Vienna. June 29th, 1914 When Jozef von Revay and his mother arrived at the Baroness von Miko’s flat, there were already a number of guests present. A dozen men, some in the colorful uniforms of the Austro-Hungarian army or imperial civil service, others in black suits, and an equal number of women, stood in two’s and three’s around the sitting room, and more could be seen in the dining room beyond. There was the constant rise and fall of conversation, and from some other room the sound of a piano.
The invitation, which had arrived in that morning’s post, had read:
“My Dear Lisette,
“I know that you, like me, are too prostrated with grief to go out into society tonight. However, if you have it in your heart to comfort a sick old woman in these times, I shall be receiving in a quiet and intimate fashion at nine in the evening.”
It was a perfect example of why Baroness von Miko formed the indispensable center of her circle of Vienna’s lesser greats that she had sensed instinctively that what her friends most desired was a chance to gather and discuss the previous day’s assassinations while maintaining the fiction that they were above such things. Looking around the room, his frustration with his mother’s insistence that he accompany her still simmering, Jozef imagined what would be the reaction if some revolutionary were to burst into the room waving a revolver or hurling a bomb onto red and gold diamonds of the rug which covered the large sitting room’s floor. Perhaps if the explosion were to go off directly under the chandelier, the thousands of pieces of cut glass would fly in every direction, shattering the social triviality which made political murder a pleasant evening topic for gossip and speculation. Couldn’t people see through their pleasant fog of complacency that some action needed to be taken?
The night before, at the beer hall with his fraternity comrades, Konstantin had stood on the table and announced that it was the duty of every loyal man to defend the empire, and they’d all cheered loudly, several students smashing mugs on the floor. The evening had ended in farce as the group had set out into the streets to protect the Empire from its enemies, only to realize after stumbling loudly around several blocks that there was no one available in that neighborhood to defend the Empire against. One of the drunker men had hurled a stone through the window of a shop he thought looked Serbian, and the group had shamefacedly dispersed. It had, he saw now, all been idiotic. But at least they had possessed a sense of action, not this everlasting triviality.
His mother took his arm. “The Baroness is ready to receive us now. She’ll be pleased you came. She likes so much to have young people at her parties.”
“Of course, mother.” Jozef put a smile onto his face and reminded himself of his determination that despite the words between them that afternoon he would not make himself look childish by indulging in a public argument.
In keeping with her professed ill health that evening, the Baroness was reclining on a divan, propped up with pillows. A cup of tea sat next to a sustaining piece of cake on the little round table at her elbow. The divan stood alone in the middle of the sitting room, directly facing the entry, where it was natural for guests to first greet her upon entering the rooms, before joining one of the knots of conversation around the sitting room or moving on to the buffet in the next room.
“My dear Baroness,” said Lisette, taking the Baroness’s hand. “How are you?”
“Oh, well… As you see.” The Baroness spread her hand in a deprecating wave, indicating the fan of her skirts carefully arranged on the divan. “One can hardly speak of one’s own troubles in times like these, but the swelling has been troubling me again and I do not walk easily.”
“You’re always so brave in adversity,” Lisette assured her.
“As we must all be. Really, I hardly think of it next to the heartbreak which we all must feel. So very sad. Agnes!” This last was delivered sharply, almost a shout. The Baroness’s niece, and for the last several years her lady’s companion, Frauline Agnes Miko stepped forward silently from where she had been hovering a few steps away. “I want a fresh cup of tea. Plenty of sugar and just a little bit of milk. You know how I like it.”
Agnes nodded and silently took the current cup of tea away.
“Such a quiet girl,” said Lisette, though girl was hardly the right word for the dark, angular woman in her mid thirties who had stepped away. “Not the slightest sign of finding a husband. What shall you do with her?”
“I hardly think she wants a husband. She seems quite happy to fetch and carry and wait for whatever inheritance I may leave her. Between ourselves,” the Baroness leaned forward and Lisette dipped her head closer, “I wonder at times if she may not have one of those fascinating maladies that Herr Freud writes about in his naughty books.” The Baroness, who had not lowered her voice at all even as she had leaned forward with the appearance of speaking privately, and thus had easily been overheard by Jozef, nodded knowingly. “Besides, my set is really so dull for young people,” she added, meeting Jozef’s eyes now and addressing him directly. Jozef, feeling that this supported his own part of the afternoon’s argument, bowed slightly to the Baroness, while directing a smile towards his mother.
“Oh no! Your set is never dull,” Lisette protested. “And Jozef would never think of going out to the opera or anything of that sort when we are all so cast down. There is nowhere he would rather be tonight.”
Jozef remained silent. He would not publicly deny his mother’s story, but he refused to back it in any way.
“You flatter me too much, Lisette. But it’s true, these are very sad times.” The Baroness took out a very lacy black handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes, though they showed no signs of overflowing.
Jozef let his attention wander from their words as he watched the two women talk. In appearance, his mother and the Baroness were very different. The Baroness’s white hair and fleshy, loose features, conveyed the age and frailty of which she often spoke. Lisette was unplaceable in face and dress; there was about her no active attempt to be young, and yet through careful cultivation of skin, hair and bearing she avoided any sign of age. There was, however, a similarity in their tone and movement as they spoke. Jozef loathed it as an artificiality, and looked around the room for something to break up the conversation or at least to draw him away from it.
There was an outburst of feminine laughter near the door to the dining room. A middle-aged man in the uniform of a cavalry officer, resplendent in glossy boots, red trousers, and deep blue uniform tunic decorated in red and gold piping, and sporting a bushy set of side whiskers, was telling some sort of story to three women. A man with a civil service sash worn over his suit, young by the standards of the Baroness’s set, though perhaps six years older than Jozef, came through the archway from the dining room carrying a cup of tea and made for the divan, then held back waiting for a break in the conversation.
“I knew her family in Bavaria,” the Baroness was saying. “And I always said that she was pretty. And now... those poor children. They say they may not even be allowed to attend their own father’s funeral.” The Baroness dabbed theatrically at her eyes again with the black handkerchief. “I know we must have our standards, but I can’t see that marrying into an ordinary noble family is so very shocking, even if they do have no royal blood. The court is eager to heap honors on the Archduke now -- now that he isn’t alive to insist that they accept Sophie and the children too. But then, the presumptive crown never did sit well on his head, as you might say.”
“Whatever we are to make of the rest of the talk, I do very much believe that Archduke Charles will serve us well,” Lisette said, clasping her hands to her breast with a show of civic piety. “Perhaps there is some hand of providence in… Poor Prince Rudolf, and now this too.”
“Dilution of the blood. That’s the problem with the Empire,” said the man with the civil service sash, stepping forward and setting down the cup of tea on Baroness von Miko’s little table with a bow. “Frauline Agnes asked that I bring you this, and of course, for you, I was only too happy to oblige.” His close cropped hair and mustache were the very palest blonde, and his high cheekboned face had the coloring of a north German. “Perhaps it’s crude to say it at this time,” he continued, returning to his original subject, “but you can’t expect strength in a Frankenstein empire sewn together out of spare parts: a bit of German here, a bit of Czech there, a bit of Magyar here, and these Balkan Slavs, sewn on to the bottom like a donkey’s tail.” Proud of this last touch, he smiled.
“Otto,” scolded the Baroness indulgently, shaking her head at him. “You’re so very naughty. How are we to stand it? My dear Lisette, have you met Otto Erbach? He’s quite the enfant terrible of the civil service. What is it exactly that you do at this moment, Otto?”
“At this moment? Why I’m speaking to two very enchanting women.”
He gave another slight bow as he delivered this. Baroness von Miko shook her head and tsked at him. Lisette laughed -- more animatedly than the shallow quip deserved, to Jozef’s mind.
“Oh, the Baroness is right. You are too naughty!” Lisette said, though there was more of pleasure than of disapproval in the way she shook her head.
“Ah, well if we are all so serious: I am the regional administrator for a godforsaken stretch of mud and Ruthenian peasants that has been mistaken for a district. I see that its taxes are collected, its roads marked, its factory workers tractable. And all this I endeavor to do while spending as little time in the appalling place as possible. It’s a stepping stone, though. Having exerted the right combination of influence and good fortune, I expect shortly to get a new assignment in the Tyrol. Then I shall host walking tours and hunting parties and all of my Vienna friends shall all come to visit me.”
“It’s all so very thrilling.” Lisette clasped her hands appreciatively. “Jozef is studying to enter the civil service,” she added, and Jozef immediately felt a flush in his face. “I’m sure he’ll be just like that some day. Right now he is at the university.”
Otto turned to him, and Jozef felt sure that the man’s smile was condescending. “Ah, and how are you getting on with your law books, young man? Taking every moment you can to study?”
Jozef shrugged. “I go to lectures once in a while. It’s a point of honor among the comrades of my studentenverbindung not to allow the books to rule our lives -- not until the month before comprehensive exams.”
“Oh, so you’re a fraternity comrade? Very good. Schlagend of course?” he asked, referring to the dueling fraternities which were popular, though technically illegal, due to their political ties to German nationalist movements.
Jozef shook his head. “No. Nichtschlagend. I support our emperor, not some pan-German ideal.”
“Why, my dear boy…” Otto smiled at him, and as he did so Jozef realized that he had a dueling scar on his cheek which went from a pale line to a deep crease when he smiled. “But of course. We all support His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty.”
“Of course,” said a stout, balding man in an army uniform who had joined approached from the entryway during this last exchange. “But some of us--” he interjected something in Hungarian “--rather more than others, wouldn’t you say?”
Jozef, whose Hungarian was not extensive, did not catch the phrase but Otto clearly did, for now it was his turn to flush. He drew himself up very straight. “Well. Allow me to say good evening.” He gave Lisette a precise bow, clicking his heels, and then strode off towards the buffet.
“Matyas, you’re not at all civil, but as always so right,” said Lisette, extending a hand, which the officer took and bowed over.
“Forgive me, Baroness,” said Oberst Matyas Rigo, turning to bow to their hostess. “I have no patience for these upstarts and their aspersions against the monarchy.”
“Now, now, Oberst,” said the Baroness, with a wave of her hand, as if to dismiss the incident. “Otto is a provocateur. He would be so disappointed if no one ever rose to his bait. That’s the difficulty of this modern age. There is so little that really shocks anyone. And you, my dear,” she said, turning to Lisette. “I can see I have done my duty. Now you shall have a galant to support you the rest of the night.”
“Matyas is such an old friend,” Lisette said, inclining her head towards him coquettishly and favoring him with a flutter of her eyelids.
“And you, young man.” The Baroness said, turning to Jozef. “I wish that I could say the same for you. But I am just an old woman, and so few of our young ladies come to see me on these evenings. Ah, but then, you are so young.” She smiled and shook a finger at him conspiratorially. “You don’t want respectable girls at your age. You need a little opera singer tucked away somewhere until you have established yourself and can think about marriage. Well, I can’t promise you any such fare here, but you must amuse yourself as best you can.”
Oberst Rigo was already guiding Lisette across the room towards one of the chairs which were placed at intervals along the walls. The officer, thick limbed and thick necked, filled out his pale blue military tunic tautly. There was a masculine virility about his very solidity, despite the fact that the effort of ascending the stairs to Baroness von Miko’s flat a few minutes before had left him slightly pink in the face. As he guided Lisette across the room, one large hand just touching her back, she looked by contrast to him to be all narrow waist, thin arms and swaying skirt -- a frail, feminine figure next to the thick military trunk.
Jozef couldn’t help seeing this as some sort of artificial effect, chosen by his mother to call attention to herself. Another artifice deployed to her advantage. He felt a wave of frustration and boredom with it all. His mother had absolutely insisted he attend, she had used him as a prop for her vignette as mother of a dutiful son while speaking to the Baroness, and now she had forgotten him completely in order to enact her next scene as a delicately feminine flower in the shelter of Oberst Rigo’s stolid masculinity.
He passed the chair in which Matyas had situated Lisette and entered the dining room where the buffet was laid out. A servant passed carrying a tray loaded down with glasses of champagne. Jozef took one and sipped it while looking around the room. Otto, next to the table with ices, was talking animatedly with two other civilians and an officer. Other clumps of people stood around the room, socializing, drinking, eating. Jozef recognized several of the people, but hesitated over joining any of them. What he wanted most of all was to leave. However, having come, it seemed prudent to spend at least a bit longer at the reception in order to avoid the appearance of rudeness. And having missed the chance to accompany Friedrich to the Theater an der Wie, he would not be able to meet him at the coffee house until after the second act.
Matyas entered the dining room, collected a piece of the cake for which the Baroness’s cook was famous and two glasses of sherry, then started back towards Lisette. Rather than stand stupidly about speaking to no one, Jozef followed him. The officer handed Lisette the cake and one of the glasses of sherry, then resumed a line of conversation he had evidently been following before.
“That’s the irony, you see. We must avenge the archduke’s murder. Our honor demands it. Yet we shall be able to teach those Serbs the lesson they deserve precisely because Archduke Ferdinand -- God rest his soul -- is no longer with us. It was he who obstinately insisted that we could win these Slavs’ hearts by granting them concessions, when it’s clear to anyone that any hearts the Serbs may once have had were cut out by the Turks long ago. No, we’ll go down there and teach them a lesson the only way they know how. And then, perhaps, we can have a little peace and none of this talk about granting the Slavs national rights.”
“Will it take much work to teach them a lesson?” Lisette enquired. “You won’t have to go down there, will you?”
Oberst Rigo considered. “It’s far to early to say. It’s not certain yet that we will be authorized to give the Serbs the punishment they deserve. And if we are, it might not be a full mobilization. Unless I’m given a field command, I shall be wherever the General Staff headquarters are.” For a moment longer he seemed to think, then he smiled and touched Lisette’s chin. “What, are you worried, my little friend? I’ll go wherever I’m sent, but you mustn’t be afraid.”
This was a dance the figures of which Jozef knew all too well. He turned away, preferring to wander the rooms aimlessly watching other conversations than to observe this one further. His mother’s penchant for flirtation had, once he became old enough to recognize it, for a time made him wonder if she might someday remarry. He had considered various likely candidates from among the men whom she most often spent time with at gatherings, and wondered what they might be like as a stepfather. However, as more time passed he had realized that Lisette did not plan any new attachment. There were several men, Oberst Matyas among them, with whom she seemed to have a certain friendship, but none stood out as closer than the others. This was simply how his mother interacted with men. She was of the type his fellow students could call ‘a tease’. But while it did not seem to portent any family change, he did not prefer to watch it.
Read the next installment...