at Sperl (feeling vaguely disloyal for going to a different café), which to her eyes appeared to be printed in English, without taking in a single word. Only when she was back in her room, buttoning her cardigan over her white blouse, did clarity return.
She caught the train from Karlsplatz. Almost hypnotized by the spectacle of Vienna speeding past, she nearly missed her stop. She was striding along Hietzinger Hauptstrasse in the thin, bright afternoon sunshine, pausing every so often to squint at the house numbers, when her eyes alighted on two girls walking toward her arm in arm, both fashionably dressed, obviously sisters. The taller of the two was a brunette with a slightly equine face; the smaller, and apparently younger, a blonde and more delicate version of the elder – Adele and Edith Harms, the two sisters Schiele had mentioned a few days earlier. They spoke to each other in undertones, as if sharing a secret, the blonde suddenly bursting into decorously muffled laughter as they passed. Jessica hoped neither of them noticed her staring after them.
When she next glanced up, she was standing in front of 102. She pressed the bell and held her breath for what seemed an interminable length of time before she heard a heavy tread on the stairs – not Schiele’s light, almost feline footsteps. The door opened a crack, then slowly, as if unwillingly, all the way, and Jessica found herself face to face with a work of art.
Wally Neuzil was glowering at her from the doorway. Jessica’s first thought, to her subsequent shame, was that Schiele must have loved her more than he let on because the Wally of his art was considerably more beautiful than the flesh-and-blood woman. Her generous mouth was instantly recognisable from the portraits but her features were coarse, her body, or so her shapeless clothes made it seem, graceless. Her eyes were such a pale blue as to be nearly colourless. Her expression, as she sized Jessica up, was mulish – there was no other word for it.
Jessica recoiled under Wally’s glare, but she quickly recovered and did the only thing that seemed proper in the circumstances: she held out her hand to shake and said calmly, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Neuzil.’
Wally’s eyebrows knitted angrily. ‘You’re making fun of me.’ It was so exactly like Schiele’s first response to her that Jessica almost laughed before a surge of compassion stopped her.
‘I promise you, I’m not,’ she assured her. ‘Herr Schiele has spoken very highly of you to me.’ She winced at the white lie but ploughed on. ‘It’s an honour to meet someone who has been such an inspiration to him and who has helped in some of his darkest moments.’ Now she really was being economical with the truth – Schiele hadn’t said a word to her about Wally’s unwavering support during his spell in jail – but it had the desired effect. The stubbornness melted from her face.
‘Beg pardon, miss,’ she mumbled, looking anywhere but at Jessica, ‘nobody who sits to him for a portrait pays me much mind. I thought…’ she trailed off.
‘It’s all right,’ Jessica smiled. ‘No offense taken.’ She took Wally’s hand and shook it firmly, then followed her inside and up the narrow staircase.
Schiele was dashing around in his shirtsleeves when they entered, his steps and his eyes full of purpose. ‘Ah, Miss Rosen,’ he greeted her briskly, as if they had only just met. ‘Do come in. Wally, take her coat.’ Jessica dutifully unbuttoned it and handed it to Wally with an apologetic glance as she bore it away. ‘Coffee?’
‘Yes please,’ she assented gratefully.
‘Studio’s in there,’ he added, jerking his head in the direction of the doorway. ‘Make yourself at home. Just don’t touch anything.’
Schiele’s studio was spartan and much tidier than Klimt’s. Two large canvases sat on easels. One, a painting of what appeared to be two men rising from their graves, looked nearly finished and she didn’t recognise it – was this one of the lost paintings? The other looked as if it had recently been begun – all she could see was the outline of a figure falling through space, knees bent and arms flung up over the head. She flipped through her mental catalogue of Schiele’s work and realised it must be his portrait of Friederike Maria Beer. A couple of portfolios filled with drawings lay on tables; a jar of brushes stood in the middle of a circle of tubes of oil paint and gouache and pans of watercolour. Everything was bathed in the cool afternoon light spilling through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.
Her reverie was interrupted by Schiele bursting in with a coffee pot and two cups, his steps abrupt, his mouth thinned to a line. Without a word he set the cups on a table, filled them with a thick, black, evil-looking brew, and handed her one. He stared at her over the rim of his cup, eyes unreadable. Finally he seemed to reach a sort of agreement with himself.
‘Sit down,’ he commanded, gesturing her to a chair that sat in a pool of light. From a drawer in the table he took a wooden box, rifled through it and handed her a string of heavy beads of milky green glass. ‘Put those on.’ She slipped them over her head, shivering as the cold glass settled around her neck. After rummaging for another minute, he pulled out a wide black ribbon and moved toward her with it in his hand. She flinched.
‘Relax, I don’t bite,’ he snapped with a short bark of laughter that was anything but reassuring. Jessica drew a deep breath and held it as he stood over her, carefully wrapping the ribbon around her head just above the circle of her plaits. He stepped back and considered his handiwork, pursed his lips thoughtfully, then leaned forward and slowly, delicately removed one hairpin so that one of the braids drooped, casting a shadow over her forehead. He stood back again and this time what he saw met with his approval.
‘Right. Lean forward a bit, fold your hands and rest your arms on your thighs. Just so.’ She did as she was told. ‘Perfect. Now for God’s sake, don’t move.’
Schiele dragged another chair over to face Jessica, clipped a sheet of paper to a drawing board, and considered her for another unnerving moment. Without warning he jumped up and dashed out of the studio. She heard the tap running in the kitchen and he returned with a jar of water, setting it on the table while he marshaled six tubes of gouache and prepared his palette, his face screwed up in concentration. For a few minutes the only sound in the studio was the slow drip of water into the pans of the palette and the almost inaudible swish of the brush as he diluted the colours to the right strength. Jessica would have given anything to be able to crane her neck and get a better view, but the tone of his last words had brooked no argument.
At last he pushed the palette away and arranged himself with the drawing board perched on his lap. He reached for a pencil, but when she expected him to start drawing he merely leaned forward and gazed at her.
When Jessica had told Schiele, that first evening at the café, that he wielded his pencil and his brush like a scalpel, she had never imagined that she would find herself on the receiving end. She felt like a butterfly pinned down in a shadow box, with the difference that such butterflies were mercifully unaware of their state. Schiele was not so much undressing her with his eyes as he was flaying her. As she clung stubbornly to the pose, she could all but feel him peeling back her skin, exposing nerves, veins, bone. Her brain, her heart. The blood bloomed in her cheeks.
Her muscles were beginning to cramp and tremble, pins and needles invade her forearms and entwined fingers. Given how many of her waking hours were spent bent over a book or a drawing, the sheer effort it took to sit perfectly still shocked her. Every breath echoed inside her head like a roll of distant thunder, every pulse a tidal surge. She could feel tears pricking the corners of her eyes and clenched her jaw, fighting them down with every ounce of will. Her eyes found and fastened on Schiele’s. The uncanny sensation of watching herself be watched threatened to overwhelm her but before it overcame her she reminded herself that she was watching him just as much as he was, her. The knowledge didn’t lessen the physical agony at all but it made it bearable.
Schiele hesitated for the barest instance before making one decisive stroke on the sheet. A line activates a surface, forcing it to acknowledge its latent charge, Jessica remembered one of her professors saying; she had never fully – or at least, so viscerally – understood the import of the words until now. Before she had time to meditate further on this, he added another line, then another. He worked quickly, with nervous, jerky twists of his wrist, but within the taut motion she could sense the ease and confidence of someone supremely in his element. She resisted the urge to try to lower her eyes to the sheet in an attempt to catch the progress of the image and kept her eyes pinned on his.
He had laid the pencil aside and drawn the palette toward him. His gaze darting between Jessica, the palette and the drawing, he took up a brush and began laying in colour, sometimes scrubbing it into the paper in broad swathes (her hair? her cardigan?), otherwise dotting it on in rapid flicks. The water in the jar turned red, then rust, then purple, then muddied as he dipped the brushes in it.
Almost without warning he cast the brushes aside, snatched up the pencil and scribbled something in the lower right corner of the sheet. Jessica didn’t need to see what he was writing to know that he was signing the drawing, the words ‘EGON SCHIELE 1914’ encased in a square like a Japanese seal. The transformation when he laid down the pencil nearly knocked the breath from her lungs. He slumped and seemed to dwindle. The demonic light in his eyes was snuffed out, the ferocious concentration evaporated. She was suddenly, painfully aware of how young he looked, how frail, and how loosely his clothes hung on his slight frame.
He seemed to remember only belatedly that she was still there. ‘You can move now,’ he said, and Jessica all but collapsed, her head falling on her knees and her aching arms dangling at her sides. His next words, once the prickling of pins and needles had finally subsided, startled her back to life: ‘Come and have a look.’
She stood at his elbow and gazed down at herself. Schiele had used the white of the paper for her skin, with a few green shadows under her eyes and cheekbones and in the hollows of her neck like reflections from the string of beads. He had rendered her blush with a wash so dilute that it bled across the paper much the same way as blood suffused her skin. Her mouth was a vivid red slash, a jarring contrast with her white skin and the deep purple of her cardigan. The convolutions of her plaits rhymed with those of her clenched fingers. He had made her face longer and more angular than it really was, but what made her heart stand still was the eyes. Her first impression was of timidity and vulnerability but the longer she looked, the fiercer and more penetrating they became. She found herself pinioned by her own gaze.
‘Is that really how you see me – so fierce?’ she wondered aloud.
Schiele stifled a cough that sounded suspiciously like a nervous laugh. ‘Truth be told, Miss Rosen, you’re the most frightening model I’ve ever had,’ he admitted. ‘I’ve never had anyone look at me like that.’ She knew him well enough now to realise how much it cost him to confess that. Suddenly his words came tumbling out in anxious haste. ‘I shouldn’t do this, but I’d like you to have it. I won’t charge you a single crown.’
Jessica was too stunned to reply. For one fatal moment she nearly said yes, and then the butterfly on her wardrobe that morning flashed before her mind’s eye.
‘Oh… no, I couldn’t possibly,’ she pleaded. ‘Please keep it. Put it in your next exhibition. It will do more good there.’ She sensed him on the verge of protesting and shook her head firmly. ‘I mean it.’
‘If you insist.’ She saw a flicker of hurt cross his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured, ‘but I promise you, it’s for the best.’ He nodded, clearly unconvinced, as she untied the ribbon and slipped the beads off and handed them back to him. ‘If it’s any consolation, sitting for you was –’ she searched for the right words – ‘an extraordinary experience.’
‘Thank you, Miss Rosen.’ His voice had taken on a solemnity she had never heard before. ‘For me too.’ He impulsively clasped her hand. ‘For me too.’
Time seemed to hang suspended. Schiele broke the silence with a muffled oath, disengaging his hand and dashing from the studio. He returned with Jessica’s coat, which he helped her into with a courtliness she would never have associated with him otherwise.
‘Well – until next time,’ she said, trying to cover her awkwardness.
‘Until next time.’ He held the door open for her and she hurried down the stairs.
At the bottom of the steps, Jessica turned and saw, for an instant, Schiele framed in the doorway, wiry yet fragile, his messy shock of hair outlined by the light. When she opened the street door and looked over her shoulder again, he was gone.
The following evening Jessica had an invitation to a soirée at Bertha Zuckerkandl’s. Somewhere between her second and third glasses of champagne she found herself in conversation with a stranger, a tall, elegant blond Englishwoman who looked to be in her mid-thirties, named Julia Harrison-Freilich. They chatted pleasantly for several minutes, exchanging the agreeable trivialities of party small-talk, before Julia, with a soft complaint about the noise in the centre of the room making proper conversation impossible, guided her over to a sofa in an otherwise deserted corner of the salon.
‘Ah, much better,’ she smiled, unhooking two more flutes from a passing footman’s tray and handing one to Jessica. As soon as he was out of earshot, she put down her glass and said coolly, ‘You’re not from here.’
Jessica felt a muscle twitch in her cheek but assured herself that it was a perfectly innocent remark. ‘No, of course I’m not. I’m from New York.’
‘That isn’t what I meant.’ Julia’s cultured voice, her accent clear as cut glass, had fallen several notches. ‘You’re not from this time.’
Jessica froze. How had she been found out? The impulse to run warred with the impulse to try to talk her way out of trouble, or at least play dumb, and she sat in agonising silence for what felt like an age before asking, with a barely restrained tremor in her voice, ‘What gave me away?’
Julia gestured in the direction of her feet. ‘You have zips on your boots. They’re not going to be invented for another three years.’ Jessica followed the path of her gaze and groaned under her breath. Julia seemed to take pity on her distress then, laying a hand on hers and whispering, ‘It’s all right. I’m like you.’
Jessica raised her eyes. ‘When? How…?’
‘1995,’ Julia replied. She laughed briefly, bitterly, to herself. ‘I know Schmetterling’s victims when I see them. After all, I am one myself.’
‘I don’t like your choice of words,’ Jessica said sharply.
‘Then shall I elaborate?’ There was a dangerous glint in Julia’s eyes. Jessica wanted to do nothing more than flee, but instinct told her that she needed to hear more, and she nodded, mutely requesting the story.
‘I was a theatrical costume designer in London, in my own time,’ Julia began. ‘I came to Vienna to do research for a production of Salomé, and I bumped into our friend Schmetterling in a café. He got me chatting and when he found out that I secretly wished I could have been at the premiere, he said he could take me to see it. What a naïve little fool I was!’
Jessica flinched at the bitterness in her voice but steeled herself. ‘Go on.’
‘You know what comes next, I expect,’ Julia continued. ‘The midnight meeting, the business about the week’s allowance and the one rule I couldn’t break.’ She shook her head. ‘I broke the rule and found out the hard way.’ Jessica nodded again, prompting her. ‘There was a very good-looking répétiteur at the Opera who caught my eye, and, well… to make a long story short, by the end of the week I was pregnant. I turned up at the appointed time on the Karlsplatz and Schmetterling gave me that sanctimonious speech about how I’d broken his rule and he was very sorry, but there was nothing to be done. I wept and pleaded but he just wrapped himself in his cloak and walked away.’
Jessica found herself laughing, slightly manic, in sheer relief. ‘That’s his rule? “Don’t get pregnant”? Well, in that case I have nothing to worry about!’
Julia rolled her eyes and shook her head pityingly. ‘If it were really that easy very few people would break the rule,’ she conceded. ‘That isn’t it, though. The rule is that you can’t do anything while you’re in the past that might change the future. I did.’ She looked Jessica directly in the eye. ‘And so have you.’
Jessica gaped at her in shock. ‘I… what are you talking about?’ she asked, fighting her rising panic.
‘Schiele drew your portrait yesterday, didn’t he?’
Jessica nodded miserably. ‘Yes, but –‘
‘You, of all people, should understand what that means. You’ve altered the shape of his oeuvre, even if it’s just one drawing. You have no idea what sort of implications that could have for the future.’ Jessica was on the point of arguing but Julia ploughed on mercilessly. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why our professor friend calls himself Schmetterling?’
Jessica shrugged impatiently. This hardly seemed the appropriate moment for a debate on the complexities of German surnames.
‘You’ve heard it said that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can set off a hurricane several weeks later?’
‘So you see how something as seemingly insignificant as adding a drawing to Schiele’s oeuvre or adding a new person to the world in 1905 could have God only knows what effect decades, even centuries from now?’ Julia asked. She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘It could cause utter chaos.’
Myriad questions swirled in Jessica’s head. Why, if the potential to unbalance the universe was so great, did Schmetterling ply his cross-chronological ferry service? Why did he refuse to spell out the dangers for his passengers? Why her? ‘Why?’ was all she managed to get out; her heart was pounding too painfully for her to say anything more.
‘Why indeed. Well, one thing I’ve had plenty of time to do in the last nine years is to find out what makes Schmetterling tick,’ Julia said. ‘And in a nutshell, it comes down to this: every time he snatches someone from the present and introduces them into the past, it creates a tiny tear in the fabric of time. Nearly invisible but terribly dangerous, and it takes a surprising amount of energy for it to mend seamlessly. It seems he lives on the energy released by each such tear.’ She smiled thinly. ‘To go on with my sewing metaphor, the fabric of the past, now altered, ever so slightly changes the pattern of the future to maintain equilibrium. The element that originally altered the past is erased from its own time – for good.’
Jessica’s head was swimming at Julia’s explanation, but its import had sunk in. ‘So that’s it? I’ve been erased from my own time? I’m stuck here for the rest of my life?’
‘But my parents – I’ll never see them again?’ Declan went unspoken.
Again, that brief, bitter laugh. ‘Who’s to say if they’ll even be born now? Much less meet each other? Even if by some miracle you managed to strong-arm Schmetterling into taking you back, you would have ceased to exist. You’d be a stranger.’
Fear and shock gave way to utter despair. ‘Fine, then!’ she cried recklessly, not caring who heard. ‘I’ll stay here. I prefer Vienna in 1914 to the way it was when I left it. I’ll stay here because I want to!’
Julia sighed. ‘I’d be careful what you wish for,’ she murmured. ‘I’ve been lucky, I suppose – my répétiteur did the decent thing and married me, and if I haven’t been able to continue as a costume designer I’ve at least gotten to do a bit of work for the Flöge sisters. And there was that ancient antiques dealer I met several ago who had asked to be taken back to the Biedermeier era who said he was actually far happier here than he’d been in his own time. But are you going to be singing the same tune in a few months before the war breaks out? After all, you and I both know it’s not going to be over by Christmas.’ Jessica shuddered. Julia went on, relentless, ‘Besides… Rosen… you’re Jewish, aren’t you? Do you really want to still be here twenty-four years from now when everyone lines the streets to greet Hitler as a hero?’
Jessica felt the blood turn to ice in her veins. ‘Oh God, no,’ she whispered. Desperate tears stung her eyes. Unconsciously, she had resumed a version of the pose she’d held for Schiele the day before – elbows digging into her thighs, her trembling mouth hidden behind clasped hands. She bit her lips and gazed imploringly at Julia. ‘Is there any way out?’
Julia was silent but seemed to be turning something over in her mind. ‘There might be,’ she mused. ‘As long as no one apart from you and Schiele has seen the drawing.’
Jessica felt a tiny thread of hope begin to unfurl. ‘I doubt anyone has. The gouache was so thick in places that he’d have had to allow a long time for it to dry. I don’t think he would have taken it out of his studio today.’
‘Then you’re still safe,’ Julia said, ‘but time is of the essence.’ She sighed. ‘No pun intended.’
‘What do I have to do?’ Jessica pressed her.
Jessica gaped at Julia. ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’
There wasn’t a trace of mockery on Julia’s face. ‘I can promise you I’m not,’ she said calmly.
‘But – but –’ Jessica flailed, searching for the right words, ‘you can’t ask me to do that, it’s like asking a doctor to break the Hippocratic oath!’
‘How touching,’ Julia sniffed, ‘sacrificing your life and happiness for the sake of a drawing. Hoping to be canonised as the patron saint of art historians, are we?’
In less grave circumstances, Jessica would have flung back the barb with equal vigour, but she was too distraught to do more than repeat under her breath, ‘I can’t, I just can’t.’
Julia took her elbow in an iron grip and spoke in dangerously soft tones. ‘Listen to me, my girl, because I’m not going to repeat myself. If someone had sat me down before I took Rainer Freilich back to my hotel and told me what the consequences would be, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s entirely up to you whether you decide to save yourself, but rest assured, Schmetterling’s victims seldom get a second chance.’ Jessica flinched, cheeks crimson with shame, at a loss for words for the second time in as many minutes. ‘And if you still have any hesitations, I have three words for you.’
‘15 March 1938.’ Jessica glared at her, half furious, half terrified. ‘And no, I’m not looking forward to it either.’
Jessica scrambled to her feet. Before she could pull away completely, Julia clasped her hand.
‘Thanks,’ Jessica managed, her voice almost strangling in her throat. With one backward glance, she reclaimed her hand and, schooling her voice and features into some semblance of calm, asked the butler to bring her coat and convey her excuses to Frau Zuckerkandl.
The cold night breeze whipping along the Ringstrasse concentrated her mind instantly. If Julia was right – and she had no reason to believe otherwise – she had mere hours to save herself and no strategy for doing so; a shabbily genteel New York childhood and half of a PhD in art history were woefully poor preparation for breaking and entering and wanton destruction of property.
Declan improvises all the time, she reminded herself. I’ll have to do the same. Even if music and crime have nothing else in common.
She hailed the first cab she saw.
‘Where to, miss?’ the driver asked.
Jessica leaned forward and said, low and steady, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. You’ll drive me to Hietzing and let me out at the corner of Hietzinger Hauptstrasse and Feldmühlgasse. You’ll wait for me for half an hour and you won’t follow me. If I haven’t returned at the end of the half hour, leave. If I do return, bring me back to this spot and I’ll pay you double. No questions asked. Do I make myself clear?’
The driver quailed visibly. ‘Yes miss,’ he mumbled, nodding rapidly as the engine roared to life. Jessica realised too late how much she must sound like a woman going to an assignation but her perceived virtue, or the endangerment thereof, was the least of her concerns at the moment.
By the time the cramped streets of central Vienna had opened out into the tree-lined boulevards of Hietzing, Jessica had cobbled together a plan that just might – if her luck held – work. Before she had a chance to congratulate herself, the driver was saying ‘Here we are, miss.’ He pulled up to the kerb and before he could open the door, Jessica sprang out by herself. She pushed a five-crown coin into his hand.
‘Remember what I said. If I’m not back in half an hour, go. If I do come back, I’ll double that.’ Before he could draw breath to reply, she marched off, heart hammering against her ribs.
It was just after midnight, Hietzinger Hauptstrasse all but deserted. Despite the lack of passersby, she felt horribly exposed standing before Schiele’s building. After casting a cautious glance in both directions, she shrugged off her coat and turned it inside out before putting it back on; she didn’t know how much the streetlights actually picked out the silver braid but she felt marginally safer with nothing on her to catch the light.
The door looked so solid that Jessica began to question the wisdom of her plan, but there was nothing for it – the only tools she had on her person were hairpins, united with a complete lack of experience with lock-picking. She plucked two pins from her plaits, unbent them, and thrust them clumsily into the keyhole with shaking fingers. For several agonizing minutes – she dared not look at her watch but was painfully conscious of time slipping away – she fumbled uselessly, as if sparring with an invisible opponent but then, when she was on the verge of losing hope, she felt one pin, then the other, catch on something. The tumblers clicked as they slid into place. She cautiously tried the handle. It sank in her grip, smooth and silent.
Don’t creak, please don’t creak, she prayed as she pushed the door open. Once inside, she tucked herself into a corner and unzipped her boots as silently as she could. Folding them over her arm, she tiptoed upstairs, torn between cursing at the chill of the floor under her stockinged feet and gratitude that it was stone and thus immune to creaking.
No light shone from under the door to Schiele’s flat – was he asleep or absent? Jessica hoped against hope for the latter. Either way, she’d have to be as quiet as humanly possible. As she racked her brain for a way to pick the lock less noisily than she’d managed to downstairs, she gave the doorknob an experimental twist. It turned easily in her hand. It was unlocked.
She pushed the door open as slowly as she could and slipped into the flat. It was dark and apparently empty. The only light was the moon and streetlight spilling through the studio windows, the only sound that of her heart pounding, magnified tenfold by the pervading silence. As she entered the studio and crossed the floor to the table on which Schiele’s open portfolio rested, one of the floorboards creaked and she froze, the blood roaring in her ears. Nothing else stirred. She heaved a muffled sigh of relief and finished picking her way to the table.
Her portrait stared up at her from the top of the pile, drained of colour in the moonlight: the vivid purple of her cardigan and the copper red of her hair were two dark blotches, the paper cockling around the dried pools of gouache. For one mad instant she considered folding it up and slipping it into the pocket of her coat.
Schmetterling will know exactly what you did, her more reasonable self piped up, and this will have been for naught. She knew herself well enough to realise that if she left the studio with the drawing, she would give into the temptation to try to hide it and keep it. She would have to destroy it before she left. But how? Tearing it to bits would not only leave evidence, the noise would attract attention. There was only one tenable option.
She plucked the drawing carefully from the pile, taking care not to let it rustle against the others, and edging out of the studio. What she needed was in the kitchen. She’d only taken a cursory glance at the rest of the flat the other day but she remembered two other doorways opening off the hall. One of them would be the right one.
The door of the adjoining room stood open. Jessica’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough by now that she could just make out the shapes of a stove and a sink. Before she could slip inside, though, the floor creaked under her feet again and she stood transfixed, this time as much with fear as with what she saw at the end of the hall.
The door to the bedroom was open, the curtains undrawn. Schiele and Wally lay fast asleep, curled together like spoons, Schiele tucked against the curve of Wally’s body. Even in sleep her features were set in an expression of fierce protectiveness, ginger-fringed eyelids screwed tightly shut. Schiele’s nightshirt was pulled askew at the neck, the exposed skin gleaming white in the moonlight, a shadow pooling in the hollow between shoulder and clavicle. His mouth was open. He was snoring softly.
He looks so young, Jessica thought helplessly for the thousandth time, heart quaking with pity. She had known him long enough, in books and now in person, to be well aware that he was sarcastic, impatient, occasionally cruel, but as she watched him sleep the adjectives that looped through her mind were trusting, vulnerable, generous.
He was going to give me the drawing for nothing. He’s shoulder-deep in debt and his landlord’s going to threaten him with eviction in a few weeks’ time… and he simply wanted me to have it. Her eyes smarted with unshed tears. The drawing shook between her fingers and her thumb.
Just then, Schiele shifted in his sleep, his mouth falling closed as his head tilted further to the side. He sighed almost inaudibly and fell silent. Now his lashes cast a shadow on his cheeks. He looked familiar.
Jessica suddenly saw an image of Declan asleep superimposed on the scene before her. Declan, his long lashes curling against his cheeks, his lids fluttering minutely as he dreamed. For most of the first year they’d been together Jessica had suffered from insomnia because she couldn’t bear not to watch him sleeping and even now, sometimes, she’d wake in the middle of the night and feel a stab of tenderness lance her heart at the sight of him.
I’m sorry. She backed away, eyes on the floor, until she reached the kitchen doorway. Slipping inside, she gently pushed the door shut. Despite the darkness, she managed, with little fumbling, to find the match safe next to the stove.
The match flared to life on the first strike. She stood over the sink, holding the drawing by its upper edge, and took one last look at it before she touched the flame to the bottom. For a moment she saw the image in a blaze of amber light and then, almost before it could register in her mind, the sheet was shrinking and blackening, the image dwindling to a bright, curling edge. In a few seconds all that was left was a scattering of ash in the sink and the faint odour of phosphorus and burnt paper hanging in the air.
She couldn’t risk turning on the tap to wash away the ash. Fortunately, there was a carafe on the table with a few inches of water left in it. She tipped out the water carefully, watching the thin trail of ash dissolve to nothing as it sluiced down the drain.
Replacing the carafe, she fished in the pocket of her coat – forgetting momentarily that it was inside out – for her wallet. She peeled off a twenty-crown note, folded it carefully, and slipped it into the match safe. After a moment’s hesitation, she added a second note and closed the safe. She didn’t dare glance in the direction of the bedroom as she slipped out of the flat, gently pushing the door closed behind her.
It was only when she was on the pavement outside, boots back on and coat turned the right side out, that she realised she was still holding her breath.
The cab was waiting for her at the corner of Hietzinger Hauptstrasse and Feldmühlgasse. The driver opened his mouth to say something, took one look at her and recoiled without a word.
‘I’ve changed my mind, drop me in front of Café Sperl,’ she said. Her voice sounded foreign in her own ears, as if it belonged to someone else.
‘Yes, miss.’ Neither of them exchanged another word. He drove as if pursued by furies – more to hasten getting rid of her than anything else, she guessed.
Sperl was closed by the time the cab pulled up in front of it. Jessica paid the driver and, with murmured thanks, alighted with as much dignity as she could muster. It took all of her self-restraint not to run the remaining three blocks to her hotel.
The moment she closed the door of her room, the wave of adrenaline that had carried her all the way from Frau Zuckerkandl’s salon ebbed to nothing and she crumpled on the bed, limp as a marionette with its strings cut. Her face burned, her cheeks bathed with tears. She was safe.
But at what a cost.
It was ten o’clock the next morning when Jessica finally dragged herself out of bed. She had cried herself to sleep, and a cold, dull ache pressed against the inside of her forehead, as if her skull was filled with lead. She splashed water on her face, flinching as it struck her eyelids. Her eyes were rimmed with broken blood vessels, livid purple against raw pink skin.
She dressed and packed mechanically, nibbled at breakfast with the shadow of an appetite. She settled her hotel bill and sat down to count her remaining funds. Her wild extravagance the night before had left her with a handful of change that added up to scarcely more than a crown and a few hellers. She cursed her foolish prodigality with the cab driver but counted the money she’d left in Schiele’s match safe as pitifully little compensation for the destruction of the drawing. Thirty crowns. In paper rather than silver, but that hardly mattered.
A day and half a night stood between her and her second rendezvous with Schmetterling. How to fill thirteen hours? The cafés were out of the question – even if she avoided the Museum she still risked meeting an acquaintance of Schiele’s. She briefly considered the Kunsthistorisches Museum but the thought of spending a day surrounded by art filled her mouth with the taste of ashes. After several minutes’ further indecision, she left the hotel and caught a tram from Karlsplatz toward the Prater.
The Prater swarmed with Saturday crowds and rang with shouts and laughter. The bright, noisy vulgarity of the place, which she would ordinarily have avoided like the plague, felt like a balm, or at least an anaesthetic. She re-counted her precious hellers and paid for a turn on the Ferris wheel, but the circular motion seemed to return her to the rhythm of the thoughts that had been wearing a miserable groove in her brain since the early hours of the morning. You betrayed him. You’ve no right to look at his work again. You’re unworthy to study it, to write about it.
Jessica stumbled off the Ferris wheel toward the nearest bench and sat down on it, shaking. Her more sensible self reminded her that she’d hardly eaten anything since yesterday and it would probably do her good to remedy that.
She pulled herself to her feet and headed for a small café, mercifully and miraculously quiet, near the gates of the park. She ordered a piece of poppyseed strudel and a small coffee, black. Even my meal wears mourning, she thought, stirring sugar into her cup. Out of an obscure need to torture herself further, she slipped the notebook in which she’d recorded her conversations with Schiele at the Café Museum and flicked through the pages. The words made little sense.
Cake and coffee finished, she counted out her coins and stood, feeling steadier in body if not in spirit. Spending any longer in the funfair was out of the question. Wrapping her coat a little tighter, she turned into the allée that bisected the park.
The chestnut trees on either side of the path were just beginning to leaf out, their branches dusted with a faint green haze. At the foot of one tree a winter aconite was unfurling its yellow petals. Jessica stopped and gazed at it until it blurred before her eyes.
The tenor of her thoughts shifted as the petals blurred. I can’t give up on Schiele, she realized. I owe it to him. I might spend the rest of my life trying to atone for destroying his drawing, but this is the only way I can. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears, but now they felt like tears of relief.
‘We’re closing, miss.’
Jessica sat up with a start. She’d been drowsing over a newspaper at Lurion’s, a café she’d decided was safe territory – with such hideous décor she doubted Schiele or any of his fellow artists would be caught dead there. Mumbling an apology, she paid the waiter for the coffee she’d finished several hours earlier and checked her watch. If she hurried, she’d make it to the Karslplatz just in time.
By the time she turned off the Kärntnerring her heart was hammering, only partly from exertion. What if Schmetterling hadn’t kept their appointment? Would her sacrifice have been for naught?
The pavement in front of the station was deserted. She halted, shutting her eyes in despair.
Just then, the bells of the Karlskirche began to chime midnight. She forced herself to open her eyes. Sure enough, a solitary black-clad figure was standing beneath a street lamp where she was sure there had been nobody a moment ago. She steeled herself and marched toward him.
Schmetterling greeted her approach with an unnervingly neutral expression ruffled only by one eloquently arched eyebrow. ‘Miss Rosen.’
‘Professor.’ She didn’t know why she bothered with the honorific that clearly wasn’t his, but politesse seemed the only way to rein in the hatred, anger and fear roiling in her head.
‘Clever girl,’ he continued in his silky voice. ‘I congratulate you. Although… perhaps I’m losing my touch. You are the second person to outsmart me.’
‘Is that so,’ Jessica replied, trying to sound arch but wanting nothing more than to collapse in sheer relief.
‘Indeed.’ Schmetterling gently shook his cloak back from his shoulders like a huge bird settling its wings. ‘We’d best not delay. Come.’ He held out a long, bony hand. This time Jessica took it without a moment’s hesitation, folding her fingers around his. Without being told, she closed her eyes.
Even though she now knew what to expect, the freezing cold, the sensation of falling, the rush of wings nearly knocked the breath from her lungs. At least this time when her feet hit solid ground, she was able to stay upright.
Schmetterling unfurled his cloak from around her, and she found herself blinking at the transition from total darkness to early morning light.
‘Well,’ he murmured, ‘here we are. As promised.’
Jessica’s throat tightened in anger. As promised? That was being economical with the truth, to put it lightly. On the point of firing off a retort to that effect, she glanced up at Schmetterling’s face. His profile was as hawklike as ever, but there was an air about it she didn’t recognise. She stared hard at him for a moment.
He looked tired.
Her rage guttered out. She could no more hate him than she could begrudge a big cat or a bird of prey its need to hunt. Even if she had so narrowly avoided becoming prey herself. He had been fair with her, she supposed, the only way he was capable of.
‘Thank you,’ she replied. As he settled his cloak around his shoulders and began to turn away, something impelled her to call him back. ‘Wait – before you go, tell me one thing. If I’m the second person to outsmart you – who was the first?’ She hoped against hope that it was Julia, that she’d somehow managed a way to return to her own time at some point after her path crossed Jessica’s.
A meditative frown winged over Schmetterling’s features. ‘An Irishman with a painter’s surname.’ Jessica felt the back of her neck prickle for an instant, but she was too close to the end of her rope to consider it further.
‘Well, Miss Rosen,’ he continued, ‘I wish you well. And now I must take my leave of you. We shall not meet again.’ He held out his hand and once again she felt the brief press of those lean fingers around hers. Then, wrapping his cloak around himself, he strode off without a backward glance.
Jessica watched until his dwindling figure turned down a side street and vanished, then let out a breath she hadn’t realised she was still holding. She gazed about her, grateful beyond measure for the sight of cars and asphalt and pedestrians clad in the fashion of 2010, until a thrill of fear seized her: what if Schmetterling hadn’t actually brought her back to the day, much less the year, he had promised?
She stopped the first passerby, a man of strikingly ordinary appearance carrying a briefcase. ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me what day it is?’
His brow furrowed. ‘Können Sie bitte wiederholen?’
Okay, definitely back in the present since I’ve lost my German-speaking abilities, Jessica thought, more relieved than disappointed. She repeated herself in creaky German and then, not feeling up to carrying on, pleaded, ‘Auf Englisch, bitte?’
The man looked at her oddly and said slowly, in heavily accented but clear English, ‘It is the second of March.’
‘And the year?’ she pressed him. Now he was staring at her as if she was missing a few marbles, and for an instant she almost wanted to laugh as she saw herself as he doubtless did – a wild-eyed girl in a military coat with a crown of red plaits threatening to fall into her face who was apparently suffering from severe amnesia.
‘Two thousand ten,’ he enunciated very clearly, as if speaking to a small child or an idiot.
‘Thank you,’ Jessica replied fervently, ‘thank you so much.’ Before he had a chance to turn tail and run – she could see the desire to do so written all over his face – she took off in the direction of her flat, barely able to restrain herself from breaking into a run.
Everything in the flat was blessedly unchanged from when she had left it a week ago – no, last night, she had to remind herself. Her jeans and jumper were draped over the chair where she’d left them; suddenly desperate to shed every trace of her 1914 self, she flung off her coat and the long black dress and put them on, attempting only half-successfully to pull all the pins from her hair and undo the braids.
Her computer sat on the table where she’d left it, but she barely noticed it in the dash for her phone. Calling Declan was going to cost a fortune but at the moment she couldn’t find it in herself to care.
On the fourth ring, just before she thought it would go to voicemail, he picked up. For a moment there was a crackling that she at first thought was static but then realised was rustling bedclothes, and then his voice, sounding as if it was coming from somewhere under the Atlantic: ‘Jess? Are you all right?’
Jessica was torn between laughing and crying. ‘Declan. Declan. I’m so glad to hear your voice. I’m fine.’
‘You don’t sound fine,’ he countered, and now he sounded fully awake. ‘For starters, you never call me by my full name unless you’re upset, and for seconds, it’s two in the morning. What’s happened?’
‘Nothing, I swear,’ Jessica protested, because she hadn’t given any thought to how she could tell him what she’d just been through and if she did, she’d sound as if she’d taken leave of her senses. ‘I’m good. Honest.’
‘Hey,’ he soothed, ‘you can tell me. Truth is, I’ve been worried since I read your email last night. You didn’t sound like yourself.’
Jessica sat in silence, her grip on the phone white-knuckled. Finally she decided to bite the bullet. ‘Would you believe me,’ she began, nerves ratcheting her voice several notches above its normal pitch, ‘if I told you that yesterday I met a strange man who told me he could take me back to 1914, and he actually did, but he tried to trap me there and I only got back by the skin of my teeth?’
For several seconds she heard nothing but Declan’s breathing. And then the one word she least expected to hear.
‘Wait – seriously? This is where you’re supposed to say I dreamed it, or you decide that the second I get back to New York you’re taking me to a therapist…’ She was painfully aware of how manic she sounded, in the throes of ebbing adrenaline and too many emotions. ‘Why do you believe me?’
Declan’s voice came out softer and more hesitant than she’d ever heard it. ‘Because I’ve met him too.’
If Jessica hadn’t been sitting down already, her knees would have turned dangerously weak. Schmetterling’s answer to her question about the first person to evade him echoed in her mind. An Irishman with a painter’s surname. Of course.
Declan’s surname was Byrne-Jones. When Jessica had first met him she thought he was joking and he replied in mild confusion, ‘And why shouldn’t it be my name? My mum’s Welsh.’
‘What… when?’ she asked when she’d regained her voice.
‘Remember about a year ago when I had a research trip to Vienna to look at Schoenberg’s papers?’
‘Well one day, after I’d spent hours transcribing dusty letters, I went over to Demel for a coffee and there was a tall skinny rumpled chap at the table next to mine looking at a stack of scores. I assumed he was a fellow musician so we got chatting, and I foolishly said I wished I could just meet Schoenberg and ask him straight up how he came up with the twelve-tone system…’
‘…And he told you he could take you to meet Schoenberg himself?’
‘Yes, and explained all his conditions, but I told him I had a few conditions of my own. Namely, I didn’t want to go for a week, only for a day, and I wasn’t letting him out of my sight.’
‘I did so. And he took it with a very bad grace but that night I met him on the Karlsplatz as agreed, and went back to 1921.’
‘Did you meet him? Schoenberg, I mean.’ Jessica found herself caught up in the story in spite of herself.
Declan laughed ruefully. ‘No, I’d guessed wrong at the day. He was out of town. Schmetterling tried persuading me to hang about for a week and see if he’d turn up but I refused and forced him to take me back to the present.’
‘You were in such a strange mood when you got back from Vienna… why didn’t you tell me before?’ she asked, her voice rising.
‘You’d never have believed me,’ he said quietly. Jessica was on the point of protesting hotly that she hoped Declan credited her with more imagination than that, but in the next breath she admitted he was right. Who in their right mind would have?
‘Do you want to tell me about it? Only if you want,’ he prompted gently. His voice felt like a balm falling into her ears. So she told him everything, from the dreadful session at the Albertina that had sent her running to Demel for refuge to the party at Bertha Zuckerkandl’s and her meeting with Julia.
By the time she’d finished telling him about breaking into Schiele’s studio and burning her portrait, she was in tears. ‘I betrayed him, I’m a horrible person,’ she sobbed.
Declan hushed her with near-wordless murmurs until she had quieted, then spoke slowly, each word chosen with great care. ‘Jess… if it isn’t too bold of me to say so – do you really think Schmetterling would have let you come back if destroying the drawing changed things?’
‘No, I guess not,’ she mumbled.
‘Remember you once showed me photos of Schiele in his studio and there were drawings piled all over the place? Now you’re the expert, I know, but it looked to me like he didn’t treat them as particularly precious.’ He hesitated. ‘Do you think maybe the drawing meant more to you than it did to him?’
Jessica winced and flushed bright red, but at the same time she felt the weight of the last two days lifted off her. It was the first sensible thing she’d heard in a week. ‘Maybe,’ she admitted. ‘It’s easy to get a bit precious, hanging around with artists…’
‘Hey, I resemble that remark,’ Declan retorted, without any annoyance, and Jessica began to laugh, the tension that she thought had taken up permanent residence in her chest evaporating. ‘Speaking of which, what was he like? Schiele, I mean.’
‘Sarcastic, brilliant, impatient, polite, cynical, naïve, selfish, generous… a bundle of contradictions. In the end, a person. A real, flawed human being.’
‘That was worth finding out, wasn’t it?’ She nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see her, and said yes.
‘It’s another two weeks before you’re due home. Do you want me to come and stay with you? I will if you want.’
‘No, don’t. It’ll cost a fortune.’ Knowing Declan, he was probably already reaching for his computer to check flights. ‘Anyway – I think I’ll be okay.’
‘Well, if you change your mind, just say. Now get some rest – you sound as if you need it. And promise me you won’t go anywhere near a library today?’
‘Promise.’ After all, she’d done more than a week’s worth of research in the space of a single night. ‘I love you.’ Her heart contracted at the thought that she’d narrowly avoided never being able to tell him that again.
‘I love you too. Take care of yourself.’
After they’d wished each other good night and hung up, she curled up on the sofa and fell asleep. Nothing came to disturb her dreams.
Epilogue: March 2, 2013
‘Zwei Eintrittskarten, bitte.’
The queue at the Leopold Museum ticket desk had been bad enough for Jessica to question the wisdom of dragging Declan there on a Saturday, but he wouldn’t hear of giving up. In the end, they’d only had to wait twenty minutes.
Jessica had successfully defended her thesis two months ago. In September she would start a postdoctoral fellowship at the Met. Declan had quit his PhD when his band had landed a record contract in December, declaring that an MPhil was good enough for him and he was sure the world didn’t need another thesis on Schoenberg. The trip to Vienna was intended to celebrate both, even if it risked being something of a busman’s holiday. Still, as Jessica had pointed out, they’d somehow never managed to go there together, and it was time to put that right.
The remainder of that first research trip three years ago had drawn to a close without further incident, and the second and the third she undertook had been similarly uneventful. She’d made her uneasy peace with twenty-first century Vienna. Gradually, the memory of Schmetterling and her journey into the past had faded until it came to seem like a dream.
Both of her examiners had remarked on the ‘extraordinary sensitivity and imagination’ with which she’d written about Schiele’s portraits, to which she’d responded with a modest, slightly pained smile. And there was the time when she and Amelia (who had, thank goodness, gotten over her obsession with Louis Garrel) had gone to see A Dangerous Method and when Amelia had complained that she didn’t find Viggo Mortensen at all believable as Freud, Jessica had vehemently disagreed.
‘How can you say that? He captured Freud perfectly – the voice, the mannerisms, the walk…’
Amelia scoffed. ‘Next thing I know, you’re going to tell me you’ve actually met him.’
Jessica rolled her eyes, but for one crucial instant she’d felt like a deer caught in headlights. ‘I wish.’
The first gallery of the Schiele display was packed. Jessica and Declan somehow managed to move at their own pace, leaning into each other as he asked her about each painting and she explained.
In the middle of one wall was a painting on loan from the Belvedere: an exceptional loan while the galleries were being remodeled, the label explained. It was a portrait of Edith Schiele, perched on a chair, her body a spiral of unease and her fingers knitted into a complicated puzzle.
She was wearing a purple cardigan.
Jessica’s own purple cardigan had lain carefully folded at the bottom of one of her drawers ever since she’d returned from that first trip. She couldn’t bear to give it away, but neither could she face wearing it again.
‘Dec, look – ’ she reached for his hand. She didn’t have to explain further. After she’d gotten back to New York, she’d described the lost portrait to him in detail.
‘I know,’ he murmured, rubbing his callused thumb over her knuckles in a comforting rhythm. ‘I know.’ They gazed at the painting in silence until Declan glanced sideways and his grip suddenly tightened. ‘Nine o’clock,’ he whispered in her ear.
Jessica carefully turned her head in the same direction. Standing on the opposite side of the gallery, surrounded by the crowd but, thanks to his height, above it, was Schmetterling. He looked just as he had when she’d first seen him in the café – the same soft, battered jumper and trousers, the pale, hawklike profile, neither young nor old, the tousled hair, so black it verged on blue.
Except that now, there were three silver streaks in it.
Jessica’s eyes met Declan’s. There was no need to say anything. They laced their fingers together, turned and walked out of the gallery.